Béla Pomogáts: A legend’s reincarnation

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.

The lunatic fringe at the "reburial." Népszabadság / Viktor Veres

The lunatic fringe at the “reburial.” Népszabadság / Viktor Veres

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.

The transylvanian contingent / Nészpabadság / Viktor Veres

The Transylvanian contingent. Népszabadság / Viktor Veres

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

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Fascinating pictures of the Hungarian tin foil hat crowd. The Tiszaeszlár sign held up by one of the wingnuts is particularly bizarre. Beats me what has the death of Petőfi, in 1849 or whenever, got to do with the Sólymosi Eszter blood libel against some hapless village Jews in 1882. Totally off the planet.


Thank you, Eva for translating and posting this fascinating story. For those of us new to a study of Hungarian history and current populist trends, could someone explain why it is so important for the fringe group to believe that Petőfi was exiled to Siberia and buried there rather than killed in Transylvania in 1849? What is the underlying dogma that I am missing here, or have I misread this piece? I feel like there is another story dancing below the surface…


A real fine interesting and informational piece taking in literature, magnetic personalities and the writing of history. It really reminded me of a film quote attributed to the great Western film director John Ford, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Hungary, like the American West, appears to be a fertile locale for the generation of myths that can muddy the quest for truth. Ironic that Petofi’s consistent and powerful truth-telling in his seminal works is now lying amid questionable legend.

Hungary’s relationship to history would suggest that it is now perhaps more interested in legend rather than a determination to get down to the assurance of facts when it comes to investigation and assessment of historical events.

And regarding Petofi’s lines…great stuff starting with “Moonlight bathing in the sea of Heaven…..” I think a bit of Byron was in his head there. Romantic revolutionaries seem to ‘image’ alike being intellectual and emotional blood-brothers.


The number of “captured people, who entered Hungary illegally” was 38,059 in July only.

If we exclude the Kosovars who entered the Schengen area at Hungary last January and February, but who stopped coming since then, the distribution of the migrants or refugees is the following:

(January 1 through July 29, my calculation is based on UNHCR data)

Afghans 40.7%
Syrians 34.2%
Pakistanis 9.8%
Iraqis 6.7%
Bangladeshis 2.5%
Iranians 1.4%

Africans combined 4.6%

As we can see, the overwhelming majority (at least 92%) of them must be Sunni Muslims.


Tappanch – no, we cannot “see” that they “must be Sunni Muslims.” For example, only 74% of Syrians are Sunni, 13% are Shiite while about 10% of Syria’s total population is Christian, and 3% Druze – but you cannot assume that just 10% of the refugees from Syria are Christian because Syrian Christians have been fleeing Syria at a far higher rate than members of any other religious group. It’s possible (though unlikely) that half of Syrians in Hungary are Christian. It’s possible that all of them are. It’s possible that none of them are. Based on the data above, we cannot know. There are also other religions in other countries listed – just look. Whatever their faith, we can be fairly sure that these people left their countries because they are unhappy with the regimes there – some may even, for all we know, be atheists. Religion, after all, is not genetic.


As to Iraq, the majority of Iraqis are Shiite, so it is very unlikely indeed that all Iraqi refugees are Sunni. It is possible, but extremely unlikely. Also, a few Iraqis are Christians – in 1950 they made up 10-12% of the population – but their numbers now are impossible to calculate because they have been fleeing Iraq at a huge pace. So it seems quite possible that there are Christians among the Iraqi refugees in Hungary. I mention all this because I had some Lebanese classmates in school. People assumed they were Muslim. They were all Christians.

Dear Webber, thank you for challenging me. Since we did not know the exact numbers, I estimated the percentage. Iraq Iraqi Shi’as have to go through Sunni territory, which would be suicidal. In addition, the current Iraqi government is Shi’a dominated. So I state that [almost] no Iraqi Shi’a would enter Hungary from Serbia. The majority of Christians fled Iraq between 2003 and 2013, about 1.1 to 1.2 million out of 1.4 million. So the pool of new Iraqi Christian refugees is small. An estimated 60 thousand Christians fled Mosul for Hewlêr [Erbil] a year ago. The Yazidis (0.2 to 0.4 million) deserve the refugee status the most. They face genocide in the hands of Da’esh. But they speak Kurdish, their main center outside the Sinjar mountain was not captured, so I assume that the majority will stay in the Kurdish controlled area of Iraq. Syria Yes, around 10% of the Syrians are Christians. Lots of people fled to Turkey from Aleppo. But even in Aleppo, Christians made up just 12% of the population before the civil war. The Sunni population of Syria has every reason to flee. The fighting outside Aleppo has taken place in mainly Sunni areas so… Read more »

