Hope and Scandal in Hungary

This article was recently published in Dissent, reposted here with original photos by Róbert Pölcz [click on photos to enlarge].

Bust of István Bibó (1911-1979) on the Danube promenade in Budapest. Just above the inscription is graffiti directed against the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán [click photo to enlarge]. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.
This year a new Hungarian film, White God, has been touring the festival circuit. It’s about an abandoned mongrel whose trusting nature is repeatedly tested by abuse and cruelty. The result: what had once been an endearingly naughty pooch turns into a very bad dog.

White God could be an allegory about Hungary—a proud creature, kicked around and abused, diminished and blamed, that eventually lashes out in fury. Or maybe it’s about how Hungary has treated some of its own since the second half of the nineteenth century—assimilating them, but forever suspecting them of betrayal; marginalizing them, persecuting them outright, or even killing them. And so, as in the film, the odd victim leaps up to tear out the jugular of a Hungarian guard in a single snap.

This tortured sense of intractable antagonism was the lifelong preoccupation of the Hungarian thinker and former statesman, István Bibó. Born in Budapest in 1911, Bibó spent most of his life trying to divert the states and peoples of Central and Eastern Europe—and, above all, his native country—away from the extremes of enraged self-pity and self-righteousness and toward responsibility. At the same time he sought to sensitize the Great Powers to the miseries that fed these extremes. As he wrote in 1946, “Men are most wicked when they believe they are threatened, morally justified, and exonerated, and particularly when they feel they are entitled and obliged to punish others.”

Having served the Hungarian government at critical moments in the country’s mid-century history, Bibó’s drive to mediate between extremes assured that his forays into state service would end badly. As a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice during the period of Hungary’s alliance with Germany and later under German occupation, he forged papers for Hungarian Jews to help them escape deportation. This got him arrested, but his internment lasted just a few days. In 1958, he was handed a life sentence (of which he served six years) for having stood his ground in parliament as the sole representative of the 1956 Hungarian revolutionary government, while Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest.

The prison in the northern Hungarian town of Vác where István Bibó was incarcerated together with his friend, Árpád Göncz (who would later become the first president of post-socialist Hungary, 1990-2000) for their involvement in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.
In a country and culture that gave the world “Gloomy Sunday” (also known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song”) and that has long taken a strange pride in having one of the world’s highest suicide rates, Bibó’s greatest character flaw was his optimism. By all accounts a very decent and honorable man, his remarkable deficiency in earthly vices has made him a difficult target for criticism; so much so that one determined Hungarian conservative scholar, András Lánczi, prefaced his critique of Bibó’s thought with the claim that, just as a bad person may still have good ideas, a person of “venerable character” can as readily have bad ones.

Bibó’s thought is not easy to categorize. He was a socialist but not a Marxist; a Calvinist, but one who forever sought to reconcile the Protestantism of his father with the Catholic traditions of his mother. He loved Hungary but remained one of its harshest critics, and was an intellectual who believed that intellectuals were too fixated on ideology. The “common sin” of capitalism and communism, in his view, was that both imposed social quarantines—there was always some minority to be excluded from the “whole.” If it had been up to Bibó, all binaries—from the Schism to the Cold War—would have been abolished.

The best way into the mind of a figure who embodied so many apparent contradictions is through his vocabulary. Words that resonated positively for Bibó: democracy, facts, responsibility, duty, possibility, potential, and release. On the opposite end of the spectrum: confusion, misapprehension, hysteria, claim, grievance, essential, necessary, and, above all, fear. He regularly quarantined problematic words within scare quotes, punctuating the distance between his own thinking and terms almost universally misused during the Second World War.

One of these terms was “justice.” After Hungary sustained significant territorial losses in the wake of the post–First World War settlement, “Justice for Hungary” became a popular revisionist slogan, often coupled with images of a mangled Hungary nailed to a cross. It was with the cry of “justice” that the Hungarian government joined the Axis alliance, committing significant numbers of soldiers to the war against the Soviet Union in exchange for the partial re-annexation of these territories. When it became clear that the Germans would not win the war, the Hungarian government sought to switch alliances. The result was German occupation and the carrying out of the “Final Solution” in Hungary with the active participation of many Hungarian officials and gendarmes. The word “solution” was thus also generally cosseted in scare quotes in Bibó’s work.

Bibó began his career in state service as these events were unfolding. In 1938, he became a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice. That year the first of three anti-Jewish laws was introduced in Hungary, limiting Jews’ representation in the professions—including the press and the law—to 20 percent. A few months later, the longstanding law journal Rule-of-Law State (Jogállam: jog- és államtudományi szemle) ceased publication. Although the courts retained a degree of independence, the disappearance of the periodical effectively marked the end of the rule of law in Hungary. Bibó called the first anti-Jewish law “disgusting,” but did not sign the protest memorandum opposing it. Later he would write that its implementation underscored the “moral nose-dive of society.”

