Sztálin a székelyeknél. A Magyar Autonóm Tartomány története (1952–1960) [Stalin and the Székelys: History of the Hungarian Autonomous Region].
By Stefano Bottoni. Csíkszereda: Pro-Print Könyvkiadó, 2008. 445 pp.
During the period of communist dictatorship, research regarding the post-1945 history of the Hungarian minority living in Romania was strictly subordinated to party ideology. Therefore the only historical works dealing with the Hungarians living in Transylvania that could be published during this period were those that more or less served a given ideological objective.1 Moreover, beginning in the 1980s Hungary and Romania began to wage their increasingly vehement ideological battles through historiography. Historical writing on the theme of Hungarians in Romania gained momentum after 1989, though the previous historical period and increasing political tension in the 1990s were not favorable to rigorously academic analysis. The historical canon from both countries was concealed behind the tried and tested assertion of national grievances. The narration of political-historical events invested with outstanding significance and journalistic martyrology held sway over Transylvanian Hungarian history writing as well.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the increasing accessibility of archival material in Romania and the appearance of new people dealing with the issue of the Hungarian minority in Romania produced a change in the interpretation of the period 1945–1989.2 The volume of studies from several authors, though reflecting disparity in thematic emphasis, clearly indicated that the customary canons had expanded to include a new type of discourse departing from the previous historiographical traditions in their rigorously scientific approach, new interpretations (Hungarian, Romanian and international comparative approaches) and use of a greater variety of sources. Stefano Bottoni’s book belongs to this category.
In his book Stalin and the Székelys, Bottoni introduces the milieu of Székelyföld (a historical region of modern Romania inhabited by the Hungarian-speaking Székelys) in the 1950s, an era when not only so-called socialism, but the Stalinist minority-policy model had arrived to the Székelys via the Hungarian Autonomous Region (HAR). This model had been used successfully in the Soviet Union to implement the socialist integration of national minorities in that country. This model entailed the use of a trained élite selected from the local population to carry out socialist political, economic and social transformation (the elimination of historical parties, the nationalization of agriculture, industry and education, the waging of class warfare).
Bottoni introduces the Székelyföld of the 1950s and the history of the Hungarian Autonomous Region in five fairly long chapters. The first chapter examines the genesis of this region, attendant administrative changes, the region’s reorganization as well as the Soviet role in these affairs and, not least importantly, the reaction of the population to them. Bottoni offers an objective analysis of the events that took place during the summer of 1952 in which both Soviet “advisors” and the Romania political élite participated to such a significant degree. The author displays a keen sense of proportion in his examination of the international (such as the role of the Soviet Union) and local contexts surrounding the establishment of the HAR. However, in his analysis of domestic political events in Romania, Bottoni could have given more thorough consideration to the so-called transitional period (1945–1948) and to Romanian nationality policy in the years before the foundation of the Hungarian Autonomous Region and to a comparison of how this policy was implemented toward Hungarians and non-Hungarian minorities in the country (Germans, Jews, Serbs, Ukrainians, Tatar-Turks).
In the second chapter, Bottoni considers fundamental issues connected to the existence of the Hungarian Autonomous Region as well as the Stalinist model itself within the context of Romanian domestic politics. Contrary to the established approach, the author analyzes the function of the HAR not only from the ethnic perspective (the Romanian-Hungarian power struggle), but from the standpoint of center-periphery relations and the place the region occupied in Romania’s political and economic system as well. Bottoni provides a detailed introduction of the Hungarian Autonomous Region’s so-called “Statute” affair, which clearly defined the possibilities and limitations of this new administrative unit. In the second half of the 1950s, local specialists prepared cultural- and economic-development projects to be implemented in the HAR that portrayed the district as a specific (culturally Hungarian) entity. This approach did not win approval from the Romanian party leadership, which by this time had begun to think in terms of social homogenization.
