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Optanty

Optanty — former citizens of Czechoslovakia who resettled in the Soviet Ukraine in 1947. They were allowed to do so on the basis of an “Agreement between the governments of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union regarding the right of repatriation (optatsiia) and mutual population exchange between citizens of Czech and Slovak nationality living in the Soviet Union in the former Volhynia province and citizens of Ukrainian, Russian, and Belorusan nationality living in Czechoslovakia.” This agreement, which set into motion was came to be known as the Volhynian Operation/Volynska akce, was signed in Moscow on July 10, 1946. Approximately 40,000 Czechs living in Volhynia (northwestern Ukraine) since the mid-nineteenth century were to be resettled from the Soviet Union, while an equivalent number of Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusans from Czechoslovakia were to replace them. Such a large number of people of the latter three nationalities did not live in Czechoslovakia, however, and neither the post-World War I emigres nor their descendants (the so-called White Russians and Ukrainian nationalists), had any desire to go to the Soviet Union. Consequently, the negotiators secretly decided to fulfill the provisions of the agreement at the expense of Czechoslovak citizens of Rusyn nationality.

Experienced promoters and government representatives from the Soviet Union, with the help of local Slovak officials, began an extensive propaganda campaign among the population of eastern Slovakia, where they were able to collect 10,146 requests by Czechoslovak citizens of Rusyn, Slovak, Magyar, and Roma/Gypsy nationality to be resettled in Volhynia. Before long, however, a certain number realized what they were doing, and they took back their requests. In the end, 8,556 Czechoslovak citizens, the vast majority of whom comprised poor Rusyn families, were resettled to the Soviet Ukraine. Based on what they had been promised, they expected to receive their own houses, land, good farming tools, and free education for their children. The more well-to-do-peasants were told they could bring with them from Slovakia their moveable property and livestock.

Upon their arrival in Volhynia, however, the resettlers found something entirely different from what they had expected. The region had been largely devastated during World War II; the homes promised were already taken by Ukrainian resettlers from the Chelm/Kholm region that remained part of Poland; famine was raging as a result of drought and crop failure throughout Ukraine in 1946-1947; treatment by Soviet officials was often crude; nightly raids by Banderite forces of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) were met with a terrorist response from troops of the Soviet secret police (NKVD); religious services and any attempts to set up civic organizations were banned, and the settlers were greeted with open hatred on the part of the local population in Volhynia, who considered them modern-day migrant invaders from Slovakia and derogatorily dubbed them “Hutsuls.” Within two years (1949) the forced collectivization of all agricultural lands began. Any persons who refused to join the collective farms were sent to prison camps in the Siberian Gulag. Those who did join the collectives exposed themselves to the threat of nightly raids by the anti-Soviet UPA, who “punished” their victims by cutting off the hand that signed the collectivization papers. As for the larger items of personal property brought from Slovakia by the resettlers, it was sent by separate transport and frequently stolen.

Faced with such realities, within a few weeks and in some cases even days of their arrival the Rusyn resettlers sent petitions to Kiev, Moscow, Prague, and Bratislava demanding that they be allowed to return home to eastern Slovakia. Delegations representing the petitioners approached Soviet officials in Kiev and Moscow, and in some instances the population of an entire village traveled from Volhynia to the Soviet-Czechoslovak border, only to be turned back. All of these efforts were in vain. Persons who organized the attempts to return home were branded by the Soviet authorities as “instigators,” “bourgeois nationalists,” “turncoats,” and “traitors,” immediately picked up by the NKVD, and sent to the Gulag. In effect, the resettlers were already being treated as Soviet citizens, although they did not formally receive Soviet citizenship until as late as 1957-1958. Moreover, none of them knew that the “Convention for Regulating the Question of Citizenship between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union,” signed on October 5, 1957, provided resettlers with the legal right until as late as July 21, 1959, to opt for either Czechoslovak or Soviet citizenship.

The process whereby the deceived Rusyns in Ukraine were finally able to return to their ancestral home dragged on for nearly half a century. In the 1960s, during the political thaw of the Khrushchev era, a portion of the resettlers moved closer to the Czechoslovak border, settling in *Subcarpathian Rus’/Soviet Transcarpathia. By then they described themselves only as “Slovaks” and adamantly rejected the label “Ukrainian” they had imprudently adopted in 1946-1947. Living closer to the border in Subcarpathian Rus’, they began to seek out relatives in neighboring Slovakia, and on the basis of invitations eventually managed to return. But even this process took years to complete, since in the interim the Soviets raised by tenfold the cost of a petition for emigration. Many of the resettlers never made it back, having died in Ukraine or in some cases in Russia before permission to leave was granted. As late as 1990 there were still 7,943 resettlers, together with their children and grandchildren, living in the Rivne and Volhynia oblasts of northwestern Ukraine. Finally, in 1991, the government of independent Slovakia passed a law (No. 664) allowing for the return of its former citizens from what was described as “the zone affected by the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.” Even then the process of return was to take many years and was not completed until the end of 1999.

After making it back to Slovakia, the fate of the returnees was not always easy. Initially, many were forced to live in makeshift housing in cities and towns, and those who were able to return to their native villages were often not welcomed by the local Rusyns, who described the “newcomers” in their midst as “immigrants from Russia.” In an attempt to overcome these problems, Iosyf *Marusyn (one of the first to return) established in 1966 a Committee of Returnees/Komitet reoptantiv, which functioned until the post-1968 pro-Soviet Czechoslovak Communist government forced it to cease operations (1971). In 1992 another returnee, Shtefan *Krushko, resumed the work of the earlier organization by helping to establish in Presov the Coordinating Committee of Returnees/Koordynatsiinyi komitet reoptantiv. With representatives in all parts of Slovakia where returnees live, the Coordinating Committee helps with juridical, administrative, and bureaucratic problems faced by new returnees. The committee maintains close contacts with descendants of the original resettlers who have remained in Ukraine, and it collects historic documents, memoirs, and photographs about the resettlement process, some of which it has published in the volume Optanty (1999).

Bibliography: Ivan Vanat, “Volyns’ka aktsiia: zadum, realizatsiia i naslidky,” Duklia, XLIII, 2 (Presov, 1995), pp. 55-73; Marian Gajdos, “Poznamky k procesu optacie,” Slezsky sbornik, XCIV, 3 (Opava, 1996), pp. 209-214; I. Vovkanych and Mariian Gaidosh, “Optatsiini protsesy mizh Chekhoslovachchynoiu i SRSR u pershi povoienni roky,” Naukovyi visnyk Uzhhorods’koho universytetu: Seriia istoriia, No. 2 (Uzhhorod, 1998), pp. 97-103; Stepan Krushko, Optanty (Presov, 1999); Ivan Vanat, Volyns’ka aktsiia: obmin naselenniam mizh Chekhoslovachchynoiu i Radians’kym Soiuzom navesni 1947 (Presov, 2001).

Stefan Krusko

Ivan Pop

Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.
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