In Defiance of Fate (Part Two) – History Stuck On Repeat: The Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia

There is a belief among some historically minded people that everything old becomes new again. This is a clever take on the old cliché that history repeats itself. No historical parallel is perfect, but the present often contains striking similarities to the past. Surprisingly, this has been the case with the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. Despite the fact that the republic officially lasted less than a day, the idea of an independent nation-state for the people of the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine continues to resurface. Why is this so? What are the chances it might actually happen? And most importantly would it be a viable political entity?

Map of Ukraine with Zakarpattia Oblast in red

Map of Ukraine with Zakarpattia Oblast in red

Deferred, But Not Defeated – Independence & Subcarpathia
The dream of an independent Subcarpathian state all but vanished when the region became part of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Though heavy handed, Soviet rule stabilized the area. It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated that the idea of a separate Subcarpathian state reemerged. As the region had been part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic it only seemed natural that it would become part of an independent Ukraine. Conversely, because of the area’s unique geographical position which had kept it relatively isolated from the rest of Ukraine and the fact that its Rusyn population was considered to be quite distinct from Ukrainians further east, the local Zakarpattia oblast (province) proposed self-rule. During Ukraine’s independence referendum, Zakarpattians were allowed to vote on autonomy. Almost 80% were in favor of self-rule. Nonetheless, Zakarpattia was given only provincial status. Interestingly, the boundaries of Zakarpattia oblast were exactly the same as those of the short lived Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. The idea of independence had been delayed, but certainly had not died.

Soon another idea was floated to turn back the clock to 1919 and reattach Subcarpathian Ukraine to Czechoslovakia. The split of that state into separate Czech and Slovak nations in 1994 put this idea to rest. Meanwhile, Ukraine suffered from endemic corruption, economic woes and political crisis. It was pretty much a failed state. In 2004 the Orange Revolution seemed to promise a more optimistic future. This turned out to be nothing more than a false dawn. The money and the power, the backroom deal making and convoluted politics only suited either the ruling class in Kiev or those doing business in the Ukrainian industrial heartland of the Donbas region. Zakarpattia was all, but forgotten by Ukraine until the autumn of 2008 when the Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia was formed by a group of 100 delegates known as the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia.

The Coat of Arms for Zakarpattia Oblast is almost an exact replica of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraines flag

The Coat of Arms for Zakarpattia Oblast is almost an exact replica of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraines flag (Credit: Alex Tora)

History Stuck On Repeat – From Carpatho-Ukraine to Carpatho-Ruthenia
The name change from Carpatho-Ukraine to Carpatho-Ruthenia was not a mistake. For political expediency, the separatists were returning to the early 20th century when the people of the area were known as Ruthenians rather than Ukrainians. This was the time when the first dreams of independence for the region and its people had begun to blossom. The irony of this name change was that in the 2001 census only one tenth of one percent of the region’s citizens actually called themselves Rusyns (another name for Ruthenians). By contrast, eight out of ten Zakarpattians stated that they were Ukrainian.  The local Rusyn dialect had pretty much become indistinguishable from the Ukrainian language. The absorption of Zakarpattia into Ukraine seemed complete. The question became, where did this separatist movement come from?

For that answer, Ukrainians could look no further than their much larger and domineering neighbor. The long shadow cast by Russia over Ukraine reached all the way to the remote slopes of Subcarpathia. It turned out that the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia was a shadowy front for a Russian funded effort to break Zakarpattia away from Ukraine. Less than a year before, the same situation had been fomented by the Russians in two areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and North Ossetia. With Russian support, these two areas became breakaway republics. The problem for the separatist movement in Zakarpattia was that all of Ukraine stood between themselves and Russia. The movement soon collapsed when Ukrainian nationalists threatened to use all necessary means to bring the separatists back into line. As for the Russians, they eventually decided to focus their destabilizing efforts along their shared border with Ukraine. This past summer they controversially offered weapons and soldiers in support of another separatist movement in Ukraine. The result has been vicious fighting in the Donbas Region. This has led to thousands of Ukrainians being killed and wounded. The rebels have been able to secure a precarious degree of autonomy for themselves. An uneasy peace has brought the conflict largely to a halt for now, but this just might be the start of centralized Ukraine splintering along ethnic, linguistic or geographical lines.

Rural Village in Zakarpattia - whatever the future brings fro Transcarpathia life will continue much as it has for centuries (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

Rural Village in Zakarpattia – whatever the future brings fro Transcarpathia life will continue much as it has for centuries (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

Its Own Internal Logic  – History & Transcarpathia
Will Zakarpattia push for greater autonomy as well? At this time it is very hard to say what will happen. The future of this remote, beautiful, Eastern European backwater is just as murky as it was during the 20th century. It is doubtful that Carpatho-Ruthenia or Carpatho-Ukraine will ever become an independent nation. Then again, who would have believed that such a movement would still be alive in the 21st century? History in this area seems to have its own internal logic. Powers both great and small, conquer and then suddenly vanish. They leave behind traces of their presence, mostly shadows and scars. The past repeats itself, however imperfectly. What remains are the people of this remote, breathtakingly beautiful land.  In defiance of fate they continue their search for independence.

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: fortepan.hu)

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit: fortepan.hu)

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.