Homage to Ruthenia

A couple of years ago, I noticed that one of the ladies behind the deli counter in the local supermarket sported the name ‘Ruthenia’ on her name badge, bringing to mind echoes of such fascinating but semi-forgotten central European territories as Galicia, Volhynia or Podolia. At the time, I wondered whether her parents might have given her the name simply because it sounded attractive, although it did occur to me that she might have had a family link to the region. She had a vaguely Carpathian or Transylvanian appearance, as if she had drifted to Southport, North Carolina from one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s vignettes in A Time of Gifts. I never got round to asking her about it, and I believe she no longer works there.

The region is again in the news. I think I first seriously studied Ruthenia when I read Isaiah Berlin’s Letters of 1928-1946. He describes how, in August 1933, he, along with his close friends Goronwy Rees and Shiela Grant Duff, paid a short visit to Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, leaving from Salzburg, Austria and returning to Vienna, ostensibly to study the variant of the Russian language spoken there. (There is much debate as to whether the Ruthene, or Rusyn, language is a dialect of Ukrainian, or a different language, with its own variations across borders, in its own right.)  Ruthenia was then the eastern tip of Czechoslovakia, having been ceded to that country by Hungary in 1920, as part of the agreements from the Treaty of Versailles. Harold Nicolson, a close friend of Berlin’s, was the diplomat in Paris who had supervised the definition of Czechoslovakia’s borders. Berlin went on to write, in a letter from All Souls to the doomed future plotter against Hitler, Adam von Trott: “Surely Central Europe, so crowded, so ambitious, so jealous, so undecadent in its very Balkanism is bound to produce something soon. They can’t go on stewing in their own juice forever”, an eccentrically cryptic and distinctly sterile analysis of the region. In her memoir of the thirties, The Parting of the Ways, Grant Duff provided another perspective. She poignantly wrote of their visit that ‘Orthodox Jews, dressed in sober black robes and with long ringlets dangling to their shoulders, were the least sinister part of the population’. Of course their lack of menace did not protect them from the Nazi onslaught: a review in the New York Times of March 14, 2014, describes how, in the current exhibition titled ‘Degenerate Art: the Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937’ at the Neue Galerie in Berlin, a photograph of Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews newly arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau is displayed to emphasize the demoniacism of Hitler’s theories put into practice.


Ruthenia is now part of Ukraine. According to Grant Duff, Hungary stole it back after Munich: in fact Hungary gained a chunk of southern Slovakia, and a slice of Ruthenia, as part of the Munich agreement, and then annexed the remaining portion of the latter in March 1939. It thus brought a close to one of the shortest-lived independent states in history [see below], and re-formed her traditional border with Poland. (It appears Poland was complicit in this seizure.) At the end of WWII, Ruthenia was invaded by the Soviet Union and annexed to the Ukraine. I was reminded of this volatile history when I chanced upon a book on this region and period in the Library of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington –Smersh, a memoir, published in 1950, by Nicola Sinevirsky. It concerns a time when, as a Ruthenian who still harboured hopes of being linked to a Russian, non-Bolshevik motherland, the author infiltrated, in 1944, Stalin’s counter-revolutionary and counter-espionage organization to determine what it knew about the secret political group to which Sinevirsky belonged, the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists. This group, known as NTS after its Russian-language initials, was a transnational group founded in 1930 by White Russian émigrés who rejected Marxism, and stressed the importance of the individual, and religion. After all, Joseph Roth, in The Radetsky March, had Chojnicki say that Ruthenians were ‘treacherous Russians in disguise.’ Some celebrated Russian exiles were active in Ruthenia: Alexander Kerensky’s friend Babushka Breshkovskaya (’The Grandmother of the Revolution’, one of the founders of the Russian Party of Social-Revolutionaries) established schools in Mukhachevo, in southern Ruthenia, and Kerensky flew to Prague for her elaborate funeral in September, 1934. Such were the tangled alliances in Czechoslovakia at this time: while old-style socialism was seen to be in sympathy with the Russian Orthodox Church, Prime Minister Beneš was drifting closer to Stalin as a potential ally against Hitler.


