von Reuben Fowkes
This article seeks to explore two key facets of the relationship between public sculpture and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The first aim is to analyse the role of monumental sculpture in the outbreak and course of the uprising. I consider why public statues were so important to those taking part in mass demonstrations against Soviet and communist control of Hungary, and how it was that some monuments became particular targets of popular anger and were demolished by the crowd. Another aspect is the way certain monuments served positively as a focus for the protestors, as gathering points full of historical symbolism, linking past moments in the struggle for national independence with the unfolding events of October 1956.
The second major focus of this article is the memorialisation of the Hungarian revolution that took place over subsequent decades. I will examine the role that public monuments played in the attempt to establish an official version of the uprising after its defeat following the intervention of Soviet troops on 4 November, the arrest and subsequent execution of the revolutionary leader Imre Nagy, and his replacement with the Soviet-backed communist regime of János Kádár. Arguably, monuments were enlisted in a campaign of denial and the public rewriting of history by the victors,
according to which the revolution became a counter-revolution, its heroes traitors, while the secret police and party apparatchiks who treacherously turned their fire on the patriotic demonstrators were immortalised as heroes.
The collapse of communism in Hungary in 1989 and the establishment of a democratic political system have been amply reflected in the field of public monuments, with particular reference to 1956. The ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy on 16 June 1989 represented a reversal of the previously dominant official version according to which the events of 1956 constituted a ‘counter-revolution’, and was followed within weeks by the death of Imre Nagy’s usurper and executioner, János Kádár, who had ruled Hungary from November 1956 to May 1988. Over the past thirteen years numerous attempts have been made to erect a fitting monument to what are now almost universally seen as the martyrs of the Hungarian Revolution. This article will therefore also consider post-communist public monuments dedicated to the heroes of the 1956 uprising and to the memory of the victims of the repression that followed its defeat.
Monumental Sculpture in 1956
The demolition of the Budapest Stalin Statue is one of the most dramatic examples of popular iconoclasm in the twentieth century. However, the speed of events and the bloody conclusion to the Hungarian Revolution have left the origins and exact details of the destruction of the statue shrouded in mystery.
No film footage or photography of the actual moment of demolition exists, while participants and witnesses were unable to talk publicly about what happened for years afterwards. The breaking of the taboo against public discussion of the fate of the Stalin statue occurred in the late 1980s and was an omen of political change. As a result, a fuller and more accurate account of the events of October 1956 has been allowed to emerge.
The Stalin Statue was the biggest monumental project of the period. The plan to build a major Stalin monument in Budapest was first announced during the feverish celebration of Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21 December 1949. A public competition was organised in spring 1950, in which twenty-five leading Hungarian sculptors were given two months to come up with 1:10 scale models of a fitting monument to Stalin. The exact size, material and location of the statue were not specified, although characteristic general guidance was provided by the stipulation in the competition rubric that ‘works should succeed in expressing the sincere love of all of us for the leader of the world’s peace-loving socialist nations, the director of military operations of the glorious Soviet Army that liberated Hungary, and the protective father of the Peoples Democracies.'
The monument was inaugurated in December 1951, a year behind schedule as a result of unforeseen delays in the commissioning process. It was the work of official sculptor Sándor Mikus and consisted of a huge bronze Stalin gesticulating with his right hand and standing upon a large granite plinth decorated with an impressive carved frieze. The monument quickly became the central focus for mass celebrations on public holidays such as May First and the anniversary of the liberation of Hungary. The plinth was especially designed to serve as a tribune for party leaders to watch the crowds march by; Jozsef Révai, Hungary’s notorious Minister of Culture at the height of Stalinism, had personally insisted that the effect be ‘just like Red Square.’
The death of Stalin in March 1953 brought a steady retreat from what was condemned by Khrushchev in his secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 as the ‘cult of personality’. The Soviet leader’s denunciation of the Stalin cult included the characteristic statement that: 'It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god.'
As a result, Stalin’s name was mentioned with decreasing frequency in speeches and the official media, his image, which until so recently had saturated public space through wall posters and the ubiquitous ceremonial busts in public buildings and offices, was gradually withdrawn from circulation and would eventually completely disappear. Last to go were the many monumental Stalin statues that had been erected across Eastern Europe, most of these were quietly demolished by the authorities as late as 1961. This context helps explain why in 1956 the Budapest Stalin statue was vilified as the central symbol of Stalinism in Hungary. The monument was a highly visible and desirable target, once the orchestrated public adoration of the effigy switched over into hatred.
