Wilson in Verkhovyna

Szabó Simon, a Greek Catholic canon, the leader of the Hungarian Ruthenian People’s Assembly, declared in November 1918, “The people heard president Wilson’s wakening word and discuss in their wooden huts the rights of nations for self-determination.” Szabó’s comment is rather a rhetorical element fitting the political climate, than a description of the Ruthenian highland’s situation in 1918. Nonetheless, by 1918 the Ruthenians had various political movements of differing popularity that formulated their ideas on the Ruthenians’ future as well as the opportunity of autonomy. Let us see what the preconditions were, what demands the Ruthenians formulated at the time the Monarchy collapsed.

Woodrow Wilson, the president of the USA, who, to the best of our knowledge, never visited Verkhovyna, formulated the well-known fourteen points on the United States’ war aims and terms of peace in his speech held in the American Congress on 8 January 1918. USA allies considered Wilson’s ideas over-idealistic, and though they formed the basis for the Paris peace conference principles, the post-war Europe reality did not see the realization of his principles. Out of fourteen points the tenth dealt with Austria-Hungary, “We should provide the opportunity of free and independent development for Austria-Hungary’s people, whose place among other nations we want to protect and guarantee.” Count Károlyi Mihály IV manifesto of 16 October 1918 reflects Wilson’s principle aimed at transforming Austria into a federation. Károlyi Mihály’s government as well endeavoured to preserve Hungary’s integrity and to find the opportunity to guarantee the nationalities’ autonomy. The assessment of these experiments can still arouse heated debates even among mild-mannered historians. In autumn 1918, on the territory of the dualistic state national councils were established and the representatives of the Ruthenian ethnic group were no exception.

The 1910 census data show that there were almost half a million Ruthenian mother tongue people in the Hungarian Kingdom. Until 1918 the population was officially called Ruthenian, in the vernacular they were Rusyn or Rusnyak; they predominantly lived in the North-Eastern counties of Hungary under miserable economic conditions. Not only the economic situation was poor among the Ruthenians. Their educational level was also lower than that of the rest of the nationalities in Hungary. 1910 data reveal that the rate of literacy among the Ruthenian people was only 22.7%.  Its elite was very small, consisted of almost exclusively the Greek Catholic diocese clergy. All of these unfavourable circumstances contributed to the fact that the 19-century national revival was not successful for the Ruthenians. The Ruthenian movement that started in the middle of the century can be considered rather the result of political intentions at the state level than political initiatives originating at the bottom. Thus, the second half of 19 century was characterized by the rivalry between the Ukrainian and Russian-language orientation as well as by the much more significant attempt to eliminate economic underdevelopment among the Ruthenians. The national councils formulating the Ruthenians’ national demands of various political directions appeared only at the end of WWI, after the collapse of Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The series of establishing Ruthenian national councils started in Szepes County, Ólublón (Stará Ľubovňa). The organization headed by Neviczky Emilián, a Greek Catholic priest, supported the unfolding Ukrainian statehood. Similar pro-Ukrainian councils were formed in Kőrösmező (Yasinia), Szolyva (Svalyava), and Huszt (Khust).  The only pro-Czechoslovakian Ruthenian council was established in the centre of Sáros County, Eperjes (Prešov) under the leadership of former representative of the people’s party in the Hungarian Parliament Beszkid Antal (Anton Beskid).

Intensification of the Ruthenians’ political organization could also be observed out of the Carpathian Basin. In late 19 – early 20 centuries tens of thousands of Ruthenians left their homeland and moved to the US looking for better living conditions. It was predominantly due to the organization of the Greek Catholic Church that they had numerous social organizations by WWI. Further on, the most significant role in the formation of Transcarpathia’s fate was played by the People’s Assembly of American Rusyns, and its representative Gregory Zhatkovich, a Ruthenian origin lawyer, who conducted negotiations with Tomáš Masaryk. While in North-Eastern Hungary the Ruthenian people’s assemblies formulated their demands, on 12 November 1918 in Scranton, USA the American Ruthenians held a referendum among the emigrant community the majority of whom voted for accession to Czechoslovakia. 67% of the votes supported accession to Czechoslovakia, while 28% favoured affiliation with Ukraine. Out of 1102 submitted votes only 27 supported complete independence, 10 wanted accession to Russia, and 9 favoured unity with Hungary. At Paris peace conference this Scranton resolution was one of the nominal bases for the decision-making related to Transcarpathia.

The Ruthenians had but one national council, the people’s assembly, to be exact and it stood up for staying part of Hungary. The formation of the People’s Assembly of Hungarian Ruthenians was obviously organized by the Greek Catholic Church. From the victory of the Aster Revolution and following Károlyi government’s promises, it became clear that they want to guarantee autonomy for Hungary’s nations and bishop Papp Antal welcomed the new government. In his letter of 5 November 1918 to his priests the bishop called the new political changes “the dawn of freedom”. The leaders of the diocese considered it important to establish a group functioning under the Greek Catholic control that would fit into the national councils emerging in Hungary, would express their interests, thus contributing to the work of the Greek Catholic clergy in counterbalancing the anti-Hungarian subversive propaganda. The constituent meeting of the council was initiated by the bishop and took place on 9 November 1918 in Ungvár (Uzhhorod).  The sitting was opened by Volosin Ágoston (Avgustyn Voloshyn), a Greek Catholic rector, director of Ungvár (Uzhhorod) teacher-training seminary. Voloshyn was the one who put Szabó Simon, a Greek Catholic canon, up for promotion to the position of head of the council and he was eventually elected. Members of the People’s Assembly of Hungarian Ruthenians declared at the constituent assembly: “The Hungarian Ruthenian people adhere to their ancient homeland, insist on its territorial integrity and object to any ambitions to separate the Hungarian Ruthenians from their ancient homeland or that would endanger the state integrity of their homeland.”  The overwhelming majority of council members were Greek Catholic priests. This is obvious as far as they formed the predominant part of the narrow intelligentsia stratum. No wonder that the council formulated the bishops’ old wish to establish an autonomous Greek Catholic Ruthenian Church. Nevertheless, it is well-known that some members of the people’s assembly could think of a different way for the Ruthenians. Avgustyn Voloshyn’s memoirs reveal that from the moment people’s assembly was established staying under the control of Hungary was just one, but not the only opportunity. In September 1918 Augustin Štefan was sent to Vienna to hold negotiations with the West-Ukrainian mediators. As far as they did not get any instructions there, they decided to make use of the available opportunities. Voloshyn recalled it in the following way, “in any case we had to provide the Ruthenian nation with what was possible under the given conditions.” The Ruthenian demands formulated by the people’s assembly only partially corresponded to the Hungarian government’s intentions, thus enabling the former to attempt the development of a Ruthenian autonomous territory called Ruszka Krajna (Ruska Kraina).

Imre Szakál
historian, lecturer, research staff member
Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education

This work is the third part in the collection of articles “The hundred-year-old Transcarpathia” initiated by Tivadar Lehoczky Social Sciences Research Centre of Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education.