The third chapter of Stalin and the Székelys is one of the most colorful in the book, examining the least investigated topics surrounding the Hungarian Autonomous Region, such as culture, politics, economic life, cultural institutions and social changes that took place in the Székelyföld in the 1950s. This chapter is also extremely important, because it contains the majority of the fundamental interpretations upon which the research is based. This represents the episode in the history of the HAR in which it was possible to attain genuine benefit, primarily at the cultural level, from the region’s “autonomous” status. In this chapter, Bottoni also explores the evolution of the “factious mentality” that played a role in both the preservation of tradition and the transformation to socialism (the periodical Igaz Szó) in the HAR and the development of theatrical life that provided “combative entertainment” to the inhabitants of the region (the Székely Theater). After completing chapter three, the reader may well determine that it was worth getting through the perhaps somewhat slowly developing first two chapters of the book, since it is in this chapter that a true picture of the HAR emerges.
In the fourth chapter, Bottoni examines the long- and short-term impact of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Romania and, specifically, Transylvania—how the revolution influenced general political mood, the official and grassroots response to the uprising, etc. This chapter shows that the reaction to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Transylvania represents one of Bottoni’s basic research themes. The author’s analysis of a wider range of sources (including state-security documents) than have been used in previous works on this topic offer the reader a valuable insight into the reaction to the revolution in both the HAR and within the complex world of Romanian politics in the 1950s.
The fifth and final chapter of the book deals with the final phase in the history of the Hungarian Autonomous Region. Bottoni utilizes previously unknown sources to take stock of the retaliatory measures that took place over a period of several years in response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and examine the function of these reprisals. The late 1950s represent a period of forms without shape for the HAR. As a result of the revolution, Romania’s political leadership abandoned the Stalinist model that it had never really liked to begin with. In 1960, the Hungarian Autonomous Region was reorganized in such a way as to eliminate its characteristic features.
Stalin and the Székelys is the product of several years of research, which the author complemented through many more years study and experience gained through travel, interviews and meetings that provided him with an insight into the mental realm lying beyond the historical sources. Bottoni’s efforts transformed him over time from a complete outsider to one of the greatest authorities and most well-known historians dealing with Romanian political life and the Transylvanian microcosm at the time of the Hungarian Autonomous Region.
The qualitative and quantitative diversity of Bottoni’s sources have already been mentioned. The author worked painstakingly to uncover local sources regarding the Hungarian Autonomous Region, supplementing them with material from archives in Bucharest. Bottoni was the first author to base his research regarding the region on documents stemming from the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (Consiliul Naţional pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securităţii), sources which opened new dimensions for interpretations of the era of the HAR
The greatest merit of Stalin and the Székelys is that it portrays and interprets the Hungarian Autonomous Region and the period in which existed as a unique phenomenon. Although not lacking empathy, Bottoni is capable of breaking with the established canon of grievance (which as an outsider may, perhaps, be easier for him to some degree) and investigating the entire historical period within the Romanian and eastern European historical context. The author presents the results of his research in modern, yet comprehensible language built upon a theoretical foundation. Bottoni offers an exemplary introduction of the events of 1956 at such a time (the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution took place in 2006) when dozens of works have been published that have followed the established historical passion-narrative.
Another virtue of the book is that Bottoni proves capable of analyzing events at both the level of the “greater story” as well as that of the microcosm. In his examination of the Hungarian Autonomous Region in particular and of the 1950s in general, the author utilizes the results of microhistorical research (Sándor Oláh and József Gagyi produced lasting works of microhistory regarding this period).3 The author occasionally embarks upon very perceptive reconstructions of minor events that stand as very characteristic episodes in the history of the HAR. Such narratives include descriptions of the debate that took place among intellectuals in the region in 1956 regarding the so-called “Statute” affair and depictions of the lives of important cadres and party activists. Bottoni is very familiar with the central figures of the era, utilizing minute biographical detail to place their roles and importance precisely within their historical context. Several chapters of the book contain illustrations that serve to evince the mood of the era.
Stefano Bottoni’s book is in many regards a groundbreaking and definitive work dealing with the history of the Hungarians living in Romania from 1945 to 1989. The author cleverly fuses previous scholarly research with new knowledge, forming his fundamental theses through this synthesis. From its point of departure as a history of the Hungarian Autonomous Region, the perspective of Stalin and the Székelys gradually expands to include post-1956 Romanian political life and policy toward the Hungarian minority.
