Anna Porter, a Hungarian-born Canadian writer and publisher who since 2004 has been devoting her time to writing, is out with a new book, her third in eight years. All three in one way or another, fully or partially, have something to do with Hungary. In 2007 she wrote Kasztner’s Train, the story of Rudolf Kastner (Rezső Kasztner) and his controversial effort to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann for the release of hundreds of Jews. Three years later The Ghosts of Europe, a history of post-Soviet Eastern Europe after 1990, appeared. And now she has given us an introduction to George Soros’s philanthropic activities, Buying a Better World. Again, Soros is not only Hungarian by birth but also began his crusade for his Open Society in Hungary in 1984.
Soros has spent 12 billion dollars since 1984 “in his efforts to change the way people think,” and along the way he has encountered plenty of disappointment. He established a university in South Africa only to abandon the project a year later. His efforts in Russia also bore little fruit. Viktor Orbán, who has been busily building an “illiberal state” in Hungary, was once the beneficiary of Soros’s largesse. He received a scholarship to Oxford for the academic year 1989-1990 but left after four months to lead Fidesz in the election campaign for the first democratic parliament. By now Orbán has little use for the liberal philanthropist.
I will concentrate here on Soros’s activities in Hungary and his efforts on behalf of the Roma of Europe. Although Soros is disappointed with the results of his efforts in Eastern Europe and in particular in Hungary, I think that in the long run his financial input has not been wasted. Perhaps few people know that Soros was already active in Hungary during the Kádár regime. The Soros Foundation was established in 1984 with the assistance of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Since then the Magyar Soros Alapítvány has supported 40,000 projects and given out several thousand scholarships to artists, scholars, and students.
Perhaps Soros’s best-known activity in Kádár’s Hungary was to supply copy machines to universities and libraries. Until then the few available copy machines belonged to the government and were under strict control. As the number of copy machines grew, the government lost exclusive control over information.
Although Soros may complain about the futility of his efforts, he should be pleased with the Central European University (CEU) he established in Hungary. The original idea was to have three campuses: in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest. After Václáv Klaus became president, the Prague campus’s fate was pretty well sealed. Klaus hated Soros. The Warsaw campus also closed its doors after a few years. The Budapest campus, however, is thriving. Some Hungarians who worked closely with Soros in the early days of CEU think that, although Soros was initially reluctant to establish a university, it may be his most lasting contribution.
According to Porter, “at first Soros rejected the idea of founding a university. He didn’t think it was an effective way to influence a society. The best results, he said, are from inside a society, ‘infusing existing institutions with content’ and allowing local individuals to spend money on causes they believe to be worthwhile.” Yet, he eventually accepted the argument that “there was a need in eastern Europe for a university that encouraged independent thought,” which had been in short supply in the region. CEU has an international faculty, its language of instruction is English, and students come from throughout Eastern Europe.
In the chapter on “The Struggles of the Roma” Anna Porter gives the reader a vivid description of the plight of the Roma in Slovak and Hungarian villages. “This is the grim challenge Soros chose for the Open Society Foundations. Their programs include workshops for the Roma on advocacy and health and education in history, media, communications, and civil and human rights.” In 2009 alone the Open Society Foundation assisted 30,000 Roma children and 800 university students. CEU is also active in Roma studies. Yet, as Anna Porter rightly points out, “it is hard to see the results of Open Society’s intervention” on behalf of the Roma. She continues: “It is difficult to verify [the] claim that OS has created a ‘heightened level of awareness worldwide, and a sense of urgency’ in Europe.” The Open Society Foundation has put an incredible amount of effort and a lot of money into trying to uplift the Roma population in the eastern part of Europe, but so far it has failed to make a significant difference.
Here I have concentrated on a very small part of Buying a Better World. The book takes us all over the world, everywhere George Soros has been using his fortune to achieve a better, more open society.
Anna Porter, Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy (Toronto: TAP Books, 2015).