Traces of Transcarpathia’s Progress: Nyalab & Kankiv Castles

There is a clear line running through the history of Transcarpathia during the early Middle Ages. That line is the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242. From the time period preceding the invasion very little castle architecture exists, nearly all fortifications were destroyed by the Mongols. In the years that followed the invasion and ravaging of Transcarpathia, Hungarian King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) issued a decree that “castles be built on suitable sites where the people may find refuge if they have to retreat from threatening dangers.” This policy led directly to the building of hilltop, stone fortresses for defensive purposes across the Kingdom of Hungary. Castles soon began to dot strongpoints in Transcarpathia, a critical region for securing Hungary’s eastern frontiers. This construction program was a matter of national security. These castles also provided security for something just as vital to the interests and welfare of the Kingdom’s inhabitants, salt.

Nyalab Castle

Nyalab Castle – one of the strongest defensive fortifications along the Salt Road during the Middle Ages

The Salt Road
Salt was one of the most important commodities in medieval times, literally a matter of life and death. Salt allowed for the preservation of food. Without preservation and the resulting ability to store foodstuffs, one bad harvest could doom a village to starvation. Salt also made travel possible. Without a sustainable supply of food, it was impossible to travel far afield. For these reasons, a plentiful supply of salt was of the utmost necessity. Central and Eastern Europe’s source for salt was Transylvania, which held bountiful reserves. After mining, the salt would then be transported westward via rivers systems. The Tisza River was an integral part of this route. The Kingdom of Hungary had to ensure that the transport trail was secure. Castles were constructed on hilltops along the salt road of the Tisza. Remnants of a couple of these castles can still be seen today.

A series of ruins stands atop a 40 meter high hill overlooking the Tisza River valley close to the town of Korolevo, Ukraine. In Slavic, Korolevo means “king’s house.” This name is derived from the original Hungarian name for that same place, Kiralyhaza. It was on top of this hill where the Hungarian King Stephen V erected a wooden hunting lodge. Later the hill was fortified with what became known as Nyalab castle, guarding the salt road along the nearby Tisza. Today the castle ruins do not look like much, little more than a few rough walls and stone stubs. They could easily be mistaken for natural rock formations if they garner any notice at all. This is historically deceptive. For centuries Nyalab Castle was one of the strongest defensive fortifications in the region. This eventually led to its downfall. The Habsburg emperor Leopold ordered it blown up in 1672 so that rebellious Hungarians could no longer use it to defend against his forces.

Painting of St. Francis Assisi Church and the adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle

Painting of the church and adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle from the 16th century

A Fight From Start To Finish – Kankiv Castle
Further down the Tisza lies the small city of Vynohradiv in Ukraine, with the ruins of Kankiv Castle standing nearby on Chorna Hora (Black Mountain). Enough of the castle’s remnants still exist to give some idea of what the original structure looked like. The castle was built in the shape of a square with a tower on each corner. Unlike other castles in Transcarpathia that enjoyed relative peace until the 16th century, Kankiv Castle was nearly ruined not long after it was first constructed. This was due to a succession fight for the Hungarian throne after the Arpad Dynasty collapsed at the beginning of the 14th century. The castle was sacked by the troops of the eventual victor King Charles Robert. Fortunately the new king had it restored and gave Kankiv as a gift to his wife. The Perenis, a powerful family of nobles gained ownership of the castle in the 15th century. During this time they allowed Franciscan monks to build a Gothic Church known as St. Francis of Assisi’s along with a monastery on the grounds. The entire complex was enclosed by defensive walls. In the 16th century the head of the Pereni household converted to Protestantism and forced the monks out of Kankiv. Before their eviction, the Franciscans placed a curse on the castle. Either by coincidence, superstition or happenstance the curse turned out to be ominously prescient. Not long afterwards Kankiv was reduced to ruins by the pro-Catholic Habsburgs in their war against rebelling Protestant nobles throughout the region.

Kankiv Castle

Kankiv Castle – the ruins that are left today can still stir the imagination

Relegated To Ruins – Transcarpathia’s Past
Very little is left of either Nyalab or Kankiv Castles. Casting a glance back through the history of the region it is easy to see why they were relegated to ruins. The region they were located within served as a proto-typical frontier. The Mongols may never have come back in force, but Transcarpathia experienced the violent excesses of invading Turks, Tatars and Transylvanians, Hungarians, Poles and Austrians. These peoples were fighting for power, land and resources. The legacy of centuries of struggle left scars on the landscape, but these are now barely noticeable. Today hardly anyone in Transcarpathia gives a second thought to the ravages of the Mongols, the salt road or the ruins of Nyalab and Kankiv. Some might say that is a shame, but it also illustrates how far the remoter reaches of Europe have advanced beyond the day to day struggle of life and death. Progress has been made, even in this forgotten netherworld, if only someone would stop and recognize it.

An Enduring Mystery – The Knights Templar Castle in Serednie, Ukraine

Mention the Knights Templar and it brings to mind crusaders spearheading the forces of Christendom in their drive to take back the holy land in the Middle East. These were men whose martial prowess instilled fear in the hearts of unbelievers. Their fighting qualities brought them great power which they then parlayed into wealth. The Knights were both on the battlefield and in business. They created what some consider the first multi-national corporation in history. Well-known for the fortresses they constructed across the Middle East and Western Europe, the Knights also developed economic enterprises including farms, vineyards and a primitive form of banking. Their influence was pervasive during the early medieval period. Fortresses and monasteries built by the knights dotted much of Western Europe. These could even be found in central Europe, including Transdanubia and Bohemia. One place you would not expect to find a Knights Templar fortress would be in the remoter reaches of Eastern Europe. That is what makes the castle ruins at Serednie, Ukraine so surprising and fascinating. In the heart of Transcarpathia, equidistant between the region’s two biggest cities of Uzhohord and Mukacheve are the remnants of what was once the furthest Eastern European outpost of the Knights Templar.

The Serednie Castle ruins - oldest medieval castle in Transcarpathia

The Serednie Castle ruins – oldest medieval castle in Transcarpathia (Credit: VargaA)

More Questions Than Answers – The Knights Templar in Transcarpathia
The Knights Templar were one of the most powerful organizations in European history for almost two hundred years, from the 12th century up to their abrupt decline at the beginning of the 14th century. The fortresses they built, such as Serednie castle were representative of that power. Protection of themselves and their business interests was paramount. Even in their current state of dilapidation the rough stone walls at Serednie display their once formidable characteristics. They were two and half meters thick and stood twelve meters high. The main tower was three stories tall. Outside the walls, a system of three ditches covered the approaches. The castle was substantial because it had to be. Serednie was hundreds of kilometers away from the next closest Knights Templar fortress.

The majority of the Knights Templar personnel would have been involved in banking and farming. Very few fighting Knights would have been at the castle. On average only a tenth of all personnel at a Templars complex were Knights. Their interests, especially at an outpost such as Serdenie, had less to do with warfare and more to do with creating wealth. Not exactly the stereotypical image of medieval warriors on the march. Serdenie’s history under the Knights Templar raises many questions, as the most intriguing history so often does. Why did the Knights place a fortress so far afield? Were they hoping to eventually expand their presence in the area? What was their relationship to the locals? Were they seen as mercenaries, savvy financial manipulators or a charitable enterprise?

Knights Templar Cross - an enduring symbol

Knights Templar Cross – an enduring symbol

Suspicions, Confessions & Legends
The Knights were a mysterious organization with secret rituals that aroused suspicion. This ended up bringing the organization to a tragic end after only two centuries. King Phillip IV of France owed them many debts. The easiest way of having those debts cancelled was to persecute the Knights. Trumped up charges were brought against them. Confessions were extracted through torture. Leaders of the Knights Templar were burned at the stake. In 1312 a papal bull by Pope Clement abolished the order. The castle at Serednie was turned over to the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit, a monastic order indigenous to Hungary. The short history of the Knights Templar in Eastern Europe had come to an abrupt end.

