In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit:

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit:

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.



Dracula at Passport Control – The Mask Reveals the Man From Szekely Land

“Midnight – I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvanian history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all….We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

I keep getting this picture in my head. It’s of Count Dracula at passport control. He has handed over his documents in order to be allowed entry to Great Britain. The officer takes a look at the papers and then at the moon light pale face before him. The count’s funereal gaze is offset by his gaunt, angular features. The officer lowers his voice unconsciously and begins to ask questions. The documents say that Dracula is from Romania, the officer asks him to confirm that. The count says, “I’m from Transylvania.” The officer replies, “That’s in Romania, right?” The count nods solemnly. “What is your native tongue?” “Hungarian, the count utters in a cryptic voice.” So you are ethnic Hungarian and live in Romania.” The count gives an eerie grin, at the corners of his mouth fangs protrude slightly. He says, “I’m a Szekely from Transylvania.” The officer looks baffled. Should he call his supervisor or just try to straighten out this confusion on his own. He looks deep into Dracula’s eyes. They stare trance like, portals to an empty universe. The officer has never seen a case or a man like this. He shudders, than catches himself. Quickly he stamps the documents and shouts, “Next.” He does not look up, but instead senses a mass of gray shadow. The gray mass sweeps the documents from his hand and vanishes from sight.

Dracula by Bram Stoker - Reproduction of first original cover (Credit: Public Domain)

Dracula by Bram Stoker – Reproduction of first original cover (Credit: Public Domain)

Who is this Dracula? Dracula of course is a fictional man. He is a figment of Bram Stoker’s fervid imagination, only existing in the pages of Stoker’s novel. Yet Dracula is also a real man, Vlad Dracula III better known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Vlach prince from what is today Romania. He was known for his terrifying cruelty, which left even the dreaded Ottoman Turks cowering in fear. Stoker’s Dracula is based on the real, historical one from the pages of history, but with some interesting twists. One of these twists is that Dracula says he is a Szekely. Perhaps Stoker wanted to give the Count’s background an added ingredient of exoticism. Interestingly, millions of people have read the book or at the very least know the outlines of this famous tale. Yet they have hardly given a second thought to the ethnicity Dracula claims for himself. Stoker’s novel is the one time in history that the Szekely entered into the much larger world’s consciousness. This fame was fleeting, a mere detail hidden in the shadow cast by Transylvania, a place that has become synonymous with the story.  A reader of the novel might just feel that the Szekely are wholly fictional, another figment of Stoker’s imagination. Fortunately they are real, more real than Dracula and knowing a little bit more about them is well worth the effort. After all, the truth really is stranger than fiction.

The Szekely are the mystery child of Transylvania. No one is quite sure where they came from, though there are numerous theories. Some of the more reputable ones state that: a) they descended from a Hungarian speaking late Avar population. The Avars were one of the many Turkic tribes that came roaring in from the east during the 6th century. They would eventually merge with Slavic tribes and subsequently disappear through the magic act of amalgamation; b) they  descended from Hungarian groups who settled in the borderlands of medieval Hungary and over time developed their own unique culture; c) they were part of the Hungarians who settled the Carpathian Basin, but then were deliberately resettled to protect the Kingdom’s frontiers; or d) they descended from a Turkic population that joined up with the Magyars prior to their invasion of the Carpathian basin. The fun really begins with some of the other theories, such as the one where distant ancestors of the Szekely were supposedly Roman soldiers from Sicily. Another theory states that they are remnants of Attila’s Huns. This one was preferred by the Szekely themselves until scholars debunked it. And still another says they came from a group known as the Jasz people who are of Ossetian (Sarmatian Iranian) origin. Who knows? The fun comes as much from the speculation as it does from any search for the truth. One thing is for certain, the Szekely were not “from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them” as Stoker so fantastically stated.

“And when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier.“ – Bram Stoker, Dracula

Since the first written records of their existence, the Szekely have been on the fringes. Isolated, distant and remote from the main centers of power, they were marshaled to play one specific role while under the rule of various kingdoms and empires. They were frontier guardians. The literal meaning of the word Szekely is “border guards.” This may account for their fiercely independent streak along with an uncanny ability to sustain their culture. Records of Szekely settlement first place them in southern Transylvania, but due to an influx of German Saxons who were also brought into guard the southern frontier, the Szekely were moved to their present location. Due to their skill as light cavalry, they would be better utilized against nomadic eastern tribes. In the ensuing centuries, they fought Bulgars, Tatars, Cumens, Ottomans and Vlachs among others. For their services, they were given freedom, noble titles and exemption from taxes. These perks lasted until the late Middle Ages. They were then incorporated into a quasi-feudal system, but owing to their ferocious independence they won back concessions on multiple occasions. When Stoker’s Dracula says, “” he isn’t kidding

