By Jessica Storey-Nagy
Most mornings I walk across the Danube River from Buda to Pest on Liberty Bridge. I have been living here for three months now in Budapest’s 11th District and still, depending on the weather and the number of tourist crowds I have to weave through to get where I’m going, the beauty of the city usually takes my breath away. If I glance left, I can see both Elizabeth Bridge and the Chain Bridge amid Buda Castle and architecture so varied, colorful, and grandiose my eyes can never seem to focus on just one place. If I look right I can see the new collection of drift wood the Danube brought in overnight and am reminded of the power of the river. At Liberty Bridge, the Danube is just under a quarter of a mile wide and both brings and attracts life to its banks. If I stop midway through my walk across the bridge and turn to Buda, I sometimes see clouds sitting on Gellért Hill, obscuring all but the head of the sculpted saint. I often wish that I could take the day off and soak in the thermal water of Gellért Spa, but instead I turn around, continue walking, and look straight ahead to the neo-renaissance main building of Corvinus University, now a UNESCO world heritage site. This is the view from only one of the seven bridges which crosses the Danube in Hungary’s capital.
I am not a Hungarian citizen nor was I connected to the country in any way until I traveled for the first time, in 2011, to Budapest. Inspired by my many subsequent visits to Hungary, I applied for the Hungarian Studies MA program at IU’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS), Hungarian Studies MA program. After completing the MA, I stayed on for a PhD in Hungarian Studies and am now a candidate conducting anthropological research for my dissertation. In other words, this city full of beautiful river crossings is my field site.
My studies in CEUS provided me with a broad knowledge of Hungary’s history, economy, politics, culture, and language. I was taught that in order to truly understand what is happening and why in any given place in the world one must spend a significant amount of time there, talk to and learn from the people living there, and devote ample time mulling over all the possibilities. The CEUS course requirements and electives introduced me to theoretical approaches that could help me answer regional questions. Because of the opportunities provided there, I was able to choose a methodology through which to investigate a question that interested me (and continues to do so), present-day Hungarian national identity as it is produced in political discourse.
Political discourse and Hungarian national identity became a subject of interest because of the varied discussions I had with visiting Hungarian scholars and students in my department. Hungary’s current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has been in office since 2010. He and his party Fidesz often make international news due to Orbán’s rather consistent attempt to restructure the Hungarian political system, his denial of “liberal democracy,” and his turn toward more nationalist ideologies. Interestingly, in his discourse, Orbán often describes what it is to be Hungarian and how Hungarian people should behave. For example, on October 23rd this year, a national holiday in Hungary which commemorates the freedom fight and revolution of 1956, Orbán said, “Over the course of one thousand years, we Hungarians have learned that on the waves of time we should fix our gaze not upon the changeable, not upon the transient, but always upon that which is permanent and enduring: upon God, homeland, and family. Even today we could not choose a better guiding star.”
Christianity, in fact, has taken center stage in Orbán’s vision of democracy. His “Christian democratic state” where “Christian freedom,” differs greatly from “liberal freedom,” bases democracy in a weakly defined morality and in the belief that the needs of the nation should rise above all others. “According to Christian freedom…the world has been divided into nations, and a nation is a culturally and historically defined community of individuals: an organized community, the members of which must be defended, and must receive guidance to enable them to collectively stand their ground in the world.” However, in Hungary’s municipal elections held just a few weeks ago, Budapest and ten other major cities in Hungary voted against this type of “guidance” in a rather surprising turn. It is difficult to say what the national election of 2022 will yield for Hungary, but now, in 2019, the seeming rejection of Orbán’s Fidesz by so many in the country illuminates the fact that Hungarian citizens do not readily accept the rhetoric of the leading party and its definition of what is Hungarian.
Why did this turn come about when it did and is this the beginning of a new trend in Hungarian politics? It is difficult to say and the answer is likely multifaceted. One aspect, however, might lie in the fact that people talk about politics at home, among friends and family, and many spend time thinking, believe it or not, about democratic state structures on their own. Political structures are not only defined in elite discourse, but in homes, in bars and restaurants, on the street, and through individuals’ personal experience, heavily influenced by the place in which they live. My training at IU has provided me a critical, humanitarian eye with which to access this question, and has allowed me to work and thrive in a place that was once completely foreign, to consistently learn from those around me. Hopefully, as more area studies scholars are trained with the same critical eye, we will find answers to the questions we so often ask of “others” who live in places we do not. As the motto of IU’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies suggests, positive change usually comes about with understanding.
Jessica Storey-Nagy is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. She is currently gathering materials for her dissertation as a Fulbright-Hays research fellow in Budapest, Hungary.