A very Finno-Ugric feud

  • 2015-02-05
  • by Will Mawhood, TALLINN

Someone walking past the Russian Embassy on Pikk Tanav in Tallinn and looking up at the striking beige Art Nouveau-ish building that faces it might have their eyes caught by a little spot of garish colour, in a window high up. It’s hard to make out from street level, but those intrigued enough to press themselves back against the embassy, and stare upwards will see two horizontal bands of colour – one sky-blue and the other mid-yellow – taped together and facing outwards. The shades are slightly off, and it’s a bit too boxy to pass for a real flag, but there’s no doubt what they have in mind. It’s a very Estonian protest, low-key and peaceful – or, if you’d prefer, passive-aggressive – fitting for a country which achieved independence from the Soviet Union bloodlessly, after perhaps the most cutesily-titled bid for regime change ever (the Singing Revolution). The streets of Tallinn’s Old Town are narrow and winding, and the crudely-made flag must catch the eyes of Russian diplomats directly opposite at least a couple of times a day. Ukraine. Ukraine. Ukraine.

The crisis of the last year has had many complex consequences, most of which have simply sharpened existing divisions: sure, the Baltics have been among the harshest critics of Russia’s actions, but their default attitude to their eastern neighbour is one of, at best, poker-faced hostility anyway. Other traditionally Russophobic countries like Poland and Georgia have been predictably fierce in their response.

It’s in central Europe where there has been discordance, where the front against Russia has seemed the most permeable – the Czech Republic, Slovakia and, most of all, Hungary, while all members of NATO and the EU, and notionally Atlanticist in their orientation, have all spoken out against sanctions. As far as their motivations for doing this can be ascertained, it seems to have a lot to do with Russian energy – Hungary has signed a deal whereby Russia’s state energy supplier will build reactor blocks at a nuclear plant; Slovakia signed a new oil supply deal in December. It helps that, unlike Poland, Georgia or the Baltics, none of the three have Russia as an immediate neighbour. I sense as well there’s a sneaking admiration for Putin on the part of the leaders of these three countries; prime minister Robert Fico in Slovakia, Czech president Milos Zeman, and most strikingly, prime minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.

All of them have authoritarian tendencies, and all seem to chafe against the transparency, democracy and trade regulations imposed by the EU.

Orban is a particularly troubling figure, a kind of bargain-basement Putin, who, since being elected for a second stint in office in 2010, has pulled Hungary in a more and more extreme direction, drawing concern from the EU and strong criticism from across the Atlantic - Obama characterised his regime as one of “endless regulations and over intimidation”. Some of his defenders have pointed out, not entirely unreasonably, that members of the previous left-wing government were corrupt to an almost comical degree and could trace their lineage back in a rather worryingly easy fashion to the Communist Party. Suggestions that Orban himself can be seen as on the left seem like little more than fond projection, however: it’s true that he’s railed against the IMF, forced utility providers to cut prices and levied an impressive tax on banks, but he has also pushed a very heavy-handed “workfare” programme and overseen a striking leap in poverty rates.

What’s more, Hungary has mounted a kind of sideways assault on the independent media, raising tax rates and packing the regulatory board with Fidesz associates – sure, the existence of an independent media is not explicitly proscribed, but it’s made next to impossible for it to exist.

Orban’s a nationalist, most of all, keen to show Hungary as a proudly idiosyncratic country, strong enough to defy Europe and to pursue its own vision - but also when it suits him a land helpless before larger malevolent forces: the EU, the Soviet Union, the US, its antagonistic neighbours. This tendency is behind a controversial new monument unveiled in Budapest, with Orban’s approval, which invokes World War II by showing Hungary as a country attacked by an eagle.

Understandably, Jewish organisations have objected to this representation of the country, which was a key Nazi ally, as primarily passive; in the last few years numerous statues have been put up to the country’s anti-Semitic interwar leader – and Hitler ally – Miklos Horthy. The 1919 Treaty of Trianon - which divided the sprawling and chaotically multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire into its constituent parts, and thus ensured that Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia would all be home to large numbers of Hungarians - is increasingly seen as the rest of the world’s original sin against modern Hungary.

Hungary has one of the least proportional electoral systems in Europe – and so Orban’s party Fidesz, which scored around 44% of the vote, has 66% of the seats and thus essentially controls the country; the constitution has been changed repeatedly, and the power of the constitutional court has been severely limited. Fidesz rule seems likely to continue for the immediate future due to electoral boundaries that are - allegedly - gerrymandered in their favour.  

What is the effect on the Baltics? Well, apart from the insidious consequences of the front against Putin being undermined, one of the only tangible effects seems to have been the closure of the Hungarian Embassy in Tallinn.

This happened in July last year; Hungary cited economic reasons, and insisted that the cultural and social links between the two countries would be maintained by the Hungarian Institute in the Estonian capital, which would remain open. The reaction, however, was interestingly intense: shortly afterwards, a letter signed by a large number of academics and intellectuals from Hungary and Slovakia protesting the move appeared in the Hungarian press; a little later, Postimees published an editorial calling Hungary’s president a “delicate problem” who was set on an “odd and dangerous” path; a month or two later, Estonia announced that it would also be closing its embassy in Budapest, itself regretfully mentioning the need for cost-cutting.

Why such an indignant reaction? Well, Hungary and Estonia have not – traditionally – seen each other in purely geographical or economic terms. As two of the only three Finno-Ugric nations in the world (the other one being Finland), they have historically been conscious of their marginality and oddness, highly resistant to being lumped in with their Slavic (or generally Indo-European) neighbours, and eager to look for kindred spirits.  

The Finno-Ugric peoples seem to have originated around the Ural mountains five thousand years ago, where  proto-Estonians and proto-Finns and proto-Hungarians lived in an undifferentiated mass. At some point, the ancestors of the Hungarians wandered down towards the Black Sea, from where, maybe a thousand years later, they burst into central Europe, bringing chaos and fire with them. Meanwhile, the Finns and the Estonians decided, curiously, to head north. Many other stateless Finno-Ugric communities also exist, of course, from the Sami of northern Scandinavia to the Livs of Latvia’s western coast to the scores of tribes spread across the vastness of Russia (the Khanty, the Manti, the Mansis, the Mordvins, the Veps, the Votes…).

But this, of course, was lost to the people themselves, being a process that took place over thousands of years. The result was that the Hungarians found themselves dug into the centre of Europe, but conscious of a niggling feeling somewhere that they were not quite of Europe. They were slow to let go of the totems of their past existence, even after nomadism was long out of living memory: travellers to the Carpathian Basin in the 13th century reported seeing many Hungarian peasants still living in tents. The sense of apartness was expressed in clothing as well: although the once-Hungarian city of Bratislava (or Pozsony as the Hungarians called it – and still do) is just forty miles east of Vienna, as late as the 18th century the two cities had totally different modes of dress, and travellers wearing the flowing, vaguely priest-like Hungarian robes would be ridiculed in the streets of the Austrian capital.

They were never quite accepted by their neighbours either: Romanians still often refer to Hungarians by the word “bozgor” – a vaguely derisive term meaning wanderer, person without without a homeland. Even the word “Hungary” comes from a misattribution – arguably a slander: terrified Western Europeans drew a false correlation between the Magyars, ferocious horse-riding raiders from the East, and the Huns, the ferocious horse-riding raiders from the East who had sacked Rome centuries before; actually, no such connection exists – although one senses the Hungarians rather regret this, judging by the continuing popularity of the given name “Attila”.

Travellers from the West often felt that in crossing the Danube, they had passed through a portal to not only an unexpected place, but an unexpected time. When Jonathan Harker, the protagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, arrives in “Buda-Pesth” on his way to Transylvania (at that time also Hungarian soil), he feels that he is “entering the East”. British traveller and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, passing through Bratislava in the 1930s, was struck by the contrast between a drinking hall full of homely, blue-eyed Slovaks in sheepskin jerkins and another bearing a Magyar name, populated by “vigorous, angular-faced, dark-clad and dark-glanced men with black moustaches tipped down at the corners of their mouths… They might have just dismounted after sacking the palace of the Moravian kral.”

So the discovery, in the late 19th century, that they had long-lost relatives in the Far North was quite a revelation to this orphaned nation. In fact, the general public did not take to it with particular enthusiasm – that the proud Hungarians, rulers of a great Central European empire, were kin to wandering Siberian folk was viewed as faintly insulting. Hungarians had been somewhat convinced there was a connection to the Turks, and the discredited Ugric-Altaic theory, which links the two languages is still occasionally revived by Hungarian thinkers of an anachronistic bent; as a modern guide to the Hungarian language puts it “compared to Attila’s glorious armies, Samoyedic fur trappers and Finnish fisherman…?” Csanad, a wise Hungarian friend, tells me that Hungarian has a specific phrase to express this disappointment -  halzsiros atyafisag, the sense of which is best translated “undesirable brotherhood”, but also incorporating the words for “fish” and “fat” to underline their disdainful attitude towards these uncouth wild Northerners eating their strange raw foods.

It’s true that the vocabulary differs almost completely: only one sentence mutually intelligible across Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian has ever been discovered. But the link is discernible on the level of grammar: where most Indo-European languages employ prepositions to indicate the relationship of nouns to each other, the Finno-Ugric tongues deploy a bewildering array of suffixes to modify the back-ends of nouns; it’s tempting, if perhaps too simplistic, to draw a link to the shamanism of their Central Asian home, cultures that see the world as unfixed, fluid, everything as influencing everything else. Jaan Kaplinski, Estonian poet and scholar of the Finno-Ugric language family, has pointed out that these languages are all characterised by heavy use of “word-pairs”, through which new concepts are named, not by coining a new phrase, but by the pincer-like use of two similar words, as though accepting language’s inadequacy.

Kaplinski says of Finno-Ugric people: “we live and communicate in a world in which objects, phenomena, events and activities are not specifically defined in advance, or to put it more simply have not been named in advance.” Aurally, the similarities are not immediately apparent: while Estonian is a chirruping, dizzying thing, leaning heavily on strongly-voiced consonants to support the swooping, lengthy vowels, Hungarian has a rat-a-tat rhythm, sounding at times like a snare drum rapping out some odd time signature or marbles dropped on a tiled floor. But there is something common to both of them, although it’s hard to explain just what – something about their unearthly, disconcerting sound; these people just seem to use different parts of their mouths to other Europeans; the upper and outer regions being used far more for articulation. Regardless of anything else, all three are utterly different to their Slavic, Baltic, Latin and Scandinavian neighbours, and each country has derived the majority of its sense of itself from this distinction; we’re not those guys, we’re us, even if we don’t quite know what that is.   

And, despite this initial ambivalence, especially in Hungary, Finno-Ugric societies did develop, dedicated to studying the countries’ shared heritage. The Finno-Ugric Society was set up in the 1920s in Tartu, and the Hungarian Scientific Institute was also founded in the same town in 1923 by a Hungarian professor and lawyer, Istvan Csekey. “Finno-Ugric days”, primarily cultural celebrations, were held in Estonia from 1928 onwards. The institute closed and the days ceased after the Soviet occupation – presumably, the authorities thought that reminders of friends beyond their borders would create further separatist feelings amongst the Estonians.

But just a year after the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, the Hungary restored its cultural representation in Tallinn, initially prompted by a group of enthusiasts; it continued as a small-scale project with just a couple of full-time employees until 2001, when the Hungarian government agreed to fund it and opened a Balassi Institute in the capital city. The Balassi Institute is Hungary’s equivalent of the British Council or the Goethe Institut, and is, as far as I’m aware, the most extensive chain of cultural centres of any country of a comparable size and population; there are 23 centres worldwide, from Istanbul to India, Stuttgart to Sfantu Gheorghe, a reminder that Hungary was once an imperial power and still sees itself as one of Europe’s most distinctive and important cultures.

Last month, keen to find out the state of relations between these two distant relatives in a climate very different from when those ties were first established, I visited the Balassi Institute in Tallinn. It certainly has pride of place, a great cream-coloured slab, solid and secure, set up above the slanting red-brick roofs of the Old Town up on Toompea, Tallinn’s mantelpiece where all the very important buildings are. Urmas, the half-Estonian, half-Hungarian director of the institute is a kindly, scholarly man who seems simultaneously in love with the culture of both of his countries and a little worn down by the strain of seeing things from both perspectives.

Over excellent Estonian pastries and tea with homemade honey, we talk of Estonia and Hungary and the surprising or accidental ties between them, ties he is tasked with continuing. He defends the domestic behaviour of the Orban government without seeming wildly enthusiastic about it – I suppose they do pay his salary – but concedes that part of the reason why they see things differently from Estonia in foreign policy is their physical removal from the threatening eastern neighbour – Russia is not a big concern of the Hungarian border guards.

Still, friendships cultivated for years cannot so quickly be severed: one of the small interesting things that Urmas tells me is that, attending school in Communist Hungary, he was expected to read two or three works of Estonian literature – the requirement would have been the same for anyone wanting to study literature in a serious fashion. Jaan Kross, probably Estonia’s most internationally famous writer, read Hungarian and translated a number of works into Estonian; other writers like Arvo Valton and Jaan Kaplinski retain an interest in the Finno-Ugric family.

Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first post-Soviet president, also made his name with documentaries and books focusing especially on the Finno-Ugric peoples of the Soviet Union. The connection continues, although it has perhaps weakened slightly in the last few years, Hungarian is one of the most common foreign languages for Estonian literature to be translated into – almost as frequently as French, German and Russian: at least one work has been translated every year since the millennium, usually a small handful.

I receive a tour of the rest of the institute, from someone who is an exemplar of the links that have developed between the Finno-Ugric nations – Kerdi-Liis spent six years in Szeged, southern Hungary and is fluent in Hungarian, as well as knowing some Finnish. The exhibition I’m shown a collection of pre-war Hungarian adverts, all chunky block capitals and colours so thick they feel like a punch in the face, which uncomfortably juxtapose decadence and militarism, and originate very clearly from the period when Budapest was not only one of Europe’s most imposing capitals, but genuinely one of its most important. These pictures make it look a city of cafes and art galleries – Central Europe, no questions asked. I’m left feeling the inadequacy of my language: Kerdi-Liis casually asks, while trying to explain the general theme of the exhibition, how do you say “feeling that a war is coming”?

And I’m left gaping through abandoned suggestions; it seems that both Estonian and Hungarian have a single neat word to express this; in English you’d have to make a whole sentence before you even got close to the idea. The institute puts on concerts, art exhibitions and will shortly begin offering Hungarian lessons to locals desiring to learn, but I perceived a sense of neglect somehow: they will keep up their frantic pace of work, but seem aware that they’re not upmost in the minds of those in Budapest providing the money – that this is a far-flung, inconvenient outpost that they might be content to let wither.

Even those Hungarians living in Estonia sometimes reject the idea of a profound connection between the two cultures – Aniko, half-Hungarian and living in Tallinn, contrasts the typical Estonian, introverted and gloom-sunk apart from when drinking, with what she perceives to be the greater vivaciousness and friendliness of Hungarians. But there is a much larger country that Hungary does bring to mind in very many respects. Think about it: yearning for lost empire and sense of ill-defined grievance? Check. Arguably mistreated migrants from the motherland scattered throughout surrounding countries? Prevalent monolingualism?

Check (according to the Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2012, Hungary has the lowest average knowledge of foreign language of any EU country). Tendency to deal with internal problems by uniting around strong leaders? And check again. It’s no surprise that Orban finds it easy to work with strongman Putin rather than the EU, with its byzantine structures and obsessive concern to avoid displeasing minority groups. Many of his actions have simply been repetitions of Putin’s in miniature – such as cracking down on foreign NGOs (a Norwegian group distributing grant aid was prosecuted last year for pursuing an allegedly “left-wing” agenda). He’s spoken approvingly of creating an “illiberal democracy”, drawing inspiration from countries such as Russia and Turkey.  

The differences between the two countries are more than purely temperamental: Hungary can claim the nastiest electorally successful party in Europe, Jobbik, known for their anti-Semitic and anti-Roma comments, who achieved 20% of the vote in the most recent elections in 2014 – these are prejudices which, thankfully, Estonian politics remains almost entirely free from. Hungary picks fights with the EU; Estonia is one of the most pro-union members. Orban tried, bizarrely and unsuccessfully, to implement an internet tax; Estonia has striven to create an image of bleeding-age modernity based on free, fast wi-fi and internet-based services; Estonia ranks 11th in the world for press freedom; by contrast, Hungary’s media is assessed as only “partly free” by Freedom House, and has the lowest score of any EU country bar Bulgaria and Croatia. Estonia is the easiest EU country to do business in, according to the Index of Economic Freedom; Hungary again ranks close to the bottom.

While researching this article, I spoke to someone connected with the embassy. They did not want to be named, but claimed that it was well-known among all the embassy staff and Hungarian community in Tallinn that it was being done for reasons of geopolitics – to show, in some small way, that Hungary was taking Russia’s side in the Ukrainian crisis, and that the ambassador himself had not been informed prior to the announcement. Others dropped dark hints and commented on the staggering inappropriateness of the timing. The economic argument certainly does seem like an excuse, and not a convincing one: from what I’ve been told, Hungary’s trade with Estonia was greater than with Finland, and yet the embassy in Helsinki remains open; commercial and industrial links remain – Estonia’s new Stadler FLIRT trains are assembled in Hungary, for example. It does seem a deeply cowardly action by the Hungarian government – kicking over a sandcastle: a little gesture, a symbol that Orban hopes Russia will see out of the corner of its eye. It is profoundly disrespectful to those overworked, underpaid and dedicated Estonians and Hungarians who have given their lives to making their countries less culturally isolated.

This is the effect of Ukraine, though: the region can no longer be thought of as a coherent bloc – and, admittedly, it never should have been. And as one country turns towards Moscow (which means turning away from the Baltics), other unexpected friends may be found. In an odd bit of synchonicity, as I began writing this piece, Estonia and Romania announced plans to open embassies in each other’s capitals. This does not seem like nothing: Romania, more than any of the other backstabbing neighbours, seems to have a strong claim to being Hungary’s nemesis, if nothing else because it snatched away its pride and joy, the mountainous, beautiful and weird region of Transylvania - which remains a key part of the stories Hungary tells itself about itself.

(Very minor) case in point: while writing this article, as a sort of research/pleasurable activity I watched a series of animated Hungarian fairytales from the Communist period – dark, angular men with drooping moustaches straight out of Leigh Fermor’s travel writing feature prominently, along with a predominantly bad or lazy populace; they are lullingly structured, beautifully drawn morality tales. But what’s surprising is the landscape they move through: not the flat Hungarian plain with its baroque, finicky churches and palaces, but rolling valleys and rumpled peaks, castles with many pointy towers and monochrome rural chapels with spires like rapiers: Transylvania.

Romania also, of course, is the home of around half of the three million Hungarians who live outside the country. After teetering on the edge for a while, Romania seems to have decided to look to the West rather than to the East – most obviously shown by the recent presidential election: back in November, Klaus Iohannis, a pro-Western ethnic German ran for president against Romania’s current prime minister Victor Ponta, who is viewed as an authoritarian, even an Orban-in-the-making by some, and seeming not to be totally averse to making nice with Russia if the price was right. Against expectations, the voters chose Iohannis and Romania turned its considerable back to Russia.

So what is the future for Hungary and Estonia? Well I hope that the Urmases of this world find some way of threading together the Magyars and the fish-fat eaters; I would like the glories of Hungarian literature and music to continue to reach the rest of the world, including its unexpected corners, but I worry about the tendency of the Magyars – and, in fact, of any people that perceive themselves as humiliated and surrounded – to blame the rest of the world for their problems. I fear that this will lead them to make common cause with a similarly bristling and defensive Russia, to no one’s advantage, least of all Hungary’s. And Estonia? Well, I don’t think they’ll be on board for that. You can’t choose your distant relatives, but you can choose not to return their calls if they go crazy.