Budapest, Hungary – In a weekly essay series, Kafkadesk discusses themes from the lives of key figures from the 1970s-1980s Hungarian Democratic Opposition. In this fourth part, we discuss Róza Hodosán and the freedom to act according to one’s moral conscience.
Beszélő and the Democratic Opposition’s other samizdat publications did not only have to be written and edited but also printed and distributed. This required a considerable effort in itself, but the fact that everything had to be done underground made things even more complicated. There were several individuals involved in the Opposition’s samizdat scene from editors to writers to printers to distributors.
Given that by the 1980s, the Democratic Opposition largely centred around the production of samizdats, the autobiographical writings of most figures give an account of how samizdat production and distribution took place. But the person whose life illustrates the daily struggles of samizdat production in the 1980s the best is perhaps Róza Hodosán who, alongside Gábor Demszky, played a huge role in the reproduction and distribution of both Beszélő and another major samizdat publication Hírmondó, which she also edited).
Though these themes are present in the memoirs of most dissidents, Hodosán’s autobiographical materials articulate the most clearly that despite a sense of adventure and tight-knit community, the lives of anti-communist dissidents in Hungary were tough and required a great deal of personal sacrifice.
In her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,the Albanian philosopher Lea Ypi wrote that “despite all the constraints, we never lose our inner freedom: the freedom to do what is right.” The most important lesson of Hodosán’s memoir Szamizdat történetek (2004) and the extensive interviews she gave about her life, most prominently to Klubrádió’s Sándor Szénási in 2020 and Partizán’s Márton Gulyás in 2022 essentially boils down to the same sentiment.
Hodosán was born in 1954 into the sort of poverty Ottilia Solt wrote so much about; as her father returned from the war later than most due to being held as a prisoner of war, he did not benefit from the state’s land reallocation scheme. As such, he worked on a harmados land, meaning he worked on a land that was not his and received only a third of the produce.
Additionally, he was classed as a wealthy peasant (kulák), resulting in having to give in a disproportionate amount of his produce. Hodosán wrote in Szamizdat történetek and stated in both her long-form interviews that her mother had to keep animals illegally in a nearby forest so that they would not starve, but sometimes even this was not enough to eat. Her father eventually joined the local agricultural collective, where on occasion he did not receive payment at all.
The life of Hodosán’s family is a clear example of Solt’s notion that the freedom of the individual is most severely restricted by poverty. In her family, only Róza Hodosán herself attended university, despite all her siblings doing exceptionally at school. In Szamizdat történetek, she wrote that her mother never believed any communist propaganda slogan as their experience was that they were unable to advance in life despite working incredibly hard every day. “She thought that a poor person works hard all the time,yet will remain poor forever.”
Hodosán stated in the aforementioned Partizán interview that as a young girl, she desperately wanted to be a weaver. Weaving was the trade that required the least amount of time to master, and she hoped she would be able to have an independent and self-sufficient life quickly and be free of poverty.
In the interview, she states quite firmly that the class she belonged to was an underclass that the Kádárist system ignored and those born into it would likely lead a life full of suffering. She attributed the fact that she managed to get out of this poverty to her family rather than the system.
Due to her excellent marks at school, her teachers encouraged Hodosán’s family to, instead of making her learn a trade, send her to high school. She went to a boarding school in Püspökladány, which, by her own accounts in her memoir and interviews, she hated due to what she described as its strict, strictly enforced, and pointless rules.
The dormitory had a curfew and pupils were only allowed to read textbooks in the afternoon study hours (which was a great frustration to Hodosán as – given she was a bright student- she tended to be done with her studies much quicker), and everything had to be done on a strict schedule. It is rather telling that despite growing up in poverty and being harassed by the secret police in her early adult life, in her Partizán interview, Hodosán described her time at the Püspökladány high school as one of the most difficult periods of her life.
Her behaviour in school foreshadowed Hodosán’s dissident life in her twenties and thirties. In her memoir, she goes into detail about how she fought against the pointless rules by trying to circumvent the book ban during study hours, listening to Radio Free Europe after bedtime, and organising a march and singing revolutionary songs to commemorate the 1848 revolution on its 125th anniversary in 1973.
After finishing high school with excellent marks in 1973, Hodosán moved to Budapest and started working at a post office. She quickly learnt the trade and was soon asked by the local party officials to join the Communist Party (which would have been a reasonably common move, exercised by many non-communists in contemporary Hungary to advance their own career). Hodosán refused. She told them that she had no wish to be involved with politics and that she had heard rumours of corruption and hypocrisy within the party.
According to Szamizdat történetek,she was contacted many times and was put under increasingly severe pressure each time. However, she stood firm and even quit the communist party’s youth wing, where membership was basically a requirement, therefore her an unusual move at the time. She even had to leave her workplace as a result.
