By Sion Firew |

The year 1989 marked the fall of communism across Europe. While that historical event resulted in gradual growth and newfound freedom for countries and people that suffered under the oppressive regimes, I’ve noticed the people of Hungary still seem to carry the weight of communism in their daily lives. This weight has caused a great divide between the younger generation who did not live through communism, and the older generation who have to live with those memories. 

Hungary’s history is filled with powerful people like St. Stephen I, Maria Theresa and Matthias Corvinus who gave the country an aura of greatness. Although the streets of Budapest pay homage to many of these figures that shaped the country’s future, the people themselves, old and young alike, refuse to display any sense of nationalism.   

Sándor Gallai, an associate professor of political science at Corvinus University of Budapest, gave a guest lecture to my group during our visit to the House of Terror, an exhibit that displays the horrors of communism. During the lecture, Gallai explained how Hungary’s recent history of communism and World War II has made the people wary of expressing their appreciation for their country. He admitted that the people’s open disdain for refugees and the lack of diversity seems to be a form of nationalism, but very few people would outwardly claim to be proud of their national identity. 

This notion of nationalism without calling it nationalism became an interesting idea to me. But what became even more interesting was the dichotomy between the older generation’s view of national identity and the younger generation’s view. I’m an Ethiopian-American woman who is proud of my identity and the culture that is associated with it; I know who I am and what that entails. But what does it mean to be Hungarian from the opposite sides of 1989? 

Monori Attila, a beekeeper who sells his honey weekly at Szimpla Kert, lived through communism, the fall of communism and the rebuilding of Hungary as it is known today. His translator helped explain how his view of being Hungarian did not come from reminiscing on the country’s past transgressions, but rather through the connectedness that comes from a shared culture. 

“It’s being European, Christian… it’s having a culture. It also means a language, and having that deep connection,” Attila’s translator said on his behalf. He said that the younger generation who will eventually take positions of power need to stay true to the values of kindness and culture even if they make changes to the country. 

In many ways, the older generation in Budapest can identify with Attila. He lives a life in which he tends to his business and does his job, while appreciating the homogeneity of his country. He finds his identity in his culture, language and religion but did not use the word Hungarian to describe himself.  

Roland Snyehola, the owner of an urban clothing store called PSTR, was 12 years old when communism ended in Hungary. He said he remembers how happy people were after the fall of communism, and how there were new freedoms that came with the end of the regime. However, he said he does not believe that communism was or is the real problem with Hungary today. 

“I’m Hungarian, but I don’t really like this country,” Snyehola said, laughing uncomfortably. “The people don’t really open their mind for the world, don’t like the foreigner.  

Snyehola seemed disappointed as he talked about the propaganda against refugees and people of color in the news, explaining more about the negative impact of Hungary’s monolithic culture. Though he said he wants to see change in the country and more openness towards diversity, he is uncertain if there will be any real change that happens. 

“It’s so complicated. Many young people come to the capital city… bad, bad attitude bring it from parents. They don’t want to change. Some, maybe 5,000 [people]… not enough. Not enough.” 

It was interesting to hear someone who understood life before and after communism, someone who is almost caught in the middle of the generational gap and can see the negatives of both sides. To Snyehola, being Hungarian means understanding how the past shapes the future and being a critic of his own country. 

For Dora Gyongosi, a young woman who works at a vintage shop called Ludovika, being Hungarian means appreciating the culture, literature and folk art. Gyongosi has lived in Budapest all her life and said she is proud of the beautiful things that come from Hungary, like the language. However, just like Snyehola, Gyongosi does not see a future that welcomes political openness for the country. 

“[The government] is very centralized and very controlled, and I don’t think they’re heading in a good direction,” Gyongosi said. “Most intelligent young people are leaving the country, and there’s less and less people remaining here. We’re losing the ones that can really do something.” 

From all three Hungarians, of different ages and stages in life, I noticed their discomfort when asked what it means to be Hungarian. None of them said that they are proud of the country’s history, yet none of them see improvement in the near future 

The generational gap may be caused by communism and enforced by the older generation’s close-mindedness toward minorities, but after talking to the three Hungarian locals, I realized that neither the older nor younger generation are passionate to see political or social change. For the most part, the people of Budapest are content with minding their business and tending to their lives, and even though there are some major differences between the older and younger generations, this sense of complacency ties them all together.