Slovak soldiers in eastern Slovakia during the "Little War" against Hungary, 1939
Vojenský historický archív Bratislava
The Stužica valley, like Slovakia in microcosm, has seen multiple changes of ownership over the last century. It was historically part of the village which shares its name (now in Ukraine). But in the 19th century a court in Austro-Hungary awarded it to Nová Sedlica (now in Slovakia) since the latter was deemed to have better access. In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, and both Nová Sedlica and Stužica villages became part of the new Czechoslovakia. But with one small, crucial difference: Nová Sedlica was included in the Slovak territory of the new republic; the village of Stužica was included in its eastern-most third, Podkarpatská Rus.
As Czechoslovakia started to splinter following Nazi German occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938, a series of fights erupted over the spoils. Hungary was 'awarded' large parts of southern Slovakia, including Košice, in the so-called Vienna Arbitration (the 'arbitration' amounted to Hitler signalling which of his mates would get the bits of Czechoslovakia he didn't want Germany itself to bother occupying later). The villages remained in Czechoslovakia, but the area was isolated from the rest of the country since the railway lines to the east all went through territory which was now occupied by Hungary.
As Slovakia declared independence in mid-March 1939, Podkarpatská Rus did the same. But while Slovakia remained notionally independent until 1945, Carpatho-Ukraine, as it very briefly styled itself, was invaded by Hungary the following day. At this point Stužica became part of Hungary, while the valley and Nová Sedlica became part of the new, Nazi-allied, Slovak State.
But before the dust had settled, Hungary (also Nazi-allied) decided to press on and, in one of several conflicts obscured by the subsequent world war, attacked Slovakia. In the course of this so-called 'Little War', it occupied a chunk of eastern Slovakia - including the whole of the Stužica valley and all the surrounding villages.
As the World War II ground on, the mature wood became a valuable asset and the Hungarians started harvesting it. In order to do so, they built a railway, the remains of which can still be seen on the valley floor.
For Europe's last remaining untouched beech forests, the war turned just in time and the upper valley was not cleared. The lower valley was not so lucky: a few non-native pines, planted at the time to replace the beeches, remain dotted around. One grove, it is said, was planted in the shape of a Nazi swastika and, growing up long after Hitler's defeat, is still visible as a different shade of green on one of the hillsides.
Some of the trees of the Stužica valley may have been left unscathed but its human occupants were about to witness yet another border realignment. Czechoslovakia was re-formed at the end of the war, but shorn of its eastern territory. Liberation by the Red Army came at a high cost: later would come subjugation to Soviet ideology, but the first bill was redeemed in the form of Podkarpatská Rus, which was summarily annexed by the USSR and became the Transcarpathian Region of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The 1945 residents of Stužica, who in 1918 had been subjects of the Hungarian crown, and had gone in rapid succession through Czechoslovak, Slovak and then Hungarian citizenship, were now able to apply for (but unlikely to be allowed to use) Soviet passports. The border slammed shut.
In a curious coda, the Soviet Union asked Czechoslovakia to sell it the valley in 1968 (despite having few qualms about invading, the USSR was pedantically legalistic about such things). In the confusion of that year, the deal was never done and the valley (which would likely have been cut) escaped again.
The Ukrainian residents of Stužica can now visit Nová Sedlica, but must travel via an official border crossing (i.e. not through the forest) and need a visa before they can do so.
Population: Nearest urban centre: Snina (42 km)
Stužica is a National Nature Reservation located in area of the Eastern Carpathians which borders Ukraine and Poland. Along with several others locations in the range it was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007