Hungary Insight

Four freedoms of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition – Part three: Ferenc Kőszeg and sexual freedom

Budapest, Hungary – In a weekly essay series, Kafkadesk discusses themes from the lives of key figures from the 1970s-1980s Hungarian Democratic Opposition. After János Kis and Ottilia Solt, we discuss Ferenc Kőszeg and the impact of the sexual revolution in Hungary.

1956 and the birth of K.

1968 was a crucial year for the members of the Democratic Opposition. The Warsaw Pact’s brutal intervention during the Prague Spring confirmed to yet another generation what the 1956ers already knew; it was impossible to create a more humane, democratic form of socialism within the Eastern Bloc. But another significant cultural shift, which was primarily documented on the other side of the Atlantic was also a quintessential part of the Democratic Opposition’s generational experience. The sexual revolution and the idea of free love had a significant influence on their generation. 

This is most apparent from the autobiographical material of Ferenc Kőszeg. As a talented writer, Kőszeg wrote two books about his life. He also has a website which includes his other pieces of writing both autobiographical and analytical about contemporary political affairs. His two books, K. történetei (The stories of K, 2009) and Múltunk vége (The End of our Past, 2011) are his best-known works. But two underappreciated autobiographical short stories, A Sors és a Számla (Fate and the Bill, 2012) and Csonka Négyes (Incomplete Quartet, 2016) offer an even greater insight into the under-researched phenomenon of the Hungarian advocates of free love. 

As Kőszeg’s autobiographical material is less structured and more anecdote-based and fragmented, it is more difficult to find an overarching motif in his life. However, the themes of free love – which at first glance could appear as simply entertaining or laddish anecdotes – are recurring in all of Kőszeg’s material and upon contemplation, it is clear they are one of the most defining themes of his life. 

Having been born in 1939, both the Holocaust and the 1956 revolution were parts of Kőszeg’s youth. As we learn from K. történetei, his father died in a concentration camp and Kőszeg himself as a young boy has memories of Margit Slachta a nun and former MP who rescued thousands of Jews by sheltering them during the Holocaust. He was one of them.

In Part One of K. történetei, a book the author labelled as “fragments from an unwritten autobiography” we get a first-hand account of the failed 1956 revolution. Kőszeg went to the 23 October protests as a high schooler and was a supporter of the revolution. As a testament to his age at the time of the revolution and foreshadowing his extravagant love life as an adult, Kőszeg’s early romantic attempts also form a quintessential part of his recollection of the events. He writes about three love interests (with a mixed success rate) during the events of 1956-1957. While he went into the events of 1956 as a “revisionist socialist,” he was so outraged by the invasion of the Soviet army that he vowed to never believe any lies the system tells him ever again.”

In 1957, still outraged by the brutal repression of the revolution, Kőszeg distributed anti-Soviet pamphlets that advocated restarting the protests against the regime. He was tracked down and taken to prison. After two months, he was repeatedly interrogated by an officer as the secret police tried to make a deal with him: in exchange for setting him free, he would need to become an informant. Here Kőszeg made a decision that set him on the path to becoming a member of the Democratic Opposition. 

Kőszeg, by his own account, thought his options through; he could say yes but never follow through with his part of the deal. He thought that wouldn’t work as they would surely be able to find and further blackmail him. He could meet up with the officer regularly but never tell him anything of substance. But that would result in having to keep having pointless conversations with a representative of the authorities. 

Towards the end of their conversation, the officer told him that if he agreed to becoming an informant, he could go home immediately. Kőszeg wrote that this was indeed a rather attractive proposal after two months spent behind bars. However, at the last moment, the officer made a mistake. “You couldn’t talk about our meetings with anyone. Not even your mother.” – Kőszeg recalled in K. történetei. It was at this moment that he realised that he can’t agree to the deal. As he put it:

“The thought that I would need to live my life by not only keeping part of it secret but to be ashamed of it made me shiver. I would get out of prison, but this man would stay behind me forever, I would need to regularly see him and talk to him. I would be in his hands.” 

In other words, despite getting out of prison, in this arrangement, Kőszeg would not have been truly free. He firmly refused. Despite the fury of the officer (according to Kőszeg partly at himself for making a mistake), he was released shortly after the attempt to recruit him. 