The castle they constructed would go on to have a much longer life, at one point owned by the powerful Drugeth Family. Local legend states that the Drugeths had a tunnel dug that connected Serednie with their castle at Uzhhorod. No evidence of this has ever been discovered. Another famous owner of the castle was Istvan Dobo, a noble who enjoys cult-like status in Hungarian history for leading the successful resistance to the Ottoman Turks at the siege of Eger in 1552. The final active days for Serednie Castle occurred in the early 18th century when it was damaged beyond repair during Rakoczi’s War of Independence, pitting Hungarian rebels against the Austrian Habsburgs. As the castle crumbled the locals found a new use for many of the stones, to shore up their own homes.

Serednie Castle was the lone Knights Templar structure in the far eastern reaches of Europe (Credit VargaA)

Serednie Castle was the lone Knights Templar structure in the far eastern reaches of Europe (Credit VargaA)

The Reality of Ruins
The presence of absence informs the history of Serednie Castle. The Knights Templar obviously built Serdenie Castle to last. Little did they know that the ruins would survive them by over seven centuries? The castle – the oldest medieval one in Transcarpathia – was created by an organization of people who have completely vanished. While that lends Serednie Castle to much speculation, it does not begin to fill in the gaps of its early history. The unknown far outweighs the known. A fertile imagination is needed to recreate the physical reality that is now represented by mere ruins. The Ukrainians and Hungarians of today have little knowledge, let alone interest in the Knights Templar. The castle as a Knights Templar outpost is an outlier, detached from any historical continuum in Transcarpathian history. There are no other remnants of the Knights to be found in the surrounding area. The physical legacy they left behind has long since been reduced to crumbling stone works, a historical curiosity. The fact that they have lasted this long is something of a miracle. The fact that the castle was built at all may be an even greater one. As for why, we will probably never know.

The Last Place To Look First – Borzhava Castle, Vary Ukraine & Deep History

Travelers looking to visit the castles of Transcarpathia will not likely consider a trip to Vary. This small village with a population of 3,100 inhabitants, situated on the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine – Hungary border, would probably be last on a list of possible attractions for the traveler, if it was on any list at all. This is not surprising since Vary at first glance has very little to see concerning castles. It is deceptive because actually this dusty and forgotten village should be the first stop on a castle tour of the region. Paradoxically, this means the traveler will be looking for a place with very little remaining of its once prominent existence.

Vary, Ukraine

Vary, Ukraine – a forgotten place with a deep past (Credit: Gyure Fricy)

Protecting An Eleven Hundred Year Legacy – Hungarians & Transcarpathia
Vary may officially be in Ukraine today, but both its past and present like so much of the eastern fringes of Transcarpathia is informed by Hungary. Eighty percent of the Vary’s inhabitants are ethnic Hungarian, it has been this way for well over 1,100 years. Ever since the Hungarians first arrived in the Carpathian Basin around the year 896 they have dominated the area. Not long after their arrival the Hungarians imposed their presence on the landscape. They selected the Vary area for a castle/fortification because it lay at the confluence of the Tisza and Borzsova Rivers. Rivers were trade routes and transportation corridors, the lifeblood for commerce in the early Middle Ages.  The fortification was built near the mouth of the Borzhava River to control this strategic point, it would become known as Borzhava Castle.

Location matters in history, the confluence of the two rivers was the decisive factor in the placement of Borzhava Castle, one of the first defensive structures in what would become the Kingdom of Hungary. This was a place informed as much by geography and topography as by the designs of man. Due to the fact that only the barest of details exist about its structure, the actual design of Borzhava is open to interpretation. It was not a stereotypical early medieval castle. The defenses were constructed out of earth and wood. A description of such works is given in the essay Castle Construction in Hungary by Tibor Koppany who describes them as “not castles in the modern sense…the wooden outer walls, supported by inner wooden trellises and partitions, filled with earth.”  For the time, these types of works were considered to be the most impregnable.

