The Ruska Kraina Experiment

In early December 1918 Ruthenian representatives of various political views from north-eastern Hungarian counties went to Budapest by a special train. The train might have been slow due to the shortage of coal in the post-war months in Hungary, so they had to economize on heating in the locomotive. The Ruthenian delegates were going to a meeting organized for 10 December to obtain information on Count Károlyi Mihály’s government plans concerning the Ruthenians.  The delegates’ views differed already on the train; however one could easily see that the majority of the Ruthenians favoured secession from Hungary. In about ten days after the meeting the X People’s Act was proclaimed in the Hungarian corpus juris on the establishment of Ruszka Krajna (Ruska Kraina) autonomous region.

The Planned Territory of Ruska Kraina

The law guaranteed autonomy for the majority population of the north-eastern counties, namely Ung, Bereg, Ugocsa and Máramaros (Maramureș) who were called Rusyns, not Ruthenians for the first time in December 1919. The Ruthenian ministry located in Budapest and Munkács (Mukachevo) regency had to realize the law on autonomy. Jászi Oszkár, the famous social scientist holding the post of minister without portfolio, was responsible for the autonomy of nations in Hungary. His Switzerland-type canton-based ideas would have radically changed Hungary’s public administration. National federalization was unthinkable for the political elite that was at power before 1918. Moreover, in the process of war-time collapse it was practically impossible to carry out. The minister without portfolio conducted negotiations with the Romanians and the Slovaks in November and December 1918. Both of them failed, so he was looking for agreement with the Ruthenians whom he called “the weakest party”. A part of various groups safeguarding the Ruthenians’ interests was ready to work on remaining under the control of Hungary. Some of them were presumably committed, others were probably hoping for financial gain. Under the leadership of Szabó Oreszt, a civil servant of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ruthenian Ministry was organized in the basement of the Ministry of Justice. In Munkács (Mukachevo) Stefán Ágoston, an adventurous clarion lawyer from Rahó (Rakhiv) could start settling the issues related to the governor’s post.

The leaders of the People’s Republic endeavoured to make its citizens like the idea of the Ruthenian self-government. In the State Propaganda Committee Sztripszky Hiador, an outstanding Ruthenian scientist, organized the popularization of the autonomy. In the capital thematic social evenings were organized, in the highland propagandists promised the hope for better life. Even the great Hungarian prose-writer Krúdy Gyula devoted a book to this case by writing Alpen horn. The small mirror of Ruska Kraina. Anyway, the fate of the book correctly reflects the history of the autonomy experiment. Krúdy wrote the book during the winter of 1918 to acquaint the reading public with the unknown acquaintance – the Ruthenians living in the North-Eastern Hungary. Although the author wanted to publish the book in Ungvár (Uzhhorod) in early 1919, this was not possible for the Czechoslovakian troops invaded the town in January 1919.  The following fact properly characterizes the situation in north-eastern Hungary in 1818-1919. Krúdy wrote his book in the heat of establishing the autonomous region in the Hungarian People’s Republic. However, the Ruthenian People’s Commissariat published it at the time of the Council Republic, when the planned autonomous region was already under the control of the invading military forces.  Embellishing the idea of the Ruthenian autonomy was not an effort made in vain. Numerous people in the four Hungarian counties specified by the law objected to the establishment of the so-called “Ruthenian empire”. Many people could hardly imagine political rights to be given to the Ruthenians who were considered “poor relatives”. Jászi’s experiment did not bring about unambiguous enthusiasm among the highland Ruthenians. The propagandists’ reports reflect that numerous people could not believe Hungary’s intentions were serious, others were committed to the pro-Ukrainian or the pro-Czechoslovakian direction.  At any rate, the propagandists working in the highland reported that they considered it possible to change the sceptics’ opinion by means of appropriate and tolerant politics. However, the Hungarian public administration that was falling apart did not favour aspirations of this kind.

The law did not specify the autonomous region’s borders. Side by side with intense indetermination, this resulted in a kind of double public administration in the north-eastern counties. On the one hand, Stefán Ágoston’s regency in Munkács (Mukachevo), on the other, the government commissioners of four counties – all were eager to conduct public administration, thus leading to frequent debates about competences.  However, it was not this that threatened Ruska Kraina’s chances most. At the turn of 1918-1919 the situation in the highland became desperate. There was no proper public supply, public security collapsed. From January 1919 Czechoslovakian, Romanian, and Ukrainian armies broke into the region. From the point of view of autonomy operation, Hungary’s sovereignty cracked. In March 1919 minister Szabó Oreszt disappointedly asked to be transferred to Munkács (Mukachevo) hoping he would work on the autonomy’s case more efficiently there. This did not happen as far as Szabó did not want to cooperate with the Council Republic established on 21 March. However, the case of Ruska Kraina still remained. The Ruthenian People’s Commissariat was established controlling several counties with a significant number of the Ruthenian population. Stefán Ágoston, the former governor, became the Ruthenian people’s commissar and obtained a post in the Revolutionary Board of Governors. Two armed formations were established: the Ruthenian Red Guard and the Ruthenian Red Watch and people gladly enlisted to avoid starvation and get soldiers’ pay. However, the essential problems hindering the autonomy’s proper functioning remained unsolved at the time of the Council Republic. One of the political representatives of Ung Directorate reported the following about Verkhovyna’s state in April 1919, “[…] the population is secluded from the world, they have no post or telegraph office, no phones, almost no means of transport, and [as a result] they know nothing about the world events, and even if they heard something, it is distorted and in a gloomy view […]. There is no food as well, the people starve […], do not want to come to any meetings or to believe anybody.” The Czechoslovakian and Romanian military expansion cut the Council Republic period to forty days in Ruska Kraina, thus putting an end to the short Ruthenian autonomy experiment.

In one of his 1938 letters Jászi reported that the Ruthenian autonomy had rather a moral significance than a practical one. From a century’s perspective it seems the laws on the Ruthenian autonomy were mostly significant from the point of view of foreign policy of the People’s Republic, they tried to prove the Entente their good intentions towards nations, however there was little chance of their practical realization.

A less known fact is that Stefán Ágoston headed a small group in Warsaw, Poland and established Ruska Kraina’s emigrant Board of Governors. Apart from the fact that they cooperated with Hungary-friendly Slovak emigration, reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, tried to form a Ruthenian legion, they had few results to boast of. Their bravest action was in 1920 when their military group tried to take back from Czechoslovakia Hungary’s administrative unit called Podkarpatská Rus. It is well-known to have been unsuccessful.


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

This work is the fourth 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.