When the Rusyns teamed up with the Czechs and Slovaks

Maria Silvestri
11 min readOct 31, 2018


by Vladimír Jancura, originally published in Pravda 29.10.2018 13:00

Jiří Král: Hrušov circa 1922. Author: Pavel Scheufler Photoarchive

The Czech-Slovak-Rusyn Republic. Such a change in the name of the united state was proposed in early May 1919 by the National Council of Rusyns in Uzhhorod in Subcarpathian Rus’. Although Prague officially rejected the suggestion, popular Czech creativity came up with a rhyme: “From Yasinia to Aš, the Republic is ours! [Od Jasini do Aše republika je naše!]” For almost 20 years, Yasinia was the easternmost train station in the Czechoslovak Republic.

It’s interesting that the thought of connecting Subcarpathia didn’t come to anyone for a long time. Tomáš G. Masaryk, in the first sketch of the future state, which was presented to the Foreign Secretary of the United States in 1915 by Edward Gray, allowed for an entity consisting of the Bohemian Crowns (Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Lusatia), that is, the kingdom that existed almost three centuries before the battle on the White Mountain (1620), and the “Slovak regions in northern Hungary”. However, Masaryk consistently avoided the territory inhabited by the Rusyns to the south of the Carpathian Mountains and strictly maintained ethnic boundaries in his “Great Czech Republic” project. “Uzhhorod, Mukachevo, and Sighetu Marmației should be incorporated into the Russian Empire,” he said in one interview.

Masaryk changed his opinion three years after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. “Russia’s loss (in the war) provided the possibility of incorporating Subcarpathian Rus’ to our republic,” he wrote in 1925 in the book The Global Revolution. “Regarding the future of all Little Russian territories outside of Russia, Ukrainian leaders have never discussed it with me. And we had no objections against the incorporation of Subcarpathian Rus’.” But the Declaration of independence, on 18 October 1918 in Paris by the temporary Czech-Slovak government, nor the Statement of the National Committee in Prague ten days later, mentioned Subcarpathia yet. They waited for the manifestation and answer from the new state’s Rusyn representation — domestic and foreign. In order to understand the complexity of this question, we must move to the other side of the ocean.

American Rusyns came therewith

We travel in time to the United States, because as the American countrymen of the Slovaks and Czechs lit a fire to the idea of a common state, something similar happened with the Rusyns, too. Like the Slovaks, the Rusyns also had the most conscious part of their nation in America at that time. Since the second half of the 19th century, the bravest and most entrepreneurial people of Subcarpathia had been moving there in droves. Although it does not seem to have been the case, the Subcarpathian Rusyns lived with the Slovaks under one “state roof” not only for nearly 20 years in the 20th century, but already before, for centuries, and so had many similar fates. One and the other inhabited the former Upper Hungary, which was one of the most miserable areas not only of the Kingdom of Hungary, but of the entire Habsburg monarchy.

It is unclear how many Rusyns were driven out of Hungary by poverty and Magyarization across the “big pond”. When they arrived in the largest emigration wave after 1870, US immigration authorities recorded them as Magyars, Slovaks, but also as Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians. Expert estimates say that at the time of the outbreak of the First World War, around 200,000 Subcarpathian Rusyns may have lived in the US, accounting for more than a third of the permanent population of the region.

Like the Slovaks, between the oldest immigrants and the new Rusyn immigrants, they did not have the best reputation at first. They did the worst work and did not even protest against the lowest wages, often they were strikebreakers [scabs]. They therefore received the derogatory nickname “Hunkies” like all immigrants from Austria-Hungary.

The situation changed after 1890, after major industrial accidents in the American steel mills and mines, when even Rusyn and Slovak immigrants massively joined unions and participated in organized strikes. In protest actions for better working conditions, their class-consciousness grew, but also national awareness, the feeling of social and ethnic solidarity and belonging.

They were no longer concerned about their families’ immediate needs, the situation in their company or the “states”, but also about the circumstances in the old country. Like the Slovaks, they got together around the parishes in their places of residence, and they founded associations which formed larger groups on the basis of ethnic origin.

They proceeded similarly to the American Slovaks who founded the Slovak League in 1907, whose representatives signed the Cleveland Agreement in October 1915 with the representatives of the Czech National Association. In these groups, for the first time, they signed up for the fight for a united independent state. Adult Rusyns in those places came to it after a turning point on 23 July 1918. At that time, in Homestead (near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the American National Council of Uhro-Rusins was formed, uniting the representatives of many associations and societies of people from Subcarpathia. For example, the American-Rusyn National Defense, an organization of Orthodox to an extent, Rusophiles. Its representative, Nicholas Pachuta, first came into contact with Masaryk to seek the possibility of incorporating Subcarpathia into the future Czechoslovakia.

