Hungary’s Acela Corridor

What the contrast between Budapest and the rest tells us about our own cultural divide.

Does language reveal some deeper truth about its speakers? The Hungarians seem to think so. Their language—equal parts charmingly bizarre and unimaginably frustrating—is a lonely outlier among the Indo-European tongues of Central and Eastern Europe. That means it has plenty to say about its speakers’ heritage. Its idiosyncratic grammar, so different from any Slavic, Germanic, or Romance counterpart, is a legacy of a long medieval migration from Central Asia. Loan words from Latin, Turkish, and German are a result of successive encounters, usually tragic, with foreign powers. Even the most banal formulations have deeper significance. A Hungarian colleague once remarked that you can’t give directions without referencing the preeminent status of the country’s capital, Budapest. “It doesn’t matter where you travel,” he said. “You say you’re going up to Budapest, and down to the country.”

The urban-rural divide is a prominent feature of American politics, and it’s sometimes tempting to project our own psychoses onto a foreign landscape. But the United States’ experience is actually quite exceptional. Here, rural and conservative opprobrium isn’t directed towards one dominant metropole, but a series of affluent urban enclaves, tech corridors, wealthy suburbs, and mid-sized college towns. In Hungary, the underlying tensions are similar but the geography of resentment changes. Here, the urban-rural divide comes down to one persistent but unstable fault line: there is Budapest, and then there is the rest.

This situation is not entirely unique to Hungary. The Brexit referendum can be partly explained by London’s status as the unchallenged financial, political, and cultural center of the United Kingdom, along with all the resentment and ill feeling that position inspires. The French presidential elections revealed a similar divide: supporters of Marine Le Pen were heavily concentrated in rural areas and decaying industrial towns but nearly nonexistent in thriving, cosmopolitan Paris. In Poland, the populist conservative government had to bus in supporters from the countryside to greet Donald Trump during a recent visit to Warsaw.

America’s cultural and geographic divisions keep op-ed pages busy and have produced at least one memoir that everyone in your aunt’s monthly book club claims to have read. In Hungary, this divide is best explored through fiction. Magda Szabó, one of the great Hungarian authors of the 20th century, has only recently been introduced to English-speaking audiences through a series of excellent translations. Her books are best known for their sensitive portrayals of female relationships, but they also highlight the persistent divisions within Hungarian culture.


The Door, Szabó’s 1987 novel, is her best known work. It explores the lives of two women, Magda and Emerence, and their fraught but codependent relationship. Although the novel is set in Budapest, the two characters embody the opposing poles of Hungarian society. Magda, the younger woman, is educated and ambitious, an aspiring public intellectual who is completely at ease in the capital. Her housekeeper-cum-surrogate mother, Emerence, is the product of an altogether different Hungary: rural, agrarian, suspicious of change and abstract ideas. She is a living, breathing avatar of life outside Budapest, a constant reminder to other characters “of their old village, their own grandmothers, their distant families.” And despite her affection for Magda, Emerence is openly contemptuous of the younger woman’s career and intellectual pretensions.

Emerence may live and work in Budapest, but she has successfully adapted the customs and mores of a small village to the capital. She has a clique of confederates with whom she cleans, gossips, and generally dominates. In officious, bureaucratic Budapest, her prerogatives are preserved by a personal relationship with a police colonel. And her apartment and belongings are absolutely sacrosanct, protected by the titular door, a peasant fixation that stands out in such a cramped and intrusive city.

Emerence may embody the sensibilities of the Hungarian countryside, but by the time she’s met Magda, she has already bent Budapest to her will. Iza’s Ballad, another Szabo novel from 1963, explores a less willful outsider’s encounter with the city. When her father dies, Iza brings her mother, Ettie, to live with her in Budapest. Their relationship tragically deteriorates under the strain of proximity and Ettie’s fundamental unease over her new circumstances. She’s baffled by technology, disoriented by the pace of life in Budapest, and made to feel useless and adrift without the routines and duties of her old life.