By autumn 1956, communist control in Hungary had much deteriorated in comparison with the years of full Stalinism. Soviet prevarication had contributed to a mounting sense of political paralysis at the top. In July 1953 the Soviet politburo forced the Hungarian communist party’s hard-line leadership to step aside and make way for a new reform-oriented government under the stewardship of Imre Nagy. In January 1955, as a result of a tactical switch by Moscow, the communist reformer Imre Nagy was forced to resign, enabling the Stalin-era party leader Mátyás Rákosi and his clique to return to power.
In the summer of 1956, in the wake of Khrushchev’s widely leaked ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalinist excesses, the Soviet authorities chose to veto the policy of a return to Stalinist repression in Hungary and Mátyás Rákosi was again removed by Moscow, this time for spurious ‘medical treatment’ in Russia, resulting in an enforced exile that would last until his death in 1971. As a result the Hungarian party was left in the hands of the discredited and powerless figure of Erno Gero, who could only watch helplessly as the authority of the regime disintegrated in autumn 1956.
The ineffectual and demoralised party leadership was unable to contend with a growing revolt of the press, intellectuals and university students. The situation began to spiral out of control when the industrial workers made common cause with the student protests and organised strikes. The party was forced to make ever more concessions in an attempt to satisfy the demands of protesters centred on the Petofi Circle. On 6 October 1956 the bodies of László Rajk and other leading communist victims of the Stalin-era purges were exhumed from a secret burial ground and solemnly reburied in front of a 200,000 strong funeral procession. The reform communist Imre Nagy was also readmitted to the central committee of the communist party.
However, the protests continued to grow in strength. On 22 October, the students produced a list of sixteen demands, including the removal of Soviet troops, the organisation of multi-party democratic elections and the restoration of freedom of speech. Other demands included the reinstatement of Imre Nagy as Prime Minister, the release of political prisoners and, significantly, the removal of the Stalin statue.
On the fateful day of 23 October 1956, students marched from their universities and gathered by the Bem Statue by the Danube in Buda. Bem had been a Polish general who had fought on the Hungarian side during the 1848-9 Revolution. By demonstrating at the statue the students were showing solidarity with Polish reformers, who were engaged in a dangerous standoff with the Soviet authorities, and of course connecting the demonstration with the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. In the late afternoon, half the demonstrators set off over Erzsébet Bridge, to join those gathering around the statue of the most important Hungarian national poet and martyr of 1848, Sándor Petofi. Again the demonstrators drew strength from the symbolic association of their struggle with that of the nineteenth century Hungarian independence movement. The other half of the demonstrators crossed Margit Bridge and began to gather outside the Hungarian Parliament in Kossuth Square.
The building was soon besieged by 300,000 demonstrators all calling for Imre Nagy to speak. When he did finally come to address the crowd, his speech failed to satisfy the demonstrators. Nagy famously failed to grasp the revolutionary mood of the crowd. His promise to ‘hold negotiations and resolve the problems at the centre of the party’ was of little interest to protesters who were demanding independence and democracy.
By the early evening, a number of demonstrators had moved on to Felvonulási Square, the site of the Stalin Statue. The location of the statue had been especially chosen by the authorities, after party committees had considered several other possible sites in Budapest. The advantages of the square included the fact that ‘tens of thousands of workers go there on work days’, giving the statue a prominent position in the life of the city. Another advantage from the perspective of the early 1950s was that ‘the area is suitable for the accommodation of more than 100,000 people and can be accessed by streets suitable for marches.’ It is ironic that the very properties of the square that had attracted the planners, its visibility and capacity to hold large crowds, helped turn it into a site of mass resistance to the regime. In the evening of 23 October 1956 a heterogeneous mass of demonstrators broke an important psychological barrier when they began the demolition of the Stalin Statue.
The following accounts of the demolition of the Stalin statue were collected in the 1980s and 1990s by researchers at the oral history archive of the 1956 Institute in Budapest. They convey a sense of the drama and unpredictability of the events of 23 October 1956 with the immediacy of firsthand impressions.
One eyewitness to the events was Ervin Kaas, a thirty-one year-old Catholic activist and clerk, who spent the rest of the 1950s in the notorious Recsek labour camp as a result of his participation in the uprising:
‘We arrived at Felvonulási Square between 7.30 and 7.45pm. There was a very large crowd. I climbed a tree and saw a truck around 30-40 metres from the statue, and just at that moment a wire cable was being attached to the statue by its neck, then the truck reared up a little, and you could feel that it was straining, then the sound of the engine went down a little, I looked at the statue, and saw that it hadn’t moved at all.’
The difficulty the iconoclasts faced in pulling down the statue is confirmed by other accounts. Mihály Nagy was another observer-participant in the action:
‘Several lorries had already tried to pull down the statue, even the strongest wire cables gave way, because from inside it had been strengthened with a huge great arch-shaped iron bar, so it really was no easy business to pull down the statue, the constructors had given it some thought, they wanted it to be a lasting creation. It would even have been hard to blow it up.’
Rezso Bóna, a worker and participant in the revolution who was later sentenced to ten years imprisonment, confirms the accounts of many other witnesses in his explanation of how the statue was finally brought down:
‘This is how the Stalin statue was brought down, they cut it at the boots with these blow torches, and fixed ropes to some Csepel 350 trucks, which they attached to the Stalin statue, and then toppled it from its base.’
The description of how the statue actually fell from István Kállay, a goldsmith who ran an underground radio station in 1956, makes it sound as if it were a human rather than a statue that toppled to the ground:
‘Now, the way it came down, really, it was like a rubber ball, it jumped up a couple of times before coming to a rest.’
After the statue’s successful demolition, which according to one witness took place at precisely 9.21pm, people sang the Hungarian national anthem, then someone stood on the base and made a short speech saying it symbolised the end of tyranny in Hungary.
The crowd dispersed quickly upon news of shooting around the building of Hungarian Radio, where another group of protesters had gathered that evening to demand the broadcast of their sixteen point programme. The demolition of the Stalin Statue was an act of great symbolic importance that arguably enabled the crowd to cross the threshold from political protest to revolution.
Insight into the carnivalesque atmosphere of the demonstrators at this early stage, before the bloodshed began, is given by the painter and writer Gábor Karátson:
‘Anyway, what people don’t usually say, is that people were very good humoured, it made a big impression on me, the way they called out, ‘Hold on little Joseph!’, I really like that. Because, as we know, he didn’t want to come down, it was hard to pull him down, and may people called out, ‘Hold on little Joseph!’ - which was in no sense a Stalinist shout, but was actually a little bit of popular sportsmanship, because there he was alone now, however big he might be, and we were so many, he also needed encouraging to hold on, and that’s the way people were.’
The Stalin statue was dragged the next day through the streets of Budapest to Blaha Lújza Square, where it was broken up into pieces by souvenir hunters. One of Stalin’s hands was taken by the actor Sándor Pécsi, who, after the restoration of Soviet power, buried the relic in his garden where it remained until the late 1980s. It was eventually unearthed and bought by the Hungarian History Museum for 40,000 forints.
In the anarchic period between the outbreak of the Revolution on 23 October and Soviet military intervention to crush the revolution on 4 November, the demonstrators took their revenge on several other controversial statues. Another victim was the Gratitude statue on Szabadság Square, which had been erected in 1950 to express the gratitude of the Hungarian people to comrade Stalin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.
An original marble version had been send to the Soviet Union the previous year. It depicted a smiling, bare-chested worker and his peasant wife, and their two small wreath-bearing children, and was a clear representation of the socialist utopia in sculpture. Unlike many other statues destroyed by the revolutionaries, Gratitude was not re-erected, but quietly forgotten. The sculptor, Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl, failed to mention it in his otherwise fairly comprehensive published memoirs, and the statue remains an obscure and embarrassing episode in the history of Hungarian sculpture.
The crowd’s attention was also drawn to the Liberation Monument that had been erected in 1947 on Gellért Hill. The memorial, which depicted a female victory figure holding a palm leaf guarded by a fierce Soviet soldier and flanked by two allegorical sculptures of progress and the victory over fascism, had been designed as a constant reminder of the Soviet victory and was built on the direct orders of the Soviet commander, Marshal Voroshilov. It can be considered to have been seen as a prominent symbol of Soviet and communist party domination over Hungary, and was a natural target for the iconoclasts.
There was initially some debate among the crowd over whether to pull down the whole monument, or just the most offending part of it. In the end the sculpture of the Soviet soldier on the front plinth below the ‘Genius of Liberty’ was the only part of the monument to be demolished. After the reestablishment of communist and Soviet authority, the statue of the Soviet soldier was recast and replaced, as if nothing had ever happened.
