Béla Pomogáts is a historian of literature and a literary critic whose main field of interest is twentieth-century Hungarian literature, including works by writers living outside the current borders of Hungary. He is the author of the encyclopedic study Newest Hungarian Literature, 1945-1981 (1982) and of several books on Hungarian writers in the neighboring countries.
Béla Pomogáts began his studies at ELTE in 1953. I followed him a year later. Both of us majored in Hungarian, and both of us became members of the Revolutionary Student Committee during the 1956 October Revolution. While I left and found safe haven in the West, Béla paid dearly for his activities with years of incarceration and unemployment.
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According to the official announcement, on Friday July 17th the earthly remains of Sándor Petőfi, which had been brought back from the Siberian Barguzin, were buried. The story went viral despite the summer heat, when the major players in public life would rather spend their time at Lake Balaton (or on the Adriatic) than at funeral services.
The Barguzin skeleton was discovered a quarter of a century ago in far-away Siberia in a forgotten cemetery of a barely-known settlement by a scientific expedition, whose initiators and experts were Ferenc Morvai, a businessman, István Kiszely, an anthropologist, and Edit Kéri, a former actress. Later they quarreled, and for many decades the Barguzin skeleton became enwrapped in a veil of oblivion more mournful than any shroud. Twenty some years later a solemn reburial has taken place, and its energetic organizers have by turns been makings statements. I only quietly want to say that among them there is not one person with any professional credentials. The only one who might have been considered to be qualified is the late István Kiszely, an eccentric scientist, who earlier as a Benedictine seminarian in Pannonhalma cultivated an intimate relationship with the Kádárist state security apparatus.
A quarter of a century ago there was also great interest in the discovery in Transylvanian Hungarian circles, although I don’t remember that the Hungarians of Kolozsvár/Cluj, Nagyvárad/Oradea , or Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureș took the sensational news reports at face value. Both the Hungarian scientific community and public opinion continued to accept the established view that the poet was the victim of a Cossack lancer’s weapon during the battle of Segesvár (today Sighișoara) near Fehéregyháza (Albești). (I myself, as the president of the Hungarian Writers’ Association as well as the president of the Vernacular Conference, have repeatedly paid tribute at the older monument next to the highway and later at the new Petőfi statue erected a few years ago.) I, along with the scholars who have intensively studied the art and life of Petőfi, didn’t think to question the time and place of the death of the poet. Today’s Petőfi scholars unanimously reject the legend of Barguzin.
András Dienes, Petőfi in the War of Independence (1958)
Dienes’s book is the most authentic and detailed work on the poet’s activities in the last year of his life. One reason that I’m referring to Dienes’s book is that he was my much respected older colleague in the Literary Studies Institute of the Academy of Sciences. Before the war Dienes was a gendarme officer who at the end of the war joined the anti-fascist resistance movement. After the communist takeover he spent long years in Mátyás Rákosi’s prison on trumped-up charges. He was rehabilitated in 1957 and from there on dedicated his scholarly life to the study of Sándor Petőfi. While writing the book, he also did research in Romania. It turned out that the mass grave which most likely contains Petőfi’s remains is inaccessible because a large-scale industrial site was built on top of it.
Although it is unlikely that Petőfi’s remains will ever surface, Dienes relied on testimony and historical documents that indicated the date and place of the poet’s death. There are many such documents: Hungarian army officers, Austrian generals, the contemporary press, and memoirs all support the literary historian’s chronicle of Sándor Petőfi’s last hours.
Testimony of the Petőfi literature
Since the appearance of András Dienes’s book, several studies by literary historians have tried to clarify the circumstances of Petőfi’s death whenever public interest re-focused on the subject. After many decades of calm, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s a kind of “literary retrial” took place, which inspired people’s imaginations. In September 1988 Edit Kéri, earlier an actress in Győr who was imprisoned after the 1956 revolution, approached Ferenc Morvai, a businessman of means whom the media nicknamed the “boiler king,” and asked him to sponsor an expedition to Siberia to find the poet’s earthly remains. According to Kéri, the poet didn’t die on the battlefield near Segesvár but, along with many other Hungarian soldiers, was captured by the Russians. In the Barguzin cemetery, she claimed, there are a number of graves belonging to these captured soldiers. The idea of a Siberian expedition prompted fierce debates and a host of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) publications.