Finally, however, more prominent associations and Greek Catholic societies, with a Greek Catholic orientation, represented by Július Gardoš and above all, the young lawyer Gregory Zhatkovych, who at that time was a legal representative of General Motors. The first resolution of the national council was the drawing up of a memorandum of understanding on the possibilities of the further development of Subcarpathia.

Seeds of future contention

Zhatkovych considered three alternatives. In particular, Czechoslovakia had not yet been mentioned, but one of the possibilities envisaged an autonomous status of Subcarpathia within Hungary. He further considered incorporation with Galicia (administrative headquarters in L’viv) and with Bukovina (centered in Chernivtsi). Both of these provinces also belonged to the Habsburg monarchy since the end of the 18th century, but they were not part of the Kingdom of Hungary — as neighboring Subcarpathia was — but the Austrian Crown Lands. Therefore, even after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise and the establishment of the Dual Monarchy in 1867, they were represented not in the Hungarian Diet but in the Imperial Council in Vienna. Finally, as the third option, Zhatkovych proposed Subcarpathia’s total independence.

The National Council approved the referendum on October 1 in Scranton (Pennsylvania), and US President Woodrow Wilson received its delegation three weeks later. As Gardoš’s testimony shows, Wilson, immediately after learning of the memorandum, told them openly that two alternatives — primarily “independent Subcarpathia”, but also joining with Galicia and Bukovina, were unrealistic. “We ourselves did not hope for independence,” said Gardoš. However, the President also reasoned away autonomy within Hungary: “Autonomy for the Rusyns, yes, but not from the Hungarians, but within a neighboring Slavic country!” But whose?

Wilson advised them to turn to the Mid-European Democratic Union, which Masaryk co-founded in the USA and was its chairman. It combined 11 nations and if the Rusyns were recognized as the twelfth, it would be only a plus. On the same day, October 23, 1918, a delegation of the Rusyn National Council met with Masaryk in Washington. According to Gardoš, he promised them that he would support Rusyns joining the union. The negotiations continued for two days in Philadelphia, where the Mid-European Democratic Union congress took place, which actually received the Rusyns as a member.

“They came into contact with the Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians and, of course, the Hungarians,” Masaryk said, “and finally decided to join us.” At the same time, he noted that he was watching “some tension” between the American Rusyns and the Slovaks. “The Czechs were more acceptable to them than the Slovaks.” But he did not explain why.

As the lecturer Alan Panov, the author of the monograph Masaryk and Transcarpathia from Uzhhorod National University clarifies, the seed of contention became the border of the Rusyns’ autonomous territory in the Czechoslovak state. Masaryk promised Zhatkovych, that the Rusyns would be satisfied with it. However, it turned out that while Zhatkovych meant all Rusyns in the new state, that is, those who lived in eastern Slovakia, Masaryk only considered the border between Slovakia and the territory of the Subcarpathian Ruthenians, that is, the Upper Potisia. “The boundary that he drew on the map of the future state in 1915,” says Panov, “and which runs along the line from Chop to the northern part of Uzhhorod and from there along the Uzh river to the Carpathians.”

The railway depot remained on the Slovak side on this map, until Uzhhorod — Subcarpathian Rus’. By the way, when about a quarter of a century later, Stalin annexed Subcarpathian Rus’ to Soviet Ukraine, and thus to the USSR, he also included it with Chop, because he knew of its strategic importance. The American National Council of Uhro-Rusyns officially requested the incorporation of Subcarpathian Rus’ into the Czechoslovak Republic on 12 November 1918 in Scranton. It was preceded by a kind of plebiscite, or rather a survey among the Rusyns, mostly associated with Greek Catholic parishes. Of the 1,113 people surveyed, 67 percent expressed their interest in joining Czechoslovakia, 28 percent to Ukraine, 9 percent to Russia, 1 percent to Hungary.

The National Council’s resolution also included several conditions for the entry of Subcarpathia into Czechoslovakia and, first of all, the requirement for autonomy, which it had previously requested and applied in the text of the Pittsburgh Agreement to the Slovak League. Masaryk promised the territorial self-government in the new state to the Slovaks and the Rusyns, but how did he represent it at that time? According to the historian Stanislav Konečný of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, certainly differently than Zhatkovych and other American Rusyns.

“T. G. Masaryk understood it as a kind of regional self-government quite natural for democratic states, perhaps with greater institutional emphasis than others,” Konečný thinks, “but G. Zhatkovych apparently perceived autonomy in the context of the US political system, and the relation of the Rusyn territory to Czechoslovakia was seen as a relationship between the member state of the Union and the federal authorities, to whom only the most important competencies were transferred.”

In this spirit, the Scranton resolution followed, demanding unification with Czechoslovakia “on federal principles.” Another condition or requirement was no less serious — all “original Rusyn areas”, namely Spiš, Zemplin, Gemer, Abov, Boršod, Ung, Bereg, Marmaroš, should be part of the autonomous Subcarpathian territory. If the demand for “American-style” self-government was the source of future disputes between Prague and Uzhhorod, the claim to Spiš, Zemplín and Gemer was a worsening of the good relations between the Slovaks and the Rusyns.

