Growing up in Transylvania

Life under Ceausescu was not easy for Romanians in general, but it could be particularly harsh for Romanians of Hungarian ethnicity. (Photo: Ville Miettinen / Flickr)

Life under Ceausescu was not easy for Romanians in general, but it could be particularly harsh for Romanians of Hungarian ethnicity. (Photo: Ville Miettinen / Flickr)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

Agnes Gagyi grew up in the city of Miercurea Ciuc in the Transylvanian region of Romania. More than 80 percent of the population of this city of 50,000 people is of Hungarian ethnicity. Most everyday interactions are conducted in Hungarian. In fact, Gagyi didn’t learn Romanian at home or on the streets, but rather through television and Romanian classes at school.

Life under Ceausescu was not easy for Romanians in general, but it could be particularly harsh for Romanians of Hungarian ethnicity. Ceausescu orchestrated a nationalist turn in the Romanian Community Party that repudiated the cosmopolitan origins of the movement and reinforced the independent position Romania was increasingly taking within the Warsaw Bloc. Instead of a fraternal socialist neighbor, Hungary was for Ceausescu a potential threat, both for its more liberal version of Communism and its putative desire to reclaim lost territory like Transylvania.

“My parents were Hungarian intellectuals, which put them in a special situation in Ceausescu’s Romania,” Gagyi explained to me one evening over drinks in a pub in Budapest in May 2013. “As intellectuals, they might have been in touch with Hungarian and Western intellectuals, or so the Romanian government suspected. My father was taken in by the police and questioned. My mother would come home crying because of the ideological content in the school. Of course I knew that there were no sweets or anything like that in the shops. But the responsibility was not on me. For me, childhood was beautiful.”

Then came the revolution in December 1989. “The revolution started in Timisoara, and for a while it wasn’t on the news,” she recalled. “There were only whispers. And then it happened in Bucharest. My mother was nine months pregnant with my little brother. We have three children in the family. She said she wouldn’t abort him, and everybody including the doctors was outraged. ‘How can you want to give life to a child in such conditions?’ they said.”

“She was nine months pregnant in December,” Gagyi continued. “She had an unreasonable optimism in this respect. In December, she could have her baby. But at that time, no one knew the situation, and there could be shooting on the streets. So we planned to move to my grandparents’ house so that the whole family could be together if something happened. Everything was prepared for my mom to make the move. My sister and I were dressed and ready to go. My mother and father were listening to the radio. We didn’t have a television. That was part of our intellectual ideology: we didn’t mess with that kind of content. At one point my father started to cry. That was the only time I’d ever seen my father cry. People were hugging each other on the street. They were running around with Romanian flags with the holes in the middle. My mother managed to get to the hospital so she didn’t have to give birth at home. There were quite a lot of mothers there, and she remembers the collective euphoria in the place. There was nothing ethnic about it.”

But this happy interlude was brief. “Very shortly, it turned into an ethnic thing, and even as a nine-year-old child I could sense it,” she said. “There was a short euphoria when the pressure was released, and we were all brothers. After a few months, we felt that the pressure was back, but its face had changed and it was ethnic now. The old local Party leaders became the biggest nationalists and Christians. I was into literature, of course, because of my inherited sensibility. I had to recite poems for these festivities. When March 15 came around, I was forced in the same way as before – because there had not been anyone else to do it — to recite the nationalist poems. There was such a powerful feeling that things were going in the wrong direction. Of course, in my case it was reinforced by the fact that my parents were very critical of that. Because they were dissidents, they understood this as a bad development.”

Agnes Gagyi has followed in the footsteps of her parents to become a critical intellectual. She went to Budapest to do a Ph.D. on the anti-globalization movement in Eastern Europe. “I thought we could be the second chance for democracy to come to Eastern Europe,” she told me. “Because it was all about political and economic democracy. It was a failure, but at least now I know why it was a failure.”

We talked about the rise and fall of extreme nationalism in Transylvania, the arrival of NGOs in Romania, the roots of the new populism in Hungary, and the emergence of the Fourth Republic.

Agnes Gagy. (Photo: John Feffer)

Agnes Gagy. (Photo: John Feffer)

The Interview

Do you remember when you first heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

The first time I recognized its significance was in my early twenties. I was born in 1980 in Romania, and I was part of the Hungarian minority. I was nine when the Romanian revolution took place. That’s when ethnic politics began, when nationalism took over the public sphere. When I was 22 or 23 I had a research grant to study at the Hungarian university in Pecs. I took a class there on the East European changes, and that’s when I realized why the Berlin Wall matters.