Articles that appeared in periodicals and newspapers reported the news about the excavations in Barguzin as a genuine scientific sensation. The Hungarian public learned that the members of the expedition even found the name of the poet–Aleksandr Petrovics, the original family name of the poet–on one of the graves In 1990, Edit Kéri summarized the results of the expedition in a book titled Petőfi in Siberia?! I must admit that Kéri did report some of the doubts surrounding the remains, but she still considered the skeleton to be that of Petőfi. Soon after, another book by Géza Szabó detailed the history of the excavation of the grave itself. A few months later a real Petőfi scholar, Sándor Fekete, felt that it was time to raise his voice and published a book with the title Siberian Contagion: Resurrection of the Petőfi Legend and Its Reburial. It was serious re-examination of the existing evidence, and it debunked the newly created Petőfi legend. Soon enough more works appeared, among them Lajos Szuromi’s Petőfi’s Russian Poems?, Miklós Veszprémi’s How Did Petőfi Die? and, in Russian, A. Tivanenko’s Petofi v Barguzine. Two publications that I would call “academic” came out subsequently. One was a series of essays edited by László Kovács titled Not Petőfi!, in which well-known Petőfi scholars such as Sándor Fekete, József Kiss, Imre Lengyel, László Harsányi, and several Russian academics wrote studies. In 2003 László Kovács appeared with a book of his own titled Illusion: The Fiasco of the Siberian Petőfi Research, which is the best summary of the history of the whole affair.
Two quotations, two publications
The first quotation is from Sándor Fekete’s Siberian Contagion: “The book which is in the hands of the readers is a document and a medical history of an age. … We cannot take up the examination of the bizarre and irrational ideas which have made such an impact on the repressed national consciousness, the result of outside and domestic influences. This time we should just concentrate on this particular case.”
The second work, a thorough and convincing monograph by László Kovács, presents all the legends that are related to Sándor Petőfi’s death and his alleged Siberian exile. “All the findings of the social and natural sciences contradict the false identification, but the decisive argument is the poet’s spirit that he left for us in his writings…. Whether the supporters of the Siberian legend knew or felt this I have no idea. I can only conclude that they submerged the topic in demagogic nationalist sentiments and shaped it into a political question…. They called those who stood against this falsification of history the enemies of the nation,” demanded a referendum, and wanted to turn to the European Court of Justice.
Finally, I would like to call attention to the latest issue of Rubicon, a historical magazine for interested laymen in which there is a collection of instructive and readable articles about “Petőfi of Barguzin.” In particular, I am thinking of two articles by Róbert Hermann, “Segesvár–Death of Petőfi,” and “Did they take them or not? The fate of Hungarian prisoners-of-war of the 1849 Transylvanian campaign.” I also found László Kovács’s “The phantom of Barguzin” and Balázs Gusztáv Mende’s “Alexander Petrovics of Barguzin” useful. Here we learn that the Russian army didn’t take prisoners-of-war to Russia. In fact, they turned them over to the Austrians.
Is there a lesson to be learned?
In my opinion every scientific debate, even the ones that include pseudo-scientific views, is useful, including the polemics surrounding the case of “Petőfi in Barguzin.” The reason for the usefulness of this debate is that it touches not only on the credibility of theories about historical events but also on the interpretation and assessment of Hungary’s place in the community of European nations. The credibility of historical writing is an absolute necessity in a nation that must not be jeopardized by pursuing seemingly interesting but hazy notions. Sándor Petőfi’s life ended with the defeat of the war of independence: it is in this way that his life is complete and whole. The poet’s life, and especially his death, is therefore not simply a series of facts or data but a very important motif in Hungarian national identity. An adult nation does not need legends, especially if they have been long refuted. We don’t have to search for, celebrate, and build statues in honor of Petőfi Barguzin. Rather, we must think of him as Petőfi of March 15, the revolution, the Transylvanian campaign, the poet, the politician, and the martyr of Segesvár.
Translated by Eva S. Balogh