Communism — a utopian social theory developed by the German revolutionary thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century and implemented in the twentieth century by Russian revolutionaries headed by Vladimir Lenin and by his followers in other countries. The term Marxism-Leninism is used to describe the latter sociopolitical phenomenon.
According to Communist theory all societies are divided into classes, whose members are united by their relationship to property and the means of production. It is inevitable that conflict arises among classes and leads to an uncompromising struggle which, according to Communist thinkers, is the driving force of all social evolution. During the capitalist stage of historical development the basic class struggle occurs between the bourgeoisie and working proletariat. Marx believed this conflict was inevitable and would lead to revolution, which would not only alter the existing political system but would result in the creation of a new order in which workers would control both the means of production and the results of what is produced.
Idealist belief in social equality, a crisis of faith in liberalism, and the apocalyptic blow suffered by European civilization during World War I led large numbers of people to seek hope in the proposed Communist utopia. In the Russian Empire, a group of radical revolutionaries grouped in the Bolshevik party headed by Lenin succeeded in taking over government power at the end of 1917. In what was to become the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks were able to implement the Communist social and political experiment. In the Soviet Union and subsequently in other countries the experiment was achieved, but at the highest if not the bloodiest cost in the history of humankind. Ultimately, Communism’s economic program and accompanying system of repression was a failure; this failure, together with the moral degradation of the Communist ruling authorities, resulted in the eventual collapse of the system and its bloodless disappearance in the Soviet Union and its central European satellites between 1989 and 1991.
With its emphasis on populist thought and alleged solutions for all social and political problems, Communist ideology proved particularly attractive to politically underdeveloped and structurally weak patriarchal societies. Rusyns still lived in such an environment in the period immediately following World War I. Thus the first Communist groups came into being in that part of the new post-World War I state of Czechoslovakia which was the most underdeveloped—*Subcarpathian Rus’. Throughout the entire interwar period of Czechoslovak rule the *Communist party was the most popular in Subcarpathian Rus’, and in all but one of the national elections it garnered the largest number of votes.
Nevertheless, the successful Communist agitation among Rusyns and other local inhabitants (especially *Magyars and *Jews), with its constant praise of the Soviet Union as “the fatherland of all workers,” was to have tragic consequences for many individuals, and in some cases entire families, once Czechoslovak rule ended and Subcarpathian Rus’ was annexed to Hungary (March 1939). Within a few months neighboring Poland collapsed as well, and beginning in September 1939 eastern Galicia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. It was not long before many Rusyns, including Communists, fled from their Hungarian-occupied homeland and crossed the mountains into Soviet territory. But instead of finding a happy life in the “worker’s homeland,” all were promptly arrested (for illegally crossing into the Soviet Union) and sent to the Gulag. Those Subcarpathian Communists who remained at home and lived under constant threat of arrest by the Hungarian authorities were expected to provide reports on the local situation for the Soviet military intelligence; in the end, virtually all of them were found by the Hungarian counter-espionage services and executed. In the neighboring Presov Region under the pro-German Slovak state, Communists joined with other Rusyns in local partisan units and in the *Carpatho-Russian Autonomous Council for National Liberation (KRASNO), while in the Lemko Region under direct German rule, Lemko-Rusyn Communists joined Poland’s anti-Nazi Communist partisan underground, and helped to organize there the People’s Guard/Gwardia Ludowa.
But the real face of Communism revealed itself in Rusyn-inhabited lands only after World War II. Rusyn society was traditionally agriculturally based and characterized by individual, private ownership of land. Families were expected to be economically self-sufficient and villages effectively governed their own affairs, so that the peasant farmer was economically independent from the state authorities. All these factors contributed to a marked sense of individualism. It was precisely this characteristic which most concerned the Communist system.