One of Bibó’s most profound works is a long essay from 1948, “The Jewish Question in Hungary After 1944,” in which he documented the “moral degradation of Hungarian society” in persecuting the Jews. “[O]ur most urgent task is to create a public conception that takes the issues of responsibility and culpability seriously,” an imperative that Bibó exercised on himself in the piece, addressing with wrenching frankness the temptations of anti-Semitism. “[O]f all of the prejudices, anger, feelings of superiority, induration, actions, and omissions to which I have referred in harsh terms,” he wrote, “there was none that I myself have not experienced or for which I would not feel directly or indirectly responsible.” When he expounded in another essay on the example of Christ, who had overcome his own peevishness, one senses the lesson was as personal as it was world-historical for Bibó.

The essay closes with a plea for “a clearer, more courageous national reckoning that will be more prepared to face responsibilities.” “[I]t is hopeless,” he wrote, “to seek a singular ‘solution,’ a magic potion or an incantation to remedy this situation. Rather, we must deprive the circle of its momentum . . . we must combat prejudices which postulate that qualitative inequalities between individuals are fated, and strive to bring about a social order based on the qualitative co-equality of all men.”

The experience of watching and participating in the moral breakdown of Hungarian society during the war led Bibó to believe all the more firmly in “the classical institutions of liberty,” among them, the independence of the courts, the separation of powers, and judicial control over administration. Opposed to all forms of charismatic leadership—a genealogy of which he traced from Napoleon to Hitler—Bibó saw the historical trend toward the “depersonalization of power” as a fundamentally positive development. In a long work completed in the early 1970s called “The Meaning of European Social Development,” he repeated Aristotle’s insight: “given a constitution, people are ruled not by people but by law.”

Bibó wanted to understand why the people of some nations—including Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Czechs—have had such a fraught relationship with democratic ideas and institutions. He began by rejecting commonly cited causes, like economic conditions or innate national characteristics. One of his favorite rhetorical strategies was to demolish a misleading binary that necessitated a choice between extremes. The Germans were neither basically good nor inherently wicked; borders should be neither rigidly fixed nor inherently fungible. Instead, he would reframe the problem. The real question in German history was whether Germans were “constantly marked by a hysterical attitude to the community of Europe” or not. If the answer was “no,” Bibó wrote in a long essay from 1943 to 1944, then Germany could be redeemed, and arguably has been since.

Not many thinkers were contemplating Germany’s redemption at the time. What one of Bibó’s conservative critics calls his “laughable naiveté” has long elicited condescending commentary from both ends of the Hungarian political spectrum. And yet Bibó was no Pollyanna. Hope, he wrote in his essay “Memorandum: Hungary, A Scandal and Hope for the World,” does not presuppose “historical necessity.” Instead, “it is an opportunity that can be grasped or bungled.” Politics had to concern itself with addressing proximal, concrete tasks in order to advance toward a more equitable society, rather than propagating grandiose theories for why events and peoples had to bend to one inevitability or another. Instead of claims and status, he believed, one should speak of responsibilities; in place of grievance and redress, of a sense of duty. “We are not in the comfortable position of either being able to establish, as a kind of natural law, the rule of the right and wrong development of society or being discharged by any such natural law from the responsibility of leading the great activity of organizing human polity in the wrong direction, a dead end, or, most recently, the total annihilation of mankind.”

For Bibó, there was nothing “natural” about natural law and nothing “lawful” about the laws of history. He especially scorned the hermetic, conspiratorial explanations of historical development and human nature offered by fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Just after the war he seemed to think the Russian Revolution represented a potentially positive development in human history, and later in life, he defended the use of revolutionary tactics in Latin America and in Hungary in 1956, but generally spoke with vitriol against the two kinds of “unproductive” men: the revolutionary and the reactionary.

The problem with Marxism-Leninism in Bibó's view was that its conspiratorial framework made it blind to divisions within capitalist interests that could be exploited to effect a positive social transformation by more democratic means. The only force that made capitalism cohere and capitalists close ranks was the threat of socialism. The Marxist-Leninist inclination to view capitalists as a monolithic whole, casting them as both fatally foolish and abnormally shrewd, he felt, undermined the cause of social reform.

Another charge Bibó leveled against Marxism was that its critique of property was too categorical. He believed that a distinction should be made between property for a single person or family to use (a home, a farm), which brought status and greater freedom to the individual, and “mammoth property” (factories, apartment complexes), which essentially created a right of disposal, mainly over people. Along with other Hungarian populist thinkers of the time, Bibó felt the former should be preserved, the latter, held in check.

