Month: December 2008

The Hungarian political police chiefs and their underlings, 1957-1990

I assume that Ricsi thinks that while the victims of the Hungarian political police were all Christians, the beneficiaries of the system were the Jews. I hate to disappoint him. Although Gábor Tabajdi and Krisztián Ungváry don't mention the leaders' religious affiliation or ethnic origin, the two historians managed to compile fairly detailed biographical notes on all the sixty-odd people who played important roles within the organization between 1957 and 1990. On the basis of these biographical notes I can safely state that the number of people with Jewish backgrounds was small.

For instance, the authors identified eighteen people in leading positions between 1957 and 1962. Out of these eighteen only three, perhaps four, have a Jewish background: Jenő Hazafi, Ervin Hollós, László Kunos, and possibly Károly Hidegkúti. All others were non-Jews. The social and educational backgrounds of three of the four in no way differed from the other fourteen. Hazafi had a sixth-grade education after which he learned a trade: engine fitting. Hollós worked for a furrier, again with very little formal education. Károly Hidegkúti finished only eight grades and worked in a textile factory. The only exception was László Kunos who finished high school in 1940. Because he lost his parents and his brother in the Holocaust it is not surprising that he became a devotee of the new regime. However, in 1962, most likely because his rigid adherence to the old style dictatorship was no longer acceptable, he was dropped and ended his career as an accountant in a smallish state enterprise.

Moving along, let's take a look at the chiefs of the National Security Division (Állambiztonsági Főcsoportfőnökség) designated by the Roman numeral III. There were seven of them over the years. Out of these seven six were definitely not Jewish and because the last chief was born in 1936 and the only thing the authors know about his early life is that his father was a printer working in the Ministry of Interior, we cannot be sure. In addition the authors list thirty people who served in different important capacities under these chiefs. Out of these thirty I could identify only one as Jewish.There are about five or six section chiefs whose biographies don't give any clues one way or the other.

So any generalization about a Jewish preponderance in running the Hungarian secret service is based on prejudice rather than on facts. The Kádár regime was careful to avoid an overrepresentation of Jews in the top echelon of the party organization (in contrast to Mátyás Rákosi's government). As far as the secret service was concerned, the main criterion seemed to be a working class or peasant origin. The regime trusted people whose upward mobility was due entirely to the communist party and whose early life was marked by poverty. To these people the new regime brought incredible rewards and they could only be grateful. The stark contrast between their earlier lives and their adulthood in leading positions in government service must have been a constant reminder of their good fortunes.

Wishing everybody a Happy New Year! Being an optimistic sort, I think that Hungary's economic woes will be less severe than most people predict.


The Hungarian Secret Service and the Catholic Church

There are times of odd coincidences. In my life today is one of these times. Earlier I heard about a Christmas Eve midnight mass broadcast on MTV (public television). In it János Székely, auxiliary bishop of Esztergom, expressed his sorrow over the fact that there were more Gypsy than Hungarian babies born in 2008. First of all, I considered the reference to Roma versus Hungarian babies tasteless. My second thought was: How does he know this when there are no statistics available on the ethnic origins of newborn babies? My third thought was: this is impossible given the size of the Roma population in Hungary.

Well, it seems that György Bolgár also heard about this midnight mass and decided to ask Ferenc Tomka, a theologian and staunch apologist for the Catholic Church, to be part of his program today. Tomka, of course, vigorously defended the auxiliary bishop's unfortunate remark and tried to explain it away as being in fact most appropriate. After all, said Tomka, the bishop praised the Gypsies for their love of children and their high birthrate statistics. I have heard Tomka talk on Bolgár's program before, and therefore I wasn't expecting anything else.

And now comes the odd coincidence. This afternoon I kept reading Gábor Tabajdi and Krisztián Ungváry's book on the history of the Hungarian political police between 1956 and 1990. There is a whole chapter on the Catholic church. To be more precise, how the top hierarchy of the Hungarian Catholic Church served the Hungarian communist party and how they collaborated with the Hungarian secret service. And what do I see in one of the footnotes? Ferenc Tomka was working for the Hungarian secret service under the cover name of "Lukács." Well, well!

The position of the Hungarian Catholic Church today is that the connection between the Catholic hierarchy and the Ministry of Interior under whose aegis the secret service operated was not extensive and certainly not important. The above mentioned Tomka wrote a book entitled Halálra ítéltek, mégis élünk (They condemned us to death, yet we still live) published with the permission of the Council of Bishops that tries to vindicate the Church. The Council's former secretary, today a bishop, minimized the role the bishops and archbishops played by saying that they wrote only meaningless little essays that didn't hurt anyone. Moreover, by now most of these people are dead. Neither is true. In 1987 six new archbishops and bishops were appointed and three of them worked for the secret service, including József Mindszenty's successor, László Páskai, archbishop of Esztergom. Moreover, the leadership of the secret service had a very different opinion. According to a report for internal use only after 1970 the Catholic leadership gave "unfailing support to MSZMP."

One thing is sure, Hungarian bishops with very few exceptions were ready to cooperate. This cooperation is somewhat understandable because the Vatican's Ostpolitik pretty well demanded such cooperation. Within this Ostpolitik Hungary held a unique position. In 1964 there was an agreement between the Vatican and the Hungarian government by which Pope Paul VI agreed to the Hungarian demand that bishops can be appointed only with the permission of the Hungarian state. Unfortunately, historians of state and church relations are totally in the dark concerning the details of this agreement because the Vatican placed all pertinent documents under a seventy-year ban, and in 1998 the Vatican asked the Hungarian government to do the same–not for seventy but for seventy-five years. The Hungarian government (Gyula Horn was the prime minister), in the hope that the Catholic Church would not show outright antagonism to the socialist party and his government, promised whatever the Catholic Church asked. It was a big mistake: the Church openly supported and continues to support Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

But let's go back to the 1964 agreement between the Vatican and the Hungarian state. Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican's Secretary of State at the time, was sure that without this 1964 agreement the Hungarian Catholic Church's "complete collapse would have been unavoidable." On the other hand, neither Romania nor East Germany signed such an agreement with the Vatican and yet the Catholic churches in those countries survived. Czechoslovakia refused to sign such an agreement in 1966 although there were thirteen bishoprics that were vacant. Eventually in 1973 the Vatican accepted four bishops nominated by the Czechoslovak government but the whole Czechoslovak Catholic hierarchy wasn't as subservient to the state as the Hungarian. Although the documentation is not complete, according to the authors of the 36 Hungarians appointed with the blessing of the Vatican 23 were informers. The documentation on the others doesn't give us clear answers. Apparently only five persons can be identified out of the 36 who were definitely not part of the informer network.

How did they manage to get all these people to cooperate? Of course, there was the clear understanding after a while that if you want to move ahead then you'd better behave. Sometimes the men of the secret service used blackmail. In one case it is clear that the basis of the blackmail was "inappropriate relationship with nuns." Some of those forced into cooperation were indeed fairly useless from the point of view of the state, but others were outright enthusiastic. A good example of the latter was Kornél Pataky, appointed bishop of Győr in 1976, who had been recruited in 1958. Another enthusiast was László Dankó, appointed bishop of Kalocsa (1983). István Bagi, appointed auxiliary bishop of Esztergom, was "so materialistic, so hungry, so demanding" that from the reports one can hear the agents' contempt between the lines. Then there was Árpád Fábián, the bishop of Szombathely (1975) with a working class background whose father was a party functionary in the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He was a true believer not just in the religious sense. The secret service man wanted to show some appreciation and wanted to give him some money but he wouldn't take it. "He told us that he does his work out of conviction." Thus he received some gifts: 10 cartons of cigarettes and some nice expensive bottles of wine. He had no problem accepting these.

All in all, this chapter on the Hungarian Catholic Church's connection with the secret service is depressing reading. The Catholic Church is trying its best to prevent the disclosure of the details but as we can see diligent historians do find bits and pieces of information that don't shed the best light on the Hungarian Catholic leadership. I should add that all other religious leaders did the same and that only the Lutherans were willing to tell the whole truth. The Catholic Church tries to prevent disclosure by appealing to the separation of church and state. A truly ridiculous argument. Apparently next month we may find out the future of the documents dealing with the role of the church hierarchy in the political police network.

