Hungary Insight

Analysis: Four freedoms of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition


Budapest, Hungary – This essay was initially published on Kafkadesk in four parts between 11 and 28 April.

Hungary’s illiberal present is casting a shadow on its liberal past. It can often feel like Hungary’s anti-democratic political settlement, right-wing hegemony, and illiberal ideology is a given, inevitable form of political settlement and natural ideological consensus in the country. That is far from true.

Recently, there has been a significant emerging sub-culture and media network on the Hungarian progressive side as well in the form of the New Left. However, naturally, they primarily reached back to socialist and Marxist texts for ideological inspiration.

On the other hand, there is a gaping hole in contemporary Hungarian ideological currents where liberalism is supposed to be, although this trend is not exclusive to Hungary. While it is true that parties that could be considered liberal are popular among young people in the country, even the point of their existence is questionable in an electoral autocracy. Besides, these parties don’t tend to openly describe themselves as liberal and their ideological toolkit or reference points in Hungarian historical memory seem to be non-existent.

While in the present-day, Hungarian liberalism is nowhere to be seen – or at least its relevance and ability for intellectual innovation is close to zero – it has an extremely rich history. There are the reformers of the 1830s, the revolutionaries of 1848, and the great liberal party of the late nineteenth century that made significant steps to modernise the country.

But there is also a more recent example. Liberalism also played a significant role in opposition politics to Hungarian socialism in the second half of the 20th century. In János Kádár’s Hungary, the so-called Democratic Opposition, an informal group which grew out of disillusioned former communists, sociologists, sympathisers of the 1956 revolution, and intellectuals who were dissatisfied with Hungarian socialism, was the main progressive opposition group that questioned the status quo.

After a brutally repressive Stalinist period, in 1956, Hungarians rose up to demand a more democratic form of government free from Soviet imperialism. The revolution was brutally crushed by the Soviet army and its participants were killed or jailed. János Kádár, who became the leader of Hungary after the revolution, oversaw the retaliation. However, starting in the 1960s, he led an effort of moderation within the party and the country.

Many – but crucially not all – of those who were jailed after the revolution were freed, censorship was somewhat loosened, and the ruling elites did not expect fully committed ideological devotion to socialism from the general public as long as they did not openly agitate against it. Crucially, the government also undertook several economic reform programs which guaranteed a degree of economic welfare for a large portion of the Hungarian population.

Despite its comparatively soft nature, Kádár’s Hungary was still a dictatorship. There were still political prisoners, freedom of speech was curtailed, and the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party was not to be even contested by the formation of alternatives. This was the Kádárist deal: the rejection of the ideals of 1956 and the silencing of those who voiced them in exchange for relative economic welfare. Goulash communism was born.

The Democratic Opposition, which by the 1980s found a relatively coherent liberal voice, fought against this status quo. They launched several samizdat papers and organised seminars, charitable organisations, and commemorative events of the 1848 and 1956 revolutions.

By the 1980s, when the Kádárist regime was heavily dependent on loans from the West and therefore was wary of being seen as a repressive regime, the Democratic Opposition could become braver and more active. Though the copies of their samizdat publications were published in the thousands, their activities and ideas were often discussed on Radio Free Europe which, despite being illegal in the Eastern bloc, reached millions of people.

The alternative public sphere the Democratic Opposition created became the main censorship-free venue to discuss political, sociological, and cultural topics, what a democratic Hungary could look like, and how it could come about. This second public sphere was a crucial factor that helped initiate the regime change and SZDSZ (The Alliance of Free Democrats), the party that grew out of the Democratic Opposition was one of the parties at the Hungarian Opposition Roundtable that discussed the details of the democratic transition with the ruling party. SZDSZ came close second in Hungary’s first democratic elections in 1990.

There were countless figures that played a quintessential role in the success of the group. Some of them have written extensively about their lives in communist Hungary. The Democratic Opposition’s leader János Kis published his autobiography in 2021 in the form of the transcript of 27 conversations about his life with András Mink and Tamás Meszerics titled Szabadságra ítélve (Sentenced to Freedom).

Ferenc Kőszeg published his life story in a serialised form for the Hungarian magazine Magyar Narancs which he later compiled in two separate books, K. történetei (K’s stories) in 2009 and Múltunk vége (The End of our Past) in 2011. He also wrote other shorter pieces about other aspects of his life with the use of pseudonyms titled A sors és a számla (Fate and the Bill, 2012) and Csonka négyes (The Incomplete Quartet, 2016).

Róza Hodosán published her memoir concerning her life under socialism in 2004 in a book titled Szamizdat történetek (Samizdat stories). Sadly, Ottilia Solt, who passed away at 53 in 1997, was unable to write an autobiography, however, her writings were compiled and published in two instalments in 1998 titled Méltóságot mindenkinek (Dignity for everyone).

The following is by no means a comprehensive history of anti-communist opposition politics in Hungary (there were other dissident groups alongside the Democratic Opposition, most prominently the Folkish Opposition, the precursor of centre-right MDF, the party that won the 1990 election) and not even that of the Democratic Opposition (there were several other key figures within the group whose works were also invaluable to its success). It is not even a short biography of four communist-era dissidents as their political careers after the change of regime will not be discussed here.

