I just raced through Krisztina Ferenczi’s new book, Narancsbőr (Orange peel). Since I usually read her articles about the Orbán family’s dubious financial dealings, I was familiar with most of the details. Ferenczi’s earlier book was about the Orbáns’ brief encounter with viticulture in Tokaj. They got burned when it came to light that Viktor Orbán as prime minister used his influence to receive a substantial state subsidy for their newly acquired vineyard. It was only through a clever legal trick that Orbán’s skin was saved. Since then he has been super clever and has avoided any kind of business venture that may get him into a tight spot as a possible recipient of subsidies either from the European Union or from the Hungarian state. It is true that his wife, Anikó Lévai, owns some agricultural land in Felcsút, but officially at least it is leased to János Flier, the former electrician I was talking about yesterday and one of Orbán’s likely front men in Felcsút. Lévai claims that the subsidies she is entitled to actually go to Flier. When Ferenczi asked Flier about it, he replied: “You ought to ask her how it is exactly” (Tőle kellene megkérdezni, hogyan is van ez). Flier is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
So, the Orbáns who got burned with Tokaj are now very careful. And yet the incredible wealth Orbán’s two close friends in Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros and János Flier, amassed made the inhabitants of the village more than suspicious. They are convinced that Viktor Orbán is an active business partner in the growing Mészáros-Flier estates. Perhaps he is the majority owner of them.
Ferenczi found many signs that this is probably the case. She talked at length with people who work on the cattle ranch owned by Mészáros, which Viktor Orbán visits frequently. It seemed obvious to them that Orbán is not just a casual visitor there. “He had something to do with the enterprise.” It also came to light that the charolais cows of Orbán’s new son-in-law are also part of the herd of 3-4,000 animals which, by the way, are kept, according to Ferenczi, under terrible conditions. I might also add here as a footnote that in the past at least the people who worked there officially received only 65,000 forints a month; the rest, 35-45,000 forints, illegally changed hands under the table.
Yesterday an article about the new stadium in Felcsút appeared in The New York Times with a picture of the half-finished stadium right next to the Orbáns’ country home. It is perhaps the best picture I have seen of the two together and leads me to believe that the modest abode the Orbáns built in 2003 will not be there for long. If the stadium is a “jewel box,” as Orbán once described it, the peasant adobe house 20 feet away is a jarring eyesore. And that leads me to the very good possibility that the Orbáns have a very much more elegant dwelling in mind: the former country house of the Hungarian Habsburgs nearby. The building was badly damaged during World War II, but it looks as if the Orbán family has plans to rebuild it in its earlier splendor. Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, who apparently besides his quarry also has a real estate business, purchased the whole remaining estate a few years ago.
Who were the Hungarian Habsburgs? The founder of the Hungarian branch was Archduke József, the much beloved palatine (nádor) of Hungary (1776-1847), who became a patron of art and an important promoter of the development of Budapest and the country in general. It was he who acquired a large piece of land in Alcsút and built a beautiful palace there. He and his family settled in Hungary for good. The last Archduke Joseph (1872-1962) who played a role in Hungarian politics was actually born in Alcsút. By all indications some of the remnants of Archduke Joseph’s estate are in the hands of the Orbán family and, according to some information Ferenczi received on the spot, work has already begun. The site is off limits to strangers. It is guarded by security personnel as well as by a kuvasz named Nárcisz (Daffodil). Orbán admitted that the family has a ferocious dog called Nárcisz, but, he added, “it is in Felcsút.” I guess he didn’t want to say that the animal is actually guarding part of the Archduke Joseph’s estate owned by his family.
As I was reading about the landholdings of Viktor Orbán and Anikó Lévai it occurred to me that this unexpected yearning to be “lord of the manor” (földesúr) is typical of Hungarians who may have achieved great wealth or fame in some other endeavor but think their life is not fulfilled without having some land and preferably a sizable and elegant palace to go with it. One of my favorite Hungarian novels is Kezdetben volt a kert (In the beginning there was the garden) by Anna Lesznai, first wife of Oszkár Jászi. The book is largely based on her own family’s story. The grandfather, a well-known Jewish doctor who amassed a fortune, feels that his life is not complete without owning land. He buys a large estate somewhere in the Uplands (today Slovakia) only to realize that this kind of life is not for him. But then comes his son who finds it very much to his liking. The assimilated well-off Jewish family becomes like their non-Jewish noble neighbors next door. Many of these Jewish gentleman farmers eventually received nobility in the second half of the nineteenth century.
I also read stories about 1956 refugees who made it in the United States or in western Europe and who after 1990 went in search of neglected manor houses and country estates in Hungary. Now they are gentleman farmers. A favorite hobby investment was viticulture. Neglected old vineyards were bought up in Tokaj, and with some state subsidies the new owners planted new vines and are currently trying their hands at producing quality Hungarian wines. A good example of this kind of 1956er is Dezső Kékessy, earlier a business partner of Viktor Orbán. He has a vineyard in Tokaj and also bought a country estate.
In her book Ferenczi recalls a film in which Anikó Lévai talked about her ardent desire to return to the soil. After all, she came from peasant stock. Her father finished only six grades. We don’t know how much land her father had, but she referred to him as a “kulák,” a rich peasant. She hoped, she said, that once her husband retires from politics, she could perhaps start “a somewhat larger organic farm.” I learned while researching this post that the Habsburg archdukes had a “model farm” (mintagazdaság) in Alcsút. Perhaps one day on the old Habsburg lands Anikó Lévai can run an organic farm.