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How long can Stalin's Iron Curtain remain? - Summary

The closed, divided village: the circumstances in Ukrainian Kisszelmenc (Solontsi) and Slovakian Nagyszelmenc (Vel'k é Slemence) in 2004 and the village's historical environment

The after-effects of Stalin's Iron Curtain are evident yet today on the Ukrainian-Slovakian border in the Hungarian-inhabited divided twin village of Nagyszelmenc/Kisszelmenc. The settlement of Nagyszelmenc, to be found on the map under its Slovakian name of Vel'k é Slemence, is located in Slovakia, while the village's other part, Kisszelmenc, has become a part of the Ukraine. (The Ukrainian name for Kisszelmenc is Solontsi. However, on most maps, it generally cannot be found even under this name, this likewise a legacy of Stalin; border settlements which were not commonly known were not designated on maps in order to render orientation and acquisition of knowledge more difficult. The other reason was hypocrisy: the Soviet Union, where the greatest value was placed upon the people, would not be so ruthless as to sever villages in two . . . )

According to an old Hungarian source, the Szt áray Codex, dating from 1363, the settlement received its name from an ancient landholding family called Szelmenczy. Written documentation of Nagyszelmenc and Kisszelmenc exists from the 14 th century onwards, and even today it is visible to the naked eye that the village belongs together organically, lives together, gaining in strength or dwindling as one. In the course of history, the living organism of the two settlements has evolved economically and culturally in a reciprocal manner. The people of Kisszelmenc/Nagyszelmenc built themselves a Roman Catholic, a Reformed and a Greek Catholic church. They buried their dead in one cemetery. The children of marriages uniting families from Kisszelmenc and Nagyszelmenc attended one school.

To this day, the village has not been able to recover from the consequences of its division in 1945. The population of Nagyszelmenc was 844 in 1910, 929 in 1944 and is 609 in 2004. That of Kisszelmenc was 278 in 1910, 319 in 1944 and 222 in 2004.

The law requires a compulsory visa for travelers between the Ukraine and Slovakia. If someone from Nagyszelmenc in Slovakia would like to go 50 (164 feet) meters to visit his neighbor in Kisszelmenc, which is situated in the Ukraine, he must first travel approximately 80 miles to Eperjes (Presov) where he may pay $30 for a visa at the Ukranian Consulate there, after which he may turn around and go home, this amounting so far to a journey of 160 miles. (The average monthly income in Eastern Slovakia does not surpass $300, and retirees receive approximately $160-$170 per month.) At the given time, he has to return to Eperjes for the completed visa. Up to this point, a total of approximately 323 miles has been driven, but now the visitor may once more get into his car and travel some 40 more kilometers from Nagyszelmenc to Fel sőnémeti-Ungvár (Vysné Nemecké-Uzhgorod) to the nearest Slovakian-Ukrainian border crossing, where after several hours' wait, he may cross into the Ukrainian Kárpátalja (Sub-Carpathia) and putter down another 40 kilometers to Kisszelmenc. After several weeks of administration and with more than 372 miles behind him, voila, he arrives at his neighbor's house - 372 miles instead of 50 meters, having traveled more than 10,000 times that amount - as if the main street of his hometown were not cut in half by a closed barrier, plowed-up borderland, barbed wire and an electrical warning device. Down the way a bit, though, watch towers still rise above the houses. (Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, big dolls in the form of Ukrainian soldiers may frequently be seen in these towers, lest someone believe that vigilance has slackened.)

If someone would like to travel the same 50 meters from the opposite direction, desiring to go from the Ukrainian Kisszelmenc to the neighboring house of his sibling or other relatives in Nagyszelmenc on Slovakian territory, he must first set forth to Ungvár to submit his application for a visa to the Slovakian Consulate. A single-entry Slovakian visa costs $30, a visa valid for two entries costs $63 and one valid for half a year costs $96. (The monthly pension in Kárpátalja amounts to between $40 and $50, but this is not paid regularly. Unemployment is extraordinarily high with practically no work available in Kisszelmenc.) The Slovakian Consulate in Ung vár issues 35-40 visas daily in Kárpátalja, which has a population of 1,278,000. The trip from Kisszelmenc to Nagyszelmenc is shorter, amounting to a total of scarcely 149 miles which the visa applicant must overcome in order to travel the fifty meters between him and his neighbor. . . On the other hand, the financial burden posed upon them by the visa and ensuant travel is far graver than for a resident of Eastern Slovakia.

Kárpátalja - or more precisely, the four or five Hungarian counties which were a part of the territory - was an integral part of Hungary until 1919, and with the Peace Treaty at the conclusion of World War I - disregarding the people's autonomy drawn up by Wilson's policies - was allotted to the then-established and since disbanded Czechoslovakia. In the fall of 1938, a large portion was returned to Hungary as a result of the First Vienna Award, and a smaller part was re-occupied by the Hungarian Army in the spring of 1939. Between 1938 and 1944, Szelmenc also belonged to Hungary.

It was after World War II that the twin village was severed in half on the Soviet-Czechoslovakian border when in 1945 the Soviet Union pushed its borders westward and incorporated K árpátalja, which bears the present official Ukrainian name of Zakarpatska Oblast, "beyond Kárpát" (from the standpoint of Kiev). The soldiers of the Red Army's Fourth Ukrainian Front occupied Kisszelmenc-Nagyszelmenc and vicinity in late October/early November of 1944. The Soviet political officers quickly set about establishing the new Soviet boundaries. (Their ally, the Czechoslovakian administration, was also present, in the belief that K árpátalja was to be returned to Czechoslovakia. They were, however, soon forced to concede that it would be better if they quickly took their departure.) In mid-November of 1944, the Soviet military authorities drove 40,000 civilian men aged 16-60 (the total Hungarian population of K árpátalja at that time being 200,000) as prisoners of war to gulags under the pretext of three days of communal work. This was the "malenki robot" (a little light work) from which indeed few returned. Subsequently, on November 26, 1944, a convention was arranged at which - without consultation of the Hungarian population - Kárpátalja was declared a part of the Soviet Union, an annexation of the Soviet-Ukraine.

The decollation of the Church also began. In 1946, the priests and clergymen of both the Roman Catholic and the Reformed Church were taken to gulags. A large part of their churches were converted into atheists' clubs or sports halls. In 1947, the Greek Catholic Bishop was murdered. In the spring of 1949, the Greek Catholic Church was completely obliterated. Three hundred Greek Catholic churches were handed over to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the priests who were unwilling to transform themselves into Orthodox popes, a total of 129 believers, were likewise taken to gulags. The priests who survived the gulag and were freed were held under strict police surveillance even during the Gorbachev Era.

The Soviet authorities used every means to hinder the regeneration and resurrection of the religious life of the Jews of Kárpátalja, whose number had been significantly diminished as a result of the Holocaust. Soviet authorities had one of the most beautiful synagogues in Kárpátalja, located in Berehovo, demolished in the mid-1960s, after the congregation's leader had "voluntarily" renounced his ownership of the building.

In this historical environment also the fate of Szelmenc was shaped. After the demarcating of the Soviet-Czechoslovakian border, in Nagyszelmenc - in Czechoslovakia - the school, the Reformed and the Greek Catholic churches, the cemetery and the blacksmith shop remained. In the Soviet Union, in Kisszelmenc, the Roman Catholic church remained. The Roman Catholic priest of Kisszelmenc, however, had been taken to a gulag. In Nagyszelmenc, the Reformed clergyman had been forced to settle in Hungary, the Greek Catholic priest had been ousted from the village.

The lines of the new border fell precisely on a house in Kisszelmenc whose owner, Iv án Miklós Kis, had managed with his family to escape in time to Czechoslovakia. Hereupon, the Soviet officers had their house destroyed and the material sold. . . As soon as the final borderlines had been determined, they immediately began building the iron curtain which hermetically sealed off the Soviet Union from the country which was considered a western buffer zone, Czechoslovakia, and Kisszelmenc from Nagyszelmenc, an action which shocked the village's population. Any sort of communication was forbidden. Fencing five meters in height was erected to obstruct the view. But there was also multiple barbed wire, electrical and flare signaling systems, evening and night curfews and black-out orders. Whoever lived in the vicinity of the border could only return home with special identification papers. Beginning in the mid-1960s, construction was forbidden in Kisszelmenc. The admitted goal of this was the depopulation of the village, which would eventually lead to its termination, leaving nothing and no-one to disturb the Soviet's guarding of the border. This building prohibition was in effect until the beginning of the 1980s.

During the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the inhabitants of Szelmenc were allowed a few visits. But even at that time, close attention was paid that the barbed wire system sealing the village's main street not be disrupted. It was only possible to walk through the muddy fields far removed from the village. Since that time, even this has been discontinued.

The author of these lines has disclosed the history of Szelmenc in his documentary novel, The Village Cut in Two. This work was published in the spring of 2000 and the book's debut was held on location, at the 342 border-stone of Szelmenc, on April 15, 2000, on both sides of the village. Upon request by cultural and political organizations that the border be opened on this occasion, the Slovakian authorities consented, while the Ukrainian administration denied approval. On October 18, 2003, a symbolic divided gate was unveiled on both of the village's international borders. This time, the Ukrainian authorities granted their permission to open the border, while the Slovakians refused.

It would be a disgrace if this were all to remain so, if the inhabitants of Szelmenc were to be further isolated from one another and in 2004 Stalin's Iron Curtain were to become bountiful Europe's impenetrable Golden Curtain. In 2007, the Schengen Agreement will be executed in full measure, which will once again hermetically seal families and relatives from the village's two halves from one another. Only the opening of the borders can remedy this. In the interest of the village's regeneration, border crossings must be opened in the twin village of the Slovakian Nagyszelmenc (Vel'k é Slemence) and the Ukrainian Kisszelmenc (Solontsi) so that the inhabitants of the settlement's two parts may pass through to each other without a visa, freely and permanently free of charge in accordance with the practices of the European Union.

Budapest March 30, 2004

Miklós ZELEI
writer, journalist


© Zelei Miklós. Minden jog fenntartva!