Slovaks and Slovakia

Slovakia the country is the eastern part of what was known as Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was formed at the end of WW1 (1918) when the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up into its ethnic constituencies.  Czechs and Slovaks both speak the West Slavic branch of the Slavic language family, along with Poles, Silesians, Moravians, Kashubians and Sorbs.

Slov polit

They say geography is destiny, and this certainly has been the case with Slovakia.  A spine of mountains runs along the north and down the centre of the country.  Lowlands provide entry and exit points east and west (think invasions), and the entire south is lowlands open to the Hungarian plain. Slovakia’s rivers are not great for navigation or shipping. Their mountains provide valuable minerals, but as Slovaks are not by nature warriors, they have historically been subject to domination by more powerful neighbors.

This YouTube gives you a sense of the landscape.  Whose idea was the soundtrack?

Listen to the Slovak national instrument, the fujara.  For more on the fujara, see

People have inhabited what became Slovak territory for thousands of years, perhaps hundreds of thousands. The first inhabitants about whom we have written records were the Celts (about 2,400 years ago), who moved in from the west, and later south.  Around 60 B.C. the Dacians invaded from what is now Romania.   They were in turn conquered by the Romans, who left the allied Germanic tribe the Quadi as occupiers.  The Quadi flourished and, with other Germanic tribes, soon became the Romans’ rivals.  We’re now up to 400 A.D., about the time of the first large-scale invaders from the Asian Steppes, the Huns.  By 450 Attila ruled a vast territory (Slovakia is about where the Sciri tribe are located on the map below).   Attila’s sons quarrelled, the Huns scattered, and Germanic types re-established themselves.  However, the east-to-west invasion route had been established.

450 Huns

Arrival of the Slavs

Just when the Slavs first came to the Slovakia region is open to debate.  Educated guesses start at around 450-500 AD.  Where they came from is also not clear, as by the time of their first mention in written records, they were numerous, divided into 3 general tribes, and migrating in all directions.  The Venedi went north, blending with Gemanic tribes, The Sclaveni went southeast, becoming the Bulgars, Serbs, & Croatians, and the Antes went east, becoming the Russians & Ukrainians.  Poles appear to be descendants mostly of Venedi (later called Wends); Czechs and Slovaks are Venedi with some Sclaveni influence.

Early Slavs

The Avar Invasion

Next to arrive were the Avars, nomads from the East, whose control over their more numerous Slavic subjects waxed and waned until they were finally expelled about 300 years later.  While the Avars were expanding, they pushed some South Slavic peoples into Slovak lands; thus “the Czech and Slovak languages share some features with the South Slavic languages, distinguishing them from the other West Slavic languages.” Wikipedia.


The High Point – ‘Great Moravia’

To quote Wikipedia “Moravia emerged along the borders of the Avars’ territory.[77] Great Moravia arose around 830 when Mojmír I unified the Slavic tribes settled north of the Danube and extended the Moravian supremacy over them.[78] When Mojmír I endeavoured to secede from the supremacy of the king of East Francia in 846, King Louis the German deposed him and assisted Mojmír’s nephew, Rastislav (846–870) in acquiring the throne…..Great Moravia……or simply Moravia, was the first major state that was predominantly West Slavic to emerge in the area of Central Europe,[5] chiefly on what is now the territory of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland (including Silesia), and Hungary……..Great Moravia was thus the first joint state of the Slavonic tribes that became later known as Czechs and Slovaks and that later formed Czechoslovakia.”

“During [the] reign [of Svätopluk I (871–894)], the Great Moravian Empire reached its greatest territorial extent, when not only present-day Moravia and Slovakia but also present-day northern and central Hungary, Lower Austria, Bohemia, Silesia, Lusatia, southern Poland and northern Serbia belonged to the empire, but the exact borders of his domains are still disputed by modern authors.”

great moravia

Sure and disputed borders of Great Moravia under Svatopluk I (according to modern historians).

