Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest

Tr@nsit Online

The street names and statues of a city - its 'city-text' - tell a story of the history of its people. Emilia Palonen explores the ways that Budapest's city-text works to articulate a narrative of fragmentation and unity - of the euphoric coming together in 1989/90 and the subsequent polarisation of postcommunist Hungary into two opposing camps.

The city-text, the street names and statues, in Budapest demonstrate the emergence of unity and again conflicts over different levels and contents of postcommunist politics. The city-text works in the articulation of communities, the ‘people’ and ‘space’, and the developments between fragmentation and unity, which are characteristic to political development in Hungary since the late 1980s. After the initial moment of unity against the past around 1989/90 conflicts over practicalities of who should and should not be commemorated were to be decided emerged. Also, a proliferation of different groups emerged around commemoration. After the initial euphoria and coming-together of different forces in 1989/90 the Hungarian politics and society has turned into two polarized camps.

Given the rich existing literature on the topic of both street names and statues in Budapest, I am not addressing a gap in the empirical material on the Budapest city-text per se. I also do not seek to offer a descriptive account of what happened, dealing with practicalities of renaming and statue change. I use this material to focus on processes of community building, and I am aware that there could be many other examples to be taken up in this context. I will focus on the case of commemoration of Imre Nagy and the process of Statue Park, and give examples of the presence of the past in the city-text. First, however, I account for the literature on the city-text, outlining my own perspective. Subsequently I describe the main developments in the city-text in Budapest for background information on the topic. To illustrate moves between unity and fragmentation, construction and contestation of points of identification in postcommunist Hungarian politics, I will start from the mid-1980s and the way in which the existing order was questioned through observations and critique of its commemoration policies regarding the city-text. Finally, I will look at the reconstruction of the canon, and the links to community building, removals, preservation of the ‘past’ and the uneasy creation of the new era through the city-text.

The city-text:
Building and fragmenting communities

I will start by outlining the city-text as an object of study, a large topic in itself. The politics of memorial and street names has been subject of many studies, inspired by Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire, which set a trend for the study of politics of memory in the national contexts. The ‘city-text’, has been studied perhaps most significantly by Maoz Azaryahu, referring to both street names and statues and memorials. He has mainly been interested in the creation of ideological histories and their spreading as everyday political symbols. For him, the city-text can be perceived as the product or manifestation of political ideologies, of the ruling elite of the time. Azaryahu focuses on the content of the canonized orders informs us about the power holders and their discourse. Azaryahu has been dealing with clear political changes in the GDR, Austria and Israel, while Stanford Levinson studying mainly the context of the US regards the city-text as an indicator of changing times even where political turbulence does not appear to exist. He argues that writers of the city-text seek to create consensus:

In particular, organizers of the new regime must decide which, if any, of the heroes of the old regime deserve to continue occupying public space. And the new regime will always concern if these heroes might serve as potential symbols of resistance for adherents among the population who must, at least from the perspective of the newcomers, ultimately acquiesce to the new order.

By contrast to the consensus-forming approach, John Gillies argues that physical symbols of power offer a chance also to identify against the status quo: openness to contestation and rearticulation is the democratic asset of the city-text. My work deals with the construction of communities, but it recognizes any such construction is conflictual. Furthermore, once the ‘essences’ of community or moral order are publicly pronounced and tangible also they and their contents become easier contestable.

Therefore, rather than being a simple field of inscription for the ‘collective memory’, the city-text creates collectives as well as memories. Perhaps the closest conception of the city-text as a set of identity forming symbols I want to put forward is expressed by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson in her account of street names, which can be extended to the whole of the city-text:

… street names confer meaning of urban space. Not only signs to the city, street names are very much signs of the city. Because nomination makes a fundamental gesture of possession, the naming of streets affords one more opportunity to affirm, or to contest, control the city. For beyond the instrumental function of identifying location, street names socialize space and celebrate cultural identity; they perpetuate tradition even as they register change.

Here she takes up both the aspect of possession, which implies a bond between the names and their namers as well as politics through the aspect of contestation and attempts to impose control. The city-text following Parkinson also offers a way to manage representations and thus also the content and existence of ‘cultural identity’. In my reading, the perpetuation would imply the constant reproduction of it.

There have been calls for representations and city-texts that would fit the context. For example George Schöpflin has argued that, besides bringing legitimacy, street names also should reflect the society as a whole and not to alienate minorities in Central Eastern Europe. Crucially, however, it is impossible to represent the society as a ‘totality’. Also, as a ‘total’ national history or memory cannot be written it also cannot be inscribed on the city-text and the way it forms identifications. The gap between the representation (city-text) and the represented (political discourses, official history, ‘society’) is crucial for seeing the contingency and politics of the city-text. Instead of simply carrying the ideologies of the power holders or mirroring some political discourses, the city-text actively constructs a ‘representation’, aims at creating discourses, constituting a worldview. It is not a mere mirror the ‘values of the time’, or ‘the society’, even if it may indicate political changes, particularly regarding these concepts.

