Hungary: A very large Potemkin village

Practically everybody has heard the tale of fake villages built by Grigory Potemkin on the banks of the Dnieper River. Catherine the Great was visiting the newly conquered Crimea in 1787. She and her entourage went by boat. According to the story, General Potemkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages built in order to impress the monarch.

This story is most likely untrue, spread by Potemkin’s enemies. But the idiom “Potemkin village” came to signify an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.

The Russian Potemkin villages may not have existed, but one can see a modern version of them in Hungary. First, let me tell you the story of the official opening of a famous three-hundred-year-old “csárda” in the Hortobágy region.

Let’s start with the Hortobágy National Park where this “csárda” is situated. According to the press release of the “Direktorate [sic] of Hortobágy National Park” an informal meeting of the Agriculture Ministers of the Europaean [sic] Union” will take place at “the opening ceremony of the ecotouristic developments of the Hortobágy National Park Directorate on 30th May, 2011.” As you can already see, the management of the National Park could have been better prepared for the occasion. The Directorate gave a little background on the Hortobágy, which is apparently the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe. A major part of the area of the National Park is made up of alkaline grasslands, meadows, and marshes. It is a tourist attraction, especially since herdsmen in traditional costumes show off their skills with the horses.

Hortobagyi lovak

And what is a “csárda”? It is an inn built along the highway where travellers could have a meal and/or spend a night. One of these inns built about three hundred years ago has lately been renovated with European Union money. The agrarian ministers of the twenty-three countries of the Union were invited to the grand opening of this inn. From the outside it looks nice.

Hortobagyi csarda

Came the great day and the agrarian ministers arrived. Everything seemed to be going well. A tricolor ribbon was duly cut by the Hungarian agrarian minister, Sándor Fazekas, who also heartily welcomed the “first guests” of the renovated inn. The dinner was good, the ministers enjoyed the meal, and “pálinka” flowed freely, but the next day it became clear that the whole thing was no more than a deception. The inn might have been officially opened but it isn’t functioning. The dinner served to the distinguished guests was brought in from a restaurant in Debrecen. The following day the building was locked up. A modern Potemkin village story.

There is nothing new under the sun. We who lived through the Rákosi regime remember stories about official openings of brand new factories which had only walls and chimneys. A huge fire was built inside, smoke was bellowing out of the chimneys for the day of the official opening. It was a Soviet-style Potemkin village copied from Stalin’s Russia.

This fake opening of the inn is symbolic of the country as a whole. It is a huge Potemkin village, especially lately. There has always been a tendency on the part of Hungarian governments to fool the people as well as themselves about the earthly paradise that is just around the corner. All sorts of promises have been made that couldn’t be kept. But lately deception has reached new heights.

After quite a few months of inaction, the government began introducing austerity measures that make the lives of ordinary people worse than ever. The changes introduced are not structural in nature but simply money-saving measures at the expense of the poorer strata of society. By February-March people looked around and realized that the promises uttered earlier were empty. Life is not getting better. It’s getting worse. And now that Viktor Orbán is celebrating the first anniversary of his government he unabashedly announced that an “economic turn” has already taken place. The problem is that the people aren’t feeling any better off, the deficit isn’t shrinking, and the economy isn’t growing with any degree of robustness. All the while György Matolcsy pats himself on the back as someone who “solved the economic crisis with unusual methods and with unusual success.” All that is no more than empty talk. Building a Potemkin village.

While Orbán and the Fidesz work hard at creating an economic Potemkin village, the Christian Democrats are trying to create a Potemkin village of a deeply religious Hungary.  They act as if the great majority of closely knit Hungarian families attend church on Sundays and would like to return to a time when Sunday was truly a day of rest. Nothing was open. They tried to close super- and hypermarkets on Sundays. Of course, that would have hurt mostly foreign companies, and such a move would also have meant a small uptick in the unemployment figures. But Hungary’s Christian Democrats are ideologues. They don’t care about cost and they refuse to acknowledge that Hungarians are not a religious folk. Orbán finally put an end to Christian Democratic dreams about Sunday closings. But again, he didn’t tell the truth about the economy and the population’s religious practices and preferences. Instead he came up with a false populist claim that the only reason that people will have to work on Sundays is because Hungarian wages are so low that five-day work weeks can’t support a family. But perhaps in a few years when his beneficent governance will bear fruit, it will be possible. This is nonsense, of course. People who work on Sundays don’t necessarily work more than five days a week, just as they don’t work a twelve-hour shift if a supermarket is open twelve hours hours a day.