Hungarian King Béla IV fleeing from the Mongols

Hungarian King Béla IV fleeing from the Mongols (Credit: Szechenyi National Library Budapest)

The Coming of the Mongols & The Devastation of Hungary
If geography is destiny, than the location of Borzhava marked it out for historical importance, but also destined it for obliteration. Its position on the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom turned out to be highly precarious. Borzhava was an adequate defense until a new foe suddenly appeared out of the East in the 13th century, the Mongols. According to historical sources word first began to trickle into the Carpathian Basin about the ferocity of the Mongols from Russian boyars (land owning nobility) who had fled the rampaging horsemen. The boyars were granted asylum in Hungary by King Bela IV. In 1237, a Dominican Friar by the name of Julianus made a pilgrimage to the banks of the Volga River in search of a Hungarian tribe that had branched off from the original Magyar tribes in their movement westward across the Asian steppes. Julianus found the tribe, but of even greater interest he discovered the Mongols were heading westward, conquering all before them. When he returned to Hungary a couple of years later Julianus carried a message from the Mongol leader Batu Khan, demanding that Bela IV surrender the Kingdom of Hungary. The message was ignored. Soon thereafter, the Cumans, a tribe that had been expelled from the steppes by the Mongols showed up in Hungary and were granted asylum. They also carried a message from the Khan demanding surrender. These warnings were ominous, but King Bela IV of Hungary and the Kingdom’s ruling elite paid little heed to the danger before it was too late.

In 1241 the Mongols suddenly appeared, conducting raids with lightning speed. Borzhava Castle and its defensive works never had a chance it was quickly destroyed. Once these eastern defenses were breached the whole of the Hungarian Plain lay open. The Mongols would go on to devastate Eastern Hungary, cross the Danube and ravage much of western Hungary. The only places in Hungary that withstood this onslaught were hilltop fortresses. When the Mongols retreated, the Hungarians were left with their country in ruins. Bela IV had to figure out how to protect the kingdom from another such incursion. In the aftermath of the invasion, the defensive fortifications of Hungary underwent an irreparable change. A massive rebuilding project was ordered by Bela IV. Defensive structures made of earth and wood would no longer be of use. Formidable hilltop castles made of stone were optimal for security of the kingdom. This meant that Borzhava would not be rebuilt. Its topographical situation made it much too vulnerable. The flatlands were no longer suitable for the kingdom’s defenses.

Sumeg Castle in western Hungary

Hilltop fortresses such as Sumeg Castle in western Hungary – were the types of defensive works that King Bela IV commissioned to secure the Kingdom of Hungary from another Mongol invasion (Credit: Balla Béla)

Traces of the Past – Etched In the Landcsape
The first era of Hungary’s castle/fortress architecture had come to an abrupt end with the Mongol Invasion. Borzhava Castle was no more, but settlement in the area would soon resurface and this time for good. In 1320 the village was given the name Vari. The word var in Hungarian means castle. This is one legacy of Borzhava Castle that survives in Vary to the present day. Physical evidence also remains. The discerning eye can still make out mounds, trenches and earthworks that were once part of the complex. The fact that anything at all remains is simply amazing given the changes that nature and man have wrought on the rivers and landscape.  Vary will not make anyone’s list of must see places, but it is worth a visit just to see the traces of a past that against time and fate still remains.

The Architecture of Self-Destruction – Nevitsky Castle, Ukraine: A Lesson In Ruins

The extension of the Soviet Union’s borders westward in the aftermath of World War II brought the Transcarpathian region into Ukraine. One of the results of this was that Ukraine would inherit the historic sites in the region, which had very little to do with the overriding majority of Ukrainians. By and large Transcarpathia had a very different history from the rest of Ukraine. The area had been a fringe zone where Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Rusyns vied for control. One of the sites in the region was Nevitsky castle. It might be said that though the castle is in Ukraine, it is not quite of Ukraine, at least from a historical standpoint.