One of the fundamental issues connected to historiography regarding Transylvania and other subjects is the degree to which the author of the work is able to break free from the confines of the ivory tower and convey the newest research done on the topic to relevant cultural forums and the broader reading public. Bottoni is a pioneer in this regard as well, having made his presence felt in Transylvanian public life not only in his capacity as a researcher, but as an active player in the region’s intellectual and opinion-making scene as well. The author’s public appearances and opinions have generated debate and divided various Transylvanian intellectual factions on several occasions.4 Bottoni has in this way initiated an ongoing discussion and analysis of previously taboo issues such as the relationship between political power and the intelligentsia.
Bottoni often moved across rough terrain in writing Stalin and the Székelys as a result of a lack of basic research on numerous subjects, particularly those concerning economic life and the process of social transformation. The modest imbalances that exist between various chapters in the book stem from this deficiency. The first chapter of the book does not provide sufficient context surrounding Romanian nationality policy. Although Bottoni succeeds in expanding the perspective from “the periphery” to the “center” with regard to the termination of the Hungarian Autonomous Region, the introduction of such perspective in reverse (changes in Romanian nationality policy at the end of the 1940s, the operations of minority organizations) would have lent greater nuance to the book’s description of the birth of the HAR. Stalin and the Székelys would have benefited in the same way from a more detailed analysis of the social changes stemming from the collectivization of agriculture and the perception of the HAR among Romanians living in the region.5 (Public discourse that emerged following the collapse of communism in 1989 and the Hungarian-Romanian ethnic conflict of 1990 revealed that Romanians living in the Hungarian Autonomous Region considered introduction of the HAR to be discriminatory.)
The history of the Hungarian Autonomous Region did not and indeed could not have concluded with the publication of Stalin and the Székelys. The book does, however, open new perspectives for the next generation of researchers focusing on the HAR. Local interior-ministry sources preserved in the city of Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş) have, for example, just recently become accessible.
Translated by Sean Lambert.
1 See the following works, for example: János Fazekas, A Román Kommunista Párt – a haza fiai testvériségének és barátságának, társadalmi és nemzeti egyenlőségének következetes harcosa. Tanulmányok és cikkek [The Romanian Communist Party–the Persistent Defender of Patriotic Brotherhood and Friendship and Social and National Equality] (Bucharest: Politikai Könyvkiadó, 1980) and László Bányai, Bodor András, and Bitay Ödön, eds., A magyar nemzetiség története és testvéri együttműködése a román nemzettel. Tanulmányok. I [History of the Hungarian Nationality and its Fraternal Cooperation with the Romanian Nation. Studies I] (Bucharest: Politikai Könyvkiadó, 1976).
2 See Nándor Bárdi, ed., Autonóm magyarok? A Székelyföld változása az ötvenes években [Autonomous Hungarians? Change in the Székelyföld in the 1950s] (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print Könyvkiadó, 2005).
3 See József Gagyi, “Határ, amely összeköt” [Border that Binds], Regio 14, no. 3 (2003): 126–49; József Gagyi, “Szocialista modernizáció Romániában, az ötvenes években” [Socialist Modernization in Romania in the 1950s] in Történelmünk a Kárpát-medencében (1926–1956–2006), ed. Gyöngyi Kiss Kovács [Our History in the Carpathian Basin (1926–1956–2006)] (Kolozsvár: Komp-Press Kiadó, 2006), 185–96; Sándor Oláh, “A Magyar Autonóm Tartomány a Román Népköztársaságban” [The Hungarian Autonomous Region in the Romanian People’s Republic] in Autonóm magyarok? A Székelyföld változása az ötvenes években [Autonomous Hungarians? Change in the Székelyföld in the 1950s], ed. Nándor Bárdi (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print Könyvkiadó, 2005), 617–27; and Sándor Oláh, “Elitrekrutáció a szocializmusban” [Élite Recruitment in Socialism] in Fényes tegnapunk. Tanulmányok a szocializmus korszakáról [Our Golden Yesterday. Studies on the Era of Socialism], ed. Julianna Bodó (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print Könyvkiadó, 1998).
4 See, for example, http://adatbank.transindex.ro/inchtm.php?kod=126, accessed December 17, 2012.
5 For information regarding the social changes stemming from collectivization see Sándor Oláh’s research.