Undeterred, the inhabitants of the region, who, like so many other groups possessing a long heritage, a strong national identity, and limited geographic circumstances, pressed on. Known as Rusyns, they form a branch of the East Slavs speaking one of several dialects of the Rusyn language. Because of their concentration in the Eastern Carpathians, they are wont to identify as Carpatho-Rusyns. To outsiders, they are known by the exonym, Ruthenians. But the preferred cognomen remains Rusyns, which in English translates as “Little Russians.” Although many continue to live in Eastern Europe, especially in what are now Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, and parts of the Balkans, the diasporas of recent centuries sent them in small batches to Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, particularly in what is now the Rust Belt.
In spite of their disaggregated status, many Rusyns continue to dream of a national homeland. Such dreams, ignited among the ashes of World War I, became reality, only to be doused by the onrush of World War II.
Our small part of the story picks up just after The Great War in 1920 with the Treaty of Trianon, by which the inhabitants of the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland, known as Carpathian Rus’, were added to the new state of Czechoslovakia, out of territory that had formed the northern borderland of the Kingdom of Hungary since 895. Most Rusyns lived in what was to become the autonomous province of Subcarpathian Rus’ (in Czech Podkarpatska Rus’), which, owing to the diminution of Hungary’s borders, retained a significant Magyar presence.
The province remained unchanged and neglected by wider Europe until the Munich Pact of September 29, 1938, by which Nazi Germany had pressured other nations to recognize its annexation of large chunks of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Out of a part of the remaining Czechoslovak “rump state,” Subcarpathian Rus’ was granted its autonomy, becoming the Subcarpathian Autonomous Region, albeit minus a swathe of land that included the culturally important towns of Uzhorod and Mukachevo.
Prompted by events, Rusyn leaders established an executive Regional Council in November 1938, headed by Rev. Avhustyn Voloshyn, a Greek-Catholic priest, author of a grammar in the local Rusyn vernacular, leader of the government’s pro-Ukrainian faction, and overall guardian of Rusyn culture. Plans were made for a regional assembly, and a paramilitary force known as the Carpathian Sich was organized.
Hitler, however, had other plans, among which was the liquidation of all of Czechoslovakia. On March 15, 1939, the day the Wehrmacht invaded Prague, the Diet of Carpatho-Ukraine, then sitting in its only session in the small town of Khust, proclaimed Carpatho-Ukraine a sovereign state, adopted a constitution, and elected Rev. Voloshyn as its president. The world’s newest state found itself isolated at birth between a voracious German army, an unsympathetic Poland, a vindictive Hungary, and Stalinist Ukraine.
Sadly, the irregulars constituting the Carpathian Sich were unable to match with equal authority the proclamations of their political leaders. Having bravely positioned themselves on the north bank of the Tisa River at the bridge near Veryatsya, the Sich guard folded under a much superior Hungarian army, acting under Hitler’s auspices. In spite of stiff resistance on the part of the Transcarpathians near Khust, the Hungarians quickly took over all of Carpatho-Ukraine, scattering its new government, arresting and killing (with Polish help) armed resistance, and once again ruling Subcarpathian Rus’. The independent state of Carpatho-Ukraine had lasted little more than twelve hours.
The following years proved even worse than their immediate predecessors. Having lost its entire population of Jews in the last great extermination of the War, Carpathian Rus’, like so many other Eastern European tragedies, was absorbed into the Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine, in 1945. Rev. Voloshyn attempted to carry on with his life as a pedagogue in Prague, but suffered arrest by the NKVD and died in Moscow’s Butyrka prison that same year, a victim of the usual circumstances. Today the Ukrainian oblast of Zakarpatska receives little notice in the media.Among modern-day Rusyns, however, there is a determination both at home and abroad to preserve their national and ethnic identity. The maintenance of their traditional rights and privileges occurs within the folds of the Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, which serve as their chief cultural identifier. And, the impulse for independence has not abated, as many Rusyns still look forward to the day when they can become citizens of their own sovereign property, nestled somewhere preferably between Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. That impulse has manifested itself as recently as 2008, when an Orthodox priest in Uzhorod, with subversive Russian support, declared to the outside world the restoration of the Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia, albeit to results still pending.
One only wonders if the historically aggrieved neighbors of Carpathian-Rus’ are as willing to support their own divestments as much as those advocating for an independent Rusyn state are as eager to avail themselves thereof. And, one further hopes that their next planned attempt at statehood will occur on a more auspicious date, as well as be realized under more practicable circumstances.
In any event, the mouse still roars!