Hodosán wrote that she felt in her guts that she would never join the communist party and was aware of some of its flaws but also felt that she could not stand her ground in a debate to protect her viewpoint. This motivated her to apply to ELTE, Budapest’s top university to study literature, later supplementing it with sociology which eventually became her major field of study.
As she put it in Szamizdat történetek: “I knew that I was right in my debates with the interrogators, but I felt that my answers were not convincing enough. I knew I must learn so that I would not find myself in a situation like this ever again. I decided to study at university whatever it takes.”
She started her degree in 1978. Hodosán repeatedly said in interviews and in her memoir that initially, studying at university was difficult for her. Despite already having read more books from the literary canon than her peers, coming from poverty in eastern Hungary meant that Hodosán was unaware of key analytical texts and the language required to conduct literary analysis. She often described the experience as akin to having to learn a foreign language in order to be able to better express herself during seminars. She did so by doing late weekend-night library sessions and creating a de-facto dictionary.
Despite this (or perhaps exactly because of this), Hodosán was hungry for further knowledge. She also had an active social life among her college peers. She was discussing politically taboo and censored material in her dormitory and was even part of an attempt to organise a Youth Interest group outside the circles of the Communist Party’s Youth Wing.
It was during this time she came into contact with the Democratic Opposition; she was a regular attendee at the Democratic Opposition’s Free Universities (a series of seminars held in flats discussing otherwise censored political, sociological and historical topics) and volunteered for SZETA as well (which she, according to her interview with Szénási, learnt about from Radio Free Europe).
But Hodosán did not remain in the outer circle of the Democratic Opposition for long. Just like 1956 in the case of Ferenc Kőszeg and 1968 in the case of János Kis, a major historical event ended up changing her life. On December 13, 1981, general Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland to suppress the protests and activities of the opposition group Solidarity.
The events of the so-called Jauzelski coup were broadcast in Hungary via the illegal Radio Free Europe, which Hodosán listened to continuously during the day. As Hodosán wrote in Szamizdat történetek, given that Solidarity was of great interest and a source of inspiration for the Democratic Opposition, the brutal suppression of their struggle came as a shock and disappointment.
But the tone of the coverage of the affairs was rather different in the official Hungarian media outlets: the presenter in one of the Hungarian public broadcaster’s weekly shows started the broadcast by saying that he had good news as there was finally order in Poland, chaos ended and socialism could start to be built again.
This and hearing the official propaganda lines repeated widely by the members of the public enraged Hodosán so much that she decided to get more involved with opposition work. As she put it in her memoir:
“I volunteered to distribute flyers at night and I told them I would participate in samizdat production. From that day I did not have to think about whether I wanted to make compromises or if I would openly state my opinions. It was during these days when my freedom was born. The price I had to pay was worth it. Being excluded from a place where I never wanted to belong is relatively tolerable.”
Police harassment and violence
The place Hodosán meant she was set to be excluded from was non-other than mainstream Hungarian society. Like all other members of the Democratic Opposition, she had to live her life underground. Though she finished her studies at university, she was only able to graduate officially after communism fell. She was, just like others opposition figures, not allowed to have a job apart from being a part-time teacher or doing odd jobs like clothes colouring.
But her life was not only difficult because she was blocked from certain areas of Hungarian society. Living underground was also difficult in itself. Hodosán was largely involved with the reproduction and distribution of samizdat papers (a laborious task which often required one to work from early morning to late night).
In Szamizdat történetek, Hodosán wrote that the techniques used for reproduction were the stencil machine and “Ramka” (an easy to learn but physically demanding method, invented by the Polish opposition, which Hodosán was trained to use during her 1982 trip to Poland) and offset printing in the final years.
According to János Kis, throughout the 1980s, the samizdat Beszélő tended to have around 2,000 copies but the final two editions in 1988-1989 reached 10,000. As the reproduction and distribution of Beszélő and Hírmondó often took place in the home of Hodosán and her partner at the time, Gábor Demszky, they had to move houses several times. According to Hodosán’s account in Szamizdat történetek, they had to move five times only in the span of a year in 1985.
But by far the most difficult aspect of opposition life was the constant harassment by the police forces. Hodosán’s underground life attracted their attention which is the source of some entertaining, thrilling, but also shocking anecdotes in Hodosán’s memoir. On the entertaining side, she writes about the time when the ticket vendor at the cinema was reluctant to give tickets to the officers on her tail as the vendor thought they were her stalkers.
Another anecdote centres around managing to take photographs of the officers who constantly followed them (such practices were legally questionable even in 1980s Hungary) and Ferenc Kőszeg – pretending to be completely oblivious about who they were – reporting his “unknown stalkers” to the police for harassment and adding that one of them must be crazy as “he keeps talking to his suitcase.”
