Tag Archives: Soros Foundation

Miklós Vásárhelyi is taking stock: The memoirs of Imre Nagy’s press secretary

On this sad anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution, I decided to escape from the Orbán regime’s ghastly “celebration” into the realm of history by sharing memories with another witness, Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001), press secretary of Imre Nagy in the last few days of the failed revolution and war of independence. I have been reading his memoirs, Kész a leltár (Taking stock), edited by Gyula Kozák and released a couple of weeks ago, on the 100th anniversary of Vásárhelyi’s birth in Fiume/Rijeka. Kozák, together with András B. Hegedűs, an active participant in the revolution, began studying the history of the 1956 events in 1981, first under cover, but from 1985 on legally, with the help of the Soros Foundation. As part of their project, they interviewed hundreds of people. The material they collected eventually became known as the Oral History Archivum under the auspices of the 1956 Institute.

The book is a transcription of a series of very lengthy interviews with Vásárhelyi that Kozák conducted in the 1990s. They take us through Vásárhelyi’s involvement in the communist movement before 1956, his imprisonment after the revolution, and his participation in the democratic movement of the 1980s. He became one of the founding members of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and served as a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994. Between 1994 and 2001 he was the president of the Soros Foundation in Hungary.

Kész a leltár is hard to put down. Vásárhelyi’s early years in an upper-middle-class family in Fiume and Debrecen and his introduction to the communist movement by a classmate of decidedly gentry origin is as captivating as his vivid description of the unimaginable, almost Kafkaesque atmosphere of the period between 1950 and 1956 in communist Hungary. Vásárhelyi was never in the top leadership of the party or in the government, but he had access to the highest echelon of the Hungarian party leadership. Thus, he was fairly familiar with the power struggle that was going on, although he admits that from one day to the next one never knew who would be the next victim. Those who a couple of years before were sending their former comrades to the gallows were waiting for their turn.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 didn’t bring an end to the party strife. It is true that the dreaded head of the Államvédelmi Hatóság (ÁVH/State Security Authority) was arrested, but Mátyás Rákosi, still the strongman of the party, and his men tried to stop the de-Stalinization efforts of Imre Nagy, prime minister between July 4, 1953 and March 9, 1955. Vásárhelyi relates a typical Rákosi story. Ferenc Donáth, who had been a trusted member of the illegal communist party since 1934, was arrested in February 1951 and on trumped up charges was convicted. He spent almost three of his 15 years in solitary, but after Stalin’s death he was freed and rehabilitated. As Vásárhelyi, a friend of Donáth tells us, Donáth was the only person who had been convicted at a show trial to meet Rákosi personally after his release from jail. Rákosi, who was naturally behind Donáth’s incarceration, turned to him and said, “Comrade Donáth, I don’t understand you. You, as an old comrade from the illegal days who even had a taste of jail, why didn’t you find a way to get in touch with me from jail and tell me what was happening there with you? Why didn’t you tell me how these confessions and trials came into being?” (p. 136) The man’s cynicism was absolutely staggering.

I was especially interested in Vásárhelyi’s perspectives on the last crucial months leading up to October 23. In many ways, even people around Imre Nagy, like Vásárhelyi, Géza Losonczy, and Sándor Haraszti, were ignorant of the mood of the common people. As Vásárhelyi admits, they were surprised at the elemental storm that broke out in the country a few months later even though they were aware of the popularity of Imre Nagy, which was indeed genuine. Recent attempts by the Orbán regime to obliterate Imre Nagy from the national pantheon are doomed. Whether the anti-Bolsheviks of today like it or not, Imre Nagy was the hope of millions after the horrors of the Rákosi regime. His popularity, as I found out from Vásárhelyi’s book, was bolstered by the men who gathered around him and supported his program. They suggested to Nagy that he take walks on the streets of Budapest. I myself witnessed one of his appearances. We were leaving the faculty of arts building (today the Piarist Gymnasium) and there he was, standing with his wife, smiling broadly while people gathered around him, shaking his hand.

