POPULATION: 4.7 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Greek Catholicism
Slavic peoples first settled in present-day Slovakia in the fifth century AD , eventually forming the short-lived Moravian Empire. Throughout much of history, Slovakia was dominated by the Magyars (Hungarians). In 1919, political union of the Czechs and Slovaks created the independent state of Czechoslovakia. Slovakia accounted for about 40 percent of the country's total area. Throughout the union of the two ethnic groups, the more numerous and powerful Czechs have had more political power than the Slovaks.
After World War II (1939–45) the communists seized control of the country. Under communist rule, the Slovaks were once again less powerful than the Czechs. In 1989, the communist empire in Eastern Europe collapsed. After the first democratic elections and the departure of the Soviet troops, old ethnic problems resurfaced. The Slovaks demanded separation from the Czechs. On January 1, 1993, the Slovaks declared their independence, establishing their own parliament in Bratislava, capital of the new country, Slovakia.
Slovakia is a small, landlocked country in Central Europe. It is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Slovakia's neighbors are Poland (to the north), the Czech Republic (to the northwest), Austria (to the southwest), and Hungary (to the south). It also shares a short eastern border with Ukraine.
Much of Slovakia consists of unspoiled mountains and forests. The High Tatras are the second-highest mountain range in Europe after the Alps. Sloping down from this high mountain range are the fertile river valleys. These small rivers drain into the Danube River. The Danube forms part of the southern boundary of the country. Slovakia has fertile farmland. Its winters are severe, and its summers warm.
The population of Slovakia is almost 5.5 million. Forty-three percent of the people live in rural areas. The largest cities are the capital city of Bratislava and Kosice. Ethnic Slovaks make up about 86 percent, or 4.7 million, of the population. Hungarians, the largest ethnic minority, account for 11 percent of Slovakia's population. According to official figures, the Romany (Gypsies) account for 1.5 percent of the population. The true figure may be higher.
Slovak is a member of the Western Slavic language group. Of all other languages, it has the greatest similarity to Czech, although the two languages are clearly different. The Slovak alphabet, which has forty-three letters, is written using Western-style letters.
Like those of other Eastern European languages, Slovak words feature clusters of consonants; some words have practically no vowels at all. Examples of such words include smrt' (death), srdce (heart), slnko (sun), and yrt (to drill, or bore).
Almost every ruined castle in Slovakia has its legend. Sometimes these legends are bloodcurdling. One such legend is the story of Csejte. In this tale, a ruthless countess murders three young girls and bathes in their blood, thinking it will renew her youthfulness. Janosik is a well-known folk hero whose adventures date back to the Turkish invasions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Belief in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings persist in some areas. Morena, a goddess of death, is the object of a springtime custom. In it, young girls ritually "drown" a straw doll in waters that flow from the first thaw.
In rural areas, some Slovaks still believe that illnesses can be caused by witches or by the "evil eye." They seek the services of traditional healers who use folk remedies and rituals.
Most Slovaks (about 60 percent of the population) belong to the Roman Catholic Church. They have close ties to their church community. Slovak Catholicism is generally more traditional than the more liberal Czech version.
Besides Catholicism, there are also a number of other Christian faiths in Slovakia. The largest denominations are Evangelical Lutherans and Greek Catholics. Others include Calvinist Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, and Baptist. Slovakia's once populous Jewish community was destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust. Close to 10 percent of Slovaks are declared atheists.
National holidays in Slovakia include New Year's Day (January 1), Easter Monday (in March or April), Liberation Day (May 8), Cyril and Methodius Day (July 5), Slovak National Uprising Day (August 29), Constitution Day (September 1), Independence Day (October 28), and Christmas (December 24, 25, and 26).
Christmas has the largest celebrations. On Christmas Eve, Slovaks attend church services. Christmas trees are decorated, gifts are exchanged, and there is a traditional Christmas Eve dinner called vilija , consisting of mushroom soup, fish, peas, prunes, and pastries. Slovaks usually celebrate birthdays with their families, and celebrate name days (days dedicated to the saint for which one is named) with friends and co-workers.
In late October, Slovakia hosts the Bratislava music festival. Musicians from around the world perform. Many towns and villages host annual folklore festivals in the late summer or fall, with plentiful singing, dancing, and drinking.
Most Slovaks observe major life events such as birth, marriage, and death within the religious traditions of the Catholic Church.
Shaking hands is a standard form of greeting. Men generally wait for women to extend their hands. Upon parting, a man may hug a woman or kiss her on both cheeks.
Standard greetings include Dobrý den (good day), Velmi ma tesi (pleased to meet you), and the more informal Ahoj (the equivalent of "hi"). Dovidenia means "good-bye," and the more casual terms Ciao and Servus mean either "hello" or "goodbye."
In rural areas, some older people greet each other with S Bohom (God be with you). When not among family or close friends, Slovak forms of address are very formal and courteous, including both Pán (Mr.) or Pani (Mrs.) and any professional title, such as doctor, professor, or engineer.
Slovaks enjoy entertaining at home. Upon entering a Slovak home, guests generally remove their shoes. Their hosts often provide them with slippers. Fresh flowers are always presented unwrapped and in odd numbers. It is the custom to bring even numbers of flowers to funerals. The gesture for wishing someone good luck (the equivalent of crossing one's fingers in the United States) is to fold the thumb inward and close the other fingers around it.
Life expectancy for Slovaks averages seventy-one years of age. The rate of infant mortality is eleven deaths for every one thousand live births. Almost everyone has access to medical care, and there is a high rate of immunization for infants during their first year.
