There are twelve known castle sites that can be visited in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. Some of these are quite well known tourist attractions such as Palanok Castle in Mukacheve and Uzhhorod Castle in that city of the same name. Others are in ruins, such as Khust Castle. A few cannot even be called ruins, but instead are sites where a castle once stood. Of all the different variations of castles in the region, the most fully intact both physically and historically is also the most recently constructed, Schönborn Castle (also referred to as a palace), located only ten kilometers from Mukacheve. A century ago the castle was the centerpiece for one of Europe’s largest landed estates. Today it is a tourist attraction with thousands of visitors a year. The castle allows travelers a window into the obscene wealth of pre-World War I nobility. It is also a place to contemplate a world lost forever.
A Gift That Kept On Giving – The Mukachevo-Chynadiievo Estate
The castle may be relatively new, but it was situated upon a massive parcel of land that has been part of the historical record as far back as the 13th century. This piece of land, known as the Mukachevo-Chynadiievo estate, was in the domain of various Hungarian rulers who gifted it to in-laws or vassals who had performed exceptional service for the king. Following the failure of Rakoczi’s War of Independence (an attempt by Hungarians to break free of Habsburg rule) at the start of the 18th century, the Austrians took over control of the land. This expropriation did not mean a turn away from nobility. There was no thought of dividing up the land and giving it to the peasant serfs. Instead, in 1728 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI gifted it to the archbishop of Mainz, Lothar von Franz . Schönborn. This began over two centuries of Schönborn family rule over the estate.
They had received an incredible piece of land, a veritable gold mine with seemingly inexhaustible resources. Even now the size of the estate is hard to fathom. It covered an area three–quarters the size of the state of Rhode Island. The Schönborns would now not only own the land, but virtually all of its inhabitants as well. The estate included 200 villages with a population totaling 14,000, over nine-tenths of whom were serfs. Much of the area was heavily wooded, with incredible timber resources. To further develop the land, German settlers were brought in. A series of improvements to agriculture created a rotational crop system that provided bountiful supplies of corn, tobacco and potatoes.
Bending The World To Your Will – Allegory of Astronomy or Arrogance
The Schönborns themselves were too high and mighty to administer this wealth of natural and human bounty. An overall administrator was appointed and the estate was broken into districts managed for economic benefit by sheriffs. This system brought great improvements to the land, but not much changed for the common people toiling in obscurity. As late as 1910, literacy in the larger region, referred to as Carpatho-Rus, was only 50%. While the peasants toiled, the nobility played. The Schönborns enjoyed pursuing the plentiful wildlife found throughout the area. In 1840 they erected a hunting lodge. Exactly fifty years later construction began on Schönborns Castle at the exact same spot where the lodge had stood. The castle was quite a replacement. Built in a romantic French Renaissance style its structure was turned into an allegory based on astronomical time. There were twelve entrances, fifty-two rooms and three hundred and sixty five windows, each of these the same number as the months, weeks and days in a calendar year. The symmetry did not stop there either. There was also a pond built in the same shape as the territory of Austria-Hungary.
Just what Erwin-Friedrich Karl, the Schönborn Count who had the castle constructed, was trying to prove with this extravagant bit of astronomical and topographical allegory was not quite clear. He was not the first to have a palace or castle built in such a fashion, but way out in the far reaches of the empire this must have caused a sensation. Erwin-Friedrich must have been a self-satisfied man. He had been able to commission the mimicking of the days, weeks and months of the year in this grand design of architectural symmetry. In an era of rapid progress, with incredible industrial and technological change occurring by the mind and will of mankind, it must have seemed as though even time was but a mere plaything in the hands of the nobility. The world was there’s or so they thought. The First World War would shatter all such illusions. Its aftermath was even more shocking to the nobility than the war itself. After the empire collapsed, a noble title became a black mark for many. Was Erwin-Friedrich and his massive land holding in Transcarpathia about to succumb to fate? Not if he had his way.
The 99.75% Solution
In 1920 Schönborn Castle and the land surrounding it became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia. The sheer remoteness of the estate from the nexus of power in the new state may have saved it from expropriation. The state only took 0.25 percent of the property. Put another way, Count Erwin-Friedrich held on to 99.75% of the property. In the late 1920’s Erwin-Friedrich sold most of the property for something truly astronomical, a price tag of 35 million Czechoslovak Crowns. In a clever sleight of hand, he sold it to a company which then turned it over to another company. This second enterprise just so happened to have Count Erwin-Friedrich as its main shareholder. Of course, there could not have possibly been a way for Count Erwin-Friedrich to escape the gathering storm of World War II which would eventually bring Soviet occupation and expropriation to the property. Think again because he did escape, just as everyone eventually does. The Count died in 1932.
Today visitors walk through the grounds and halls of Schönborn Castle fascinated by its beauty and grandeur. They are able to walk the same stairways, hallways and pathways that Count Erwin-Friedrich Schonborn did only a few generations before. It is just about enough to make visitors believe that nothing has changed, but of course such a feeling would be wrong. Everything has changed. Schönborn castle is now part of Ukraine, a nation made up of the very people who the Schönborns treated as servants at best, serfs at worst. What would all those who toiled in virtual servitude on that magnificent and decadent estate have thought of this change in fortune? We will never know and neither will they. A way of life has been lost forever, now it can only be visited in a museum.