These were ethnically mixed regions with a Rusyn minority. It was completely incomprehensible how Zhatkovych could include the Abov and Gemer districts in this list, where only a fraction of the Rusyn population lived.

Already after the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, Masaryk remembered that in Philadelphia, Zhatkovych pointed out some of the risks arising from the requirement to extend the “Uhro-Rusyn” territory, as some of the interested parties called the Carpathian lands of the Rusyns: you will have problems with your neighbors — Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians…

From dreams to a hard reality

Of course, American compatriots did not have the final word, but Rusyns at home. Would they also be connected with the Czechs and the Slovaks, or would they prefer territorial self-government within the Republic of Hungary, which also emerged as one of the successor states after the breakup of Austria-Hungary? Budapest attracted the Rusyns into its “sheep-fold” in all possible ways. In December 1918, the government of Mihály Károlyi even declared Rusyn autonomy under the name Ruszka krajna and appointed its governor.

Meanwhile, in Subcarpathia and in Eastern Slovakia Rusyn National Councils emerged like mushrooms after the rain. Many of them have adopted the programming ideas of their American compatriots. Among the best known were in Uzhhord and Chust, according to Ivan Pop, a Rusynist and historian living in the Czech Republic, but the most important was the Central Rusyn National Council based in Prešov and headed by the attorney Anton (Antonii) Beskyd, a native of Hanigovce near Sabinov. He soon became a member of the Czechoslovak delegation at the Paris peace talks.

Beskyd was unmistakably for incorporation to Czechoslovakia and did not live up to all the demands of the “Americans”. He was also for autonomy, but he was among the realists in terms of the Eastern Slovak Rusyns, and he thought Zhatkovych’s ideas about the boundaries of future autonomy were exaggerated. “The leadership of the council urged President Masaryk and the government of the Czechoslovak Republic to have the Czechoslovak army occupy the territory of Subcarpathian Rus’,” Professor Pop recalls. Before that Hungarian troops were forced out of Slovakia and Uzhgorod was occupied on January 12, 1919, but it did not happen. “The occupation of the Rusyns will not happen without the consent of the Allies (the victorious powers in the First World War — ed.) and only if the population wants it,” T. G. Masaryk explained in a telegram to Paris.

In the spring of 1919, the period of fragmentation of Rusyns at home ended, their three decisive representations gathering in Uzhhorod on May 8, forming the Central National Council with Beskyd as chairman and asking for the region to join Czechoslovakia. Beskyd handed over a memorandum to the Prague government with the outline of the territory and its borders.

The Rusyns reduced their original demands and wanted from Eastern Slovakia to include “only” the Stará Ľubovňa district of Spiš county and the northern parts of Zemplín and Šariš counties in Subcarpathian Rus’. At the Paris Peace Conference in August, Zhatkovych met with Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš. He was told that the victorious powers could approve only the border of Slovakia with Subcarpathian Rus’, which would run along the Uzh river. Zhatkovych resigned himself to the fact that this question would definitely have to be resolved in the future.

Why was the government of the Czechoslovakia for incorporating Subcarpathian Rus’ at all? Beneš explained one of the reasons at the Peace Conference: “It would allow us to live neighboring Great Romania, which is very important to both countries in view of the Hungarian danger…”

Gregory Zhatkovych, the first governor of Subcarpathian Rus’, when signing the Declaration of Common Goals of the Mid-European Democratic Union in Philadelphia (USA) 26 October 1918. Author: Archive

On September 10, 1919, the Rusyns living south of the Carpathian Mountains were recognized as part of Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of St.-Germain (signed between the winning powers and Austria). They were the third largest minority in the state (after Germans and Hungarians), the largest Slavic minority. Their region had an area of ​​over 12,000 square kilometers and nearly 600,000 inhabitants. It “extended” the Republic almost 300 kilometers.

Zhatkovych became the first governor of Subcarpathian Rus’ (beginning in April 1920), but he held this position for only one year. Disappointed that Prague did not fulfill the pledge of autonomy, he returned to the USA. The same thing happened to the Slovaks with the Pittsburgh Agreement, but, like Slovakia, Subcarpathia, thanks to the state bond with the Czechs, they were raised, especially in cultural terms.

After the Munich Agreement and the Vienna Arbitration in the autumn of 1938, it was taken over by Horthy’s Hungary. It was never returned to Czechoslovakia, although during the war people committed themselves to the renewal of a Czech and Slovak state with its pre-Munich borders.

The original author’s rights are reserved. Translated from Slovak into English by Maria Silvestri.



Maria Silvestri

IT>EN and SK>EN translator, President of the John and Helen Timo Foundation. Based in Pittsburgh.