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.



Goodbye To All That – Lviv & the Habit of Heartbreak

Goodbye to All That, that famous post World War I book, is the autobiography of Robert Graves, the English poet, writer and scholar. Much of the book deals with Graves traumatic experiences during the war. The title ironically refers to the passing of the old order that existed prior to the war. Such ideas as duty, honor, patriotism and by extension empire all were sacrificed at the front.  For Britain the old order died on the battlefield and so too for many other empires and nations. But for Britain, though it would suffer again in another worldwide conflagration just a couple of decades later, its most traumatic experience ended with the First World War. A way of life, a way of belief, died once and for all time. Sure there was much horror and loss, triumph and decline to come, but the worst for Great Britain was over with by the Great War’s.

Lemberg, Lwow, Lviv
On the other hand, for Eastern Europe the horrors of the First World War were only the beginning. The region has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to all that, again and again and again. The war was just the start, both a beginning of the end and the start of a series of new beginnings that keep coming to an end. There is no place which better reflects this continuing series of historical upheavels than Lviv in the western Ukraine. It sits astride the geopolitical fault lines of east and west. The city began the 20th century as Lemberg, morphed into Lwow and finally transformed into Lviv. It has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to one war, one revolution, one ideology at a time.

What is it that Lviv keeps saying goodbye to? The old order, but which one. Consider that if there is someone in Lviv today who is one hundred years old (and in a city of 725,000 citizens there must surely be at least one), then they have lived under at least eight different political regimes, two of which were among the most lethal in human history and all of which repressed the population to a greater or lesser extent. Lvivites have suffered, survived and amazingly even thrived under a withering array of empires, nations and political entities. Life has never been boring for them, even if history has been unkind and often cruel.

Lviv - What A History

Lviv – What A History

Baffling Swiftness, Terrifying Brutality
Imperial, ideological and idiosyncratic usurpers have come and gone, with baffling swiftness and terrifying brutality. There was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which vanished, but left a lasting architectural and cultural imprint. It lost Lviv to the Russian Empire for nine months during the war, an interlude of occupation that saw the last Tsar, Nicholas II visit the city, but his empire was pushed back and then swept away, as were the Austrians by the end of the war. The first successor state, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, lasted all of three weeks. A sneeze mistaken for a hurricane at the time. Despite its brief tenure, it would have an afterlife of influence that would eventually be resurrected.

This still born republic was followed by two decades of another one, specifically the second Polish Republic. A golden age for the Poles, but like all golden ages, it is called such because worse, much worse followed. And that was the rule of the Soviet Union, two horrific years of purges and purgatories followed their occupation and incorporation of the city. Then the Germans arrived, an ill wind from the west and scattered the Soviets. They proceeded to blood spatter and scatter Lviv’s vibrant Jewish community with a whirlwind of holocaust. The Germans came and went, their blitzkrieg moving as fast in reverse as it had moved forward during invasion. In their wake, the Soviets came once again to purge and repurge in the name of Stalin. The Poles were moved out, more Ukrainians moved in. In barely the space of five years, Lviv had suffered four rulers, one ethnic group eradicated, another one expunged and a greatly oppressed one suddenly favored. This was history as whim, as caprice, with neither logic nor empathy.

The Soviets stayed for the next four and a half decades, a miracle of mediocrity, corruption and stasis. That must have seemed like a lifetime, but the clock was ticking away their time in power. The only difference is that in this case the clock moved much slower. Perhaps the clock had no hands, stolen like so much else from this charming city. Ukrainians finally put the hands back on the clock and reset the time in 1991. As it began to tick forward, the nation of Ukraine was finally born once, but not for all time. It was a false dawn. Progress slowed to a crawl, bogged down in a quagmire of corruption.

A Habit Of Breaking Hearts, Nations & Empires
The bog of corruption seemed to thicken as the years went by, but then it froze this past winter and the people found their footing. It started at Independence Square and the Maidan in far away Kiev, but the truth is that resistance never really ended in Lviv. It is in this border lands DNA. The most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine is just that, always and forever. It has said farewell to so many and so much. It has become a habitual heart breaker of political entities.

Candles lit in Lviv. In memory of the protesters who lost their lives in the past week's fight for freedom

Candles lit in Lviv. In memory of the protesters who lost their lives in the past week’s fight for freedom

It confidently declares independence and the rest of the world reacts with shock. Was a new nation being born? Was an old one being given new life? Lviv and the greater region just passed into its eighth political iteration in just a century’s time. At this point the wheel of history here is not so much turning, as it is spinning. Propelled forward by an unseen force, the will of a people who have decided to take hold of their future. Fate has had its way with Lviv over the last hundred years, well goodbye to all that. It is finally a city’s, a region’s, a people’s turn to have their way with fate.