Which city did you grow up in?

It’s Miercurea Ciuc, a city of about 50,000 inhabitants at that time. After the regime change, it lost 10,000 people. The city was over 80 percent Hungarian. You couldn’t really learn Romanian in that city, only from television and from Romanian classes.

It’s in Transylvania?

Yes.

Close to Cluj?

Pretty far from Cluj. But I went to Cluj University for five years.

You studied sociology in Cluj?

No, I studied Hungarian and Romanian and philosophy. I also got a PhD — in social communication.

What do you remember from when you were nine years old about the Romanian revolution?

First of all, my parents were Hungarian intellectuals, which put them in a special situation in Ceausescu’s Romania. As intellectuals, they might have been in touch with Hungarian and Western intellectuals, or so the Romanian government suspected. My father was taken in by the police and questioned. My mother would come home crying because of the ideological content in the school. Of course I knew that there were no sweets or anything like that in the shops. But the responsibility was not on me. For me, childhood was beautiful.

There’s a great Hungarian novel that was translated into English and that also won international prizes — The White King, by Gyorgy Dragoman, which corresponds with my childhood. It’s really worth reading because it gives a deep perspective on the Ceausescu period in the 1980s. It takes place in Targu Mures. My grandparents also lived in Targu Mures.

The revolution started in Timisoara, and for a while it wasn’t on the news. There were only whispers. And then it happened in Bucharest. My mother was nine months pregnant with my little brother. We have three children in the family. She said she wouldn’t abort him, and everybody including the doctors was outraged. “How can you want to give life to a child in such conditions?” they said.

That was in December?

That was earlier. She was nine months pregnant in December. She had an unreasonable optimism in this respect. In December, she could have her baby. But at that time, no one knew the situation, and there could be shooting on the streets. So we planned to move to my grandparents’ house so that the whole family could be together if something happened. Everything was prepared for my mom to make the move. My sister and I were dressed and ready to go. My mother and father were listening to the radio. We didn’t have a television. That was part of our intellectual ideology: we didn’t mess with that kind of content. At one point my father started to cry. That was the only time I’d ever seen my father cry.

And my sister and I were like, “Okay, so why aren’t we starting off?”

My parents just said, “Stop, something very important is happening.”

People were hugging each other on the street. They were running around with Romanian flags with the holes in the middle. My mother managed to get to the hospital so she didn’t have to give birth at home. There were quite a lot of mothers there, and she remembers the collective euphoria in the place. There was nothing ethnic about it.

Then, very shortly, it turned into an ethnic thing. Even as a nine-year-old child I could sense it. There was such pressure. Our school had these loudspeakers. The principal of our Hungarian school was Romanian. Whenever and in whatever class she wanted, she could speak through these speakers, and then we had to do what she said. There was a short euphoria when the pressure was released, and we were all brothers. After a few months, we felt that the pressure was back, but its face had changed and it was ethnic now. The old local Party leaders became the biggest nationalists and Christians. I was into literature, of course, because of my inherited sensibility. I had to recite poems for these festivities. When March 15 came around, I was forced in the same way as before – because there had not been anyone else to do it — to recite the nationalist poems. There was such a powerful feeling that things were going in the wrong direction. Of course, in my case it was reinforced by the fact that my parents were very critical of that. Because they were dissidents, they understood this as a bad development.

Were your parents teachers?

Yes, they were teachers. They were both Hungarian and French teachers. My father wrote his PhD on folklore. He became an anthropologist. They had a small underground anthropology group that was reading quality social science stuff in Hungarian. It was very romantic because there was no electricity. They would meet in the evening in their circle of local scholars and read a hand-copied version of Pierre Bourdieu by candlelight and discuss it. Then they would try to understand local mechanisms according to that theory and write about it. The pressure in the 1980s created these romantic circumstances, but that all changed when we all became NGO-ized in the 1990s.

When the atmosphere changed, you were still pretty young. You had to recite those poems. But was there also an opportunity for you to rebel?

Well, I did. But I did it from an elite position. Where I grew up there was a very small second-generation bourgeois core. But most of the inhabitants were first-generation industrial workers, who did the same kind of jobs as their parents. I come from a family where there were thousands of books, and both of my parents are intellectuals. So I was rebelling from this elite position. I knew more than my schoolteacher, not in data perhaps. I was ashamed of rebelling but I still had to do it, because I really hated the stuff that we were forced to do. And it was also very clear that my parents supported me in that.

