The Quest for the Rusyn Soul by Keith Dyrud – A Rusyn History

Today’s post isn’t a traditional book review, but a combination of a book discussion and my observations about Rusyn history.

First, a bit about the history. Carpatho-Rusyns are a small ethnic minority who have lived along both the northern and southern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe for centuries.

Rusyns have never had a single united homeland, for a variety of reasons – economic, geographical, political, cultural, religious and educational. In short, for just about every societal factor that one can imagine.

In my opinion, geography was probably the first big stumbling block, given that even today, clusters of Rusyns live in southern Poland (who call themselves Lemkos), northeastern Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia and Romanian.

Those are a lot of miles to cover if trying to unite one people.

Politics was probably the second biggest factor in the non-unification of the Rusyn people.

Governing bodies in the region changed frequently with some more and some less willing to allow ethnic autonomy. Those in power used religion to encourage support of opposing governments, although Rusyns have leaned towards the Eastern Slavic churches for centuries. Cultural influences also played a part in Rusyn divisions.

If that wasn’t enough baggage to shake off, economic conditions (many were peasant farmers or worked a trade) and education, or the lack thereof, thwarted the occasional efforts of Rusyn leaders to connect and unite.

The Rusyn migration to America for a better life could have led to the demise of the Rusyn identity, but, thankfully, it did not.

I watched and waited for Keith Dyrud’s book to pop up online for sale at a reasonable price; I jumped at the chance to purchase it for $64.00 – as opposed to the other sellers asking $900+!!!

The full title of Dyrud’s book, first published in 1992 by the Balch Institute Press in Philadelphia, is The Quest for the Rusyn Soul: The Politics of Religion and Culture in Eastern Europe and in America, 1890-World War 1.

That sounds like kind of dry reading for most, doesn’t it? Well, it was an eye-catcher for me because my paternal grandparents, both Rusyn, were born in 1893 in America and their families had arrived less than ten years before their births.

Many Rusyns, like my grandmother’s extended family, first came to America with no intention of remaining forever. They made multiple trips across the ocean throughout their lives. The plan was to earn a lot more money in the U.S. than back in the village, save it and return home to live much more comfortably.

Others, like my grandfather’s family, might have come with the intention of returning to Europe, but never did. They settled in America for the rest of their lives.

Did they keep in touch with news back in the villages? Did they take political stands here in the United States? The ansewr to both questions is YES.

I’ve wondered, off and on, about some of the curiosities in my family history:

Why did my great grandfather changed the family surname from Kucharik to Sabo between 1910 and 1920?

Why did Nana never tell me that my great grandfather’s brother, John (Nana’s uncle) lived just a town away in Garfield, New Jersey? She not only didn’t tell me, she said her father only had sisters – NO brothers. That was absolutely not true and her uncle didn’t pass away until 1938 when Nana was 45 years old!

Why did Nana’s brother, Peter, born in New Jersey in 1895, apply to become an American citizen when he was in this 30s?

These questions can all be answered by reading Dyrud’s book.


Introduction: The Rusyns
1. The Development of National Awareness Among the Rusyns in the Austrian empire
2. Russian Interests in the Rusyns in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1900 to World War I
3. The Influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the Cultural Consciousness of the Rusyns in America
4. Hungarian Cultural and Nationalistic Activity with the Greek Catholic Church in America, 1900-1907
5. Conflicts in the Establishment of the Greek Catholic Church in America
Epilogue: The Fruits of Propaganda and Rivalry
Essay on Sources

Mr. Dyrud does a meticulous job both setting the scene for 1890 events and in detailing all the forces that influenced Rusyn behaviors and their religious and political allegiances.

How does all this affect my own family?

Two of the main political forces on Rusyns during the existence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were the Ukrainians/Russians and the Hungarians.

My grandfather’s family arrived in the United states in the 1880s and remained for the rest of their lives. I know of NO visits back to Europe, so my (illiterate) great grandparents would probably have learned of social and political unrest from friends and neighbors here.

The fact that my great grandfather changed the family surname from the Slovak Kucharik to the Hungarian Sabo between 1910-1920 might well reflect his support of the Hungarian side of Rusyn politics.

On the other hand, Nana and her brother, both born in New Jersey, returned with their parents to Udol, Slovakia about 1897. Both were too young to remember life in New Jersey.

However, Nana returned for good to New Jersey in 1910 and Peter returned about 1920.

By this time, political sides had been drawn among the Rusyn communities in Europe and in America. Nana was extremely religious and would have grown up hearing parents, grandparents and other family members discussing both Hungarian and Russian intrusions into daily life.

Rusyns were almost 100% Greek Catholic, today called Byzantine Catholic because ‘Greek’ referred to an alignment with the Eastern Orthodox churches, not specifically to Greece.

As for Nana never admitting her father had a brother, I believe there is a simple explanation. Her uncle, John Scerbak, left St. Michael’s Church in Passaic and joined the newly formed RUSSIAN Orthodox Church.

My grandmother always had an intense dislike of Russia and leaving the Greek Catholic Church would have probably been enough of a reason for her to cut her uncle out of her circle of family and friends.

The dispute among St. Michael’s parishioners was reportedly so intense that John might have reacted in the very same way, cutting Nana and other relatives out of his own life.

It takes a solid foundation of knowledge about political, cultural, social and religious issues affecting our ancestors to get a good handle on their daily lives.

For Rusyns, Keith Dyrud’s book provides that insight. It is well worth the $64.00 that I spent.





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