This is an essay on four individuals in a tight-knit group, who valued their freedom so much that they decided to live freely in a fundamentally unfree world. What János Kis, Ottilia Solt, Ferenc Kőszeg, and Róza Hodosán – and through them, the Democratic Opposition as a whole – meant by freedom, how they exercised it, and what they can teach to present-day liberals are the questions it seeks to answer.

János Kis and freedom of thought


Philosopher János Kis is considered to be one of the most iconic figures of the Democratic Opposition. He was a leading figure in the group – although the Democratic Opposition was not a movement and had no formal structure – and was elected to be the first leader of SZDSZ, Hungary’s liberal party post-communism that grew out of the Democratic Opposition.

In 2021, Kis published his extensive autobiography titled Szabadságra ítélve (Sentenced to Freedom), counting more than 700 pages. It is not only an account of his life but it also serves as an intellectual contemplation of his ideological journey. As such, what he thought of as freedom, and how much he valued the ability to exercise one’s intellectual freedom are also key themes of the book.

Kis was born into a Jewish Hungarian family in 1943. Though his family faced the antisemitism of 1940s Hungary, according to Szabadságra ítélve, Kis’ parents were primarily taken to labour camps because of their political views and not their Jewish heritage. Both of Kis’ parents were enthusiastic communists and members of the communist party, which was illegal in 1930-1940s Hungary. His father died during the last few days of the war but his mother returned from the labour camp of Bergen Belsen.

After the war, Kis’ mother worked for the Communist Party. Thus, Kis attended the Gorky School for the children of the contemporary communist nomenklatura until it closed in 1956. This meant that Kis experienced the failed revolution of 1956 as a communist teenager. According to his recollection of the events, while he did not reject communism as an ideology as a result of the revolution, he began to wonder if its implementation in Hungary was right.

Kis studied philosophy at university under the guidance of György Márkus who himself was a student of the legendary Marxist philosopher György Lukács. Kis and his generation of students were given the name “the Lukács kindergarten”, a nod to “the Lukács school,” the collective name for the somewhat older students Lukács taught directly. In the 1960s, Kis also embraced Lukácsism which, instead of Marxism-Leninism, advocated the return to Marx’s original writings with particular attention to his earlier works.

After the repression of the 1956 revolution, the country’s new leader János Kádár brought a degree of moderation into Hungary; some prisoners were freed and the grip of the authorities loosened. Kis hoped that this, step-by-step, could result in a democratic form of socialism in Hungary. He was wrong.

Like many others in his generation, Kis started turning away from Marxism after the repression of the Prague Spring in 1968. As he was a believer in communism since his childhood, in Szabadságra ítélve, he describes learning about the Warsaw Pact’s intervention in Prague as an existential crisis:

“I don’t remember a moment in my life when I went through such a shock. The second the news reached my brain, I knew the life I had lived until then was over. I had hoped that the system could be made better. During my time at university and in my early career, I felt that the system was going through a process of democratisation. But in a single moment, I was consumed by uncertainty. I knew that the things that I had hoped would come true would never materialise.”

His disillusionment with Marxism also became apparent in Kis’ works. Though not yet ready to abandon Marxism completely, his 1972 work with his long-time collaborator György Bence and his mentor György Márkis titled Hogyan lehetséges a kritikai közgazdaságtan? (How is Critical Economic Theory Possible?, nicknamed Überhaupt) showed clear breaks with some traditional elements of Marxism. The text argued that Marx’s goals cannot be achieved through Marx’s proposed means.

Überhaupt argued that the philosophical intentions of Marx were to create a world where a person is able to fulfil their talents, where they are able to choose the activity through which they fulfil these talents (while having a wide range of options to choose from), and for the individual not to fulfil their talents through harming others but as part of a community and helping the advancement of the community as a whole through the process.

The text stated that these goals cannot be achieved through what the authors interpreted to be the means propagated by Marx; without a free market, state, and law, where all needs are considered and judged centrally. The authors wrote that this was because the conditions for such an environment to form are not only unlikely to come true in the real world but outright impossible. Nevertheless, they still considered Marx’s intentions to be the ideal goals to strive for and, because of this, still identified as Marxists.


It was the reaction of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party to Überhaupt in 1973 that gave Kis the final push to depart from Marxism. The clouds were gathering already at the time of its intended publication.After the death of Lukács, the protected status of his disciples also vaned. With the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, the Hungarian communist elite also knew that it had to stop all liberalisation efforts. In 1972, Überhaupt was not allowed to be published. The authors expected this but hoped that some individual chapters would be tolerated in journals as essays. However, not a single chapter was allowed to be published which, by his own account, surprised Kis.

In 1973, the political leadership stopped their moderation efforts and stepped up their game. In an internal disciplinary proceeding which was later labelled the ‘Philosophers’ Trial’ Kis, Bence, Márkus, and others were fired from their researcher status at the Hungarian Academy for being “anti-Marxists.” Due to Lukács’s death and the shifting ideology of the young philosophers who were becoming increasingly critical of Marx, the party could finally get rid of a critical group of philosophers without having to write George Lukács out of canon as well.