All right, I also analyzed the breakdown of the African refugees by their country of origin. If I assume that 43% of them are non-Muslim [taking 0% for Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Somalia and Sudan, 50% for Nigeria and Eritrea for instance], this gives an extra 2% to the total.

So my corrected estimate is that 90% of the Asian and African refugees captured at the border of Hungary are Sunni Muslim.


My point is that all your estimates are based solely on the country of origin of these refugees, in short they are wild speculation. The only way to estimate refugees’ faith is to ask the refugees themselves. Every other method is pointless BS.
What you have done is similar to what I have seen US customs officials do when they assume that a person with a Romanian passport is an ethnic Romanian — indeed, it is worse; it is as if they were to assume that every single person with a Romanian passport is a faithful Eastern Orthodox Christian.
I have a question – a very serious one:
What was your point in trying to estimate the percentage of Sunni Muslims among these refugees, and then presenting this estimate to readers here?

Again, a bunch of speculation from you. You just doubled down. For instance, you claim “Iraqi Shi’as have to go through Sunni territory, which would be suicidal.” I might counter with speculation that most refugees are passing through the relatively safe Kurdish region on their way to Turkey (that would be the logical route, would it not), and could then point out to you that there is actually a direct link between majority Shiite lands and the Kurdish lands. (see the map in the link I provide below). Then you could counter that Kurds are mostly Sunni. Then I could counter that they are not killing Shiite refugees. http://usiraq.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000916 But all that would be speculation. We simply cannot know what religious faith (if any) these refugees from Iraq follow. I would be willing to bet that there are at least a few Christians among them. Your comment about Kosovars was well off the mark, incidentally. First of all, there is the common comment among Albanians everywhere that the faith of all Albanians is neither Christian nor Muslim, but Albanianism (nationalism trumping everything among them). Indeed, if you visit Prishtina you will find quite a large number of Kosovar Albanians drinking… Read more »
@Webber August 1, 2015 at 7:18 pm May I “but in” for a moment on the question of what is wrong with Sunnis? There is absolutely nothing wrong with Sunnis who embrace modernity and do their best to fit in after settling in a developed country, or if staying in their country of birth, trying their best to pull it out of chronic retardation. On the other hand, there is everything wrong with Sunni fundamentalists, just as there is everything wrong with fundamentalists of any religion. What makes Sunni fundamentalism particularly dangerous and a standout among other fundamentalisms is the funds, arms and political protection they receive from powerful patrons in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikdoms and Pakistan. An even greater danger is that Sunni fundamentalists are able to swim like fish in the water of Sunni peoples, largely undetectable, like Mao’s soldiers were said to be able to swim in the sea of Chinese peasants. And the greatest danger of all is their universal totalitarian missionary zeal intended to be prosecuted with fire and sword against all heretics and unbelievers, as this is indeed commanded by the Koran and the Hadiths. A sinister contemporary twist on this is their… Read more »

With regard to ‘moderate Muslims’ , I’d suggest that if the West relies on their efforts in the battle against ISIS it may be asking too too much to expect results. And that is for the simple matter that it appears ISIS just will never ever use ‘compromise’ nor ‘negotiations’ in its vicious drive towards its ultimate ends. It looks to be their way or the highway when it comes to their goals. This war against ISIS will be a nightmarish killing field.

I’d venture to say moderate Muslims will be biting on rock to try to make inroads into that kind of rabid and feverish fundamentalist thinking. And I think they know it too as they feel how even they are despised by their own ‘fellow’ Muslims for taking up Islam in a different way.


I have a book on my shelf, published in 1921, about the Catholic conspiracy to take over America through Irish, Polish, Mexican and other immigrants from Catholic countries. It has negative quotations from various Popes about Protestantism as “proof” of this conspiracy.
The tone of some entries above matches the paranoia of that little book perfectly.

