Ukraine is a country that lies between Russia and the countries of the European Union. The countries of the Danube provide a home for a wide array of cultures and one can see ethnic diversity within Ukraine as well. Since the Medieval Period the region of Ukraine known as Zakarpattia (Kárpátalja in Hungarian) has been occupied by Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians and the Romani people. I will focus on the Hungarian and Romani populations living in the area and the ways in which they have acquired Ukrainian culture in addition to preserving their own.
Hungarians have lived in Zakarpattia since they moved into the Carpathian basin in the 800s. It was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire till the treaty of Trianon when it became a region of Czechoslovakia. After World War II it was assimilated into the USSR. Since 1991 it has been the westernmost administrative region of a new independent Ukraine. Today just over 150,000 Hungarians live in the country. They are mostly clustered around the towns of Berehove (Beregszász) and Vynohradiv (Nagyszőlős). Significant pockets of Hungarians also live in the two big cities of the region called Uzhhorod (Ungvár) and Mukachevo (Munkács).
Throughout their history Hungarians have been interacting with Ukrainians living in the Zakarpattia region. Even though they might identify themselves as distinctively Hungarian, their culture has been also shaped by the other ethnic groups that surround them. They have adopted elements from other cultures – mostly Ukrainian – to form different identity that is slightly different from the one found in Hungary.
Hungarians living in Ukraine are maintaining their Hungarian identity as well. Since Ukraine’s independence after the dissolution of the USSR the local Hungarian community were able to set up schools and colleges that taught in their own language. These places also act as cultural centres where Hungarian culture is maintained and passed onto the next generation. Some courses are also taught in Hungarian at the Uzhhorod National University (Ungvari Nemzeti Egyetem). While this allows cultural diversity to exist, locals often fail to integrate into Ukrainian society. For example there are some Hungarians who do not learn Ukrainian as they are not pressured to do so in the area they live. This is because they have no need to use it since all education can be accessed in their native language. Villagers in far-away rural areas often try to distinguish themselves from the rest of the country by being on Hungarian time instead of Ukrainian time.
On the other hand Hungarians living in Zakarpattia have assimilated Ukrainian culture unwittingly. In their local dialect they have accumulated words from Ukrainian and other Slavic languages from the region. For example, locals use the Slavic word тапичкa (tapicska) for slippers. In addition to this they have taken on practices that are typical of the Ukrainian cultural landscape. Due to the lack of taxes on them, they tend to drink more than Hungarians living in Hungary. This has led to alcohol problems among Hungarians living in the Zakarpattia region which is partly a cause of the widespread deprivation present here. Hungarian young people also listen to Ukrainian music and have profiles on VKontakte – the large social networking site that is dominating the Eastern European market.
More recently the Hungarian population of Ukraine has been declining. A new law passed by the Hungarian government means that ethnic Hungarians living abroad are able to acquire citizenship more easily. This allows them to exploit the lucrative job opportunities found in both Hungary and other European Union states. It has led to a large scale outmigration of ethnic Hungarians from the region, of which many may choose not to return mainly due to the poor economic situation that has been made worse with the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. In the long term it could result in the decline of Hungarian culture in Zakarpattia Oblast.
As a response to the conflict with Russia -which started in 2014 – the new government are starting to initiate wide scale Ukrainisation in the country. Its aim is to help unite the country under one national identity so that conflicts like the ones in the East can be prevented. The government has drastically reduced funding for many Hungarian schools and in some cases monetary support for them has been cut completely. Earlier this year the Hungarian people condemned the authorities as rumours emerged that they want to ban the Hungarian language on the streets of villages, towns and cities. Even though no law has been passed it demonstrates that the current government is turning its back onto the policies that promoted ethnic and cultural diversity in the country.
Alongside Hungarians some members of the Roma population in Ukraine are also users of the Hungarian language. While they do identify themselves as Roma, they also see themselves as Hungarian gypsies. Thus, this implies that these people have a hybrid identity because they are not like the Hungarians discussed above nor are the part of the other gypsy populations that speak Boyash and Romani. Their position in society reflects the diversity of Ukraine: They are ethnically Romani people who speak Hungarian and live in Ukraine.
Gypsies of Zakarpattia
The example of Hungarians and Hungarian speaking Romani living in Ukraine demonstrates that we need to move beyond the idea of people having single identities. The identities of various populations are dynamic and are constantly changing. People may take up characteristics of various cultures and incorporate it into their own and creating new unique hybrid cultural landscapes.