The Hungarian secret service, 1956-1990

Two historians, Gábor Tabajdi and Krisztián Ungváry, have written a new book about the history of the Hungarian secret service between 1956 and 1990. The title is Elhallgatott múlt: A pártállam és a belügy. A politikai rendőrség Magyarországon, 19856-1990 (The Suppressed Past: The Dictatorship and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Activities of the Secret Service in Hungary, 1956-1990). Krisztián Ungváry is well known because he writes frequently in the daily press, mostly about the archives of the secret service. He is one of the authors of the Kenedi Report commissioned by Ferenc Gyurcsány.

I haven't had a chance to read the entire book, but it is obviously a thorough study, full of statistical details, of the organizational structure of the secret service's several branches. All the section chiefs are identified and their biographies provided.

Although the bulk of the story covers the years between 1956 and 1990 there are a few interesting pieces of statistical information from previous years. The secret service employees in the early 1950s were so zealous that the organization kept files on 1,200,000 individuals. By 1953 even they realized that handling that many folders and trying to keep some order was not only impossible but perhaps superfluous as well. So they began to cull files and reduce the number under surveillance. By 1956 only 550,000 people's lives were followed. After the revolution, not surprisingly, their number grew to 650,000, but by the 1970s there were only 185,000 names on file.

As I was reading the section chiefs' biographies I was struck by their low level of educational attainment, their social origins, and their relative youth. That initial impression was reinforced a bit later when the authors provided some statistics. For example, in 1957 there were 247 new leading positions filled and out of these 247 people there were only three with a college degree and only 48 had finished high school! Thus the reports written by these men and women were, how shall I say, not always perfect. None of them knew foreign languages and therefore letters from abroad were either not answered or sometimes answered a year later. Three-quarters of these people finished "party school" and naturally 98% of them were members of MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt). The average age in 1957 was 28; presumably there was a low attrition rate, so in 1962 the average age was 32. All of them came from worker or peasant families.

The first chapter I read dealt in great detail with something I knew a fair amount about from one of the participants: the history of the "Hétfői Szabadegyetem" (Monday Free University). I heard about this Monday evening gathering in private apartments from one of the scheduled "lecturers," Péter Hanák, during one of his visits to the United States. The lecture series was the brainchild of three college students who managed to convince the historian Miklós Szabó to give a lecture series on the history of the Soviet Communist Party. The first semester of the Free University began in August 1978. Szabó was a researcher at the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences whose members didn't teach. However, already in the 60s and 70s the researchers of the Institute occasionally gave so-called "house seminars" for a restricted number of students. This new Free University was different. Anyone could attend and normally 150-200 people gathered on Monday nights in the apartment of a friend of Szabó. It took a couple of months for the secret service to get wind of the lecture series, but by December they had an informer called "the Doctor." The written information about Szabó's lectures was then evaluated, most likely by someone who was an "expert" on party history. According to him, Szabó overemphasized the dissension among different factions, individual power struggles, and personal ambitions within the Soviet party. Therefore, the lecture series was dangerous. On April 24, 1979, Szabó's boss, the head of the Institute, Zsigmond Pál Pach, called him in and warned him. Szabó decided to stop his lectures. However, two other members of the Institute were ready to take over: Péter Hanák and Tibor Hajdú. Hanák's field of interest was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, while Hajdú wrote a number of important books on Mihály Károlyi, the October Revolution of 1918, and the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. Szabó, Hanák, and Hajdú were closely watched by someone inside of the Institute, most likely their colleague Ervin Pamlényi (1919-1984). For example, the secret service learned that Hanák was working on a series of twenty lectures, presumably to be delivered at the Free University. Since Hanák spent the semester lecturing in the United States these planned Free University lectures were never given.

