A tale of three Hungarian women

Zsuzsanna Vari Kovacs | Updated on August 14, 2020

Then and now: The new social order brought about by the fall of the Iron Curtain has created new tensions in Hungary’s social structure   -  ILLUSTRATION: ANGELA VÀRI-KOVÀCS

A millennial sketches her family’s journey towards freedom through tectonic shifts in Hungary’s sociopolitical structure

My great-grandmother had an arranged marriage. Not a stirring piece of family history as far as India goes, but she lived in a small town in rural Hungary. Three generations later, my life is fundamentally different: Not only do I have the freedom to marry the person of my choice, but also the freedom to do what I want in most spheres of my life, along with the responsibility that comes with it. My family’s life has been transformed by a war, a revolution, two regime changes, and social mobility. Still, the stories of the women who brought me up make me treasure this unquestionable freedom to lead my life.

“We are all prisoners of the ideas of the times we live in,” says Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who won the prize for literature in 2015. I am no exception. Millennial notions of democracy, feminism and human rights have shaped my understanding of history’s rights and wrongs. Yet, at the same time, family stories have kept me connected to the ideas that shaped the lives of my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Their ‘private history’ is my best textbook on the 20th century — one that I add footnotes to after every afternoon spent on my grandmother’s porch discussing the past. Here are a few chapters that illustrate the path of women in Hungary towards independence and freedom.

Keeper of tradition

The year was 1933. My great-grandmother, Ilona, was the eldest of six children — five daughters and a favourite son. Her family lived in Kaposvar, a small town in southern Hungary. They were a class of poor urban farmers, Catholic, respectable, and upwardly mobile. Though they had no dowry to speak of, the daughters were all beautiful and virtuous, and attracted eligible suitors in droves. One day a photographer took Ilona’s portrait, and kept a copy for marketing and matchmaking purposes.

This photographer’s next assignment was to photograph hunting trophies — the hunter was none other than the man who became Ilona’s husband and my great-grandfather. The youngest son of farmers and the first in the family to receive an education, he was the forestry officer of an earl and lived in a cottage at the edge of the woods he guarded. He wanted a hard-working wife who could make hot scones at dawn for the shooting parties, shine his hunting boots and manage a rural household. As the eldest, my great-grandmother was expected to marry first, and he was a good match with a stable income — firewood allowance, pigs and land to till. It snowed on her wedding day and she left on a sleigh for her new life. Her father, known for his hard nature, turned towards the wall of the house, and cried inconsolably over the loss of his “right hand man”.

Ilona fulfilled all her duties as wife, mother, and daughter-in-law in a joint family. The braids of her girlhood were swapped for the chignon of married women, then a perm. I remember the perfect strudels she took a whole morning to prepare, the walnut scent of her pantry, the straight rows of her vegetable garden. Still, in her 70s, she told my mother of her youthful dreams of becoming a nun. And according to my grandmother, her true tenderness was reserved for her five siblings. Hungary also has its share of saas-bahu conflicts, but in her house, these were about favours granted to her sisters — eggs borrowed and never returned — and the fights concluded with my great-grandfather saying, “Enough, this ends now”.

War and peace

My grandmother was Ilona’s first child. Her life is an embodiment of the 20th century. She had it all: War, communism, democratic transition, endless work, and true love. Her early memories are all about World War II, when first German, then Russian soldiers took over the family home. The Germans stayed for a few months; my grandmother’s Jewish classmates and neighbours disappeared, never to return. The Russians stayed longer and stored their anti-artillery guns and trucks filled with ammunition in the spacious courtyard. Ilona cooked for the soldiers; my grandmother stole two of their colour pencils. The army presence saved the family from most atrocities, but not the country — mass rapes by Soviet soldiers led to the legalisation of abortion in Hungary.

The end of the war was the start of 40 years of Soviet occupation and the political shift towards communism. The values of our lower-middle class, conservative, Catholic family were systematically dismantled by the increasingly left-wing political discourse. Regardless of the family’s genteel poverty, education was prized, and my grandmother attended the same Catholic girls’ school as her own mother — run by nuns until religious orders were banned by the State in 1948. Her high-school experience was marked by the communist transition: She was taught to disturb the screening of American ‘imperialist’ movies, clap every time the name of a ‘dear leader’ was mentioned, and learn Russian instead of Western languages. She went on to study in a teacher’s college and became the first woman in the family to have a professional career.


Changing ideals

Communism took a hammer to the traditional ideals of women, work and motherhood, but, in private, old values lived undisturbed alongside the official narrative. My grandmother fell in love with my grandfather — 13 years her senior, a former political prisoner, and, by far his biggest sin, a Protestant. They married against the wishes of her parents, who did not speak to her for a decade. In the middle of the worst years of communism, they could not marry in a church — not because of the secular, anti-clerical oppression of the State, but because neither the Catholic priest nor the Protestant pastor was willing to marry a couple from two different Christian denominations.