Consequently, the city-text represents, or forms, a national canon of heroes – specifically in national capitals. The process of writing the city-text is one of exclusion and inclusion, choosing from an infinite political, historical and cultural figures and vocabularies those worthy of commemoration. These figures can then be seen as ‘nodal points’ of commemoration, of political discourses and identifications represented through the city-text. Often the personalities, as I will show through the case of Imre Nagy, also figure in discourses outside the city-text themselves. They symbolize discourses promoted or downgraded from the city-text. Elements of the city-text acquire part of their meaning relationally through their articulation into or out of a canon and in a particular era.

The city-text creates simultaneously ‘the people’, the collectivities or communities, and ‘space’, which as Massey has stressed, are interrelated concepts. Affect, necessary for the creation of community, exists not only through the ownership of the place and the past by people engaged in the naming process. It brings about a relationship between the people using the names and place and thereby to the community recognizing the names, statues and architecture – whether the relationship to their content is neutral, affirmative or antagonistic.

In the process the statues and street names may be emptied out of their original meanings as they take up significations and the old meanings are not restored. However, also old or new meanings can be (re)assigned to them, as in Budapest in the early 1990s. This caused repoliticization and contestation of the city-text, as well as claims of its depoliticization or becoming part of the daily experience. Besides the questions over who makes the changes, fragmentation emerged over questions such as: what to do with the past, what to change, and what would be the new canon. In short, the city-text has potential for both community building and fragmentation. Next I will outline the history of Budapest city-text, before going into the postcommunist changes.

The changing canons in Budapest:
City-texts of the present and the past in the 1980s

Politics of street name and statue change is deeply rooted in the Hungarian tradition of sweeping political changes. The street names were hungarianized in the early nineteenth century with the emergence of national feeling and translated from German to Hungarian. With the growth and further hungarianization of the metropolis and the autonomy from the Habsburgs in 1867 Hungarian heroes were added to the city-text and national canon formed. Since the First World War changes were brought in from the left and the right. The Soviet Republic of 1919 with the comrades of Béla Kun removed Habsburgs and instituted Marx and socialist internationalism as its heroes. Its aftermath brought back the Habsburgs and started a revisionist era with commemoration of the borders of Hungary prior to the Trianon Peace Treaty – which ended the First World War for Hungary. From the 1930s Budapest’s streets commemorated also Mussolini (1936) and Hitler (1938). The city-text was rewritten in 1945, and they started to commemorate heroes of the war, particularly the Soviets who had liberated Hungary. After the country became a part of the Soviet Bloc the city-text was Stalinized, and again de-Stalinized during the failed 1956 revolution. Afterwards they have been articulating changes in the public ideology, observable even beyond the major turnovers of power. As the city-text is changed at every major turnover of power, unlike in the more conservative/conserving polities, the street names and statues do not seem as non-ideological in Hungary. Despite their ideological function in producing a ‘national canonical order they are, however in the everyday, mainly latently political and politicized through contestation, which took a manifested physical form in 1956 and in the late 1980s.

In the 1980s the discussion on public sculpture slowly started in Budapest. During the same era some street names were changed and statues erected, indicating, on the one hand, a new era and, on the other, commitment to the current system. These two processes caused reflection on the city-text which was taken up at the changes of the system. They proposed that the city-text is an important forum for observing developments in the governing ideology manifested through the city-text. The Budapest Gallery – responsible for the ‘monitoring and care of the statues’ in the city – published two catalogues of public statues and memorials in 1985 and 1987. In a magazine called Budapest a series of articles under the heading ‘New public sculpture’ was published. This discussion treated the built environment, such as the city-text, as a human construct, which changed over time at the hands of different ‘generations’ of decision-makers. While the first catalogue presented the statues from the first 40 years after the liberation of Hungary by the Soviet troops, and it functioned as a showcase of the state socialist statues and values without much introduction. In the introduction of the second catalogue, which covered statues from the period of 1692-1945, Lajos Németh focused on the function and historicity of the statues, also emphasizing how the public places carry political messages, what is represented and what not, especially through public art. Once the existence of messages in the public sculpture from different periods was acknowledged, they could be dealt with – without falling into the trap of simply accusing the power-holders of ‘ideology’, as these would be ideological in any case.

Although Wehner Tibor, an art historian, argued that in the 1980s the aesthetic critique of the political memorials was taboo and only positive comments were allowed, the writings, exhibitions and the publication of the catalogues of the statues I accounted for enhanced awareness of the statues and their meanings. They also set the basis for the postcommunist debate on statues and other public symbols. The values of the system were highlighted and later politicized through the reflection on the city-text, which remained a site of conflict and tool for creation of ideologies and identifications in the postcommunist period. Yet, at the same time it continued to create a space which still bears legacies of the past: the postcommunist condition is marked by the relations to the past, present and future which appear in the city-text and its memories.