I was also fascinated by Vásárhelyi’s surprise at the size of the crowd at the reburial of László Rajk, minister of interior between 1946 and 1948 and foreign minister in 1948-1949, who was sentenced to death in October 1949. The reburial took place on October 6, 1956, the anniversary of the execution of the 13 rebel generals in 1849 at his wife’s insistence. The size of that crowd was indeed very large, which should have been seen as a sign of the depth of popular discontent. Yet, when a few weeks later the question of whether to allow or forbid the student demonstration was debated, some party leaders were certain that only a few students would show up and that the workers of Csepel would march downtown and take care of them. Imre Nagy was himself truly afraid that the demonstration might end up in bloodshed.

Both Miklós Vásárhelyi and I marched along the same route, except I must have been quite a bit ahead of him. He joined the crowd only at the Astoria Hotel while I and my university friends were marching at the head of the column. Still, with some delay, we saw the same things and, I’m happy to say, our recollections are practically the same. He also recalls the soldiers hanging out of the windows of their barracks on Bem tér and, at the urging of the crowd, tearing off their Soviet-style jackets. And from Bem tér we moved along the same route all the way to the parliament building.

What I didn’t see but Vásárhelyi did was the students of the Lenin Institute marching with a huge picture of Lenin, which “fit into this demonstration; it didn’t look out of place.” Indeed, those few of us from the university who managed to stay together in that immense crowd in front of the parliament building began marching together back to the university, singing a so-called movement song about Lenin. It is difficult to understand all this today, even for those of us who went through it.

But it is one thing not to understand it. To falsify, pervert, or trample on it is something else entirely. Unfortunately, this is what Viktor Orbán is doing.

October 23, 2017

Mária Vásárhelyi: George Soros’s foundation in Hungary

It was in July 1988 that my youngest child was born at the First Gynecological Clinic with serious respiratory and visual problems. When I visited her in the unit where premature babies were being cared for, on the incubator in which she was lying was a sign: “this instrument is a gift of the Soros Foundation.” The doctors explained that previously the hospital didn’t have such up-to-date equipment despite the fact that the greatest danger for premature babies is possible blindness as a result of too much pressure being applied in the neonatal ventilator. This new machine, on the other hand, constantly measures and regulates the air pressure. Possibly it was this machine that saved my daughter’s eyesight. Before and after my child, hundreds of premature babies began their fragile lives on this ventilator. They all had the same chance: the premature child of the poverty-stricken Roma, the worker from Csepel, the party functionary, or the street vendor who had his own business. These families had not the foggiest idea that their newborns could become healthy children thanks to the support of the George Soros Foundation.

Today, when the name of George Soros together with the concepts of an open society and liberalism have become dirty words and when newly formed civic organizations are eager to announce that they are in no way supported by the satanic billionaire, it is worthwhile recalling in what ways George Soros helped Hungarian society before the regime change and after. Because it is unfair that when George Soros’s name is being mentioned in connection with his activities in Hungary, even those who try to defend him recall only the support he gave to the members of the opposition to the Kádár regime, including Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians. I don’t think that Orbán and his associates owe Soros any gratitude for the scholarships they received. The Soros Foundation helped the members of the opposition because their goals aligned with the objectives of the Soros Foundation: democratizing  Hungary and building the institutional structure of an open society. Neither George Soros nor the board members of the Soros Foundation expected any gratitude for the support given. Moreover, it is particularly unfair that in connection with Soros, pro or con, only those scholarship recipients are mentioned who later became well-known politicians when the activities of the Foundation from the very beginning were much more diverse. The assistance given to organizations and members of the democratic opposition was insignificant in comparison to the amount of money spent on public education, medical science, and educational institutions in addition to cultural and scientific life.