On the more thrilling side, Hodosán also writes about the time she managed to escape from the police when she realised she was being followed on her way to one of the Opposition’s undercover samizdat hubs. In a sequence straight out of a thriller, Hodosán manages to lose her agents by zig-zagging in the Budapest tube network, a fitting metaphor of how the Democratic Opposition managed to constantly outsmart the Hungarian authorities by working “underground.”
Notwithstanding these more amusing and thrilling stories, police harassment was clearly a negative experience for Hodosán. The first time Hodosán’s house was searched and raided was in December 1982 but regular harassments really took off in 1983. The flat of Hodosán and Demszky was raided regularly, sometimes twice in the same week. The tires of their car were punctured and its brakes were also cut. In her interview with Szénási, Hodosán described the experience as a series of atrocities by the authorities designed to make their lives miserable.
The events in 1983 culminated in Demszky being beaten by the authorities and then being charged with assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to prison, but his sentence was suspended, largely thanks to international pressure. Though the intense series of house raids died down, Hodosán’s life throughout the 1980s was a cat-and-mouse game against the secret police. She has several stories about how she and the group as a whole tried to outsmart them (largely but not always) successfully.
On March 15, 1988, the Democratic Opposition organised one of their most successful events, a commemoration of the 1848 Hungarian revolution. On the morning of the protests, Demszky was arrested which resulted in Hodosán herself having to read his speech at the event. The speech (a photo of which was chosen to be on the cover of Hodosán’s memoir) cemented her place in Hungarian historical memory.
Another protest the same year is also of key importance in both the history of the Democratic Opposition and the life of Hodosán. During the protests organised for the 30th anniversary of the execution of 1956 revolutionary Prime Minister Imre Nagy, Hodosán and other key members of the group were taken into custody and beaten.
She does not go into the details in her book and stated in several interviews that she forgot what happened exactly, however the recently deceased Gáspár Miklós Tamás revealed in an interview in the 1990s that the police pushed her on the floor, stood on her back, and started beating her. The philosopher said in the interview that this was the most horrible thing he ever saw in his life.
The violent suppression of the 16 June 1988 protests was an end of an era. Hodosán’s memoir closes with her last trip to Poland which ended up being in vain. She was learning how to make an illegal TV-broadcast, a skill she never had to use. On 23 October 1989, the day the Democratic Opposition would have launched the broadcast, Hungary’s interim head of state Mátyás Szűrös declared the birth of the third Hungarian Republic.
Hodosán’s moral compass
The violent suppression of the protest in June 1988 was the last of its kind. A dying communist police state desperately flexed its muscles for a final time. But it is also the starkest reminder that, despite all the sense of a tight-knit community and romantic lifestyle, the life of Hodosán and other members of the opposition was full of struggle and sacrifice.
Which raises the most important question: why did they do it? In her book, Hodosán writes that when she was asked by a person who she was training to reproduce samizdat publications what it was that she believed in that made her join the Democratic Opposition, she could not answer the question.
Hodosán did not live a life of a dissident because she thought that one day communism would fall. In an interview with Márton Gulyás in 2022, she stated that she thought they would have to live an underground life forever. This is a sentiment that she also expressed to Sándor Szénási two years earlier.
The answer to the question, however, is clear from her life, her memoir, and the several interviews she gave about them. When writing or talking about her high school years, she often discusses how she hated the pointless discipline of the school. When Hodosán writes about leaving the post office because she did not want to join the party, she wrote how she knew that she was right but could not articulate herself properly. She wrote that her real freedom was born when she decided to commit herself to opposition life.
These sentiments behind important life decisions have one thing in common: Hodosán knowing she has to act in accordance with her own moral code and ethical compass instead of the rules of the prevailing status quo. Hodosán’s life teaches us a very simple message; following one’s own conscience is worth whatever its price is.
When Sándor Szénási asked her how it was possible to maintain resistance even if it often felt like the vast majority of the Hungarian population is indifferent or even hostile to their activities, Hodosán replied that she did not really care about it that much because she was convinced that what she did was the right thing to do. She told him:
“I behaved as if I was actually free, and I was not willing to submit myself to what they were trying to force onto me. I didn’t care that they were listening to my conversations and following me. I cared about that if I wanted to disappear from them because then I would make a plan to do so. But I was not going to allow them to scare me. There is always a choice. It was possible to make a choice then, though many pretend as if it wasn’t. But it was possible. And this was the life I chose.”
