The Day of the Dueling Revolutions

15Mar12_02

Budapest, Hungary – March 15, 2012

I weave my way through the crowd, which swells with every passing minute. An unfamiliar sun reveals an immaculate blue sky. The vicious cold of this past February has dissipated. It is Revolution Day, the Hungarian national holiday that commemorates their uprising against the Hapsburgs. Most of Kossuth Lajos square is cordoned off. The Parliament building is decked out in Hungarian flags. A podium awaits. I linger near the cordon. A cheer arises from those gathered. The red and white Polish flag appears. The crowd parts and applauds as a large group of Poles strides forward. They have come to show their solidarity with Hungary and with prime minister Viktor Orban, who is currently at the top of the European Union’s shit list. Among those who despise him, he is known as “The Viktator”.

15Mar12_01

I’m here as a spectator, not a participant. Drawn by the promise of some excitement. It’s been a long winter. Over a hundred thousand people are expected. Over the past couple of years, I’ve declined invitations by foreign activists to various rallies or marches in Budapest. There are expat news websites, with dubious funding, that follow the accepted pro EU slant. It seems rather obnoxious to meddle in the affairs of other countries when my own country is a total mess. No, thanks, I’m just gonna stand back and observe.

The cordon is lifted. The crowd surges forward with the jubilation of teenagers at a rock concert. I’m swept along in the wave. The stage rises above us. Spontaneous songs snake through the crowd. Flags and balloons float overhead. All that’s missing is a beach ball.

A roar erupts as people begin to file onstage. A politician, the opening act, speaks for a few long moments. The crowd fidgets. When he steps away, the crowd begins to chant, “Viktor! Viktor!” And he struts forward. Eyebrows raised, a chuckle of surprise. He begins to speak. The crowd falls silent. Their attention is so rapt that I feel self-conscious as I try to slip away. A couple of women narrow their eyes and block my path. I put on an I’m-going-to-vomit face. “Én beteg.” I’m sick. People back away and let me pass. The square is completely packed and runs into the side streets. It takes me several minutes to be free.

15Mar12_03

I make my way towards Erzsébet Bridge. A left-wing opposition rally is taking place simultaneously. I arrive just as a young man takes the stage. He speaks with the passion of someone reading his shopping list. The crowd stretches far down the road, but there’s more breathing space between bodies. There are no flags and very little signs. Meager applause. Did I get here too late? Well, there’s still the Far Right Jobbik rally to check out at Deak Ferenc ter. It is said to be the most colorful of them all.

15Mar12_05

Then I hear gruff chanting coming from Ferenciek Ter. I perk up. Could Jobbik be coming to stir things up? I head towards the excitement, passing a smiling gentleman with a pro EU sign.

15Mar12_06

Not really sure what that last part means.

15Mar12_07

The chanting grows more ferocious as I draw near. A group of around one thousand has assembled. Flimsy metal fencing and a wall of riot police separate them from the pro EU crowd. A banner that says Nem EU – no EU- hangs next to a small stage.

15Mar12_08

They are not from Jobbik, but rather Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom*. Shaved skulls and Hungarian flag arm bands. Black flags. Spontaneous growling chants. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I step up onto a small cement garden plot and lean next to the tree. A couple of young British girls stand next to me. The crowd behind me thickens. The pro EU people have moved down to check out the action. They yell “Nazis” and other taunts. The black flag people turn their heads away, but cast baleful glances over their shoulders. Some of them shout back and then restrain themselves. The air is thick with tension. The riot police put on their helmets. A female officer blinks back tears. My heart pounds. I look up at the tree. A couple of people are already up there, but if needed, I could shimmy up there. One of the British girls turns to the other, “Are you okay?” Her eyes shine. The girl shrugs, but her jaw is clenched.

“I bet you weren’t expecting this when you booked your trip.” I say with a snicker.

She smiles and shakes her head.

