Last night, the memorial of the 1956 revolution against the Russian occupation of Hungary was removed from outside of Parliament. In the darkness, without announcement.
If Putin wanted to rub Orbán’s nose into his youthful rebellion against Russia and signify the end of Hungary’s independence, this would be the way to do it.
The statue was removed overnight. Photo: 444.hu
You probably have a photo with it if you visited Budapest as a tourist. Imre Nagy’s figure was standing on a bridge watching over the parliament building on the corner of Kossuth Square. It looked like this.
You probably have a photo with it… Photo: Kőrösi Tamás
The statue has been removed overnight, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. (The plans to relocate it have been announced but it was lost among other outrageous news.)
Tourists who took photos on its bridge just yesterday are baffled as the statue is no longer there, tour guides lead groups only to find the empty spot where the memorial used to be, locals are gathering this morning cursing Orbán with various levels of intensity for this completely unnecessary act of denying Hungary’s perhaps only proud moment in history, when in 1956, for only a few days, Hungarians have turned against mighty Russia and demanded that they leave Hungary alone. People of Budapest – and then the whole country – took up the fight against Russian troops and tanks, and hoped that the weakened Soviet Union (3 years after Stalin’s death) would let Hungary go. During the brief period of hope and resistance, Imre Nagy led the interim government.
After a few days the dream was crushed by Russian tanks. Over a million people fled the country and years of brutal oppression followed. Imre Nagy and members of his government were executed after a widely broadcast mock trial – to make a precedent.
Imre Nagy may not be a saint or an ideologically impeccable person – he was a communist after all – but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what he represented. He was and still is the symbol of resistance. Resistance to a much bigger force, the ever-hungry, ever-expansive Russia. He lead the resistance government, giving legitimacy to the courage of the people on the streets. Just like the men and women who resisted Russian tanks on the streets, Imre Nagy also took on extraordinary personal risk – and paid the highest price for it. After the Russian tanks crushed the uprising, his government was tried in mock trials and quickly sentenced to death. With four of his peers he was executed and unceremoniously buried, face down, in a grave marked “Piroska Borbíró”, a random female name.
Under communism, the 1956 revolution against Russian had to be called “counter-revolution” against glorious communism – and its leaders had to be disparaged in history books. Only in 1989 did we start calling the revolution a revolution, history textbooks had to be rewritten, and Imre Nagy became a symbol. His reburial was the defining moment of 1989, and the politician who spoke at his funeral was called Viktor Orbán. Orbán made his political bones speaking at Imre Nagy’s symbolic reburial in 1989, demanding that the Russian troops go home.
His statue was erected in the 1990s as a private initiative. It was removed yesterday, secretly, overnight, from the square outside of parliament.
Imra Nagy’s reburial and Orbán’s political debut
Orbán’s famous speech was a revolutionary-looking act at the time – but it was actually completely safe. It emerged only later and didn’t get much press outside of academic circles that his speech has been approved from above, even by the state party, and that he only said what everyone familiar with the state of negotiations (like Orbán) knew by the time anyway. But it doesn’t matter either. A symbolic moment was born and earned him a political career.
Images of the young Orbán speaking at the funeral are still part of every feature article about Hungary abroad, giving Orbán enormous credentials as being pro-freedom.
Orbán is anything but anti-authoritarian now. He has rebuilt not just a de facto one-party system, but took the worst of both communism and the preceding fascist period in Hungary. Actually, scrap that. It is not about an -ism. Russia is rebuilding its empire and exports autocracy and kleptocracy in the world. And Orbán is a tool for that – perhaps not on his own volition, but still.
But because of his former image as liberal revolutionary, people like me find it hard to speak up against Orbán abroad. This image still accompanies every article written about Hungary, attempting to explain everything that happened since 1989 in a nutshell – before moving on to the news of the day. The young, liberal Orbán bravely speaking up against Russia, bringing on the end of communism single-handedly. The image is no longer valid and it wasn’t exactly Orbán’s bravery that brought down the previous Russian empire. It imploded. But I guess every lie comes back one day.
The removal of Nagy’s statue is a personal humiliation for Orbán. He has been dragging his feet for years – but he was also visibly preparing for it. He duly set up a revisionist statue commission in Parliament, with a fierce anti-communist with hunter in charge, who duly suggested that Nagy’s statue be removed. So Orbán can point at their suggestion when he finally needs to do it.