The Hungarian secret service spent an incredible amount of time and effort trying to discover subversive activities among intellectuals. I don't know whether there was anything subversive in lectures by Gáspár Miklós Tamás or János Kis, the philosophers, but I'm certain that nothing terribly subversive could be found in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Unless one considers a less nationalistic interpretation of the Dual Monarchy subversive. Who were watched? I will here mention only the better known people: Mihály Vajda, Sándor Radnóti, György Bence, István Eörsi, Bálint Magyar, Pál Benyó, György Dalos, Pál Szalai, Mihály Hamburger, Anna Betlen, Erzsébet Vezér, György Krassó, Gábor Iványi, Iván Pető. István Szent-Iványi, Miklós Haraszti. And how many people watched them? Thirty-two. In 24 cases Ungváry managed to identify the real person behind the cover name given by the organization. Seventeen people were slackards, handing over some notes only a few times. The rest were more eager. Eight of them were outright zealots. Whether they received money is not known except for one, the leading informer called "Költő" (Poet), who received a 5,000 Ft bonus, a tidy sum in those days. The informers were an interesting lot, names available in the book, but I'm omitting them here. One of them teaches ethics and philosophy at a Hungarian university today, another writes introductions to Hungarist literature about Szálasi and Hitler. Yet another works today in the media, while there are at least two who left the country, one in 1987 and the other in 1989. The 1989 emigrant is today a respected professor in New Zealand. He was the worst of the lot. Altogether there are five volumes of "stuff" on the short-lived Free University that the secret service managed to kill by 1982.

Orbán’s Christmas message

Well, not quite. It is an interview in Magyar Nemzet. A very long interview. Tibor Várkonyi in Népszava thought that the only remarkable thing about the interview was its length. I would agree with Várkonyi  that there is nothing terribly new here as far as policy is concerned. But in terms of viciousness Orbán achieved new heights. No wonder that Gábor Pápai of Népszava drew this cartoon with the following caption: "My dear little Jesus, at least now, at the time of love and peace, please kill those whom I dislike so much!" Jezuska es Orban I think Pápai summarized the message quite succinctly. Várkonyi expressed his doubt that any politician in the western world would use such a "nasty" tone, especially in a Christmas message. But nastiness is actually his trademark. Perhaps he learned it from the mentor of his youth, László Kövér, who specializes in nastiness. One day I should write a list–and it would be a very long one–of words frequently used by the Fidesz leadership. Vicious, nasty words that are spreading like wildfire throughout Hungarian society. And verbal abuse gives birth to physical violence as has become quite obvious over the last two and a half years.

Indeed, the message of the interview is uncontrollable hatred of his opponents. He blames his political opponents for setting a bad example to the Hungarian people; as a result, he claims, the whole country is not only unsuccessful but is actually depraved. "Those in power unscrupulously lie, there is corruption everywhere, not only are parliamentary representatives being bought but whole parties are paid off. This kind of example drags down the entire society into filth and dirt. When the interest of the society as a whole becomes secondary to the interests of a narrow group that leads the country, that indeed leads to depravity."

Therefore, the socialists must pay for the mismanagement of the last six years "in full." The most important question of the next one and a half years will be the decision about how to make them pay. At this point the reporter asked him "why doesn't Viktor Orbán do something" to put an end to this plundering? The answer was long. It started with his limitations as a politician. Then he added: "Once upon a time somebody told me that over forty everybody is responsible for his face. Perhaps because his inner self is drawn on his face." He is a man who strongly believes in "freedom" and he is unwilling to take part in any action that endangers freedom in the long run. Furthermore, he deeply respects human life. But then he adds: "I know there might be moments when the fate of the country is more important than our lives…. Yet I'm convinced that these moments are very rare and today not at all timely. The outbreak of a revolution, desperate men's fight against overwhelming armed forces can serve only the interest of the authorities." My God, this man is actually talking about an armed uprising against a democratically elected government, even if at the end he rejects this alternative and expresses his hope that although his way might take longer it will achieve a kind of peaceful revolution.