15Mar12_11

A small-boned, bespectacled man wearing a tweed blazer and wielding a briefcase inches his way forward. He sets down his briefcase next to me, puts his hands on his hips and squeals. “Fuck you, fascists!” He nods his little bald head. “Yeah, fuck you!” He looks around at us with a smug smile and then moseys along.**

15Mar12_09

A guy with a guitar takes the stage. Another picks up the microphone. The guitarist begins to strum a pleasant melody. Both sides fall silent.The singer unleashes a stream of guttural croaks into the microphone. The contrast is so shocking that I burst out laughing. Acoustic death metal. Slipknot meets Bob Dylan. The British girls look at me and giggle nervously. I clamp my mouth shut. The pro EU people resume their taunts, but with less gusto. Their bait is not being taken.

15Mar12_10

The crowd behind me begins to thin out. The tension ebbs away. One row of the riot police moves forward, urging us to move along. I cast a look over my shoulder one last time. The finale of the rally seems to be a ritual. Dark pageantry resurrecting past glory. I shiver and turn away.

When I reach Astoria, I look to the left, towards Deak Ferenc Ter. The Jobbik rally is probably still happening. A profound weariness stifles the last of my energy. I turn away and shuffle home.

15Mar12_04

*The Sixty-four Counties Youth Movement. This group seeks to take back all of the pre-Trianon Hungarian territories, such as Transylvania and Slovakia.

**I caught this on video.

40 thoughts on “The Day of the Dueling Revolutions

    • I’m with you, Robin. Crowds, even small ones, are way out of my comfort zone. However, Hungarian politics is full of over-the-top theatrics, so I couldn’t resist a peek. I’m happy I went, because I’m really proud of my photos.

  1. We look back at history with a detached interest. We forgot that we are living history at this moment, with all of its hopeful and fearful consequences. I have a special gratitude for those who write about the events that they experience. It provides context and records the thoughts of our generation. Another excellent post. I have been away for several weeks on projects. Life has a way of happening… Always a joy to stop by…

  2. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture, in word and photo. I am always looking into the crowd for facial similarities..my father’s family all from Budapest. Wondering if a strong eyebrow is characteristic ? Had to pause and laugh at your “I’m going to vomit face”..great technique in a crowd. ☺ Van

  3. We sometimes live in an illusion of a peaceful time, when stories like this make us in a second aware that it can be disrupted any moment and this makes me shiver. I thank you for your touching reportage.:)
    Very best regards.

  4. This is absolutely insane! Man oh man, it happened just a few months before I arrived. The second or so night that I was in Budapest there was a neo-Nazi rally. I was sitting by a few other “ethnic” people when we all got the news – the person who warned us mentioned that “some of us” should be a little more cautious that night. We went out anyway, but it was interesting having that as one of my first experiences in Hungary. Another time I was one of five in a night bus – four guys in the front half of the bus, and me in the back. They all had shaved heads and wore black hoodies. I did not want to assume they were part of any political party based solely on dress (I mean, I love wearing the color black too), but then they started doing the Hitler salute to each other. One guy turned around, saw me, and started walking quickly to the back of the bus. He then began talking to me (in Hungarian). I kept up for a little while, but then he said a word I didn’t know. I explained (still in Hungarian) that I didn’t understand, but he started getting mad at me – yelling, calling me stupid, etc. His friends all began to get up and walk my way when I finally said “I’m from the United States!” His demeanor changed immediately – he grabbed my hand, kissed it, called me his “American angel”… then asked me to come home with him. Needless to say, I did not.

    • Ew. I’m sure you had to restrain yourself from being swept off your feet. Haha. Sorry to hear that happened to you.

      In the 4 years I lived in BP, I never saw neo-nazis, or heard of anyone getting attacked. I hesitate to label the last rally as neo-nazi, because I didn’t see any Hitler saluts or other signs. There was some fist pumping and chanting of “Hungaria!” and the foreign speaker they had spoke of the fear of a loss of sovereignty if they stay in the EU. It was very intense and bizarre. I wonder who’s bright idea it was to allow it to happen right next to the Milla rally. Some in the crowd could have been neo-nazis who kept it to themselves that day, but the rally itself was focused on extreme nationalism. I think the word “Nazi” and the comparisons of certain politicians to Hitler is way overused and therefore has lost some of its power.