For all his navigation between extremes, Bibó was no moderate. He sought an inspired politics beyond the cult of the charismatic leader, one rooted in the potential of every person to effect change in themselves and others. This cultural Calvinism comes through most powerfully in his romance with the word “radical.” The word conducts an electric sense of possibility in Bibó’s work. One had to “radically think through the social meaning of the full liberation of the Hungarian people,” to “radically give up the hopeless phraseology of revolution,” and reverently recall the “radically democratic parliamentary democracy” that existed in Hungary for a few years after the Second World War.

It was during that fragile interlude that Bibó came into his element. Though he wrote extensively—from his time studying law in Vienna and Geneva in the mid-to-late 1930s, up until his death in 1979 of a heart attack—very few of his works were published in Hungary during his lifetime, and the bulk of them were written in that slim span of postwar years. “And what will they carve on the cross at my grave?” he later wondered to a group of friends. “István Bibó. Lived: 1945–1948.” Yet the perennial optimist was ever hopeful that he and Hungarian democracy might someday live again. Even while working as a librarian in the National Statistical Office, where he served out the remainder of his “career” after being released from prison, he never ceased contemplating the shape of possible futures and drafting elaborate reform programs.

Though he viewed capitalism as a transitory phenomenon, he feared the rise of a class with “tremendous financial opportunities and little matching sense of personal responsibility.” Viable social reform would therefore have to disable the “sector of capitalism” that possessed both the desire and the capacity to influence state, military, and other policies in its own narrow self-interest. To this end he proposed making factories non-inheritable and introducing a tax to loosen the concentration of massive amounts of property in the hands of a few. Bibó’s ideal was the total devolution of power: no technocrats, no vanguard, no oligarchy, just “mutual services,” introducing a kind of equality into human relationships insofar as everyone would both serve and be served. He called this ideal “an-archic,” emphasizing with the hyphen that it was non-hierarchical, yet distinct from the chaos implied by “anarchy.” The realization of an “an-archic future” was not an assured outcome, but striving towards its eventual achievement was a worthy enterprise.

If Bibó had a weakness, it was his pathologization of East-Central Europe, a proclivity shared by many Western commentators who have persisted in seeing this part of the world as a problem and the creation of more or less homogeneous democratic nation-states as the only possible solution. Bibó himself knew all too well that “original backwardness,” “underdeveloped and anti-democratic social relations,” and “coarse political methods” were the region’s most outstanding features in the eyes of most of his Western contemporaries. While he considered such assessments “gravely misconceived,” he also maintained repeatedly that the region warranted special attention for the dubious distinction of having set off two world wars, to which he added the threat of a third.

Though his legacy does not enjoy the near-universal reverence it once did, Bibó is still a formidable presence in the Hungarian intellectual pantheon. In today’s Hungary, where it is commonplace to cast any form of leftism or even liberal democracy as a “foreign”—often implying “Jewish”—imposition, Bibó is wielded like a talisman of irreproachability by his champions. Foremost among these is Árpád Göncz, a longtime friend of Bibó’s who became the first president of post–socialist Hungary (1990–2000). In 1995, Göncz recalled a conversation with Bibó in the infamous Vác prison where they were interned together for their roles in the 1956 revolution. “I had a terrible dream last night,” Bibó told him. “It was winter and snowing. I stood atop a pediment for a statue and was horribly cold and I wanted to get down, but I couldn’t.” Göncz read the dream as prescient of how Bibó’s thought has been frozen and isolated by its own authoritativeness.

Hungary’s current prime minister Viktor Orbán, a founding member of the “Young Democrats” (or Fidesz), has made offerings at the altar of Bibó, even gifting the late thinker’s portrait to the European Parliament in Brussels in 2007. It was within the István Bibó College dormitory of Hungary’s most prestigious university that Orbán and others founded Fidesz in 1988, a time when Bibó enjoyed immense posthumous popularity as a voice of reform and opposition. Bibó’s spirit strode arm-in-arm with Orbán and Fidesz through the wall of history that was 1989. Having emerged on the other side into a new world, however, their paths began to diverge.

Two residents of the István Bibó dormitory in the room where the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, resided when he co-founded the Young Democrats (Fidesz) together with his roommate Gábor Fodor and other disaffected students in 1988. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.
Fidesz is neither young nor overly democratic anymore, having practically assumed the role of the dominant party in a new kind of one-party state. Although Orbán parrots Bibó’s insistence that “anything is possible,” the ideal he envisions is “illiberal democracy,” a far cry from Bibó’s “an-archic future.” In fact, today the very word “future” is one that Bibó would likely inoculate with quotation marks. “Better future” (Szebb jövőt), a revival of the interwar Hungarian boy-scout greeting, is now best known as the slogan of the far-right Jobbik party.