In Part One (titled Long Year) of K. történetei, Kőszeg writes in the first person. In the vast majority of the book as well as his other autobiographical materials, Kőszeg tends to refer to himself as K. or creates other pseudonyms and writes in the third person. He does not explain why he chose to narrate the 1956-related events in a more personal tone. But it could be argued that it was the formative events of 1956-1957 and, crucially, his decision to reject the officer’s proposal to become an informant that made him who he was. It was a decision made in 1957 when K., a dissident free man with a life full of adventure, was born. 

Sex, love and freedom in dissident Hungary

Kőszeg was by no means the only one to spend time in prison due to his activities in 1956-1957. Jailing the participants of the revolution was a big part of its repression. Many have spent more time there than Kőszeg and only got out in the early 1960s as part of János Kádár’s moderation and reform package. One of these individuals was György Krassó who fought on the streets during the revolution and spent six years in prison. 

In Múltunk vége, Kőszeg wrote that he had got to know Krassó in the late 1960s, even before the Democratic Opposition was beginning to be formed. In the book, Kőszeg wrote that he soon started to look up to Krassó and considered him a mentor in many respects. He wrote that “what others labelled as deviance, I considered to be appealing consistency. As a result, I was also described by the authorities in such ways, in retrospect, I think not enough times.” In Múltunk vége’s short chapter on Krassó, Kőszeg also openly states that Krassó was an advocate and practitioner of group sex.

These allusions and short remarks are elaborated on much further in the two autobiographical short stories on Kőszeg’s website, titled A Sors és a számla and Csonka négyes. It is always a challenge to analyse semi-fictionalised works as a historical account but there are several indications that these two short stories offer direct insight into the Hungarian manifestations of the sexual revolution. 

First and foremost, Kőszeg himself writes on his website that though the names are changed and some figures were combined, the stories are autobiographical. He also confirmed this in a radio interview he gave to Klubrádió in 2019. But even besides the confirmation by the author, there are several clues that confirm that these are not fictional stories and some of the characters are also clearly identifiable even under their pseudonyms. 

A Sors és a Számla is a novella centring on a dinner party of a group of friends who tell stories to each other about their lives. The story is set in the city of B in a fictional region of Russia called M, alluding to Budapest, Hungary (Magyarország in Hungarian). The host of the dinner is called Fyodor Fyodorovich Kurganov. Kurganov has the same initials as Ferenc Kőszeg and is the same age, but the similarities do not stop there. Kőszeg himself is famous for organising regular house parties or dinner events. Kurganov also rents out his room to two individuals who introduce him to opposition circles, called Yuri Brodsky and Ivan Kondrashin (named György Bence and János Kenedi in real life) who are somehow entangled with the same woman. 

Finally, Kurganov (who, what must be seen as a conspicuously self-referential allusion, has an alter-ego in his stories, named David Altman who is described as someone Kurganov talks about when he wants to tell stories about his own life he would not dare to under his own name), separates from his first wife and his second wife dies early due to cancer that gets misdiagnosed. These are events that have happened to Kőszeg and are in his other autobiographical writings. 

A recurring character in Kurganov’s stories is Grigory Krashinsky, sharing his initials with György Krassó. Just like in the case of Kurganov, it is clear that Krashinsky represents Krassó. Krashinsky is described as a radical figure who had plenty of conflicts with the opposition but moved in their circle. He is also said to have spent time in prison and is described as an advocate of group sex. 

Finally, he is said to be having a flat where one has to go through the bathroom to the living room and the stories make sure to mention that he always opened the door while wearing nothing but briefs and having the catchphrase “Coffee, tea, alcohol?” These details about Krashinsky’s flat and his method of welcoming guests are very clear identifiers of Krassó that are also present in not just Kőszeg’s other writings but also in the memoirs of Róza Hodosán.

Additionally, several of the stories are repeated in Kőszeg’s other novella from his website, Csonka Négyes (where the Kőszeg-esque figure is called Miklós Körmendi and Krassó-like character is Balázs Szörény), which adds further confirmation to their autobiographical nature. If these are fictional stories, why publish them twice?

In Sors és a Számla, the stories around Kurganov’s table are all sexual in nature. This novella is arguably Kőszeg’s best piece of writing. Throughout the story, Kőszeg flexes his literary skillset as the stories Kurganov and his friends tell each other get increasingly explicit. The tension is masterfully built up step-by-step as the dinner guests go from discussing courtship in the 1960s-1970s to pornography, open relationships and group sex. 

