As a sign of just how serious the turmoil in Ukraine, which is now spreading throughout the country, has become, commentators are now seriously talking about whether the country has a viable future in its current form. "What we are seeing in Ukraine today is not a political crisis, or an East-West divide, but the collapse of the model of Ukrainian statehood that's existed since the end of the USSR," Fyodor Lukyanov, a widely cited Russian foreign policy commentator, told the Christian Science Monitor. “It can't go on as it has for two decades. It's clear there must be fundamental changes." President Viktor Yanukovych has also accused foreign governments of attempting to divide the country.
An actual Czechoslovakia-style split-up of the country is still highly unlikely, but it’s clear that the young country’s stark division along linguistic lines has hardened into a political split between the Ukrainian-speaking west, from which most of the pro-European protesters hail, and the Russian-speaking east. (Yanukovych didn’t even speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s.)
As Gwendolyn Sasse, a lecturer in Eastern European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, recently wrote in the Guardian, “In its 1991 borders, independent Ukraine is a historical novelty. Four empires—Habsburg, Russian, Ottoman and Soviet—left their mark on different parts of Ukraine and made regional differences one of its most prominent characteristics. They include ethno-linguistic, religious, socio-economic and political differences.”
One of the odder episodes illustrating the unlikelihood of Ukraine’s current geographic configuration is the brief existence of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, also known as Carpatho-Ruthenia, a country that enjoyed independence for just one day.
Historian Norman Davies gives a good account of Carpatho-Ukraine’s brief history in his 2012 book Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. Ruthenians, also known as Rusyns, are an ethno-linguistic group, traditionally, though not exclusively following a branch of Eastern Catholicism, spread across western Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and several other countries.* The most famous person of Ruthenian heritage is probably Andy Warhol, born Andrij Warhola, whose parents, immigrants from what is today Slovakia, spoke the language.
After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the predominantly Ruthenian Carpatho-Ukraine region became a part of the newly independent Czechoslovakia, though there was a strong movement in favor of independence, and the region was granted a substantial degree of autonomy, along with Slovakia, in 1938. On March 15, 1939, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, occupying Prague and declaring Bohemia and Moravia, or what is now the Czech Republic, to be a protectorate of the Reich.
Slovakia then declared itself a sovereign state, leaving Carpatho-Ukraine in an awkward position. As Davies puts it, “Slovak independence would cut them off from Prague completely. They had little enthusiasm to attach themselves to Poland; Polish-Ukrainian relations were not the best. And, though some sympathy existed for the theoretical concept of a Greater Ukraine, they had no wish in practice to join Stalin’s blood-soaked Soviet Union. To stand any chance of survival, Carpatho-Ruthenia’s only sensible course of action would be to declare independence.”
So that day, a republic was declared with a president and prime minister—its flag was the blue and yellow bars we now know as the Ukrainian flag—but by that evening, Hungarian troops—under authorization from Germany—poured in across the border, putting an end to the state. As one travel writer who happened to be in the country at the time put it, “In twenty-four hours we lived in three different states.” The short-tenured President Avhustyn Voloshyn would die in a Soviet jail six years later.
The Hungarians were forced out by the Red Army in 1945, and the territory was absorbed into the Soviet Union. After Ukraine won its independence in 1991, it re-emerged as the state of Zakarpattia. There is still a small Ruthenian nationalist movement in western Ukraine, but it doesn’t get too much attention compared with the more autonomous Crimea.
The overall point of Davies’ book is that the national boundaries of Europe are far more arbitrary that we realize. Had things turned out differently, Carpatho-Ukraine or Prussia could be countries today as easily as Slovakia or Belgium. As we’re seeing this month in Ukraine, despite how much we take borders in Europe for granted, some questions of national identity are hardly settled.
*Correction, Jan. 28, 2014: This post originally identified the traditional religion of the Ruthenians as Greek Orthodoxy. It was actually a form of Eastern Catholicism.