The Christian Democrats had to give up on Sunday store closings but they are still working on two extra holidays: Assumption of the Virgin (August 15) and the day János Hunyadi defeated the Turks on July 21, 1456 at Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár). The Day of Assumption is clearly a Christian holiday, but the Christian Democrats’ second suggestion also has religious connotations. According to them the anniversary of the battle must be celebrated because it was a Christian victory over the infidels. The funny thing about the suggestion for celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin is that it was introduced by a member of parliament who is a Calvinist and Calvinists don’t believe in the assumption of the Virgin Mary. There’s a Potemkin village everywhere you look.


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Virág elvtárs: Ugyan, kit csaptunk be? Magunkat? Mi tudjuk, miről van szó. A kutatókat? Azok örülnek, hogy plecsni van a mellükön. A széles tömegeket? Azok úgyse esznek se narancsot, se citromot, de boldogok, hogy velünk ünnepelhetnek. Az imperialistákat? Ühüm, azoknak alaposan túljártunk az eszén. Nem szeretnék most a helyükben lenni! Kiadtuk a jelszót: legyen magyar narancs! És lett magyar narancs. Mi nem ígérgetünk a levegőbe, Pelikán.
Sorry for the Hungarian. The above quite is form the “famous” Hungarian satire, The Witness. In this scene Mr Virag tells Pelikan about how the ruling regime “fools” the imperialist with the idea that Hungary has its own orange.

late night

The most important lie they try to establish now, is the idea, that Hungarians are a conservative to the core people, and happiness comes if all differing ideas disappear.
They miss, that for all Hungarians religion lost it’s full grip, feudal submissiveness is no more, the public opinion cannot be controlled anymore.

Odin's lost eye
Professor you write of stories told about the Rákosi regime, I have heard of such tricks. Were these stories true? Or are they black propaganda by the anti Rakosi folk? They are probably a bit of both. I have noticed throughout the 20th Century Hungary has produced some of the worlds finest ‘con-men’ and some of the best magicians/illusionists. Who has not heard of Erik Weisz (or rather Weisz Erik) and Ignaz Trebitsch (Trebitsch Ignaz). I have often wondered if it is ‘nature or nurture’. The present ‘Beloved Leader’ Orban Viktor and his merry men are beginning to use ‘kidology’ to prove to people who are now beginning to suffering that they are better off than they were before. Well they can now legally distill their own ‘moon shine’ (big deal!). “Late Night” you write * “The most important lie they try to establish now, is the idea, that Hungarians are a conservative to the core people, and happiness comes if all differing ideas disappear” *. You are absolutely right in the mind of the rulers any deviation from their ideas are treachery/heresy. Deviants must conform (or be re-indoctrinated) this is something we have all seen before. These days it… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh

Odin: “you write of stories told about the Rákosi regime, I have heard of such tricks. Were these stories true?”
Some of them are certainly true. The opening of the factory where my father worked as an engineer certainly wasn’t ready for the deadline but the official opening took place anyway.
And if the factory couldn’t be finished for the deadline–often because the management didn’t receive the necessary parts–the chief engineer ended up in jail. So, when my father was made chief engineer in Komló, my mother was in total panic. One day I arrived from school mother looked miserable. I asked what the problem was. Answer: you father was named chief engineer. I didn’t quite understand why this was a problem. Came the explanation: he will end up in jail. He didn’t but almost.


The Hortobagy has been a constant series of Potemkin villages, under every regime, publicity-rich attempts to alter an economically marginal landscape into something “modern” (if nostalgic for a fictional past) and a sign of a government supposedly hard at work. The massive drainage of the wetlands in the 19th century did reduce malaria, but the alkaline soil was never good enough for crops, and livestock populations could only be sustained at the margins. In the East Block era, massive canals were dug to irrigate for rice, which never yielded a fraction of the plan, and so Hungary added the cowboy shows as part of a unique East Block tourism program. A nice swimming and horseback resort was added in the early post-socialist years, but the dust of the dry season and the cold winds of the rest of the year made for a very modest attraction.


PT the Hortobagy has some of the best birdwatching in Europe.


David, but imagine how good the birdwatching must have been before the wetlands were drained!

Odin's lost eye

Professor I am sorry I did reply to you but my posts to this and one or two other sites sometimes get ‘Black Holed. So here it is again in brief.
The tricks etc about Chief Engineers come straight from the Manual on ‘Management by Terror’ Chapter 2 “Mistakes and Errors”. To summarise this chapter “My mistakes and errors are your fault”!
As to the Beloved Leader and his Cohorts. Most of what they are doing is all ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ to fool their public and us stupid foreigners

Pete H.

I am currently writing from Hortobagy and I can confirm that the “Csarda” is still not open. There’s another smaller one across the street that is open.
The whole area is very depressed, many kiado signs on former stores and inns. The decline in tourism during the recession has hit this area very hard.
This is an amazing place for wildlife and I highly recommend a visit by any one with any interest in the environment.