In the three decades prior to World War I, tens of I thousands of Carpatho-Rusyns emigrated to the United States. But none was to become as successful and influential as Gregory Zatkovich.
The young Gregory (whose last name is sometimes spelled Zhatkovich) was born in the Rusyn village of Holubyne (Bereg county) in what is today the Transcarpathian oblast of the Soviet Ukraine. He was brought to the United States at the age of five. His father, Pavel, was editor of the leading Rusyn-American newspaper, the Amerikansky Russky Viestnik. Gregory became a classic American success story: he attended high school in New York City, college in New York and Pittsburgh, and finally the University of Pennsylvania law school. Soon he became a lawyer for General Motors in Pittsburgh.
In 1918, after four years of devastating war, the old order in Europe was about to collapse. Anticipating the great political and social changes that were about to occur. Carpatho-Rusyns followed the example of other immigrant groups and began to organize meetings to discuss the fate of their respective homelands. The most important of these meetings occurred on July 23. 1918, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where the American National Council of the Uhro-Rusyns was formed. Within a few weeks the Council invited Zatkovich to serve as its spokesman in negotiations with the other ethnic groups and the United States government. They could not have made a better choice. In October 1918, the young Zatkovich met in Washington, D.C., with President Woodrow Wilson and future Czechoslovak president Tomash G. Masaryk; then in November he led a Carpatho-Rusyn delegation to the Mid-European Union in Philadelphia. There in independence Hall, where America's Declaration of independence was signed in 1776. Zatkovich and other eastern European leaders signed a proclamation demanding independence for their peoples. At the Philadelphia meeting, Zatkovich succeeded in having Carpatho-Rusyns (Uhro-Rusins as they were called at the time) recognized as a distinct nationality worthy of political independence, or at least complete autonomy within another state. American government leaders urged Zatkovich to seek autonomy, and he reached an agreement whereby Carpatho-Rusyns would join the new democratic state of Czechoslovakia.
To assure that this goal would be achieved, Zatkovich journeyed to Subcarpathian Rus' in February 1919. Following his lead, local Rusyns declared in Uzhhorod on May 8 that they would unite with Czechoslovakia. Zatkovich then spent the summer months negotiating with Czech leaders in Prague and with representatives of the great western powers at the Paris Peace Conference being held at the Versailles Palace.
In recognition of his diplomatic success, the Czechoslovak Government named Zatkovich the first governor of Subcarpathian Rus' in April 1920. However, his understanding of local autonomy was met with opposition by the Czechs, and within less than a year (March 21) he resigned his post and returned to the United States. At first he published several - pamphlets attacking Czechoslovak policy in Subcarpathian Rus', but soon he avoided immigrant politics and concentrated on his private law practice.
World War II brought new troubles to the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland and Zatkovich was impelled to enter the political fray once again. He reversed his anti Czechoslovak stance. became chairman of the American Carpatho-Russian Central Conference, and edited a journal called The Carpathian (1941-1943), which supported the resurrection of a Czechoslovak state made up of three equal peoples: Czechs. Slovaks, and Carpatho-Rusyns. However, Zatkovich and his supporters were not to be successful as they were in 1918. The Red Army arrived in Subcarpathian Rus' in September 1944, and within less than a year the region was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, historians have not forgotten the achievements of the young Rusyn-American lawyer in 1918-1919. Commenting on those years, the distinguished Slovak- American professor Victor S. Mamatey wrote: "The Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants in America did determine the fate of their compatriots at home- a unique case of the influence of an immigrant group in America on the political history of Europe."
Yet it is sad to record that no biography of Zatkovich has been written. Even more tragic is the fact that he left no published memoirs and that soon after his death in Pittsburgh in 1967 all his papers were sent to an incinerator for complete destruction. Hopefully, today and in the future, Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants and their descendants will be more sensitive and appreciative of their rich cultural heritage and of people like Gregory Zatkovich who fought so hard to preserve it.
Text copyright © 1979 - Carpatho-Rusyn American, Vol. II, No. 3.
View the proclamation
The Tragic Tale of Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (Podkarpatska Rus')