Rewriting the text in the 1990s:
Constructing a community and causing fragmentation

Political change can cause a break with the past in many ways. Some call for radical rupture, others attempted to attenuate the political claims through aesthetic, bureaucratic or expert arguments. In postcommunist Hungary commemoration and public symbols proved an important means of politicking, making ideological distinctions and constructing new identities, thereby repositioning Hungary after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The involvement of the parliament with street names or flags or symbols was also under debate. Elsewhere, I have made a point about the attempts to constitute communities around the debate over commemoration at different levels of governance. Here, I wish to show how there are official attempts to build a new community by re/decanonization, which differ from period to another, but which also, crucially, are contested by the community. The politics with the past emerged as an important issue in the postcommunist era, when the transition from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ was made visible. New was the ‘us’ and the ‘old’ the ‘them’.

Boros and Pótó each formed a typology which outlines the different views of the changes. Boros argued that there were three different positions in the debate on statues: those who wanted to get rid of all of them, those did not want to bother dealing with them and finally those who wanted to preserve statues in a museum of sorts. Opinions on street names would follow the pattern: removing all the communist-era street names, supporting minimal, if any, removals, or saving some of them by way of a layer of memory in the city. These ideal types often overlap in the arguments. However, they also establish positions, identifications on the way in which changes should occur.

The early to mid-1990s witnessed attempts to create a new postcommunist national canon. Given the negotiated character of the Hungarian revolution of 1989, most of the postcommunist themes of the city-text already were put forward during the pre-1989 era. Therefore even if statues were reversed and street names were changed in the centre of Budapest over the first two years, in the statues, already for logistic and financial reasons, the change in terms of new or returned memorials continues.

Recognizing, removing and imposing a canon

Certain famous and safely commemorated figures almost hierarchically occupy the main streets of the districts of Budapest. A s Budapest is composed of districts, each of which is responsible for street naming, the same few names – pet?fis, kossuth lajoses et cetera – tend to dominate the city-text in each district in the same way as they appear in the Hungarian towns and villages in general. Every change of political system expunges the discredited figures from it. As a result, the history writing becomes one sided and aims, even under post-communism, to provide an ‘official’ history. The unpleasant side of the national history is ‘forgotten’, through the omission of figures of ambiguous success. In that sense, the winner takes it all in the Hungarian city-text. The communist street names were canonized in the same way. For example, Karl Marx had his names on the nine streets and squares, while the Hungarian Endre Ságvári a street in eleven districts. This canon was identified and removed after 1989. To launch a new era, a new canon was built.

In Budapest, most of the power is vested after 1990 at the level of the districts, whereas the role of the Municipal Assembly and government is limited to areas such as city-planning. Final decisions over the commemorative city-text are made at the municipal level, but in the case of street names they require first input from the district level. Statues can be proposed by public institutions and private associations. The two components of the city-text are decided on in different ways. It is groups of citizens or districts with funding which propose to the Mayor’s office to be erecting a specific memorial in a specific location. After being approved by the Mayor’s office, the Budapest Gallery oversees the project. By contrast, the commemorative street names are first proposed at the district level and once passing through the district council they also need a positive decision at the Municipal Assembly. District councils can only (re)name streets in the area of that district and then only with names that do not specifically commemorate people.

The change in the city-text progressed from the removal of a certain past to the reintroduction of other pasts. The removal of the ‘communist’ vocabulary from the city text progressed in stages. Whereas street names need and gained an immediate substitute, the removal of statues left empty spaces in the city, illustrating the point of removal and representing the ideological void caused by the postcommunist era. It is there where the stages and the gradual introduction of substantive content to the city-text, the articulation and sedimentation of postcommunist discourses, is the most visible.

The removed street names were ‘ultra-left’ as well as broadly speaking leftist or anti-fascist, and formed the communist canon of communist party members which the new power holders decanonized. The streets were changing in Budapest already before the parliamentary and local elections in 1990. The first changed name, one which marks the beginning of the postcommunist era was the renaming of Dimitrov Square to Church Square in the 2 nd district, on 3 June 1987. Changes were already on the way. On 23 January 1990, Ferenc Münnich Street, named after the former Minister of Interior and a close ally of Kádár, became again Nándor utca in the heart of Budapest. Three months later the statue of Münnich was reversed on Néphadsereg ( people’s army) , now Hónvéd tér (national defense square). From 1989 different groups had been attacking statues in the euphoria of the revolution, but the toppling of the statue of Münnich on 21 March 1990 by the activists of György Krassó’s Hungarian October Party became a ritual similar to the reversal of Stalin’s statue during the 1956 revolutionThe act of the toppling of the statue itself, which was to demonstrate a political frontier between the democrats and the old order, became a source of identification and disidentification.

In April 1990 the City Soviet and called for the citizens to be patient with the statues, which it saw as ‘innocent’. It also decided to change 38 street names in Budapest, and urged those districts that were willing to change names to make their decisions about the changes of the street names by the deadline of 30 June 1990. Some of the districts were reported to be reluctant make changes as they should be to the new ‘democratic’ councils to decide. The following two years witnessed a constant modification of the street names and ten moments of removals, when the city council decided to change a great number of names at once. Not all the commemorative street names introduced during the years of state socialism were removed, and many of the removed names were contested. There was an ambiguity as to which of the names belonged to the communist canon and which not.