This is how Kis looks back on receiving the verdict in his Szabadságra ítélve: “I decided to only be present physically at the judgement. I sat through the whole event with a poker face and did not even open the envelope that was presented to me.” The envelope contained a job offer as a librarian at the Ministry of Culture but Kis only learned this from a friend as he was not willing to engage with the officials in any way.

By only being physically present at the trial, Kis foreshadowed the Democratic Opposition’s behaviour in the late 1970s and 1980s: they did not leave Hungary but they were unwilling to play by the state’s rules or participate in its institutions. Instead, they chose to create their own institutions and public sphere.

Kis wrote in his autobiography that he had three options after his dismissal; he could have emigrated, could have continued to publish politically neutral works, or he could decide to start working underground and write for samizdat publications. Regarding emigration, Kis realised that his analysis regarding the state of Hungarian communism – and Marxism in general – was authentic exactly because was living in the country, therefore leaving Hungary was not an option for him.

On publishing non-political philosophy work he wrote that “It was a seductive offer: I’m published, therefore I am. However, it would have meant that I am dependent on the grace of the authorities: when they can banish me from the public sphere and when they are willing to let me back in, what I could write and what I could not and I would need to accept it.”

Therefore, Kis decided on the third option. He wrote that between 1973 and 1976 “we were preparing but were uncertain as to what for. In those years we realised that we want to live in Hungary and that we would do so outside of official institutions. This meant that we must create a public sphere for ourselves.” After years of preparation and an intellectual journey towards liberalism, Kis was one of the founding editors of Beszélő,a samizdat journal launched in 1981 on political, cultural, historical, and sociological affairs.

From the early 1980s, The Democratic Opposition centred around the writing, editing, distribution, and reproduction of this and other samizdats. Beszélő also became a forum for those who were against the communist regime. The Democratic Opposition’s ideology and activities evolved and were discussed on the pages of the samizdat. Its articles were often discussed on Radio Free Europe, which according to some statistics reached an audience of 2 million people in Hungary.


The Philosophers’ Trial was arguably the single most decisive event in the life of Kis, as well as the formation of the Democratic Opposition. Kis himself wrote that the trial completely changed the path of his life. In his autobiography, he states that:

“I was pushed out to the world and they forced me to choose. However, this made me feel free. I did not reach the point of breaking with the system myself when the system broke with me. Kádár and co shortened my political evolution. They did me a favour if you’d like. They sentenced me to freedom. I did not choose the ability to choose but I was made to choose; I could not avoid deciding who I want to be and what my place is in the world.”

As Sentenced to Freedom is also the title of his autobiography and the book itself starts with a quote from his letter of dismissal from the Academy, it is apparent how formative an event the Philosopher’s Trial was in the life of Kis. The trial and its consequences also clearly show us a layer of what freedom meant for Kis as well as the group.

At the time of completing Überhaupt, by accepting that the book itself was never going to be published, and only hoping for a compromise in having a chapter available in a journal, Kis was accepting the rules of the system. He was settling for a curtailed degree of the freedom of thought and freedom of speech Kádárist Hungary offered by having at least some exposure in widely read publications in exchange for limiting the full extent of what he was allowed to say.

As a result of the trial, Kis realised that, even if they get significantly less exposure, by publishing his honest, fully-realised thoughts in underground samizdats, he could exercise his intellectual freedom much more fully than with compromises. With their samizdats, Kis and the Democratic Opposition decided to exercise their freedom of thought by not being willing to accept the censorship of the communist system and creating their own public sphere where they could think, write, and speak freely.

Kis’ commitment to this idea is clear from Szabadságra ítélve and especially so from the bits that tell the story of one of Überhaupt’s co-authors, György Bence. For years, Bence could be considered Kis’ ideological soulmate and their careers also followed the same trajectory. After being fired from the Academy, Bence continued to cooperate with Kis in publishing philosophical essays abroad. According to Kis, in the late 1970s, Bence had a massive role in establishing the so-called second underground public sphere which allowed intellectuals to discuss and publish their works without censorship.

From Kis’ autobiography, it is apparent that on top of their excellent working relationship, the two also had a close friendship. Thanks to this friendship, Kis is able to offer a character study on him. He describes Bence as an emotional and sensitive man on whom self-doubt took a rather significant toll. Kis gives an account of Bence expressing doubts about their ability to become leading figures in Hungary as early as 1979.

According to Kis, partly due to these doubts in Bence and Kis’ own conviction about the way forward, they started to slowly grow apart. In 1981, Bence told Kis that he wishes to work independently on a project relating to 19th-century Hungarian political philosophy, which was a significant departure from their previous shared interests and works. Shortly after Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland to punish the figures of the emerging Solidarity movement in 1981, Bence suggested to Kis that they should cease the publication of Beszélő.

In 1984, as a result of his reduced contact with Kis and the wider opposition group, not entirely clear exactly how, Bence received an offer from the authorities that if he gives up on his underground life completely, they could reintegrate him into the academic establishment to a certain extent.