Over the past few years, Hungary has diverged so sharply from rule-of-law precepts that the EU parliament passed a resolution in 2013 calling on the country to restore an independent judiciary and alter parliamentary procedure to allow the opposition to participate in lawmaking. Last spring, the European Commission drafted A New EU Framework to Strengthen the Rule of Law. “[E]xperience has shown that a systemic threat to the rule of law in Member States cannot, in all circumstances, be effectively addressed by the instruments currently existing at the level of the Union,” the report reads, citing the Hungarian example.

In his foreword to a new collection of Bibó’s selected essays in English translation, the Polish public intellectual and former dissident Adam Michnik characterized the current Hungarian political configuration as “more like Vladimir Putin’s model of ‘sovereign democracy,’” and made a not-so-oblique reference to the specter of “anti-communism with a Bolshevik face.” Even more ominously, last year the iron grip of Fidesz began to slip in parliamentary elections, with Jobbik as the primary beneficiary.

It is in this climate that Göncz, along with a handful of other Hungarian intellectuals, sought to bring Bibó and his ideas down from their pedestal and out of the cold. Göncz wrote the foreword to a collection of documents on Bibó’s life published in 1995, and personally subsidized the publication of another volume marking the centenary of Bibó’s birth. These efforts have been seconded by the recent publication of a new collection of Bibó’s work in English translation, The Art of Peacemaking: Political Essays by István Bibó. The collection’s editor, Iván Zoltán Dénes, is also a founder of the István Bibó Center for Advanced Studies, established in 1996 to promote scholarship on the late thinker’s ideas and to propagate “positive individual and communal models.”

Reading these collections, it is Bibó’s strange, seemingly unwarranted faith in politics that most commands our attention. In his 1948 essay “The Warped Hungarian Self: A History of Impasse,” he wrote that “politics does not permit lies.” He not only believed that the future could change course entirely, providing an “invaluable release” from ruinous fixations, he also acted on this belief. In the surreal caesura between the Soviet intervention and his arrest in early 1957, he sat at his desk and wrote incessantly. He wrote an open letter to the Hungarians, urging them to engage in passive resistance. Then he wrote a lengthy “Memorandum” addressed to the world, and especially to the forces he knew would determine Hungary’s fate—the Soviets, the West, and the nascent Non-Aligned Movement. Ever the mediator, Bibó tried to reframe the problem in a way that would bring all sides together. If Hungary were allowed to carry out its revolutionary objectives, he argued, its example would show how capitalism could be humanized, how socialism could take various forms, and how to imagine a “third way.” With Soviet tanks on the streets and in the squares of Budapest, the revolutionary leadership facing trial and execution, and the West distracted by the Suez crisis, Bibó’s “Memorandum” concludes with the otherworldly assertion that “the potentials of the Hungarian case and the world situation are now far more hopeful than at any time in the previous decade.”

In the final scene of White God, a spree of vengeance ends with a standoff between dogs and people, which is resolved by a gesture—a song. A fragile peace unfolds, with the protagonists keeping a safe distance from one another. The sleeping dogs are left to lie, at least for as long as it takes for the credits to roll, but we know that the real ending lies just beyond the copyright notice and cannot be anything but catastrophic. The cycle of retribution will inevitably resume.

Here Bibó would call a stop. It was simply not true, he insisted, that natural law necessitated struggle between all living creatures. “[I]n the world of animals,” he wrote, “mutual interest in life is far more significant than mutual antagonism.” The same then holds for the twisted politics of extremes in the human realm. Because the next stage of the cataclysm boded by White God has not yet actually occurred, maybe we can still hope that things will turn out differently. Bibó believed that there was “a disarming gesture for every aggression, and this is what we ought to seek.” Maybe this time it will be found.

© 2015 Holly Case, as first published in Dissent.

Interview with Marci Shore--April 10, 2015

Interview with Marci Shore, Associate Professor of History at Yale University. The interview was conducted in Ithaca, NY on April 10, 2015. To access an mp3 of the complete interview, click here.
Marci Shore specializes in European—and especially East-Central European—cultural and intellectual history is the author of 2 books, including Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’sLife and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968 (Yale, 2006) and The Taste ofAshes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe (2013). She has also translated Michał Głowiński’s Holocaust memoir, The Black Seasons, from the Polish (that book was published in 2005). In addition, she has  written a number of articles for both academic and more general readership audiences, including Kritika, Contemporary European History, and Modern European Intellectual History. She is currently at work on two book manuscripts, one is entitled “Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe,” and the other is an intellectual history of the recent revolution in Ukraine.