Digression- the Role of Alphabets in History

Great Moravia only lasted about 70 years, from about 830 – 907.  However one event in this period was to have a profound influence on the subsequent history of Europe.  The Moravians/Slovaks were situated between the two greatest ideological and cultural powers in Europe – the Germanic/French/Italian and Catholic West, (the ‘Franks’, centred in Aachen), and the Slavic/Vlach/Greek and Orthodox East, (the ‘Byzantines’, centred in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul).  The Moravian/Slovak rulers saw as their greatest threat the West, and Catholic priests were becoming a dominant Western influence on their illiterate Slavic subjects.

after stopping a Frankish attack in 855, he [Rastislav (846–870)] also sought to weaken the influence of Frankish priests preaching in his realm. Rastislav asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael III to send teachers who would interpret Christianity in the Slavic vernacular. Upon Rastislav’s request, two brothers, Byzantine officials and missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius came in 863…………For the purpose of this mission, they devised the Glagolitic alphabet [based on Greek], the first alphabet to be used for Slavonic manuscripts. The Glagolitic alphabet was suited to match the specific features of the Slavic language. Its descendant script, the Cyrillic, is still used by many languages today.” 

The new Glagolitic/Crillic alphabet was a hit with the Moravians/Slovaks, greatly aiding their understanding of and fidelity to Christianity, and leading to a secular literature as well.  Eventually the Catholic Church reasserted its control over Moravia – banning the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in countries controlled by the West (Croatia, Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, parts of Ukraine).

Cyril and Methodius were booted out of Moravia, but they took their new alphabet and used it to convert the heathen Bulgarians, and later Russians, Macedonians, Ukrainians and Serbs.  Use of the Cyrillic alphabet solidified the spiritual influence of the Orthodox church over Eastern and Southern Slavs, and with it the influence of the Byzantine/Roman/Greek empire.

To this day, Slavs who use the Cyrillic alphabet are generally more sympathetic to Russian and Greek causes than Slavs who use the Latin Alphabet.  Different alphabets, which helped define and magnify East/West differences, were a major factor in the failure of Yugoslavia.  Croatians and Serbs speak a mutually intelligable language – at least as similar as British and American English.  Yet each was influenced by the rivalry of their respective churches, alphabets, and foreign power orientations, to not trust and  even hate each other, with tragic consequences.

Meanwhile, back in Slovakia, more invasions from the East

This time it was the Hungarians (Magyars) who around 900 began settling in southern Slovakia as part of their takeover of the greater Hungarian plain.   Gradually they converted to Christianity (Catholic).  By 1000, the Hungarians were in control and their leader, Stephen was crowned King of Hungary (including Slovakia) by the pope.

In 1241-1242, the Mongols under Genghis Khan invaded, devastated Slovakian Hungary, and abruptly went back home.  It is estimated that at least a third of population died from famine and epidemics.  Then an Austrian army invaded, repelled by the Hungarians.  There followed the usual European pattern whereby powerful ‘nobles’ controlled as much land as they could grab, enriching themselves at peasants’ expense, in an unending game of rivalries with other ‘nobles’.

A brief interruption involved another invasion, this time from the South, by the Ottomans.  For almost 200 years, from the 1500’s to the late 1600’s, Slovakia was the battleground where Turks, Hungarians, Austrians. Slovaks and Poles fought for control, impoverishing and depopulating Slovakia in the process.  When the dust finally settled, the Austrian Empire emerged triumphant, with vassal states of Hungary (dominated by Austrians) , Slovakia (dominated by Hungarians and Austrians), Croatia (dominated by Hungarians and Austrians), Bohemia/Moravia (dominated by Austrians), and Slovenia (dominated by Austrians).

Slovakia slowly becomes a country

We’re now up to the 1800’s.  The Americans and French had their Revolutions, and Napolean had come and gone.  These 3 events each promoted the idea of the right of subject peoples to determine their own fates, to throw off the yoke of dominating ‘foreign’ rulers.  For the next 100 years, Slovaks became increasingly aware and proud of their own identity, but were constantly thwarted in their desire for independence from their Austro-Hungarian overlords. In 1920, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechs and Slovaks were free to form the independent Slavic state of Czechoslovakia.

