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This is the fourth and final (for now) installment about my great-grandmother Eva (first three are here, here and here). She left a fairly comfortable family in Europe 102 years ago this Friday, on the eve of the Great War, to start from scratch in America. Eva arrived in Brooklyn on her sixteenth birthday, married at seventeen, raised four children, and lived to be 92.

In the last installment, I learned that Eva was born in Dworce, East Galicia, then part of the Austrian Empire, which today is Dvirtsi, Ukraine. It is very near the Polish border, in the East Galicia region. When she left Europe she was living in the larger adjacent town of Mosty Wielkie (“Big Bridges”), now Velyki Mosty, Ukraine. On the ship manifest from her arrival in New York in 1911, Eva’s nationality was listed as “Ruthenian.”

Map of Dvirtsi, Ukraine, my great-grandmother's birthplace
Now the only question was “What’s Ruthenian?” “Ruthenian,” I quickly learned, was a term for “Ukrainian,” in a limited region, in the years before World War I. The word was centuries old, but by the early 1900s only remained in use in Eva’s home region of East Galicia. Having given away the ending, those with better things to do can stop reading now. But how the term came to be, and why it remained in use only in that particular area, is fascinating, so you should stick with me.

The common heritage of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia traces back to the Varangians, a Viking tribe who between the sixth and ninth centuries settled among the Slavic and Finnish north of today’s Ukraine. By the ninth century the Varangian Rurikid dynasty had become known regionally as “Rus” (deriving from the old Norse word for “rowing” since they came from Sweden in boats). In 882 the Rurikid dynasty liberated Kiev from the Khangars who dominated the land down to the Black Sea and the Caucus.  They moved their capital to Kiev and in the 10th century conquered land even farther southward to the northwestern shores of the Black Sea in modern Moldova and Odessa and east to Volga.  

The reigns of Vladimir the Great (980–1015) and his son Yaroslav I the Wise (1019–1054) constituted the “Golden Age” of Kiev. This period saw the creation of the first East Slavic written legal code, the Russkaya Pravda (“Justice of Rus”). In 988 Vladimir the Great converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity to solidify his trading relationships across the Black Sea with modern-day Turkey and Greece, which were dominated by that church. (In 1988, in the spirit of perestroika, the Kremlin under Gorbachev authorized celebrations of the millennium of this event.)

St. Andrew's Church in Kiev. This is the home base of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and predates any Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia.
For three centuries the empire, called Kievan Rus’, spread far and wide, encompassing much of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and western Russia. By the end of the 12th century, the word Ruthenia (land of the Rus’) had come into use in Latin papal documents to denote the vast lands governed by Kiev. It was the largest and most culturally advanced European state of the 900-1200 period.
Kievan Rus' at its zenith in the eleventh century. The different colors reflect the various principalities within this vast empire; "Halych" at the very bottom is "Galicia," Eva's home region.
Despite efforts from Kiev to promote a single Ruthenian identity, like later European empires Kievan Rus’ was never really unified culturally. It was loosely bound, ill-defined, and heterogeneous, and most people within it were primarily loyal to their own tribe or prince. Eventually, as Kiev’s allies in Constantinople declined in power, the empire split in the early 1200s into three rival regional powers ruled by divergent Rurikid dynasty offshoots. These successor states are essentially the forerunners of the nations of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Each claimed to be the rightful heir to the entire vast empire, and they took turns holding the traditional capital Kiev.

Of the three successor states, Galicia-Volhynia in the southwest had the closest ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Princes there had long traded and intermarried with nobles in neighboring Catholic Poland and Hungary. Thus many Galicians called the Kievan Rus’ empire by the Latin word “Ruthenia.” The other successor states’ only dealings with Catholics came in the form of Prussian invasion, and they deeply distrusted Rome as a result. Thus they favored the Eastern Orthodox Church Greek and, accordingly, called the Kievan Rus’ empire not by the Latin “Ruthenia” but by the Greek term, “Russia.”