The renaming streets and removing statues offers a chance to project an appearance of change. At the same time as commemorating and signaling a direction of value change, these personalities and concepts become added elements to creations of the space and the public. Victimhood was a theme of commemoration which emerged besides through the 1956, also through the Holocaust commemoration, which had already started in the late 1980s. Whereas the new memorials predominantly commemorated the 1956 revolutionary victims, the new street names witnessed a return to the past, return to old names. The late nineteenth century was appropriated as the golden era in the early 1990s. This was seen as the most neutral period in the Hungarian past to return to, yet at the same time one which was raising national feelings as well as calls to the return to Europe.

In the beginning, return to the Dual Monarchy era, was a way to avoid dealing with the present, jumping to the distant past worked in avoiding painful questions of the post-Trianon Hungary and the present, in a similar way as branding Stalinist pre-1956 era ‘communism’. After the pragmatically chosen golden era of the late nineteenth century, the Hungarian right towards the mid-1990s turned to the celebration of the interwar period. Claims for the commemoration of Admiral Horthy and of Trianon were perhaps beyond the mainstream on the right, whereas the commemoration of the peasant populist politicians and writers was a way of expressing more moderate views. Also many of the religious and aristocratic statues were returned to the city, particularly in the late 1990s. The amnesia and unwillingness to build new are visible in the return of the Habsburgs to the main boulevards of the city. One of the most important themes in the new city-text, however, is the commemoration of 1956, which also demonstrates the role of the city-text in community building.

Imre Nagy and the ‘1956’ – the unity that broke down

The revolutionary events in 1989 constructed a moment of unity in Hungary, culminating in the reburial of Imre Nagy. It was reconciliation to the division in Hungary since 1956, between those who wanted to reform the system and those on the side of the Soviet-lead establishment. It became as an expression of the new era which started from the round-table negotiations bringing a system change in Hungary.

Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest










Memorial for Imre Nagy erected in 1996 next to the Parliament

In the beginning the 1956 revolution was celebrated by a range of associations and institutions, as for example Boros has accounted for in his book on 1956 statues. Imre Nagy was first seen as a national Hungarian hero and the acknowledgement of the 1956 as a national fight for independence, from the statues of a ‘counterrevolution’ it had had during the Kádár era. Nagy, in fact, became the symbol of both the unity and polarization in Hungarian politics, as commemoration became increasingly contested in the 1990s. Nagy was first commonly celebrated as democrat and patriot, also gaining recognition of the reformed socialists in the years of changes. The 1956 had been present in the public discourse since 1956, but its meaning was negotiated in the late 1980s as an expression of changes. The reburial of Imre Nagy was closely linked with the expression of the ‘1956’ as a national revolution, an expression of independence from the Soviet controlled bloc, a status which has been denied from it in the Kádár era.

Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest










Tombstone-like memorials for 1956 on Széna tér. The flat headstone erected by the MDF, the one at the background by the Association of Hungarian Political Prisoners in 1991

The new memorials were first spontaneously erected as tombstones to the loved ones. Then the commemoration started to have a more national flair: the memorials incorporate national flags and the kokárda. Crucially, the commemoration of the 1956 was a mass phenomenon – numerous different groupings wanted to erect their own memorials for the revolution. At the same time as demonstrating fragmentation in the society, through the range of celebrations by different groups, the 1956 brought unity of all parties against the past. This past, as ‘communism’, was being described as something distant, Stalinist rather than Kádárist, as all parties had been involved with the system and politics of the near past. The 1956 offered a way for politicians from all camps, from young Viktor Orbán of the liberal Fidesz (later conservative PM 1998-2002) to the reform socialists, to denounce the past qua communism, and celebrate the reformist Imre Nagy without having to deal with what happened after 1956 under Kádár.

Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest













Plaques on the square commemorating Imre Nagy

At the same time, it is important to stress that the commemorative processes offered a chance for different groups to manifest their own existence. The commemorative plaques, such as those for the victims of 1956 next to the military court where Imre Nagy was executed, not only make a claim about the 1956 heritage as an important component of the political parties’ and groupings’ identity. In fact, the plaque reinforces and manifests the existence of the grouping, tout court. For example the KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party)’s Budapest section erected a memorial on the other side of the same building for all the victims of communism emphasizing itself as an anti-communist party. (See illustrations.) To take this analysis further, the memorial plaques are not merely testimonies of the past or points of personal and group identification: they also serve a function as a sign of existence and advertisement for the group in question.

Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest










The plaque of the KDNP Budapest section for the victims of communism

The claims made to the memory of the 1956 were so diverse, opposite and particularistic, that it did not manage to accommodate all the significations, and thereby failed as a unifying signifier, which would have meant that ‘1956’ had remained a broad umbrella containing various claims about the revolution and nationhood. Furthermore, there was a need to create political distinctions for the multiparty system. Imre Nagy and the spirit of the 1956 became a dividing line. The first Hungarian conservative right-wing government ultimately considered Nagy and the revolution as reformist communist, and consequently not of national value. The ‘1956’ failed in bringing lasting unity, but in fact was turned into one of the differentiating themes in Hungarian politics. Nagy’s memory finally failed to unite the Hungarians, as the Hungarian political right-wing marked their own camp by drawing the political frontier against his commemoration.

Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest










The Széna tér memorial was saved even if a shopping centre was built next to it, and even recommemorated with another larger statue in 2002

While initially claiming the 1956 heritage (as for example the monument on Széna tér, next to Moszkva tér, see illustration), the rightwing MDF government of 1990-94 delayed the commemoration of Nagy in the city-text, and only under the Socialist-Liberal government of 1994-1998, three 1956 memorials were erected near the parliament in 1996. MDF denied ‘1956’ its celebratory status and it became a dividing rather than a uniting force. The MDF particularly questioned the role and character of ‘1956’ and its leader Imre Nagy whom it still regarded suspiciously as a communist. This broke the initial postcommunist hegemony, which had rested on the commemoration of the 1956, and constituted a conception that anything of the left could potentially be ‘communist’ and thus against the nation. The contestation over the status of Nagy, allowed for the creation of the identity of the political group as anti-socialist. At the same time Nagy’s signification was again particularized enough by the left to offer a source for specific political identification.

Crucially, the debate and action over The case of Imre Nagy and the 1956 revolution supported a vision of two camps, and lead politics from unity and the consequent fragmentation and development of Hungarian politics into a bipolar situation. In the next section, I will focus on the statue park and its role in politics of the community building.

The Statue Park

The Statue Park in Budapest is a good example of the process of making a break with the past, and constructs the distinction between us and them. Besides its community building function, it provided the power-holders a way to avoid the dissensus caused by quick removals. The comrades in bronze and stone could be conveniently excluded from the city-text, while avoiding destruction, by building a statue park for the removed memorials.

First mentioned as a literary exercise rather than political project, even the small young liberal anti-communist party Fidesz (currently the leading party on the Hungarian right) called for a statue park suggesting that all the Lenins should be gathered in Békescsaba. When the Statue Park was established by the municipality of Budapest it was argued on the grounds of the protection of the statues. Pótó saw it as a practical solution to the postcommunist dilemma: ‘For months ideas of different parties and organizations filled the press, which was heated up with [postrevolutionary] euphoria. In the midst of this, other groups and organizations started to destroy the memorials they didn’t like. This observation supports my claim that different communities and points of identification were created around the changing city-text. The statue park idea was also supported on the grounds of getting the statues ‘out of the windows but not minds for ever’. Finally the museum was built on a field safely outside Budapest and far from the original location of the statues in the cityscape.

Creating Communities: The Postcommunist City-Text of Budapest










The Statue Park opened in autumn 1993 outside the city

Whether a museum, memorial, or a ‘ghost train’, in February 1992 the Budapest Gallery opened a competition for the design of the statue park, and in May the jury chose that of Ákos El?ddThe young architect provided the setting of Sztalinváros, Stalin Town, with architectural forms such as gates, pillars and statue cabins, vindicating a memento of the past order. There was some concern regarding which statues should be placed in the park. Indeed, as the Soviet style landmarks lost some of their ideological content, so did the statues in the park. Without the context of cityscape and the location in the temporal layers of the city the statues change their original meanings. Nevertheless, they remain political as the politics of museumization still affects them.

With the establishment of the statue park, the right-wing government made a political leap from the radical removals to the third way of civilized removals, constructing and preserving a new canon of Hungarian communism. It thereby defined ‘them’, the past or the socialist, and having pinpointed them, excluded it from the city in a ‘zoo’ that could be visited. The past had been dealt with, cleaned away; the new Hungary was born. Yet the statue park with its monuments ‘liberated’ from their urban and everyday surroundings would be related to in different ways by different people: ignored as irrelevant, seen as a cemetery of the past era, or a space where one could finally face the statues in a neutral environment, even with visitors.

Presence of the past in community-building

Commemoration with new memorials became an important mode of articulation of identities, distancing them from past villains and associating them with heroes. Similarly, the cherishing of the past was a form of articulation or maintenance of the space and the public.

One of the statues taken to the Statue Park played a particular role in the postcommunist discussion on points of identification. The calls for keeping the statue of Osztapenko (Ostiapenko), a Soviet peace negotiator who was killed during the WWII in Budapest, in its place on the corner of the M7 and M1 leading to Vienna were based on the idea than the statue had been stripped of its political content and had become a landmark, a ‘place’. In this way, Osztapenko questioned the character of a political statue, and also whether the political character of a statue does indeed disappear over time. The urban environment plays a part of identification to the locality for the people. Some thought that the part of their past would be erased with the changes such as removal of landmarks. The identification with the Osztapenko memorial was an important collective imaginary in postcommunist Hungary.