I suspect that many people might imagine SMERSH to be something created by Ian Fleming, but it was in fact a real structure, ‘Death to Spies!’ (Schmert’ Spionam), designed by Stalin to eradicate any anti-Bolshevik tendencies in territories being (re-)possessed as well as within the NKVD itself. In the Introduction to Sinevirsky’s memoir appears the following description of Ruthenia: “It is a country that, until the Soviet regime incorporated it into its borders, and named it the Carpatho-Ukraine, had not even a firmly established name of its own. It was called variously Carpatho-Ruthenia or Hungarian Ruthenia, Carpathian Russia, Trans-Carpathia or Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia.” The passage goes on to declare: “Carpatho-Russians divided their loyalties between Czechoslovakia, Hungary, a Greater Ukraine (envisaged by Ukrainian separatists as a future sovereign state to be composed of their Polish, Czech and Russian provinces) – and Russia.” Many of those White Russians that Berlin encountered still believed that they would be able to overthrow Stalin’s dictatorship and restore the Orthodox Church to paramountcy, an aspiration echoed by a character Sinevirsky meets before the Soviets have shown their true colours. Smersh is a fascinating book, reinforcing the fact that Communism, and even Bolshevism, were dead, and that Stalin’s dictatorship was one of Tchekism, revolutionary terror, executed by hooligans, brutes and thugs. As Sinevirsky writes: “It [SMERSH] was to be an organization whose task was the obliteration of the face of Europe, to level all thought to the lowest common denominator, to make all the helpless slaves of Bolshevism.” I was reminded of the despicable behavior of the Soviets when reading The Spy Who Loved, Clare Mulley’s gripping biography of Christine Granville, the Polish woman who worked for the Special Operations Executive in WWII. When the Russians entered Poland after watching the Warsaw uprising fail in 1944, the NKVD took its toll. “… Thousands of Home Army soldiers were rounded up, interrogated, and required to join the Polish Red Army”, she writes. “Those who refused received death sentences as spies or collaborators.”  For such a cause did the loathsome Kim Philby and his cronies betray their country.


Ruthenians were similarly to be quickly disillusioned in their aspirations, and, in one poignant episode, Sinevirsky briefly encountered one of the sad figures in its history.  Ruthenia had been granted a kind of autonomy – along with Slovakia  ̶  on October 8, 1938, as a result of the attempts by the Germans (via the leader of the Sudeten Germans, Henlein) to destabilize Czechoslovakia. It enjoyed this fragile state for a few short months. On March 16, 1939, Hitler announced that Bohemia-Moravia was now a Nazi Protectorate. Three days later, Avgustyn Voloshyn responded by naming himself President of the state of Trans-Carpathian Ukraine, which lasted for just eighteen hours, being dissolved when the Hungarians invaded and then annexed Ruthenia as far as its border with Poland. While Sinevirsky was working as a translator for SMERSH he saw Voloshyn, recently captured, and about to be transported to Moscow, where he would be killed in the Butyrka prison in 1945. Thus Ruthenia was brought into the Soviet maw.


Coincidentally, I recently picked up my March 2014 issue of History Today to read of an award made to the historian Norman Davies for his most recent book, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which reportedly ‘restores such marginalia as the Visigothic kingdom of Tolusa, the German region of Borussia, Etruria, and the sub-Carpathian region of Ruthenia to the historical mainstream.’ I immediately ordered a copy (800 pages) from the History Book Club. Davies’s chapter titled ‘Rusyn: The Republic of One Day’ is the shortest in the book, but adds several fascinating details to the story. He makes a whimsical comparison to the fictional Ruritania, and tells us that Robert Maxwell (born Ján Hoch, the pension raider known to the British public as ‘the bouncing Czech’) was a Ruthenian, as were Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures, and the parents of Andy Warhol, the American artist. Davies refers to Ruthenia under its current Ukrainian name, Zakarpattia; he informs us that Voloshyn was, strangely, a Greek Catholic clergyman as well as a former professor of mathematics. And the Hungarian invasion was relatively benign, compared with what happened later. As Davies writes: “Carpatho-Ruthenia survived much of the war under Hungarian rule in relative quiet. But in 1944 the long-delayed [‘by what?’ I might ask] arrival of the Nazis paved the way for the Holocaust’s last major operation and the extermination of the entire Jewish population. The arrival of the Red Army in turn spelled disaster for the Hungarians, many of whom were deported to the Gulag.”


The geographic position of Ruthenia prompted me to think more about its intriguing relationship with Mother Russia. During the 1930s, it had no border with the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was not a separate state. Poland and Romania abutted the eastern borders of Czechoslovakia. But the Soviet Union had established formal relationships with Romania and Czechoslovakia in June 1934, and had signed a treaty with Czechoslovakia, modelled after the latter’s pact with France, in May 1935.  On this geographical challenge, Hugh Ragsdale, in The Soviets, the Munich Crisis, and the Coming of World War II observes: “The most obvious liability of the Soviet-Czechoslovak Pact was the fact that Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union had no common frontier. The two states were separated by Poland and Romania, and, as both of these powers had long experience of hosting Russian armies and paying the territorial price, neither was eager ever to do so again. Yet the issue of Red Army access to Czechoslovakia necessarily posed over and over again the question whether either if these countries might grant the Soviet forces transit rights.” Ragsdale’s conclusion is that the Soviet Union made only half-hearted attempts to gain access rights through Romania, and its commitment to helping its Czech cousins was thus distinctly flabby. And yet another thought occurred to me: E.S. Cookridge, in his 1965 biography of Kim Philby, The Third Man, suggests that Isaiah Berlin might have been one of those academics who helped out MI6 on intelligence-gathering, on an occasional basis before the war. Is it possible that he was testing the political waters in Ruthenia on its behalf? Investigating the strength of the Russian Solidarity movement on behalf of some agency?