Interview Themes

How Shore came to be interested in history, people who influenced her, and the “susceptibility to being transported” (1:48)
How Shore came to be aware that she was living history in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and the “un-grounded” and “up-in-the-air” feel of that time (8:08)
What did people like Shore, who came of age intellectually in the 1990s, see or miss when compared with those who came before or those who came after? (11:58)
How Shore approaches writing: principles and idols (on “keeping the language fresh” and “setting the scene” as opposed to “telling the reader what to think”) (16:58)
On empathizing with the subjects of one’s work (25:20)
On what holds Shore’s body of work together: dynamics of generation, friendship (32:40)
Going to Eastern Europe to seek meaning: how does one arrive at the fundamental questions? (39:15)
Is there an identifiable “Naimark school” of those who studied under Norman Naimark (45:35)
What is at stake in considering oneself of an intellectual historian who focuses on a particular region? (51:05)
Is Eastern Europe becoming “real” again through events in Ukraine and on the Maidan? On the “return of metaphysics” and knowing that—for better or worse—“anything is possible.” (57:25) 
Shore on the “miraculous transformation of subjectivity” in Ukraine (1:05:28)
How should we be training the next generation of scholars in the field? (1:09:00)

Interview with Dimiter Kenarov--December 29-30, 2014

Interview with Dimiter Kenarov, freelance journalist, poet and translator from Bulgaria. The interview was conducted in Istanbul, Turkey in two parts on December 29 and 30, 2014. To access an mp3 of the complete interview, click here

Kenarov has written on a variety of issues of relevance to contemporary Eastern Europeans, among them a fascinating profile of Georgi Markov, the Cold War dissident from Bulgaria who was famously assassinated in 1978; a piece on Poland since the shale gas bubble, on snowboarders in Sarajevo, as well a number of recent articles on Ukraine and Crimea relating to politics and the environment, and many many other topics. He has written for venues like The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, Esquire and Outside. He is also a photographer, poet, and translator of poetry.

Interview Themes
Part I: Dec. 29, 2014
1:15 Kenarov’s background and how he came to write on Eastern Europe
6:15 On the American high school in Bulgaria Kenarov attended during the 1990s
10:40 Memories of 1989 in Bulgaria
13:45 On the blowing up of the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum
19:45 Is a heightened sense of the surreal in politics and everyday life a useful or a demobilizing sensibility?
24:00 The case of the Serbs and self-irony
28:30 On the legacy of communism in Bulgaria
35:05 How the generation that grew up after communism relates to its legacy
36:15 Kenarov’s own family’s experience of communism
40:55 On his parents’ approach to politics after 1989
45:25 How Kenarov imagines his audience within and beyond the region; pieces written in English vs. Bulgarian, translated, etc.
50:40 Using the word “totalitarian”
54:25 Bulgaria as a unique vs. representative case
1:02:05 To what extent is there a cautionary tale for the West in East European dissident literature?
1:09:15 Who is critiquing the West in Eastern Europe/Bulgaria now; nostalgia for communism
Part II: Dec. 30, 2014
0:00 On women’s experience of communism from Kenarov’s family history
7:05 Kenarov’s mother’s study of cybernetics and his grandmother’s tenure as a mayor
10:50 Controversy, conflict and danger in reporting on the region (Crimea, Belarus, etc.)
14:15 Kenarov’s favorite story and how it came into being (via the KGB and prison)
22:05 On whether or not there is such a thing as “Eastern Europe”
24:25 How defining was the experience of “transition” for Kenarov’s generation?
27:15 On the post-communist period as an acceleration of time
30:40 Confronting the narrative of Eastern Europe as an absence of something/lacking something and what ideas resonated with people in the 1990s
35:05 What Bulgarians see when they look to Turkey
41:25 Kenarov’s Gagauz and Romanian-speaking extended family members
45:00 The recent events in Ukraine
47:45 Kenarov’s study of Russian literature
55:45 Contemporary Bulgarian writers doing interesting work
1:01:20 How Kenarov sees his own work in relation to that of academics who work on the region

Best of Kenarov 

The Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2009)
The Nation (May 18, 2009)
The Virginia Quarterly Review (Fall 2011) 
Outside (Jan. 2012)
The Nation (April 7, 2014)

Interview with Ronald Suny--December 26, 2014

Interview with Ronald Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan and also Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. The interview was conducted in Istanbul, Turkey on December 26, 2014. To access an mp3 recording of the complete interview, click here

Ron Suny has written and edited several books on Russian, Soviet, Armenian and Georgian history, including Armenia in the Twentieth Century (1983), The Making of the Georgian Nation (1988); The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1993); Looking Toward Ararat: The Armenians in Modern History (1993); The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (1998) and edited volumes on nationalism, the Caucuses, the Russian Revolution, and the Armenian genocide. He was the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (the former AAASS, now the ASEEES), and now has books on the Armenian genocide, Stalin, and the historiography of the Soviet Union and Russia’s Empires in the publication queue. 

