New Directions in the Scholarship on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Memory and the Transnational Impact 60 Years After

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In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” and condemned some of the crimes of the Stalinist era – notably, the mass terror of the 1930s – thereby destroying the myth of Stalin’s infallibility.  News of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” spread throughout Eastern Europe and contributed to the Polish reform movement, including protests in Poznań (June 1956) and the “Polish October,” which led to a brief period of liberalization.  The events in Poland inspired student demonstrations in Budapest, which swelled to a mass protest on October 23, 1956. After a delegation of protesters attempted to enter the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands, the secret police (Államvédelmi Hatóságor) opened fire on the crowd. Protesters responded in kind – the ensuing revolution spread throughout the country and forced the collapse of the government. However, Soviet forces entered Hungary in early November, brutally suppressing the Hungarian resistance.

On October 21st, 2016, an international group of social scientists and humanities scholars met to discuss the impact of 1956. “New Directions in the Scholarship on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Memory and the Transnational Impact 60 Years After” was organized by Richard Esbenshade and Zsuzsa Gille (UIUC) and co-sponsored by REEEC, the Department of Political Science, the Center for Global Studies, and the European Union Center. By exploring the causes and consequences of the Hungarian Revolution in ethical, political, and transnational contexts, presenters revealed its far-reaching influence and persistent relevance, demonstrating the importance of continued research on the events of 1956.

Peter Kenez (History, University of California at Santa Cruz) discussed the relationships between the leading members of the Hungarian communist party – known as the Hungarian Working People’s Party (Magyar Dolgozók Pártja) from June 1948 to October 1956 – in the months before the revolution. He highlighted a divide within the party between the “communist hierarchy” (Stalinist party leaders) and “those who opted for the reform direction,” the main difference being that “no one in the communist hierarchy ever said, ‘I made a mistake.’” Kenez focused particularly on the moral trajectory of the Stalinist leadership: “None of these characters who behaved so badly actually joined the communist movement for careerist reasons… How did they become so rotten?” One explanation he offered was that four of the most prominent party leaders (including Mátyás Rákosi) spent several years in Moscow during the Stalinist purges, a “bad education” that “taught them all the wrong lessons.”

Also focusing on ethics, Emanuel Rota (Italian and French, UIUC) argued that the events of 1956 led to a “crisis of morality” within the international communist movement. If Khrushchev was right that Stalin was someone who made mistakes – and, by extension, that the higher-ups didn’t “know better” – then party members were morally responsible for their actions: “that was something we did.” Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism also undermined the pretext for an all-pervasive intelligence service: “As long as Stalin remains attached to this idea that ‘the war is coming,’ espionage becomes a way of being. Once you take away the enemy and espionage remains, cynicism becomes a possibility.” According to Rota, the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising marked “the end of a crucial founding myth of the communist experience: the myth of revolution.”

Because the Soviet Union was the paradigm for communist parties internationally, the repression of the Hungarian Revolution “sparked an anguished debate in the international left,” according to David Ost (Political Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges). However, Ost noted that it “mattered less and mattered differently than similar movements in 1968 [i.e. the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia] and 1980 [i.e. the Solidarity movement in Poland].” Alluding to the fascist Arrow Cross Party (1935-45) and Hungary’s alliance with Germany during World War II, he argued that the 1956 uprising was tainted by the “temporal proximity” of fascism. In Ost’s opinion, Hungary also failed to “matter more” to the West because of the Soviet acquiescence to the (apparently similar) events in Poland.

International attention was also deflected away from the Hungarian Revolution by the contemporaneous Suez War (or “Tripartite Aggression”) in Egypt. Ken Cuno (History, UIUC) discussed the origins of the conflict in “a century of [French and British] colonial domination, at the center of which was the Suez Canal.” In response to a withdrawal of American funds for the construction of the Aswan high dam – itself an act of retribution for the 1955 announcement that Egypt would begin importing weapons from Czechoslovakia, a “neutralism” that the Americans “regarded as a paler form of Communism” – Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which had been controlled by French and British investors since 1875. After this decision, which was “highly popular within Egypt and in accordance with international law,” the French and British “immediately began preparing for war, in order to seize back ‘their’ canal.” The conflict that ensued prevented the American government from interceding in Hungary, according to then-Vice President Richard Nixon: “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.”

The transnational context of the revolution was also discussed by Árpád von Klimó (History, Catholic University of America) and Stefano Bottoni (History, Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Von Klimó spoke about the conflicting narratives surrounding two World War II-era atrocities: the mass killings of several thousand (mostly Serbian and Jewish) civilians by Hungarian troops in January 1942, known as the “Novi Sad raid” or “Újvidék massacre,” and the mass killings of thousands of (mostly Hungarian) civilians by Tito’s army in 1944. Noting that these atrocities were highly politicized, especially “when the communist regimes in Hungary and Yugoslavia based the legitimation of their authority on anti-Fascist narratives and interpretations of the war,” he contended that the 1956 “anti-Stalinist revolution… made it even more difficult to propagate the original Stalinist narrative about the war.” Bottoni argued that party leaders in neighboring Romania were able to exploit the events of 1956 for their own political agenda. He contended that the Hungarian Revolution served as a pretext for “limiting the cultural rights of [Romania’s] most sizeable ethnic minority, the Hungarians.” Mass trials in Romania in the late 1950s targeted ethnic minorities for “social crimes” (e.g. hooliganism) as well as political offenses, and “the ‘classic’ Stalinist-type structure was gradually replaced by a similarly rigid dictatorship, but one with a ‘more national’ complexion,” which continued until the fall of Ceauşescu’s government in 1989.

Taking a different approach, Maya Nadkarni (Anthropology, Swarthmore College) highlighted the revolution’s “shifting role in Hungary’s politics of memory” by examining the official commemorations of its 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversaries in Budapest. She remarked that although the memory of ’56 divided Hungarians along political lines, it “represented a shared trauma” for everyone. In 1996, the then-dominant Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt) pushed through a bill declaring Imre Nagy – the reform-minded communist who became the leader of the 1956 revolutionary movement – a martyr. By 2006, however, the memory of 1956 had been largely coopted by a right-wing narrative, becoming a symbol of “struggle against oppressors” rather than “a contested legacy against various political opponents.” Additionally, the broadcast of another “secret speech” (in which then-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that his party had lied to the electorate) sparked protests, which morphed into riots. According to Nadkarni, the protesters and their right-wing media observers “deliberately drew links” between their actions and those of 1956, in an attempt to adopt the ethical “unimpeachability” of 1956. Despite this unrest, the MSP were obligated to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution: they tried to evoke a generalized nostalgia for the socialist era which would “enable people across the political spectrum to find common ground,” using the memory of ’56 as an abstract “shared heritage” in order to “avoid uncomfortable parallels between itself and the past regime.” In 2016, Nadkarni observed a relative lack of emphasis on 1956, possibly because of the absence of the MSP as a political enemy, Viktor Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party having dominated Hungarian politics since a landslide victory in 2010 (which Orbán called “the revolution in the voting booth”). She noted that the rhetoric has shifted “from anti-communist to anti-EU,” a “fight for freedom” centering on national sovereignty.  Illustrating her argument with different “technologies of memory” – including monuments, TV ads, and museum exhibitions – Nadkarni demonstrated how the memory of the revolution has been variously interpreted and employed by political actors in postsocialist Hungary.

In support of the continuing research on the Hungarian Revolution, Kit Condill (REEES, UIUC) provided an overview of pertinent resources at the University of Illinois Library and elsewhere. He noted that, although the modern period isn’t the main focus of the U of I Library’s Hungarian collection (which is much stronger for the pre-1918 period), the Library is particularly strong on Russian (i.e. Soviet) sources on the revolution.  Kit also recommended the Hungarian National Library, which provides digitized versions of several Hungarian newspapers of the period, as well as the National Bibliography of Hungary: “Hungary is one of the contenders for the prize of… ‘best national bibliography’. They are excellent in recording every single thing that’s ever been published.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.

Letter from the Director

Dear REEEC Community,

As we enter into the final stretch of another busy semester, and with the annual ASEEES conference just around the corner, I would like to thank you all again for helping to make our Fall events so successful. It has been good to see so many of you during the semester, and I look forward to celebrating its end with you at our Winter Reception on December 7th.

The topic of revolutions has already begun to assert itself in our programs, as if in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolutionary year. Professor Mark Steinberg’s kickoff lecture in early September examined the utopian imagination of figures from the revolutionary period in Russia, and in late October, Alexander Rabinowitch (Indiana University, Emeritus Professor of History) reviewed his lifelong research into the Bolshevik revolution. We also marked the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution with an excellent daylong symposium to reexamine its impact, organized by Professor Zsuzsa Gille and Richard Esbenshade. Big plans are afoot to commemorate the 1917 anniversary next Fall semester, with a series of events under the title “1917/2017:  Ten Days that Shook the World/ Ten Days that Shake the Campus.” Watch for the new undergraduate course, a MillerComm lecture, a 2-day symposium in early November, exhibits, concerts, a film festival…in short, a semester-long commemoration and examination of the legacy of the Russian revolutions with big names and big events.

And in between, we still have a whole Spring semester’s worth of events to keep you going. Watch our calendar for details. We’ll begin with an expert roundtable discussion on February 2 examining “State Capacity at the Border: Relinquishing or Reinforcing Contentious Border Regions” that will examine Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and their Russian borders.

With the end of the calendar year approaching, I would like to invite those of you who are able to remember REEEC in your end-of-year giving. As you may know, we have had to suspend the travel grant program for graduate students, which relies on gift funds, this semester. Thank you to those who responded to the call for gifts to refund this important program, which enables graduate students to gain critical professional experience presenting their work at conferences by providing $200 toward their expenses. We have not yet, however, reached a sufficient level of funding to restart the grant program. Knowing the generosity of the REEEC community, I am confident that we will be able to soon.

Warmest wishes,

David Cooper

Current UIUC PhD Candidate Anca Mandru Awarded the 2016 ASEEES Graduate Student Essay Prize

anca-mandruCongratulations to Anca Mandru (PhD candidate in the History Department) on receiving the 2016 Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) Graduate Student Essay Prize! The prize is awarded to a graduate student in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies who writes an outstanding essay within the field. Her essay, “The ‘Socialist Intellectual Brotherhood’ and the Nationalist Challenge,” delves into Romanian socialists’ internationalist agenda and the challenges of nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century.

To view the original announcement from ASEEES, please see

New Directions Lecture: Mark Steinberg, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination”

On September 1st, Dr. Mark Steinberg, Professor of History, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign delivered the first New Directions lecture of Fall Semester. The lecture, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination,” examines ideas surrounding “utopianism” as seen through the works of three radicals during the Revolution and the early Soviet era: Alexandra Kollontai, Lev Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

The title for the talk comes from a quote from Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, where he says in his On the Concept of History, “The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.” This adapts the Marxist metaphor of the kingdom of necessity as it changes into the kingdom of freedom. Utopia can be understood in three ways according to Dr. Steinberg, the first is Utopia as a critique of the present, citing German Marxist Ernst Bloch, when he states that the impulse towards utopia is an impulse to venture beyond, that is towards the “not yet”. The second is Utopia as the critique of knowledge of the possible and the impossible. Again, Steinberg looks to Bloch, where the ocean of possibility is that much greater than the customary and the possibility of reality. The final way that Utopia can be understood is Utopia as critical knowledge of time. This means that utopian time is considered as separate from the conventional understanding of time itself. Utopian time is time that is stepping out of the time of reality onto its own path.

Using these understandings of utopia, Dr. Steinberg looked at the influence of utopian ideas on the work of Kollontai, Trotsky, and Mayakovsky. Kollontai adopted Marxism and the possibility of utopian ideals through the realization of the utmost possibilities in earthly reality. While different from Kollontai in ideas and understanding, Trotsky’s understanding of utopianism is that the people of the present cannot hear the sound of the future, where the utopia lies. He disagreed with the Marxist idea that utopia can be realized immediately, saying that only with time will it arrive. Mayakovsky, according to Dr. Steinberg, found that they (the revolutionaries) must destroy the old to make way for the new, the utopian ideal.

Overall, Dr. Steinberg makes the point that while maybe the realization of these utopian ideals never came to fruition, the leap towards such a future and such a world is significant enough for historians and those studying the Russian Revolution to draw our attention. The importance of this point lies not only in the contents of the argument he has made here, but also, if not more importantly, in the grand gesture towards the past and the significance and implications of attempts for change, regardless of their successes or failures. In what was a fitting lecture to kick off the 2016-17 academic year, Dr. Steinberg demonstrated the power of the attempt to change history.

Nicholas Higgins is a Masters student in the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include the development of identity separate from the Soviet identity during Glasnost’ and Perestroika, the current relations between Russia and its neighbors, especially Russia’s relations with Ukraine. He received his B.A in Philosophy and Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies from Miami University of Ohio in 2015. He is currently working on his Masters thesis, which is attempting to adapt Søren Kierkegaard‘s model of faith into a political and social model that could represent the political and social nature of the late Soviet era.

