THE BLOG
09/22/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Growing Up in Transylvania

Agnes Gagyi grew up in the city of Miercurea Ciuc in the Transylvanian region of Romania. More than 80 percent of the population of this city of 50,000 people is of Hungarian ethnicity. Most everyday interactions are conducted in Hungarian. In fact, Gagyi didn't learn Romanian at home or on the streets, but rather through television and Romanian classes at school.

Life under Ceausescu was not easy for Romanians in general, but it could be particularly harsh for Romanians of Hungarian ethnicity. Ceausescu orchestrated a nationalist turn in the Romanian Community Party that repudiated the cosmopolitan origins of the movement and reinforced the independent position Romania was increasingly taking within the Warsaw Bloc. Instead of a fraternal socialist neighbor, Hungary was for Ceausescu a potential threat, both for its more liberal version of Communism and its putative desire to reclaim lost territory like Transylvania.

"My parents were Hungarian intellectuals, which put them in a special situation in Ceausescu's Romania," Gagyi explained to me one evening over drinks in a pub in Budapest in May 2013. "As intellectuals, they might have been in touch with Hungarian and Western intellectuals, or so the Romanian government suspected. My father was taken in by the police and questioned. My mother would come home crying because of the ideological content in the school. Of course I knew that there were no sweets or anything like that in the shops. But the responsibility was not on me. For me, childhood was beautiful."

Then came the revolution in December 1989. "The revolution started in Timisoara, and for a while it wasn't on the news," she recalled. "There were only whispers. And then it happened in Bucharest. My mother was nine months pregnant with my little brother. We have three children in the family. She said she wouldn't abort him, and everybody including the doctors was outraged. 'How can you want to give life to a child in such conditions?' they said."

"She was nine months pregnant in December," Gagyi continued. "She had an unreasonable optimism in this respect. In December, she could have her baby. But at that time, no one knew the situation, and there could be shooting on the streets. So we planned to move to my grandparents' house so that the whole family could be together if something happened. Everything was prepared for my mom to make the move. My sister and I were dressed and ready to go. My mother and father were listening to the radio. We didn't have a television. That was part of our intellectual ideology: we didn't mess with that kind of content. At one point my father started to cry. That was the only time I'd ever seen my father cry. People were hugging each other on the street. They were running around with Romanian flags with the holes in the middle. My mother managed to get to the hospital so she didn't have to give birth at home. There were quite a lot of mothers there, and she remembers the collective euphoria in the place. There was nothing ethnic about it."

But this happy interlude was brief. "Very shortly, it turned into an ethnic thing, and even as a 9-year-old child I could sense it," she said. "There was a short euphoria when the pressure was released, and we were all brothers. After a few months, we felt that the pressure was back, but its face had changed and it was ethnic now. The old local Party leaders became the biggest nationalists and Christians. I was into literature, of course, because of my inherited sensibility. I had to recite poems for these festivities. When March 15 came around, I was forced in the same way as before -- because there had not been anyone else to do it -- to recite the nationalist poems. There was such a powerful feeling that things were going in the wrong direction. Of course, in my case it was reinforced by the fact that my parents were very critical of that. Because they were dissidents, they understood this as a bad development."

Agnes Gagyi has followed in the footsteps of her parents to become a critical intellectual. She went to Budapest to do a Ph.D. on the anti-globalization movement in Eastern Europe. "I thought we could be the second chance for democracy to come to Eastern Europe," she told me. "Because it was all about political and economic democracy. It was a failure, but at least now I know why it was a failure."

We talked about the rise and fall of extreme nationalism in Transylvania, the arrival of NGOs in Romania, the roots of the new populism in Hungary, and the emergence of the Fourth Republic.

The Interview

What do you remember from when you were nine years old about the Romanian revolution?

First of all, my parents were Hungarian intellectuals, which put them in a special situation in Ceausescu's Romania. As intellectuals, they might have been in touch with Hungarian and Western intellectuals, or so the Romanian government suspected. My father was taken in by the police and questioned. My mother would come home crying because of the ideological content in the school. Of course I knew that there were no sweets or anything like that in the shops. But the responsibility was not on me. For me, childhood was beautiful.

There's a great Hungarian novel that was translated into English and that also won international prizes -- The White King, by Gyorgy Dragoman, which corresponds with my childhood. It's really worth reading because it gives a deep perspective on the Ceausescu period in the 1980s. It takes place in Targu Mures. My grandparents also lived in Targu Mures.

The revolution started in Timisoara, and for a while it wasn't on the news. There were only whispers. And then it happened in Bucharest. My mother was nine months pregnant with my little brother. We have three children in the family. She said she wouldn't abort him, and everybody including the doctors was outraged. "How can you want to give life to a child in such conditions?" they said.

That was in December?

That was earlier. She was nine months pregnant in December. She had an unreasonable optimism in this respect. In December, she could have her baby. But at that time, no one knew the situation, and there could be shooting on the streets. So we planned to move to my grandparents' house so that the whole family could be together if something happened. Everything was prepared for my mom to make the move. My sister and I were dressed and ready to go. My mother and father were listening to the radio. We didn't have a television. That was part of our intellectual ideology: we didn't mess with that kind of content. At one point my father started to cry. That was the only time I'd ever seen my father cry.

