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.

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.