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.

2016 Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum: Population, Health and Social Change in Eurasia

The 2016 Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum was held during the 17th and 18th of June, and was organized by Cynthia Buckley, a Professor of Sociology, and Paul McNamara, an Associate Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. The main sponsor of the event was the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC), while the co-sponsors for this year’s Fisher Forum include the Fisher Forum Endowment, Illinois International Programming, Center for Global Studies, Global Health Initiative, and Russian and East European Institute (REEI) at Indiana University.

Population, Health and Social Change in Eurasia were the central themes of this year’s Fisher Forum. In delving deep into the research regarding the health profiles of countries within Eurasia, the presenters came together to answer these three core questions:

1. What are the positive and negative health legacies of structural change and institutional resilience in Eurasia?
2. What are the processes and interpretations employed by individual actors as they navigate uncertainty and make health related decisions in the Eurasian context?
3. How do the cumulative results of health behaviors in Eurasia confirm, expand or challenge existing theories related to the relationship between economic inequality and health outcomes?

Participants who took on the challenge of addressing these questions, included: Dr. Yuri Frantsuz, a Professor of Social Work at St. Petersburg University of Humanities and Social Sciences, who presented research on The Impact of Income Inequality on Health in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Countries; Dr. William Alex Pridemore, the Dean and Professor of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany – State University of New York, presented on Crime, Justice, and Death in Post-Soviet Russia; Dr. Cynthia Buckley, a Professor of Sociology, REEEC, and LAS Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spoke about Ethnic Differentials in Reported Disability: Insights from Russia and Estonia; Dr. Nicole Butkovich Kraus, an Assistant Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University, examined her research on Xenophobia and Homophobia in the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe; Dr. Jill Owczarzak, an Assistant Professor of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Sarah Phillips, a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, presented together their joint research endeavor on Harm Reduction and the Transformation of Public Health and Governance in Ukraine; Dr. Tricia Starks, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, who replaced Dr. Hannah Reiss as a presenter, spoke about Kosmonavty ne kuriat! The Campaign against Smoking in the Late Soviet Period; Dr. Victor Agadjanian, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, presented on International Migration and Sexual Reproductive Health in Post-Soviet Eurasia; and finally Dr. Theodore Gerber, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, presented data and research regarding Housing and Fertility in Russia, 1992-2013.


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The Ascendancy of Nationalism in Central Asia

On October 7, 2014, Russell Zanca, Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture. Russell Zanca received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999. Over the years he has published works mainly on the country of Uzbekistan, covering topics such as collective farming, the cotton monoculture, cuisine, religion, gender, and Soviet history. He co-edited Everyday Life in Central Asia with Jeff Sahadeo (2007) and wrote Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming after Communism (2011).

russell zanca

Professor Russell Zanca

His talk, entitled “The Ascendancy of Nationalism in Central Asia,” examined the state (or status) and intra-regional conditions of political sovereignty in post-Soviet Central Asia. The argument he made is not exactly one of success or failure, but rather examines the very successes and failures that exist in Central Asia from the standpoints of political integrity and political development—despite or because of dictatorial rule and concomitant degrees of freedom of conscience and economic decision-making. The latter Central Asian political development subsumes economic and cultural development.

Recently, scholars and pundits have meaningfully examined many hyper-nationalist aspects of the Central Asian countries’ politics. The basic argument here is that nationalism has prevented the kind of intra-regional cooperation that would have fueled greater development and freedom throughout Central Asia. Generally speaking, nationalism may be necessary to independence, but it is rarely considered positive in terms of development and human freedom by most social scientists. While there may be much to recommend this position, Zanca looked to data and analyses history from more than 20 years prior to compare different visions of independence, areas for national and regional comity and strife, and treaties and agreements that have fostered and foiled individual and regional growth and freedom.

An interesting point professor Zanca made was that the Central Asian republic’s ethnic territorialization projects did not occur directly after the collapse of the USSR. He suggested that scholars look back to the state-socialism of the USSR for explanations of post-Soviet occurrences.

Another interesting point he discussed concerned political and economic relationships within the Central Asian states and Russia after 1991. His argument was that these states function under state networking interdependence in the areas of economics, labor, residential flow, and a wide imbalance of power between the states. He deduced that because of these factors there is a much lower risk of conflict between ethnicities and of territorial disintegration.