While the Osztapenko memorial was removed, and only its absence remains as a landmark for local people the Budapest district, I will look at the case of a present reminder, Moszkva ( Moscow) tér, t he most visible of the remaining names of the communist era. It was called Szell Kálmán tér 1929-1945, and Moszkva established itself in the popular vocabulary only slowly, ultimately as one of the main stations in the public transport system. Long after 1945, the older generation used the pre-communist name and the young people, and students from the near-by schools, used to meet at ‘Kalef’, while now Moszkva is well settled. This example shows how an alternative space and public was created around the square. Rather than geographical, the name has a local character: Moszkva tér aesthetically fits the surroundings of the 1960s run down metro station and node of public transport. It makes part of the existing relations in the square, the space/publics of contemporary Budapest are constructed in this square, a key node of transport where the most well of people of the Buda Hills and the illegal labor market meets. In this space, the features and legacies of communism are visible next to novelties. In this Benjaminian way, the present, the past and the anticipation of the future make up the ‘Now’ on Moszkva tér. There has been discussion from the 1990s and increasingly in the 2000s plans for the reshaping of the square. These have not been carried out, due to lack of vision, popular enthusiasm and funds. In this way, Moszkva tér continues to project the postcommunist situation of fragmented communities.

An excellent example of reluctance to think new and the continuous recreation of space/publics is return of the turn of the century name Andrássy út to Népköztársaság útja (People’s Republic). Although few remember, originally in the 1840s the street was called Maurer Gasse (Bricklayer). Then it was named Sugár út, Radial Strasse, a name which still is sometimes used. In 1950 it, like many important streets around Hungary and Budapest, became Stalin út. The 1956 revolution renamed it Magyar ifjúság útja (Hungarian Youth), but despite the celebrations of 1956 the 1989 revolution did not restore the name. Neither was the name modified into a Köztársaság útja (Republic), nor named after something contemporary such as Rendszerváltás útja (System Change). Around 2000 the rubbish bins on the street still had their four-letter abbreviation Nép (people), showing the long-lasting character of the old name. Unofficial use of names shows the lag between the official city-text writers and the citizens as well as the significance of the city-text for the citizens and their identifications in their daily life. After 1950, it was commonly called Andrássy út, and if after 1956 the socialist version was used, it was abbreviated into Népköz. What is at stake is not only simply a creation of political but generational space/publics.

Currently the Avenue is often called besides Sugár út also by the younger generation by its pre-1989 name given by the previous generations. Similarly they call the squares of Andrássy by their communist names, such as abbreviating the former name Oktogon, November 7. tér, which their previous generation found difficult to use, as it referred to the 1917 Russian revolution . These usages indicate that there are and always has been ‘communities of naming’ beyond the official, and confirm the way in which the city-text has a community building function. The colloquial use of the old names can be seen as the response to the amnesia in official commemoration towards the near past or state socialist period. The users of the city-text may wish to impose their own vocabularies and play with the presence of different pasts and conceptions of them.


Every Hungarian seems to have their favorite story of the city-text change in Hungary, which also reflects on the contemporary problems of the country. Rather than accounting this important and from some perspectives even under-researched and under-theorized topic, I attempted to account for political changes and community building in postcommunist Hungary, the uneasy moment of decisions which emerged after 1989 and the collapse of the grand coalition of ‘democratic forces’ around the 1956 celebration and mourning. The coalition collapsed because of a need to create particular political identities which meant for the political right the rejection of the 1956 heritage. The difficulty to provide new names or statues for the city-text was also indicative of this uneasiness of the future, and the creation of contemporary points of identification and a reluctance to deal with a recent past. The processes of fragmentation and unity, can also been seen between political groupings and ideologies.

Finally, I have shown that the city-text has been important for the identity-building as political symbols in everyday space from the early 1990s. Vitally, these processes are always contingent and contested. They emerge as source of political debate and tie together the people surrounded by these objects to politics through common (dis)identifications and frontier-making. They allow for the emergence, realization and visualization of different kinds of political conflict, and communities.


The author wishes to thank the IWM, Vienna, and the Körber Foundation, Hamburg, as well as Collegium Budapest for providing the facilities to work on this article under the research project “Politics of the City-Image in Graz, Vienna and Budapest”. Besides in-depth research the paper has also benefited from private conversations with a number of Hungarian Colleagues on the topic of this paper, particularly János M. Kovács, at the IWM. Warm thanks also to Aletta Norval and Sarah Birch at the University of Essex for comments on the earlier versions of this paper. My PhD thesis which is also on political communities will be published in 2006 as a book: Political Polarisation in Contemporary Hungary (L’Harmattan).

These are in fact treated as separate categories. Politics of postcommunist statues and memorials have been studied in depth. E.g. János Pótó, Az emlékeztetés helyei, Emlékmûvek és politika, Budapest: Osiris, 2003; Géza Boros, Emlékmûvék 56-nak, Budapest: 1956 Institute 1997; László Proháska, Szoborsorsok, Budapest: Kornétás, 1994; László Proháska, Szoborhistóriák, Budapest: Városhaza, 2004. Tibor Wehner, Köztéri szobraink, Budapest: 1986. The street name changes in the early 1990s have been studied by e.g. Heino Nyyssönen, ‘Katujen uusi suunta Budapestissa’ in Nyyssönen ed. Nimet poliittisessa retoriikassa, Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, Department of Government, Publications 66, 1993, and The history of the street names have been catalogued in Mihály Ráday, György Mészáros, Péter Buza, eds., Budapest teljes utcanévlexicona. [Complete Budapest street name encyclopedia] , Budapest : Dinasztia Kiadó – Gemini Budapest Kiadó, 1998, pp. 281 and 230.