According to Kis, Bence asked for three things: that his wife (the historian Mária M. Kovács) is not prevented from applying to the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, that Bence would be allowed to receive research contracts occasionally, and that he would finally able to defend his PhD thesis he submitted in the 1970s. The authorities agreed to Bence’s first two requests but declined the third.

It goes without saying that we only get one side of the story from Kis’ autobiography and it is not Bence’s. What is also clear from Szabadságra ítélve is that Kis himself judges Bence quite harshly for his gradual departure from opposition life. Kis wrote that

“I was wary of judging someone who asks the authorities that oppress him to normalise his life. The life of a regime’s subject is difficult and judging is easy, that is why it is dangerous. However, Gyuri wasn’t just one of the regime’s subjects. We decided to sacrifice our lives so that we don’t live as subjects but as self-conscious citizens and show an example to others with our behaviour. I thought it would be acceptable to get tired of the opposition lifestyle and temporarily or permanently take a step back. But I thought this was something else. He gave up the moral gesture we made at the start of our careers and what we both followed so closely until then.”

It is outside of the scope of this essay to decide if Kis’ judgement of Bence is fair or valid.  However, it is clear why Kis judges his friend so harshly and unapologetically. Making a deal with the communist authorities was the exact opposite of one of the foundational philosophical pillars of what freedom meant for Kis and the Democratic Opposition as a whole.

The Philosopher’s Trial was the defining moment in Kis’ life. It was at that moment that he vowed not to make any deal with the system. He decided that to be truly free is to reject any compromise with an authoritarian system. This was the only way to be able to write and think freely, even if it meant becoming less widely read. For Kis, retiring from opposition life so that Bence could gain funding for his research was the antithesis of the single most important principle he held in his life and perhaps the key pillar in what the Democratic Opposition meant by, and how it exercised freedom.

Ottilia Solt and economic freedom


After being fired from the Academy, János Kis’ break with Marxism was accelerated. According to his autobiography, the first step in Kis’ ideological evolution was not an intellectual enlightenment but a moral intuition. He felt that by being fired from the Academy, his rights were violated. Hence, Kis turned towards human rights-based politics. However, he felt that if human rights were non-negotiable for him (which was the case, given his formative experience of being fired from the academy), he would likely need to break with Marxism.

This was because, in Kis’ interpretation of Marx, the concept of human rights was considered to be a tool of bourgeois class rule. As the idea of human rights is a moral notion (and therefore could not be the subject of a compromise), Kis could not reconcile his new intuitions and his (primarily moral) grievance of being fired with being a Marxist. Soon, Kis found an ideological family that matched his intuition about the sanctity of human rights.

The advocacy of human rights slowly but surely led Kis to human rights-based liberalism and then an economically redistributive form of liberalism in social liberalism, not least through texts by Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, and of course John Rawls. For Kis, it was the equal moral state of every individual that did not allow for a certain degree of wealth inequality. Equality for Kis was a quintessential part of liberalism.

As he puts it in his autobiography

“Contrary to popular belief, liberalism was not revolutionary because it elevated freedom as a value. Freedom was valuable in the world before the existence of liberalism as well, however, the consensus was that people of different backgrounds were deemed to have been worthy of different freedoms depending on their social status. Freedom was thought to be different depending on whether you were a serf, a city-dweller, a priest, a soldier, or an aristocrat. Freedom was a privilege. A privilege of the higher classes. The novelty in liberalism was the recognition that this hierarchy is morally indefensible; all human beings – simply because they are human beings – have the right to the same freedoms. The law can only restrict an individual’s freedom to reconcile it with the freedom of other individuals.”

Thus, despite departing from Marxism and arriving (proudly and firmly) at liberalism, the notion of equality remained a quintessential part of his philosophy. He repeatedly remarks in his autobiography that a good liberal should engage with, learn from, and reflect on Marxist critique and writing to be able to successfully address the challenges of the modern world. This is especially striking as at the same time in the 1980s, a very different interpretation of liberalism – neoliberalism – swept through the world.

But in Hungary, it was social liberalism that became the defining ideology not just for Kis but more or less for the Democratic Opposition as a whole as well. This is clear from the ‘Blue Book’, the first – economically rather redistributive – manifesto of SZDSZ and how Kis, at that point as leader of the party advocated a “socially sensitive change of regime” and strong trade unions in a prime ministerial debate before the first democratic elections in 1990.


The person who perhaps most clearly epitomised this economically redistributive social liberalism was Ottilia Solt. Born in 1944, Solt was a student of one of Hungary’s most influential sociologists, István Kemény. Kemény and his students researched poverty in 1970s Hungary. This was in itself a political act; the word “poor” or “poverty” was not allowed to be used as the socialist system was said to have eradicated it in the country altogether. As a result, Kemény was first banned from publishing in Hungary and then left the country.

Solt continued Kemény’s tradition of researching and writing about the poor, which inevitably also resulted in her being banned from having anything published in the country (her latter works were mostly published in the samizdat outlets of the Democratic Opposition, mostly in Beszélő, the Democratic Opposition’s main samizdat which she also co-edited).

