The Trident and the Turul Bird
The Hungarians of Transcarpathia pose awkward questions for Ukraine’s Western backers.
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When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I, Hungary lost her most imposing fortifications. In the mountains of what is now Slovakia, Orava Castle so impressed Hollywood location scouts that it was used to film Nosferatu. The Romanians took Corvin Castle in Transylvania, though a full-scale replica still exists in Budapest City Park. In Mukachevo, Palanok Castle was inherited first by Czechoslovakia, then, after a brief Hungarian recovery in World War II, by the Soviet Union, and finally by Ukraine. Last October, the city council replaced a statue in the castle courtyard of the Turul, a mythological bird that supposedly guided the medieval Hungarian migration from Central Asia, with the Ukrainian trident, a symbol that has lately become ubiquitous on social media.
The Russian invasion has exposed a rift between Hungary, NATO, and Ukraine over a substantial and occasionally restive Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s southwestern province of Transcarpathia. Yet the rhetorical clashes between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are merely one facet of broader changes taking place within Ukrainian society. In the midst of a devastating war, a country whose short history has been riven by ethnic, linguistic, and cultural tension is gradually transforming into a more cohesive nation-state. Where that leaves Ukraine’s linguistic and ethnic minorities is an open question.
In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington described Ukraine as a “cleft nation,” caught between Western and Russian spheres of influence. Before the 2022 invasion, Western outlets reported sympathetically on the linguistic and political grievances of Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine. This divide, used as a pretext for Russia’s “special military operation,” actually understates Ukraine’s internal diversity. The country is also home to Romanian, Slovakian, Bulgarian, and Rusyn communities. Entire villages of Hungarian speakers can be found in the province of Transcarpathia on Ukraine’s southwestern border. To many of these distaff Hungarians, the removal of the Turul statue is the latest in a long line of worrying developments.
Minority rights are often associated with recent arrivals, but the Hungarians have been in southwestern Ukraine for a very long time. “Hungarians lived here for a thousand years,” says Sandor Spenik, a dean at Uzhhorod National University. The medieval Hungarian migration from Central Asia to Europe, the journey that was supposedly guided by the Turul bird, had several stops along the way. Many Hungarians settled in what is now southwestern Ukraine while their cousins continued west.
Before the Russian invasion, approximately 150,000 Hungarian-speakers lived in Transcarpathia. If their relationship with Kiev is awkward, their connection to Hungary is also ambiguous. Dual citizenship is forbidden under Ukrainian law, but many Hungarian-speakers are able to obtain Hungarian passports under the table. These ethnic Hungarians only pay taxes in Ukraine, but they may vote in Hungarian parliamentary elections, an arrangement that is sometimes resented on the other side of the border. “Representation without taxation,” a Hungarian friend jokingly calls it.
The Hungarians of Transcarpathia are part of a unique blend of languages and ethnicities that have long characterized the region. “We have a mixed culture,” says Spenik, who mentions historic communities of Hungarians, Slovaks, Jews, Rusyns, and Ukrainians in the area. Despite linguistic and ethnic ties to the mother country, Hungarian speakers in places like Mukachevo and Uzhhorod have their own distinct folkways. “First of all, I am Transcarpathian, then I’m Hungarian,” says Spenik. During the interview, he excuses himself briefly to answer his phone in fluent Ukrainian.
War and conflict have sharpened many national identities, and the Russian invasion is having a similar effect in Ukraine. Ukrainians who once spoke Russian as their first language now take Ukrainian language classes to demonstrate patriotic solidarity. Last Christmas, many Ukrainians who had previously followed the Orthodox calendar celebrated on December 25 to signify their pro-Western, anti-Russian bona fides. A Ukrainian teenager who attends high school in Budapest says family members back home have become careful about speaking Russian in shops and public spaces. Hungarian speakers say they face similar pressures to conform linguistically.
These developments put Ukraine’s Hungarian-speaking community in a difficult position. Because they share many of the same cultural and linguistic grievances as the country’s Russian-speaking minority, they are viewed with suspicion by Kiev and its Western allies. “Ukrainians are traumatized by Crimea and Donbas,” says political scientist Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, a reference to the provinces annexed by Russia in 2014. Although he acknowledges that a Hungarian invasion is vanishingly unlikely, Tuzhanskyi says that many Ukrainians fear that “Transcarpathia is a second Donbas.”
Tuzhanskyi is not ethnically Hungarian, but his wife has Hungarian heritage. He comes from a typically mixed background, having grown up with a Ukrainian-speaking mother and a Russian-speaking father. Like many of his countrymen, he favors greater integration and argues that living in a “Hungarian bubble” makes it difficult for Hungarian speakers to engage with the Ukrainian mainstream.
Historically, the Hungarian-speaking minority in Ukraine has enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy in matters of language and education. Even before the war, these rights were contested. Krisztina Pasztellak, a Hungarian speaker who grew up outside the Ukrainian town of Berehove and now lives in Budapest, says that she had to find a private tutor and take a crash course in Ukrainian to make sure she could graduate high school in 2017. Pasztellak and Spenik both fear that many Hungarian schools in Ukraine will soon be forced to close.
A 2017 language law, the provisions of which are broad and open to interpretation, indicates that national minorities such as Hungarians can be instructed in their native language, but does not enshrine this as a right, leaving the decision to education authorities. In January 2022, another law went into effect requiring all print media to offer parallel Ukrainian translations when publishing in another language. A further tightening of Ukraine’s media laws occurred in the summer of 2022.
