According to the latest census done in Ukraine in 2001, 151,000 Hungarians lived in the country’s Transcarpathia region. Since then, this number has decreased significantly. A survey done by the Bethlen Gábor Foundation in 2017 found that the number of Hungarians living in Transcarpathia was around 125 thousand. If we add the Romani Hungarians, that number rises to 131 thousand. Five years passed, and living conditions did not improve. Thus, their number probably continued to fall. But why are they still living in Transcarpathia if life proves to be so difficult there? And will they all leave Ukraine because of the Russian invasion?
Transcarpathia was a peripheric region of the Kingdom of Hungary throughout the centuries and never existed as an entity until the 20th century. In 895-896, when the Hungarian tribes conquered the Carpathian basin, Prince Árpád led his people on the Verecke Pass. Therefore, Verecke is one of the legendary Hungarian places many songs, rhymes and poems commemorate.
The newly found kingdom’s centre was far from Transcarpathia, and the land there was not exceptionally rich in natural resources. Therefore, the Transcarpathian counties became a periphery. Furthermore, nomads of the steppe plundered it regularly.
Until the Mongol invasion (1240-1241), Transcarpathia was mostly inhabited by Hungarians. However, the Tatar hordes burned Transcarpathia down and killed everybody. Therefore, the king invited Rusins and Germans to help restart life in Transcarpathia. The rate of Hungarians decreased while the region became more important when Lajos the Great (1342-1382) started to mine salt in the Máramaros mountains.
During the Ottoman era, Transcarpathia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and later of the Principality of Transylvania. During the Rákóczi fight for independence, all people living there supported Rákóczi, and the region was a nest for the kuruc rebels. In the Habsburg Empire, it became a periphery again since it was far from both Vienna and Pest. Furthermore, it did not produce any valuable goods because the region’s economy was based on agriculture.
After the compromise in 1867, there were several development plans. But neither could be finished because of WWI. After the Great War, the region
became a hot spot since both Romania and Chechoslovakia wanted it.
Furthermore, Transcarpathia was the only region of the old Hungary for which the new Károlyi-government gave autonomy. Thus, there was significant support towards Hungary and not only among the Hungarians who consisted 30% of the population (185,000).
However, the Great Powers decided to give Transcarpathia to Czechoslovakia, marking the start of the calvary of the locals. Between 1920 and 1938, it belonged to Prague, but when Nazi Germany decided to destroy Czechoslovakia, Hungary announced its claim for the territory. In 1938, following the First Vienna Award, only the southern part of it returned to Budapest.
In March 1939, when Hitler marched into Prague, the Hungarian troops seized Transcarpathia.
Interestingly, the new Polish-Hungarian border allowed Hungary to welcome the Polish refugees after Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939.
In 1944, the Soviet Union took control of it and even though Czechoslovakia wanted Transcarpathia, they did not have a word against the victorious superpower. The Soviets said the Hungarians and Germans were war criminals, so they took 30 thousand Hungarian men (!) into labour camps deep into the Soviet Union. Ten thousand of them never returned.
After the change of the regime, Transcarpathia became part of the new Ukraine. However, there was a referendum during which 78% of the people decided on autonomy.
Despite that decision, Kyiv did not declare the region autonomous.
If a Hungarian reached a high age in the 20th century, he could tell he was a citizen of five different countries even though he never left his home village. They started their life in the Kingdom of Hungary (until 1918-1920), then came Czechoslovakia (1920-1938/9), the Kingdom of Hungary (1938/9 – 1944), the Soviet Union (1944-1991) and Ukraine.
Today thousands of Hungarians flee Ukraine because of the Russian invasion. Most of them come to Hungary, and we only hope that after the war they will return home. Otherwise, the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia will disappear in just decades.