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Subcarpathia: Bridgehead or No-man's Land

Subcarpathia, officially in Ukrainian theZakarpatska oblast-Transcarpathian Region, covers 12,800 sq. km. The natives are Ukrainians (Ruthenians), Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks, and Yiddish speaking Jews. The last, 1989, Soviet census show-ed 1,241,914 inhabitants, with 976,749 Ukrainians (Ruthenians), and 155,711 Hungarians. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the number of the latter waxed, and today 194,000 are bold enough to declare a Hungarian ethnic allegiance. Around 220,000 speak Hungarian. There are 29,485 Romanians, 12,100 Gypsies, 7,329 Slovaks, 3,500 Germans, 2,700 Jews, 2,500 Belorus, and 49,456 Russians, most of whom were settled there after 1945. The remaining 2,000 are flotsam from the various former Soviet republics.

For a thousand years, up to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region was an organic part of North East Hungary. Subcarpathia as a political and administrative term came into use since the Peace of Trianon after the Great War. In 1920, the de facto occupation by Czechoslovakia of the fragments of the four Hungarian counties which make it up-along with much more former Hungarian territory-was sanctioned by international law. Czechoslovakia administered the region as a unit-Podkarpatska Rus, that is Ciscarpathian Ruthenia, with Uzhhorod (Ungvár) the capital, replacing the traditional centre, Mukacyevo (Munkács). Since 1919 Ungvár has enjoyed priority in development.

On November 2nd 1938, following the 1st Vienna Award after Munich, a southern frontier strip was allotted to Hungary. Horthy occupied the rest in March 1939, at the same time as Hitler marched into Prague. Soviet, and now Ukrainian historians generally refer to those years as occupation by fascist Hungarian terrorists, referring to bloody and cruel oppression, although concrete details are not available-except for the murder of the Jews, to which the Hungarian authorities contributed by rounding up and delivering them to the Germans.

Soviet forces entered Uzhhorod on October 27th 1944, and soon occupied the whole of Subcarpathia. According to their declarations, the territory once again belonged to Czechoslovakia, however, they immediately set about its incorporation and within days the new western frontier of the Soviet Union had been drawn across it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Subcarpathia belongs to Ukraine, but some of those who insist on being Ruthenians take their cue from Prague. They have asked members of the Parliament of the Czech Republic to declare illegal the agreement ceding Subcarpathia to the Soviet Union. The SPR-RSCy, led by Miroslav Sladek, a right-wing party in the Prague Parliament, whose programme includes the restoration of Czechoslovakia, also wishes to reclaim Subcarpathia. Subcarpathia is a gate to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. On December 6th 1991, Hungary and Ukraine signed a Basic Treaty, in which both countries declared that they had no territorial demands on the other.


Subcarpathia is small but colourful, andits history is colourful too. There are plains and hills, mountains too, fast flowing rivers traverse it, and there is much scenic beauty. According to Anonymus (the 12th-century Hungarian court chronicler) Mukacyevo was the first place settled by the Hungarians. The 12th-century Monastery of the Holy Cross in Lelesz-one of the places where documents were authenticated-is now across the border in Slovakia. The church is still in use but the walls of the cloister are crumbling, and with them some of the finest and earliest of frescos of the Kingdom of Hungary. In a castle near the parish of Borsi, also in Slovakia now, Ferenc II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania was born, who, early in the 18th century fought a long war against the Habsburg King and Holy Roman Emperor for the restoration of the Hungarian constitution. His Hungarian and Ruthenian serfs fought in his armies.

The Rákóczi family owned huge estates in what is now Subcarpathia. The castle of Munkács was theirs too. Ferenc Rákóczi's mother, Ilona, of the Croat Zrínyi family, was betrayed into surrendering it to the Austrians after a three-year siege at the end of the 17th century. Young Ferenc, in his teens, was initiated into warfare on the walls of the besieged castle. The castle of Huszt nearby also played its part in the Rákóczi wars. The town of Hust, as well as the mining towns of the region, enjoyed Royal Borough privileges even in the 14th century.