Over two decades (1984-2004) the Soros Foundation spent 150 million dollars (worth today at least 100 billion forints) on the development of the rule of law and civic society, the convergence of disadvantaged groups, Roma integration, education, healthcare, public education, science, and the arts. During those twenty years 40,000 of 90,000 applicants received assistance based on the evaluation of 500 associates of the Foundation and as many outside experts.

During the first five years of its existence, the Foundation supported authors, educators, researchers, and projects deemed worthwhile with grants totaling 3 million dollars (approximately 3 billion forints today). As George Soros said in an interview, “we didn’t pay people for what they had done, we only helped them attain what they wanted to accomplish.” Half of the annual 3 billion forints was given in dollars, the other half in forints. Most of this money was spent not on scholarships but on Hungarian healthcare and educational facilities.

Between 1984 and 1988 the Foundation spent 800 million forints for business management training, 800 million forints for copy machines, 600 million forints for medical equipment, 800 million forints for English language training for high school students and their teachers, 500 million forints for video equipment for educational and scientific institutions, 200 million forints for the propagation of Hungarian culture abroad, 180 million forints for audio libraries for the blind, and 270 million for Hungarian scholars to attend foreign conferences. And these are just a few items that couldn’t have become a reality without financial assistance. For example, in 1987 175 English teachers and English-major college and high school students could study in the United States. In the same year, the Foundation spent 1.5 million dollars on the purchase of medicine available only outside Hungary. The Foundation had a key role to play in the blossoming of Hungarian periodical literature (which by the way has since been destroyed by the present government) by assisting publications regardless of their ideological affiliation. It assisted scores of publications from Beszélő, a famous samizdat publication in the Kádár era, to Vigilia, a Catholic publication. It also assisted specialized colleges attached to universities where talented students received extracurricular instruction by financing the organization of discussion forums, enabling them to invite guest lecturers for their lecture series and so on.

At the same time the Foundation never made a secret of the fact that its primary objective was the support of cultural and communal pursuits that would be the basis of a future civic society that would promote the country’s democratic development. These objectives are antithetical to all dictatorial, autocratic powers, including the current Hungarian government.

The five-ten per semester scholarships that were awarded, although they fit into the Foundation’s philosophy, amounted to a very small portion of the amount spent by the Foundation. They were given primarily to people who, as the enemies of the dictatorship, couldn’t travel abroad and who, for the most part, lived in deprivation and insecurity, being unable to get a job. These foreign scholarships provided them time for peaceful work, for self-improvement and information gathering, in addition to a few months of existential security. Naturally these scholarships created the most political conflict because they widened the opposition’s room for maneuverability and limited the totalitarian power’s pressure on the opposition.

The assistance given to members and organizations of the opposition irritated the functionaries of the dictatorship just as today it irritates the representatives of the illiberal state. But at least the functionaries of the dictatorship had enough sense to realize that “the Soros Foundation’s activities are in a sector where our possibilities have always been limited and which in the future will be even more so…. If we don’t allow the Foundation to function, its termination would create a gap that would produce unmet needs. Creative research possibilities of interesting people would come to naught,” wrote János Knopp, a ministry of interior police officer, in his report to the “Agit-Prop” Department of MSZMP’s Politburo in September 1987.

In 1989—as a result of the political changes—the structure of the assistance itself changed. U.S. law forbids the financing of political parties, and consequently the Foundation’s primary task became the strengthening of the civic underpinnings of the newly-born political parties. In that year, over and above the three million dollar annual budget, Soros provided another million for assistance to democratic organizations and communities in this transitional period. Civic bases of both left- and right-leaning parties received an equal amount of assistance. The person in charge of this particular project was László Sólyom, who led the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) at the negotiations that resulted in regime change. With this program, the Foundation helped bring to life hundreds of self-governing communities and civic groups. Parallel with this project another one million dollars was spent on a program to provide foreign currency for small businessmen to purchase necessary equipment. (At that time the Hungarian forint was not convertible.)

