János Bródy

Viktor Orbán goes to Kiev, M. André Goodfriend returns to Washington

Viktor Orbán has been a very busy man lately, especially when it comes to playing on the international stage. Angela Merkel visited Budapest last week; this week Orbán had talks with the prime minister of Georgia, and today he traveled to Kiev for a brief visit with Petro Poroshenko. Orbán’s Ukrainian visit is widely seen as an attempt to counterbalance the much criticized Putin visit next Tuesday. Today much of his regularly scheduled morning interview was devoted to Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

There is still no verbatim transcript of the interview, but I took notes when I listened to it and read several summaries that appeared in Hungarian newspapers and on the government’s website. Some of his comments on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were platitudes about the dangers of war so close to home. Surely, Hungary is much more exposed than France or Germany, whose heads of state tried to broker an agreement with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Orbán, who remains opposed to further sanctions, tried to put the best spin on the “fragile peace” that is still better than war.

When it came to Russian-Hungarian relations, Orbán treaded lightly and felt compelled to refer to Hungarian leeriness when it comes to relations with Russia. Mind you, the reference was fleeting. He said that “for many Hungarians this is an emotional issue.” One would have thought that either he would have stopped there or would have explained Hungarian reservations by talking about the role of the Russians in the 1848-1849 war of independence and, naturally, about the Russian suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. But no, he said instead that “we lost a war against them,” referring to World War II. A most unfortunate remark since winning the war against the Soviet Union in this case would have meant victory for Nazi Germany. Magyar Nemzet might be moving in the right direction as far as honest journalism is concerned, but it decided to omit this sentence.

In his opinion, emotions cannot play a role in Hungary’s relations with Russia. He himself never had any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s  visit. It was he who invited Putin, and he is glad that Putin accepted his invitation. The Russian president is always welcome in the Hungarian capital.

It is becoming apparent to me that Viktor Orbán imagines today’s Europe as similar to the way it was between the two world wars. The simultaneous collapse of the large, powerful empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia allowed the formation of small nation states in the region of East-Central Europe. With the revival of Germany and Russia, these states found themselves squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Orbán keeps talking about the “two large powers,” Russia and Germany, on whom Hungary depends for its well being. But this is an outdated view. Today there is a European Union to which Hungary belongs. Hungary also joined NATO. Hungary is definitely committed to the West and her security lies on this side. Balancing between two world powers is no longer possible, and therefore I’m convinced that Orbán’s “brilliant” strategy will be a failure.

Orbán’s diplomatic balancing act leads me to another topic, the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest. The announcement was a surprise because the United States government had explicitly stated that Goodfriend would remain in Budapest even after the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador. The chargé represented U.S. policies and worked closely with the State Department. It was a message to Budapest that no great changes in U.S.-Hungarian relations should be expected with the arrival of the new ambassador. But then came the bombshell that after all Goodfriend is leaving “for strictly family reasons.” Hungarians suspect that this explanation was fabricated, that some kind of a deal was reached between Washington and Budapest for which the U.S. government sacrificed Goodfriend.

Well, I’m one of those people who don’t believe this conspiracy theory. First of all, the one longer speech that Colleen Bell delivered to date in no way indicated a softening of the American attitude toward the Hungarian government. The speech was delivered before businessmen, and therefore she concentrated on economic issues. She brought up a point about which foreign businessmen complain: the unpredictability of Hungarian economic policy. Second, I see no sign of any softening of Orbán’s attitude either on the Russian issue or on the question of corruption. As for the attacks on nongovernmental organizations, the verbal abuse continues. If there was a deal, it was one that the Hungarian side is not honoring. And I refuse to believe that American diplomats are so naive as to strike a deal before the other side takes concrete steps to mend its ways. So, I’m inclined to accept the Embassy’s version that Mr. Goodfriend has some very urgent family business that can be taken care of only in the United States.

Goodfriend3

André Goodfriend’s departure is greeted with great sadness in liberal circles in Hungary. Many looked upon him as a valued friend of Hungary and were extremely grateful to him. On Facebook there are thousands of posts in which Hungarian citizens thank him for being the defender of Hungarian democracy. I heard a story about one gesture that exemplifies the kind of gratitude Hungarians felt. It was Christmas Eve and André Goodfriend went to a flower shop to buy a bouquet. When he wanted to pay, the owner of the flower shop wouldn’t accept his money, saying that it is she who owes him instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the most moving manifestation of the affection felt for André Goodfriend in Hungary is a video sent by Kreatív Ellenállás (Creative Opposition), a Facebook group, to which the creators added a popular song entitled “André j’aime” composed by János Bródy, played by the Illés Ensemble and sung by Zsuzsa Koncz. These people are legends in Hungarian popular music, mainly because their songs were highly critical of the Kádár regime.

Finally, Mr. Goodfriend was a regular reader of Hungarian Spectrum and a few times even engaged in our discussions. We will miss him, and I’m sure I can speak on behalf of our readership in wishing him the very best in his future endeavors.

