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.
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.
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.