It is revealed through these stories that Krashinsky introduced Kurganov to the practice of group sex which they often participated in – sometimes together, sometimes separately (in Csonka négyes, Balázs Szörény is written to be a subject of increased police harassment for this as the practice was illegal under the name of “public indecency”).

As the main topic of discussion is free love, homosexuality is also discussed at the dinner table. Kurganov repeatedly mentions that while homosexuality was accepted by his peers, it would have been rare to come out or identify as gay in their circle. Instead, at least within the more immediate circle the stories concern, having sex with someone from the same gender primarily appears as an extension of sexual freedom rather than an orientation in itself. 

Kurganov says of Krashinsky that he occasionally had sex with men but – at least in Kurganov’s interpretation – primarily out of the principle to exercise free love as a concept rather than to “satisfy any homoerotic urges” (the same phrase is used about Balázs Szörény in Csonka négyes). On the other hand, Kurganov’s alter ego, David Altman is often disappointed that the men during group sex tended to be distant and were not willing to please their male counterparts and talks fondly about the few who were. 

He also expresses regret in a story about how he would have had the opportunity to have an exclusively homosexual experience which did not materialise in the end. The pleasure Altman’s wife, Tanya, gets from having sex with women is also a key part of Kurganov’s stories. In Tanya’s case, the word bisexual is used, however it does not appear in regards to Kurganov/Altman or Krashinsky. This is despite the former enjoying male attention during group sex and other male side characters being described as bisexual in the stories. 

While all the stories at the dinner table are sexual in nature, the conversation often tends to focus on the effects of sexual freedom on its advocates and their families. The stories stress the liberation and pleasure individuals gain from their free-spirited sex life, however they don’t shy away from mentioning the conflicts it can generate; jealousy, ruined relationships, and STDs are all key parts of the stories. Towards the end, Kurganov’s alter-ego, Altman even appears to blame their sexually free lifestyle for his wife’s ovarian cancer before the dinner guests quickly dismiss the idea. 

Both in A Sors és a számla and in Csonka Négyes, we are told that while Fyodor Kurganov/Miklós Körmendi and Grigory Krashinsky/Balázs Szörény regularly participated in group sex, this was not a typical practice of most individuals in their wider group (which in the foreword to Csonka Négyes is explicitly called the Democratic Opposition). However, both highlight that while group sex was not widely embraced by the individuals among the Democratic Opposition, free love and promiscuity were embraced by the majority of the group and it was a defining feature of their generation.  

Political action and sexual revolution

As already hinted in A sors és a számla, Kőszeg got close to those who later came to compose the Democratic Opposition after he rented out a room in his flat to János Kenedi and György Bence to use as a study in 1970. He and Kenedi had already known each other from Budapest’s café scene. Thanks to the office, his flat became a venue for seminar series and a social place for an entire group of people. It was through this that he got to know the wider group of the “Lukács Kindergarten,” and how he became acquainted with his future wife Éva Fekete. 

In K. történetei, he states that this not only set him on a path to becoming a dissident but also had a huge impact on his personal life: “When Bence started renting the room in K’s flat and K got together with his later wife Éva Fekete, he was suddenly surrounded by an exciting company. He finally got what he wanted: he did not only have a few friends and colleagues but an entire friendship group of two dozen people he was in contact with regularly.” Eventually, by the 1970s, Kőszeg’s flat became one of the opposition’s de-facto HQs. 

In 1977, several individuals from the Democratic Opposition signed a solidarity charter with Czechoslovak intellectuals who demanded better protection of human rights. Kőszeg was not among the original signatories because by his own account in K. történetei, in a rather characteristic fashion, he was busy womanising in town at the time when the signature collectors Kis and Bence knocked on his door. He did sign and collected signatures, however, for the charter in 1979 to protest the decision of the Czechoslovak courts to sentence the six leaders of the charter to prison. 

As a result, Kőszeg was fired from his editorial job at Európa Könyvkiadó, started to work in a bookshop and taught German. The more important part of his life, however, took place underground. He became more involved and more active within the Democratic Opposition which, as the 1980s were approaching, started to reach what many consider its golden age.  

