There are currently approximately 400 Hungarians on the Ukranian front line and to date 31 have died for their country.
Think of ethnic minorities in Ukraine and probably the first group that comes to mind is Russian. After all, this is the group of nearly 8 million that President Putin claimed to be defending when he invaded Ukraine nineteen months ago. Since then, many have fled to Russia or more likely have been killed in the onslaught of Russian troops. A curious way to protect your supposed kinfolk.
Ethnic Russians live mainly in the East and South of Ukraine, where much of the fighting is currently centred. If you cast your eye to the Western side of the country, you will find another ethnic minority group: Hungarians, wedged in a corner of the Carpathian Mountains between Slovakia to the west, Hungary to the southwest, Romania to the south, and Poland to the northwest. This is the Zakarpattia region of about 5,000 square miles, otherwise known as the Transcarpathian Oblast and known for its natural beauty, historical sites, and cultural attractions.
According to Ukraine’s 2001 census, the latest available, the number of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine was approximately 156,000, about 0.3% of the population, but this figure is now believed to be closer to 80,000 because of the war. Although Kyiv insists the Zakarpattia region is Ukrainian, it has only been part of the country for the past 74 years, and there’s a good reason why so many ethnic Hungarians live there.
Hungary had a raw deal after the First World War when under the Treaty of Trianon signed in 1920, a year after the Treaty of Versailles, the country lost an unprecedented two-thirds of its territory and half of its population. Hungary’s borders had been established a thousand years earlier in 896 AD, forming a country which the Pope called the “Saviours of Christianity”.
This was because Hungary lost millions of lives defending the rest of Europe from numerous invasions from the likes of the Mongolian Tatars and Ottoman Turks. Trianon awarded Transcarpathia to Czechoslovakia and after annexation by Joseph Stalin in 1949, it became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This constant change of borders led to a bewildering life for some of the elderly. Many were born in Hungary, raised in Czechoslovakia, lived in the USSR, and died in Ukraine without ever having left their village.
Hungary and Ukraine have a long, troubled relationship due to a dispute over the language rights of Hungarian speakers living in the Zakarpattia region. The right to education in their own language for this diaspora has long been a bone of contention between Budapest and Kyiv. In this year’s address outlining his political vision, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban, accused Kyiv of “Hungarophobia”, repeatedly threatening to block Kyiv’s EU and NATO bids over minority rights. And he has a point. In 2017, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine three years earlier, Kyiv sought to boost national identity by passing a law curtailing minority rights, including in education. This angered the Hungarian community and drove them to support Orban.
Russia was quick to note and stoke these ethnic tensions. In 2018, a Hungarian cultural centre in Zakarpattia was attacked twice. Although no one was injured, Ukraine’s intelligence agency, the SBU, launched a wide investigation and concluded that the first explosion was committed by a group of Poles with Russian ties. The second was a purely Russian attack. It is clear that Russia identified Zakarpattia as a point of vulnerability to exploit ethnic tensions and eventually even detach the region from Ukraine.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February last year, Hungarian community leaders in Zakarpattia urged young men to leave Ukraine immediately. Many held Hungarian passports, possible since 1 January 2011 when Hungarians abroad could obtain Hungarian citizenship through a simplified naturalisation process. The exodus resulted in entire villages in Zakarpattia being emptied out before Kyiv banned men of military age from leaving the country. Nevertheless, there are currently believed to be approximately 400 Hungarians on the front line and to date 31 have been recorded dying for their country. Last October, hundreds of Hungarians from Zakarpattia joined the war effort to help liberate the Ukrainian village of Ambarne, in the Kharkiv region, from the Russian invaders. By coincidence, the day happened to be the 66th anniversary of the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary, brutally crushed by Moscow.
A video posted on Facebook on 23 October last year shows three soldiers from Zakarpattia, one being Lieutenant Sandor Fegyir, holding two flags, Ukrainian and Hungarian, and shouting “Go Hungary”. Enthusiastic supporters immediately rallied to send Fegyir’s unit much-needed equipment, including drones, chargers and walkie-talkies. “Hungary is in our hearts and minds as a fatherland”, Fegyir posted, “but we live in Ukraine. We are Ukrainians of Hungarian descent”. Fegyir has become something of a celebrity since the beginning of the war and last month Kyiv nominated him as Ukraine’s next ambassador to Hungary, now approved by Budapest.
Born into a Hungarian-Ukrainian family in 1975, Sandor Fegyir became a university professor in sociology before volunteering to fight for his country. From the start of the war he has served on the front line as the leader of the so-called “Transcarpathian Dragons” unit, garnering attention not only in Hungary but also in Ukraine—especially after he was photographed in the trenches dressed in uniform carrying a gun while giving a lecture online to his students. Now a superstar, his fame has resulted in a mini-statue of him erected in his hometown of Uzhhorod, close to the National University where he worked.
Fegyir appears to be the perfect choice as Ukraine’s new ambassador in Budapest because of his deep understanding of Hungary, Hungarian culture and, of course, the language.
Already he has demonstrated his diplomatic skills by pledging to fight against negative stereotypes about “bad Ukrainians and Hungarians”’ that he claims have been created by manipulative media outlets and politicians. “Hungarian interests are being promoted in a negative way for us by specific agents of Moscow, both on our side and the Hungarian side”, he claimed.
Emphasising the close relations between Ukraine and Hungary, Fegyir noted that Hungary was not only the first to recognise Ukraine’s independence in 1991, but did not close its borders to Ukrainian refugees when Putin invaded the country. Some 40,000 Ukrainian refugees are currently looked after by the Hungarian state, which provides them with accommodation and financial assistance. In addition, over 2 million Ukrainian refugees have been allowed to transit the country to other destinations in Europe.
In her speech at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly held in New York last Tuesday, Hungary’s President Katalin Novak underlined that Hungary unequivocally condemns the violation of international law and the attack on another state. She also emphasised, “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has caused immense suffering and devastation, shattering the previously peaceful life of Europe”.
In her remarks, she emphasised her intention to amplify the voices of those who endure war and repel aggressors. Perhaps she had in mind the 400 brave Hungarians fighting and dying for their country—Ukraine.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.