 Ruins of Nevitsky Castle

The ruins of Nevitsky Castle – evocative and instructive (Credit: Masha Kovalchuk)

Ascendants & Descendants – Nevitsky Castle : The First Two Hundred Years
The history of Nevitsky castle is to a great extent a microcosm of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history during the Middle Ages. It does have some tangential connections to the history of the Ukraine, but these are not nearly as obvious. The first version of the castle was constructed in the early Middle Ages to help protect Hungary from possible invasion by way of the Carpathian Mountain passes to the north. The Hungarians knew from first-hand experience that these passes must be guarded. During the late 9th century, the Hungarians had used one of these passes to sweep into and conqueror the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians did not want to fall prey to the same stratagem they had used. Thus in the 12th century, Nevitsky Castle was constructed on a 260 meter high volcanic rock outcropping above the Uzh River. This highly strategic point guarded both trade and possible invasion routes. The first version of the castle did little good in slowing down the Mongol advance which came roaring through the area in 1241. The land that is presently Ukraine had already been ravaged by the Mongols, the Kingdom of Hungary was to be next. The Mongols put Nevitsky’s wooden structures to the torch, resulting in its utter ruin.

The Mongols only stayed in the Kingdom of Hungary temporarily before they retreated eastward. The upshot of the Mongol Invasion was an order by Hungarian King Bela IV for stone castles and fortresses to be built in order to better protect the Kingdom. Nevitsky was soon restored and refortified in a much more substantial manner. While Hungary was able to recover from the Mongol disaster relatively quickly, the course of Ukrainian history was irreparably altered by the invasion. Kievan Rus ceased to be the center of power for the Eastern Slavic world. The power base of the Slavic world gravitated to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, what would eventually grow into Tsarist Russia. Meanwhile, as the 14th century dawned Nevitsky once again came under foreign rule, but this time it was not from invasion, but by invitation.  The King of Hungary at the time, Charles Robert, transferred ownership of the castle to members of an Italian family of French origins, the Drugeths. This made sense in light of the fact that Charles Robert had the same ethnic background as the Drugeths. Members of the family had loyally fought on the side of the king in helping defeat rebellious aristocrats to secure his rule. The Drugeths were richly rewarded for their service. Nevitsky was just the start as the Drugeth family began their meteoric ascent to become the largest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary. Like seemingly everything in the fringe area of Transcarpathia, it would not last.

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River (Credit: Юрій Крилівець)

Enemies Within – The Ruin Of Nevitsky
The decline of the Drugeths and Nevitsky as an active castle came not from without as so often happened in the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, but from within. Family infighting plagued the Drugeths for decades. This led to such bizarre situations as the time when in 1600 one family member besieged the castle with a 3,000 man strong army. Inside the walls were the wife and children of the recently deceased head of the Drugeths. They were forced to flee and leave the country. Land and power trumped bloodlines. The end for Nevitsky came less than half a century later. The Drugeths were supporting the Catholic Habsburgs. In the Middle Ages, religion was a much stronger identifier than nationality. The problem for the Drugeths is that Nevitsky was situated in an area consumed by Protestant fervor. They incurred the wrath of the powerful Transylvanian princes. In 1644, Gyorgy Rakoczi I, Prince of Transylvania captured Nevitsy, destroying much of the castle. A new chapter in the castle’s history dawned that continues up through the present, the castle as a ruin.

Today when visitors go to Nevitsky they can see one of the original towers still intact. There are also substantial portions of the walls. There is always something romantic and evocative about ruins that lends them to the imagination. The act of imagination can also distract from the lessons and instructiveness of such ruins. Despite its position towering above the Uzh River, despite multiple constructions that upgraded its defenses, despite the wealth and power of the Drugeths, Nevitsky eventually failed. The seeds of its destruction came from within. For all the chaos and violence imposed on Hungary by the Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs, the ultimate problem came from within. Whether it was the divisions of a family, of the nobility, of religion, or of nationalities the weakness engendered by internecine disputes was ultimately a fatal flaw that time and again brought the Kingdom of Hungary defeat and eventually destruction. The ruins of Nevitsky Castle can be seen as a physical manifestation of this trend.