All the problems stem from the mistakes of twenty years ago when the democrats (headed by Viktor Orbán himself) didn't eliminate those political "dinosaurs." They didn't realize that the "dinosaurs have babies." They were naive when they thought that with the "peaceful transition" these dinosaurs and their babies would retire. No, they didn't retire. First, they moved into the world of business. "Their political capital was exchanged into economic capital and thus armed they brought back the dusty, petty, hopeless atmosphere of the late socialism." The same people Orbán and his friends fought against twenty years ago are back. Except this group of dinosaurs is less talented than their predecessors. "Of course, to govern democratically is a difficult business especially for those who are accustomed to the instruments of dictatorship." In brief, communism is back and a second change of regime is necessary. That change of regime will come in a year and a half when Fidesz wins the elections.

From here Orbán moved to the IMF credit. "Once the elections are over [and Fidesz is in power] calmly, quietly, without confrontation with the IMF or the western financial world, we have to analyze the details of these loans. It will be worthwhile to compare the conditions of these particular loans to those given to other countries.  It will be worthwhile to study the terms of these loans. It will be interesting to ask the question: why is the number seventeen so attractive to the IMF? Why did they want to ensure Hungary's financial security for exactly seventeen months? Did they want to help the country or MSZP? Perhaps they want to keep the next government in check? We will find out." These are pretty strong words and I'm sure that not only the readers of Magyar Nemzet will read them but those who were responsible for the transaction at the IMF. In any case, Orbán charges that the money will not be used for what IMF intended but will land in the coffers of MSZP in the hope of winning the next elections. However, Orbán is certain that by now the Hungarian people have learned their lesson. "They cannot be led by the nose."

And finally let me quote here Sic who wrote the following in his comment about the opening salvo of this "Christmans conversation with Viktor Orbán." "The darkest hour is just before the dawn (as it appears often in Hungarian variations, though not a native phrase 'az éj hajnal előtt a legsötétebb/napfelkelte előtt legsötétebb a hajnal') means roughly, there is hope, even in the worst of circumstances. (Még a rosszabbnak tűnő helyzetben is történhet valami jó. Azaz, minden rosszban/helyzetben van valami remény.) It can also mean that problems always appear worse before there is a solution (roughly, 'a cél elötti utolsó méterek a legnehezebb'). But the phrase used in the MNO (Magyar Nemzet Online) piece was much stronger in message and tone. It stated that the 'light' would be inversely proportional (fordítottan arányos) with the darkness ('"Minél nagyobb a sötétség, annál közelebb van a világosság") – the 'minél…,annál…' construction is very clear. This is much stronger than awaiting the dawn (of a new era etc…). This is that we are awaiting, the light. It is an almost a direct religious reference: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." ( It means that he (Jesus/Orbán) is the light of the world. But He is the Way, and not just the light: 'Then spake Jesus/Orbán again spoke to them, saying, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life."' (

Yes, this is perhaps the most shocking part of this "Christmans conversation," although this is not the first time that Orbán has obliquely compared himself to Christ or used Jesus's words for his own political purposes.

And one more footnote. Orbán talked about the belief that "one's inner self is drawn on his face." I was surprised reading this because for some time now when I see Viktor Orbán's face I have been thinking of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray is a gorgeous young man whose portrait is painted by a friend. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian wishes that his portrait would age rather than he himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, subsequently plunging him into a series of debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul with each sin being displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging. By the way, I'm not the only one who is struck by the changes that have occurred in the last couple of years on Orbán's face.

Hungarian retro: the 1950s and 1988

Those who speak Hungarian have a rare treat. The Nemzeti Audiovizuális Archivum (National Audiovisual Archives) has made available 77 old movies and news clips that are available free of charge on the Internet ( Some of the news clips are truly old, from the 1930s, but the bulk of them come from 1988, the last full year of the one-party system, which this year has its twentieth anniversary. Anyone who is nostalgic for the good old days of the Kádár regime ought to take a look at the news from 1988. I especially enjoyed three short clips about Christmas shopping that year. Of course, the managers of the department stores assured everybody that the offerings were as good as if not better than in 1987, but it turned out that there were "chronic shortages" of certain items, even food. For example, if one wanted to buy a freezer it might be difficult to find one. The choice in color television sets was also poor, even according to the head of the department. Indeed, the three or four sad-looking sets on display were pretty pitiful.