Due to her early death in 1997 at the age of 53, Solt did not get to publish her memoirs or write an autobiography. However, a two-volume collection of her works published after her death provides a clear picture of Solt’s philosophy, her frustrations with Hungarian socialism, and her role in the Democratic Opposition.

For Solt, poverty was not only a symptom of economic inequality. “I’m not calling an income category poverty. Poverty is a life without perspectives, caused by the lack of inherited wealth. In such lives, people’s decisions are motivated by the eternal lack of money.” – she stated in an interview in 1989. In Solt’s interpretation, poverty is the greatest limitation of the individual’s freedom. Poverty is the most fundamentally unfree position an individual can find themselves in.

This is a recurring theme in her writings. In a 1977 study titled A hetvenes évek budapesti szegényei (The Poor People of Budapest in the 1970s), she wrote that the number one regulatory system of the poor was their daily necessities. In a 1990 study titled Föld és szegénység (Land and Poverty), she lamented how “tiny the freedom of the individual and the family has become” in joint leases (a common practice under Kádárist Hungary when two families lived in the same, often quite small, flat) and in worker’s hostels.

But she articulated this sentiment most clearly in 1989 in her review (titled Szegény az, akinek nincs – A poor person is someone who does not have anything) of another legendary Hungarian sociologist, Zsuzsa Ferge’s work Van-e negyedik út? (Is there a fourth way?): “A poor person is someone who does not have anything, while others do. A poor person is forced to act by need, while others have a free choice.”

Even after the fall of communism, Solt was consistently using the word “poverty” or “poor” because she insisted that it is the most easily understood term for the average Hungarian. Solt wrote in the same review that“academia must be understandable for the people it talks about.” This is why she insisted on not using other terms, such as “low-income individuals.”

Part of Solt’s frustrations with socialism, and especially with the Hungarian version of socialism, was that it did not remedy the economic situation of the poor. In fact, in Solt’s interpretation, it often made it worse. In an essay titled Szegények pedig nincsenek! (There is no such thing as poor people, published in 1985, then revised and republished in 1989 both times as a samizdat), Solt argued that the socialist land reform in the 1940s, which made life significantly easier for a number of peasants missed two social groups; the Roma (who were almost completely neglected by the land reforms) and a large section of domestic servants and employed farm labourers did not receive any of the redistributed lands which were supposed to lift them out of poverty.

In the essay, she claimed that the vast majority of those living in poverty in Kádárist Hungary were the descendants of these two groups. She often said that the vast majority of poor people in Hungary were Roma. In a 1984 interview for Beszélő, the founders of SZETA, a poverty-relief charitable organisation which Solt helped to create, unanimously articulated that they thought anti-Roma racism was the reason why there was so little solidarity towards the poor within Hungarian society and a lack of willingness to address poverty both by the general population and by the government.

Another feature of Hungarian socialism that disadvantaged the poor according to Solt was the policy of full employment. This policy goal primarily affected the working conditions of the poor. Being unemployed was a criminal offence. In her 1985 article titled Foglalkoztatáspolitikai garanciák (Employment policy guarantees), Solt argued that by being forced to work no matter the conditions, employers of low-skilled labour forces were unmotivated to increase their wages or working conditions as they knew that these individuals were de-facto forced to remain in their jobs however bad they were.

A form of giving jobs to the unemployed was the “community service” jobs (since reintroduced as one of the flagship policies of the Orbán regime). These jobs were offered by local councils and were subsidised by the state and largely involved menial tasks such as lawn mowing or weeding under the surveillance of the authorities. In her 1988 piece titled Vadásztörténetek (Hunting Stories), Solt argued that while the institution of community service jobs did improve the tidiness of villages to some extent, it was completely unable to serve the interests of the unemployed themselves. 

She wrote that those employed under community service, “in exchange for an extremely low salary, are not only subjected to the miseries of the worst type of jobs and hence have less chance of finding work on the actual labour market. But they also have to conduct this work under the same police surveillance which makes their private lives a misery in the first place.”

The police’s harassment of the poor was an important aspect of Solt’s opposition to Hungarian socialism. As the welfare model of Kádárism was starting to show signs of cracks, the precarious situation of those living in extreme poverty was made even worse in 1985 when the enforcement of the anti-unemployment law became stricter.

Beforehand, in practice (even if not in theory), local workers could simply not turn up to or refuse jobs that they felt were underpaying them. Now, employers could report them to the police, hence they were even more strictly obliged to accept the job offers and the employers were even less incentivised to raise their pay or improve their working conditions.

In Foglalkoztatáspolitikai garanciák, Solt wrote the following on the pages of Beszélő:

 “Even the mere existence of the new “forced labour legislation” is going to guarantee the presence of exploitable labour force. Alongside having to pay low wages thanks to forced employment, it will be a good business for employers to pocket government subsidies for “creating jobs.” If there are allocation problems, those could be resolved by applying the forced labour legislation. (…) I’m sure many will approve of this. After all, the Roma in our reports are hardly angels. They had been living in dark poverty and had been humiliated forever in their miserable houses which they had been sharing with several children and disabled family members even before the new legislation. But the poverty and hopeless vulnerability they are being pushed to by the “authorities responsible for employment policy” can only be acknowledged (or not acknowledged to be precise) with total cynicism or complete social blindness.”