      So…are you going to any festivities on Sunday? 😉 Have things calmed down there or do you stay out of that realm?

  5. Knowing your attitude towards crowds, I’m guessing one rally would have been enough excitement for the week, let alone all of this. Tribal loyalties can be so strong as to be ridiculous. Now I know what a soccer (football) match must be like. 🙂

    Glad you survived the day, and no bloodshed occurred. It would have been so easy for hostilities to have broken out.

    • I wasn’t sure how I would tolerate it, but other than being a little nauseous and exhausted at the end, I was okay. It fulfilled my social interaction quota for months. It was very tense for a few minutes. You know it’s bad when the riot police look scared.

  6. Interesting glimpses of Budapest…I liked the way you moved into, just to catch enough of the action, and pulled out of the crowd…just what was required in such situations…salutations, dear traveller, for capturing these vignettes…best wishes… Raj.

    • Thank you, Raj. I’d like to think that I have a natural instinct that tells me when enough is enough. So far, it’s worked well. All the best to you, too, kind sir.

  7. This is such a tense story, although nothing of violence actually happens in it! Are rallies like the one you attended becoming more common in Budapest? Or are they the norm during certain times of the year, like elections?

    • Actually, I left Budapest almost 2 years ago and have not kept up with the situation. So I have no idea if rallies still happen on this scale or not. In general, Hungarians are not aggressive people (these days) so they don’t protest very often, and when they do, there isn’t any actual violence. I think that’s why the riot police looked so nervous. They didn’t have experience with such a huge crowd.

  8. Thanks for your commitment dear Julie…. I truly believe that when people come out to the streets something is about to change… It is even better if they do it in a peaceful way… Sigh.
    Have a beautiful weekend ahead… ⭐ Cheers!!! Aquileana 😀

    • Hi Aquileana, my commitment was only to being an objective observer. I was a temporary resident of Hungary, a guest, so I felt that it was not my place to take sides. Nothing changed after that day, of course. It was all a big show. A fabulous weekend to you too. 🙂

  9. You have delivered a vibrant report from reality, and you make us feel the nerve and tension. Well written and great shots. I would not have wanted to be there though…you are brave. I don’t like big crowds and if I’m at an ordinary concert, I’m never standing close to the stage. Thank you for a very interesting report from this. I think you wisely used your intuition, and I’ll remember your recipe for getting out of the crowd…
    Have a great weekend.

    • Hi Chris – I really don’t know. I left Budapest 2 years ago, and haven’t kept up with the situation. However, as a bizarre coincidence – just yesterday here in Bratislava (Slovakia), a group of around 200 ultra nationalists (shaved heads, black hoods, armbands, the whole shebang) marched in the street just in front of our apartment. They were surrounded by riot police in full gear. ‘Tis the season (March) for such festivities.

  10. This is a brilliant piece, you’ve managed to capture the funny aspects of it too! I’ve been in a similar situation once; the British National Party marched in London, just as the London Philharmonic Orchestra was performing in Trafalgar Square. There were all these Londoners trying to enjoy some classical music and then BNP members (shaved heads, beer cans, horrible slogans etc) marching around us! It was a bizarre mix of hilarious and frightening, it did get very tense. Anyway, great writing!

    • Thanks, Grace. That must have been bizarre indeed. Hardcore nationalists take themselves very seriously and, as a result, can easily come across as cartoonish. I’ve never encountered a more intense group. They were around a thousand versus tens of thousands in the pro EU rally, and yet they were the ones that held everyone’s attention.

  11. Really well written. Being “trapped” in the crowd isn’t a great situation. Sometimes it makes me feel a bit restive. In this kind of situations I really feel the tension around me, I’m also a bit insecure.

    • Hi Cris- It’s amazing that most people seem to feel just fine in crowds. This situation was very, very rare for me. If I hear that there’s going to be a lot of people somewhere, I usually head in the other direction. =:-O

  12. Sunshine gone to their heads or are they normally like this? I’m such an unpolitical creature it wouldn’t occur to me to attend a rally. But then again I don’t live with a ‘Viktator’. 😦

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