As for foodstuff. It seems that shortages were common among items whose ingredients came from abroad. There were shortages of raisins, margarine, even baking powder. By contrast, the department store Skála whose very forward-looking manager made all sorts of deals with foreign companies had an impressive array of toys. Practically all foreign made judging from the writing on the packaging.

There are also political news items from 1988 and 1989. One can see that first encounter between Fidesz and KISZ concerning the financial support of Fidesz by the state. I recognized the youthful Tamás Deutsch, Gábor Fodor and György Szilvássy, currently the undersecretary in charge of the secret service. Viktor Orbán considered him to be one of the two smart ones in the KISZ leadership. The other was Ferenc Gyurcsány. There is also a very candid interview with Gyula Horn, then foreign minister, about international relations and the reduction of Soviet troops in Hungary. I was really looking forward to the video of the reburial of Imre Nagy in 1989 but it was a disappointment. For almost ten minutes one could see only thousands walking by and placing flowers next to the coffins. Perhaps the Hungarian state television wasn't quite sure whether they wanted television viewers to hear the speeches at that reburial.

As I mentioned these are short clips, lasting only a few minutes. The movies, of course, require a greater time commitment. I decided to watch a film that I have heard a lot about called Állami Áruház (State Department Store, 1952). What a promising title! It was a comedy and a musical of sorts. The plot is simple enough. A young working class fellow called Ferenc (Feri) Kovács who used to work in the warehouse was "selected" to go to school (most likely some kind of party school). He was destined to leave his manual labor behind and become part of the management. Indeed, the current head of the department store offers him a desk job but our Feri prefers something more practical and thus he becomes a salesman in the women's clothing department. Soon enough he finds out that the ready-made women's clothing simply cannot be sold to anybody. They are ugly, they have no collars or pockets. The same is true about the men's jackets. They are too short. Someone tried to save material. Our Feri is mighty upset, and immediately there is ill will between him and the director of the store. The director goes to the ministry in the hope of removing Feri, but the ministry officials realize that Feri is right and the director is wrong. They make Feri the new workers director. It turns out that the former director is an old reactionary who wants to ruin the department store and with a little help from the American imperialists he causes panic buying. But never fear, the workers and Feri, their director, overcome all difficulties: plenty of merchandise, people are happy, all is well.

Alongside this political story there is a love story between Feri and the designer of the horrible dresses who of course in reality is a very talented designer. There is also a less important comic love story between one of the sales girls and two department heads who are in "socialist competition" with each other. One of the department heads is Kálmán Latabár, a famous comedian from the 1930s, who occasionally makes a few jokes at the expense of the regime. Very mild ones but given 1952 one cannot expect more. Most of the  jokes have something to do with the "planned economy" when in July there are plenty of fur coats but nothing else. Or Latabár tries to sell useless garden gnomes by saying "during winter a garden gnome always comes in handy." That "innocent" little remark made history. It's enough to repeat the sentence and everybody knows what you are talking about.

Tomorrow I think I will return to politics: to Orbán's Christmas message about which Sic has already written a couple of very interesting comments. I see that Odin even without knowing Hungarian felt the venom in Orbán's speech in front of the Astoria in 2006. Well, since then he has become worse and this last interview, especially at Christmas time, simply boggles the mind.

Friderikusz on the media

The time between December 23 and January 2 in Hungary is devoid of political news. As if life stopped. Of course, it is quite possible that in Hungary nothing is happening because there seems to be an unspoken rule that no conversation can be conducted, even with politicians, about politics. So come the trivia. Politicians have to say how they will spend their Christmas, how many people will be sitting around the table, who will eat what, or did they manage to buy all the Christmas presents. Conversations with historians center around Christmases of the past and their own recollections. This morning a couple, both formerly politicians, were promoting their cookbook. The wife wrote the receipes and the husband took the pictures. A few years back Nap-kelte visited all the leading politicians at home, starting with Ferenc Gyurcsány, continuing with Viktor Orbán, Ibolya Dávid, and Gábor Kuncze. The most amusing of these was the visit with the Orbáns in their new rather controversial house in the hills of Buda where the crew was instructed to show practically nothing of the house. The wife was modestly washing dishes in the kitchen, back to the cameras, not saying a word, and the kids were squeezed together, all five of them, alongside papa and mama, on the lower two treads of a staircase. That way there was no need to chase them around the house and show any of the surroundings. Dávid was proudly showing off her hats while the Gyurcsány family was having breakfast, kids running around, and Gyurcsány gave a brief tour of his study and library.

