Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia:
A Real Country

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2022

The name sounds like something out of Anthony Hope’s "Prisoner of Zenda," but for a few weeks in 1939 Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia was an independent state. It actually appears on the Defiant Russia map, those two hexes just to the east of Hungary.

The 20th century was not kind to the tiny country, which had come under Hungarian rule in 1031, passing to the Austrian crown along with the rest of Hungary in 1526. It remained a part of Hungary for the next four centuries. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in late 1918, most of its separate parts went their separate ways. They fractured mostly along ethnic lines, with new states like Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechslovakia and Yugoslavia arising and Romania and Italy acquiring other lands.

Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia attempted to join the parade of new nations, breaking away from Hungarian domination. Ethnically, Ruthenians (“Ruthene” from “Rusyn” or “people of Rus”) are Ukrainian, speaking a dialect almost identical to that heard on the other side of the Carpathians (thus the “Sub-Carpathian” label, as most Ukrainians live north and east of the mountain range). Hungarian nobles owned most of the region’s land and dominated its cities; those who chafed under forced use of the Magyar language and other repressions found the best route was emigration.

A small but vocal community of exiles grew in the United States, eager to find freedom for their homeland. The pending collapse of Austria-Hungary appeared to be their best chance, especially after U.S. president Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points for Peace, with their emphasis on self-determination for each people. But in July 1918 a delegation of hopeful Ruthenian exiles met with Wilson and came away gravely disappointed. The president told them that their land was too small to form an economically viable state, and recommended that they form a federation with the Czechs and Slovaks.

Ruthenia in 1919.

Czechoslovakia was formed not in Prague but in Pennsylvania. The exiles met with the Czechs and Slovaks in Scranton, and agreed to join the new federal republic as an autonomous province. Ruthenia would be part of the Czech half of the republic. All of these agreements were made by exiles many thousands of miles removed from the territories whose future they decided, but proved to hold up surprisingly well in practice.

In 1919, when they joined Czechoslovakia, most Ruthenians were illiterate and they had little national consciousness — even less than their cousins in Ukraine proper. But the central government funded schools, and left it to local boards to decide the language of instruction (a key demand of Czech nationalists during the last decades of Austria-Hungary, something they could not easily deny to others once they held the reins of power). Ukrainian-language instruction grew quickly during the 1920s, matched by the birth of cultural societies like Provista, founded by Avhustyn Voloshyn.

Local activists saw several paths for Ruthenia’s development: some (mostly those who had supported the Hungarians) wanted to emphasize Ruthenia’s own local identity. And as was true in Ukraine itself, some sought a purely Ukrainian identity while others looked to Russian language and culture. This split allowed the authorities in Prague to continually delay granting the province autonomy, citing potential separatism.

As Czechoslovakia’s poorest province, Ruthenia was devastated by the Great Depression. Famine struck and people starved. The modern, industrial society of the western provinces did not penetrate into Ruthenia. The region had some mining, but most people lived as subsistance farmers, having broken the big Hungarian-owned estates into two-acre parcels. Even in good times families had difficulties making a living off such small plots of land; during the depression it proved impossible.

The Munich Agreement of 1938 doomed Czechoslovakia, but gave Ruthenia its 48 hours of nationhood. The Slovaks received their own goverment, and the Ruthenes stopped squabbling long enough to demand their own as well. On 11 October 1938, Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia inaugurated an autonomous government in the capital of Uzhorod, led by Andrei Brodii and Stefan Fentsik. Both favored Russianization, and both turned out to be in the pay of foreign governemnts — Brodii was a Hungarian agent, while Fentsik worked for Poland.

The central government fired them both and appointed new ministers led by Voloshyn.
The Voloshyn government emphasized Ukrainian language and culture. All education, government administration (including the court system) and the press had to be in the Ukrainian language. Voloshyn also founded an army, known as the Sich. Aided by volunteers from Polish- and Soviet-ruled Ukrainian areas, the Sich soon had 5,000 uniformed men but was desperately lacking for trained officers and support weapons. But Ukrainian exile organizations, not wanting to sacrifice German support, worked against the volunteers.

Hungary officially termed the region the “Woodland Carpathians.”

On 5 November 1938, the “Vienna Award” granted a wide swath of Czechoslovakia’s border territory to Hungary, including about one-third of Ruthenia. Hungarian troops occupied the Ruthenian capital of Uzhorod on 10 November, changing its name to Ungvár, and Voloshyn’s government fled to the mountain village of Khust. The Sich fought Hungarian regulars on 6 January 1939, each side claiming the battle took place inside their respective borders.

The February 1939 elections brought Voloshyn’s movement 86 percent of the popular vote and firm control of the government. But Czechslovakia’s German, Hungarian and Polish neighbors were now poised to dismember the country, while the Western democracies stood by. Ruthenia had lost its only rail connection to the rest of Czechoslovakia when the capital fell under Hungarian rule; no help would be coming from Prague. Irregular Hungarian and Polish forces raided into the province and fought both the Sich and the small contingent of Czech national army forces still in the province.

On 14 March 1939, Slovakia declared itself independent and placed itself under German protection. Hungary invaded Ruthenia that afternoon, and Voloshyn ordered the Sich to resist. The next day he declared Ruthenia independent and asked for foreign assistance, but none came.

Hungary formally annexed all of Ruthenia on the 16th, and Hungarian troops reached Ruthenia’s border with Poland the next day. The Sich continued to fight for several more days, but in poorly organized small groups relying on ambushes. The Hungarian government refused to recognize the Sich as “lawful combatants” and authorized its troops to murder on the spot any Ruthenians captured with arms. The Hungarians committed several massacres of Sich prisoners under the guise of “executing partisans,” and Ruthenia’s brief existence was at an end.

Sub-Carpathian Ruthenian Jews at Auschwitz, 1944. Yad Vashen Photo Archive.

Over the next five years, the Hungarians attempted to “Magyarize” the region, forcing their language on the schools and courts and banning Ukrainian-language publications. They did not enforce conscription on the region’s ethnic Ukrainians, but did raise a division of ethnic Hungarians and drafted thousands of Ruthenian Jews into labor battalions. Hungarian resistance to the Holocaust did not extend to Ruthenia; almost all of Ruthenia’s estimated 100,000 Jews in 1939 were transported to Auschwitz and murdered there.

In 1945, the new Czech government signed a treaty ceding Ruthenia to the Soviet Union, which incorporated it as the Zakarpats’ka Oblast of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It remains part of free Ukraine today.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoyed biting sticks.

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