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“Stephen, the King” 30 years later

Sometime either at the end of the 1970s or early in the 1980s I had a visitor from Hungary, a middle-aged historian whom I would never have guessed would be an ardent fan of rock music. Yet she brought an album by a Hungarian rock group as a gift. The group was considered to be a significant anti-government voice; it was linked to Levente Szörényi and János Bródy, later composer and lyricist of István, a király (Stephen, the King).

It was in 1983 that István, a király, a rock opera, was first performed in Budapest’s city park (Városliget). It was an immediate hit. Today it is described as a “cultic” and “legendary” work that was intellectually and politically influential in the years following its first performance.

The story deals with the dynastic struggle between Stephen and his uncle Koppány and, through their struggle, with the transformation of late tenth- and early eleventh-century Hungarian society.

During the communist period it was customary to “read between the lines,” and to the popular mind Stephen’s story soon became an allegory of recent Hungarian history. To many Stephen was János Kádár, who realized that the country cannot go against the Soviet Union and the neighboring socialist countries, while Koppány was viewed as Imre Nagy, who represented the true Hungary and who at the end fell victim to outside forces.

In the years since the first performance of István, a király it became a favorite of the Hungarian right, especially since a few years ago a film based on the opera was released. The film’s director specializes in nationalistic productions of historical topics. Meanwhile Szörényi became politically identified with the right and Bródy with the left. So, when the thirtieth anniversary rolled around and the idea of restaging István, a  király came up, it was completely unexpected that Bródy and Szörényi not only got together but chose Róbert Alföldi to direct an entirely new production of their opera.

Alföldi is known for his avant garde productions. Both his political views and his artistic philosophy are anathema to the Orbán government. It was only recently that in a clearly rigged competition he lost his bid for a renewal of his appointment as the director of the National Theater. Szörényi, who recently expressed his misgivings about the Orbánite Kulturkampf, is a good enough artist to know that Alföldi’s talent and his opera might be a winning combination.

Szörényi and Bródy insisted that the new performance not be “historically accurate,” i.e. Stephen and his entourage shouldn’t be wandering around in late tenth-century costumes but should depict modern men and women. The Bavarian soldiers accompanying Gizella en route to becoming the bride of Stephen should be members of modern army, police, and anti-terrorist units. So, those who now object to the modern setting and blame Alföldi’s directing style are unfair. The authors of the opera wanted the modern setting. They had only one demand: Alföldi shouldn’t touch the lyrics or the music. Apparently, he didn’t.

The new production of the rock opera was performed in Szeged in an open air theater where most of the time around 200 people were on stage. On August 20th RTL Club showed it live on television. Just as in 1983, critics found symbolism in the new István, a király. Right wingers are convinced that Stephen is a caricature of Viktor Orbán. They also greatly object to Alföldi’s portrayal of the Catholic Church. One critic claimed that István, a király is perhaps the most “anticlerical” performance ever put on a Hungarian stage. The nationalists vehemently object to Stephen’s depiction who in Alföldi’s interpretation looks like a less than resolute leader who doesn’t even have a great desire to be king; he is under the thumb of his strong-willed mother, Sarolt. The view of Stephen as a king who manages to win over his domestic enemies only with foreign help doesn’t quite fit the historical picture most Hungarians have of their saintly king.

Meanwhile, Alföldi, who has given a couple of interviews in the last few days, claims that what he did was nothing more than depict true historic fact. He tried to get rid of the nationalistic pathos and the unhistorical interpretations that falsify history. Up to a point he is right, but surely the interpretation reflects Alföldi’s own worldview. When two bards arrive in an old Trabant, the message is clear: these two guys in their fifties with their old Trabant represent the past while Gizella’s silver Mercedes, which brings her from Bavaria, is the future. Which is the more attractive? I don’t think we get a clear answer. With that Mercedes also come soldiers, policemen, and commandos without whom the state couldn’t be maintained. Survival has a price.

The most controversial prop is a huge rusty crown into which eventually the people of the realm are herded. The cage-like structure is shut. There is no escape. Eventually, in the last moments of the play, the people inside begin to sing the national anthem, an act that jolted quite a few of the conservative and nationalistic critics.

The rusty crown-cage of Róbert Alföldi's rendition of István, a király

The rusty crown-cage of Róbert Alföldi’s rendition of István, a király

Yes, the performance is controversial but still 750,000 people watched it on television.  MTV at the same time aired a lesser known Ferenc Erkel opera called István király in which relatively few people were interested. I think that the official state television’s choice says a lot about the cultural preferences of the present government. A safe nineteenth-century historical opera that practically nobody wants to see.

In addition to the 750,000 people who watched the opera on television, the three performances in Szeged were sold out. It seems that the history of those turbulent years at the crossroads between the old and the new still has relevance today. But Viktor Orbán is not Stephen. If anything, he is Koppány.