A background to this private drama was a violent top-down transformation of society with the nationalisation of the economy, which eliminated the upper classes, the collectivisation of the agricultural sector, and State-led feminism. Communist propaganda glorified women doing a man’s job: The symbol of the ’50s was the female tractor driver. Women were more important as workers than mothers, and motherhood itself was portrayed as a form of production: Mothers produced workers to build socialism.

As a teacher, my grandmother taught at an evening school for railway workers with aspirations to become party cadres. She attended compulsory classes on Marxism-Leninism soon after her maternity leave of only six weeks. A memorable four-hour political confession session in 1960 ended when my grandfather showed up with my one-year old mother in his arms to ask, “When do you plan to come home, dear?”

Back to the future

Image management: Communism took a hammer to the traditional ideals of women, work and motherhood, but, in private, old values lived undisturbed   -  IMAGE COURTESY: FORTEPAN/ SÀNDOR BÀUER/ GIRL ON TRACTOR, 1956

My mother grew up at the tail end of this enforced emancipation. The totalitarian agenda of communism had mellowed down. Hungary had become ‘the happiest barrack of the Soviet bloc’ where the Party led by the principle “if you are not against us, you are with us”. A modest consumer society developed where having a car, household appliances, and a domestic holiday became the norm. Femininity — earlier a decadent mark of the bourgeoisie — became acceptable again. Even the housewife was rehabilitated with the 1967 introduction of a three-year paid maternity leave policy. Still, shadows of the past lingered. Students were categorised based on the father’s background — whose job was listed both for before and after 1945. The class diary marked you as W (worker), P (peasant), I (intellectual), O (other) and the worst, X, if your father was a war criminal, aristocrat or other “enemy of the state”. My grandfather’s background qualified my mother as an O — in 1977, she was only accepted in law school upon the intervention of the local MP regardless of her near-perfect test results.

My mother lived in a dual value system — the one at home based on traditional Christian values with emphasis on self-discipline and education; the one in the public sphere dictated by ‘socialism with a human face’. The ideal socialist woman worked, raised her kids, took care of her husband and instilled socialist morals in all members of her well-managed household. Unwittingly, my mother lived up to this ideal — except her morality was resistant to any form of totalitarianism. She never doubted her equal status with men, just as much as she never questioned that the second shift — housework and childcare — was her duty as well. She became a lawyer — while she spent her allotted years at home, her company hired two men to cover her job temporarily. She attended the compulsory May 1 marches while reading Solzhenitsyn in samizdat. She craved freedom — to travel, read and say what she wished, but could only realise these desires fully after 1989, when the democratisation of Eastern Europe changed the fate of Hungary and my family again.

Freedom, or something like that

Family portrait: A 1939 photo of the writer’s great-grandmother (right) and grandmother (middle) with a wild boar shot by her great-grandfather, a professional hunter   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ZSUZSANNA VÀRI-KOVÀCS


The fall of the Iron Curtain brought unprecedented cultural freedom to society. The grey stagnation of the socialist regime gave way to headless capitalism. My sister and I lived our whole cognisant lives in a democracy and were lucky to have parents who could offer us opportunities to study, travel and get to know the world in ways they could only dream of. But the new social order has also given birth to new tensions. On the one hand, women today have more opportunities than ever before to lead independent lives. On the other, unwritten social norms still expect them to focus on fulfilling traditional roles.

In the ’90s, the discussion was often framed in terms of “car vs baby”: Consumption vs having (more) kids. Millennials today add self-realisation to this dilemma: The global seduction of Instagrammable pleasures — travel and fitness, side gigs and dream jobs. No longer tamed by the lack of freedom of expression, much public debate and policymaking ensues to tilt the balance. In their individual lives, women make compromises as their circumstances dictate or allow. In the public discourse, feminism and ‘familialism’ fight heavily politicised battles. But women of my generation have been accustomed to the validity of diverse lifestyle choices — regardless of our position on #metoo or motherhood.

My mother thinks that the scope of my generation’s freedom is almost a disadvantage — having limited choices made her life easier. This is no false nostalgia. She still hates the suffocating constraints communism placed upon her. Instead, it is an acknowledgement of my generation’s struggles in the absence of physical borders, stable career paths and traditional gender roles. Still, we both know that the freedom I have now cannot be taken for granted. It is a new-found gift in our family, and I intend to keep it.

Zsuzsanna Vári-Kovács is a writer and development professional based in Yangon

Published on August 14, 2020

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