08/26/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

The Republic of Writers

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Under Communism, the government cared a great deal about what you wrote. If you were part of the system, the government promoted your work. If you were against the system, the government censored you or possibly jailed you. In either case, though, the Communist governments took your words seriously -- as useful propaganda or potential threat.

In Hungary, in the 1970s and 1980s, the system was not quite that harsh. A second public sphere gradually opened up for those writers who did not toe the government line.

"During the socialist time, writers and artists who were near to the Communist party or the government had lots of opportunity to write and publish their works, to travel around the East and even to the West," Hungarian writer Katalin Mezey told me in an interview in Budapest in May 2013. "The artists who did not have contact with power instead formed a republic of writers. It was very friendly in this second public sphere. At that time, there were a lot of big poets and writers from the old times. They were famous people and the quality of their work was not destroyed. After 1956, the big-name writers who were not close to the Party were not getting prizes, but they were still published. And they published great works. It meant a lot for a young writer to join their circles instead of becoming a Party writer."

But whether writers were part of the official literary circle or members of this republic of writers, they were living in an environment in which the government took words and culture seriously. That changed after 1990.

"With cultural politics, the Communists had big ambitions," Mezey continued. "They wanted to show off the cultural heritage and achievements of the country to the West. They thought that all these high-quality works were the achievement of socialism, and they wanted people to know about them in England, in Sweden, in America. That was the big change after 1990. The new governments have no ambition to promote cultural achievements around the world. Nobody in the government has any idea of what to do with high-quality culture. It's of no interest to them because it has no connection to political success."

The Communist government tried to enforce a political uniformity in the cultural sphere. Today, although there is political diversity, a different kind of uniformity threatens.

"The world is moving in the direction of cultural uniformity," Mezey explained. "People talk of multiculturalism, but the reality is that the world is moving toward uniformity -- the Hollywood-ization of culture. From the publishing perspective, there is just one global market and only a few publishers. They're not interested in discovering talent in small places like Hungary and promoting them. These publishers are just looking for markets where they can publish and sell their own books. And the government here is not interested in protecting our own cultural products. You have to put a lot of money behind cultural achievements to promote them. Some countries are doing that, like Romania and Slovakia. South America is also doing it. But it takes a commitment from the government."

When it comes to her own writing -- her poetry, essays, articles -- Mezey is happy with the changes. "If I write something now, I can publish it, even if it reaches only a few people," she concluded. "Making a living is not easy, but being able to publish what I want to say is a great change."

We talked about her memories of 1956, her trade union activities, and how the republic of writers has dealt with the issue of collaboration during the Communist years.

The Interview

Do you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I don't remember where I was when that happened. I was very skeptical about these changes because I didn't really expect a big change, one with long-term effects. But naturally, it was a big deal.

By the way, I was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall was built. We were coming back from holiday from Rugen Island in the North Sea, which was part of the GDR. I was 18 years old. I'd graduated that year and received a prize. I spent the prize on this holiday on the North Sea. We were coming back by train, and the train passed through Berlin at midnight. It just happened to be the night when the Wall was being built. We saw the S-Bahn with broken windows, but we didn't know anything. Nobody told us what was happening. But our train stopped there and couldn't go further until the next morning at 8 or 9 am. We didn't know why we stayed there in the main train station. When we got back to Budapest, everyone asked us what happened because our train was late by half a day. In this way I was very near to the building of the Wall.

I had a lot of good poet and writer friends in East Germany. I was a German language translator of literary works, at first a lot of poems. I knew how much they suffered under the German Communist regime. They had a harder situation than we had here. I was naturally very happy when Hungary opened the border with Austria and all the German people who were staying in Hungary could leave. And it was nice to know that the GDR would change and these friends would have a better life. My good friend Reiner Kunze is a very well known poet of contemporary German literature. From his stories I have learned how much they suffered from the Stasi. I was hoping that the people of GDR would have a better life. We thought that when Germany became one country it would mean a better life for both East and West Germany.

You were probably about 13 during the uprising here in Budapest in 1956. What do you remember from that?

Of course I was a young revolutionary. As young children, we were very enthusiastic about the revolution. We were listening to the Free Kossuth radio, and we were crying for 12 days. My father brought my brother by motorcycle to Pest to see what was happening. On November 4, he said he would bring me too. That night, the bombing began. So, I was not in Pest, and I didn't see the destruction that took place in the city. My father and brother told me stories. There was no TV, only the radio. From Buda where we were living, we could see the red sky at night from the Russians burning the Hungarian archives. For three days and nights, it was in flames and the whole skycape was red.

Was your family or your friends affected after the revolution?

Nobody in my family had been. My parents were already older when we were born, in their forties. So, they were much older when the revolution took place. The whole family was at home around the radio. People from the other houses were always on the street. No stores were open. My mother went to get bread, and it always took a long time because she was gathering the news there and bringing it back home.

A Hungarian poet who died 10 years ago wrote in one of his poems: "if I die, write on my headstone that I lived only for 12 days."

When did you get involved in union activities?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.