A Ukrainian Border Town Once Fenced by Soviets Blossoms Into a Shopper’s Paradise

The “gate” is a small cluster of glass-and-metal buildings cut seven years ago through the tall fences that mark the border between Ukraine and Slovakia. One pedestrian path leads from the village Mali Selmentsi to its Slovakian counterpart, Velke Slemence, another leads out. Uniformed border guards calmly peruse the travel documents of the bag-wielding shoppers and the decaying remains of a Soviet watchtower pokes above the corrugated tree line.
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The saga of this small Ukrainian village (population 200) and its Slovakian twin (population 400), reads like a “Twilight Zone” episode joining the cruelty and absurdity of the 20th century with a most unlikely 21st-century denouement.

Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse at the end of World War I, the two medieval villages had long ago intertwined, sharing a church, community center and schools. In 1919, the combined area was given to Czechoslovakia. In 1938, it became part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

And then, after World War II, with Ukraine absorbed into a surging Soviet empire eager to claim as much territory as possible, a new international boundary was drawn smack through the center of town.

Overnight, families and friends a few blocks apart found themselves living in different countries, separated by surly border guards and, for 61 years, rarely allowed to visit one another. Even talking through the fence was forbidden.