How utterly engrossing are these Central European remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with their floating boundaries, tribal senses, and mystical histories!  That marvellous writer Gregor van Rezzori wrote, in The Snows of Yesteryear, of his nurse, Cassandra:  “Most probably she was a Huzule – that is, a daughter of the Ruthenian-speaking tribe of mountain Gorals, who, it is said, are the purest-bred descendants of the Dacians who fled before the Roman invaders into the impenetrable fastnesses of their forests.” Such mythological lineage-writing can be dangerous, of course, as it fosters spurious notions of racial purity and encourages people to think they possess a distinctive heritage that sets them above their neighbours. Out of such nonsense was Hitlerism born. And where are the Huzules now? Wikipedia identifies them as ‘Hutsuls’, still regarding themselves as a separate ethnic group living in the Carpathian mountains. It is almost as if a group of Iceni were discovered hiding in the Norfolk Broads.  Of another time, István Deak wrote of the fragility of such mosaics, and their ability to turn destructive in the face of the demagogues:  “In the extraordinary ethnic mosaic of the Banat … where Serbian, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Slovak and Bulgarian settlers of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant faiths had lived in peace for centuries, people were massacring one another in the name of nationality.” The Austro-Hungarian Empire did not let ‘ethnicities’ tear it apart: it was the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination that initiated such fissiparous tendencies. Now ‘ethnic Russians’ in Crimea have been encouraged to link themselves to a wickedly romantic notion of Russia. Why should it stop there? Should there not be a referendum in Chechnya, or even Ruthenia? What do the Crimean Tatars think about self-determination? And will other Russians resident in abutting territories that were previously part of the Soviet Empire be encouraged to foment?


As I finished writing this piece, I chanced upon the following information on Wikipedia: “On October 25, 2008, 100 delegates to the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenians declared the formation of the Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia. The Ukrainian nationalist Svoboda Party responded by releasing the following statement: ‘Zakarpattian separatists led by Moscow Patriarchate priest Sidor are issuing an ultimatum to the Ukrainian authorities today. Tomorrow, armed with Russian passports and money from the Kremlin, they will implement the ‘Georgian scenario’ in Ukraine.’” (Davies confirms the essence of this report.) The ‘Georgian scenario’ has thus apparently re-occurred in Crimea first, and my armchair musings have turned out to possess some basis in reality. ‘Self-determination’ is a dangerous philosophy, a cousin of de Tocqueville’s ‘tyranny of the majority’. The National Alliance of Russian Solidarists lives on in spirit, and maybe in body: some Rusyn-speakers in Ruthenia apparently still long for federation with Russia, in notions that more closely echo Putin’s vision of Russia than they do Stalin’s. While the media focus has been on further Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Vladimirovich may indeed have allies on its western borders. (As a poignant echo, the New York Times reports, on March 29th, that one thousand Russian soldiers are present in the Stalinist enclave of Transnistria, that sits between Ukraine and Moldova, and that Transnistrian ‘leaders’ are asking for a Crimean-style union with Russia.)


Where does all this lead? To those who believe that the pluralist democratic model is the only sensible constitutional prototype, it is sad to see the nation state under assault from separatist tendencies (e.g. Scotland and Catalonia) as well as from supranational entities (the European Union and a renascent Soviet Union built on fascist lines). May the Ruthenians  ̶  and any who still consider themselves Carpatho-Russians  ̶  continue to celebrate their costumes and folk-dances, and enjoy their individual religions and language and diets, but I hope they do it within a Ukraine which is able to find its own path to democracy and pluralism.


Antony Percy, March 2014


P.S. While sifting through volumes of British Documents of Foreign Affairs at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington) Library, I found an intriguing piece by Sir Joseph Addison, the British Ambassador in Prague in 1934. In a report to Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secretary, dated March 14, he describes a visit by Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, to Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Yet here it is described as ‘Sub-Carpathian Russia’ (see Sinevirsky, above), a striking reminder of the region’s affiliations with the old Russian Empire, but maybe also a pointer to the fact that Beneš was hoping to strengthen his alliance with the Soviet Union. The intent of the visit seems to have been to remind the local population (2/3 Slavs, 1/3 Hungarians and Jews, according to Addison) of their belonging to the Czechoslovak nation, although his reminder that ‘furtive glances towards Ukraine or Russia must cease’ would have gone against the grain of his pan-Slavic alliance.  His primary message, however, appears to be directed at the Hungarians, who were at the time bitterly contesting the lands they had lost with the decisions of Versailles. (I found another fascinating document about this debate, written at about the time that Isaiah Berlin was visiting the area in 1933, on which I shall report next month). Beneš declared: “The future of Sub-Carpathian Russia and that of Czechoslovakia are now, and for centuries to come, closely bound together” and “ . . . the Ruthenians, the Czechs and the Czech government know how to appreciate Hungarian culture, and the Hungarian minority would receive its due, but it would never be allowed to govern Sub-Carpathian Russia.” Rather defiant, and very sad – an echo of ‘a thousand-year Reich’.                                         (July 30, 2014)

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