Or as she put it in an interview with János Dési in 2004:
“A lot of things in life do not happen because we decide to do something. A person has values and tries to live according to them. This, occasionally, results in certain acts. It is these acts that lead a person and their conscience they need to abide by. They are not doing things because they think that it is good for them but because they think that they are human beings because they live as their conscience dictates. To an extent, I joined the samizdat scene and SZETA because I thought that it was my purpose in the world. Perhaps ‘thought’ is a strong word. I felt that I was a human being because I was doing things that I thought were right.”
Hodosán’s life is a testament to how she, and those in the Democratic Opposition, exercised perhaps the greatest freedom of all; the freedom to do what is right.
The Democratic Opposition did not only preach about the values of freedom. The lives of János Kis, Ottilia Solt, Ferenc Kőszeg, and Róza Hodosán demonstrate that they also exercised it in several different ways. Kis’ decision to not settle for a compromise with the ruling elite in order to keep being published shows that it is more valuable to write and think freely in less widely read underground journals than be subject to censorship.
Though Kis became a relevant historical figure and philosopher thanks to his works that were published in samizdat publications (whose writing, editing, and distribution Kis, Solt, Kőszeg, Hodosán, and many other figures from the Democratic Opposition all partook in in different ways), and therefore became more widely read thanks to said samizdat outlets, he could not have foreseen this when he took a leap into the unknown.
Solt’s research into poverty – the type of poverty Hodosán was born into – shows how freedom can not only be restricted by legislation but by one’s dire economic situation as well. The thesis of her writings, that poverty is the greatest barrier to an individual’s freedom, was the basic intellectual foundation of the idea to set up SZETA, an organisation that aimed to help the poorest in society. The importance of this thesis for the Democratic Opposition as a whole is also evident from Kis’ turn to social liberalism and the first, 1989 manifesto of SZDSZ.
The writings of Ferenc Kőszeg show that 1968 was not only a relevant year for the Democratic Opposition because of the Prague spring but because the idea of free love also had a significant influence on the group.
There was hardly anyone who exercised sexual freedom as much as Kőszeg or Krassó did, but the sexual revolution undoubtedly had an impact on the entire generation of the group. Though he does not elaborate on it, János Kis also confirms in his autobiography that the members of the “Lukács Kindergarten” felt the importance of the “sexual and lifestyle” revolution and the importance of scepticism towards hierarchies in “personal, political, and social relations.”
But most importantly, the members of the Democratic Opposition exercised the greatest freedom of all; the freedom to do what is right. They sacrificed their careers and livelihoods because they wanted to act in accordance with their own moral compass and not by the rules of the authoritarian system they were living in.
These sacrifices – losing their jobs, being unable to travel abroad, and being banned from publishing in official outlets – are apparent from the lives of all four individuals discussed in this series, but are most apparent from the life of Róza Hodosán, who was convinced that she would have to live in what she described to Partizán as “ghetto-like circumstances” for her entire life. Yet, she still chose to act in a way she thought was right because she knew that this is what makes human beings truly free.
Present-day liberals could find a great deal of inspiration from the Democratic Opposition. In Hungary, as the government-dominated media scene offers fewer and fewer opportunities to express new and independent progressive ideas, there are valuable lessons to be learnt from the Democratic Opposition’s establishment of institutions and the creation of an alternative public sphere.
Recently, the illiberal regime also started targeting sexual minorities. The importance of sexual freedom for people in the late 1960s is a reminder for contemporary liberals in Hungary to not give up protecting those who are attacked for their sexual orientation.
But the Democratic Opposition also has plenty of lessons to teach to liberals all around the world. Solt’s fundamental thesis about the greatest barrier to an individual’s freedom being poverty is an important reminder that liberalism – despite its predominant manifestation in the recent period between the 1980s and the 2010s – has extremely rich economically redistributive and socially sensitive traditions and figures liberals can reach back to in order to address the economic problems of our current age. If liberalism is to have a revival, it surely must start with embracing Solt’s thesis.
Another recurring theme in the autobiographical material of Kis, Solt, Kőszeg, and Hodosán is a sense of the tight-knit community the Democratic Opposition had. All of them mention the close friendships and bonds that were formed during the period of resistance and how they led open households among each other with plenty of social events.
Kőszeg even outright writes in K. történetei that once György Bence and János Kenedi rented out his office, he had what he always wanted: a true community of friends he could regularly meet with. The currents of liberalism should also remember and embrace this to address the greatest sin of its recent past: negating the importance of the idea of the community.
Ferenc Kőszeg’s decision to not become an informant in 1957, János Kis’ decision to write for samizdats instead of subjecting himself to censorship in legal outlets after 1973, Ottilia Solt’s desire to keep researching poverty when it was not officially permitted, or Róza Hodosán’s decision to join the Democratic Opposition after the events in Poland in 1981 are all key moments in their lives when they decided to act based on what their own moral conscience dictated, regardless of the consequences.
If we follow their example, we shall always remain free.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised 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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