Where on Earth is Ruthenia?

For one hundred-fifty years, the kingdom of Ruthenia held its own against encroachments from neighbors on all sides, including the Mongols who destroyed Kyiv-Rus in 1240. After putting up a feisty resistance to the Golden Horde in the thirteenth century, Danylo Romanovych Halitskiy was crowned King of Ruthenia by the Pope in Rome in 1253. These are recorded facts in history, more or less. But, where on the map can you find the Kingdom of Ruthenia?                         

King Danylo had a son. His name was Lev. Danylo established and named a new city after his son: Lviv. After King Danylo’s death, Lev inherited his father’s crown and moved his capital to Lviv (Lev’s city). Through alliances and daring raids, Lev tried but failed to reconquer Lithuania, formerly ruled by his brother, for the sake of the family dynasty. He was successful in other military ventures and captured lands from Hungary and Poland to add to his kingdom. In 1301 when he died, the Kingdom of Ruthenia was at the height of its power. But, kingdoms eventually crumble, empires contract and borders shift as republics without monarchs spring up. So, what is left of Ruthenia today?

For hundreds of years after Lev’s reign, his kingdom and capital city were repeatedly captured and incorporated into several different conquering kingdoms, empires and republics, changing hands the last time as recently as 1991.

Over the centuries Lviv has acquired and incorporated into its tapestry of architecture, cuisine and language a beautiful blend of accents from its diverse benefactors. The Austrians, Poles and Russians have all left their mark on this Ukrainian city’s appearance. The different ethnic groups that were invited and expelled: Armenians, Germans, Jews and Poles, all left their lasting mark on the town’s vernacular.  Wandering through the hidden, winding alleyways or taking in the vista of colorful Market Square in Lviv’s old city center, an explorer could be forgiven for questioning herself over and over again, “Wait, what country am I in?” So, with all of the changes of ownership over hundreds of years, is anything of old Ruthenia still left to be found between the ancient bricks and cobblestones of Lviv’s old town?

Walk in any direction in Lviv’s old city and you will quickly come across churches that look obviously different from the last one you stopped to admire, and the next one you will come across.

You will see and read different languages engraved into buildings constructed in different eras, when the rulers of the day imagined and prepared for an eternal status quo and unchanging balance of power. Armenian, English, German, Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian are all on display. But what language did they speak in Ruthenia?

Lviv today is a charming provincial town on the western border of Ukraine. It is rich with patriotic sentiment for the flag of its reborn independence. The ubiquitous student population that fill its Ukrainian speaking Universities, Technical Schools and Academies stoke the hopes of the repressed political ambitions of their ancestors.

Here, the population is fiercely Ukrainian and do not want to be mistaken by the ‘historically-challenged’ visitor to be Russians, or even be remembered as part being of the Soviet Union. Lviv, until after the second world war had never even part of the Soviet Union nor the Russian Empire. They strive to differentiate themselves from their neighbors to the east. The students learn to speak Polish and English fluently, instead of reverting to Russian to speak with foreigners. Is this the revenant heart of ancient Ruthenia beating proudly in the hearts of the liberated youth of western Ukraine? 

In 1240 the prince of Kyiv fled to Ruthenia to ask for military support to stave off the Mongol invasion that sacked and destroyed the city of golden domes.

Perhaps it was history itself that called those of Ruthenian heritage out of the west in 2013-2014 to again defend Kyiv’s independence, and Ukrainian traditions from the unwanted, corrupting influence of its eastern neighbors. From the western regions around Lviv, Ivano-Frankisvk, Chernivitsi and Rivni reinforcements flowed into the capital to man the barricades on the Maidan, against a treacherous government’s unprovoked, violent attacks on its own citizens. 

Modern Lviv is filled with both the energy of newfound independence from oppressors and the refinements that its former rulers introduced and left behind.

The Kingdom of Ruthenia has long disappeared from the world map; subverted and divided by modern nation-states of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. In these border regions the languages seem to melt into the other and are mutually understood, although written with different alphabets. The national dishes, while they may be named differently, seem to look and taste extremely similar to each other. Each country in this border region lays claim to contain a bit of old Ruthenia. But Lviv stands apart as a living monument to the Ruthenian kingdom’s history that can be seen, tasted and experienced as an exquisite mixture of rich history and traditions.

The enticing smell of gourmet coffees waft through the cobblestone alleyways of the medieval town tempting the explorer to sit down to sample another cup of roasted relaxation. A centuries old recipe for making sumptuous chocolate pralines and bon-bons is still used in the city. These luxuries are sold in shops all over town, as well as directly from Lviv’s Artisan Chocolate Factory just around the corner from City Hall. To the surprise of every visitor, Lviv is also home to one of the world’s favorite brands of vodka: Staritsky Levitsky. It is served in different flavors in lively, boutique-drinking holes all over town, both above and below ground. Borscht cafes serve hot bowls of the hearty beet soup from a take-away window as an alternative to vodka, to warm your frozen nose and toes in the chilly winter weather. 

If Old King Lev was to stroll through Lviv’s cobbled streets, he would probably not recognize the colorful facades of the Market Square, the monuments to more recent heroes of the people, and spoken Ukrainian. He might recognize the look of the people, the foundations of the churches and the love of freedom in the people’s hearts as he wandered through the town.

He may stop to argue with the city’s Mayor in the City Hall about the dates of his victories, his failings as a King, or as son of a King, and about who promised what to both the Khan and the Pope to keep his kingdom intact, and his people free. The more the two would argue, the more ‘facts’ they would remember incorrectly.

We may never be able to hear how the now extinct Ruthenian language sounded, or know if Ruthenians identified more as Poles or Russians. But one thing we can all agree on now is that the Kingdom of Ruthenia was located right here, where Lviv stands today. No question about it! (Right?)


5 thoughts on “Where on Earth is Ruthenia?

  1. Historical wonder. Thanks for the tour and the amazing history lesson. Beautiful Photos. Is your new book out?

    1. So glad you enjoyed the article. Lviv is someplace I would really like to visit again. The new book should be out in mid October. I will make a BIG announcement shortly. Thanks!! -Val

  2. Wow, this is fascinating! It amazes me that a language can die out when there are still so many structures, relics, stories, etc. that remain. Thanks for this interesting tidbit of history!

    1. Very glad you enjoyed it. If I understand correctly, old Ruthenian evolved into modern Ukrainian, but I will need to do some more research to confirm that for myself before I spread falsehoods. Keep an eye out, Right here! for more lessons in obscure history.

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