Hungarian State Opera

Viktor Orbán’s revolution devours its own children: the case of László L. Simon

Culture and the Orbán regime. It’s a real oxymoron. Culture is the last thing that interests either Viktor Orbán or his football buddies. He rarely appears at cultural events and, if he does (he and his wife attended the production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman a few days ago),  it is not because of his burning desire to hear Wagner’s music but because he wanted to demonstrate his support for Szilveszter Ókovács, his controversial choice to be the new director of the Hungarian State Opera.

Viktor Orbán hasn’t been very lucky with his picks for undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs. His first choice was a Transylvanian poet, Géza Szőcs. According to people who apparently have some knowledge of the connection between Szőcs and Orbán, Szőcs was a favorite of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife. Szőcs had no administrative or political experience and gave the impression of a blunderer with grandiose plans in a time of austerity. Viktor Orbán had cut back on state subsidies for culture; football stadiums took priority over theaters and concert halls. Moreover, if he spends money, let’s say on ballet, that money is allocated only to his political lackeys.

Szőcs simply didn’t work out, but he also had to be frustrated because he had less and less of a say in formulating cultural policies. Hungarian film making was taken out of his hands and given to Andy Vajna, an American-Hungarian producer of blockbuster movies, including the Rambo series, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and the multiple Terminator movies. The result? In the last two years no Hungarian movie was produced and for the first time in living memory there was no Budapest Film Festival this year.

Szőcs had to leave; instead, he was named a trusted adviser to Viktor Orbán. When a few months later he was asked what kind of advice he was giving the prime minister, Szőcs admitted that Orbán hadn’t yet availed himself of his wise council. I do hope that he will get a few dollars because, as far as I know, Szőcs is a poor man with nothing to fall back on financially.

Szőcs was replaced by another poet, László L. Simon. According to people who know the works of both Szőcs and L. Simon, the former is a truly talented man while L. Simon is not exactly a literary giant. However, L. Simon apparently does care about the state of Hungarian culture and was deeply saddened by the lost state subsidies in the field of culture. He began his activities by announcing to everyone that he will be able to represent the interests of the cultural institutions more forcefully than his predecessor.

Yesterday, eight months after L. Simon began his new career as undersecretary for cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, he was dismissed. Lately there have been rumors to the effect that L. Simon and Zoltán Balog don’t see eye to eye on many issues. One of these issues was the role of György Fekete as the head of the Hungarian Academy of the Arts. You may recall the controversy surrounding this new official institution that seems to serve as a spearhead of the Orbán government’s growing efforts to force liberal elements out of the cultural sphere and place cultural institutions in the service of the government.

In spite of strenuous objections Zoltán Balog decided to appoint György Fekete to head the Academy of Arts, and it seems that this was too much for L. Simon, who objected to his appointment. But L. Simon lost time and again to his minister. Balog, who never liked the ever active L. Simon, eventually lost his patience and decided to fire his undersecretary. The problem was that he had neglected to inform L. Simon of his decision before the media (Népszava, Magyar Nemzet) got hold of the story. And L. Simon simply couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He kept saying that he didn’t criticize Fekete and he swore that he would not resign. He was baffled. Only yesterday he appeared at a cultural event held at the House of Terror in his capacity as undersecretary in charge of culture while the media reported his dismissal as a fact.

During the event the dismissal was actually mentioned by the participants. Gergely Karácsony (PMP) told L. Simon, “Let’s face it, Laci, you lost this game,” meaning  the fight over the the Hungarian Academy of Arts. L. Simon haughtily answered that Karácsony was merely a parliamentary member without party affiliation and that his remark was shameful.

Circus Parade / The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Circus Parade / The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

And finally, let me translate a few sentences by Árpád W. Tóta, one of the best young commentators on Hungarian politics, on the fate of L. Simon. “One cannot be just a little Bolshevik.  It is not worth trying even at Heti Válasz.” What does Tóta want to say here? L. Simon tried to mitigate the harshness of the Orbán Kulturkampf, but the regime doesn’t tolerate half-hearted efforts. Yes, this is clear even for those who are not intimately familiar with the Hungarian political scene. But what about this dig about Heti Válasz? This weekly is supposed to be “the moderate” voice of Fidesz, but Tóta warns us that even there one shouldn’t try to stray from the official party line.

“Yes, one cannot be just a little ‘bolsi’ because there is in the waiting room of the big boss a 100% loyal man who is more ‘bolsi’ than he is, someone who will state in writing that he will not think, he will only serve.” Tóta doesn’t feel sorry for L. Simon. After all, it was less than a month ago that he was telling us that the problem with Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater, was that Alföldi doesn’t have faith in the divine order and that his artistry is characterized by chaos and dilemma. So, it is understandable that the government wants to pick a director whose thinking is closer to its own ideology.

The government found someone whose ideology is closer to its own than that of L. Simon, the little “bolsi.” “How do you like it?” Tóta asks. Perhaps L. Simon should recognize that this is the logic of the regime. The party worked that way even in opposition and will work that way as long as it exists. What is going on in Hungary is “the triumphal procession of  unfit brown nosers.” We know who is responsible for all that: “the guffawing dwarf who is staggering in the middle of the circle with absolute power…. To be a little ‘bolsi,’ as it became clear, is not really worth the try.”