A Real Country
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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
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
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
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
Hungary officially termed the region
the “Woodland Carpathians.”
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
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 award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys biting sticks.