The tensions…are difficult to resolve because both sides have eminently reasonable claims.
Tuzhanskyi says that criticism of Ukraine’s education and language policies is “fake news” ginned up by Budapest, but Hungary is not the only E.U. member state to take note. Romania and Hungary have their own disagreements about ethnic minorities (a Hungarian enclave in Transylvania has long troubled relations between the two countries), but in a rare moment of comity, Bucharest and Budapest both raised public concerns about the recent legal changes.
The tensions between the Ukrainian government and its Hungarian-speaking minority, embodied by the symbolic removal of the Turul statue from Palanok Castle, are difficult to resolve because both sides have eminently reasonable claims. Orban is often portrayed as a chauvinistic nationalist, but the plight of the Transcarpathian Hungarians should appeal to any good liberal schooled in the virtues of diversity, tolerance, and pluralism. The E.U., for example, has extensive rules and generous subsidies to protect minorities in its various member states. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has an understandable interest in promoting national unity in wartime. Tuzhanskyi speaks for many Ukrainians when he calls for greater national integration and equal treatment under the law.
Nowhere is this conflict clearer than in the issue of conscription, where the military interests of the Ukrainian government clash with the ambiguous status of its Hungarian-speaking citizens. Coverage of the war in Ukraine has been dominated by boutique weapons systems, from F-16 fighter jets to Patriot missile batteries, but a more salient and less remarked upon issue is manpower. Despite its battlefield successes, Ukraine still faces an enemy with greater military reserves, an imbalance that has forced the government to introduce mandatory military service. Many Hungarian speakers have fled the country as a result.
Not all are unwilling to fight. According to Spenik’s own informal survey of family names, several hundred ethnic Hungarians are currently serving in the Ukrainian military. During our interview, he mentioned a university colleague stationed on the frontlines near Zaporizhzhya. Last May, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences awarded a prize in mathematics via videoconference to an ethnic Hungarian servicemember from Uzhhorod deployed to eastern Ukraine.
However, many young Hungarians have left the country to avoid military service (or to take advantage of greater opportunities in the West). Pasztellak says she has no plans to return to her family home outside Berehove. Most of the young Hungarian speakers from her hometown have left, she says, leaving only grandparents behind. Spenik, who has no plans to leave Ukraine, also laments the exodus of younger Hungarian speakers. “We’re losing the next generation of Transcarpathians,” he says.
Eager to find fissures in the Western alliance, President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting to exploit divisions between Ukraine and Hungary over the status of Hungarian-speaking prisoners of war. In early June, Russia transferred eleven Hungarian speakers directly to Hungary, bypassing the Ukrainian government completely. Further transfers are reportedly in progress under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church.
To Westerners, the war in Ukraine is shocking because it marks the first major ground conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. From E.U. integration to aging demographics, there are many ideas about why this formerly war-torn continent has become so quiescent, but an under-discussed reason for Europe’s “long peace” is the erasure of ethnic and linguistic minorities during the first half of the 20th century.
This development is overshadowed by ideological conflict and Europe’s self-image as a peaceful, enlightened continent. Yet the post–World War I transformation of sprawling, multiethnic empires such as Czarist Russia and Austria-Hungary into nation-states and the destruction or physical removal of ethnic minorities during and after World War II brutally erased many political irritants. The historian Tony Judt summarized the changes wrought by the wars and their aftermath thus: “The ancient diasporas of Europe—Greeks and Turks in the south Balkans and around the Black Sea; Italians in Dalmatia; Hungarians in Transylvania and the North Balkans; Poles in Volhynia (Ukraine), Lithuania, and the Bukovina; Germans from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from the Rhine to the Volga; and Jews everywhere—shriveled and disappeared. A new, ‘tidier’ Europe was being born.”
Most of Europe became “tidier” after World War II, but Ukraine, a country that has long been a meeting point for cultures, religions, and ethnicities, is the exception that proves the rule. Because it is still home to significant minorities, Ukraine is vulnerable to foreign meddling and domestic squabbling. If the war drags on and Ukrainians become increasingly embittered toward Russian speakers, ethnic Hungarians, and other perceived internal enemies, their national identity may harden into something more cohesive but less tolerant, more patriotic but less accepting of difference.
In a strange twist, Russia, widely portrayed in Western media as an avatar of reactionary nationalism, looks from the Ukrainian perspective like the latest in a long line of encroaching imperial powers. Russian soldiers are routinely referred to as “orcs” on social media, with special disdain reserved for those from non-European provinces such as Chechnya and the Russian Far East. Several high-ranking Russian officials are of non-European origin; Sergei Shoigu, the Russian minister of defense, is an ethnic Tuvan from Siberia. For many Ukrainians, a war that is described in Western media as a fight for liberal democracy is actually a struggle for national survival against an imperial aggressor, heir to the Soviets and the czars.
The Turul bird is not the only statue in Ukraine that has been taken down recently. Across the country, Russian political and cultural monuments are also being removed, and not just relics from the Soviet era. It is likely that the current war will become a foundational myth for a new Ukraine, akin to stories of heroic Minutemen fighting for American independence or Hungarian folklore about their epic migration from Central Asia. What this new country will look like after the war ends, however, is still unclear. Can Ukraine defend itself while preserving a diverse but troublesome inheritance? Or will the “old” Ukraine gradually recede under the combined pressures of assertive nationalism and foreign aggression?