Interview Themes

01:25 How Suny came to Soviet history
02:15 Suny's Armenian roots in Turkey and Russia
03:40 On how Suny's father encouraged him to think differently about the Russian Revolution
06:05 The difficulty of working out where the Russian Revolution went wrong
08:20 Russia and the Soviet Union -- a disambiguation?
10:50 Suny's first visit to the USSR in 1964
13:00 Family trip to Armenia in 1964
14:50 On seeing the Soviet experience from a non-Russian perspective 
17:25 How knowing a great deal about Soviet history influenced Suny's understanding of leftism and ideology more generally
20:10 Skepticism vis-a-vis the institutionalization of leftism
21:15 Overlap between Western leftism and early dissidents
23:45 On the relationship between violence and the construction of an alternative to market capitalism
31:10 Gorbachev and the unravelling of the USSR
33:20 Soviet Union's lessons for "empires" about how to/not to collapse 
35:25 Was the Armenian genocide the end or the beginning of a polity?
37:20 Nationalism and ideology as preoccupations of Soviet vs. East European historians
42:10 The impact of the war in Yugoslavia on the Soviet field
47:50 Class vs. nationalism as "imagined communities"
51:30 Suny's characterization of his own generation of scholars
55:55 Historical divisions (or not) and factions in the Soviet field - emergence of Kritika
58:15 How did the atmosphere change in the Soviet field?
59:05 What a Soviet scholar could tell a scholar of the Middle East today
1:01:55 Impact of the dissolution of the USSR on the Soviet field
1:05:25 Things to be optimistic about in our time
1:06:40 The challenge of turning "nuance" into politics
1:08:30 History vs. political science (from the perspective of someone who does both)
1:09:50 On being a leftist who studies the Soviet Union
1:10:40 Suny's views on area studies and its usefulness in our time
1:11:55 Suny's views on Turkey as a scholar of the USSR/Russia
1:14:10 What is the "European way"?
1:15:45 Will the European Union have staying power?
1:16:25 Most interesting aspects of the various fields Suny works in
1:17:50 Suny's all-time favorite books 
1:19:35 How we should be training the next generation of scholars

The Walkers of Kadıköy

From left Yüksel Karabekir, Gültekin Karlıdağ, and Süheyl
Açıkel on a morning walk along the Marmara shore.
Every morning in Kadıköy, on Istanbul’s Asian side, a group of retirees meets to walk along the shore. They go twice from the fashionable Moda Club on the tip of the “Moda Nose” peninsula to the dock from whence local sea pilots are dispatched to navigate container ships through the Bosporus. The group coalesced around a retired architect, Gültekin Karlıdağ (79), who became a regular walker a decade and a half ago, shortly after a paved, level path was put in along the shore. Since then, as many as seven other men have periodically joined him on his morning walk, among them a retired naval officer, a heart surgeon, an insurance salesman, a wealthy businessman, a lawyer, a physicist, and a mechanical engineer. They have a code: the walk begins promptly at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 8; one walker is always required to join two others if they approach from opposite directions; and members of the group occasionally wear matching purple shirts. Topics of discussion include politics, diet, and health.

I interviewed the walkers one morning after their walk and joined them on their rounds a couple of times thereafter. Since the interviews were conducted in Turkish, they are not appended here. Instead, I have drawn on our conversations to elucidate how Turkey’s past, its politics, and its possible trajectories can be read from the lives of these walkers and their daily ritual.

Karlıdağ feeding the strays.
Though not aligned with any particular party, the walkers are all “Tayyip karşı,” which is to say opposed to the policies of the former Turkish prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose AK Party has been in power in Turkey since 2002. (It seems that referring to unloved leaders by their middle names is a global linguistic phenomenon of our time; there is “W.” for G. W. Bush, and Putin’s detractors call him by his first and middle names, “Vladimir Vladimirovich,” a form of the diminutive connoting not so much endearment as belittlement.) When Erdoğan introduced free public transportation for seniors, Karlıdağ started using the money he saved on ferry and bus fares to buy “sosis” (hotdogs) for the hundreds of stray cats that live among the seawall rocks along the shoreline path. “If there is a heaven and hell—which I don’t believe there is—but if there is, I will go to heaven on their prayers.”