Slavic Story Time

On September 17th, 2016, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center hosted a program called Slavic Story Time at the Urbana Free Library. The program, held once a semester, introduces small children in the Champaign-Urbana community to the countries and cultures of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia through stories, songs, and crafts. At this fall’s Slavic Story Time, graduate students Madeline Artibee and Stephanie Chung presented on Russia. Madeline read the Russian folk tale “Sasha’s Matrioshka Dolls,” while Stephanie helped the children and their parents sing the Russian Happy Birthday Song. They both assisted in the making of paper matryoshka dolls. Everyone had a fun time. We at REEEC were delighted to once again work with the Urbana Free Library to promote the study of our region.

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Madeline Artibee is a REEEC M.A. student.

Fall 2016 Visiting Scholars: Rufat Mammadov and Sahil Guliyev


Rufat Mammadov, Guba Regional Agricultural Science Center

Mr. Rufat Mammadov is a visiting scholar from the Republic of Azerbaijan to the University of Illinois. He was born in Guba, Azerbaijan, and he received his master’s degree in plant protection from the Azerbaijan State Agricultural University in Ganja, Azerbaijan. Rufat works at the Guba Regional Agricultural Science Center in northeastern Azerbaijan. His major responsibility is providing information on management of diseases and insect pests of fruit crops to the farmers of the Guba region. Rufat arrived at the University of Illinois on August 31st and will return to Azerbaijan on December 30th, 2016. He is conducting research and extension studies on diseases of fruit crops in Professor Mohammad Babadoost’s program in the Department of Crop Science.


Sahil Guliyev, Azerbaijan State Agricultural University

Mr. Sahil Guliyev is a Ph.D. student in plant protection at the Azerbaijan State Agricultural University (ASAU), Ganja, Azerbaijan. Sahil arrived at the University of Illinois on August 19th and is scheduled to return to ASAU on December 19th, 2016. The main goal of his visit is to be trained as a plant disease diagnostician. He is conducting studies in Professor Babadoost’s laboratory and the Plant Clinic in the Department of Crop Sciences. Professor Babadoost has a close connection with ASAU and he has been helping to establish a plant clinic at ASAU (the first plant clinic in Azerbaijan and the Caucuses Region). Azerbaijan has tremendous potential in agricultural and horticultural crops production, but considerable crop losses to diseases and insect pests occur every year. Establishing a plant clinic at ASAU is expected to help to increase yield and quality of crops in Azerbaijan. Also, the plant clinic at ASAU could become a model for similar clinic in the Caucuses and Central Asia Regions.

Stage Russia Presents: Eugene Onegin

On September 23, 2016, REEEC hosted a discussion panel for Stage Russia Presents: Eugene Onegin, which was screened at the Art Theater Co-op.  Stage Russia is “an intercultural project that films Russian theater productions which will be distributed into U.S. cinemas, starting this fall with the Vakhtangov Theatre’s ‘arrestingly beautiful’ Eugene Onegin.”  The discussants were Eddie Aronoff, Owner and General Director of Stage Russia, Olga Maslova, Assistant Professor of Costume Design at UIUC, and Valeria Sobol, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC

Eugene Onegin, originally published serially from 1825 to 1832, is a “novel in verse” written by Aleksandr Pushkin, widely considered Russia’s greatest poet and a founding figure of modern Russian literature. Onegin is the story of the titular St. Petersburg dandy, a cynical “superfluous man” (a literary type based on the Byronic hero) whose tragic fate—which involves unrequited love and unwillingly killing his best friend in a duel—is the central focus of Pushkin’s verse novel. Described by Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky as an “encyclopedia of Russian life,” Onegin is an enduring classic. There are dozens of English translations of the work (hundreds overall), and it was famously adapted into an 1879 opera by Tchaikovsky. However, as Prof. Sobol pointed out, Pushkin is so revered in Russia that staging an adaptation of any sort is already “an act of bravery.”

Rimas Tuminas, the director of the Vakhtangov production of Onegin, devised creative solutions to many of the challenges involved in bringing Pushkin’s text to the stage.  One such potential obstacle is Onegin’s idiosyncratic narrator, a “chatty, playful” persona with “many faces,” who, according to Prof. Sobol, reflects Pushkin’s intent to separate his authorial voice from the character of Onegin. Tuminas decided to distribute the narrator’s discourse among several characters, including a narrator character (a “drunk hussar”).  This production also features two Onegins on stage: the younger one is the locus of action (i.e. takes part in events), and his older self—absent from the original text—looks back on the events of his youth.  In some scenes, young Onegin speaks the lines he spoke in Pushkin’s Onegin, while the older Onegin speaks the narrator’s lines describing his younger self’s inner life.

In her discussion of the production, Prof. Maslova argued that “a good director doesn’t just quote or illustrate [the original text]—he [or she] adds another dimension.” She praised the set design, particularly the large dance-studio mirror in the background, which creates space and changes subtly throughout the production: “Mirrors are one of the hardest things to use on stage.”  She noted that the costumes mixed early 19th-century and modern fashions, blending newer styles with Empire silhouettes. According to Prof. Maslova, “The production is terribly entertaining… you watch it in one breath and come out a better person.”

Along with the transition from text to stage, the Stage Russia project also entails the translation from stage to screen. Aronoff’s initial idea was to bring mid-sized Russian theatrical productions to the United States; when that turned out to be unfeasible, he struck upon the idea of bringing filmed versions to the U.S. Eventually, he met Alexey Shemyatovskiy, the film director who oversees the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theatre’s live transmissions. Shemyatovskiy agreed to film and edit Stage Russia productions, becoming an integral part of the project. Aronoff also works with a small team—”my ‘Eddie’s Angels,’ I call them”—including Katya Soloviev, who is responsible for translation into English. For Onegin, she used an earlier British translation, which she “tweaked to her specifications.” (She translated The Cherry Orchard from scratch.) Her translation manages the tricky balancing act of maintaining semantic accuracy while approximating the unique rhyme scheme of Pushkin’s original. According to Aronoff, “the key is, she’s a Russian theater junky.”

Thanks to Shemyatovskiy’s work, Onegin is distinctly cinematic: “there’s a scene that he’s so proud of—I love it when I see it now—where Olga is in the background and Lensky is in the foreground, and he… switches the focus—it’s so beautiful, and you can’t get that in the theater… you don’t feel like you’re watching a play live, but you do feel something… maybe not ‘better,’ ‘but different.'” Shemyatovskiy’s process begins with a technical video (“[they] see what the angles are and what they want to do”), followed by a full shoot with his six-camera crew. For the Stage Russia version of Onegin, he insisted in filming the play twice: “I think the ‘swings scene,’ somehow he felt he missed something on it [the first time].” He also edited the film without input from Aronoff or even Tuminas, who didn’t ask for final approval. (“I guess he had filmed stuff with Alexey for a long time, so he trusted him.”) However, Aronoff says that this isn’t the case for all of the directors they’re working with this season: “Kama Ginkas—we’re doing The Black Monk—he wants to be involved, heavily… I said, ‘You’re a great director, why would I resist having you help direct?’”

Intuitively, one of the obstacles to filming live theater is the difference between acting styles in the two media. Stage performances tend to be louder and more expressive, while screen acting is “smaller” and more naturalistic—a result of the fact that the camera can eliminate the distance between performer and audience. At some moments in Onegin, some of the actors’ expressions are surprisingly understated. However, Aronoff doesn’t think that they adjusted their performances for the camera:

Maybe there was a subtle thing that they were aware of, but [Tuminas] is such a strict director, that I can’t imagine that they would change one note… He’s a taskmaster, almost like Hitchcock… Maybe it’s the same philosophy: “Act as if they can see the tiniest expression in your face.”  It doesn’t feel overly theatrical—but I think that’s also the play.  There are so many quiet moments… capturing the essence of death, of… resignation, and at the same time love, but also sadness… there are some really nice, intimate moments.

Aronoff emphasized that he wanted to “create a diverse landscape of Russian theater.” The next film in the series is the Moscow Art Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Adolf Shapiro (Aronoff: “Chekhov is a no brainer, you’ve gotta do Vanya or Cherry Orchard”). The third film is a modern dance interpretation of Anna Karenina, directed and choreographed by Angelica Cholina (“this kind of [adaptation] is very popular in Moscow right now, The Inspector General was done this way recently”). Other productions planned for this season include The Black Monk (dir. Kama Ginkas), The Three Comrades (dir. Galina Volchek and Alexander Savostianov), and The Suicide (dir. Sergei Zhenovach).

Eugene Onegin and The Cherry Orchard are currently screening in North America, England, and Ireland.  Stage Russia productions will be also shown in Mexico and South America beginning January 2017, and in Australia the following May. For more details, visit Stage Russia on FacebookYouTube, or VKontakte.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.