The Galicia-Volynhia coat of arms from the 1200s. The Ukrainian flag today uses the same color scheme.
In the mid-1200s, Galicia-Volhynia conquered Kiev but soon lost it to Mongols invading from the south. During this time the leaders of the state that evolved into modern Russia came to dominate the Eastern Orthodox Church, even in Galicia-Volhynia. This drove the Galician King Danielo closer to the Catholic Church. Danielo even accepted a Papal crown in 1251, in the unrequited hopes of also getting a Papal army to repel the Mongols from Kiev. Thus began Galicia’s formal connection to Catholicism, although Danielo did not renounce the Eastern Orthodox Church, which remained the faith of most of his people.
The Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, 1200s. The darker shaded area at the bottom is the basic Galician homeland; the other shaded area was conquered and lost at various times. Around 1349 Galicia fell to Poland, the other shaded area to Lithuania.
Over the next century or so, King Danielo’s dynasty repelled many Mongol invaders both from Kiev and their original home kingdom west of Kiev. In 1349, however, Galicia was conquered by Poland and renamed the Polish “Province of Ruthenia” (“wojewodztwo ruskie” ). The name was chosen because it was the first Kievan Rus’ land incorporated into the Polish Kingdom. Around the same time Lithuania, which had grown considerably in recent centuries, seized the land to the east, including most of modern-day Ukraine (including Kiev) and Belarus.

During this time Catholicism was the official religion of Galicia, and many nobles converted to it, but the powerful Ostrogski family resisted. They spent much of their considerable wealth promoting the Eastern Orthodox religion and the Ruthenian language, with its Cyrillic alphabet. As a result the traditional language and religion remained common among the people in Galicia. Nonetheless, the Catholic influence of Poland meant that the people continued to call themselves “Ruthenians,” using the Latin term, rather than “Russians,” using the Greek.

Poland and Lithuania formally merged in 1569 to create the (theoretically Catholic) Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Their ties dated back two centuries to the 1380s, when the pagan Lithuanian sovereign Jogaila rejected an offer to marry the daughter of Moscow’s ruler because that union would have made Lithuania a fief of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Jogaila instead married the queen of Poland and converted to Catholicism, keeping his state under his control.) The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ruled Galicia for another two hundred years.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1619. Galicia, like most of today's Ukraine, was then under Polish control.
In 1772, however, the Russian Empire and Prussia’s King Frederick the Great aggressively seized a significant portion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s land, in what is called the First Partition of Poland. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, citing a Hungarian claim from 1188, worked her way into the proceedings and was given Poland’s “Province of Ruthenia.”  The pre-1349 name of “Galicia” was restored but, after more than 400 years of Polish control, Polish remained the official language of the realm. This Austrian “Galicia” was the only part of the Kievan’ Rus empire ever under Austrian control.  All other Kievan Rus’ peoples were, for the time being, reunited under Russian control.

In the 1790s, after the defeat of forces led by Polish nationalist and American Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, the three empires (Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary) divided among themselves what was left of Poland in the Second and Third Partitions of Poland. This drove independent Poland out of existence until 1918, the conclusion of the First World War. The southern part of Poland was given to Austria-Hungary, which called it “West Galicia” and renamed the Ruthenian “Galicia” it had acquired in 1772 as “East Galicia.”

East (Ost) and West Galicia compared to today's map. Between 1795 and 1945, many Polish people moved into Western "East Galicia." That is why that area belongs to Poland today.
The new “West Galicia” had been Polish in language and Catholic in religion for over 800 years. Over the next century, because the two were merged into one kingdom, Catholic Polish speakers moved into the western half of “East Galicia” as well. Only in the eastern half of “East Galicia” did the Ruthenian language and Eastern Orthodox religion remain strong: as late as 1900 two-thirds of the people of East Galicia were Ruthenian.

In 1807 Napoleon conquered much of West Galicia and established a puppet government there, but the 1815 Congress of Vienna gave it back to Austria-Hungary, which merged East and West Galicia into the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Though the capital remained in the Ruthenian city of L’viv (L’wow in Polish and Lemberg in German), Polish continued to be the official language and many nobles and politically ambitious people learned Polish and converted to Catholicism. That was the case of my great-grandmother Eva’s father, who held minor office under the Austrian empire and baptized his children as Catholics.

East and West Galicia, and how they came under Austrian control.
After the Partitions of Poland in the late 1700s, the rest of modern-day Ukraine was under Russian control. The Russians, like the Russophiles within the land, considered the people there essentially the same as Russians on the theory that the Kievan Rus’ empire had always been one people and now was largely reunited. Many of the people within the Russian-controlled Ukrainian lands, however, did not see themselves as identical to Moscow Russians. They had spent four centuries under Lithuanian rather than Russian control, with a separate culture evolving, and they resented the “little Russian” moniker bestowed on them by Moscow.

Thus a strong nationalist movement arose in the 1800s. Although it affected all over modern-day Ukraine (the part under Russian control and the part under Austrian control), its intellectual center was in Austrian East Galicia. This was largely because the Hapsburg emperors in far-flung Vienna saw the Ruthenian nationalists as a defense against their bigger problem in Galicia, the Polish nationalists.

L'viv (Lemberg in German and L'wow in Polish), for seven centuries the capital of Galicia. Though the region around it was largely rural, L'viv has long been Westernized and an intellectual center.
These nationalists adopted the name “Ukrainians,” reviving a name used to describe the large Kiev Voivodeship (essentially all of Ukraine except East Galicia) during the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The name took hold across the Russian-controlled areas. In other words, everywhere except, ironically, the term’s place of origin in Austrian-controlled East Galicia. Although East Galician intellectuals had promoted the nationalist cause and suggested the name, the people of East Galicia did not adopt it. East Galicia had never been part of the “Ukrainia” region and the term “Ruthenian,” which had been used for over six hundred years, remained common there.

By the early 20th century, however, Ruthenian nationalism was as large in Galicia as Polish nationalism, and many Ruthenians wished to unite Ruthenian East Galicia with the rest of the Ukrainian people (who were being neglected by imperial Russia) in a new homeland. This dream would not be entirely realized until after the Second World War, and true independence from Moscow only came in 1991.

The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodermeria within the Austrian Empire in 1897, when Eva was a baby. Her hometown is at the red "X" north of Lemberg (L'viv).
Eva’s departure for the United States in 1911 came at the tail end of a mass exodus from Galicia between 1880 and 1914, as the Austrian imperial government discouraged industrial investment there. The Austrian-controlled region, like the parts of the future Ukraine under Russian control, fell into rural poverty. In the years after Eva left, East Galicia saw much bloodshed. There was tremendous fighting there during World War I, and it is believed Eva’s parents and many of her brothers were killed during the war, slaughtered by the invading Russians or the Polish nationalists.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1911, the year Eva left. Galicia is in the northeast; note the different shadings for Polish and Ruthenian areas.
At the end of the Great War traditionally Polish West Galicia was given to the newly reconstituted Poland and the traditionally Ruthenian East Galicia declared itself the independent West Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Poles contested that declaration and invaded in 1919, conquering most of East Galicia during the Polish-Ukrainian War but failing to conquer the rest of Ukraine. Although the Kiev government of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, under Moscow’s strong influence, accepted this border in 1923, anti-Polish nationalism remained strong in East Galicia. People there finally adopted the term “Ukrainian” to show their solidarity with the people of official Ukraine. Thus the term “Ruthenian” fell out of use even in its East Galician stronghold.

Interestingly, so strong was the pull of the Ukrainian/Ruthenian language and ethnic heritage, and so strong the hatred of the Poles, that most Ruthenians in East Galicia wanted to be united with Ukraine and cared little that it was communist and under Moscow’s dominion. This was so even though, like French in France and Québec, centuries of political separation caused the language to evolve somewhat differently in East Galicia than in the rest of Ukraine.  