The contents of commemorations and the ways of national canon building I have been addressing elsewhere, and will not be dealt with in depth here. It is not necessary for my study to dwell on questions of who changed what, when, where and how and in opposition to whom, which also emerges in the existing literature. See e.g. Emilia Palonen ‘Politics of Memory in the City-Text of Budapest’ , ECPR Joined Sessions, (workshop on Politics and Memory, 28.3.– 2.4.2003, Edinburgh) , ECPR online paper archive, Colchester 2003,

E.g. Maoz Azaryahu, Von Wilhelmplatz zu Thälmannplatz – Politische Symbole im öffentlichen Leben der DDR, Gerlingen: Bleicher Verlag 1991; ‘The Purge of Bismark and Saladin: The Renaming of Streets in East Berlin and Haifa, a Comparative study in Culture-Planning’, Poetics Today 1992, 13:2.

Azaryahu, Von Wilhelmplatz zu Thälmannplatz.

Stanford Levinson, Written in Stone; Public Monuments in Changing Societies, Public Planet Books, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 10-11

Gillis, John R., ed., Commemorations, The Politics of National Identity, Princeton University Press: Princeton 1994; see also Krystyna von Henneberg ‘Monuments, Public Space, and the Memory of Empire in Modern Italy’ History and Memory, 16:1, Spring/Summer 2004.

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, ‘ Reading City Streets’, The French Review, 61, No.3, February 1988.

In his study of the street names and memorials in Eastern Europe from 1945 to postcommunism, Tommy Book has outlined the change in the national canons of commemoration at the change of political systems, and pointed out that especially foreign, non-national or non-local street names can be experienced as alienating.Tommy Book, Symbolskiften I det politiska landskapet: namn – heraldic – monument, Växjö: Växjö University Press, 2000.

George Schöpflin, Nations, Identity, Power; The New Politics of Europe, London: Hurst, 2000, p. 130

Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolutions of Our Time, London: Verso, 1990.

I argue this on the basis of my earlier research on postcommunist canonization in the street names of Budapest, Debrecen and the village of Halásztelek in Hungary. Emilia Palonen ‘Canonisation and Recanonisation in Hungarian Street Names’, in István Dobos & MihálySzegedy-Maszák, eds., Kánon és kanonizáció : tanulmányok az V. Nemzetközi Hungarológiai Kongresszus (Studies of the 5 th International Congress of Hungarian Studies, Jyväskylä, Finland, 2001), Debrecen: Csokonai, 2003.

Doreen Massey, For Space, London: Sage, 2005.

Katalin Sinkó, ‘Political Rituals: the Raising and Demolition of Monuments’ in Péter György and Hedvig Turai, Art and Society in the Age of Stalin, Budapest: Corvina, 1992.

See e.g. István Dobos & MihálySzegedy-Maszák, eds., Kánon és kanonizáció : tanulmányok az V. Nemzetközi Hungarológiai Kongresszus (Studies of the 5 th International Congress of Hungarian Studies, Jyväskylä, Finland, 2001), Debrecen: Csokonai, 2003.

Ágnes Szöllôsy, András Szilágyi, Levente Hadházy, eds., Negyven év köztéri szobrai Budapesten 1945-1985 Budapest: Galéria Budapest 1985. Ágnes Szöllôsy, András Szilágyi, Levente Hadházy, eds. Budapest köztéri szobrai 1692-1945, Budapest: Budapest Galéria 1987; Ágnes Szöllôsy, Géza Boros, eds. Budapest köztéri szobrai és emléktáblai 1985-1998 [Budapest public statues and memorial plaques] Budapest: Budapest Galéria, 1998.

Lajos Németh, introduction, Szöllôsy, et al., Budapest köztéri szobrai 1692-1945, Budapest: Budapest Galéria, 1987, p. 9.

Tibor Wehner, ‘A köztéri szobrászat politikai és ideológiai aspektusai’, Új forrás, 1988: 6.

See e.g. Nyyssönen, Presence of the Past.

IWM paper Emilia Palonen, ‘ Constructing Communities: From Local to National, Transnational and “Activist” Politics of Memory in Europe‘, in Dagmar Kusá and Shai Moses (eds.) Aspects of European Political Culture, Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XX, IWM, Vienna 2005,, pp. 77-86.

Pótó’s argument shows these three in their arenas: during the debate which took at least two years from 1988-89, three points of view emerge. What is here called the radical position was taken up in the sociopolitical critique of a minority, towards the statues in the streets and squares. The ‘ preservationist’ position, corresponding with Boros’s ‘phlegmatic’ position, expressed in the surveys as the majority position claimed that a change of statues would be too expensive and too complicated. The museum position was adopted by those who wanted to remove the statues but place them in a statue park. Pótó , Az emlékeztetés helyei.

Géza Boros, ‘Budapest’s Sculptures and Commemorative Plaques in Public Spaces 1985-1998, in Ágnes Szöllôsy and Géza Boros, eds. Budapest köztéri szobrai és emléktáblai 1985-1998.

