I started to write this article in mid-October 2020, around the 50th day of the occupation of the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in Budapest. The aim of the text is to allow foreign readers, who are less familiar with Hungarian conditions, to understand what is happening in Budapest now and what is at stake. The students who maintained the blockade, vacated the buildings of SZFE on 11 November due to the epidemic measures of the Hungarian government, the switch to online education and the temporary closure of universities and colleges. Their statement reads: “We are not giving up the blockade, we are taking it with us. (…) And the blockade will last until the political repression ends”. Meanwhile, while the number of COVID-19 deaths in Hungary is approaching two hundred a day, and Hungary is vetoing the EU budget for 2021 with Poland, the government ordered to invalidate the last semester of the SZFE’s students who had occupied the university.
– G. N., 27 November 2020
On the 53rd day of the university occupation, on 23 October, the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and war of independence in 1956, a mass demonstration was organized by the students of SZFE and other universities to defend autonomy and free education, and something happened in front of the SZFE building around 6 p.m., that many people could not experience since the days of the fall of communism. Students, born long after 1989 offered a cathartic experience to the 10 to 20 thousand demonstrators. The silent torchlight procession arrived and stopped at a large stage in front of the building and a symphony orchestra of young musicians in the background of the stage appeared on the projector screen above. This orchestra of students from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music played in one of the actors’ classrooms inside the university building and the professional live streaming was provided by SZFE’s television and film students. The young conductor shook hands with the first violinist, made a gesture to the orchestra to begin playing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. It was an awesome moment.
Perhaps, no mass demonstration have ever started in Hungary with a regular overture by an orchestra, but theatre people, filmmakers, playwrights, visual designers and sound designers occupied their university here for more than 50 days, protesting against the government’s privatization of the university and these young people know very well the impact of effects in art. The Egmont Overture is very impressive, although not primarily by the drama of the sound effects in Budapest, but by its historical connotations, since the Hungarian Radio, freed from the control of the communist regime, regularly played this piece of music during the 1956 revolution, which became the “background music” of the uprising.
It was moving and cathartic. And at the same time, it was pointed out that this generation of artists is aware of the meaning of its gestures. Also, when students from the Academy of Music play, it is a sign of solidarity between universities. Furthermore, when the Egmont Overture is played, it builds a bridge between the generations–as there were grandparents in the crowd, who experienced ’56 and parents, who were there in ’89. And also with the fact, that when tens of thousands take to the streets to support the SZFE rebels, there has long been more at stake. A storm of applause broke out at the end of the overture, the windows of the university opened, the musicians and contributors appeared. Symbolically, people inside and outside found each other, and the first speech from the stage by a theatre director student–an ironic, brave and clever open letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán–left no doubt that we are in a ten-year-long anti-democratic authoritarian process. It was about all the social groups, that suffered from the Fidesz-KDNP regime, teachers, doctors and nurses, and all the communities and minorities, that the government humiliated, from the Roma to LGBTQ people. All this was a lively response to Fidesz’s propaganda condemning SZFE students as misled children, marijuana-smoking art students living in the clouds, “(George) Sorosist” anarchist apprentices or Lenin boys. And it was also an answer to where the borderline of the agency of art lies and what the artist can be competent for.
But how did these young people end up in a situation, where their cause became the central point around which resistance developed, where the myriad of problems of ten years of illiberalism came together and with which a part of the society identified itself?
The last straw?
The occupation of the university on the night of 31 August was only the last attempt to make the government to come round. The Hungarian government wanted to privatize their university, forcibly, in a few months. The haste was incomprehensible, especially since the originally planned January 2021 deadline was also imminent and this was brought forward with another six months: the university should have been operating as a private institute already from 1 September through the so-called “model change”. The students faced the fact, that the university they had been earlier admitted to no longer existed from the following day: the direct cause of the occupation was that SZFE’s new board of trustees, to which the government had handed over the university, had deleted all the sections about autonomy from the rules of organization and operation and deprived the University Senate of all its powers. By that time, however, there had been tension in the air already for months, that had been hard to bear. Neither the government, nor the board of trustees were willing to talk to the university’s heads and students. The rector of the university, László Upor, who was awarded this position in a fair competition, was not inducted by the responsible ministry, thus creating an ex lex situation. The privatization process was not transparent at all. Meanwhile, there was a continuous smear campaign against the university in the government’s and in the Fidesz-friendly media.
Here we have to make a detour: this method is almost natural in Hungary. It is a routine, that major institutional changes and government interventions–especially in culture–are prepared and accompanied by a consciously structured disinformation campaign or public shaming, for which a huge media coverage is available. If MTVA, the state television, radio and news agency, that was once called public media and now broadcasts government propaganda, would not be enough, there is still KESMA, a government-controlled media empire, uniting nearly five hundred media outlets, the almost complete local and rural newspaper network, as well as weekly papers, TVs, radios and websites. This was also the case with CEU (Central European University), which was practically expelled from the country through an absolutely unnecessary and manipulative change in the law, as was the case with the reorganization of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), with the result, that its research institutes were detached and transferred to an easily controllable organization, as it also happened at the end of 2019, when the government outrageously changed the funding of theatres. They built up their own narrative in each case to justify, why they had to intervene.
The campaign against SZFE cynically turned the #metoo message against the university. The government media wanted to blame some institutions, including SZFE for some harassment cases of famous people revealed in the theatre world, despite the fact that SZFE handled these cases fairly and correctly and it was not proved that there was any harassment in SZFE at all. All this, of course, was just an excuse and a rhetorical preparation for the intervention, and only the soft part. There was also a hard talk: education is denationalized, Hungarian and Christian values are not included and the institution is outdated anyway, it has been held by the same “small group” for decades, and there would be an opportunity now for radical renewal and even modernization. The media campaign was followed by speeches in parliament by government MP’s calling for order, their phrases were then echoed by the media of propaganda and so on: they made so much noise around a case, that the voice of not only the people involved, but also the targeted institution was ignored. No one is talking anymore about why and how a 155-year-old state-run art university should be privatized, but about the need to put this institution in order immediately, because horrible things are going on there.
Specific, public private universities?
I have to say a few words about the model of privatization, because it is also quite special in a European context. Several state-owned and funded universities in Hungary are privatized by the government by transferring them to foundations with all their assets and appointing a board of trustees at the head of the foundation through their former operator ITM (Ministry of Information and Technology). The members of the boards of trustees are appointed from people loyal to the government, i.e. Fidesz, businessmen and quasi-professionals, who have some relationship with the field concerned, who then grab all decision-making powers, and the role of university senates and elected officials will remain only formal and their authority will be lost. The new foundation will then receive a packet of the shares of large state-owned companies to finance the university, as was the case, for example, with the Corvinus University of economics in Budapest, where 10 percent of the shareholdings of the oil company MOL and the pharmaceutical company Richter were transferred to the foundation financing the university.
Overall, therefore, some public assets are relinquished by the state, direct public funding and thus the responsibility for maintaining certain forms of education are stopped and it cannot be guaranteed, that the university will remain unchanged from then on. The universities are nominally removed from the public sector by the government, labelling the process “independence” and “autonomy”, but the government can still directly influence the university’s work and exercise ideological control, because university autonomy is eliminated and extremely loyal people are appointed to the foundations. Even–and this may explain the haste–after 2022, in case Fidesz fails in the elections. Eight universities are affected by this new model, and the constitution was amended with this procedure since then, as the concept of “public money” was redefined in the Fundamental Law (written by the Fidesz government in 2012) in mid-November 2020. And the new definition does not include this type of foundation assets–while the foundations have received public property and taxpayers money of course. Taxpayers will have practically no say in this process from now on and a two-thirds parliamentary majority is required to amend the law on foundations.
However, there is another twist in the privatization of SZFE. It is still financed by the state for the time being, while SZFE have been transferred to a private foundation, although businessmen also sit on the board of trustees, such as the richest man in Slovakia, ethnic Hungarian Oszkár Világi, the head of the Slovak oil company Slovnaft, which has a strategic relationship with MOL. The first task of the foundation was to delete everything in the rules of organizational and operation, that related to autonomy and then to drop any reference to SZFE from its own name. There was a well-founded suspicion, that the university might even be closed in the future. As there is still a great deal left unclear in this matter. For example the haste: why did the process have to be pushed through in a few months? And the means: why was a dirty press campaign needed and why was no meaningful consultation held with the heads and the students of the university? As well as the objectives: while the new board of trustees and especially its head, Attila Vidnyánszky, the director of the National Theatre, constantly talked about renewing the education, literally nothing is known about how it is envisioned, based on what concept and by whom. But it is well known, that Vidnyánszky had already experimented with the education of actors at another university in Kaposvár, and after firing teachers he disliked and embarking on it with great ambition, he practically left the students alone, because he no longer had time to teach besides directing the National Theatre and his many other commitments.
Vidnyánszky’s name is unavoidable in this story, we will even come back to his role later, but first we would connect the lines of events. The occupation of the university, which began on the night of 31st August, was a radical action by the students to try preserving SZFE de facto. It was exactly their main demand: to restore institutional autonomy. They do not reject any change of model in principle, nor some kind of reform of university education, but they refuse the complete termination of government responsibility and the new law allowing privatization, because they think it contradicts the right of university autonomy, guaranteed by the constitution. Consequently, they consider the process of privatization illegal and do not recognize the board of trustees, its decisions and the persons it has appointed as legitimate. The students declared, that neither the board of trustees nor the new management it has delegated would be allowed to enter the building.
The rector and the senate of the university (elected, but not appointed) resigned on 1 September, senior teachers and key persons stepped down to protest–several of them made their thoughts and dilemmas public. The senior professors and the Senate acted in unity with the students, but the occupation of the university and the model that followed, the so-called “education republic,” were already the students’ project. Of course, the question is whether the people did well to have stepped down. Understandably, they could not accept a possible new management, that was completely opposing their principles and constantly insulted them in the press. However, some people think the protest would have an even greater impact, if the senior professors of the university had been directly involved. However, it is also true, that they can give ongoing support to the occupiers from outside.
Here we come back briefly to Vidnyánszky, also because his story is a good example of how the government makes use of offended artists for its own purposes and the other way round, how ambitious artists see the opportunity for their power ambitions in the government’s plans. Vidnyánszky operated a very important theater in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, in Beregszász (Berehove), populated around 50 percent by ethnic Hungarians, from the early 1990s under extremely difficult conditions. He and his company did heroic work, made high-quality theatre, in Hungarian–and when Vidnyászky started working in Hungary, he was also highly appreciated by the professional community. A fundraising was launched among other things to support the Beregszász theatre (where the walls literally tumbled down), where several theatre companies contributed. Vidnyászky got every opportunity in Hungary in the 2000s, he was the chief director of the State Opera House and the Csokonai Theatre in Debrecen and now the chief executive of the National Theatre. He could launch an actors school in Kaposvár, which–let us also note –is an iconic place: this town became a symbol of Hungarian theatre renewal in the seventies and eighties, the theatre here was among the best in Europe at that time. Vidnyánszky is also heading a theatre organization, the Hungarian Theatre Society, where he brought together theatre people mostly who agree with him in art, ideology and politics, particularly contrasting liberal culture and national culture, which, although it could be the subject of another writing, does not exist as an actual faultline, it is merely a product of divisive political strategies. However, this was not enough, Vidnyánszky is always talking about that he is played down due to the aesthetics and the worldview he represents. The stated objective of the Orbán government, announced by the Prime Minister himself in a speech in 2018, is to “embed” the new “political system” into a new cultural era. That is, his own system. Vidnyánszky saw an opportunity to grab the education of theatre professionals in Hungary. It is difficult to explain, why defamatory rhetoric was also required for this purpose. The “misled students” and “Lenin boys” quoted above come from him, that is he took these words over from the dictionary of the far-right media.
It is a stalemate: Vidnyánszky wanted to enter the university in a real and symbolic way, but the students did not allow him, nor the new vice-rectors and the new chancellor, who were appointed by Vidnyánszky’s board of trustees. The new chancellor, Gábor Szarka, a former colonel of the Hungarian Army, an operation specialist, has been threatening the university since he took office: he would not pay the employees, who go on strike, he would oblige the students to make individual statements about whether they cooperate with the new management. He had the Internet turned off in the buildings, also switched off the electricity on one occasion, closed down rooms and studios, withheld the payment of social scholarships and also banned the whole education at one point. Meanwhile, the proper officials threw the SZFE case above Szarka’s head like a hot potato: the board of trustees was unable and the government refused to negotiate with the students. At the same time, the involvement of a former military officer in this story is both an ominous and a comic element, and obviously the choice cannot be accidental. The government only speaks the language of power and violence now and is unable to imagine any other kind of conflict management. The concepts of abusive behavior and rape often appear in the interpretations of the people, who know the story from within: the generation in its twenties is aware exactly of what the Hungarian prime minister, born and raised in the Kádár-era, does not know: what kinds of behaviour belong to this area.
Without a state and beyond the state
The ruling Hungarian regime has perfectly revealed its face in the SZFE case, but it was more important, what the students of SZFE have demonstrated. In fact, it is a miracle that people in their twenties today still think in terms of European concepts and democratic practices after ten years of autocracy in Hungary. The education republic they have announced is a model of basic democracy, where the university community and education itself work with horizontal decision-making without any hierarchy. There is no hierarchy, but there is order: forums, joint decision-making, working groups, the distribution of all tasks from the implementation of actions through the receipt of donations and food provisioning to observing the protocols against the coronavirus. The school republic, as one student put it at a public online event at SZFE, is a combination of basic democracy and university functions: where students and professors adapt to the situation and take decisions into their own hands, fully observing the university’s curriculum and even making it wider.
The school republic has also brought a number of changes in education: it became possible to attend the courses of other departments than your own, interdisciplinary projects are created, and the university occupation itself becomes the subject of certain projects. So the students not only continuously participated in the education, but also shaped it themselves: they also started new workshops and new programs. And while the chancellor and the vice-rectors delegated by the regime banned all educational activities at the university, the students even had the energy to “manage” the school republic as well as the communication of the university occupation. Precisely formulated, legally well-established responses and gestures to all the steps and, of course, the smear campaign of the government and the board of trustees. Documenting the academic year so that the Educational Authority cannot object later and the board of trustees cannot threaten with invalidating the students’ semester. Regular and clear communication, informing the press. Clear demands, clear gestures. There is actually a kind of self-government, a stateless democracy working in Vas Street in Budapest, which is also an educational, social and artistic gesture and a model experiment. The possible models of “stateless democracy” are dealt with not only by NGOs criticizing the regime, but also by certain participatory-performative branches of contemporary art. A leading art critic likened the revolutionary decoration of the SZFE building to Thomas Hirschorn’s installations and we can say, that the experiment in democracy inside the building is like a project by Dutch artist Jonas Staal: he places special emphasis on almost staged democratic processes, which present models that can be extrapolated for the society.
We see not only, that there is the first, long-lasting and organized resistance on institutional level to the Orbán regime, which takes it seriously to confront the regime with the laws in force, but also that the state virtually leaves an institution alone and so those who remain inside must organize its operation. It is a symbolic moment, when the disintegration and termination of the Hungarian state is perfectly visible. The state gives up its public duty, no longer providing and maintaining certain functions, but passes them into the hands of other people, while exercising ideological control, which the state has nothing to do with and does not have any right to.
Although formally the state is still the financier of SZFE until January, it does not care about what is happening in Vas Street, the conditions for operation are not provided and no responsibility is taken for anything. The students are separated and alienated from their own institution. However, they decided to call the state literally to account for the constitution: if university autonomy is guaranteed by the Fundamental Law, the powers of the university senate cannot be revoked: the right to self-determination must be restored and the privatization process must restart. Importantly: one of the methods of the pre-1989 underground opposition was to confront the regime with its own laws and to embarrass them.
Socialization and resistance
In fact, it is not surprising, that the students had the courage to occupy their university and their aptitude to maintain its democratic functioning. The experience of the school republic does not come from nothing. This generation knew what happened in 2012-13, during the first major series of demonstrations by university students in Budapest: there were demonstrations against the new education policy of the Fidesz regime at that time and classrooms were occupied in the ELTE building a few blocks away from Vas Street. This generation knows less about Paris 1968, but the example of the students in Budapest in 1956 is much sharper–the revolution started with a demonstration organized by the Technical University. And like the university occupiers of 2012-13, today they are familiar with the events in Croatia in 2009, when, students occupied twenty universities in eight cities following a movement that started in Zagreb. They saw the film about the events in Zagreb (Blokada, 2011, directed by Igor Bezinovic) and they also knew that students launched new courses there, organized their life and the functioning of basic democracy. The occupation of buildings as a strategy was also made known in this part of Europe by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the activism of that time spread the practical knowledge of forums, deliberation and decision-making techniques. The alternative student organization Student Network was established in Budapest at that time, which also played a role in transferring knowledge.
What is surprising, however, is that the theatre world, which has traditionally been quite isolated from the “street in Hungary”, has never been directly involved in demonstrations and movements and has rarely shown any sign of social solidarity, but now it has become a field of solidarity itself. Besides the students, the big names of Hungarian theatre, Hungarian stars have also lined up in addition to international stars and even took part in the events organized by the students. What has changed? The theatre world has also been reached by what has happened with the fine arts, partly the film industry and literature earlier: the government divides the institutional system and then crushes the part, that still operates autonomously. However, a new generation has grown up in the past ten years, that envisions theatre as a much more open and socially active exercise of intervention, which was socialized partly in performances at alternative and independent theatres, not only in the repertoire of traditional theatres. Thirdly, SZFE itself has changed. The students’ first attempts at reform took place in 1989-90, when the most serious actions and strikes took place at the University of Fine Arts, but the students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts also wanted to change the framework of their education. From then on, the university was changing slowly and then more and more decidedly, and this was only strengthened by the involvement of the Hungarian higher education system in the Bologna process. The hierarchical training with rigidly separating disciplines has been relaxed, and even if it has not disappeared, a film student is much closer now to a theatre student or a student of theoretical studies to theatre professionals, than they were twenty or thirty years ago. New forms of education have been introduced, there are also drama instructors besides the directors, who are much closer to theatre pedagogy, the civil society and activism, than theatre professionals, who come with Hungarian traditions and spend most of their lives in rehearsal rooms. And the differences have disappeared in the occupation of the university, everyone does and contributes with their own skills to the common cause.
It is striking how clearly and precisely every student speaks in the media (the part of the media that is still free to ask them), even on legal issues. The students prepare themselves for all the important speeches and interviews, select the most suitable speakers, who thoroughly research the given issue–while trying to give the floor to as many of them as possible. They respond to every move of the government or the board of trustees, always in the form of announcements as quickly as possible. Their press conferences are held always with performances on the street: to arouse sympathy and inclusion is as much a part of these events as giving information.
“I thought you were going to sing”
The visual symbol system of the action developed spontaneously and spread in the city in a matter of seconds. A student pulled out a red and white police line between the columns of the Vas Street building on the first night, because there was just such this ribbon on hand. The working group of visual design changed the facade of the university with the accessories and pieces of scenery found in the building: giant Xs, signs and light up letters made of neon tubes. The logo of the university occupiers was also put on a banner: the upright hand was just designed in the summer, when the students were thinking about what simple sign could be the symbol of their protest. This logo was also printed on the students’ yellow face masks in early September. Meanwhile, the red-and-white ribbon, the yellow face mask and the upright hand was spread on Facebook with lightning speed and everyone who wanted to show solidarity with the students began to use these symbols from then on. Hollywood stars, actors at international film festivals and members of European theatre companies wrote #freeszfe on their palms.
A collective “game” was started with the people of Budapest: the citizens stretched police lines on their windows and balconies, and the Facebook group “Police line on the window” was created. Even urban construction sites were photographed, where red-and-white ribbons were stretched “only” for safety reasons, as well as police cars with red-and-white stripes along the sides, just like on the ribbons. Tibor Horváth, an artist living in Berlin, replaced the red stripe of the Hungarian national flag with the ribbon. And cockades were made of the ribbons, that thousands of people pinned to their coats on the anniversary of the 1956 revolution.
#Freeszfe has also stood for a series of performative events over the past two and a half months. Each of the students ’public appearances was a performance: the students’ petition was carried by Goddess Iustitia to the Constitutional Court, and by Minerva and a living owl to the Educational Authority. The idea of the barricade erected in front of the ministry building was taken from the youth novel Pál Street Boys. The students read their demands on a loudspeaker here every two hours for days, so that Minister László Palkovics could also hear them. He met only once with the then heads of the university and the representatives of the students (giving no opportunity for any meaningful discussion, of course) still in summer and he threw off a mocking phrase to the young people: “I thought you were going to sing.” Well, this phrase may have prompted the chain of performative events. The students showed, that they can also play music and sing, loud and clear. The adaptation of a folk song, the Secret University (originally “Secret Love”) became the musical signal of the university occupiers, which was taken from an earlier exam performance to the demonstration and has been sung at every press conference since then. It was also sung at the end of performances in the evenings at the theatres in Budapest, who sympathized with SZFE, because the theatres simply admitted the students to the stages. The stage and the auditorium already demonstrated together here: the photographs of the hundreds of spectators with their hands held up and the students standing on stage then spread in the social media. In general, students used the media and the means of communication better, than the government–and in contrast, honestly, directly, rather than in a manipulative way.
The Hungarian demonstration culture and aesthetics changed suddenly during the autumn. There have been mostly angry and desperate demonstrations taking place since 2010, where the joy of togetherness and the strength shown together have only appeared for a few moments. However art students, the students of SZFE, the University of Fine Arts (MKE) and the University of Design (MOME) organized completely different and completely inclusive actions. SZFE students used their dramaturgic and directing skills in their first large-scale demonstration in September: their “University Charter” was delivered to the Parliament building by organizing a human chain through the city with tens of thousands of people linked by a red and white ribbon, who handed over the copy of the Charter one after the other. This performance was characterized by catharsis, humour and precise organization, while conveying that every single person is needed to get the message across and it will only succeed if you’re also there! A nationwide relay race was organized by the students not long after, carrying a torch–the 24-hour event was professionally broadcasted online by the students of filmmaking. Carnival figures and huge puppets walked at a joint demonstration of the three art universities in the streets of Budapest, conveying the message that revolution is a cheerful thing, confronting the joy of life with the sour and cramped regime.
The main building of the university became a continuously built installation: a counter marking the days of the blockade at the entrance, huge X-shapes made of neon tubes, a red and white police line, the portraits of supporters along the street front, the symbolic open hand on a huge drapery on the facade, with a cross drawn in the middle at the end of the university occupation as a sign of solidarity with health workers.
End of act.
It is impossible to say exactly at this moment, what the end of the action will be, how long it will last, what further twists it will take and how the endgame will take place. As I indicated in the introduction, the government and the board of trustees are trying these days to invalidate the entire semester of the students and use the “emergency,” that is the epidemic situation as a pretext. There is little room for legal redress left in this country, the institutional system of jurisdiction is deteriorating day by day. The Hungarian government is currently fighting the entire European Union: Orbán and his Polish ally, Morawiecki, have jointly threatened to veto the EU budget for 2021 and its economic aid package, because the EU would make the payment of subsidies subject to the rule of law in the future. Orbán and his entire mediatic arsenal keep on repeating, that the rule of law is something undefined, ajudged subjectively and anyway, Hungarians have the right to live the way they want–and of course, the old message is blasted: George Soros is behind all this, it is his revenge because Hungary does not accept refugees andt does not want to be an open society. Orbán’s most important cultural adviser, Szilárd Demeter, who is also the director general of the museum of literarature, the largest archive of modern Hungarian literature, wrote that Europe has become the gas chamber of George Soros, and Hungarians and the Poles are the new Jews. This is the official voice of Hungary today, the verbal madness was let out of control here in November 2020. It was not unexpected, as it is being made and it has been on the rise for ten years: the rewriting of consensual concepts, the abolition of the language we have known and used so far, the corruption and depravation of Europe as an idea, as an institution and a political practice and ultimately, the de facto extermination of thinking, which is not without success, since half of the country, who have no access to any other information, no longer knows anything else than Orbán’s rhetoric and his ideas.
I cannot be sure whether Europe understands exactly, what she is facing. But it can be accurately reconstructed from a short text, what the abolition of the rule of law means in practice. This is Decree 522/2020 (25.11), allowing the annulment of the entire last semester of SZFE students. The rest is silence.
Translation by Péter Veres
This article was written in the frame of East Art Mags programme in collaboration with Artportal (HU) and BLOK (PL).