Viktor Orbán traveled more than 300 miles to visit the town of Csenger, where he opened a swimming pool. The trip was actually a homage to the work of Imre Makovecz, an architect whose worldview and nationalism were close to Viktor Orbán’s heart. Personally, I don’t like either Makovecz’s architectural style or his shocking views. But Viktor Orbán embraced his architecture and was comfortable with at least some of his views. After Makovecz’s death, practically all the buildings built for the Puskás Academy, including the arena, were designed in the Makovecz style. So, it’s no wonder that Orbán took time to visit Csenger, because this is Makovecz land. Beginning in the 1980s Csenger’s center was rebuilt, mostly by Makovecz’s architectural firm. And once Orbán was in Csenger it was natural for him to take a look at another Makovecz-style creation, the Memorial Park in Nagygéc, where there are several Makovecz-inspired buildings, including the House of Survival, the Lookout, and the Visitor’s Center.
What captured the imagination of the public, however, was neither the swimming pool in Csenger nor the Memorial Park in Nagygéc but a short video Viktor Orbán shared with his admirers on Facebook. Antal Rogán’s propaganda team, which is attached to the prime minister’s office, decided that a visit to one of the six inhabitants of Nagygéc, a village that in fact no longer exists, would be a splendid idea. The plan backfired. Reactions to the video were decidedly negative. Pro-government media outlets opted simply to ignore it, while independent news sites wrote sarcastic articles about the encounter.
Nagygéc, once a village of about 700 inhabitants, was in the floodplain of the River Szamos/Someș, about 10 km from the Hungarian-Romanian border. In 1970 the whole village was destroyed, and the decision was made to abandon it. The inhabitants were given land elsewhere as well as a certain amount of money to build new houses and rebuild their lives. But a handful of people whose houses survived the flood refused to move. Today there are six inhabitants of the area that was once Nagygéc, two original villagers and four newcomers from Romania.
Nagygéc’s Hungarian Reformed Church is a historical monument. One part of it was built in the twelfth century and the other part during the reign of King Mathias (1458-1490). The church was close to collapse when a couple of years ago 560 million forints were spent on its renovation and the creation of the Memorial Park. The money, of course, came from the European Union. The rescue of the church was appropriate, but whether money should have been spent on a memorial park in the middle of nowhere I’m not at all sure.
But let’s go back to the video taken in the extremely modest abode of the widowed Mrs. Imre Csúcs, or as she is known to her friends Bözsi (nickname of Erzsébet) néni. Néni is an annoying Hungarian epithet used for older women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status. Her dwelling is a two-room adobe house which, as we learned elsewhere, she can’t afford to heat properly. She has some chickens and two very clever pigs. Later we also found out that she had started a little business growing cucumbers. It was to this poverty that “the good king” arrived with a bouquet of flowers. The video reminded most people of Mátyás Rákosi’s similar visits to the homes of industrial workers or peasants of cooperatives where short discussions took place about the blessings of socialism even though years after the war food rationing had to be reintroduced.
Judging from an article written after the video went viral, the actual encounter may not have been as bad as the video. But on the video Orbán seems to be singularly uninterested in Bözsi néni’s daily existence. People noted that the prime minister perked up only when he paid a visit to the pig sty to see the two pigs. Otherwise, commentators concentrated on a short exchange about the size of Bözsi néni’s pension. She wished that there were elections every year because in every election year her pension is raised. It was at this point that Orbán, in the fashion of a true autocrat, asked: “Do I raise it normally?” Bözsi néni did remember that she got a 1.6% higher pension the last time, but Orbán reminded her that this was not all. “And I sent you a check too, do you remember?” She remembered that “gift” as well. Orbán told her that if at the end of the year the numbers are in order “I will raise it again.” The reaction to this exchange was one of total disgust. Orbán acted as if it depended on his generosity whether pensioners receive an increase in their stipends or not when in fact the law orders the government to raise pensions, depending on the rate of inflation. In American terms, pensioners are automatically given an annual cost of living adjustment.
Most of the commentators were nauseated because of cheap propaganda, and some of them wrote caustic remarks about the encounter. I found one on, of all places, alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s internet news site, which dubbed the meeting of Orbán and Bözsi néni “the saddest video of the year.” Here is a village of six inhabitants with no future. Even its present is “just, just.” Interestingly, this is not the first public appearance of Bözsi néni. Half a year ago Vasárnapi Hírek published a report about her. It said that she has money to heat only one room and even that only at night. The mention of the little raise in her pension “breaks one’s heart and clenches one’s fist.” According to the author, “Nagygéc is not only a little village condemned to death but the perfect, terrifying symbol of this whole wretched country and this vile and hypocritical regime.” Where from the millions coming from the EU they build a memorial park instead of building a road and bringing in gas and plumbing. “A memory country (emlékország) which sends messages to the past instead of to the future.”
Grotesque? Sad? Both, I’m afraid.