Zanca concluded that while relations between the five Central Asian states are unhealthy, nationalism has helped keep an uneasy peace. Due to this, he stated that we are likely to see greater nationalism in Central Asia in the future. He attributed this future nationalism to Central Asian political leaders working to make sure that there is continuity in their government after they are gone. He connected this ‘top down’ nationalism to the legacy of Soviet Rule. With this continuity, he predicted that there will not be many significant, violent conflicts in the near future.

After professor Zanca concluded his presentation a lively discussion about his research was produced by both faculty and students alike.

Bethany Wages is a graduate student in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her current focus of study is History. She received her B.A. in Honors/History and English Literature in 2014 at Wright State University.

After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia

On April 21, 2014, the European Union Center and the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center co-sponsored a lecture and presentation by Prof. Jessica Greenberg on her recently published book After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia (Stanford University Press, 2014).

Jessica Greenberg's book "After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia" (Stanford University Press, 2014)

Jessica Greenberg’s book “After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia” (Stanford University Press, 2014)

Jessica Greenberg is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Illinois. Her research focuses on the anthropology of democracy in the Balkans and Europe, post-revolutionary politics, youth, and post-socialist studies more broadly. Prior to coming to Illinois, she was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, and an assistant professor in Communication Studies at Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2007. Her work has appeared in American AnthropologistPolitical and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR), Eastern European Politics and SocietiesSlavic ReviewLanguage and Communication, and Nationalities Papers.

Jessica Greenberg describing the youth protests in Serbia

Jessica Greenberg describing the  protests in Serbia in 2000

Prof. Greenberg started her lecture by raising a thought-provoking question: “What happens the day after a revolution?” Her response to this question began with a brief summary of the historical events that she analyzes in her project. Namely, on October 5, 2000, Serbia began the democratic revolution in which tens of thousands of people protested against the totalitarian rule of Slobodan Milošević, demanding the overthrow of his regime. Prof. Greenberg’s analysis begins in the aftermath of these protests. She argues that the youth activists experienced a shift in their orientation from a future-oriented revolutionary project toward a pragmatic politics of the present.

In both the book and lecture, Prof. Greenberg examines the experiences of student protesters who, after the October revolution in Serbia, began engaging in everyday politics, assuming a more pragmatic stance. Immediately after the revolution, Serbia’s youth confronted the politics of disappointment, but as Prof. Greenberg asserts, the feeling of disappointment became a place for activism. Democratic youth activism was constructed through an embrace of pragmatism in the present, rather than an idealism of the future. The student activists felt that the older generation, the generation of their parents, had betrayed them. They became disillusioned with the previous generation’s saying “Biće bolje” (“It will be better”), which was repeated over and over in socialist Yugoslavia to point toward a better, utopian future.

According to Prof. Greenberg, the student activists anticipated disappointment by blaming the idealism and utopianism of the socialist regime. In refusing to accept the “it will be better” attitude, they rejected a socialist conception of revolutionary time – the socialist state’s insistence on the idea of permanent revolution configured through images of youth and labor. Their rejection was also a commentary on a more recent nationalist past embodied in the politics of Slobodan Milošević’s regime.

By spurning the socialist-time-mantra “Biće bolje” (“It will be better”), the student activists opted for a more pragmatic approach grounded in the politics of the present. They became involved with technocratic politics, issues of expertise, and demanded university reform. This pragmatic stance represented the call for normalcy that included the language of responsibility and mandate.

Prof. Greenberg’s lecture was enriched by a reading of several personal narratives and experiences from her recent book, which represented a significant part of her fieldwork in Serbia. Various student activists from Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš, and other cities in Serbia told the narratives. Prof. Greenberg’s analysis of these personal experiences illustrates the feelings of immediacy and urgency among the youth activists, and demonstrates the various ways of maneuvering through semiotic ambiguities that the pitfalls of democratic practice opened up.

In conclusion, Prof. Greenberg’s analysis of the politics of disappointment in Serbia shows her remarkable expertise and understanding of the incredibly complicated and confusing times after the October Revolution. Additionally, her analysis offers a liberating feeling to the generation who personally experienced these political shifts, including the authors of this post. After reading Prof. Greenberg’s book and attending her lecture, we feel grateful and enriched with a new and inspiring understanding of the post-revolutionary time and practices in democratic Serbia.

Marina Filipovic and Jasmina Savic are graduate students in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, majoring in Russian literature. As they were both undergraduate students of Belgrade University in Serbia at the exact same time which Prof. Jessica Greenberg analyzes in her book, they feel especially honored to be invited to contribute to this blog.