The Russian empire's desire to swallow Subcarpathia goes back to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. The Hungarians were close to victory when the Court in Vienna solicited Russian help. Francis Joseph and Czar Nicholas I agreed on terms when they met in Warsaw on May 21st 1849, and on June 15th 200,000 Russians, under the command of Prince Ivan Fiodorovich Paskievich, invaded Hungary across the Carpathians. The Russian officers were astounded to find that the villages below the mountains were peopled by Slovaks and Ruthenians whose speech they could understand.

The encounter left its mark on the 400,000 Uniate (Greek Catholic) Ruthenians in their mountain hamlets. Some Ruthenians, with no aristocracy at their head and with only a limited number of educated people, drew the conclusion from linguistic similarities that they were part of the great Russian people. Their leaders, created by the winds of change, pointed them towards Russia.

Russophilism flourished amongst the Ruthenians for almost twenty years, from 1849 to the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise. Its spiritual father was Adolf Dobrianski, a native of North-East Hungary. He identified the Ruthenians as Russians, and wanted to introduce Russian as a literary language alongside their own idiom. The Imperial Court in Vienna exploited such Russophile feelings against the Hungarians. Dobrianski served as a high ranking Austrian Imperial civilian commissioner alongside the invading Russian troops. Before the year was out he was decorated by the Czar for his services.

After the collapse of the Revolution, Hungary was administered by a Lieutenancy Council in Buda, subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna. This oppressive administration gave preference in employment to members of the national minorities in Hungary who wished to realize their own national aspirations. But neither Francis Joseph nor the Austrian aristocracy wanted to make common cause with them. They used them and despised them. "Why indeed should the Court in Vienna reward a people without a single count?", the 75-year-old Vladimir Minacy, a Slovak writer asks in a recent essay, but this question could be taken to apply to the Ruthenians as well.

The 1867 Compromise and the Austro-Hungarian Empire it produced finally put paid to Russophilism among the Ruthenians. After the Compromise the Court in Vienna had no more use for the passions the political ambitions of the national minorities fuelled. From then on the Emperor Francis Joseph, now also King of Hungary, used his new allies, the Hungarian authorities, to keep the national minorities in check.

Russophilism was no more, but religious and political propaganda, coming from the United States and Russia, flourished to promote the Orthodox faith and pan-Slavism. Many Ruthenians turned their back on Rome, Russia supplied North-East Hungary with religious books, and young Ruthenians were trained in Russian monasteries for pastoral work at home. K.P. Pobedonostsev, an influential member of the Czar's cabinet, said that he hoped to see the day when Galicia and Subcarpathia would be part of Russia.

This was not to happen during the settlements after the Great War. T. G. Masaryk, President of Czechoslovakia, however, declared that as far as he was concerned Czechoslovakia held Subcarpathia in trust for Russia, and would return it at the first opportunity.

The opportunity presented itself in 1944-45. Prague handed Subcarpathia to Stalin, and Stalin, in exchange, backed the expulsion of Germans and Hungarians from Czechoslovakia. In 1944 the Soviet Army still looked on Subcarpathia as Czechoslovakia, which is why it escaped the licence that prevailed everywhere else in Hungary, at least for a few days-looting, shooting of civilians, rape, confiscation of art collections from museums and private owners, etc.

Soviet forces occupied the whole of Subcarpathia very quickly. Soon after, Smersh ("death to spies"), the Red Army's much feared counter-intelligence organization, appeared in all major centres. Red Army officers and commanders also lived in terror of Smersh. Hardly was a new town occupied, the "little book" appeared from someone's dispatch case, the "little book", which listed local persons and institutions, their politics and property, and their sympathies or otherwise for the Soviet Union. Those to be used in the local administration and those to be liquidated-perhaps both, in succession-was decided on the basis of the little book. Smersh probably collected information amongst prisoners of war, and they did a thorough job.