The strict enforcement of the rule often resulted in violent scenes in which the Kádárist regime demonstrated that even soft autocracies are autocracies. In Vadásztörténetek, Solt reported on a raid on a local community in Ladány near the industrial city of Ózd. She wrote that police officers arrived in minivans, confiscated the dogs of the local community and took unemployed individuals for questioning. While the majority of them were released, at least ten of them were arrested for thirty or sixty days. Such raids were a weekly occurrence in Ladány.

As a Budapest-based dissident who travelled the country as part of her sociological work, Solt realised that the poor are disadvantaged due to their economic circumstances but they are also harassed more by the state authorities than their middle-class Budapest peers. (To an extent, this increased state pressure affected all classes living outside Budapest, not just the poor. In Vadásztörténetek, Solt stated that while she heard no instance of any of the Budapest-based Beszélő readers being harassed by the police simply for visiting their samizdat shop or purchasing their publications, this happened occasionally to readers outside the capital.)

In Solt’s mind, the freedom of the poor under Kádárism was not only limited by their precarious economic situation but also by increased pressure from the state. Thus, for Solt, contrary to popular interpretations, the poor were not the biggest beneficiaries of Kádárism but its greatest victims. In Szegények pedig nincsenek!, she wrote that

“The greatest beneficiaries of Kádárism are undoubtedly the civil servants/clerks and the intelligentsia. They live disproportionately better than all other classes (definitely comparatively to their efforts) and they have disproportionately more freedoms.”

She added that

“When analysing the political nature of Kádárist rule, “consensus” is the central word. We have mentioned it so often that it has become its principle of legitimacy. (…) No one denies that the basis of this consensus was the undeniably better living standards which were the result of the revolution of 1956.  (…) Then the ruling classes realised that if they strive for stability they need to make concessions for the wider society as well. (…) However, what’s noticed less often is how the new consensus completely pushed down the parts of the old poverty classes that, since 1945, have been unable to integrate into the working classes or the intelligentsia.”

The entire point of Kádárism was that individuals would give up on some of their personal freedoms (such as the freedom to organise or publish or read cultural materials freely) in exchange for improved living standards. One of the most crucial sentiments in Solt’s body of work is that, for her, the poor were the greatest losers of Kádárism. They were not only unable to enjoy some personal freedoms – which were also taken away from everyone in Kádár’s Hungary (although in fact, based on her accounts, they even had fewer freedoms than their Budapest middle-class counterparts). They also did not receive any of the material welfare which the rest of society did in exchange for being unable to exercise the said freedoms.

The poor under János Kádár were not part of any deal and have fallen out completely from the consideration of both the ruling elite as well as large parts of the wider society that enjoyed the perks of Kádárism. Solt’s poor were not at the bottom of Kádár-era society. They existed underneath it.


Solt did not only write about the dire situation of the poor but also actively tried to help them. She was one of the founders and a key figure of the Democratic Opposition’s first institution, SZETA (Szegényeket Támogató Alap – Fund in Support of the Poor).

SZETA was founded in 1979. In the aforementioned interview in Beszélő commemorating the fifth anniversary of the organisation’s foundation, Solt stated that Kemény’s students learnt from him that they should not only write about and interview the poor for their research but also help them if they can. This was the spirit in which SZETA was founded. As they never asked permission from the state, it was considered an illegal organisation and some of their activities (such as a charity concert) were shut down by the authorities.

According to the interview, SZETA collected money and its decision-making committee decided which specific causes they would donate it to. SZETA focused on money because Solt thought that what the poor needed was, first and foremost, money. The lack of money is the root of all their problems.

As the founders highlighted in the interview, SZETA was not the only organisation to collect money for the poor. Most notably churches were quite active in their charity work (Gábor Iványi, a methodist pastor himself was a prominent figure of both the Democratic Opposition and SZETA).

The main difference, however, between the humanitarian effort of church groups and SZETA was that while the churches tended to collect money quietly and without trying to gain too much attention, SZETA tried to be as widely visible with their activities as possible in order to draw attention to poverty in the country, which the state apparatus did not want to address and non-samizdat papers were silent about.

As one of the SZETA founders, András Nagy put it in the interview: “We wanted to make sure that the question of Hungarian poverty gets attention. We wanted to raise awareness to the fact that despite the official position of the government, traditional poverty still exists in Hungary. It still affects masses of people and something must happen because the state’s social policy is not going to offer any solution to it.”


One question remains. Given Solt’s social sensitivity, her sense of mission to help the poor, and her advocacy of economic redistribution, why did she identify as a liberal and why did the Democratic Opposition create a liberal party once they were allowed to formally organise? Why wasn’t it Marxism, socialism, or a form of social democracy that Solt could embrace?