The ruins of Nevitsky castle

The ruins of Nevitsky castle – a window into the past (Credit: Anatoliy Fedusenko)

Disunity – A Warning To Ukraine
Nevitsky Castle’s ruins are now a much visited tourist spot in modern Ukraine. The place and its history would seem to have little to do with Ukrainians, but it still offers lessons. Presently Ukraine is embroiled in a war on its eastern border. Russia has done much to bring this about, fomenting discontent and violence. These insidious efforts have been aided by disunity inside Ukraine. This war is not just between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, but also between Ukrainians themselves. There are regional differences, religious differences, generational differences, economic differences. All these divisions only serve to weaken Ukraine. What will the end result be? The ruins of Nevitsky Castle serve as a warning of what the future might hold for Ukraine if it fails to unite.

After This: I Will Never Fear What Is Coming Next – Chop To Lviv by Rail

(Note to Reader: This was written on a train trip from Budapest to Lviv, specifically the stretch after crossing the Hungary-Ukraine border at Chop, Ukraine until Lviv)

15 Chickens, a Pink Gown and a few bright blue towels hanging from a clothesline, these are the only colorful scenes in the backyard of tumble down, endless squat houses and a landscape the color of drizzle.

The current count: 10 bicycles and 3 cars

A cyclist is riding away with a bundle of stuff from the town dump. Within sight and smell of this dump are nice, two story houses, looking prosperous and indifferent.

A small road and paved at that, but every 50 meters there are piles of fill that have yet to be deposited in an endless succession of potholes. Two men, one younger, the other middle aged, shovel the fill in a hole. Only 25 or so more to go, Sissyphus would be proud.

Border towns always suck, but at least Chop has a memorable name.

A slender young lady walking in the middle of nowhere along tracks three railroad lines away, wearing a bright red winter coat, black tights and talking on a cell phone. Everyone is heading somewhere.

Bicycle swerving all over a pothole covered road. The rider is talking on his cell phone.

I get the stinging suspicion that this place was better off a hundred years ago, but not much. This is what happens to an area when history decides to have its way with it

Train stops for no apparent reason, in no apparent place. Footsteps, voices, there must be a station here. I cannot bother to look.

Eight lines of railway tracks the other side of my window and not a train, not a car, not anything on them.

Entry into another world - Ukraine Passport Stamp

Entry into another world – Ukraine Passport Stamp

Four cars and one bike at a road crossing. Now that is progress!

Every time I see an abandoned concrete blockhouse I imagine something sinister.

Everything that must be built, must be made from concrete. This was communism’s rule of thumb.

The Romans could build temples and tombs, arches and columns, roads and baths from concrete. The communists could only build a disaster.

Anytime I see a no smoking sign on a train in Eastern Europe I prepare for the smell of smoke. The sign should state, No Smoking – Right NOW!

The further from the border, the better things get. There are even green fields in Eastern Europe in the winter.

I can see the Carpathians in the distance. Thank God for hope!

I spot a marvelously kept cemetery on the edge of a village. The dying, grey light in the brown fog of a winter afternoon cannot even snuff out the colorful flowers and wreaths covering the headstones, easily spotted through a blurry train window from 400 meters away. These are people who respect their dead.

I would never consider myself a religious man, but every time I see a church steeple rising above a village I feel comforted.

The first Orthodox onion domes, two wrapped in gold, two in blue. That has to be worth it. The place they rise from looks to be more like a town than a village. On the edge of the town, there is another cemetery. Beside it an abandoned collective farm, the manor houses of communism. Their labor day has come and gone.

I just want this heavy industry to end. Well it did, but it never quite went away. It feels like it never will.

This landscape can swallow you with its nothingness. This is what outer space feels like on earth

Ideas of progress are never to be trusted in this land. Not ever.

On the rails somewhere between Chop and Lviv Ukraine

Reflections – On the rails somewhere between Chop and Lviv Ukraine

Sometimes I look out the window at the encroaching darkness and feel like I could spend the rest of the evening hiding. I have no idea why.

I can feel my hands getting dirty while I am sitting here looking out the window.

Lights, how marvelous. They remind me of home.

More lights, oh no, it’s another damn factory. This is the only one that looks like it is still working. There are lights on full glow, a good five stories up. I am suspicious. I think they are left on to appear that something is being done. An efficient inefficiency..