Communist Poland’s reaction was the most radical. Using as an excuse its armed struggle against the Ukrainian nationalist underground (UPA), the authorities not only deported all Lemko Rusyns from their age-old homeland but destroyed the very nature of a unified Lemko community by requiring that the deported families live in different towns and villages scattered throughout western and northern Poland (basically on lands formerly part of Germany). In Soviet-ruled Subcarpathian Rus’ and in eastern Slovakia, all aspects of local self-authority and self-government that had characterized Rusyn society were liquidated during the first days of Communist rule. At the same time the Communists artificially provoked social antagonism that juxtaposed the “poor” villagers and the “wealthy kulaks.” Such “class conflict” reached its peak during the period of collectivization in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The actual goal of collectivization, however, was not “the increase of agricultural productivity,” as Communist propaganda continually proclaimed, but rather the liquidation of the last elements in Rusyn economic life that remained independent of the centralized Communist system. Only then could traditional social relations be entirely broken down and all citizens be made fully dependent on the state.
The collectivization process and the Communist regime as a whole not only destroyed the relatively independent economic life of the peasant, it destroyed as well the very essence, social fabric, and spiritual values of Rusyn existence. By eliminating the traditional culture of the Rusyn village, it effectively eliminated the very idea of a Rusyn society, since that society had been based almost exclusively on an agricultural setting. The Communist system destroyed the profoundly deep relationship of the Rusyn villager to the land and the sense of sacredness in which the land had always been held in the hearts and minds of those who worked on and lived from it. While Rusyns never had much land, what little they had was taken away with the abolition of private ownership. While the land was given to the collective farm worker for his or her “permanent use,” the process of “socialist industrialization” alienated much of the land from its basic function. During the Cold War the Soviet military establishment expropriated tens, hundreds, and even thousands of hectares of arable land and forests in Subcarpathian Rus’, where they created closed “defense zones.” If, under the new system, the first generation of villagers were no longer peasants but collective farmers who had painfully experienced the destruction of their land and source of life, their children, and even more so their grandchildren, were totally indifferent to the world of their parents.
Communism also dealt a significant blow to the institution of the family among Rusyn villagers. The labor requirements of the collective eliminated the traditional agricultural life cycle and economic activity of various family members. Moreover, the income from the collective farm was miserly and, in Subcarpathian Rus’, at times non-existent. This led some to “reapportion” their share in the harvest (in other words, to steal); others left on periodic trips to find work elsewhere. Both alternatives contributed to lowering the moral status of the Rusyn farmer. In effect, Rusyn men were transformed into a cheap seasonal labor force in Russia, eastern Ukraine, and after 1991 in all neighboring countries, in particular the Czech Republic. The result was the destruction of the family, whose traditional head, the father, became a kind of temporary guest at home. He was little more than a source of money for the family’s basic survival and no longer played a role in the daily upbringing of the children. Finally, the Communist regime broke one other important support element in the Rusyn village’s social system. This was the spiritual factor, in the form of the Greek Catholic Church, which was outlawed in both Subcarpathian Rus’ (1949) and the *Presov Region (1950). And as for younger generation, while the system of “socialist industrialization” provided employment, it contributed as well to their denationalization.
At the same time, the forcible impact of the Communist system on the Rusyn social structure also had some positive benefits. For instance, in the Presov Region of northeastern Slovakia, as well as in Soviet Subcarpathian Rus’, the “class conflict” provoked by the Communist regime during the period of collectivization in the early 1950s allowed for the poorest peasants to acquire leading positions in the new cooperatives. The poorest villagers were often the first to join the Communist party and to be appointed to posts in the local administration, replacing the priest, teacher, shop owner, and well-to-do peasants who had formerly been the leading elements in village life. In the only democratic elections held in Czechoslovakia after World War II (1946), the Communist party gained 46 percent of the vote in Rusyn villages, in comparison to the 30 percent average for that party throughout the entire country. The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia provided universal health care and education gratis. For instance, by 1970 the Rusyns had the highest percentage of university graduates (7.3 percent compared to the national average of 3.2 percent) among all nationalities in former Czechoslovakia. The result was that many Rusyn villagers in the Presov Region experienced a marked improvement in their standard of living under Communist rule.
Certain individuals who had been members of the party during the interwar years or who joined just after World War II established particularly successful careers in local and regional party organs, the government, and in cultural and educational institutions that promoted a Ukrainian national consciousness and “Czechoslovak socialist patriotism.” The Czechoslovak secret service, in particular, attracted several Rusyns from the Presov Region and from among those who had served with the *Czechoslovak Army Corps during World War II and who opted to be resettled to postwar Czechoslovakia. Finally, there were Rusyns (all natives of the Presov Region) who reached the highest echelons of Communist Czechoslovakia. Among these was the first secretary of the Communist party of Slovakia and long-time influential central committee member, Vasil’ Bilak (b. 1917); the diplomat and corresponding member of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Ivan Krempa (b. 1927); the vice-minister of foreign affairs, Ivan Rohal’-Il’kiv (b. 1917); the last minister of justice under the Communist regime, Jan Pjescak ( b. 1925); and the central committee functionary and diplomat, Ivan Juda ( b. 1930).
In Subcarpathian Rus’ the situation was entirely different. There the Soviet authorities had no confidence in the local Subcarpathian Communists, in particular those who had been active in the pre-World War II Communist movement and, most especially, those of its leading cadres who had been members of the interwar Czechoslovak parliament. In Soviet eyes, these people had been infected by “bourgeois democracy.” After a few months of political jockeying within Transcarpathian Ukraine (1944-1945), all the local Communists were removed from leading posts in the oblast government, the party organization, and the economic structure and replaced by cadres from the East. Only one “local,” a veteran of the Czechoslovak Army Corps and a Soviet partisan commander, Vasyl’ P. Rusyn (b. 1919), was able to make a successful career, first as judge in the notorious “people’s court” during the late 1940s and then, in his old age, as vice-minister of social services in the Soviet Ukrainian government in Kiev.
On the other hand, the Soviet system made education accessible to all strata of the Subcarpathian population. And the ever-pragmatic Rusyns took full advantage of the situation. This was especially the case among parents in rural areas, who saw no prospects in the Soviet collective and cooperative farm system. They made every effort to send their children to whatever school possible, including universities and advanced technical institutions, as long as they would not have to remain in the village. But after graduation, there was the problem of placement. Since the Soviet system had filled the best positions in the region with trusted cadres from the East, the only jobs left for Rusyns were teaching posts in village schools. The best educated among Rusyn young people were thus forced to leave their homeland and to compete for positions, especially in the scientific community, in Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad, Novosibirsk, and other leading centers of the former Soviet Union. According to a confidential statistical survey carried out in 1970s by the central committee of the Komsomol Youth Association, the highest percentage of post-graduate fellows and research staff at scholarly institutions in Kiev were natives of Subcarpathian Rus’. Several became well-known scholars (Vasyl’ Bidzilia, Ivan Pop, Andrii Pushkash, Andrii Shepa) and directors (Vil’hel’m Fushchych, Iurii Kercha, Vasyl’ Symchera, Otto Shpenyk, Iosyf Heitsi) of Academy of Sciences research institutes in Kiev, Moscow, Novosibirsk, and eventually even in their native Uzhhorod. Positions in the Soviet government, however, were for all intents and purposes off limits to Rusyns. It is only in independent Ukraine since 1991 that both ministerial and diplomatic posts have been held by natives of Subcarpathian Rus’/Transcarpathia, including Vasyl’ Durdynets’, Orest Klempush, Vyktor Pynzenyk, and Serhii Ustych. Nevertheless, these and other influential figures have categorically rejected any association with a Rusyn heritage, so that despite their positions of authority they have had no impact on Rusyn society.
In the end, the Communist experiment had not merely negative but tragic consequences for Rusyn society. Collectivization destroyed the social, economic, and spiritual fabric of village life. The destruction of traditional values also effected Rusyn national consciousness, resulting in their denationalization, whether in the form of ukrainianization, slovakization, or polonization. The painful and gradual rebirth of Rusyn self-consciousness since the collapse of Communism after 1989 has revealed that the vast majority of Rusyns, law-abiding citizens in whatever state they have lived, always considered the Communist ideology and system to be a necessary evil. The costs to Rusyn society of the Communist era, however, were and remain substantial.
Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.