There is a serious housing shortage in Slovakia. In 1992, approximately 80,000 people were on waiting lists for new apartments. The government plans to build 200,000 new units by the year 2000. Most city dwellers live in modest-sized apartments built during the communist era. Varied types of housing are found in rural Slovakia. These range from two-room detached dwellings to two-story apartment buildings with up to six units.
Indoor plumbing has been standard in rural areas for the past thirty years. Common building materials are concrete blocks and bricks. Most Slovak families own a car, but public transportation, including buses, trolleys, and trains, is widely used due to the high price of gasoline. There are rail links between major cities, and major highway expansion is planned.
The most common family unit in Slovakia is the nuclear family (father, mother, and children). Extended families can still be found in rural areas, however, where houses may have extra rooms to house the family of a grown son. The average Slovak family has two or three children. Women receive paid maternity leave and a cash allowance when each child is born. Most women work outside the home (women account for 47 percent of the Slovak labor force). Women and men have equal rights under the law, including property and inheritance rights.
City and town people in Slovakia wear modern Western-style clothing, including business attire for work, and jeans and T-shirts for casual wear. On special occasions, peasants in the hill country still wear traditional dress. Such outfits include dark woolen suits and knitted hats for men and full skirts, aprons, blouses, and scarves for women.
The Slovak national dish is bryndzové halusky , dumplings made with potatoes, flour, water, eggs, and salt, and served with processed sheep's cheese. However, this dish is not often eaten at home. A recipe for kolác follows.
Another favorite is Kapustnics , or cabbage soup. Rezen (breaded steak) and potatoes is common. A variety of meat served with dumplings, rice, potatoes, or pasta and sauce are also regulars. Fresh fish and wild game are often served in Slovak homes. Fresh-baked bread and soup are dinnertime staples.
Favorite desserts include tortes (frosted, multilayered cakes) and kolác (rolls with nut or poppy seed filling). Dry, white wine is a popular drink, especially wine from the Male Karpaty region near Hungary. As in the Czech Republic, slivovice (plum brandy) is also popular.
Nearly all Slovakians are literate. Schooling is compulsory for ten years, from age six through sixteen. There is no charge to attend a university. Admission is limited and highly competitive, however. There are thirteen universities, of which the oldest is Comenius University in Bratislava.
Adapted from recipe provided by Slovak Heritage Council and Cultural Society of British Columbia.
Although Slovak parents and children take education very seriously, once a year it has its comic side. Every spring, high school seniors play hooky on Wenceslas Square, dressing in pajamas to symbolize a popular lateness excuse—oversleeping. Others wrap their heads in bandages to represent toothaches, and still others make signs saying that they have stomach aches.
Slovakia is rich in folk music. The Slovaks' pride in their musical tradition is expressed in the saying Kde Slovák, tam spev (Wher-ever there is a Slovak, there is a song). Villages have amateur musical groups that perform at school graduations and harvest festivals.
Characteristic Slovak folk instruments include the bagpipes ( gajdy ), pipes ( píst'ala ), and the fujara , a large shepherd's flute held vertically in front of the body. The Janosik songs are based on the exploits of a well-known folk hero. Immigrants from Romania, Germany, and Hungary have also brought their music to Slovakia. More recently, composers have been incorporating Slovak folk melodies into their works.
The Slovaks also have a strong folk-dance tradition, with dances including the Kolo, Hajduch, Verbunk, Cardas, polka, a shepherd's dance called the Odzemok , and the Chorodový , a communal women's dance. There is a major folk festival every year in July.
Until the eighteenth century, there was no attempt to establish a literary language based on the the Slovak dialects. In the early nineteenth century, literary Slovak was established and this "new" language was used by such talented poets as Andrej Sladkovic ("Marina") and Janko Kral, a poet and revolutionary. Kral's ballads, epics, and lyrics are among the most original of Slovak literature. Another famous poet was Ivan Krasko. After 1918, Slovak literature was at its peak, but during the four decades of communist rule after World War II Slovak writing underwent a general decline.
Like other Eastern European countries, Slovakia became highly industrialized during the communist era. There are manufacturing jobs in steel, chemicals, glass, cement, and textiles.
In 1994, the country had an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent. This was caused mainly by the change from communism to capitalism. Employees commonly receive four weeks of paid vacation and retire between the ages of fifty-three and sixty. About 80 percent of Slovak workers belong to a labor union.
Popular sports include soccer, tennis, skiing, and ice hockey.
In their leisure time, Slovaks enjoy attending movies, local festivals, and cultural events. They also enjoy participating in outdoor activities including hiking, swimming, and camping. Slovakia also has over one thousand mineral and hot springs. In rural villages, men meet after work at the local bar to drink, play cards, and socialize.
Slovak artists are well known for their pottery works. They also make small porcelain figurines. Throughout Slovakia there are artists selling painted Easter eggs, cornhusk figures, hand-knit sweaters, wood carvings, walking sticks, cuckoo clocks, and toys of many varieties. Popular hobbies for women are sewing, embroidering, and lacemaking. Most embroidery work is done in the winter, and many designs have special names: the "lover's eye" or the "little widow." Sewing skills are also used for making traditional Slovak costumes. Other crafts include metalworking and woodcarving.
Slovakia is struggling with the challenges of changing from a centrally planned economy run by the government to one based on free markets. Many government-owned companies have yet to be transfered to private ownership. In addition, unemployment and inflation continue to cause economic problems.
Mikus, Joseph A. Slovakia and the Slovaks. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1977.
Momatiuk, Yva, and John Eastcott. "Slovakia's Spirit of Survival." National Geographic (January 1987): 120–146.
Palickar, Stephen Joseph. Slovakian Culture in the Light of History, Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Hampshire Press, 1954.
Pollak, Janet. "Slovaks." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Skalnik, Carol. The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation vs. State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.