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Warhol documentary brings light to Carpatho-Rusyn cause

Monday, April 19, 1999

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Although Andy Warhol liked to say he came from "nowhere," he was, like 60,000 other Western Pennsylvanians, a Carpatho-Rusyn.

And since the Pittsburgh-born artist, filmmaker and international celebrity has been famous for more than the 15 minutes he predicted for everyone, he's become a symbol for Rusyns trying to secure minority rights in nations of central Europe.

 
 

"Warhol helps to improve the international knowledge of Rusyns and their problems in Europe. He's become the number one activist for the Rusyn nationalist cause," said Tom Trier, a Danish filmmaker who screened his documentary, "The Warhol Nation," yesterday at the Warhol Museum on the North Side.

About 100 people attended the screening sponsored by the Carpatho-Rusyn Society.

"Warholics" shown in the documentary spoke with pride of the wigged artist. Although he never visited his parents' village of Mikola in what is now Slovakia, Warhol's name brings recognition to their cause.

Rusyns, who have lived along the crest of the Carpathian Mountains for 1,500 years, have never had a nation of their own.

Like Albanians in Kosovo, Kurds in Turkey, Basques in Spain and Chechins in Russia, they are an ethnic minority whose 1 million people are scattered through six central European nations -- Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and the Ukraine.

Like the other ethnic minorities, they are seeking recognition, minority rights and, in some places, self-determination.

"We're not part of a strident conflagration, but Rusyns are not Slovaks, Ukrainians, Hungarians or Russians," said Walter Orange, a University of Pittsburgh mathematics professor who has spent the last four summers in Rusyn villages in eastern Slovakia.

"We are an ethnic group that the communists declared did not exist for 50 years, and for which minority rights have been, and continue to be, an issue."

Without recognition of their rights, ethnic minorities can lose their language, culture, traditions and religion to the majority ethnic group, said John Righetti, president of the 1,000-member Carpatho-Rusyn Society, based in Pittsburgh.

"A culture isn't static. A people and their culture continue to evolve," Righetti said. "We're not trying to preserve something that's dead but rather help the world to understand that the Rusyn culture, music and religion is a living, breathing thing."

The biggest issue for Rusyns is in the Ukraine, where three-quarters of European Rusyns live, and which has denied them minority rights recognition in its recently adopted constitution.

"For the Ukrainian government, democracy is a very new thing, and it needs to learn the lesson that it's possible to be a good citizen of a country and not be of that nationality," he said. "A number of nations, including our own, realize that and seem to be doing quite well."

About 600,000 have emigrated to the United States, most in the early years of this century. The largest settlement is in Western Pennsylvania.

Local towns with large Rusyn communities include McKees Rocks, Aliquippa, Butler, Johnstown, Uniontown, Greensburg, Canonsburg, most of the Mon Valley municipalities and the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Greenfield, North Side, South Side and Oakland.

Warhol may be helping put the Rusyn people on the map, but only figuratively.

In a world where there are 4,000 different ethnic groups and only a little more than 200 nations, the Rusyns are not campaigning for their own nation.

"Most peoples don't have their own country, and in central and eastern Europe you have to throw that notion out," Righetti said.

"Among the pressing issues for the next millennium is not political independence, but how to achieve recognition of ethnic groups within the existing nation state."



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