In K. történetei, he wrote that he mostly became involved with the Democratic Opposition’s poverty-relief organisation SZETA. He stated that he enjoyed that at the meetings of the organisation, the debates were not only theoretical but concerned the practical problems of real families. Alongside János Kis, Ottilia Solt, Miklós Haraszti, János Szilágyi, and György Petri, he also became one of the editors of Beszélő. Launched in 1981, Beszélő was the most crucial product of the Democratic Opposition. The samizdat paper offered an uncensored public outlet in which quality historical, political, sociological, and cultural articles were published. 

Independent discourse regarding contemporary Hungary and later debates about what the future post-communist Hungary should look like took place on the pages of Beszélő. It was mainly through this samizdat that the Democratic Opposition grew from being a rich subculture to a proper political resistance movement. 

The secret police of the Kádár-era also piled pressure on the group primarily due to the distribution of Beszélő. Many members of the group give accounts of thrilling narrow escapes and ingenious solutions to avoid being caught. It is clear from Kőszeg’s narrative voice in his autobiographical works that he enjoyed the thrill and the adventure of dissident life. A photograph of him being chased by secret service agents is one of the most iconic images of the Democratic Opposition. 

In K. történetei and Múltunk vége Kőszeg does not write about his love life in as much detail as he does about Kurganov and Körmendi’s exploits in his novellas. However, he does write about his support for open marriage and how he exercised it. By his own account, as being in the Democratic Opposition also enriched his social life as well as his political and intellectual evolution, his personal and political life often intertwined. 

One of the many entertaining anecdotes from K történetei is when Kőszeg was writing one of his samizdat pieces in a summer house in Szolnok, the doorbell rang and a police officer stood in front of the door. Kőszeg was convinced that he was being harassed for his dissident activities once again, however it turned out that it was simply the neighbour who reported him to the police for running around naked in his garden with his lover.  

Further evidence of free love being an important aspect of the Democratic Opposition is another anecdote from K. történetei, concerning a joint summer camp, organised in cooperation with Polish Solidary activists. In the book, Kőszeg describes that in the evenings, once the children were taken care of and the activists’ schedule became free, Hungarian and Polish opposition figures did not exclusively spend their time discussing methods of opposition politics in communist states. He wrote that “akin to the finale of an opera’s second act, the gods and goddesses of the opposition came together; their love shook the surrounding hills.” 

Despite his entertaining anecdotes, Kőszeg is relatively open about the drawbacks of sexual freedom as well. Despite being in an open marriage, he wrote that his love life within the Democratic Opposition and SZETA as well as the jealousy he felt about some of his wife’s lovers almost destroyed their marriage. In one of the chapters in Múltunk vége, Kőszeg included commentaries from his children where his daughter Sára explicitly states that the uncertainty resulting from the “stormy love life” of her parents often induced anxiety in her. 

In K. történetei, Kőszeg does not date the end of Hungarian socialism to 1989 or 1990 like historians do. In June 1988, he participated in a group hunger strike to protest travel bans for opposition figures and former 1956 freedom fighters. The state authorities claimed to have liberalised travel legislation, however those who were previously banned from travelling abroad did not get their passports back. After the start of the strike, Károly Grósz, who became the Prime Minister of Hungary after the death of János Kádár, actually acknowledged and made a statement about the protests. 

As a result of this, Kőszeg and his fellow hunger strike participants were not only interviewed by international news outlets and samizdats but mainstream, normally otherwise censored Hungarian newspapers as well. He wrote that the new attention and the press being allowed to engage with the democratic opposition signalled to him that change was coming. They soon all got their passports back but Kőszeg did not need it for too long. In 1990, he received a diplomatic passport as a Hungarian member of parliament. 

Kőszeg’s novella, A Sors és a számla has two theses. One, that free love and promiscuity was present in some circles to an extent in all ages, but it was the generation of 1968 that made it a core pillar of their identity. Its other thesis, which is present as a theme in his two memoirs, K. történtetei and Múltunk vége, is that while free love can result in jealousy and conflict, it can also be liberating and fulfilling. 

The sex- and love-related stories and anecdotes in Kőszeg’s writings are not products of laddish bragging or romanticised nostalgia. They are not even merely entertaining anecdotes as they would seem at first glance. These stories are a quintessential part of his life and how he chooses to remember it. The main theme of Kőszeg’s life and memoirs is that in politics as well as in love, he exercised his freedom to choose his own path.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialises in Central European history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

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