The Limits Of What We Know – Khust, Ukraine: Forever On The Fringes

In this age of Google Earth the geographically inclined user can be transported anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. No place is truly off limits anymore. The whole world is open to discovery, at least in a superficial sense. The corollary to this technologically enhanced method of discovery is that once a place is located, the user can, via the internet find out almost everything they would like to know about a place. If a locale is sizeable enough then it obviously has a Wikipedia entry, which is assumed to contain all the necessary and useful information that one needs.

A week ago I began to research the small Ukrainian city of Khust, in the southwestern corner of the country. The impetus for my research was an amazing video that recreates Khust Castle (Huszt Vara in Hungarian). The castle stood for nearly six hundred years, but in the late 18th century fell into ruin. Watching that stunning film as the once impressive hilltop castle at Khust came back to life, sent me searching to learn more about the castle and by extension the city. What I discovered left more questions than answers. The internet may be a great source of information, but there are still many gaps to be filled. Though English acts as an international lingua franca it has only so much to say about small cities deep in the backwaters of Eastern Europe. Discovering a place digitally is wonderful, but getting to really know it is exceedingly difficult. Nothing can replicate the actual experience of being there, but learning just a few historical details can cast a fresh light on a place and the past. Here is what I was able to learn about Khust.

Khust Castle

Artistic representation of the fully intact Khust Castle

A Castle At A Crossroads
The history of Khust goes back nearly a millennium, beginning in the early Middle Ages. According to the historical record, the castle preceded the town by several hundred years. Actually the first castle on site was utterly obliterated by the Mongol Invasion long before a corresponding town appeared. Khust was a place that would always be under threat. It was never at the core of any lasting kingdom, principality or empire, it was a prototypical fringe community. A noticeable trend in Khust’s history is how it survived despite being at the crossroads of both multi-imperial and multi-national conflicts. Whether it was the Middle Ages or the modern age, Khust has always found itself on one of Europe’s most unstable geo-political fault lines. This was an area where Hungarians, Poles, Tatars and Turks fought for control during the 17th century. In the 20th century it was Hungarians, Germans and Russians with Jews and Ruthenians squeezed in the middle. Prior to the modern age, Khust’s best defense against numerous invasions was its castle. This was the only hope of survival when war struck the area, which it often did.

One of the most tumultuous periods in Khust’s history was brought about by the Ottoman Turkish incursion deep into Hungarian territory. Starting in 1644 it was besieged no less than three times over an eighteen year period, each time by a different army. The castle often could withstand the forces of man and military means, holding out time and again. This owed much to its near impregnable position atop a steep volcanic hill. Location was everything for Khust, geography was decisive, making it a place that would undergo numerous sieges down through the centuries. Yet its topographical situation also saved it many times.

The Ruins of Khust Castle

The Ruins of Khust Castle (Credit Cora_v)

Natural & Base Instincts – Destruction in Khust
That was until nature had its own way with the castle. In 1766 the castle’s gunpowder tower was struck by lightning, this set off a conflagration which burned much of it to the ground. Then in 1798 a violent storm collapsed the castle’s main tower. What remains of Khust castle today? After reading just a bit of its history I was fascinated to find out. The short answer is not much. Photos online showed little more than stone ruins, but according to first person accounts from travelers who had been there, the view from the ruins was splendid. These same accounts also spoke of the strenuous hike up to the ruins. Obviously, a trek to the remains of Khust castle communicates some of its stalwart defensive position to those who can make the lung bursting journey

Khust has not only lost its castle, but also much of a rich multicultural heritage from a more recent past. At the beginning of the 20th century, Khust’s most striking characteristic was the diversity of peoples who once inhabited the city. Today, Khust is almost 90% Ukrainian, but a century ago the ethnic makeup was much more stratified, betraying its location on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1910 only half of the population was Ukrainian (actually termed “Ruthenian” changed to Ukrainian as nationalism took hold), a third were Hungarians and another 15% Germans. World War I and its aftermath made Khust the ultimate fringe community. In a withering game of geo-political musical chairs that took place from 1918 to 1945 a citizen of Khust would have lived under an empire, multiple republics (one of which lasted all of a day) as well as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The only one of these entities that lasted was Hungary, which Khust is quite obviously no longer a part of.

The invisible minority in Khust during that head spinning era were the Jews, who made up a sizable proportion of the populace. Less than forty years after that 1910 Census, the Jews, Hungarians and Germans had all been either murdered or deported. Intolerance and racial prejudice were the forces that made and remade Khust on multiple occasions. The Germans and Hungarians turning on the Jews, the Soviets (led mainly by Russians) deporting the Hungarians and Germans, then Ukrainians left to repopulate the city.

View of Khust from Zamkova (Castle) Hill

View of Khust from Zamkova (Castle) Hill
(Credit: Cora_v)

Deep In The Heart of History – Traveling To Khust
Today Khust might best be described by one or all of the following terms: afterthought, overlooked, forgotten. This only seems right. Khust’s present is similar to its past, obscure and almost entirely unknown. Yet there is another way of defining Khust that I discovered this past week, fascinating. An existence forever on the fringes has left Khust as part of many larger stories and movements that are of historical importance: geography as destiny, the precariousness of medieval life, the Holocaust, the collapse of empires and rise of the modern nation state. Who would have thought Khust with its crumbling ruin of a castle and a forgotten multi-ethnic past could be so illuminating? And just think this all came out of the very little I discovered online. It makes me wonder what I would find if I went there. It makes me wonder what I will find when I go there.

2 thoughts on “The Limits Of What We Know – Khust, Ukraine: Forever On The Fringes

  1. I’m going to Khust in a few days, will be there for two weeks. I’ll be sure to visit the castle!

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