Iza’s Ballad is a book about a generational divide, but it also reflects a geographic cleavage within Hungarian society. The traits that drive Iza apart from her mother—her commanding presence, her education, her professional ambitions—are what brought her to Budapest in the first place.

The geographic divide embodied by this relationship is particularly acute because Budapest, unlike most European capitals, is a relative upstart. The city did not emerge as a major center of Hungarian culture, politics, and industry until the late 19th century. Iza’s outlook, her entire mode of living, is Budapest in miniature: a fast-paced, forward-moving entity whose recent emergence seems disorienting—even unnatural—to many outsiders.

The fraught relationship between the capital and the hinterland dates back to the late 19th-century spasm of growth that elevated Budapest to the first rank of European capitals. The divide became a chasm in 1919, when a nationalist-conservative coalition under Admiral Horthy evicted a short-lived communist regime that seized power amidst the city’s post-war upheaval. Upon entering Budapest, Horthy declared that the capital was “bűnös,” a singularly Hungarian word that means both guilty and sinful. Coming from a member of the rural gentry, Horthy’s choice of words was a telling indicator of his political sympathies.

You can draw a straight line from the ideological combatants of the Horthy era to their modern counterparts. While liberal, cosmopolitan Budapest marches for “bridges, not walls,” Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist prime minister, has become one of Europe’s leading voices against the EU’s immigration policies. According to one Hungarian journalist, Orbán’s politics are a product of his own traumatic encounter with the capital. As a young man, Orbán was supposedly repelled by the hauteur and pretensions of the city’s intellectual class. This account of his political evolution may be a bit reductive, but Ettie would surely sympathize.

Contemporary Hungarian political debates are thankfully less acrimonious than the ideological clashes of the interwar period, but their significance hasn’t receded. And despite its size, Hungary’s political divisions have always resonated far outside its own borders. Depending on your sympathies, Orbán and his right-populist government are either a canary in the coal mine, a warning of how a liberal state can gradually slide into autocracy, or a necessary corrective to the excesses of the post-Cold War international order. One excitable American writer has even described Orbán’s rise as a possible blueprint for an authoritarian Trump takeover.

But if Hungary is a bellwether for the widening gyre between town and country, elites and populists, internationalists and nationalists, the relationship between Budapest and the rest of the country is also a hopeful reminder of the fruits of peaceful coexistence. Since the late 19th century, Hungarian culture has thrived on the symbiosis of rural traditions and the capital city’s dynamic character. Gyula Krúdy, another great 20th-century Hungarian author, is best known for his evocative descriptions of rural life, yet even he could not deny the capital city’s preeminence: “No matter how we country people may have been irritated, it was in Budapest that Hungarian culture, about which so many of the old, blessed Magyar people had dreamed, received its hallmark.”

And if Budapest was “the guilty city” in 1919, it must also be credited for its leading role in the great drama of modern Hungarian history, the doomed but heroic 1956 rising against the Soviets. That revolt—and the city that inspired it—is commemorated in towns and hamlets across the Hungarian plain.

Were she still alive, Szabó would surely have something to say about the troubled relationship between town and country. Her own novels exist in the tragic space where resentment and affection uneasily coexist. Both The Door and Iza’s Ballad are portraits of female relationships that deteriorate under the stress of personal ambition, divergent worldviews, and generational misunderstandings, but one of the defining features of both books is the real affection these women share at the outset. The collapse of each relationship is tragic precisely because so much love and goodwill must first be exhausted.

Szabó never indulges in lazy allegory, and it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from either book about Hungary’s political trajectory. But her own life is a hopeful indicator for the prospects of peaceful coexistence between Budapest and the Hungarian countryside. Like so many Hungarian artists, writers, and intellectuals, Szabó was born outside Budapest but inevitably drawn to the city. Her career, and the careers of so many like her, is a product of both Hungarys. Does this bode well for political divides within other European countries, or even the United States? The Hungarians, at least, share over a thousand years of history, culture, and language that insistently bind them together. We Americans have, well, not that. Imagining Budapest without Hungary is almost beyond comprehension. Imagining our own urban enclaves separated from the rest of the country is sometimes all too plausible.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

Hide 17 comments

17 Responses to Hungary’s Acela Corridor

  1. The Scientist 880 says:

    Hungary is a country with a median family income of $16,821. Trinidad has a median gdp per capita of $15,377. Hungary is not a first world country. Americans aren’t looking to Hungary for anything be it culture or politics or trade. We never even talked about this place until the raise of the white nationalists started

  2. peter says:

    Interesting article – thank you!

    The Scientist 880.
    Comparing Trinidad to Hungary should be based on the contribution each country made to the world.
    The Hungarians (about 15 million) gave the world more than 10 Nobel prizes.
    The computer on which you entered the comments for this blog is based on work from the Hungarian mathematician Neumann Janos – know in the USA as John von Neumann.
    The patent for the atom bomb was filed by Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist.
    Should I mention several great composers, like Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly?
    I could go on listing major Hungarian contributions for quite some time, but I am sure that you will do it yourself!

  3. Jan_Sobieski says:

    The Scientist 880:
    “Hungary is a country with a median family income $16,821. Trinidad has a median gdp per capita of $15,377. ” While these statistics are undoubtedly true, you are comparing two different metrics. In addition, neither of these statistics actually tell you much about a countries living standards, and HUngary has a HDI of 0.898, classified as “very high”, while Trinidad’s is only 0.716, merely “high”

  4. Youknowho says:

    So Hungary also has the “country-city” divide, and just as in Rousseau times, the country is seen as a reservoir of virtues that cities lack.

    I imagine that people in the country have their ego stroked by those beliefs, but that obscures how much the country OWES the city for their well being.

    No medical discoveries were made in the county They were made in medical reserach facilities situated in the city. When an epidemic strikes, the solution is not found in the country, but the cities.

    New strains of crops with bigger harvests are developed in research centers from the city.

    The city siphons off the excess population. You can call it “corrupting”. What it is, those who leave no longer compete for the few available jobs, and in the case of family farms, can be made to renounce their share of the inheritance – as compensation for paying the studies – thus avoiding dividing a productive farm.

    I think that it is time for those Rousseau-inspired paeans to rural life had a reality check

  5. Youknowho says:

    So Hungary also has the “country-city” divide, and just as in Rousseau times, the country is seen as a reservoir of virtues that cities lack.

    I imagine that people in the country have their ego stroked by those beliefs, but that obscures how much the country OWES the city for their well being.

    No medical discoveries were made in the county They were made in medical reserach facilities situated in the city. When an epidemic strikes, the solution is not found in the country, but the cities.

    New strains of crops with bigger harvests are developed in research centers from the city.

    The city siphons off the excess population. You can call it “corrupting”. What it is, those who leave no longer compete for the few available jobs, and in the case of family farms, can be made to renounce their share of the inheritance – as compensation for paying the studies – thus avoiding dividing a productive farm.

    I think that it is time for those Rousseau-inspired paeans to rural life had a reality check

  6. mrscracker says:

    I think I’ve read that the majority of Hungarian Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. An article online suggests 2/3rds. I don’t know, but that could be.
    There used to be so many Jews in Budapest that it was jokingly called “Judapest.” Sadly, that greatly changed following WWII.
    I watched a Travel Channel episode about Jewish culture still surviving in Budapest though, so things are hopeful.
    Hungary’s a very cool place & last time I checked they still used the Oriental fashion of calling people last name first.

  7. M. Orban says:

    @MrsCracker it is true that large part of the twentieth century Hungarian scientific diaspora was Jewish, but these people were mostly secular, spoke Hungarian in their private lives, born and raised in the kingdom of Hungary… products of the Hungarian public education system… So what is the point of bringing up their Jewishness? Just curious…

  8. Clyde Schechter says:

    Tangential point: Hungarian is most emphatically *not* an Indo-European language. Its closest relative is Finnish (also not Indo-European) and their family is known as Finno-Ugric. That family, depending on who you ask, either includes or is related to Korean and Japanese.