See e.g. Sinkó, ‘Political Rituals: the Raising and Demolition of Monuments’.

Nyyssönen, Presence of the Past, pp. 118-9.

The postcommunist Local Government Act of 1990 established the case for a separate Budapest Municipal Act, setting the capital apart from other Hungarian towns. Since the first postcommunist elections in 1990 were won by the liberals, Fidesz and SZDSZ, the conservative national government opted for decentralisation, with 22 districts and a municipal governing body László Báan, ‘Budapest at the Dawn of Democracy 1989-1996’, in András Ger? and János Póór, eds., Budapest: A History from Its Beginnings to 1998, trans. Judit Zinner and Cecil D. Eby and Nóra Arató, East European Monographs, No. CDLXII, Highland Lakes, New Jersey: Atlantic Research and Publications Inc., 1997, pp. 277-81.

Pótó, Az emlékeztetés helyei, p. 239-42.

Népszabadság, 11 April 1990.

Golden eras Andreas Pribersky, ‚Politische Erinnerungskulturen der Habsburger-Monarchie in Ungarn: Ein „Goldenes Zeitalter“?’ in Johannes Feichtinger, Ursula Prutsch, Moritz Csáky, eds., Habsburg postcolonial. Machstrukturen und kollektives Gedächtnis, Innsbruck-Wien-München-Bozen, 2003.

Géza Boros, Emlékmûvek ‘56-nak, Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, 1997

Imre Pozsgay, a reformist in the state socialist MSZMP leadership argued in a radio interview in Januaray 1989 that “popular uprising” would be better name than counterrevolution for 1956. Andor, Transition in Blue, p. 37; Karl P. Benziger, ‘The funeral of Imre Nagy: Contested history and the power of memory culture’ History and Memory, 12:2, Fall 2000, pp. 142-164; Nyyssönen Presence of the Past in Politics.

Nyyssönen, Presence of the Past.

Benziger, ‘The funeral of Imre Nagy…’

Éva Kovács, ‘A terek és a szobrok emlékezete (1988-1990) – Et?d a magzar renszerváltó mítoszokról’ [The Memory of Places and Monuments (1988-90) Myths “at Work” in the Post-Communist Transition in Hungary], Régió 2001:1, pp. 68-91.

Viktor Orbán’s famous speeches on the 15 March and on the reburial of Imre Nagy are online: ‘ Orbán Viktor Beszéde a H?sök Terén, Nagy Imre és mártírtársai temetésén ’, 16 June 1989, and ‘ Orbán Viktor beszéde a Kossuth téren’, 15 March 1989 ,, last accessed 6 September 2005.

Benziger, ‘The funeral of Imre Nagy…’

The statue park, ‘Lenin park’, was first envisioned in the Hitel by László Szörény as a utopia – rather than political argument – reminds one of the Communist Ghost Train in the well-known Hungarian anti-communist film Tanu, the Witness. Népszabadság 18 June 1994.

Pótó, Az emlékeztetés helyei, 240.

Magyar Hírlap, 11 October 1991, letters to editor.

On 15 January 1991, the capital’s cultural council asked for recommendations for the destination of the statues in their area. In summer 1991 the 22 nd district offered land for a statue park. Finally in December the districts offered a list of 61 statues for the City Council. This was preceded by the October public letter by the Minister of Interior. Pótó, Az emlékeztetés helyei , 241.

Népszabadság , 18 June 1994.

The 61 statues included also statues like that of Mihály Károly, the first president of Hungary, generally seen as a leftist but democratic figure, and the debated landmarks Osztapenko and Steinmetz.

The museum sells to tourists CDs called the best of communism. Similarly the park itself defines what were the high-lights of communism in public art, and by doing so articulates what was communism.

Népszabadság, 21 December 1991.

It was seen in the street name lexicon only as a geographical name: ‘ Moscow is the name of the capital of Russia and, from 1921 to 1991, of the former Soviet Union.’ Budapest teljes utcanévlexicona, p. 279.

Kálmán Szell (1843-1915), a seemingly uncontroversial political figure, was a politician and prime minister (1899-1903); PM Deák’s son-in-law. Géza Jeszanszky, ‘Hungary through World War I and the End of the Dual Monarchy’, in Peter Sugar, Péter Hanák, Tibor Frank, eds., A History of Hungary, Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 273, 278.

Heino Nyyssönen, ‘Katujen uusi suunta’, p. 70.

For the sociodynamics see Judit Bodnár, ‘Assembling the Square: Social Transformation in Public Space and the Broken Miracle of the Second Economy in Postsocialist Budapest’, Slavic Review, 57:3 (Autumn 1998), pp. 489-515.

There was a workshop and exhibition held in 2005 on Moszkva tér, as part of the European Union’s Culture 2000 project, see e.g. ‘Moszkva ter/G’, Ludwig Museum,, last accessed 6 September 2005.

Emilia Palonen is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Government, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom; in 2005 she was a Körber Junior Visiting Fellow at IWM.

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