A possible answer could be that given how important the role the idea of the individual and their freedom play in her conceptualisation of poverty, Solt found a more natural home in liberalism where the concepts of the individual and freedom feature more prominently than in the more communitarian social democratic traditions.

There is another, perhaps more obvious potential answer; she lived in a socialist system, saw its ills, and wanted to distance herself from all its possible versions. But this could not be the main reason. After all, there were plenty of socialists or Marxists who criticised and criticise existing socialist systems on a socialist or a Marxist basis.

Solt herself had a more fundamental and well-thought-through reasoning for why she and the wider circle of the Democratic Opposition considered themselves liberals. Her short 1990 essay Miért nem vagyok szociáldemokrata? (‘Why I’m not a social democrat’), presents an ambivalent relationship between social democracy and the Democratic Opposition. She admits that the goals of the members of the Democratic Opposition align with social democratic traditions. She wrote that

“The ideological-philiosophical past of most of us, the present state of Hungarian society and politics, and the strategic concept of changing the system through peaceful means draw the aims of social democracy on the horizon.”

Yet, despite this, Solt clearly considered herself and the Democratic Opposition a liberal movement. She argued as follows: The socialist state created several organisations that claimed to advocate the interest of different groups such as SZOT (the national council of trade unions) or Women’s Alliance (a group formally supposed to advocate the interests of women).

However, as these organisations were heavily tied to and were dependent on the state and the ruling elites, they were completely toothless in their ability to represent the interest of any group when it came to opposition with those in power. As such, she said, “It is virtually impossible for SZOT or the Women’s Alliance to fill the void their establishment was supposed to fill: an authentic interest group.”

This concerned Solt because she thought that without strong interest groups, the goals of social democracy (which Solt and the Democratic Opposition agreed with) are unattainable. As Solt put it:

“There is no social democracy without strong interest groups – I think that is clear. Historically, trade unions and independent interest groups not only have to precede the formation of social democracy but they also have to be maintained during the process. (…) Today, there is no meaningful interest representation in Hungary”

Solt’s text argues that authentic interest representation needs to come from the grassroots and it has to be self-sufficient, otherwise it will both be unable to fight effectively against the state and will easily crumble in the long run if it is challenged. Solt added that while Kádárist society tried to prevent all forms of self-organisation within society, it was especially keen to do so in the case of the working class.

The system looked the other way and in fact sometimes covertly encouraged  working-class individuals to try individual coping mechanisms for the betterment of their lives by participating in the second unofficial economy (Solt refers to “háztájizás”, a practice which allowed workers to have a small garden and sell their products in a small capacity.)

As individuals were encouraged to find their own escape routes and compromises with the system,  the emergence of a working class that effectively advocated for its own interest collectively was made impossible. The workers who were unable to utilise these escape routes were living in the dire poverty she wrote so often and so passionately about.

Therefore, according to Solt, there were no working classes present in Hungary in the sense that it was impossible to live off wages exclusively in traditional working-class professions. Those who did did so by participating in the second economy on the side. Those who did not participate in the second economy and only received their wages from their profession were unable to live off them and therefore belonged to the underclass, thus could not organise the same way the traditional working classes organise.

For Solt, the number one political goal after the fall of communism was to encourage political self-organisation (because in the long run, self-organisation would be the only way for the interests of the poor to be protected) and find alliances with voters who are more likely to be partners in this. She argued that creating self-conscious individuals (in Solt’s words, “citizens”) was quintessential to achieve the goals both social democrats and the (by then self-proclaimed liberal) Democratic Opposition advocated:

“If we want to create a party that represents the interests of the workers, we must reflect on the actual workings of society. We must find answers to real situations, not theoretical ones. We are not yet able to create a party that could represent the workers. We will have more success if we turn to the more entrepreneurial side of our society. Liberal values that appeal to an independent citizen are more fitting to express these sentiments. The existence of the citizen (who to this day is still not emancipated in Hungary) is an undeniable bedrock of any type of a modern political system.

The creation of citizens cannot be spared. The extension of the dignity and safety of a self-conscious citizen (and what else is the goal of social democracy?) to others can only be the following step. We may not have to wait a hundred years for this, but how long it will take depends on us. Preferably in dialogue with social democrats, I want the emancipation of the workers (who currently are the poor underneath the Hungarian society) to happen with as little delay as possible.”

In János Kis’ 2014 interpretation of Solt’s text, Solt was a liberal who wanted to build an electoral coalition composed of the intelligentsia and the “underclasses.” This, he wrote, was similar to the efforts of the Democratic Party in the United States in the late 1960s and 70s at the height of the civil rights movement, an indication of how influential the spirit of 1968 was for the Democratic Opposition.

Ottilia Solt was active in the Democratic Opposition because she found that the socialist regime ignored and sometimes actively created the conditions that prevented people from escaping poverty. She repeatedly argued that poverty, the main focus of her research and essays, was the greatest constraint on an individual’s freedom. Solt was first a sociologist, then a dissident, and, for a brief period an MP. In all stages of her life, she fought for a world where everyone could be free of economic constraints.