After the formation of the first freely elected parliament, the assistance structure of the Foundation was once again altered. Although in the 1980s George Soros didn’t want charitable programs to be a major part of the work of the Foundation, after the change of regime, facing rapidly sharpening social tension after the mass impoverishment and marginalization of millions, the focus increasingly shifted to public education, healthcare, unresolved social problems, and Roma integration.

The first large social project was the distribution of free milk to school children, starting in 1991. Every needy child, initially only in Budapest, received at least one glass of milk and a fresh bun daily. The founder insisted, however, that other sponsors and individuals, like better-off parents, should also help with the project. This outside sponsorship not only fizzled out after a few months, but the project was under fire from the right, which accused the project of serving only to popularize Budapest’s liberal leadership. It was also a sad lesson that “in many schools the teachers didn’t want to cooperate, or if they did, they didn’t want to do the work without extra pay, and therefore the delivered milk and baked goods remained undistributed.” A couple of years later the project was revived, and by 1993 134,000 children across the country received a regular free breakfast at school. The history of the milk project says a lot about the attitude of right-wing parties and the majority of the middle class toward those who live in dire poverty. It is not a coincidence that the project, later taken over by the government, was eliminated recently by the Orbán government, surely in the spirit of Christian charity.

The two important projects in the period between 1993 and 2000 were raising the quality of education and Roma integration. During this period the Foundation spent at least 15 billion forints in today’s terms on integration programs. At the beginning the Foundation concentrated on Roma organization projects, which were intended to promote self-governance, the preservation of Roma culture, and a decrease in inequality. Over the years, however, the emphasis shifted to the education of Roma students. During this period 1,691 Roma teachers and students received scholarships within the Teacher-Student Program, 1,212 received rewards for outstanding scholarship, 1,286 Roma families received financial help to continue their children’s education after the compulsory eight grades, and more than 3,000 Roma college students received scholarships from the Foundation.

Another 15 billion forints was spent between 1994 and 2004 on the development of Hungarian higher education. Assistance was extended to college students as well as professors for study abroad, and a considerable amount of money was spent on the development of innovative teaching methods, the creation of alternative schools, assistance to disadvantaged and disabled children, and a number of other projects aiming at the modernization of education.

Deciding whether the amount of money George Soros spent supporting Hungary’s democratic transformation, the strengthening of its civic society, culture, science, arts and education was a lot or a little depends on your viewpoint. If we compare it to Soros’s total wealth or to the amount of money the government spends on these areas in toto, it wasn’t much. But if we compare it to the amount of money the government spends individually on these areas or if we consider that the amount of money Soros spent on Hungarian society would make Soros one of the ten richest men in the country, then it is a lot. If we keep in mind that in Hungary—where the culture of giving, solidarity, and philanthropy even considering the country’s economic development is very low—no other single individual contributed as generously as George Soros did in the last 100 years, then we can surely state that this was more than a lot. We should add that the Foundation’s finances were totally transparent, and during its existence not a shadow of corruption ever fell on it. It can be said that the Soros Foundation, currently under the crossfire of political attacks, was both in its philosophy and its activities an exemplary institution, serving modernization and social solidarity.

It is not only immoral and distasteful of Viktor Orbán and his oligarchs to incite the hate campaign against George Soros because many of them were recipients of the Foundation’s grants but because—over and above hate’s destructive force—to the best of my knowledge up to now none of them gave a penny for the common good and the well-being of Hungary from their own money grabbed from the public purse. We know only too well how government politicians and their family members amassed immense wealth and how János Lázár declared that “mothers with girls should realize that their children can be a very good match” for some eligible young man in twenty years’ time. But I have never heard them say that they would have supported a child who lived in deep poverty in order to make his life a bit easier in the future.

Sometime in the 1990s the brother of George Soros, Paul, who is also one of the richest Americans, said in a documentary film that he gives money only to countries that were hit by epidemics and/or natural disasters. To attain political goals—however noble they may be—he never extends help because sooner or later they take a different turn and become weapons against the donor. At that time I listened to these words with some incomprehension, but by now I have a much better idea what he meant.

March 5, 2017