The Face of the Country

A Forgotten Spot



TUCKED away in the rugged solitude of the Central Carpathians is a quaint little country nor quite 5,000 square miles in extent. From ancient times up to the present day it has been a Cinderella among the countries of Europe. It is lonely, remote and poor, and until some thirty years ago it had little history of its own. Its communications with the rest of the world are scanty— even in these days of fast-moving planes, stream-lined motor cars and express trains. To this day it cannot boast a well­ established name. In the past it has been variously described as Carpatho-Ruthenia, Hungarian Ruthenia, Carpathian Russia, Transcarpathia, Sub-Carpathian Russia; and after having changed its name nearly as often as the leopard his spots, it has recently assumed the official title of Carpatho-Ukraine.


Its position on the map, too, has been subject to fluctuations in recent times. During its close association with Czechoslovakia between the two World Wars it was bounded by Slovakia on the west, had a long frontier with Poland in the north, was flanked by Rumania in the cast and bordered on Hungary in the south. Towards the end of 1938 the fertile lowlands, including the capital, were annexed by the Hungarians, and a few months later the rest of the country was overrun by them. Liberated in 1944 by the Red Army, Carpatho-Ukraine was restored to its former size, but acquired a new neighbour the powerful Soviet Union, in which it was incorporated a few months later.


Although practically unknown, isolated and neglected, this small country under the Carpathians has a strange fascination of its own. Dense forests, partly uncharted and untouched by human hand, cover nearly one half of its area. Above them, on the upper slopes of the mountains which traverse the country from west to cast, rising to a height of well over 6,000 feet are the Alpine pastures where cattle, sheep and horses graze as soon as the snow is gone. These virgin mountains of surprising beauty are only sparsely populated. The people who inhabit them live in long, straggling villages which line the steep and narrow valleys, or in lonely huts scattered over the lower They work in the forests, felling trees or floating rafts down the swift torrents; they tend their livestock which, for part of the year, roams freely over the mountain pastures ; and in the glens they till what scanty soil there is, reaping a meagre crop of potatoes and oats.


These backwoods peasants are a primitive race; even to day many cannot read or write. Living in the seclusion of their mountains, they have largely preserved their traditions, superstitions and customs which vary from district to district.


They are skilled in a number of handicrafts, and not a few of their lonely settlements are repositories of peasant art. The women are deft with their homely spinning-wheels of looms, and the neat patterns and lovely colour-effects of their embroideries testify to their natural sense of beauty. Both the men and the women still wear their traditional costumes and a gathering of the villagers in their Sunday best is a delightful spectacle.

Ornamented pottery is popular. Many a hut has a shelf of decorated puts, jugs, plates and cups, and in the towns, on market days, the peasant craftsman who sells the earthenware he has made and decorated with his own hands is a familiar sight.


Carving was once a flourishing craft in this land of endless woods. Although now it is dying out quickly, one still finds, in some villages, carved household utensils and farming implements, while primitively carved figures and ornam­ental patterns decorate wayside shrines and churches. The old wooden crosses in Byzantine style, of which only very few have been preserved, are among the finest specimens of this craft.


The rare wooden churches in the mountainous areas show that the native craftsmen, skilled with the axe, have handled their material with good taste. Most of these places of worship are extremely picturesque and delightfully primitive, revealing their racial origin in their resemblance to some of the churches of southern and even northern Russia. Not so national in style are those Carpathian churches which show the influence of the Gothic or Baroque, but in these less original and less attractive structures, too, local tastes have asserted themselves.


And then there are the quaint wooden cottages, with their steep span-roofs of straw or shingles, which nestle in the valleys or perch on the mountain-sides. They are often dilapidated, and in some parts of the country many thatched huts are little better than hovels, providing bare shelter for man and beast. Yet whatever their condition, there is some-thing pathetically attractive about these humble dwellings


These remote mountainous districts of Carpatho- Ukraine are cut off from the busier and more civilised regions. Shapely peaks and broad ridges rise above this curious mixture of beauty, primitiveness and poverty in self-contained detachment. The countless springs which trickle down the slopes, the lively brooks and the impatient streams which rush through rocky gorges and narrow valleys, do not care. And vast forests, with their brooding depths in which trees felled by the storm lie dead where they have fallen, envelop this remote world in a cloak of mysterious silence  To the south-west the landscape is different. True, one also finds here barren and almost uninhabited masses of rock, covered with woods and topped with upland grazing grounds. But these southern clumps of mountains are intersected by broad and sheltered valleys, in which rich vegetation thrives. The fertile soil of these basins supports a denser population. Their lush meadows, their fields of maize and rye, and the luxuriant vines on the slopes of the foothills, give this part of the country an air of prosperity.


The people who live here are naturally better off than the highlanders from whom they differ in many ways. In some of these valleys the villagers have also preserved their traditional garments, but these have a style of their own and their colours show greater variety. In other parts, however, foreign influences have supplanted native customs, and the once flourish­ing home crafts are giving place to the industries of the towns.


This is even more applicable to the population in the fertile plain of the river Tisa further south where the Slav race is intermingled with foreign elements - chiefly Hungarians and Jews -and its racial tradition is largely a thing of the past. But this low-lying region is prosperous, and its life throbs at a quicker pace. Apart from maize, which is the staple crop, the fields are yellow with golden wheat and the trees are heavy with luscious fruit. Owing to the favourable climate, the tobacco plant grows in the sheltered fields and its leaves are prepared in the local factories. Tobacco production is one of the country’s few industries, of which the timber industry, the distilling of alcohol, the manufacture of bricks and the mining of salt, are the most important.


What progressive economic life there is can mostly be found in the sunny south, where, in proximity to the main railway line and its branches, most of the major towns are situated. Of these, only a few can be described as towns in the true sense of the word.  Among them the pride of place is held by Uzhorod, the capital, which, since the first World War has become a fine modern city. Most of the other towns are little more than large localities with a thin veneer of semi-urban civilisation. In spite of the headway made by Carpatho-Ukraine during the years of its association with the • Czechoslovak Republic, the country with its limited mineral resources is rural in character.


East Slovakia Genealogical Research Strategies