    The Indo-European language family is very broad and includes nearly all of the languages spoken in Europe (and many spoken elsewhere, e.g. Farsi, Hindi…) but Hungarian is quite distinctively not among them.

  9. Thaomas says:

    Hungarian is not an Indo-European language, but a Uralic language like Finnish. It is a cousin language, not a sister language to the Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Latin, Greek, etc languages.

  10. Bohallx says:

    Interesting article ~ read it all.

    I grew up in Indiana and there up until quite recently EVERY politician in the state had to have a very specific position regarding Hungary and other Captive Nations.

    There were a fair number of Hungarians who migrated from Europe to the USA back in the 1830s to dig canals in the Wabash basin. They stayed there. And, they benefited from the Founder Effect (arrive early, reproduce frequently, dominate a territory).

    My carpool buddy in high school was this young fellow whose parents had been majorly involved in the Budapest revolution and he saw them both executed by the Red Army.

    People with Hungarian connections saw to it that any who escaped the Red Army could come to Indiana. And yes, it’s true, we have more than one can of Szeged Paprika sitting on the dining table.

  11. a rural hungarian! says:

    As a rural Hungarian (who grown up near to the city where the author is living now, and who was living in Budapest for 17 years in the heart of the city and loves Budapest and Hungary) I felt I must enlighten some details about this opposition:

    First of all: the ⅔ of the article is really true and was nice to read it! Till the author started talking about Hungarian history.

    that is fact that Horthy named Budapest as “bűnös város” (guilty city) but not because Horthy is a born rural and he thought Budapest guilty because it is Budapest but – as he mentioned – there was a communist dictatorship (based in Budapest) before AND people of Budapest let these leaders to do what they did for 133 days! First people celebrated them, but later they were suffering as well during this oppression, but did nothing or almost nothing against! For example the infamous “Lenin boys ” departed from Budapest with their “death-train” to terrorize the countryside. (It was the Red Terror).

    if someone wants to read about it let me offer some books (I offer some in foreign language just to avoid being accused biased):

    Ungheria bolscevica. Note di uno che c’è stato, Milano, Sonzogno, 1920.
    L’ungheria Nella Guerra Antibolscevica Storia Contemporanea by Lauro Mainardi
    An Undiplomatic Diary by the American Member of the Inter-Allied Military Mission to Hungary, 1919-1920 by Harry Hill Bandholtz

    And about the root of this opposition:
    it is worth the waste some time to read what the intellectuals from Budapest talked and talking about the rurals. Because the author called this government populist and rightwing and so on let me quote from the liberal opposition (btw: it would be good just take a look the development of Budapest under this populist rightwing “rural” goverment and before under socialist-liberals run the country and the capital. if someone has time just find an article from the British Spectator Magazin with this title: It was better under communism (2003)). so the quotes:

    the best one is from a founder (Janos Mecs) of the newest liberal group (Momentum, actually they are about whom you can read that these guys the real Europeans):
    “Oh my god, I so hate the rurals, it is a shame because I am a liberal, so gays, gypsies, homelesses are OK, but I can’t stand these rurals…”

    the next one from a liberal thinktank Mihaly Vajda. Lets see what he wrote in his newest book:
    “The intellectuals are hated here! the rurals hate them because the get their attitude from serfdom mentality.”

    and so on…

    but as I see nowadays there are a lots of brilliant things which bond these two groups: festivals around the country, significant development not only in the capital but everywhere (e.g: Balaton) so we can build a brilliant country if we don’t let these “intellectuals” to drive a wedge between us!

    and one more thing for the author about “populist authoritarian Viktor Orban and his regime”: just pop out to a kiosk (or browse on the telly or on the Internet) and summarise the opposition and the supporter medias!

    and to “mrscracker”: the major of Vienna called Budapest as Judapest during WWII because he thought to many jews lived in Budapest and in Hungary in safe.

