The Czechoslovak Orient: Carpathian Ruthenia as an Imagined Colonial Space
In 1919 the territory of Subcarpathian Ruthenia joined the new state of Czechoslovakia under the terms set by the Treaty of Saint Germain. During the following twenty years a relationship developed between Czechs and Ruthenia’s Rusyn inhabitants which this study considers as an example of imperialism and colonialism. The Czech media applied a colonial framework in its portrayals of Ruthenia, encouraging the Czech public to see the poor and undeveloped territory as a colony ruled from Prague. Rusyns also used colonial terminology as a means of criticizing the Czech officials who ruled them. The colonial discourse occurred despite a shared Slavic ethnic background and even as representatives of both nations expressed brotherhood and solidarity towards one another. Some Czech officials sent to Ruthenia adopted imperialist attitudes and practices in an environment of minimal bureaucratic oversight, leading to friction with the Rusyn intelligentsia. Faced with the threat of Czechization, Rusyns struggled to achieve autonomy and an anti-imperialist movement supporting Rusyn rights developed among Czech Communists. The Prague government sought to defend its actions in Ruthenia against accusations of mistreatment by the Hungarian revisionist movement. The existing Anglophone and Czech-language historiography on interwar Ruthenia generally portrays Czech rule as kindly and beneficial for the Rusyn population, focusing on Slavic kinship. Aiming to provide a fresh and detailed analysis of the Czechoslovak administration and the cultural forces at work in forming a colonial discourse, this study draws on an extensive range of government documents, newspapers and archival materials collected in Prague and Brno. By applying the theories of Edward Said, Jürgen Osterhammel, Maria Todorova and Kristin Kopp, the relationship is assessed through the terminology of discursive and material colonialism, together with Orientalism, liberal imperialism and internal colonialism. Three different areas of scholarly interest are the focus of this study: symbolic geography and colonial discourses in European contexts, political and social developments in Ruthenia, and treatment of national minorities in interwar Czechoslovakia. The study includes eight chapters which alternate between viewing the relationship from the Czech perspective and the Rusyn perspective. The opening chapter analyzes the Czech role as Slavic leaders and benefactors in the new republic and how a Czech humanitarian mission became a mission civilisatrice. The second chapter focuses on the shift in thinking among Rusyns from jubilation after joining the republic to growing disillusionment over denial of political autonomy. Chapters three and four describe the formation of a discursive colonial relationship; the third chapter presents how Czechs imagined Rusyns in the mold of colonial stereotypes, while the fourth chapter analyzes how Czechs and Rusyns imagined their relationship through comparisons to other colonial regions such as Africa, the Orient and Siberia. Chapter five focuses on the experiences of Czech officials working in Ruthenia, highlighting the shift in Rusyn perceptions of these administrators from Slavic brothers to imperialists. The role played by Czech official and publisher František Svojše as a symbol of Czech chauvinism receives special attention in the analysis. The sixth chapter covers the Czech anti-colonial movement among Communists and left-wing authors such as Ivan Olbracht who condemned the imperialist character of the Czech administration in Ruthenia. Chapter seven outlines the Rusyn struggle for autonomy and resistance of Czechization until the achievement of an independent parliament in 1938. The final chapter describes the Czech fear of imperial loss, analyzing how Czech media and politicians defended Czechoslovak rule in Ruthenia against international criticism and the Hungarian revisionist movement.