After 1992, the Soviet soldier was removed again, along with the red star, the memorial text and the sculpted frieze, while a new open-ended text was added remembering 'all those who gave their lives for Hungary', transforming it into a symbol of liberty in general and even liberation from rather than by the Russians. The Russian soldier ended up in Budapest’s Statuepark, an unusual outdoor museum that opened on the outskirts of the city in 1993 as a humane solution to the need to remove politically unacceptable monuments from the city’s streets.
Popular iconoclasts were drawn to monuments directly associated with the Soviet Union, and especially to Soviet war memorials, that were experienced as instruments of symbolic domination rather than as purely funerary memorials. Another notable target of the crowd’s anger was the Monument to the Soviet Envoy, or Steinmetz Monument. This had been erected in December 1948 in memory of a Soviet envoy who had, according to the official story, been murdered by the Germans at the end of the war as he returned from enemy lines after delivering the Soviet demand that the German forces besieged in Budapest surrender. The monument had been the work of Sándor Mikus, who went on to become the maker of Budapest’s Stalin Statue, and an obscure Soviet military architect, Captain Vasiliev. The Steinmetz Monument was destroyed in October 1956, and then reerected in 1958, with the difference that the sculptor took the opportunity to completely remodel it.Although the statue was clearly a completely different work, in the literature of the communist period, including the Budapest Encyclopaedia, the date of erection of the statue was given as 1948, erasing both the original joint Soviet-Hungarian Steinmetz Monument and its destruction in 1956. This is an example of how monuments could be used to deny the events of 1956, which remained a public taboo until the late 1980s.
The ‘new’ Steinmetz Monument joined the Soviet soldier off the Liberation Monument in Budapest’s Statuepark in 1992.
Nineteen Fifty Six in Monumental Sculpture
The memorialisation of the 1956 Revolution began immediately after the uprising was suppressed. The erection of monuments was part of the struggle over how the events of October 1956 should be remembered and interpreted, which was an issue involving the highest political stakes. The memory of the revolution still evokes strong passions in Hungary, and in recent years there has been a continuing search to find an appropriate and consensual way to immortalise the heroism and sacrifice of 1956.
The site of the demolished Stalin statue can be regarded as a genuine Hungarian lieu de mémoire, symbolising through absence the hidden history of the demise of Stalinism in Hungary. It is interesting to note that as late as 1967, the surviving plinth was still serving as a tribune for party leaders on national holidays. It could be suggested that the post-1956 Hungarian party leadership thereby usurped the place in national consciousness of the ‘protective father’, a position that had previously belonged to Stalin.
Over the course of time, the relief sculpture around the base, showing the moment of liberation and building of Socialism, was covered over with white stone cladding. The monumental sculptor Sándor Mikus, who continued to regard the relief and the statue itself as a masterwork, began in the early 1970s to carve a copy of the Stalin statue frieze. There was a plan to erect Mikus’s copy of the Stalin frieze on Csepel Island, an industrial suburb of Budapest on the Danube, but the sculptor died before the work was completed.
The struggle over the possession and meaning of the remains of the Stalin statue continue up to the present day, an illustration of the power of contemporary relics. In the 1990s surviving fragments of the original frieze were collected and deposited in Budapest’s Statuepark museum of disgraced communist monuments. Incredibly enough, there is a plan to recreate a true scale copy of the plinth of the Stalin statue as a museum exhibit, complete with Stalin’s boots, that were famously left standing after the demolition. In the meantime though, the surviving fragments of the Stalin statue frieze have been transported back to the centre of Budapest to form part of the permanent exhibit of the newly opened Terror House Museum.
The whole edifice of the plinth was finally demolished in the 1970s, leaving behind only a faint trace on the wide concrete surface of the square. A few hundred metres to the right of the site of the Stalin statue, the authorities erected a gigantic monument to the Republic of Councils, the short-lived revolutionary government that came to power in Hungary in 1919. By memorialising an earlier revolutionary regime with which they could identify, Hungary’s post-1956 communist leadership were attempting to demonstrate the longer term historical legitimacy of their rule beyond the rupture of 1956. On the left of the empty space left by the demolished Stalin statue, the authorities decided to erect a statue of Lenin. The Budapest Lenin statue was much smaller than the Stalin statue, and in a highly significant move, was not raised on a pedestal or plinth, but stood at ground level. The Lenin statue was designed to fill the ideological vacuum left by the death of Stalin, but in keeping with the political programme of the Kádár regime, had none of the gigantesque pretensions of the Stalin monument and was not designed to be a focus of mass adoration or a cultic totem.
The demolition of the Stalin Statue, and the historical resonances associated with this iconoclastic act, are well illustrated in a sculptural relief that was erected in London at the Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington in 1960. It was the work of Hungarian exile Ferenc Kovács, and is a historically and geographically inaccurate, but symbolically and psychologically realistic depiction of the events of October 1956. The sculpture shows a crowd marching behind a flag with a hole in the centre. This was the standard of the uprising and was made by demonstrators cutting out the red star that had been added to the Hungarian flag by the communists in 1949. Behind the demonstrators, the Stalin Statue can be made out in the process of toppling to the ground. Another interesting feature is that among the crowd of protestors can be recognised a number of historical figures, specifically the heroes of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848: Lajos Kossuth, Sándor Petofi and General Bem. The links between the two revolutions include the prominent role of young people and writers, the shared fate of defeat after Russian intervention, and the martyrdom of the revolutionary leader, Lajos Batthyány in the mid-nineteenth century and Imre Nagy in the mid-twentieth century.
While in exile one version of the historical memory of 1956 was being memorialised, in Kádár’s Hungary there was an attempt to establish an alternative pro-communist version. As early as May 1957, barely six months after the uprising, a competition was held to erect a ‘monument to the martyrs who died for the freedom of the Hungarian working people.’ It was won by Viktor Kalló, whose expressive monument was erected on Köztársaság [Republic] Square in 1960.
It depicts in bronze a five metre long figure of the martyred hero, with arms outstretched as he falls to the ground. Initially there was no inscription on the monument, perhaps to preserve the ambiguity over whether it referred to the communist martyrs of the ‘counter-revolution’ of 1956 alone, or also to the victims of Nazi oppression, the years of opposition and the martyrs of the Republic of Councils of 1919. In 1983 a twenty-metre relief was added to the monument that narrowed down its memorial function to remembering the activists who died defending the Hungarian communist party headquarters from the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in 1956. The work of the same sculptor, and executed in a psuedo-constructivist style, the relief conveys a sense of the violence of the upheaval of 1956 and includes a list of the communist fallen.
Both the original monument and the more recent relief were removed to Budapest’s Statuepark in 1992. The large concrete plinth is now overgrown with weeds and still lies opposite the former party headquarters on Köztársaság Square, which are now incidentally the headquarters of the governing post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party. The abandoned plinth of the Martyrs’ Monument, like the faint traces of the Stalin statue plinth on Felvonalási Square, can be considered an anti-monument to the revolution of 1956. Both preserve in public space a peculiar resonance of their disgraced past and a sense of the instability of historical narratives, even those embodied in lasting materials and monumental forms.
The reburial of Imre Nagy in June 1989 was a key event in the discrediting and disintegration of communist party authority in Hungary and gave rise to immediate demands for the memorialisation of the true heroes of 1956.
In the spring of 1989 the Committee for Historical Justice began the process of organising a competition for the erection of a fitting monument to Imre Nagy and the other revolutionary martyrs, who had been buried in unmarked graves in the city’s Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery in the late 1950s. The competition was won by the György Jovánovics, and the monument erected on the cemetery’s famous ‘Parcel 301’ in 1992.
György Jovánovics’s Central Martyr’s Monument is much admired by art historians and specialists on monumental sculpture. They appreciate the fact that it is not an overtly political monument and manages to avoid the usual stock-in-trade solutions of the memorial sculptor. There are no sign of political symbols or historicizing motifs, and it has no specific religious associations. It can be regarded as an avant-garde monument that successfully expresses the desire ‘to create a timelessness and eternally valid reminder for everyone of what ‘parcel 301’ means.’
The monument is made up of three spatially linked sculptural elements, an open grave, a temple structure and a ‘rustic stone.’ Taken together they represent the relationship between death (the open grave) and eternal life (the rustic stone) and the path between the two (remembering). The open grave contains a black granite column, a negative column in the tradition of the anti-monument, measuring exactly 1956 mm. The column on the temple structure is its white reflection, and stands on a raised sarcophagus. The rustic stone is reached through a narrow passage between archaic standing stones and is carved with the silhouette of a blocked doorway.
The overall unifying effect of Jovánovics’s Central Martyrs’ Monument is disturbed by the presence nearby of a grassroots monumental project carried out shortly before the new official 1956 monument was commissioned. A field of colourful wooden kopjafa cover the unmarked graves of Parcel 301, representing a competing or, depending on your point of view, complementary approach to the memorialisation of the revolution.
On the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Imre Nagy, 16 June 1988, an underground group known as ‘The Inconnu Artists’ Group’, tried to erect just such a Kopjafa on Imre Nagy’s unmarked grave in Parcel 301. At this time the political breakthrough had yet to be made, and the police confiscated the wooden carving. Six months later, on 4 November 1988, the anniversary of the defeat of the 1956 Revolution, the Inconnu Group attempted once again to erect the kopjafa on Nagy’s grave. This time nobody tried to stop them. They resolved to make more wooden kopjafa monuments for the dozens of other anonymous victims buried there. The Inconnu group took no part in the official competition for the site organised by the Committee of Historical Justice the following year, believing that as they had got there first, their monument should stand. This lead to the peculiar juxtaposition of Jovanovics’s winning design and the field of kopjafa within the same memorial space.
The location of the Central Martyr’s Monument, far from the centre in a cemetery, made it unsuitable for public celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution. During 1996 three city centre monuments to the revolution were erected in Budapest, reflecting varying political and aesthetic viewpoints. The most recent memorial to the uprising, discussed below, was erected in 2001, and represents a further development in the political and commercial instrumentalisation of the memory of 1956.
It was on the suggestion of the then president of Hungary, Árpád Göncz, that a monument was erected at the symbolically significant location of Kossuth Square, right by the Hungarian Parliament, next to the Hungarian state flagpole. The monument, by Mária Lugossy, is made up of a marble block carved in the form of a flame, out of which the eternal flame of the 1956 revolution burns. Although commissioned with a public ceremonial function in mind, its small size within an already overcrowded memorial space detracts from its monumentality.
A monument to the martyred revolutionary leader, Imre Nagy, was erected on another corner of Kossuth Square. It was the work of Tamás Varga, and uses the device of a bridge to suggest the connection between the past and the present, and indirectly to imply the ambiguous position of Imre Nagy himself, who was a reform communist rather than an anti-communist.
Veterans’ organisations, and members of the political right, were not completely happy with the efforts to memorialise the martyrs of the 1956 revolution. They tend to dislike difficult abstract monuments, such as Jovanovics’s monument on Parcel 301, or monuments of general political symbolism, such as the ‘eternal flame.’ The other school of public monuments wanted a memorial to ‘their’ 1956.
An attempt was made to satisfy them with the monument to Jancsi, a 13 year old fighter, who was reputedly very good with a rifle, and fought the Russians by the Corvin cinema. The monument, by Lajos Gyorfi, was commissioned by the 1956 veterans’ organisation. It was famously based on a photograph of a real freedom fighter. It is ironic that after all, the public seems to prefer the photo-realist approach of Gyõrfi’s Jancsi statue, reminiscent of Stalin-era socialist realism, to the multi-faceted artistic monument created by Jovanovics.
The most recent 1956 monument in Budapest was inaugurated on 23 October 2001. It stands outside one of the many new shopping centres built in the city in recent years. It was made with state cash, although there was no public competition, and is closely connected to the political ambitions of the then governing Fidesz party. It again shows the romanticised, heroic figure of the Pesti Srác, or ‘Pest Lad’, who is depicted wrapped in the Hungarian flag, in a Christ-like pose. Arguably, this brash chrome monument has more to do with electoral politics and the ‘shopping plaza-isation of public sculpture’ than the memorialisation of a historical tragedy. By the side of the monument is a simple kopjafa, that was erected on the site a decade before, and has now been integrated into the commercialised public space that grew up around it.
The need to commemorate the Revolution of 1956 with monumental sculpture remains strong in contemporary Hungary. The monuments that were erected by the communist regime in the post-1956 era to deny the historical truth of the uprising and portray it as a bourgeois counter-revolution have been demolished. The monuments erected since 1989 to memorialise the genuine heroes of the revolution have failed to satisfy everyone and revealed a deep political and aesthetic divide. Arguably, the most authentic evocation of the uprising and its consequences is provided by the traces of struggle still present on the fabric of the city after nearly half a century. Along with pock-marked buildings and roads, the faint outline in concrete of the Stalin statue plinth can be seen as a subtle reminder of the drama and sacrifice of the revolution.
Paper given at the AAH conference, Liverpool 2002 and published in a special issue of Inferno devoted to Eastern Europe in March 2003.