This article has been published online by the Magyar Nemzet on February 25, 2021.
Zalán Bognár: Unfortunately, this national trauma is still missing from History books today.
If we name the abduction of our citizens according to its consequences, then it should be called deportation to forced labor camps resulting in mass deaths – said Zalán Bognár, president of the International Society of Gulag and GUPVI Researchers. We spoke with the researcher about their conference starting tomorrow on the 21st century’s whitewashing of communism, and on what can be learned from the near seven hundred thousand newly digitalized labor camp registration forms.
– You’ve been researching the stories of Gulag/GUPVI camp victims for thirty years now. How do you handle this overwhelming human tragedy that unfolds before you?
– It truly is quite different to study a topic and era whose effects we still feel, that lives with us, or if just in the collective subconscious of others. However, a great many of us – a third or fourth of our nation, myself included – have a personal connection to this tragedy. In fact, my own innocent grandfather was abducted from Budapest without any justification or official reason. Thank God, he managed to return, even at 38 kilos, but he died soon after and I never got to know him. Over the course of my university and rural lectures, I’ve realized that there is a dire need in our society to learn about this long hidden, forgotten, suffering portion of our history.
– Are the taboos broken? Can the victims speak out now?
– More and more people are contacting me or our society, The International Society of Gulag and GUPVI Researchers, to help them uncover a relative or ancestor’s story, burial grounds, or any information about an abducted civilian or soldier taken as prisoner. Many have thanked me for writing a book on this topic because they felt that someone was finally acknowledging the stories of their fathers, mothers, grandparents, or great-grandparents – that the forced labor of their innocent loved ones will not be forgotten by the world. These personal encounters give me the motivation to research even further.
– Has there been a story that especially stuck with you?
– There are several stories that’ve overwhelmed me. For example, the story of a farming family from Kiskunság. There were 5 girls in the family, from age 8 to 21. Drunk Soviet soldiers arrived to their home and demanded women.
One of the soldiers raped the 19-year-old Julia in front of her family. The girl’s brother couldn’t stand the sight and killed the soldier with the weapon he had put down, while the other two soldiers ran off. The defiled girl and her brother were tortured to death, their father and mother were sentenced to death as leaders of a “terrorist crime group”, and the rest of the family members over 12 along, with the oldest daughter’s husband, were sentenced to 15-25 years of forced labor.
The 8-year-old Elizabeth grew up as an orphan and only met her three surviving older sisters 11 years later, in 1956.
– The stories of the abducted victims have only been commemorated for about 30 years at this point, since the fall of communism in Hungary. What do you think: how informed is Hungarian society on this topic since the regime change?
– Unfortunately, under socialism this topic was forbidden, and this still has a strong impact today as generations have grown up with no knowledge of these historical facts. The silenced voices of history and the tons of lies from those 45 years created a distorted, false worldview and perspective that is quite difficult to correct. In 1956, on the Free Kossuth Radio, István Örkény self-critically stated, a prisoner of war in the Soviet work camps himself: “We lied at night, lied during the day, we lied on every wavelength.” And actually, because of this acknowledgment, he wasn’t published for five years.
Unfortunately, even today, this national trauma is either missing from history books or explained in just one sentence that usually doesn’t do the facts justice.
On the other hand, the Marxists don’t like it when the inhumanity of systems based on Marxist principles are pointed out.
– What do you think about communism regaining civil rights in the West? Statues of Marx and Lenin were recently unveiled in Germany.
– I believe, as I have already mentioned, the main reason for this is that, like in Hungary and the rest of the socialist block, the transformation of consciousness, the lies, the historical distortion, the silence and the brainwashing was constant for 45 years. This was compounded by the fact that for many, the regime change brought a strong sense of uncertainty compared to the paternalistic stagnancy of the socialist system. Therefore, many consider the socialist era nostalgic because it provided some security and a kind of equality – granted, the equality of poverty. Let’s not forget that most of the communist dictatorships softened right before the regime change. If a revolutionary wave swept away the communist dictatorships after Stalin’s death, people wouldn’t have forgotten the inhumanity of the system, the horrors, and wouldn’t look back on socialism with nostalgia.
Aside from ignorance, another factor driving people to the left side is the profit-hungry, multinational companies’ exploitation against which government are unwilling or incapable of taking action to protect their citizens.
This is why they turn to a utopian worldview that they think Marxism-Leninism can offer, but world history has sharply proven that there is no humane system possible founded on Marxist-Leninist principles.