If Putin wanted to rub Orbán’s nose into his youthful rebellion against Mother Russia, this would be the way to do it. Demand that Orbán move the statue and eat his words. And Putin would most certainly do it.
As the reburial of Imre Nagy in 1989 was the symbol of the end of communism and of independence from Russia – the unceremonious removal of his statue is the symbol of the end of independence. Brought on, in a masterstroke of historic irony, by the same guy who got credit for sending the Russians home.
Russians love symbolic acts. (If you’re unsuccessful in real life, like the economy, it is better to turn your subjects’ attention towards symbolic and esoteric gains – like religion, sports and yes, monuments. It is easier to present “successes” there, even a politician can do it.) Russian diplomacy is therefore big on memorials and statues. And while the Lenin statues that were ubiquitous during the Soviet era have been removed without resistance from Russia – it happened in the 90s when Russia was not in the position to object – the world war memorial to the fallen Russian soldiers and our “Soviet Liberators” of 1945 have always been untouchable. And when
Budapest the Orbán-regime decided to rename a square from ‘Moscow’ (‘Moszkva’ in Hungarian) in 2011, the Russians have given Hungary the diplomatic cold treatment as a consequence. (It is hard to remember now, but when Orbán came back into power in 2010, the Russian-Hungarian relations were quite cold, exactly because of these things. Orbán never loved Putin – Putin forced Orbán to give in.)
It wouldn’t be the first thing in which Orbán yielded to Putin. In fact, Orbán had to yield in much bigger things. Orbán was left with no choice whether to accept a new Russian nuclear power station on Hungarian soil – Rosatom being the new tool of Russian geopolitical influence. Orbán has taken even out the 11bn euro Russian loan for it – and immediately paid it back because the terms of the loan were so disadvantageous. He has been dragging his feet on starting the constructions ever since. So much so that Putin has visited Hungary half a dozen times in the last few years (and ordered Orbán for audiences in Moscow), always pressing how important the nuclear project was for him.
If Putin wanted to kick Orbán and show who’s daddy, all he had to do was requesting the removal of this anti-Russia monument. It’s enough to just move it a few meters. The symbolism is done. They both know it, and so does everyone who matters.
It would show Orbán and the whole world that his little rebellion – and Hungary’s 28-year-long independence – is so over.
It is the equivalent of sending a chocolate model of the Salisbury cathedral to the UK or handing out ‘Hacking for Dummies’ as a diplomatic gift for Christmas. It is in line with Putin gleefully saying “Yeah, Theresa, do it!” or hinting that he had really influenced elections abroad. Because don’t be so self-righteous, there is nothing you can do against Russia if it is true. The annexation of parts of Ukraine is really hard to deny – yet nothing happened. Or when the Malaysian flight was simply shot down. That’s why you will come up with the best excuses yourself – and that is why Putin can even rub it in.
To help with the bullshit bingo of excuses for the removal of the 1956 memorial:
1) You can dismiss it by saying that it will just be moved somewhere else. But even if they keep this promise – which is never the case with this government – the symbolism stands. Why move a statue? It is a symbol. (Also, the statue was sawed in pieces according to witnesses.)
2) You can also parrot the Party line claiming that this particular spot was desperately needed to reinstate the monument of the victims of the “red terror” – the 1918-19 communist regime – erected by Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s fascist governor. Because even being a fascist sounds better than being bitch-slapped by Putin…
3) …or you can swallow the other Party line that it is to “remove the last scars of the communist statue-demolishing” on the square. Never mind that this statue was not built by the communists and Nagy’s name was not allowed to be spoken under communism.
4) …but then explain to me why there is still a memorial to the Soviet “Liberator Heroes” of 1945, just a few steps from this place? That was actually erected by communists and it is an incomprehensible offense to an independent country that was actually occupied by Soviet troops in 1945. But Orbán is not anti-communist enough to remove the “Soviet Liberators” memorial. And that memorial actually stands in the place of a fascist revisionist memorial, built by Horthy
The answer that squares all these coincidences is Russia: Putin would never allow that to happen. This is the only way it all makes sense.
Some say that Orbán is totally just anti-communist. What he specifically hates about communism/socialism is not clear though, because authoritarianism, oppression, record high taxes and sucking up to Russia are apparently not among them.