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Gergely NAGY, writer, journalist, 1969

Author:

How did the change in regime influence your professional activity and interest?

I was born in 1969. During the regime change I was a twenty-year old college student. My views and the responses I provide here are partly a result of this fact. In my case, you couldn’t really speak of professional activities at the time, as I was a student of the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, majoring in dramaturgy. Back then I thought, just as I think now, that the regime change fundamentally influenced my entire life – purely by virtue of the fact that the country I lived in became a free country. This was a radical turning point, whereby, for an instant, everything was simplified down to the fundamental questions: who are we, where and how will we be living? I was twenty; I wasn’t sure what vocation I was going to choose, but it was clear that the freedom of thought and expression would be a key component of what I was going to do – it was going to be a basic condition of existence for me. A precise and personal experience of the absence of freedom was available to everyone – as it was to me. In the world I moved around in as a teenager – which mostly consisted of the musical subculture of the period – the boundaries of freedom were rather apparent. And although in the second half of the eighties these boundaries became somewhat elastic, it was clear where the culture and the art I was interested in could be found. In 1989, I was happy first and foremost that censorship, double talk and double thinking were over – at least in the form that they had determined matters before then. I was delighted to see the words, music, gestures and artwork that were important to me come into the public eye. I was thrilled to know that we would now be part of “universal time” – we would now exist in the same time and space.

 

What part of your role in the regime change do you consider most important today?

See above – in other words, I had no role per se in terms of the public sphere; the extent of my participation was that of a citizen. I know some people in my immediate environment who played much more of a role. As did my mother (Ildikó Nagy, art historian), who became a known figure of public life, if you will. Among other things, in collaboration with the Committee for Historical Justice [Hungarian abbreviation: TIB], she was involved in the creation of the monument realized in cemetery parcel no. 301 (the work of György Jovánovics) – one of the few consensual moments in the past twenty-something years. During my childhood, in fact, my mother often took me to see art events, as well as to the vicinity of opposition locations, even groups. I became familiar with the samizdat culture and the most recent developments in art “von Haus aus.” While my role in these circumstances was that of the perceiver, being brought up this way gave me the ability to sense the subtleties that signaled the difference between the official, the semi-official and the illegal; to perceive the nuances and to interpret codes. In parentheses, I would add: I am glad that things happened this way; that for the first twenty years I lived in a communist (or whatnot) system, precisely because this resulted in my learning code reading. Even if I didn’t have a role, per se, I was involved in “things,” I had a kind of presence. I participated in demonstrations – both illegal and semi-legal. As of the age of 13, I played in rock bands, I appeared on stage, I was present in the underground club scene (and, as per chance, once or twice also in the First Public). As a consequence, my person was sometimes the subject of reports and the occasional sloppy surveillance. Or at least, I have a reason to assume this, as a recruiting attempt at the Zalaegerszeg army post in 1987 brought to light some details. The “security officer” knew a host of things – both significant and insignificant – about me and my mother down to the smallest detail. The whole thing is now lost in an anecdotal past and even then and there, at the army post, it all seemed a thing more comical than threatening. They didn’t manage to make me believe that I would not have access to a diploma, a job, a passport; I didn’t sign anything. Of course, 1987 was no ’57, or even ’77. This still doesn’t constitute a “role,” it is more of a personal story and way of relating to the times. Nevertheless, for me, these stories also comprise part of the regime change experience. Thus, what I feel to be most important is the fact that I lived during this time, as 1989 is a historical date – the collapse of a world order. You don’t see this kind of thing every day. The fact that my relatives and aging ancestors also experienced 1989 I also consider to be important. To put it plainly: this was what they had been waiting for half their lives. They had survived the regime, also in the name of – in place of – loved ones who had not lived to see the day.

 

What cornerstone events or publications in art / politics / public life / the professional sphere do you remember, in which you participated, or to which you reacted in some way?

The ‘80s saw some incredibly fascinating cultural developments concealed below what today may seem like a rather dull surface. I see the entire decade as a defining experience and turning point. I was lucky because I was able to attend quite a few art events even as a child. The exhibition openings in Székesfehérvár (in the late ‘70s) were especially exciting and pleasantly familial to me as a child. I even remember personal encounters, primarily within the circles of the neo-avantgarde and the former European School. The opening of the Rabinec Gallery and shared studio in Honvéd (now Falk Miksa) Street in 1982 (linked with Zsuzsa Simon) stands out in my mind, as does a performance by Miklós Erdély at the Studio of Young Artists Association (Rockwool performance, perhaps in 1984?). The latter was an incredibly theatrical event, during which, of course, I had little understanding of what was happening. I recall a very entertaining “Democratic Painting” action at the Fészek Club as well. It was also memorable when my mother, returning from Moscow, told me about her encounters with artists there (from Vladimir Yankilevsky to Francisco Infanté) who had been forced into illegality. Later I was influenced by a whole series of samizdat publications, especially Béla Szász’s memoire entitled Without Any Compulsion, as well as copied recordings of the Kontroll Csoport and URH. Publications by the Faculty of Humanities of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE BTK) seemed rather exciting to me (Cápa, Jóvilág, Tartóshullám). But I also frequented the events of the “main stream” (or perhaps more in the “tolerated” category?). I was interested in almost everything that, to my eyes, held originality. At the age of 13-14, this happened to be the Hobo Blues Band. I have vivid memories of a Bizottság concert during my teens (perhaps in 1983?); the performance carried a tone of freedom and boldness never before conceivable. As of 1985, I was a frequent visitor of the Bercsényi Club and the Ráday Club – sometimes for exhibitions in the former, mostly for Sex-E-Pil concerts in the latter. On 15 March 1986, on my way home from band rehearsal, with an instrument hanging from my shoulder, I got mixed up in a demonstration somewhere between Batthyány Square and Bem Square. I was not entirely aware of where I was, I listened with interest to the speeches and shouts, I sat down when everyone else sat down, I moved when the crowd started moving. When news reached me that the police were nearby, I suddenly felt hungrier; there was chicken soup at home, I didn’t want to miss out. From that point on, however, my interest in political developments became stronger – which was hard to avoid in the late ‘80s anyway.