  12. Jeeves says:

    If you watch enough CSPAN or if broadband use in the United States is your hobby, you’ll be insistently reminded of how necessary it is to get broadband to “underserved” rural America. Of course it’s underserved because it’s uneconomical to build out broadband in the hinterlands. So city folk will wind up paying for it, somehow. I suppose that’s a virtuous thing; though whether or not there will still be elegiac hillbillies is anyone’s guess.

  13. Törpefejú says:

    A long article about Hungary’s acrimonious political divisions and not one mention of Hungary’s Jewish legacy….. at best this is disingenuous, at worst deeply misleading.
    Once the author’s command of Hungarian improves, he will realise how deeply the rot of anti-Semitism pervades Hungarian society – basically, everywhere outside of central Pest. And the survival of Budapest’s Jewish population has meant that political disputes are ethnicised in a genuinely Balkan way: the mentality of wartime Bosnia is not too extreme of an analogy.

  14. peter says:

    Indeed, there is no point of bringing up the Jewish origins of many of the the Nobel Prize winners – or Hollywood personalities for that matter!
    They were mostly secular and they were considering themselves Hungarians of Jewish faith.
    The relationship between non-Jewish Hungarians and Hungarians of Jewish origin was/is indeed complex.
    It ranges from admiration, love and marriage all the way to hatred. Hungary had a large group of people of mixed ancestry – what the Nazis called Mischlinge. The Hungarian upper class was fairly accepting of this phenomenon.
    It is true, Hungary established racial laws, including numerous clausus, but it did not deport her Jews until Nazi Germany occupied the country (May 1944). Sadly, one of the authors of the racial laws was PM Imredy Bela, himself a Mischling.
    The adoption of the racial laws had a lot to do with having Hitler’s support in reviewing the Treaty of Trianon, which happened following the Vienna Awards.
    It was a pact with the devil.
    In addition to Finnish, another relative of Hungarian is the Estonian language.
    The origins of the ancient Hungarians are foggy. They broke into Europe over 1000 years ago, created great destruction but later converted to Christianity and became a great kingdom.
    The word ogre comes from the name for Hungarians and it reflects their actions in the 800s.

  15. mrscracker says:

    M. Orban says:
    So what is the point of bringing up their Jewishness? Just curious…”
    Just because, as someone else here noted, it’s an important piece missing from the equation.

  16. JonF says:

    Re: That family, depending on who you ask, either includes or is related to Korean and Japanese.

    No, Korean and Japanese are sometimes lumped in with the Altaic languages (Turkish, Mongolian etc.) Magyar and Finnish belong to the small Uralic family which also includes Estonian and a number of minority languages along the Urals in Russia (also, Lappish/Saami in northern Scandinavian). There are theories, without majority support, that link Uralic, Altaic, and Indo-European plus some smaller language groups (in some versions even Eskimo-Aleut) together in a large super-family.

  17. lezlidzsi says:

    This divided “Hungary-picture” is a little bit simplified, and mirrors the two extremities. For example there are the bigger cities (with 50.000-200.000 inhabitants) which are neither “Budapest” nor the “others”. Usually their high schools are the main supply source of the Hungarian “intelligencia” (and social mobility), and they are standing somewhere between the “Budapest” point of view and the “other” point of view.
    Another contributing factor is the “forced centralization” of the country, the monopoly of Budapest, which hurts in many ways the “other” part, expecially when they hear the opinion of the inhabitants of the capital city, that there is nothing in the countryside. Actually the mentioned writing from Janos Mecs is a parody about this narrow-minded “Budapester-mentality”, with the final conclusion: the people from the countryside are knowing the country AND Budapest better, then the Budapester themself 🙂
    The main problem is, that from Budapest you can have better view to the world, but a quite obscured view of your own country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *