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Pandemic and the Legacies of State Socialism

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Why did the first wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic hit much of Eastern Europe less harshly than Western Europe and North America? Over the past months in Hungary, commentators have proposed a number of explanations: from the controversial decree giving quasi-dictatorial powers to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to the population’s general mistrust of the public health infrastructure, to the simple fact of timing, given that the country went into lockdown before the virus had taken hold outside of nursing homes and health facilities.

Of course, it is too early to render definitive judgment, particularly at a moment when the loosening of the border and social restrictions means that the number of infections is beginning to grow across the region. But during my time living in Budapest this spring as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Central European University, I have been struck by how many of these explanations have reached back to the state-socialist past to explain and alleviate present-day uncertainty.

My book, Remains of Socialism: Memory and the Futures of the Past in Postsocialist Hungary, examines the shifting fates of socialism’s legacies—and their uses in making sense of the disappointments and frustrations of postsocialism. Based on long-term ethnographic and archival research, it spans more than twenty years of political and social transformation. It begins with the optimism of the early years of transition and ends with the political and economic crises that inspired Hungary’s recent turn towards right-wing authoritarianism and illiberal democracy.

My book, Remains of Socialism: Memory and the Futures of the Past in Postsocialist Hungary, examines the shifting fates of socialism’s legacies—and their uses in making sense of the disappointments and frustrations of postsocialism.

The book introduces the concept of “remains”—both physical objects and cultural remainders—to symbolize all that Hungarians sought to cast aside after the end of the regime. These remains were far more than simply the easily banished leftovers of an unwanted past. Instead, they embodied the contradictions at the heart of the experience of late state socialism, which many Hungarians experienced as painful injustice and oppression and a relatively peaceful and materially secure existence: that is, both despised statues of Lenin and the modest luxuries of “refrigerator socialism.”

Today, such ambivalence is visible in a public culture in which opinion polls consistently demonstrate that the majority of Hungarians regard the late years of state socialism more positively than the decades that followed, and yet the avowedly anti-communist Fidesz has won each election since 2010. It is similarly apparent in the mix of historical interpretations that greeted the Fidesz government’s top-down emergency measures in the first months of the pandemic. Some people I spoke with likened prime minister Orbán to Hungary’s Stalin (the 1950s communist leader Mátyás Rákosi). Others noted that Orbán’s attempts to portray himself as a paternalistic figure of care—often photographed touring hospitals and meeting airplanes carrying ventilators from China—were similar to those of the avuncular János Kádár, who ruled Hungary during its decades of “goulash communism.”

Today, such ambivalence is visible in a public culture in which opinion polls consistently demonstrate that the majority of Hungarians regard the late years of state socialism more positively than the decades that followed, and yet the avowedly anti-communist Fidesz has won each election since 2010.

Meanwhile, the experience of state socialism may have prepared Hungary’s citizenry, however unwillingly, for the current moment. As political scientist András Bozóki argues, living under the restrictions of Kádár’s Hungary was its own form of quarantine. Such isolation may have trained its subjects to be resigned, self-reliant, and to welcome strong leadership—even as they also regarded the government’s pronouncements with suspicion. And news reports suggest that the BCG tuberculosis vaccine, still mandatory across much of the former Soviet bloc, may offer a degree of protection that those in more “advanced” nation-states no longer enjoy.

Meanwhile, the experience of state socialism may have prepared Hungary’s citizenry, however unwillingly, for the current moment.

Ultimately, the most likely explanation is the timing of the Fidesz government’s interventions. While it initially had planned to pursue a more relaxed strategy in handling the virus, it quickly bowed to internal and oppositional pressures and instituted strict border controls and social measures before the virus had broadly spread throughout the country. But, as sociologist József Böröcz notes, the temporal lag between the first cases in Western Europe versus the East also sheds new light upon Hungary’s experience of being stigmatized as “backward” more generally, since both state socialism and the failures of transition have left Hungary less integrated into the international flows of people and capital that enabled the virus to move across the globe so swiftly. 

As plans for the future are thrown into question and the pre-pandemic past quickly recedes into nostalgia, Hungary’s remains of the socialist past have thus not only represented unpalatable historical legacies to discard. They also, ironically, have become one of the ways to cope with and make sense of the present.

*Featured photo:

Graffiti telling Budapest residents to “stay home,” with another graffiti replying “Ok, I’ll do so.” Credit: MTI (Hungarian News Agency.)”


Maya Nadkarni is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Swarthmore College and was a Senior Core Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary this spring.

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