This was the time when we could talk about public issues and public life began. My father got phone calls in those days asking him to run for this or that political position in the new Hungarian minority party. He was very consistent in rejecting that. Now I think it was because of the continuing effects of the dissident ethic of autonomy. In those days, politics could only be about ethnic things because of course if you’re a Hungarian and you wanted to have representation in parliament, then you had to vote for the Hungarian party. Yes, there could be competition in the elections, but in the end, ethnic groups were voting together, particularly for people in the smaller cities and villages. The real political space was either in Bucharest or in Budapest, where the game was at the level of the nation-state. In minority politics, you had to adapt to that. There were huge waves of nationalist sentiment, the building of new statues, the nationalization of politics. I was raised in an atmosphere of “socialism with a human face” because of the books that were around or the attitude of my grandmother who was a schoolteacher. But this was not relevant in the new context.

It must have been even worse in Cluj because there was a very strong nationalist politics there.

I got to Cluj in 1999. Cluj was a capitalizing big city. The mayor, Gheorghe Funar, put out the Romanian flags, but we moved freely among the different communities. We didn’t need to put our ethnic identity front and center. The grocer might tell me that I didn’t speak Romanian well enough but he would also tell me how to cook the different vegetables. There was no tension as such. In Cluj, there was a really strong symbolic expression of nationalism, but- in everyday life it didn’t look like that. You might want to check out the book by Rogers Brubaker, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Fox, and Liana Grancea on nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in Cluj in this period.

I have a close colleague in Cluj, a Romanian sociologist, Norbert Petrovici. He wrote an article in which he says that the first-generation workers moved to Cluj with industrialization. There were two projects — Communist industrialization and changing the demographic equilibrium of Hungarian cities. In Cluj, under Communism, life was quite organized. You had your school, your shop, the trolley that took you to work every day. Then in 1990, it all just crashed. It wasn’t just not having enough money to pay the doctor. It was also an existential collapse. In Funar’s discourse, this kind of situation was expressed in a nationalist framework. He said that Romanians should occupy “our” city center and retake “our” city. In Cluj’s urban space, the center was restituted to the sons of bourgeois families, Hungarians who had apartments in the city center, the nice part of the city. There was a class tension, and this is how it turned into an ethnic tension.

In the second part of the article, Petrovici demonstrates how Funar lost his power. By the end of the 1990s, the economic pickup started to happen. Foreign companies began to come in. Romania became the second biggest market after Poland for companies like Nokia. This also meant that there were jobs again. There was huge land speculation. Money was flowing in. The people who got that money began to build houses, and people in the apartment blocks got jobs in construction. They didn’t care about nationalism any longer. The market was coming in, everyone was going to get a job, and it was going to be just like the West. They forgot about Funar. There wasn’t even any drama about it.

You talk about your intellectual political milieu as “socialism with a human face.” Has your political trajectory been consistent since that time, or have you had different political incarnations?

I received a certain legacy, and part of this was unconscious. I wasn’t political when I was 12 or even when I was 19. When I was 19, I went to philosophy classes and only cared about deconstructionism.

Was there a particular moment when you became political?

I studied structuralism and post-structuralism. Then I started to realize that these theories didn’t help me understand the world I was living in. But I also couldn’t find a political environment that felt relevant. In those days, as a member of the Hungarian minority, you had to choose which side of the ethnic divide you wanted to work on, and I didn’t feel that that was the way the world was structured.

But when I was 20, I began to meet these activists that were traveling around in Eastern Europe, people who came from the Left activist environment in the West. I connected with them, I listened to their stories, how they wouldn’t vote for either Democrats or Republicans because both parties were financed by multinational corporations. This really got me thinking. I began to look into these things, but I still wasn’t convinced. Then, as luck would have it, a Norwegian NGO called Patrir that was connected to Johan Galtung bought a house and began some activities in Cluj. They brought along a fantastic library from Chomsky to David Harvey. I read that through. But I still had the problem that I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. With my friends, if I started to talk about these things, they just laughed at me.