This kind of programming will be going on for over a week. The usual programs are scrapped and the moderator kindly informs us that "we will be back on January 8th as usual." Wow, how happy TV personalities would be in the United States if they could take almost two weeks off around this time of the year. Most of them are not that lucky. The day after Christmas the usual programming resumes in the U.S. while in Hungary people can watch old soaps and movies.

Given the dearth of news from Hungary I decided to return to my current reading: Sándor Friderikusz's book based on interviews with Zsófia Mihancsik. I understand that it is a best seller. The first edition is completely sold out already although it is not exactly cheap: 3,700 Ft. Almost twenty dollars. Mind you, it is fascinating reading and I assume a lot of people will especially enjoy some of the gossip from the world of the media. Friderikusz doesn't mince words about some well known figures, and I must admit that some of his very negative portraits came as a surprise to me. Of course, one must keep in mind that these portraits are one sided, seen through the eyes of a man who felt that he was very often wronged and maligned. I can well imagine the reaction in the Hungarian media: outrage. Friderikusz calls them ill-informed, untalented, cynical, ill-willed, easily bribed, intimidated, superficial. Should I continue?

I heard Friderikusz talking about his book, especially about his portraits of Gyurcsány and Orbán, with György Bolgár on Bolgár's talk show, "Megbeszéljük!" He observed that although a lot of articles appeared about his book not one of them quoted his passages about Gyurcsány and Orbán. They would rather talk about his very negative opinions of Tamás Vitray, the pioneer of early Hungarian television, and Tamás Mészáros, the publicist. Friderikusz is convinced and I suspect he is right that today's journalists behave exactly like their predecessors in the Kádár regime. It was the era of self-censorship. They instinctively knew what the limits were. They knew what was a safe topic and what was not. If you didn't want to jeopardize your career you avoided sensitive topics. Today there are a lot of journalists who are fully committed on the side of the right but few are ready to be too zealous on the left. The difference is that the former group doesn't even pretend to be impartial. They are totally committed. The world for them is either black or white. Either evil or good. The other side is evil, their side is good. It is that simple. On the liberal side the journalists try to be "more balanced." The partisans of the government are rather unhappy with this balancing act and accuse them of not defending the "right" side. Then there are those who are ready to serve the winning side. Friderikusz writes about one journalist who was paid by a politician to write something bad about him every day for a month. Nice journalist, nice politician. Or he talks about a certain Krisztián K. who started his journalistic career as a teenager by faking an interview with Friderikusz, an interview that never took place. The same guy later was in the employ of Fidesz and obviously was ready even to commit a crime for the cause. Whether on his own initiative or at someone's suggestion the young Krisztián "stole" a message off Friderikusz's cell phone that put an end to his being considered for the job of president of MTV. There are only a handful of liberal journalists who don't seem to be worried about their career in case Viktor Orbán wins the elections and who speak their own mind. Friderikusz belongs to this small group. 

The epilogue of the book was written by András Gerő, the historian and a friend of Friderikusz. According to Gerő, talent and ambition are not sought-after commodities in Hungary. All those who are less talented and who are where they are through "connections," a very important word in Hungary, certainly do everything in their power to make the lives of few very talented people miserable and put an end to their career. Today, says Gerő, "neither Friderikusz nor Mihancsik have a place in Hungarian public life. They are not making television or radio programs, they are not needed by anybody." Gerő is only partially right. With this book Friderikusz and Mihancsik are back.

