In early May I wrote a piece titled “Sándor Lezsák’s fiefdom in Lakitelek came to an abrupt end.” The occasion was a by-election held in this large village where the Fidesz leadership suffered a severe blow. The solid Fidesz majority on the Lakitelek town council simply evaporated. The event received national attention because Lakitelek is Sándor Lezsák’s Felcsút.
Sándor Lezsák is best known as the man in whose backyard the Magyar Demokrata Fórum, a right-of-center political party that won the first democratic election after the fall of communism, was born. Lezsák was a teacher at the time in the Lakitelek elementary school. Although he is often described as a minor poet on the basis of two slim volumes of poetry published in 1983 and 1988, he seems to have given up his literary ambitions. On the other hand, ever since 1987 he has been active in politics, first as a member of MDF and later, after his expulsion from the party, in Fidesz. Today Lezsák is one of the deputy speakers of the Hungarian parliament.
While Viktor Orbán’s Felcsút has become the football capital of Hungary, Lakitelek is best known for the Lakitelek Népfőiskola Alapítvány, a private foundation established by Lezsák and his wife for the edification of those who would like to immerse themselves in the eastern traditions of the Hungarian past. This “people’s college” has adopted a decidedly right-wing ideology and a pro-eastern cultural and political orientation. Lezsák’s foundation receives a great deal less public money than does Orbán’s Puskás Academy. Still, according to some estimates, Lakitelek Népfőiskola will have received about 12 billion forints in public funds by 2020. Year after year buildings are added to the complex, which by now looks more like a wellness center than a college for poor country folks, as the founders of such institutions originally imagined them.
Lakitelek is in the news again. It looks as if the Nemzeti Művelődési Intézet (NMI), a public institution with a yearly budget of 1.3 billion forints, will be “inherited” by Sándor Lezsák’s foundation. Thus, a publicly funded institution will be moving to the grounds of a private foundation. NMI’s headquarters are currently in Budapest, but a new building will be erected in Lakitelek. The staff will have to relocate. If, that is, they want to move to a village on the Great Plains about 100 km from Budapest.
In January János Lázár announced, in the name of reducing the size of the bureaucracy and cost cutting, the closing or merger of 73 so-called background institutions attached to ministries. NMI, which was established only in 2013, was destined to be eliminated. But then, as usual, all sorts of interest groups tried to save the institution, which has a nationwide network and whose main function is cultural and educational improvements, especially in smaller, disadvantaged communities.
In Hungarian universities a student can choose a major that trains people to become professional educators outside of the formal educational network. Perhaps one could call them adult educators. The subject is also described as andragogy, which, according to dictionary.com means “the methods or techniques used to teach adults.” Ever since the 1950s almost all villages have had “a house of culture” (kultúrház) where movies, theatrical performances, and other cultural activities could be held. Now it seems that the government wants to replace this network with 500 “people’s colleges” following the Lakitelek model. Accordingly, a June 13 government decree abolished NMI and declared that its functions will be taken over by the Lakitelek Népfőiskola Alapítvány.
This change is another decision that will fundamentally change cultural and education activities outside of schools. Until now NMI’s cultural activities were on a professional footing, but in the hands of the far-right Sándor Lezsák, who is a devotee of Turanism (which is described as a “pseudoscientific, nationalist political and cultural movement which proclaims an ethnic cultural unity for disparate people who are supposed to have a common ancestral origin in Central Asia”), they will be vehicles of state ideology.
And that’s not all. Péter Pető of Népszabadság called attention today to the fact that Lezsák is also honorary president of the Tolsztoj Társaság (Tolstoy Association), which was established on May 12, 2011. Those of you who know either Hungarian or Russian should take a look at their website. MVM, the state-owned Hungarian Power Company, is the supporter of the organization. That support must be quite substantial judging from the number of trips members or students of Slovak-Hungarian or Hungarian high schools make to Russia. The board includes such men as T. Gyula Máté, the son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of Munkáspárt, the minuscule communist party of Hungary. He is best known for his viciously anti-American opinion pieces in Magyar Hírlap. Gábor Stier, a pro-Russian foreign affairs editor of Magyar Nemzet, is also a board member. Pető correctly points out that Lezsák is not only infatuated with Hungarians’ Turanian origin but is also an advocate of closer relations between Hungary and Russia. Over the years he has invited to Lakitelek such government officials as Ernő Keskeny, today Hungarian ambassador in Kiev and the alleged architect of Viktor Orbán’s Russia policy, Aleksandr Tolkach, former Russian ambassador to Hungary, and the infamous Szilárd Kiss, the Hungarian wheeler and dealer in Moscow.
According to Lóránt Győri, an analyst at Political Capital, “what we see in Lakitelek and in the Tolsztoj Társaság is the result of Russia’s attempt with the means of ‘soft power’ to gain influence in Central and Western Europe.” As is well known, Russia generously supports far-right political organizations, but “there is another form of influence gathering, the ‘Lakitelek model,’ which is trying to influence people indirectly through pro-Russian socialization in the fields of culture and education.” Such influence, especially now that Lezsák will have MNI’s cultural network at his disposal, “might create a pro-Russian young intellectual elite who later in key positions can be useful in the ideological war of the Kremlin.” It sounds pretty scary.