Back in 1956, October 23 marked the first day of a 12-day revolution in Hungary. What began as a spontaneous uprising with thousands taking to the streets demanding freedom from Soviet oppression and a more democratic rule ended badly for so many. Some 12 days later, on November 4, very early in the morning, Soviet tanks rolled into the city to put an end to this insubordination, much to the surprise and shock of those in the West who had lent little more than words of sympathy in support of the beleaguered Hungarians. It’s estimated that more than 2500 Hungarians died and that about 200 000 fled the country. Every year, on this day, the same thought crosses my mind. Was it worth it? If they’d known then what they know now, would those who lost their lives have participated? If they could see into the future, to where Hungary is today, would they have considered their sacrifice too great?
This is a particularly poignant thought this year as students continue to occupy SzFE, the University of Film and Theatre Arts. Last month, on September 1, the students began their occupation to protest the loss of the university’s autonomy. Put under new management and chaired by Attila Vidnyánszky, the head of the National Theatre, and close friend and confidente of the PM. Vidnyánszky is said to want to make the university more “national” and “Christian”. As a card-carrying Christian myself, that combination brings on the goose-pimples.
Support from the global cinema and theatre worlds has been pouring in with the likes of Helen Mirren, Sir Ian McKellen, and Salman Rushdie sending messages of encouragement. For art to be art, it needs to be able to breathe, without limitation, without the shackles of shoulds, without the restraints of refrainment. Moulding the university’s syllabus into a national, Christian education would make cookie-cutter artists of those students who enrol. Artists have to have the freedom to think, to create, to interpret.
Today, in Budapest, the usual bevvy of official ceremonies have been curtailed due to COVID. Only two official commemorations will take place. There will also be two demonstrations, one anti-propaganda car blockade of the MTVA, the public media building, Kunigunda útja 64. A translation of the event’s FB notice says that the two independent MPs organising it, Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, have asked people to
blockade the factory of lies, the headquarters of MTVA on Kunigunda Road, as this day is also about the fight against propaganda: in 1956, revolutionaries went to the radio to tell the truth instead of the lies on all wavelengths from the speakers.
The second demonstration is a walk organised by supporters and students of the SzFE. Protesters will assemble outside the Technical University at 4pm, where back in 1956, students also walked the talk. The procession will head towards Március 15 tér for a torch-lighting ceremony at 5:30pm. From there, they will proceed, in silence, to the Urania National Film Theatre where at 6pm they’ll commemorate those who stood for them back in 1956. The Symphony Orchestra of Independent Music Academics will play Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and a choir of 100 actors will perform György Selmeczi’s choral interpretation of Sándor Weöres’ poem A célról (About the goal).
They’re asking people to wear masks and in a move to distance themselves from party politics, to attend as private individuals. It has been billed as
a parade in the spirit of intellectual freedom.
The poem is beautiful. A Google translation perhaps doesn’t do it justice but gives an idea
What do I think it’s worth,
or is my business pointless?
I’m a stream: should I ask that
where do i take my foam?
I’m fighting: I don’t know who
and I don’t know who against it.
I don’t have to know my purpose,
because my purpose knows me.
October 23 doesn’t just mark the 1956 Revolution. It also marks the day Communist rule came to an end and the Republic of Hungary was declared.
In October 1989, the Socialist Party convened its last congress and re-established itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party. In a historic session from 16 October to 20 October, the parliament adopted legislation providing for multi-party parliamentary elections and a direct presidential election. The legislation transformed Hungary from a People’s Republic into the Republic of Hungary, guaranteed human and civil rights, and created an institutional structure that ensured separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. On 23 October 1989 at Kossuth tér, Budapest, the Republic of Hungary was proclaimed.
Imagine the hope on both those days, in 1956 and in 1989. Imagine the conversations. The dreams. The visions of the future.
That more than thirty years later, students have to fight for academic freedom breaks my heart. But I am grateful that they’re doing it.
If you want to support them, feel free to donate. Mark your donations SzFE: