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Anti-Communist Art, Writing Exhibit Opens in Budapest - 2004-02-14

An unprecedented exhibition has opened in Budapest featuring anti-Communist art and writings that were banned when Hungary was part of the Soviet sphere of influence. The event opens amid renewed debate on freedom of expression in Hungary.

A type of alternative music fills the exhibition hall of Budapest's Millennium Park.

The musicians are using tools and factory equipment to create music, making fun of the old obligatory socialist marches and long live labor songs from the Soviet era.

Under Communism they would have been arrested, along with any other artists or authors who dared to criticize the authorities. Such artistic resistance was known as the Samizdat Movement, and now it is part of an exhibit called "Samizdat: Alternative Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe from 1956 until 1989."

The term "samizdat", or "self-published," was coined in the 1950s by Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov. He published his own works after several Soviet publishers refused to do so.

Samizdat artists were persecuted by the authorities throughout the region. In some cases they were simply detained and questioned by the feared secret police. But many of them suffered worse fates.

In this exhibition in democratic Hungary, one artist is displaying a faceless bloodstained mummy lying on a bed with red colored water dropping to the ground. The work portrays the torture and suffering endured by those who opposed the communist regimes.

That display, along with writing smuggled out of labor camps, punk music, and paintings featuring workers villages and death certificates, all tell the story of the counter-culture that thrived behind the Iron Curtain.

The exhibition was put together by the University of Bremen, and has also been presented in Berlin, Prague and Brussels. It will close May 2, the day after Hungary joins the European Union.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who opened the event, says he still remembers the Hungarian freedom struggle, which was crushed by Soviet soldiers.

Minister Fischer, who grew up in divided Germany, said the Hungarian revolution was one of the most impressive memories of his childhood. He said he was just eight years old at the time, but he still remembers his parents listening to the radio to hear the latest news about the revolution. Mr. Fischer added that he is pleased that the division of Europe will disappear on May first, when the EU will welcome 10 new members, most of them former Communist countries.

For some, the exhibition is a reminder of their own role during the communist era. One of the visitors is 55-year-old Andras Domany, now a senior editor at Hungarian Radio.

As he looks at Samizdat publications Mr. Domany admits he was a member of the Communist party. The journalist explains that despite the shortcomings of the Communist regime he liked some things about it. He says he felt loyal to the government because Hungary was his home country.

Mr. Domany says joining the Samizdat movement or buying its publications would have ended his career as a journalist in communist Hungary.

"Just because I was working with an institution like this, a public official institution, I was not in the situation to go to the so called boutique of Laszlo Rajk and buy some [Samizdat papers] because they were taking photo's there, the police, and next day I would have been fired probably," he said. "So I didn't dare to go there and buy some."

Some right wing groups and previous center-right governments have suggested that media officials with a Communist background, like Mr. Domany, should make way for a new generation. But others say Hungary should look to the future, and that divisions in society will only slow the country's advancement.

Whatever the outcome of that debate, 28-year-old exhibition organizer Nora Somlyody hopes young people will not forget Hungary's recent history.

"Among young people there is a lack of interest rather," said Nora Somlyody. "If you don't talk about young historians who take up the topic again and bring different perspectives, my opinion is that the young generation is not really interested in things that happened before 1989."

The exhibition comes as Hungary is engaged in a national debate about just how far press freedom should go. The parliament is considering legislation to ban hate speech, which some see as a violation of press freedom. But others say there is no guarantee of freedom to be irresponsible and to incite hatred.

As people stroll through the exhibit, propaganda films play nearby, showing thousands of people waving Soviet flags and singing old Communist songs, providing a sobering counterpoint to the anti-communist art.

Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky, who secretly helped publish critical works during communist times, is ecstatic about the exhibition. He has said that Hungary's upcoming EU membership demonstrates that, "underground publishing was not only a bridge to the citizens of dictatorship, but also to those of the West."