Smokestacks – the skyscrapers of sub-carpathia.

Regulation - mandatory but not necessary

Regulation – mandatory but not necessary

The train slows, there must be a station coming. Out the window there is another train partially hidden by a high, fading white wall and all the lights in the cars are on. No one, not a single person is sitting in any of the ultra-illuminated interiors of these cars. Through their frosted glass the vacant rows of seats look frightening, like a murder is about to happen or already did.

The train whistle blows, the singular voice of hope, sweet, shrill and pure.

Looking out the window, I saw a man standing in a lighted room with his coat still on and back turned. I have never felt so sorry for someone. I have never felt so sorry for myself.

What good would a shopping mall do anyone right here, right now. What good has a shopping mall ever done anyone?

A Trabant at a railroad crossing, its headlights illuminate a cobblestone road, a light from a near past casting a glare on a distant one.

The future in this land is but a shadow surrounded by darkness.

After this I will never fear what is coming next.

At the border it felt like we would never get started. Now it feels as though we will never stop.

Train finally comes to a halt right beside a supermarket. The store name is written in cursive Cyrillic. Now I am really done for!

The attendants have it in for me. It all started when we started on this journey. It seems that one of the attendants was sleeping in the compartment that I was supposed to inhabit. I did not know she was an attendant. It is not like she was wearing monogrammed pajamas with Ukrainian State Railways emblazoned on the front of them. She refused me my rightful place, with grunts that slowly grew to high pitched moans. Finally her compatriot came and directed me to an empty compartment. That was fine, but then the request for my passport. I gave it to her. She glanced at it, raised an eyebrow and blurted out, “America.” Next question, where was I going?  “Lviv.” Where was she going? “Lviv.” I tried to tell her I had been to Lviv before. She did not comprehend. All I could think of was Rynok Square in the old city center so that was what I said. She looked at me quizzically. I said it again. Then I tried to stammer out what I believed was the Ukrainian name of this square, Ploscha Rynok. She looked at me confusedly, so I tried saying it louder. She just stared at me. So I said it even louder. Loudness of course is the last refuge of the incomprehensible. Finally she left. Probably did not care to get yelled at, in a polite manner I might add. Later I made an even worse mistake. I went to the bathroom and forgot to lock the door. She walked in, but I had my back turned and she could not have seen a thing. She shrieked. I heard her stomp away and slam the door to her compartment. A couple of minutes later I came out and made my way back down the hall. She came out of her room and as I looked back, she barked several words at me in Ukrainian. She then made a hand gesture showing me how to lock the door. She hurried past and went in to see her colleague. I heard whispers. A scandalous glance was cast my way, followed by loud snickering. Now I am met with silences and icy glares. Thank goodness I brought several large bottles of water. Just asking for such at this point might cause an international incident. I can also use them to relieve myself, if it comes to that. Maybe it already has.

Climate control - Ukrainian Railways style

Climate control – Ukrainian Railways style

It is getting hot! According to a chart posted in the corridor that even I can somewhat comprehend, it seems that if it is 5 degrees Celsius outside than the heat should be set at 40 Celsius in the train. Well 40 Celsius is nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit and it gets worse, like Death Valley worse. 0 Celsius outside gets the heat knocked up to 50 Celsius. For every decline of 5 Degrees Celsius another 10 Celsius is added until finally at -20 C the heat gets ratcheted up to 90 C. Glad there is a warm spell hitting the area at the moment. I wanted a train to Lviv not a 14 hour sauna! I know Ukraine is having some issues with heating during the winter, but if this is their idea of energy conservation they are going to need a Saudi Arabian supply of oil reserves just to get through a few winters.

The time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet is not on an insanely long train trip while staring ignorantly at an encyclopedic explanation of regulations no one ever bothers to look at. The only thing mandatory about these kinds of regulations is the posting of them.

No one I know would have taken this train route. It is through a land they know nothing about, to see nothing in particular. It not about either the journey or the destination, it is about the perception of decay and decadence.

It is getting hotter.

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.