 

Later, two larger demonstrations – the one against the village destructions in Transylvania (during this time I was on leave from military duty in Budapest) and the one against the Gabčíkovo – Nagymaros Waterworks (1988) – as well as the reburial of Imre Nagy and his martyred peers – were defining experiences, with special emphasis on the word experience. It is often said that there was no such thing as a regime change experience – or catharsis, or anything of this sort – in HunHu Hungary, and this is also frequently mentioned as one of the reasons behind the problems (such as divisions) that emerged later. I don’t agree with this perspective; I think the regime change in Hungary did have an experienceable aspect, even in the shared community sense – a whole series of smaller-larger catharses. (It is also interesting to note how devoid the Transylvania demonstration was of revisionist, irredentist tones.) Everything that was happening in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Romania during this time was also of significance, as was the fact that these events were directly linked to the changes in Hungary. Slowly but surely, the media also made all of this accessible to us at the experiential level, so this too was just as much part of our own regime change. Finally, let me add one personal episode here. I received news of János Kádár’s death from the radio in a public location – a launderette in Fazekas Street. At that moment, the thought flashed through my mind: this is the best possible place to hear such news.

 

Has your picture of the regime change and its ideas been altered – if yes, in what way, and as a result of what – in the past 20 / 10 / 5 / 1 year(s)?

Looking back from today, the regime change has definitely gained value in my eyes – as a historical event, an intellectual achievement, and a cultural-civilizational turn. I think it is important to note that I have never given credence to demeaning, ironic, and cynical interpretations of the regime change or to compromise/conspiracy theories – speculations on the “great bargain” – which cast doubt on the regime change as such. The regime change as a whole is a much more complex process, which, to me, always points back to the fundamental questions. Who are we? Where do we live? And of course it also directs our attention to the concepts and problems of liberty, equality, and fraternity. I regard the political consequences as secondary in importance. I explain the above mentioned increase in value with the fact that, since 2010, we have been witness to the new government’s portrayal of the moment, process, and results of the regime change as insignificant. It is called to question whether there was a regime change at all. The transition process itself – the depiction of the historical moment and its main figures – are (retrospectively) manipulated to the benefit of the new government. In fear of the future, it tries to pound into our children’s minds its own version of history and image of society. I am also appalled by how the new system of government seems to want to excise the time period between 1944 and 1989 from history and how it regards the post-1989 period as “a chaotic twenty years of transition,” all in an effort to be able to define itself. These are dull-witted and manipulative interpretations. (Not to even mention how they bring to mind pre-regime change methods.) What they lie about unavoidably appears purer, what they try to steal suddenly reminds us of its value, what they seek to destroy awakens pangs of absence in us. This too can be misinterpreted, of course, but I still need to make this point: the greatest positive achievement of 20th century Hungarian history – our collective achievement, if you will – is associated with the regime change. Hungary became a free country and the institutional system of liberal democracy was built. Even if it is problematic and full of contradictions in some places. And why wouldn’t it be? There are no pure and perfect processes in history, to bring up this cliché of a truth. If we accept that the regime change was a euphoric moment, then undoubtedly what came after can be regarded as symptoms of sobering up. Everyone woke up to their hangover at different moments, in response to different happenings – the threadbare politics of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the coalition of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats, the shift of the FIDESZ to the right, the case of Őszöd, the street fights, or, for that matter, what is happening today. And indeed these series of events are nothing to be proud of. Nevertheless, I still consider it important not to wave our hand in resignation at the established liberal democratic institutional system – which is sort of what is happening today. From the Constitutional Court to the free press everything is sent down the drain. I think that the question that is asked by Tranzit – why the theoretical knowledge on sociology and economics was not sufficient to facilitate the true fulfillment of the promise held by the regime change – is perfectly valid. As is a critical view of the regime change. I myself am seeking an answer to “how we got here.” By here I mean partly the unfolding of the current autocracy, and partly the economic-social process that has resulted in dozens of hardcore conflicts and crisis situations, and has also left these unsolved for many years. I mean here the impoverishment of the masses, corruption and the growth of racism. I’m afraid our society is once again hiding behind self-deception and lies. All this is a warning: freedom is not at all a natural state of being in these parts. For a good twenty years we thought, if nothing else, that was a natural thing – it just was, a given, just like the air we breathed.


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