A team of six young professionals explored connections between the social, political, economic and ethnic frameworks of the Ukrainian-Polish-Slovak-Hungarian borderland, attempting to understand fully the sense of commonality between these various Transcarpathian identities. Find out more about their experience.
Our study visit (16-23 September 2016) was focused on ethnographical fieldwork: participant and non-participant observations, interviews and research conducted in small towns and borderland villages within the region of Transcarpathia in Western Ukraine. A team of six young professionals explored connections between the social, political, economic and ethnic frameworks of the Ukrainian-Polish-Slovak-Hungarian borderland, attempting to understand fully the sense of commonality between these various Transcarpathian identities. We spent countless hours talking, listening and observing numerous people and their surroundings. After the designated interview hours, we additionally took notes on our findings, with the goal to focus on studying ‘others in their space and time’. Below is a summary of our efforts throughout the week:
Every member of our team brought particular skills and knowledge from their specialized field, which complimented one another incredibly well. Among the team were two historians including Paweł Drymajło from Jagellonian University, who is particularly interested in history of the Second World War and Ukraine and Galya Vasylenko, a graduate of Jewish Studies from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy who provided us with photo documentation of our experiences. The study visit could not have been fully documented without Nella McNicol’s technical skills in filming obtained studying for an M. A. in Film & Television studies at the University of Glasgow. From the beginning, we collected a huge amount of data which Olena Nikulina, a graduate student of Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University in the Political Science Department, managed to order, archive and collect efficiently. Graduate of the Institute of Journalism in Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University and Professional journalist, Anastasia Soroka shared her own experiences of interviews, aiding how we structured our questions and conducted the interviews. A piece of energetic Hungarian folk tradition was brought to our team by Júlia Németh, student of Munkáscy Mihály Secondary Grammar School, Hungary, and among us was Zhanna Wróblewska, our ENRS coordinator.
On the first day, our local coordinator Pavlo Khudish showed us Uzhhorod, a crossroads of different cultures, histories and lifestyles. This was an excellent example of how a variety of communities can live together harmoniously and progressively.
On 16 September, we met representatives of the Polish minority in the Transcarpathia region. Lyudmyla Fedorchuk, the chairwoman of a Polish Association named after Gniewa Wołosiewicz, made a short introduction about the activities of their organization as well as the history of Transcarpathian Poles. We spoke with Professor Aleksandr Śniegórski, Antonina Klemowicz and Aleksandra Zamłyńska. First of all, it is necessary to say that the Polish minority in this region is very small. However, it is an incredibly strong community and during the interviews we felt really surprised because every person answering questions about potential conflicts between the numerous nationalities did not have any experience of conflict between them. In fact, it is true to say that Transcarpathia during those times was quite a peaceful place in relation to the various nations.
The next day, we traveled to Velykyi Bereznyi to explore the Slovak minority of Transcarpathia. Velyki Beryznyi turned out to be a very interesting and unique village. Placed on the Ukrainian-Slovak border, the village of Velykyi Bereznyi was a perfect example of a literal borderland – part of the community even lived in the Slovak time zone. During the meeting with the Slovak minorities, we explored their unique culture and special in-betweenness included in people’s identity, with our team being warmly welcomed into their Catholic parish. After that, we recorded two interviews with locals – Andrii Mikhal, the man who works in the local church, and two ladies, Mrs Elizabeth and Mrs Maria. They shared personal stories with us about life in Velykyi Bereznyi. We especially appreciated the opportunity to talk to Mrs Elizabeth, a woman over 90 years old, who had been living in the village all her life and knew the history and culture of the community like no one else. Therefore, it was very important for our team to collect these stories and carefully describe them within metadata in order to save them for the National Polish Archives.
Thanks to Mikhail Galin, Director of the Hesed Shpira Charitable Fund, we were introduced to two members of the Uzhhorod Jewish community. We met a person whose life is quite representative for Soviet Jewish citizens – born in a Jewish assimilated family, he had little knowledge of their own Jewish origin. Through the fund, he started discovering his cultural roots and his people’s history. Interviewing him, we could understand not only life of a Jewish person in Transcarpathia, but also the Soviet society cut-off of 1960-1980s. We also met an Auschwitz survivor, whose story was incredibly important in understanding the period of post-war in the Transcarpathian region.
Despite issues due to the methodology of oral history, I think we succeeded in discovering Jewish history in this cross-border area. We received invaluable information about social and cultural Jewish living conditions, political influences and economic state of Transcarpathia.
On the fifth day of our journey in the Uzhhorod region, our group went to Vynohradiv - a borderland town, famous for its diverse community. There, we met a representative of the Ruthenian minority, who told us his life story: how he and his family lived under different governments, how an attitude to Ruthenians changed over years and how this formed their unique identity.
On 20 and 21 September we were visiting Hungarian families in two villages. Finally, it was my turn to conduct the interviews with the local elderly. The first village we visited was ethnically mixed but, as being told, despite religious and cultural diversity all lived in peace and in fact, there was no discrimination at all towards the Hungarian minority. The last day's interviews were in Szelmenc with random locals, which in my opinion, were the most valuable interviews. Szelmenc is predominantly a Hungarian village divided by the Ukrainian-Slovakian border. I heard stories about that time when the new borders were set up. The most important fact is that people living right next to the two sides of the border were prohibited to communicate with each other for six years even if they belonged to one family. So locals figured out a special method of how to inform the others about recent events. They were aware that the border officers did not speak Hungarian so they would write songs about the news happening in the village and would sing them while cultivating lands next to the border, pretending they were singing old Hungarian folksongs. That's how the 'othersiders' were kept up-to-date about their community. A great idea, wasn’t it? I am so glad to have met all of them and I thoroughly enjoyed all my conversations with them. It was a great opportunity to experience new things like archiving and taking photographs on a professional camera, but my favourite was conducting interviews.
Being the only person within the group who did not have an understanding of any of the languages that the interviews were conducted in, I was somewhat anxious about how much I would gain and enjoy from my experience before travelling to Uzhhorod. However, looking back now, my feelings of anxiety were completely unnecessary. The opportunity to film the interviews of a wonderfully diverse range of people within their homes allowed me to understand more about identity, culture and the history of Central Europe than any English-speaker would manage to explain. Discovering how people of various philosophies, religions and languages were able to live together with little conflict in a relatively small region like Transcarpathia has made me question my own as well as Great Britain’s acceptance of cultural diversity. Above all, this experience has made me become a more informed, observant and well-rounded European citizen.
So what was the 'In Between?' study visit all about? Together, we discussed the diversity of local identities while travelling to the next interview or back to the hostel. Despite being constantly under pressure and having to work through exhaustion, this study visit is now beginning to find the answer for us and locals about what it is like to really be 'in between?'