Ferenc Kőszeg and sexual freedom


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, however 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. So 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 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.


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 her 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 to open relationships to 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 alterego, 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. 


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 Czechoslovakian 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 Czechoslovakian courts to sentence the six leaders of the charter to prison.

As a result, Kőszeg was fired from his editorial job at Európa Könyvkiadó and 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 that, as the eighties 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.

Róza Hodosán and the freedom to do what is right


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.

In 1954, Hodosán was born 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 that 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. Only Róza Hodosán herself attended university in her family, 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 in order to advance their own career). Hodosán, however 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 move was an unusual practice at the time). As a result, she even had to leave her workplace.

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 13 December 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.”


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 2000 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 house several times. According to Hodosán’s account in Szamizdat történetek only in the span of a year in 1985, they had to move five times.

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 eighties 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 15 March 1988, the Democratic Opposition organised one of their most successful events, a commemoration of the 1848 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.


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 with all of its required sacrifices 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 that

“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 here, 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 has to 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 up 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.

Yet, the most important lesson, for liberals and non-liberals alike, remains that of Róza Hodosán, who alongside her friends in the Democratic Opposition, throughout her life acted not in a way that would bring the most material benefit but the way she felt she had to according to her own moral compass.

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.


Key texts

Róza Hodosán, Szamizdat történetek (Debrecen, 2004)

János Kis, Szabadságra ítélve: Életrajzi beszélgetések Meszerics Tamással és Mink Andrással (Budapest, 2021)

Ferenc Kőszeg, K. történetei (Budapest, 2009)

Ferenc Kőszeg, Múltunk vége (Bratislava, 2011)

Ferenc Kőszeg, ‘A sors és a számla: Symposion a hajdan volt szexuális forradalomról’, (May 2015, originally written in July-September 2012)

Ottilia Solt, ‘A hetvenes évek budapesti szegényei’ in János Eörsi, Gábor F. Havas, István Kemény (eds.), Solt Ottilia: Méltóságot mindenkinek: Összegyűjtött írások (Budapest, 1998), pp. 242-288.

Ottilia Solt, ‘Elszegényedők és “strukturális szegények: Interjú a nyocvanas évek végéről’ in János Eörsi, Gábor F. Havas, István Kemény (eds.), Solt Ottilia: Méltóságot mindenkinek: Összegyűjtött írások (Budapest, 1998), pp. 365-370.

Ottilia Solt, ‘Foglalkoztatáspolitikai garanciák: Megint a munkanélküliségről’, in János Eörsi, Gábor F. Havas, István Kemény (eds.), Solt Ottilia: Méltóságot mindenkinek: Összegyűjtött írások (Budapest, 1998), pp. 301-306.

Ottilia Solt, ‘Miért nem vagyok szociáldemokrata…’, Beszélő on-line (23 February 2014, originally published in 1990)

Ottilia Solt, ‘Szegény az akinek nincs…: Ferge Zsuzsa: Van-e negyedik út’ in János Eörsi, Gábor F. Havas, István Kemény (eds.), Solt Ottilia: Méltóságot mindenkinek: Összegyűjtött írások (Budapest, 1998), pp. 397-402.

Ottilia Solt, ‘Szegények pedig nincsenek! Magyar szocialista szegénység’ in János Eörsi, Gábor F. Havas, István Kemény (eds.), Solt Ottilia: Méltóságot mindenkinek: Összegyűjtött írások (Budapest, 1998), pp. 337-351

Ottilia Solt, ‘Vadásztörténetek’ in János Eörsi, Gábor F. Havas, István Kemény (eds.), Solt Ottilia: Méltóságot mindenkinek: Összegyűjtött írások (Budapest, 1998), pp. 327-336.

Other works consulted

Ervin Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék (1968-1988): Monográfia, (Budapest, 1995)

János Dési, ‘Hodosán Róza’, ATV (2004)

Hodosán Róza I Partizán Politika I A teljes interjú, kizárólag Patronálóink számára!, Partizán (31 October 2022)

János Kis, ‘A demokratikus ellenzék hagyatéka’, in János Kis, Mi a liberalizmus? (Bratislava, 2015), pp. 207-229.

János Kis: ‘Hogyan lettünk liberálisok?’, in János Kis, Mi a liberalizmus? (Bratislava, 2015), pp. 337-342.

János Kis, Ferenc Kőszeg, ‘Beszélő-Beszélgetés a Szeta Kezdeményezőivel’ Beszélő, 1/14 (1985)

Ferenc Kőszeg, ‘A csonka négyes’, (September 2016)

Ferenc Kőszeg, ‘A Demokratikus ellenzék rangja’, (Originally published in Élet és irodalom on 2 February 2017)

Ferenc Kőszeghy, ‘50 éve fordult el a magyar értelmiség a szocializmustól, van visszaút?’, Mérce (26 November 2022)

Andrea Szenes, Szenes Andreával Hodosán Róza (199?)

Sándor Szénási, ‘Szabadság elvtársak, 30 éves a rendszerváltás #67: Hodosán Róza’, Klubrádió (Klubrádió) (5 July 2020)

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!