"Ayşe Hanım" feeding strays.
The morning walk begins with Karlıdağ’s feeding of the strays. Yüksel Karabekir (80) says that if he sees the cats out on the rocks along the shore, congregated around small handfuls of dried cat food and sosis, it means Karlıdağ has passed that way recently. Though he may be the first to feed the cats, Karlıdağ is by no means the only “kedisever” (cat-lover) on the roundish peninsula known as the Moda Nose. Others bring water in plastic dishes or jugs, and leftover table scraps after the day’s meals. By evening, a shoreline stray sniffs twice before making off with anything short of fresh, raw fish parts. Within an hour of Karlıdağ’s first feeding, a recently retired health worker whom they call Ayşe Hanım (Ms. Ayşe) comes along with more bags of food and sosis, as well as supplies to treat the cats’ various injuries. When an otherwise healthy-looking tiger cat appears with green puss oozing from one of its eyes, Karlıdağ informs her of its whereabouts as they pass. 

"Lost cat" sign (with cat). 
The name Kadıköy translates as “Village of the Kadı” (or Ottoman official, akin to a judge). But a better name for it is “Kediköy” (Village of the Cat). Karabekir told me that municipal workers in other parts of the city are in the habit of bringing their own strays here, because they know the inhabitants are predisposed to care for them. It is not uncommon to see tens of cats at once, lounging on the roofs of parked cars, in doorways, or on ledges. In an area with so many strays, “lost cat” posters taped to lampposts, or a sticky note in the vitrine of the cash exchange reading “Seeking a good home for a kitten” have a comical resonance.

Kadıköy is not the only part of the city where remarkable concern is shown for strays. In Fatih, where Karlıdağ and Karabekir both grew up, and from whence they migrated to the upscale neighborhood of Kadıköy known as Moda, the municipality builds wooden houses for strays, marked with the municipal insignia. Yet Fatih is otherwise the polar opposite of Kadıköy in almost every respect. Fatih is relatively poor and run down, and its inhabitants tend to be much more conservative and stalwart Erdoğan supporters. In earlier times many of its inhabitants were Greeks and Armenians; these left or were driven out in successive waves from around the turn of the century up through the 1960s. Some of the houses stayed empty after their departure, but most have accommodated the steady stream of migrants to Istanbul from Anatolia.

A municipal cat house (Fatih Belediyesi Kedi Evi) in Fatih.
The shifting demographics in Fatih were part of the reason why upwardly mobile middle class Turks evacuated the area in the 1970s, many of them moving across the Bosporus to Kadıköy. “A lot of our friends from Fatih came over to this side,” Karlıdağ says. Here, the streets are wider, the houses newer, the pace of life more relaxed, and the politics more liberal. (Karabekir interjects that there are also plenty of hospitals and pharmacies, making it all the more attractive for retirees.) Not only professionals have made their homes here, but also artists and intellectuals, some of whose politics tend towards the harder left. Last winter, intense demonstrations against the Erdoğan government took place just a kilometer or two from the shore path in connection with a corruption scandal, and it is no coincidence that the favorite of the Turkish left, Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples’ Democratic Party—an ethnic Kurd and human rights
The Demirtaş election rally in Kadıköy on August 3, 2014.
lawyer—was enthusiastically received by a very large crowd in Kad
ıköy on August 3 of this year. Demirtaş ran against Erdoğan and an independent candidate (Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu) in the first ever election for the Turkish presidency on August 10. He won only a handful of districts, mostly in eastern Anatolia where Kurds are concentrated, and even in Kadıköy took just 6 percent of the vote (the majority of Kadıköy residents voted for İhsanoğlu, and just over 20 percent for Erdoğan, whereas in Fatih, more than 54 percent voted for Erdoğan).

Civic and political engagement is as much the essence of Kadıköy as are its cats. Even the extension of the shoreline path around the other side of the peninsula last year provoked opposition from some Kadıköy residents who felt the plan called for too much cement and too few trees. On summer evenings along the shore, hundreds of people of all ages lounge on the grass with blankets, beer and snacks. Some play tennis or basketball, push strollers along the path, take bee-bee gun shots at rows of balloons or eggs set up along the shore, or set “wish lanterns” adrift over the Sea of Marmara. Others come with guitars or books, and a few even with dogs that are distinguishable from the numerous docile strays by their collars and the conspicuous absence of a municipal ear tag indicating they have been vaccinated by city vets (as all strays have). Some of the strays with longer fur have even been shaved to keep them cool during the hot summer months. Karlıdağ has a few favorites among these strays, too, and occasionally throws a handful of catfood and sosis to them and the scruffy-looking black and grey “karga” (a variety of crow) that otherwise peck at packaging pilfered from the path-side garbage bins.