Order 0036 of November 13th 1944 of the Red Army's 4th Ukrainian Front declared, in defiance of the provisions of international law, that Hungarian and German civilians of military age must be assembled and placed in prisoner of war camps by the NKVD. In May 1944 the Hungarians had deported the Jews from Subcarpathia, handing them to the Germans, in November of the same year the Soviets deported the Hungarians and Germans.

In compliance with this order, on November 14th, all men were assembled for a three days' corvée (malenki robot). Officially this applied to men between 18 and 50, although in practice men between 16 and 60 were involved. Whoever they managed to get hold of, was taken off to the concentration camp at Salyava (Szolyva). Those who survived the journey and their stay in the Salyava camp were taken to the interior of the Soviet Union. Forty thousand men out of the barely 200,000 Hungarians in Subcarpathia were involved. Few survived this collective punishment.

The liquidation of the Hungarians was systematic. Officials, teachers, lawyers were collected by the chornaya vorona, the black crows, the prisoner transport vehicles. They disappeared. Afterwards posters appeared, ordering Hungarians and Germans to report for work.

All these men so tricked were driven to the Salyava concentration camp on foot. Those locked up in the huts near the main gate saw that two or three loads of corpses were removed every morning, sometimes on carts, sometimes on sleighs. Several thousand are buried in the vicinity of the camp which was proclaimed a memorial park in November 1990. Those whose wives or mothers undertook the winter journey on foot and regularly brought food parcels, did not suffer want. The Russian guards generally accepted the parcel and handed it on to the prisoner for half a liter of brandy, sometimes for less, right up to the time when fathers, husbands and sons had gone from the camp, on their way to the interior of the empire. That, as everything, happened unexpectedly, so that you would not know what to do with the little you had left. They fell in, and columns of five hundred foot-sloggers, each guarded by five men with machine pistols, tackled the wintry Carpathians. The journey lasted eight days.

After Salyava, allotment camps came, such as Sanok (Szanok). There are no official figures but experts in Gulag matters estimate the number of those who perished at Sanok at 20 to 25 thousand. No water, food once a day, at night. The camp kapos were German prisoners. They carried huge rods and beat everyone. Here too, orders came unexpectedly. At the double, fall in, two thousand in each column, that's how many each train took. You had to climb in after running between specially trained guards. Armed young soldiers, one to four or five prisoners. A hundred into each truck, packed in like sardines, and off they went on a journey lasting weeks, into the interior of the Ukraine, and from there on towards the Caucasus and Siberia.


On December 1st 1991 a plebiscite declared the independence of Ukraine, made possible by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Leonid Kravchuk was elected the country's President. While electioneering in November, he had promised the world: "There are two things I cannot imagine, that Subcarpathia should find itself outside the Ukraine, but also that this region should not be accorded a special constitutional status, in keeping with its historical and geographical background."

At the national referendum declaring independence and choosing a president, Subcarpathians could also vote on a special self-government status for the region, and, in the Beregovo district, on a fourth issue, the possibility of creating a Hungarian Autonomous Region.

In Subcarpathia 92.6 per cent of the votes were for the independence of the Ukraine and 78 per cent for a special self-government status for the region. In the Beregszász district 90 per cent of the votes cast supported the idea of a Hungarian autonomous area. But Kravchuk, already in office, declared that the two special Subcarpathian questions put at the time of the referendum were merely meant to sound public opinion.

The Subcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Federation suggested in 1995 that it be allowed to erect a monument on the Vereckij Pereval (Verecke Pass) and to hold celebrations in August 1996 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the Magyar Conquest at the point where they crossed the Carpathians. The plan harmonizes with the Ukrainian National Minorities Act which permits every national minority to use its national symbols, to celebrate its holidays and historical anniversaries, and to erect appropriate memorials. All the papers were submitted in time, but no answer in writing was given, only a verbal agreement. At the urging of extreme nationalist organizations, the government in Kiev, at the very last minute, prohibited both the erection of the memorial and the celebrations. This was not stated in writing either, a further flouting of the laws of the country, inasmuch as they did not protect Ukrainian citizens who are ethnic Hungarians against threats to life and limb and a threatened terrorist action. (A hundred years ago, a Millenary Monument was erected on the Vereckij Pereval, which was then part of the Kingdom of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This, however, was demolished by the Soviet authorities in the 1960s.)