– In spring 2021, the Hungarian National Archives are expected to publish the digital database that you’ve worked on over the past two years, of nearly 700,000 people. What does this mean in terms of your research?
– This has enormous potential because each of the almost 700,000 registration forms (karton) have 18 questions, one of them in fact with three sub-questions, and among other things, these identifying forms have the lager number where the data was recorded. Thus, these forms have more than 13 and a half million pieces of data altogether! Moreover, as it turned out, the forms were from not only the GUPVI (ie the Main Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees) but also the Gulag, or the General Command of the Correctional Labor Camps. However, it must be said that the almost 700,000 forms represent only those who actually made it to the Soviet camps.
In contrast, the names of those near 200,000 people who were freed around the Carpathian Basin and in Central or South-Eastern European camps, along with the 100-120,000 people who died during the transport are not documented in these forms.
At the same time, even many of those who were there are missing from the forms, and on the other hand, some people are listed more than once.
– The title of your conference: Community and the Individual – in the context of Soviet Labor Camps. Will the focus be on individual stories? I see from skimming the topics, that mainly rural, local research will be presented.
– We are moving from Hungarian society overall to smaller communities, social groups, to individual histories. The first section will discuss the extraordinary significance of the so-called (military) prisoner issue in the post-WWII period in Hungary and Transylvania. In addition, we will also discuss the information extracted thus far from the near 700,000 database. In all three lectures a lot of new data, facts and comparisons will be addressed. There will be very interesting lectures on the fate of regional or social groups, the experiences and results of deep-drill research experience in settlements, and of course, the extraordinary and shocking individual fates that make up history. It is important to note that the addressed period of the conference extends to 1956 for several reasons, but mainly because Hungarian citizens were still deported to the Soviet Union until then.
– “The communists erased the resources, thus remembering is all the more important. So, the research on this topic is still in its infancy. There are tons of questions to be answered because there are over 4 million involved, including relatives, by what happened” – you said in an interview with our paper.
– Yes, it is exactly this enormous social implication that warrants the creation of a Gulag and GUPVI Documentation and Research Institute, or at least one research group as part of an instate, to gather and process written and audiovisual resources, while working as an official authority issuing certificates to Soviet detainees.
– So, it’s not easy to process the materials of the Soviet bureaucracy?
– The Hungarian National Archives staff did a tremendous job, but there’s more work to do as there’s lots of spelling errors and incomplete or missing information. Think about it: how would an Uzbek, Latvian, Kazakh or other nationality write in Russian what they heard in Hungarian? There’s a ton of misheard, misspelled, and badly translated content that can’t be identified by an algorithm – you need human to do this. Moreover, this information should be compared with our national databases and archival information, and then of course processed too! And for this you need an independent institute or at the very least, a research group. By processing this data, hundreds of thousands of families can receive a sort of spiritual reparation in learning about the lives and deaths of their forgotten, silenced loved ones.
– Given the mortality rate and number of those interned, can this historical phenomenon still be called Malenkij robot (little work) or should it be corrected to reflect a sense of revenge?
– Many have proposed this question because the phrase “little work” could be quite misleading when you first hear it. This term was adopted by historians from the common language usage. For us historians, using the term “Malenkij robot” correctly, means putting it in quotes, for two main reasons. First, because this was the lie that the Soviet soldiers explicitly said to trick civilians into going by the thousands. Of course, it should officially be “malenykaja rabota” but on one hand, most of the Soviet soldiers weren’t Russian and thus had strong accents. On the other, the Hungarian prisoners also misunderstood them, thus the phrase became “Malenkij robot”. The second reason for using quotes is that this was not in fact a small job – but rather forced labor that lasted multiple years for our innocent, civilian compatriots. However, at first, in the official documents of the era, these abductions were called deportations.
We even know from József Révai, the chief ideologue of the Hungarian Communist Party, that many left-wing politicians, including Interior Minister Ferenc Erdei – who was the secretary general of the National Peasant Party and secret communist – compared the Soviet abductions to the Nazi Germany’s deportations of Jews.
– Is this an appropriate analogy?
– The method of deportation was indeed similar, but the Soviet GUPVI lagers did not aim to eliminate the prisoners, rather to work them. True, they were often worked to death. A third of the GUPVI prisoners died of unhygienic conditions, malnutrition, typhoid and hemorrhagic epidemics, and overworking. However, there were settlements such as Beregdaróc or Tabajd where 90% of those deported died in inhuman living conditions.
So if we name the abduction of the civilian population based on its consequences, we can call what happened a deportation to forced labor resulting in mass deaths.