Crows (and cat) feeding on cat food thrown by Karlıdağ.
A resident of a less well-to-do part of Istanbul recently told me that strays can hardly expect such treatment in some of the outer suburbs, where the atmosphere is much more dog-eat-dog. But here in Kadıköy, park workers have even set up and maintained an informal stray dog village complete with row houses, concealed behind the public restrooms. Animal empathy has gone so far that it has even become the object of a socio-artistic satire. In a city where police recently rounded up thousands of Syrian refugees from abandoned buildings where they were congregating and bussed them back to camps near the border, the contrast with treatment of strays in this well-to-do neighborhood was not lost on a pair of artists, Evren Üzer and Otto von Busch, collectively known as Roomservices. They nailed a birdhouse to a tree overlooking the sea on the Moda Nose—one of the most prized pieces of real estate in all of Istanbul—with a long perch extending from both sides. The house is UN-sky-blue, and the side is painted with the acronym “UNBRD,” which stands for United Nations Bird Refugee Dialogue, a spoof of internationalist-humanitarian-speak. A bird with the signature United Nations spangle of stars is painted just under the entrance hole. The UNBRD, the artists explain in thick grant-proposal-ese, is an “agency of reconciliation which invites communities to imagine, discuss and manifest the restoration of hospitality of urban environment for birds, in order to recall a common and shared heritage of hospitality.” Needless to say, there are no actual birds living there.

The UNBRD house.
The bird house notwithstanding, there has been relatively little new construction in Moda and Kadıköy over the past few decades. This is another feature that sets it apart from other areas of Istanbul, a city whose population has grown from less than a million to over 14 million since the walkers were born. Almost no one is a true “Istanbullu” (Istanbul native) anymore. The city now sprawls in a seemingly never-ending ribbon of high-rise apartment buildings stretching along the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. Most of the buildings in Kadıköy are no more than four or five stories, and the newer construction is obvious for its incongruity. Both Karlıdağ and Karabekir spoke disparagingly of the Double Tree Hilton that dominates the nighttime skyline with its garish rows of blue lights (another inhabitant has called it “the ugly black glass freak” of Kadıköy). As an architect himself, Karlıdağ disapproves of the proliferation of high-rise apartments around the city, emphatically declaring that the projects he and his wife—also an architect—have worked on were “serious” by comparison. These projects included parts of the famous Beyazit Square in Fatih and the twenty-year-old Sabancı University.

Like many Turks who participated in the fast-paced internationalization of the Turkish economy, in the early 1980s Karlıdağ’s work took him outside the country. He spent three years working for a Turkish construction company in Libya, then in the midst of its own population and housing boom. Although the walkers in Karlıdağ’s group are ethnic Turks, the international geopolitics and trade around Turkey over the past half century color their life stories. The walkers regularly encounter and greet another older man walking his dog, an Iranian artist who left Iran following the 1978 Islamic Revolution. Karabekir, who graduated from the military academy on the nearby Heybeli Island in 1955, became part of the Turkish navy as it was being integrated into NATO. He spent ten months in Philadelphia in 1962 while the ship he was on was undergoing repairs following an accident. In 2003, he worked for a private shipping company, Cenk Group, transporting semi-trucks up into the Black Sea to Ukraine, from whence they were sent west into Europe.
Karlıdağ feeding strays with Karabekir (right).
In a tea garden overlooking the path below and the sea beyond, Karlıdağ and Karabekir talk about the outdoor cinema that used to be up the street, and the times when there was no path along the shore. They don’t agree on everything. On the subject of soccer, Karlıdağ is a Beşiktaş fan while Karabekir is for Galatasaray; and whereas Karabekir follows the advice of the Turkish-American television personality “Dr. Oz” (Mehmet Öz), Karlıdağ is unimpressed by him. Yet once the topic turns to politics, their views seem in perfect harmony. “We are not satisfied with this system,” Karlıdağ says of Erdoğan’s Islamicism. “The fanaticism, the backward sliding—Istanbul wasn’t like this. No one wore headscarves or turbans in Istanbul back when we were young.” Karabekir comments on how the Erdoğan government has “paid” (given scholarships to) women from rural areas and lifted the ban on headscarves at state universities. This has meant social and geographical mobility for many young women in Turkey, but Karabekir believes that “once they go in on that compromise, they can’t get out.”

By 8:30 a.m. the sun is high and the air hot and heavy. A middle-aged woman in shorts and a T-shirt walks by with a golden retriever and greets the walkers. Karabekir pets the dog’s head before the woman moves on. “She belongs to a later group,” Karlıdağ says. “We generally don’t meet them.”

Special thanks to Linda Case for her editorial input.