A few facts and figures about the Hungarian Railways fares

Just for the sake of transition from Sándor Frederikusz to MÁV (Magyar Állami Vasút) let me return briefly to the publicly financed MTV (Magyar Televízió). According to Friderikusz the people who work there have neither the motivation nor feel that they have a stake in running the company. The reason, says Friderikusz, is that "MTV remained a socialist mammoth factory without the slightest recognition that capitalism had arrived." The same thing can be said about MÁV and many other state-owned companies, and just as MTV is always in the red, so is MÁV. At least MTV is moving into new, modern quarters and will be equipped with state of the art electronic apparatus. The same cannot be said of MÁV where most of the stations that are over 150 years old haven't been renovated in at least 50 years, where most of the railroad cars have been in service for countless decades, where the engines are old-fashioned, where the rails are in an outright dangerous condition, where the allegedly modern and elegant Intercity express train's average speed is 68 km/hour. Or at least this is what I managed to figure out on the basis of information provided by MÁV-START (passenger service of MÁV) on the Internet. And a first class "pleasure trip" between Pécs and Budapest (216 km) on the Intercity will cost you 4,380 Ft ($23.00 or €16.60). I compared this service to the Metro-North New Haven-New York off-peak rates (no first-class service available). It costs $13.30 (for tickets purchased online) to travel 68 miles (109 km). The rates are comparable. The Intercity is 11 cents/km, the Metro-North 12 cents/km. Metro-North isn't self-sufficient, but its balance sheet isn't a disaster.

On the Metro-North line there are discounts for seniors, children, and the disabled (50% off-peak). By contrast, Hungary offers discounts to the world. Let's start the long list. Children under the age of six don't pay anything as long as there is an adult with them. The fare of a child between the age of six and fourteen is half the regular price. Ten or more kindergarten children with two adults will pay only ten percent of the price. Then come the students. Up to the age of eighteen or until the child finishes high school and has a valid student ID the state will pick up 90% of the cost of a season ticket. This discount is valid only for travel between the student's residence and his school. However, this same student can have a 50% discount for generalized travel. Those students who are doing a high school correspondence course will also have 50% off in travel between his place of residence and the school. (Could someone explain to me that if he is doing a correspondence course why he needs to travel?) Groups of students under the age of 10 (10 children or more with 2 adults) will have to pay only 50%; if a group is made up of students over the age of 10 then only one extra adult will get them 50% off. We have another interesting category: anyone who is under 26 years of age will have a discount of 33% between  8 p.m. Friday and Sunday midnight. This discount can be used not only by Hungarians but also by all citizens of the European Union. I guess this is for the college students who instead of studying or having a grand time with their friends decide to spend the weekend at home. And perhaps for sports fans or those attending rock concerts. Then we move on to the truly ridiculous: the disabled servicemen and the war widows. Disabled servicesmen and war widows? In 2008? The last war ended 63 years ago. Considering that everybody over 65 travels free this particular category seems superfluous to me. Blind and deaf people pay only 10% of the fare. The same 90% discount applies to the mentally disabled, their escorts and/or visitors. The same discount goes to families with at least three children. So if one or two parents with least three children of their own decide to take a little train ride then instead of the $23.00 between Pécs and Budapest they will pay only $2.30 each. But that is not enough. If a youngster under the age of 18 is accompanied by one or two adults, the adults will get 33% off the price.

Then there are the discounts attached to age. Anyone 55 or over will get 20% off. Anyone who is a pensioner (regardless of age) will have 50% off at least 16 times a year and twice a year he will be eligible for a 90% discount. Over the age of 65 it's free! Entirely free! Not only for Hungarians but for all EU citizens over the age of 65 traveling by rail in Hungary. One can travel all day long if he wishes 365 days a year!

And finally, Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. All the following categories can have discounts if they have something called "Magyar igazolvány" (Hungarian ID, the brainchild of the Orbán government) or have a piece of paper testifying that they have relatives in Hungary. If these visitors from another country are over 65 they can travel without charge as many times as they wish. Four times a year they will have a 90% discount even if they are under 65. Groups of children under 18 once a year will have to pay only 10% of the fare. Students will pay half the price.

And pray, tell me, who pays the full fare?