By the late 18th century, the Habsburgs had taken control of Transylvania. The Szekely were slowly subsumed by the empire. They did not give up without a fight though. Even when they were pressed into service once again as border guards they rebelled, only agreeing to serve at either the point of a barrel or if they could fight on their own terms. They did manage to keep local customs alive in the villages. Unlike in other areas of Transylvania where nobles made all the crucial decisions for their serfs, the Szekely set forth their own rules and regulations. These guided everything from justice to the building of infrastructure. Of course, the Szekely supported the rebellion during the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, freedom runs in their blood. At one point due to their lack of artillery it was thought they would have to surrender to the Austrians. Within a couple of weeks they had created their own cannon manufacturing works. They singly managed to keep a large Austrian force occupies, aiding the Hungarian effort immeasurably. Unfortunately, the Szekely once again found themselves on the losing side. Yet somehow they managed to survive and keep their culture intact. By the time of Stoker’s Dracula, the Szekely were little more than a unique cultural afterthought of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were a mystery in a mysterious land, surrounded by wild, dramatically beautiful nature, given to insular, obscure customs and beholden only to their traditions. The Szekely and Stoker’s fictional Dracula seem to have much in common.

Ethnic Map of Szekely Land - 2011 census

Ethnic Map of Szekely Land – 2011 census

“The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious of a thing in these days of dishonorable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

Today, the majority of Szekely live in the eastern Carpathians, nearly 80% of their approximately 700,000 strong population inhabit three counties in Transylvania – Hargita, Covasna and Mures. The first two counties are the only ones in Romania with a Hungarian majority. It should be noted that the Szekely only make up 38% of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. How does one tell a Szekely from a non-Szekely, not by language, but instead through geography and culture. The hill and valley area of the eastern Carpathians which they have inhabited now at least nine centuries is known as Szekely Land (in Hungarian: Szekelyfold).

Just last month, thousands of Szekely and ethnic Hungarians in Romania joined hands to form a human chain that stretched from Brasov to the three counties that make up Szekely Land in a show of support for territorial autonomy.  Ethnic Hungarians in Romania already have the right to Hungarian language education and local governance in areas where they are predominant. Is that not enough? No, the Szekely are always fighting, wanting more.
The newest push for autonomy has arisen for two reasons. First, in resistance to a proposed reorganization of the Romanian county system that would place the Szekely in a new administrative unit where they would no longer be in the majority. This would dilute their small, but steady base of power. Secondly, there is historical precedent for autonomy. The term Szekely Land comes from an autonomous region that existed in the eastern Carpathians from the Middle Ages until the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867. Ironically, the entity was revived under the communists from 1952 until 1968 when it was abolished by the Ceausescu regime. It should also be noted that the latest push for autonomy is just as much an ethnic Hungarian effort as it is a Szekely one. After all, in the 2011 census a grand total of only 532 people listed themselves as Szekely, the other 99% of ethnic Hungarians listed themselves as just that, Hungarian. Perhaps some of Dracula’s ancestors were part of those 532 Szekely. No Szekely were identified as vampires. Then again that question wasn’t asked!

Szekely Kapu (Szekely Gate)

Szekely Kapu (Szekely Gate) (Credit: Laszlo Varga)

“You may go anywhere you wish in the castle, except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not wish to go. There is reason that all things are as they are, and did you see with my eyes and know with my knowledge, you would perhaps better understand.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

The Szekely kapu (Szekely gate) is an astounding piece of folk art. Two separate entrances are contained in this wooden gate, one for horse and carriage, the other for pedestrians. They are decorated with woodcarvings that denote the social status and identity of the owners beyond the gate. Only the Szekely or someone immersed deep in their culture will know the meanings of these carvings. The gates have a strange allure. There is a primeval exoticism to them. The visitor stands outside the gate and ponders questions: Who are these people? What secrets do they keep?

Stoker’s Dracula knew how to keep the prying eyes of strangers away from the secrets hidden in the deepest recesses of his home. He offered only thinly veiled warnings about what lay beyond those doors. Oddly, the warnings serve to fascinate as much as scare. They whisper come forth, the strange allure of a dark exoticism. The stranger is pulled ever closer. Searching for answers to the questions: Who is this man? What secrets does he keep?