My first action was after 9/11. I proposed that there should be a discussion at the university. The reaction was, “Ooh, what a weird idea, we never thought about such stuff.” About 300 people came and there was a big discussion. Looking back, it wasn’t about anything, because nobody had any useful information or perspective. But I could see how to organize something like this. It wasn’t an intellectual breakthrough. It was an activist breakthrough because my parents had this dissident perspective that you could only keep your moral sense if you didn’t do anything. It was hard for me to break out of this kind of intellectual autonomy.

How much longer were you at the university?

Until 2004.

Then you came here to Hungary.

Then I proposed a PhD here. There was an anti-globalization movement and the European Social Forum, and already from 2001 they began this program of Eastern European enlargement. One by one the national social forums were founded. I was in the Romanian one, and I was also participating in the regional one. And I saw that this was not really what movement theory was all about. There were all kinds of problems. The “eastern enlargement” of the movement didn’t take into account the local context. Then I thought I would write my PhD on this topic. And that’s how I came here.

What was the topic?
The anti-globalization movement in Eastern Europe. In my academic environment, nobody believed that this was significant. As for me, I thought we could be the second chance for democracy to come to Eastern Europe. Because it was all about political and economic democracy. It was a failure, but at least now I know why it was a failure.

And you could meet people with whom you could talk about these issues.

Yes, but I still realized that I don’t think the same way they do. The problem was that there were two waves of this enlargement. In the first wave were Western organizations, with money and advisors. They were looking for participants, and they said, “Who wants to come with us?” Whoever put up their hands was recognized as legitimate. In Romania, for example, Attac was funded by an organization called the Association Carpathian Genius, which had been the official description of Ceausescu.

In the second wave, people from my generation and younger got into contact with the movement and the ideology, and began to do things their way, which was much more horizontal. But then I realized that what they did was in a way a continuation of the previous generation of dissident activity. There was a lot of criticism in the movement of the geopolitical hierarchy of the East-West dimension. At the same time, the whole history of our transition was about Eastern Europe catching up with the higher civilizational standards of the West. It was a discourse of “we are inferior” and “we are still lagging behind.” This inferiority complex was reactivated within the movement. If you are an activist in Timisoara and you’re 20 and you have your own pub and no one understands what you’re talking about when you’re talking about animal rights, then what do you do? You say it’s because this country’s inferior, it’s provincial.

It was also because of the power situation. The Western movement wasn’t interested in what was going on here. The movement here raised questions a number of times but just wasn’t able to get their issues onto the agenda. They remained on their own. But they weren’t powerful enough to do it on their own. So they abandoned their local context. And they said, “our society is irrelevant. But we are civilized.” Autonomy, which was the big word for the movement, came to signify something specific: their own pub, a basement somewhere, and that became their world. They didn’t reach out to people who were suffering from the effects of globalization and the new capitalism. In the meantime, new local forms of nationalism and anti-capitalism arose.

I think, in local emancipation, we just have to forget about the East-West symbolic hierarchy and describe instead objective operations of power. Finally we have to say that we live in the present, not in a time lag of 50 years or something like that

Yes, also with Open Society, which has funded this Catch-up Index, which is predicated on this development lag between East and West. But you found like-minded people here?

Within this movement there were many like-minded people in Romania and Hungary, too. But then I began to move around the region also. I found this new kind of energy connected to anti-globalization. But it only produced islands. It hasn’t produced a socially relevant new Left. That was around 2009-10 when I finished my dissertation. At that time in Hungary a new left movement was born, the Fourth Republic. The name signifies that we are now in the third republic, but after 1989 it established a formal political democracy where people don’t have any power to influence political decisions and don’t have any economic stability.

Academically, a new regional discussion space was born in 2011. We organized a seminar on “neoliberalizing socialism” that looked at market relations in the region after 1968. The people that came together were young intellectuals from the region like me. We’d read the same literature, and we’d had the same experiences. We couldn’t believe the narrative that the transition was a success story because that was not our experience. We decided to work together as a community. We established a group, and a regional conference. Later, an online publication called LeftEast was set up.

In Hungary, particularly at the activism level, what do you think is promising?

Unfortunately the most promising development is on the right, with the neo-nationalists. But I have another view on that. My position is that the very concept of democracy doesn’t mean here what it means in theory. In 1989, Hungary was totally dependent on Western capital and foreign direct investment. It was a very hierarchical structure. Hungary was not even in a situation in which it could decide what kind of democracy and capitalism it wanted to have.. The idea of democracy, which was formed locally in the 1970s and 1980s, was a form of dissidence. Intellectual groups could publish or not, but definitely they couldn’t go out and organize politically around people. Politics were understood as something that you do through intellectual and moral reflection. It wasn’t conceived as something you do with wide political participation and the institutional means to achieve that.

