Ivan Pop: The Czechoslovak World in the Carpathians (review, 2018)

20.03.2023


In the three parts of the The Czechoslovak World in the Carpathians you will find almost 1300 historical photographs and artefacts.

On the pages of contemporary newspapers and magazines we read daily texts dedicated to the centenary of the Czechoslovak Republic. Most authors stress that the Czechoslovak Republic was a state of two nations, Czechs and Slovaks. They forget about the third national state-forming component of this state - the Rusyns, whose homeland, called by the Versailles peacemakers "the territory of the South Carpathian Rusyns", was annexed to the Czechoslovakia at the request of the Rusyns themselves. It may have been a coincidence, but it was a happy one, exceptional in the troubled history of the region below the Carpathians. The Ruthenians found themselves in a European developed, civilized Czechoslovak society, which at this moment reached its peak in the national emancipation process, created its own state - although territorially quite strange, as it united three different national units with completely different social and political structures. 

The positive Czech national euphoria and the accelerated development of the emancipation process of the Slovak nation were also reflected in the development of Rusyn society, helping it to overcome centuries of underdevelopment. The region under the Carpathian Mountains did not even have a name yet; it received it only from the Czechoslovak government in a document concerning its status - the General Statute for the Organization and Administration of Subcarpathian Rus. The process of annexation of Subcarpathian Rus, its integration in the new state and the socio-political development of Rusyn society are analysed in publications by historians, economists and political scientists. The CSR acquired a neglected region whose population, especially the rural population, lived at a patriarchal level. The Hungarian state administration collapsed during the coup, some of the officials left for the Hungarian interior, the other part refused to take the oath to the new republic, expecting its early collapse and the return of the "good old days".  The government of the Czechoslovak Republic had to quickly fill this gap and consolidate the situation in Subcarpathian Rus, thousands of officials, soldiers, but also doctors and teachers were sent there. Their stay in Subcarpathian Rus was seen as temporary, but many of them spent the entire 20 years of the First Republic there and created a special Czechoslovak world in Subcarpathian Rus. Unfortunately, this aspect of the history of the Czechoslovak Republic has not been treated yet. 

The task of mapping - and in fact rediscovering - the life, work and culture of Czechoslovak society in Subcarpathian Rus' was successfully fulfilled by a friend of the Rusyns, an admirer of the beauty of the Subcarpathian landscape, Slovak diplomat and traveller Vladimír Kustek. He has made a huge effort to reconstruct the life of Czech and Slovak officials, gendarmes, etc., which is shrouded in time. The work of those who worked tenaciously to consolidate conditions in a region torn apart by war and double occupation - by the Hungarian Red Army and the Romanian Royal Army. He mapped the life of teachers who taught Ruthenian children and fought the prejudices of parents who did not understand why children had to go to school for 7 years; the work of doctors, medics, members of the Czechoslovak Red Cross, who eradicated the diseases left by the war; he followed the work of surveyors who gave land to the landless, nationalized by the landlords. He also paid attention to the work of national economists who taught the Rusyn peasants modern farming and tried to involve them in market relations and thus free them from the unfair practices of usurers. 

All this had to be done by V. Kuštek searched in dusty contemporary newspapers, brochures, official reports. In the course of his work, he was one of the first to record and collect the accounts of living witnesses of these events. And in doing so, he opened a page of oral history of Subcarpathian Rus and the Czechoslovak community in the region. All the participants in his research spoke with great affection about their activities at that time, and especially about the work of their parents (most of the narrators were from the generation that spent their childhood in Podkarpatsk).  The first wave of Czechs and Slovaks, Kuštek found, were shocked by what they saw in the cities, towns and villages of Subcarpathia. This region appeared to the Czechs as a great unknown, a kind of dark corner of the Orient in Central Europe; they called it "Asia" behind Košice, "the gift of the Danube," a Pandora's box from which misfortune suddenly poured out on Czech and Slovak experts. This feeling was shared by thousands of soldiers, officials, teachers, doctors. The feeling of despair of the Czech experts was aptly described in his reports by one of them, the military doctor and writer Jaroslav Durych, who at the same time was searching hard for the "soul" of Subcarpathian Rus. 

However, as Kuštek points out, those who spent ten years or more in the "land under the Poloniny" and got to know its soul had a different feeling. One of them, the painter O. Pokorný, later wrote: "Experience has shown on those who lived there for a longer time and came back that in the first moments after their return they lived with a constant feeling of a kind of impoverishment and flattening of impressions, with the feeling with which we get up from an interesting book we have read. For Subcarpathian Russia is a land of contrasts, and with them it assaults our perception. Do not be surprised that there are so many poets and painters, gendarmes, financiers, clerks, teachers."  The Czechoslovak administration concentrated on solving pressing social and economic issues, especially agrarian reform, the development of the infrastructure of the cities and the country as a whole, and the construction of hospitals and schools.  These were their official duties, but at the same time, as Kuštek points out, they were trying to create a new Czechoslovak cultural world, founding Sokol clubs, sports teams, even playing hockey, hitherto unknown in the region. The officers not only trained soldiers, but also organised brass band concerts, their wives organised balls. These events were open to all, which was a great contrast to the "old days" when such events were only for the "select company" of the Hungarian elite. 

We must stress one more extremely positive aspect of V. Kuštek's work.  It is his precision and impartiality in describing the history of Rusyn towns, cities and villages. Kuštek has actually created a special full-text encyclopedia of them, compiled a unique travelogue of Subcarpathian Rus. An interesting phenomenon of the Czechoslovak world in the region, discovered by Kuštek, was the participation of Czech and Slovak cultural figures in the process of national revival of the Rusyns. Czech and Slovak painters were active members of the Society of Subcarpathian Painters. Ruthenian literature was promoted by A. Hartl, J. Zatloukal, and J. Spilka promoted Rusyn folklore. World-famous Czech and Slovak architects designed new districts in Subcarpathian towns, art historians saved gems of folk architecture. 

V.Kuštek's book is richly illustrated with unique period photographs, which can serve as interesting material for historical sociology. The publication of the book by V. Kuštek's book is an important gift for the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Czechs, Slovaks and Subcarpathian Rusyns.

Prof. Ivan Pop 

Translated with DeepL.com (free version)

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