During World War II the area fell first under Soviet, then German, then Soviet control. The Yalta Conference of 1945 drew the Poland/Ukraine border along ethnic and linguistic lines. Traditionally Polish “West Galicia” and the now Polish-dominated western half of “East Galicia” went to Poland; the Ruthenian eastern half of “East Galicia” to Ukraine.  My great-grandmother’s birthplace of Dvirtsi/Dworce and residence of Velyki Mosty/Mosty Wielkie are on the Ukrainian side of the line, but barely 10 miles from the Polish border.  

So there you have it.  My great-grandmother was born an ethnic Ruthenian/Ukrainian, and the New York neighborhood where she met her husband was known as Little Ukraine. There are Ukrainian restaurants and churches there to this day. She was “Austrian” with a Polish influence because she grew up in an Austrian province that, due to four centuries under Polish control, used Polish as its official language though its population was largely Ruthenian.  

The Manhattan neighborhood now known as the East Village has long been a Ukrainian enclave. Ukrainians from Austrian Galicia felt very much at home here around 1900, because the neighborhood was heavily German before they arrived.
St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, New York City. To my amusement this is directly across the street from the famed Irish pub McSorley's, the oldest bar in New York, where I spent too many winter afternoons as an NYU student.
Eva’s father spoke Ruthenian as his first language but, due to his political ambitions, was near fluent in Polish and German. She herself grew up speaking Ruthenian but also fluent Polish and passable Russian. Belarusian and Russian were her husband John’s first languages, and he also grew up speaking Yiddish, due to the large Jewish population in the area. This later helped him master German. When he came to the U.S. he picked up English quickly and learned a fair bit of Polish from Polish immigrants in the neighborhood. My grandmother told me the Italians in Williamsburg taught him some words but laughed at his pronunciation.

On the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census forms, Eva and her sister Maria wrote “Poland” because their birthplace was then under the control of Poland. Maria insisted they came from Poland for this reason, and because Polish was the official language growing up. Eva, whose home region of East Galicia was the only part of the traditional Ukrainian homeland (or the larger Kievan Rus’ empire), to be ruled by either Poland or Austria, married another ethnic Ruthenian/Ukrainian and drifted away from the Polish language.

I came to understand the confusion about the name of the town where Eva lived. It is “Velyki Mosty” in Ruthenian/Ukrainian, but “Mosty Wielkie” in Polish. Polish being the official language when she grew up, Eva told my aunt the town’s name using the Polish order of words. But as a native speaker of Ukrainian, she gave “Wielkie” the Ukrainian pronunciation “Velyki.” I imagine this was just far enough from “Wielkie” that the Polish professor my aunt asked didn’t recognize the everyday word for “big” in Polish.

Eva and John were ethnically Ukrainian, but neither ever lived in Ukraine. Eva’s hometown didn’t become part of Ukraine until 1945, and John, who came to the United States at 18 in 1907, grew up in a small village near the city of Pinsk. It was under Russian control during his youth and today is just north of the Ukrainian border in Belarus.

The religious musical chairs makes sense now too. Eva’s father, a rising local political star loyal to the Hapsburgs, adopted Catholicism as his religion though the Eastern Orthodox religion remained strong among the Ruthenian people in East Galicia.  When she married John, he came from Russian-controlled lands and was Eastern Orthodox. Eva happily attended that church because they spoke her language there. Later all of her children married Roman Catholics in the United States and she was happy to switch back. She just didn’t care that much about religion.

As may be clear by now, Galicia was the most ethnically heterogeneous of the Austrian empire’s kingdoms. It contained not only Ruthenians and Poles, but Jews, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Russians, Armenians, and Roma. When Eva arrived in Brooklyn in 1911, so many things must have been new and different for her. But seeing so many people of different ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds jockeying for turf was not among them.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Tue Jan 22, 2013 at 09:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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