And my sister and I were like, "Okay, so why aren't we starting off?"

My parents just said, "Stop, something very important is happening."

People were hugging each other on the street. They were running around with Romanian flags with the holes in the middle. My mother managed to get to the hospital so she didn't have to give birth at home. There were quite a lot of mothers there, and she remembers the collective euphoria in the place. There was nothing ethnic about it.

Then, very shortly, it turned into an ethnic thing. Even as a nine-year-old child I could sense it. There was such pressure. Our school had these loudspeakers. The principal of our Hungarian school was Romanian. Whenever and in whatever class she wanted, she could speak through these speakers, and then we had to do what she said. There was a short euphoria when the pressure was released, and we were all brothers. After a few months, we felt that the pressure was back, but its face had changed and it was ethnic now. The old local Party leaders became the biggest nationalists and Christians. I was into literature, of course, because of my inherited sensibility. I had to recite poems for these festivities. When March 15 came around, I was forced in the same way as before - because there had not been anyone else to do it -- to recite the nationalist poems. There was such a powerful feeling that things were going in the wrong direction. Of course, in my case it was reinforced by the fact that my parents were very critical of that. Because they were dissidents, they understood this as a bad development.

Were your parents teachers?

Yes, they were teachers. They were both Hungarian and French teachers. My father wrote his PhD on folklore. He became an anthropologist. They had a small underground anthropology group that was reading quality social science stuff in Hungarian. It was very romantic because there was no electricity. They would meet in the evening in their circle of local scholars and read a hand-copied version of Pierre Bourdieu by candlelight and discuss it. Then they would try to understand local mechanisms according to that theory and write about it. The pressure in the 1980s created these romantic circumstances, but that all changed when we all became NGO-ized in the 1990s.

When the atmosphere changed, you were still pretty young. You had to recite those poems. But was there also an opportunity for you to rebel?

Well, I did. But I did it from an elite position. Where I grew up there was a very small second-generation bourgeois core. But most of the inhabitants were first-generation industrial workers, who did the same kind of jobs as their parents. I come from a family where there were thousands of books, and both of my parents are intellectuals. So I was rebelling from this elite position. I knew more than my schoolteacher, not in data perhaps. I was ashamed of rebelling but I still had to do it, because I really hated the stuff that we were forced to do. And it was also very clear that my parents supported me in that.

This was the time when we could talk about public issues and public life began. My father got phone calls in those days asking him to run for this or that political position in the new Hungarian minority party. He was very consistent in rejecting that. Now I think it was because of the continuing effects of the dissident ethic of autonomy. In those days, politics could only be about ethnic things because of course if you're a Hungarian and you wanted to have representation in parliament, then you had to vote for the Hungarian party. Yes, there could be competition in the elections, but in the end, ethnic groups were voting together, particularly for people in the smaller cities and villages. The real political space was either in Bucharest or in Budapest, where the game was at the level of the nation-state. In minority politics, you had to adapt to that. There were huge waves of nationalist sentiment, the building of new statues, the nationalization of politics. I was raised in an atmosphere of "socialism with a human face" because of the books that were around or the attitude of my grandmother who was a schoolteacher. But this was not relevant in the new context.

It must have been even worse in Cluj because there was a very strong nationalist politics there.

I got to Cluj in 1999. Cluj was a capitalizing big city. The mayor, Gheorghe Funar, put out the Romanian flags, but we moved freely among the different communities. We didn't need to put our ethnic identity front and center. The grocer might tell me that I didn't speak Romanian well enough but he would also tell me how to cook the different vegetables. There was no tension as such. In Cluj, there was a really strong symbolic expression of nationalism, but- in everyday life it didn't look like that. You might want to check out the book by Rogers Brubaker, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Fox, and Liana Grancea on nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in Cluj in this period.

I have a close colleague in Cluj, a Romanian sociologist, Norbert Petrovici. He wrote an article in which he says that the first-generation workers moved to Cluj with industrialization. There were two projects -- Communist industrialization and changing the demographic equilibrium of Hungarian cities. In Cluj, under Communism, life was quite organized. You had your school, your shop, the trolley that took you to work every day. Then in 1990, it all just crashed. It wasn't just not having enough money to pay the doctor. It was also an existential collapse. In Funar's discourse, this kind of situation was expressed in a nationalist framework. He said that Romanians should occupy "our" city center and retake "our" city. In Cluj's urban space, the center was restituted to the sons of bourgeois families, Hungarians who had apartments in the city center, the nice part of the city. There was a class tension, and this is how it turned into an ethnic tension.
In the second part of the article, Petrovici demonstrates how Funar lost his power. By the end of the 1990s, the economic pickup started to happen. Foreign companies began to come in. Romania became the second biggest market after Poland for companies like Nokia. This also meant that there were jobs again. There was huge land speculation. Money was flowing in. The people who got that money began to build houses, and people in the apartment blocks got jobs in construction. They didn't care about nationalism any longer. The market was coming in, everyone was going to get a job, and it was going to be just like the West. They forgot about Funar. There wasn't even any drama about it.

You talk about your intellectual political milieu as "socialism with a human face." Has your political trajectory been consistent since that time, or have you had different political incarnations?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.