The Saint Miklós castle in Ukraine’s westernmost district has for years put on a medieval show with jousting knights, in a bid to revive a sense of identity for the ethnic Hungarians who had been living here for centuries.
But since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia — a region bordering Hungary — has increasingly felt closer to Kyiv than to Budapest where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has only consolidated his ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Hungarians are the largest of dozens of ethnic minorities that make up the historically diverse region, wedged in a corner of the Carpathian Mountains between Romania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Once close to 150,000, the Hungarian community now numbers about 70,000-80,000.
“There are no Hungarians here; it’s just me. The others have assimilated . . . or left,” said József Bartos, the castle’s director. “We have suffered the consequences” of an ongoing animosity between Budapest and Kyiv, he said.
The status of Hungarians — especially a right to education in their own language — has long been a bone of contention between Hungary and Ukraine. In this year’s address outlining his political vision, Orbán accused Kyiv of “Hungarophobia”. He has also repeatedly threatened to block Kyiv’s EU and Nato bids over minority rights.
After Russia annexed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine from 2014, Kyiv sought to boost national identity and in 2017 passed a law curtailing minority rights, including in education. That angered the Hungarian community and drove them to support Orbán.
But since last year’s full-scale invasion, most Hungarians in Zakarpattia have changed their minds.
“I used to identify as a Hungarian with Ukrainian citizenship,” said György Buleca, the director of a company that imports goods from Hungary. “That changed when Orbán said this was not his war and that we should agree to a ceasefire.”
“What Orbán does . . . only makes sense as someone else’s agenda,” he said, referring to Putin. “The war has changed everything. The Hungarians in Zakarpattia don’t support Orbán any more.”
Minority rights are a non-issue, he said. Schools can still teach everything in Hungarian until age 10, then they must gradually introduce Ukrainian.
“The law is the law. We are in Ukraine. Is it OK if you don’t speak Ukrainian? No,” Buleca said. “This whole issue is hijacked by Russians; Orbán is their pawn.”
Moscow has indeed sought to stoke ethnic tensions, said Yaroslav Galas, who was the deputy governor of Zakarpattia until he joined Ukrainian forces fighting on the front line in March last year.
A Hungarian cultural centre in Zakarpattia was attacked twice in 2018. Although no one was injured, the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence agency, launched a wide investigation. Galas said he worked closely with it and found that the first explosion was committed by a group of Poles with Russian ties. The second was a purely Russian job, Galas said.
“Moscow wanted to add fuel to the fire that the education law ignited,” Galas said.
By the time the attacks happened, Ukraine had information that Russia had identified Zakarpattia as a point of vulnerability to exploit ethnic tensions and eventually even detach the region from Ukraine, Galas said.
“The ties between Budapest and Kyiv were strained, and Russia saw an opportunity to get in on the act,” Galas said. After the 2022 invasion, however, Russians have not focused on Zakarpattia as much.
Like Galas, hundreds of ethnic Hungarians joined the war effort and helped liberate the village of Ambarne in the Kharkhiv region on October 23, coinciding with Hungary’s national holiday commemorating the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution.
A video posted at that time, showing Lieutenant Sandor Fegyir with two comrades holding the Ukrainian and Hungarian flags, shouting “Go Hungary!” went viral. Soon Fegyir received hundreds of offers to help from Hungarian citizens: within two weeks, his unit began to receive vital equipment, including chargers, drones and walkie-talkies.
According to Fegyir’s calculations, there are 374 Hungarians on the front line and 31 have died in combat.
Kyiv has nominated Fegyir as its next ambassador to Budapest. Hungary has not yet accepted him, but he is confident he will take up his post.
“Hungary is in our hearts and minds as a fatherland, but we live in Ukraine, we are Ukrainians of Hungarian descent,” Fegyir said. “Like the Hungarians fighting in the American and British armies in second world war, while Hungary was [allied with Germany].”
Hungarian-speaking media in Ukraine are also at odds with the official lines coming out of Budapest.
“We report on the sacrifice of Hungarians,” said Gábor Fehér, an editor of Hungarian news in Ukraine’s state media in Uzhgorod, Zakarpattia’s largest city. “But then Orbán says something like he cannot get rid of Russian energy, and people flood us with hateful commentary again . . . ‘Go to Hungary where you belong’ is the mildest of them.”
Fehér says he does not receive instructions from Kyiv — unlike Hungarian state media available across Zakarpattia, which parrot Orbán’s lines.
Closer to the border, where more Hungarians live and state media is widely consumed, Orbán’s message does resonate. Residents even set their watches one hour ahead, on Budapest’s timezone.
“People here say, this is not our war,” said a high-ranking religious leader who asked to remain unnamed for fear of repercussions. He added that the history of this border region — which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Romania, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Ukraine over the span of a century — meant that it was less attuned to Kyiv’s patriotic goals than the rest of the country.
“Zakarpattia is our homeland, but Ukraine is not,” he said. “My grandfather was born in Hungary, raised in Czechoslovakia, lived in the USSR and died in Ukraine, never leaving this village. Political systems come and go, and we just want to live here.”
For a decade, the Orbán government has given the Hungarian community cultural and financial support, including a quick path to citizenship and a controversial programme granting EU passports. That has prompted many to leave Zakarpattia and seek a better life in other European countries.
When Russia invaded last year, Hungarian community leaders urged young men to leave for Hungary immediately. Entire villages emptied out in the days before men of military age were banned from leaving Ukraine. The religious leader praised the early evacuations as “moves of great foresight, which allowed us to save lives”.
That will lead to a reduced political and educational existence, according to Laszlo Zubanics, the leader of UMDSZ, a Hungarian political party in Zakarpattia. “We will eventually become a smaller, less powerful community,” he said.
During a recent tour of Saint Miklós castle, director Bartos donned a knight’s outfit and posed with a group of mainly female visitors from the region.
“The Hungarian community is thinning, and that will not turn around,” Bartos said. “Like the knights we honour here, our fight is a noble one, if quixotic at times.”
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv