A Fatal Distraction – Bela Kun Memorial:  The Masses & The Movement (For The Love of Hungary Part 50)

It has been my experience that the most meaningful art exhibitions are those where I find myself drawn to a singular work that personalizes the experience and leads to a deeper connection. This connection is something that is hard to explain. It is that moment when you feel something transcendent and unexplainable. This happened to me in the least likely of places, Memento Park in Budapest. My first reaction to most of the statues and sculptures on display was one of curiosity and opposition. Curiosity, because I always wondered how the supersized statues and sculptures from the communist Eastern Bloc countries looked up close and personal. After making the rounds in the Statue Park portion of the site, I realized just how impersonal communism and the remnants of its propaganda were. Each piece was like ideology on steroids. It was hard to feel a personal connection with something so harsh and unforgiving. Communism was a force to be reckoned with and that force was applied to its extremity.

A Fatal Distraction - The Bela Kun Memorial in Memento Park

A Fatal Distraction – The Bela Kun Memorial in Memento Park

Radical & Revolutionary – An Opportunist Extraordinaire
Amid all the thrusting fists, muscular chests and exacting expressions, I searched increasingly in vain for something to which I might feel a connection. Communism as a governing ideology and socialist-realist art were just not my thing. Trying to find the humanity amid concrete, bronze and granite that had been shaped and sculpted into scowls was nearly impossible. I had trouble finding any semblance of humanity amid the sterility of Statue Park. That was until I found myself standing before the Bela Kun Memorial. Humanity and Bela Kun would usually be viewed as diametrically opposed ideas. Kun founded the Hungarian Communist Party, then later declared and led the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This short lived “Red Republic” lasted only 133 chaotic days. That period was long enough to convince most Hungarians that Kun was not the answer to their problems. If anything, he was the cause of further calamities.

Kun, the son of an alcoholic Transylvania notary, grew up on the edge of poverty. He pursued a less than successful career as a pseudo-reform minded journalist prior to the outbreak of World War I. It was the war which made him into a professional revolutionary. After being captured on the Eastern Front, he spent time in a Russian prisoner of war camp becoming completely radicalized during the process. Once freed, he fought with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. After proving his revolutionary credentials, Kun was sent back to Hungary with a large sum of money in November 1918 to foment revolution. He soon got himself thrown into prison, but the Social-Democrat Karolyi government was such a disaster that Kun was plucked from his cell and given control over the levers of power. The consequences of communist rule would turn out to be worse than that of the Socialists.  Kun was an opportunist extraordinaire. He took advantage of the chaos and confusion that beset postwar Hungary in his rise to power.

Red Tide Rising - Bela Kun in Hungary during the 1919 Revolution

Red Tide Rising – Bela Kun in Hungary during the 1919 Revolution

Red Tide Rising – Toeing The Party Line
Kun’s short-lived reign is best known for Red Terror, collapse on the military front and administrative incompetence. Kun’s government tried to nationalize nearly everything, expropriated land and businesses while managing to alienate most of the population. He was forced to leave the country when his government crumbled. It was a calamitous start for communism in Hungary. Kun’s legacy was a chaotic one that most would have liked to forget. He ended up back in the Soviet Union, where he first presided over the killing of thousands of anti-Bolshevik prisoners of war and then became a point man for oppression of the Crimean Tatars which resulted in more death and destruction. Kun ended up an official in the Comintern (Communist International) before he was arrested during Stalin’s purges in the late 1930’s. He was secretly executed in Moscow. In a dark irony, Kun was consumed by the same violence he had conjured throughout his life.

Kun was persona non grata until rehabilitated by the communists after the De-stalinisation campaign during the Khrushchev era. He was the closest thing to an iconic Hungarian communist founding father. As such he was venerated in many circles all the way up through the waning days of communist rule. A monument meant to glorify Kun was commissioned on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The artist selected to create it was Imre Varga, one of Hungary’s greatest sculptors. Varga was not the usual ideologue chosen for rigid adherence to the party line. He was skilled in the use of a variety of materials portraying a wide range of historical figures. His Bela Kun Memorial was less an honorific than a commentary on Kun and the effect of his ideals on the masses. It also happens to be the most memorable work of sculpture I have ever seen.

An Opportunist Extraordinaire - Bela Kun

An Opportunist Extraordinaire – Bela Kun

Lethal Roles – A Fatal Distraction
Varga’s sculpture captures the essence of Kun and his power to persuade others to action. He is portrayed as both a leader and strangely detached figure. He seemingly floats above the workers and soldiers set out below him. His left arm is outstretched and in it he holds his hat in hand, using the hat to implore the men onward. These men are packed closely together. They only look forward, taking no notice of Kun. Amid the metal clad soldiers, there are grim workers moving along with the mass. These men are headed off to war. A lamppost rises close to Kun. Some have seen this as a reminder of the gallows, the possibility of death looming above the entire scene.

The sculpture astonished me. I felt the magnetic pull of men headed off to do battle, thrust forward by a figure they do not even notice. The power of being swept up in a historical moment has overcome the men and it overcame me. For once, I felt the true power of a revolutionary movement. It was quite extraordinary that the sculpture could make me feel this way, since I believe everything Kun stood for to be horribly wrong. Subsequent history bore this out. That truth did nothing to take away from the Memorial’s attraction. I felt the power of the man, the masses and the moment. This was more than a Memorial it was the essence of a movement. Kun was the lead actor in this movement, while the soldiers and workers played a vital part. Tragically, these roles ended up costing them their lives.

Reversal of Fortunes – Ostapenko: Parleying With Fate & Fortune (For The Love of Hungary Part 49)

When I asked my future wife if she wanted to visit Memento Park with me, the answer was a resounding “No!” She followed her negative reply with, “Why would I want to go see those statues we were forced to look at for years?” This was a line of irrefutable reasoning. Only later would I learn the magic name that might have defeated her resistance, “Ostapenko.” That name is bound to elicit a certain amount of nostalgia for those Hungarians born prior to the end of the Cold War. If there is such a thing as Ostalgie, (German nostalgia for aspects of communism in East Germany) in Hungary, then Ostapenko certainly heads up the list. For multiple generations of Hungarians, “Ostapenko” conjured up pleasurable memories of departures for holidays at Lake Balaton or their arrival back home in Budapest.

A statue by this name stood prominently for over forty years on the southwestern fringes of the city in the 11th district. It was located at the junction of Budaors utca and Balaton utca, making it an unforgettable landmark for successive generations of Hungarians. Motorists and their passengers would see the bronze statue of a soldier dressed in great coat and holding aloft a flag. This was an unintentional signal that they were on their way to Balaton or perhaps Vienna. Conversely, it might mean that they were almost home. This was ironic since the man whom the statue was named after never completed his own journey. And for that reason, Ostapenko was sanctified in stone.

Brothers In Arms - Ostapenko & Steinmutz

Brothers In Arms – Ostapenko & Steinmutz

Right of Refusal – The Logic Of a Madman
Ilja Ostapenko was by present-day standards, Ukrainian not Hungarian. In 1944 he was a Soviet citizen and captain in the Red Army. Ostapenko was fighting, along with hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers, in the campaign to take Budapest. By December 29, 1944, Soviet forces had surrounded the city and put it under siege for nearly a week. This was the beginning of a very long, involved and ultraviolent process whereby the Soviets would spend several months attempting to destroy the Hungarian and German forces defending the city, but the Battle of Budapest did not have to turn out the way it did. In the last days of December, Captain Ostapenko was chosen to parley with German forces to present – by Soviet standards – rather lenient terms of surrender. Hungarian soldiers were to be released almost immediately and German troops eventually repatriated. Food and medical care were offered as well.

It was a deal only a madman could refuse. The problem was that Adolf Hitler had declared that Budapest be declared a fortress city. Both German and Hungarian forces were ordered to hold out at all costs and fight until the bitter end. This was a strategy based on cynicism. The Third Reich’s self-interest demanded it. The idea was to delay the inevitable offensive against Germany for as long as possible while weakening Soviet forces. The upshot was the sacrifice of the Hungarian capital along with countless lives. Ostapenko’s mission was fraught with danger. He, along with two others, would have to travel through the no man’s land dividing the respective forces. The same mission was given to Captain Miklos Steinmetz on the southeastern approach to Budapest. Both missions were to end in tragedy.

A Legend Before His Time - Captain Ilja Ostapenko

A Legend Before His Time – Captain Ilja Ostapenko

Live Targets – Powerful Pieces of Propaganda
At the German lines Ostapenko and two other Soviet envoys were blindfolded and driven to the 8th SS Calvary Division’s headquarters atop Gellert Hill. There Ostapenko presented the terms of surrender to the division’s commanding officer. These were then relayed to the overall German commander, Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch. While he awaited an answer, Ostapenko engaged in some idle chit chat with the Germans. The negative reply from Pffefer-Wildenbruch took almost an hour. At this point Ostapenko and the two Soviet soldiers who had accompanied him prepared to depart. The Germans offered the Soviet delegation soda water to quench their thirst. After this brief respite, the Soviets began the same perilous journey they had just undertook, only this time in reverse.

Ostapenko, his men and the German officer accompanying them soon began to encounter artillery fire coming from the Soviet side. The German officer told Ostapenko that he should wait with him until the shellfire ceased. Ostapenko was adamant that he must deliver the negative reply as soon as possible to the Soviet command. At that point, the German officer bid him farewell. Ostapenko’s duty-bound zealousness ended up costing him his life when three shells exploded nearby, followed by a hail of bullets. Ostapenko dropped to the ground dead. In a bit of tragic irony, just before he was killed Ostapenko reputedly told one of the Soviet soldiers with him that “It looks as if we’ve made it. We’ve been lucky once more.” Ostapenko had spoken a second to soon.  Captain Steinmetz suffered the same fate. He was killed in extremely questionable circumstances. The Soviets would blame the Germans for the killing of both men.

The purported German murders of Ostapenko and Steinmetz would become the standard line in communist Hungary throughout the Cold War. Others believed the opposite, that the Soviets ordered the deliberate murders of both Ostapenko and Steinmetz. A more likely scenarios was that they were both killed by accident. Proper communication was lacking and confusion rampant between the two sides. The Soviets wasted no time propagandizing the death of Ostapenko, going so far as to fake a photo of a body amid battle debris. This photograph has long since been disproven.  Nonetheless, the deaths of Ostapenko and Steinmetz were powerful pieces of propaganda that would prove useful long after the war was over.

Giving Signals - The Ostapenko Statue

Giving Signals – The Ostapenko Statue (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Beloved Figures – The Long Afterlife
Statues in memory of both Ostapenko and Steinmetz were erected in the respective areas where they met their ultimate fates. Only after the Iron Curtain fell were the two statues placed in proximity to one another in Memento Park. They now occupy a prominent space at the back of the park. These are probably the only statues in the park that most Hungarians enjoy seeing. This is especially true for Ostapenko who became a beloved figure, despite or perhaps because few cared what his original mission had been. Ostapenko came to be viewed as a playfully iconic figure, one who was signaling to passing motorists. What Ostapenko might have thought of the strange turn of events that helped him achieve iconic status in Hungary is anyone’s guess. Ostapenko’s place in history turned out to be less as a peacemaker and more a roadside greeter for Hungarians. In forty years, he had gone from occupying a space beside a roadway to a place in Hungarian hearts.

Propaganda With A Pulse – Living History at Memento Park (For The Love of Hungary Part 48)

The only temple of tyranny I have entered was at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest. The entrance to the Statue Park portion of the site managed to be both strangely familiar and frighteningly unique. It consisted of a neo-classical façade constructed out of red brick. On one side was a statue of Lenin, while on the other side was a statue of Marx and Engels. The former portrayed Lenin as serious and studious, while the latter was the only cubist statue of Marx and Engels to be found anywhere in the world. It was not surprising to find these deities of communist ideology at the entrance. Both statues were done in socialist-realist style, the pervasive and aesthetically displeasing artistic form in communist countries. Seared into the entrance gate was “One Sentence About Tyranny” by the Hungarian poet Gyula Ilyes. The poem is one sentence that happens to be fifty-four stanzas long. I did not need to read any of the words to know by the way it was written that the poem was a warning.

I entered the gate with both eagerness and trepidation. Suddenly I saw the statues, sculptures, friezes, bas-reliefs and plaques scattered along dirt pathways. Each of these pieces once stood in a prominent place somewhere in Budapest, now they were reduced to the city’s fringes. The forty-two pieces on display were impressive or depressive depending upon one’s perspective and extremely charismatic. Emphasis should be placed on “extremely” because there was nothing moderate or benign about these statues. They were slanted towards a single ideology. Each was as unyielding as the system they glorified. Fierce faces, serious expressions and ferocious poses were their hallmarks. The figures were marshaled and ready for a fight to the finish against invisible enemies.

The Will To Power - Lenin & Fallen Soldiers

The Will To Power – Lenin & Fallen Soldiers

Twinges of Madness – The Will To Power
Photogenic was one word that immediately came to mind as I looked over the statues. The risk with viewing the contents of Statue Park this way was that they might be defined as communist kitsch. These statues were nothing of the sort. They were harbingers of a life and death struggle. Back in their day, each one reigned supreme over the squares, streets and sidewalks of Budapest. A constant reminder to the masses of what their rulers stood for or against. The pieces were propaganda with a pulse. They died a slow death over many decades. Now they were buried above ground for curious onlookers such as myself to spend time scrutinizing.

One of the most interesting pieces for me was a statue of a half Lenin beside a frieze of soldiers lying on their sides. Lenin was only visible from the waist up, his face grave and determined. I could sense a snarl lurking behind his expression. From the looks of it, he seemed to be in the process of delivering his usual revolutionary rhetoric. To the side of him were soldiers and workers lying flat upon the ground. I imagined this for what it was not meant to be, a metaphor for the millions who were laid low by the revolution Lenin worked so tirelessly to promulgate. There was a twinge of madness about the piece. The same could be said of Lenin’s dream of worldwide revolution which turned lethal for those who followed his words with deeds. It eventually became a nightmare for almost everyone infected with communist zeal. One could not look at such a piece of art and feel anything other than fervor, discontent and the will to power.

Frontal Assault - Martyrs Monument at Memento Park

Frontal Assault – Martyrs Monument at Memento Park

A Pantheon of Has Beens – The Presence of a More Recent Past
One of the more disconcerting aspects in Statue Park were the many pieces on display of officials and personages who I had never heard of before. At the front entrance had been those who were synonymous with communism, but scattered about the park were more anonymous personages. I consider myself rather well read on the communist era in Hungarian history, but some of those glorified in stone had more in common with missing persons than they did the Kadar’s, Rakosi’s and Nagy’s of that era.  These included such low level luminaries as Ede Chlepko (one of the founders of the Hungarian Communist Party who ended up dying in a Soviet prison), Janos Asztalos and Kalman Turner who both died while fighting for the communist party in the 1956 Revolution) and Robert Kreutz (his most notable trait was passing out leaflets and getting himself shot by the Germans in 1944). There were several more of these heroes who used to be glorified. Here was a pantheon of has beens. Usually they met a violent end. It was hard to find anyone who lived past the age of 60. Communism was hard on the masses, it was often worse for its heroes.

Some of the statues on display were of such force that it was hard not to have an emotional reaction when confronted with them. The one that looked most furious to me was the Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic, which portrayed a man running with full force, his fists thrust outward while he gave a full-throated scream. In his left fist he gripped what looked like a scarf, but more likely was a banner. The energy and dynamism of this statue was highly impressive. This was the pose of a zealot rushing toward revolution. The revolution certainly did not falter for lack of belief or motivation. The forty-two pieces on display all seemed rather lonely figures despite being surrounded by their fellow travelers. Propaganda taken out of context from the political passion and turmoil which gave rise to it was rather hard for me to comprehend.

Shaking Hands & Fists- Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial

Shaking Hands & Fists- Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial

Silent Witnesses – Shaking Hands & Fists
Of course there were statues of soldiers. They looked solid, committed and ready for battle. Perhaps the most important of these from a historical standpoint were part of the Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial. The Memorial consisted of two figures, a Soviet soldier and a Hungarian worker. The Soviet soldier offered his hand in “friendship”, but his posture was restrained while the Hungarian worker grasped the Soviet soldier’s hand with both of his own. The Soviets were obviously in charge. The memorial was completed in 1956. With the failure of the Hungarian Revolution that autumn, it was obvious the Soviets were going stay in charge. Their continued occupation led to the creation of even more statues, many of which still stand today as silent witnesses at Memento Park.

An Era Of Terror – Memento Park: “Stalin’s Boots” in Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 47)

Any park that has as its centerpiece “Stalin’s Boots”, is bound to demand your attention. In this case, “Stalin’s Boots” were not made for walking, they were made for trampling. Trampling the hopes and aspirations of Hungarians until one incredible day in October 1956 the people had enough. That was when the massive statue of Stalin was pulled down. Along with it went hardline Stalinism in Hungary. It would eventually be replaced by “Goulash Communism”. One of the most powerful photos from that historic day shows Stalin’s giant head laying on the ground. This was the face plant felt round the world. The only thing still standing of that Stalin was his boots. The massive symbol of Soviet might had been cut down to size.

“Stalin’s Boots” became an iconic and ironic symbol of a stagnant, stolid system that was stuck in place. For no Stalin ever appeared again in Hungary to fill those boots. Like the communist system, “Stalin’s Boots” could still stand on their own, but the menace that filled them had disappeared. In its place, were straw men, invisible men, who no longer dictated, but decreed and directed. The power of Stalin’s boots was the period it evoked. The era of terror, total control and all-consuming fear that gripped Hungary from 1948 to 1956 came screaming to a halt during the Hungarian Revolution until the uprising was put down by Soviet forces. The power of those boots and that dark history can be felt on a visit to Memento Park. This is where “Stalin’s Boots” joins a sobering series of magnificently awful communist era sculptures set aside in a park unlike any other I have ever visited.

An Arresting Reminder - Stalin's Boots at Memento Park

An Arresting Reminder – Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Discarded Detritus – Communist Curios On A Superhuman Scale
When the iron curtain fell, so did thousands of statues all over Eastern Europe. Hundreds of these were pulled down in Hungary, many of them in Budapest. The pantheon of communist heroes such as Lenin and Marx, a wide range of local apparatchiks, fierce looking soldiers and joyful workers were pulled down. They were replaced by a whole new cast of characters, democratic, capitalist and aristocratic heroes began to reappear in the same squares where many of them had once stood decades earlier. The understandable reaction among the Hungarian populace that had labored under totalitarianism was to have the communist era statues discarded once and for all time. Yet this was also history that could not be wiped away so easily. These same sculptures and statues not only represented a failed system, they also represented the past. One that in the heady rush to freedom and democracy most of the population wanted to forget.

The dustbin of history during the early 1990’s was overflowing with the discarded detritus of totalitarian set pieces. A few brave Hungarian voices in Budapest stated that the statues should be set aside and interpreted for what they were, communist propaganda etched, carved and written in stone. These people understood that an important part of the past would be lost if these set pieces were not preserved. In the nation’s capital, a novel idea took root. Rather than destroy propaganda from the recent past that had pockmarked the cityscape, they would instead be moved to an open-air museum and placed in proximity to one another. Tourists would be welcome to visit what most Hungarians would rather forget. It would be a trove of communist curios all on a superhuman scale.

A Revolutionary Reappraisal - Lenin still standing

A Revolutionary Reappraisal – Lenin still standing

An Arresting Reminder – Meet The Parents
For me, as for the 40,000 tourists who annually visit Memento Park, getting there was not exactly easy. The park is nowhere near the city center. Instead it requires a bus trip to the distant southwestern suburbs of Buda where the park stands in a former farm field. I made my way to the park by first taking a tram to Kelenfold Train Station where I then picked up one of the buses that regular travel the route. Onboard the bus, I noticed that the passengers were almost all locals. I would not hear a word of English spoken on the 20 minute ride. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand when I first boarded and said “Memento Park” while pointing at myself. I assumed that he would notify me when we arrived at the correct stop. That is exactly what happened twenty minutes later.

Departing from the bus, I found myself along what could have been any highway in the countryside. Budapest seemed a long way from here even though the city center was only five kilometers away. The development was not nearly as dense out here along the city’s periphery. I quickly walked across Highway 7 towards the park. I was almost immediately greeted by a strange sight. On the right side of the road were two wooden barracks that looked like they had been lifted straight out of a labor camp and strategically placed near the entrance to Memento Park. The barracks acted as an arresting reminder of where communism often ended up.

A Recent Memory - Memento Park

A Recent Memory – Memento Park

No Laughing Matter – The Power To Destroy
Between the two barracks I could see “Stalin’s Boots”. This reproduction was not an exact replica of the original, but the model sufficed. Of note, was the austere concrete platform where communist officials would have stood with Stalin’s presence hovering over them, a figure of towering and unassailable omnipotence. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those who stood as I did below the platform peering up at the massive sculpture. The statue and platform were an awe-inspiring symbol of vile statecraft. Hungarians were forced to look up to Stalin just as he was looking down upon them. He held the power of life and death over them.

I then turned around to enter the open-air museum portion of the park where 42 statues and sculptures stood. Looking at the open-air museum, I felt a sense of irony. It was like viewing the world’s largest advertisement for failure. Yet communism and its remnants were no laughing matter. Tens of thousands of Hungarians lost their lives and/or their livelihoods due to a system that sacrificed the individual for the state, substituted human creativity for mind numbing conformity and demanded the subjugation of the masses in pursuit of a twisted dystopia. Viewing these statues and contemplating what they stood for begged the question: If communists were trying to represent heaven on earth than I could only wonder what would have been their idea of hell.