The Ukrainian economy is bankrupt, barely providing subsistence. Just about everyone makes a living on the black market. There is a special schedule on display in every town, showing when and in which quarter the electricity is turned off. You have to keep your eye on water taps too, and quickly fill every receptacle at every chance. Power supplies to villages are also rationed.

The monthly pensions of former collective farmers and labourers were recently raised from $6-$8 to $40-$50, but are not being paid. By early February 1997, even pensions due in October 1996 had not been paid everywhere. Teachers' pay was raised recently, from $10 to a minimum of $60. But that is not being paid either. Alongside the shortage of textbooks, this means that teachers too have to spend a good deal of their time doing "business" to make ends meet, thus missing lessons.

Petty smuggling generates much income and ensures the survival of many. Housewives are off at the crack of dawn towards the frontier, by train or bus, or hitch-hiking, with cartons of cigarettes strapped around them. These they sell cheaply in the streets in Hungary. Those who look too fat are strip searched and sent home. Better luck tomorrow; off again with fake Marlboros, fake Pall Malls, adulterated vodka, returning home with fake Adidas, fake Reebok, fake Nike, cooking oil, soap, sugar, and other staples. Two full shoppingbags of food make quite a difference as a reserve. These unfortunates are handled roughly by customs and frontier guards on both sides, regardless of nationality or native language. Many take cheap Ukrainian petrol in the extended tanks of huge old cars-even in their doors too. At the border, everybody gets his cut, everything and everybody has a price. And then, there's no stopping business. Unless the Hungarian police put in an appearance. Sometimes they confiscate the smuggled goods, sometimes they want a cut too, but mostly they turn a tired blind eye.

One can only suspect what the really big fish deal in and how they manage things. What we have to go on is the handguns, Kalashnikovs, handgrenades and anti-tank rockets that have appeared on markets, and are now beeing seen and heard as well. On March 3rd 1994, an IL 76 freight plane was blown up at a Hungarian airfield as an episode in the Ukrainian-Russian mafia war. The necessary weaponry, explosives and personnel had crossed the Hungarian-Ukrainian frontier unhindered.

On the other hand, ordinary mortals find it difficult to cross the Subcarpathian-Hungarian border. They have to wait in the "police cage" for 24 or 36 hours, a source of income for the Ukrainian authorities. A propusk valid for a year can be bought for a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars and that allows you to jump the queue. A little bakshish, in kind or money, can also hasten things. A few years ago, on the Ukrainian side of the Csap-Záhony crossing, a Ukrainian frontier guard in his cups lost his head and shot a Hungarian van driver after asking for a couple of dollars and not getting them.

Those who can no longer put up with all this, emigrate. Only a few are lucky enough to make it to America with their families, thanks to relatives there. The others must make do with relatives in Hungary. (That did not help in Soviet times.) Then pseudo-marriages offered a solution, for money. You got divorced in Subcarpathia, came to Hungary, married a Hungarian citizen, obtained citizenship, divorced the new wife, went back, and married the old one again, and brought her over the border. A quicker and more expensive version was for a couple in Hungary to divorce as well, and then provide cross marriages.

These days emigration is easy but it is now the Hungarian authorities who are making immigration more difficult. But the barriers are not raised too high. In Hungary the population is declining by 50,000 every year. The country needs the replacement which ethnic Hungarians wanting to leave their homes provide.

Many leave Subcarpathia for good, settling in Hungary. Unfortunately, these are mostly the better qualified and the more enterprising.

The Hungarian Quarterly , VOLUME XXXVIII * No. 146 * Summer 1997 - Some Highlights


© Zelei Miklós. Minden jog fenntartva!