As to your comment, Mike Balint – I would just say that moderates can never convince radical extremists, anywhere.
Neo-nazi nutcases will never be convinced by liberal people in any country. (liberal in the true sense)
Extremist islamists will never be convinced by liberal Muslims.

It’s futile to hope they will.

I would guess that most of the people fleeing the Middle East are running from extremism of one sort or another. They have my sympathy.

Mike Balint, any sane person would agree with you about Sunni fundamentalists, just as any sane person would agree about how foul neo-nazism is. I am just objecting to the portrayal of refugees as “Sunnis” merely because of their country of origin, and also to the barely hidden implication that a Sunni is a potential threat. Here is a parallel: Let’s pretend Jobbik comes to power at some point in future in Hungary. If someone were to imply something similar about Hungarian refugees, implying that they are likely to be Hungarian Christians and (perhaps therefore) neo-nazi extremists because of their country of origin, you would surely object. You might point out that a number of those refugees are Jews and Roma – indeed, it would be likely that a higher percentage of them are Jews and Roma than their percentage in the population, though without asking these refugees you probably would not be able to give definitive numbers – certainly not of Jews (roughly my point, above, to Tappanch- he cannot, we cannot know the faith of the refugees). You would also point out that ALL of those refugees, regardless of ethnicity or faith, are FLEEING from extremist-dominated Hungary (the… Read more »

@Webber, re: “Your comment about Kosovars was well off the mark”

According to the 2011 census in Kosovo, (which did not include the Serbian-held NW regions of North Kosovska Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zubin Potok and Zvečan), the religious make-up of Kosovo was the following:

Muslim: 95.6%
Catholic: 2.2%
Greek [Serbian] Orthodox: 1.5%
Other: 0.1%
None: 0.1%
Refused to say: 0.5%

I qualified these numbers by writing “Well, the practicing Kosovars are also Sunni Muslim…”, so my comment was NOT off the mark.


Your comments imply all sorts of things about Sunnis and Kosovar Albanians, and are terribly off the mark. You know it, too.
Watch that video about (some) Albanians’ treatment of Jews during the Holocaust again. Then, please, look up how many Jews Albanians saved – at great risk to themselves. They would have been executed – entire families executed – if the Germans had found they were harboring Jews. Those Albanians were, for the most part, Sunnis.

In my view, you are disseminating hatred against a religion and implying hateful things about a national group.


By the way, even Shi’a Islam considers a religious duty to destroy Israel AND reoccupy any part of the world that was ever conquered by Muslims – this includes the entire territory of today’s Hungary !

New book by the Iran’s Supreme Leader, ayatollah Khameini:

” His position is instead based on “well-established Islamic principles.”

One such principle is that a land that falls under Muslim rule, even briefly, can never again be ceded to non-Muslims. What matters in Islam is ownership of a land’s government, even if the majority of inhabitants are non-Muslims.

Khomeinists are not alone in this belief.

Dozens of maps circulate in the Muslim world showing the extent of Muslim territories lost to the Infidel that must be recovered.

These include large parts of Russia and Europe, almost a third of China, the whole of India and parts of The Philippines and Thailand.”



With respect to Israel, the Supreme leader uses the words ” “adou” and “doshman,” meaning “enemy” and “foe,” and his aim is ” “nabudi” which means “annihilation”[…] “imha” which means “fading out,” and, finally, there is “zaval” meaning “effacement.””


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So what? What new does that map you’ve posted tell us?
I could post a neo-nazi Hungarian map of the Carpathian Basin, and lists of “Jews who control the world” compiled online by American neo-nazis. What would that prove? It would only prove that extremists are awful, nothing more. It will only demonstrate what everyone already knows. It would not prove that Americans are extremists.

Do I get you right? – Are you actually implying that immigrants who are Muslim are, necessarily, likely to be extremists?

What does all this you’ve posted about extremist islamists have to do with the topic of this blog???

(n.b. You haven’t shown a damned thing about immigrants’ religious beliefs – you just keep harping on with your assumptions, based on nothing but country of origin, which is proof of nothing).