When freeing themselves from the Austro-Hungarian yoke, Czechs and Slovaks were natural allies. After forming a unified state, differences soon emerged.  Wikipedia again; “Slovaks, whom the Czechs outnumbered in Czechoslovak state, differed in many important ways from their Czech neighbors. Slovakia had a more agrarian and less developed economy than the Czech lands, and the majority of Slovaks practised Catholicism while the Czechs had less likelihood of adhering to established religions. The Slovak people had generally less education and less experience with self-government than the Czechs. These disparities, compounded by centralized governmental control from Prague, produced discontent among Slovaks with the structure of the new state.”

Czechoslovakia was to last less than 20 years before Nazi Germany began dismembering it.  After World War 2, Russian Communists took over the country, controlling it until the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989.  Upon finally freeing itself of foreign domination, long-simmering differences between Czechs and Slovaks came to the fore.  After 3 years of attempts to form a common state, Slovak demands for autonomy won out, and in 1992 Slovakia became an independent country.

Who are the Slovaks and how do they differ from the Czechs?

As detailed above, Slovaks are descendants of Western Slavic-speaking tribes who occupied territory currently called Slovakia.  What should also be apparent is that invasions and near-constant domination by others, especially Hungarians and Germanic types, means few if any Slovaks have purely Slavic blood.  Slovak identity is determined as much by language and cultural identification as by genetics.

Slovaks are also defined by what they are not – Czechs.  Both seem to agree that their language is very similar, and that up until the breakup of Czechoslovakia, both could understand each other very well.  Now, it seems younger Czechs are having difficulty understanding spoken Slovak.  Czechs have had a much longer history of contact with the West – especially Austria and Germany.

Slovaks are considered culturally more conservative than Czechs.  Especially in terms of religion; where Czechs are one of the most atheistic cultures in the world, Slovaks range from agnostic to staunchly Catholic.  Tolerance of  other cultures and lifestyles follow similar patterns.  Whatever the downsides of cultural conservatism, the upside for us folkdancers is the Slovaks are closer to their traditions.  One is much more likely to see traditional costume being worn in Slovakia than Czechia. Here’s a sampling of regional costume variations – for women, anyway.

The YouTube below is more gender balanced.  Good thing, ’cause Slovak men can be  pretty fancy dudes!

Traditional dance is more widely respected and practiced.  And whereas Czech folk dances show a much stronger Germanic influence, Slovak is more influenced by Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian moves.

Slovakia also has significant populations of Roma, Hungarians, and others.


By Lilic – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

John Uhlemann’s comment: After WWI, the new Czechoslovakia had an eastern most province not mentioned in the narrative here – Ruthenia. That province, now called Zakarpatskie Ukraine, was attached to the new Czechoslovakia because it had been part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire that had just been carved up, and it had a central European outlook. It had no majority population – there were Western Ukrainians, to be sure (mostly Lemko dialect), but they were less than 50%, the rest being Jews (the majority in many large towns), Romanians, Germans (not just in towns), Slovaks, and Roma. When Hitler removed the Jews (whose cemeteries I photographed about 20 years ago), That made the Ukrainians the majority, so the Soviets took the province and added it to Ukraine; that gave them the all-important corridor to Hungary, as well as Poland and Czechoslovakia, that could (and did) use to suppress any breakaway movements. The Ukrainian population, usually called Carpatho-Rusins now, have many excellent wooden churches in Slovakia as well as in neighboring southeastern Poland. They are mostly “Greco-Catholics” (orthodox rite Catholics). Steve Kotansky’s ancestors came from that community, and he and Susi are leading a dance tour to Northeastern Hungary and that part of Slovakia, where we will be learning some of the dances from the Rusins.

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