Then 1989 comes, and these people became members of the new parties and funded the new parties. They didn’t have a popular constituency. They simply had this utopian idea in their heads. Okay, they go to parliament. In the meantime, spontaneous privatization was going on. The late Kadar technocracy encouraged privatization and the arrival of Western capital. Democracy is introduced into a context in which nobody believes that the population has anything to say about it. The transition is all about a package of democracy and capitalism that cannot be tampered with. According to the World Bank, the depression here was at the same level of the Great Depression with a huge level of joblessness. But whoever criticized the package was considered anti-democratic and populist. From the populist point of view, this democracy was about an elite doing things they didn’t ask us about and not caring at all about our actual living conditions.

Then there was the second problem: the rise of neo-nationalism. In the early 1990s, Istvan Csurka was the first prominent neo-nationalist politician. At that time he was still within the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which was the governing party, but he was more on the Right. He published a famous article on economic issues. He pointed out that the old Kadar elite was in even better positions than before, so there was continuity with the past. This was a problem, he said, because this wasn’t how democracy was supposed to operate. But he answered the question by saying that this was a Jewish conspiracy, with Jewish Communists and Jewish capitalists working together. So, there was, of course, a scandal.

Our anti-Communist liberals and Socialists came together to stand up for democracy. But what did democracy mean in their discourse? It meant that anti-Semitism is bad and we shouldn’t talk about economic issues because it’s anti-Semitic and anti-democratic. That’s how this political field was formed. On the one side is democracy, associated with anti-populism, Western civil political codes, harsh reforms, and a refusal to talk about economic injustice. On the other side you have this nationalist populist formulation of Western capital oppressing Hungary for which there is no democratic answer because they are not interested in democracy, just identity-based populist nationalism. The two things mutually reinforce each other. Then there is a huge outcry in Der Spiegel and The New York Times all writing about the new Hungarian Right. And this only reinforces the perceptions of the neo-nationalists: “See, the West and the local liberal Communists are attacking us. Of course, the Jews are attacking the Hungarians!”

In 2000, Csurka founded a party, but it didn’t have much power. But the new Jobbik guys came along, and they knew how to do politics. So, they organized people in a neo-nationalist way. Jobbik was constituted, ideologically, in response to the mainstream hegemonic liberal ideology. Now they have this situation with Orban, who took over the neo-nationalist anti-globalism developed by Jobbik party. He just made political use of it. On the one hand, he announced this anti-colonial movement against capital. Orban fights against EU neoliberalism in the national interest, which means his own economic bloc. He also needs to increase the discipline of the local workforce. So he is deconstructing the democratic institutions constructed in 1990.

In Western liberal circles, this is voiced as an exceptional nationalism that they simply don’t know where it came from, that it’s irrational, like during the Balkan wars. I don’t know how they imagine Hungary, but you can live a normal life here. The outrage just reinforces Orban’s position. You look at der Spiegel, and it’s really annoying, even for me: they treat us like animals. The circle goes around and around and around.

I sense something changing in Eastern Europe, but here we also have the additional circumstance that we have a very active right-wing authoritarian capitalist government. Young intellectuals who would normally become part of the liberal discourse and get jobs in official institutions are turning toward the social question. There’s a new kind of organization intellectually and in movement terms. Also on the emotional level. That’s another problem in the way that the Left tried to build something over the last 20 years. It was only through the force of intellectual narratives. If people didn’t accept these narratives, the Left would tell them that they had “false consciousness.” But this neo-nationalism really provided people with spiritual content and a moral framework. You go to these demonstrations and there are these totally humiliated people — but they are filled with life. Gabor Vona tells them, “You know why we came here today? So that when our grandchildren ask us, we can tell them what we did to hold on to this country.” This is not their everyday experience. Their everyday experience is that they can’t do anything, that everything is hopeless. Jobbik gives them an illusion of purpose.

So, in terms of movements, there’s the Fourth Republic. It has several hundred members, and some of the members are intellectuals. It’s the only leftist group that’s not just intellectuals talking to other intellectuals. Before that, there was only one other party, the Green party, LMP (Politics Can Be Different), which split and is now part of this Join Together coalition.

Budapest, May 2, 2013