Children play on an abandoned railway in Hungary. CREDIT: EDWARD CARILLE PORTRAITS/ MOMENT
Show Hide image

Dictator’s playground: inside Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Once part of a great empire, Hungary has become used to standing alone. But as the prime minister prepares for re-election, his corrupt and puffed up regime is spreading fear and anxiety. 

The northbound train was due to depart Felcsút at 12.10pm. But ten-past and quarter-past came and went without any movement. Eventually the driver appeared along with the stationmaster, who walked with infinite stateliness, in a flame-red hussar-style cap, to wave the train away.

No one complained. The winter snows, turning grey with age, still lingered but the two carriages, heated by ancient woodburners, were toasty. There was only one passenger anyway; and I was very content.

One passenger per train is below average for the Vál Valley Light Railway, but not by much. It was opened in 2016 and links the Felcsút village station with the Puskás football academy two miles north and the Alcsútdoboz arboretum two miles south. There are a number of amazing coincidences involved here: Felcsút is the nondescript home village of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. The football academy and attendant grandiose stadium constitute one pet project of his. The arboretum reputedly belongs to Orbán’s father. And the railway linking the two, though pointless, was lucky enough to be majority funded by the EU.

Now there are those who see Orbán as a corrupt demagogue and quasi-dictator. But I can’t help thinking that anyone who abuses his office to give himself both his own giant Subbuteo stadium and a train set must in some way be endearingly human. There was also something charming about the way this master of vote-maximisation evidently overestimated about a hundredfold how many people wanted to play on his train set.

Actually, my splendid isolation was short-lived. At the terminus we did not wait in vain: a phalanx, about 40 strong, suddenly emerged from the stadium and headed towards us. Almost all were elderly and most were female. It was not easy to ascertain their purpose since my Hungarian vocabulary (four words) far outshone their combined stock of English (zero). But I gathered they had come from the Danube-side town of Szentendre, and they nodded approvingly when I mentioned the prime minister. Which was not surprising since they were spending their Sunday on the Viktor Orbán heritage trail.

They got off at papa’s arboretum and vanished into the mist. I went back to Felcsút and watched the next northbound service depart. This time it had no passengers at all.

When I told this story to contacts back in Budapest, they agreed that these must have been party supporters on a free day out. “The varicose squad!” laughed one. That was the term (“Krampfader Geschwader”) used by disrespectful SS men to describe the elderly women who, at Nazi rallies, gazed up so adoringly at the Führer. “Viktor is blessed with the same phenomenon.” The word varicose is normally applied to ageing veins, but an 18th-century dictionary defined it as meaning “puffed up and swollen more than ordinary with corrupt Blood”. Which might be a fair description of Hungary’s prime minister.

Hardly any real foreign tourists go to Felcsút, which is bypassed by the non-toy trains. And why would they leave Hungary’s beguiling capital? Lonely Planet calls Budapest “Europe’s most exciting city after dark”; that is, loud music and louder drunks, mostly British. But in daylight it is dreamy.

Its heyday came in the 19th century under the later Hapsburgs, and somehow wars, communism and capitalism have all failed to wreck it. The star turn is the parliament: an amazing vision, like the Palace of Westminster with St Paul’s on top, but in a more striking setting. It was finished in 1904 for a country that was still part of Austria-Hungary but thirsting for progress and power.

Those ambitions were scotched by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon – the afterthought to Versailles, forgotten by all except historians and Hungarians – which reduced the kingdom of Hungary to a fraction of its pre-war size, making it unusually homogenous. “The loneliest country in Europe,” someone called it; alone with its impenetrable language (its people are almost as bad as the British and French when it comes to learning others) and its tortured past.

Even so, the British-born writer Tibor Fischer sees his ancestors’ compatriots as the good-time Charlies of eastern Europe: “The stock figure of the carefree Hungarian hussar from operetta, carousing, sozzled, urging on gypsy violinists to greater excesses, has a fantastic amount of truth in it,” as he put it in his 2014 extended essay on Orbán, “The Hungarian Tiger”. Perhaps that is the only response to a millennium of defeat and conquest.

Fischer got to know the student politician Orbán in 1988, as communism began to totter. He spotted him at once as relentlessly focused and thus un-Hungarian, and has a splendid riff about being with him in a small town, where there was a bus but no easy way of buying a ticket. No one else seemed bothered, but Orbán spent ages trying to pay in case one of his opponents found out.

Orbán also understands the power of symbolism. In 2000, during his first term of office, he removed Hungary’s holiest relic, the Crown of St Stephen, from the national museum to a place of honour under the parliamentary dome, in an earthquake-proof case (though earthquakes are almost unknown), guarded by two soldiers with drawn swords, pretending to be waxworks. The crown is topped by a cross, damaged centuries ago so that it stands at a rakish angle, as though enjoying a private joke.

The relic’s provenance is uncertain, though it cannot be as phoney as St Stephen’s alleged right hand, housed in a reliquary in the cathedral, which for 200 forints (60p) in the slot lights up like a fairground attraction. Having paid my 60p, I found it looked more like a mummified giant spider.

Everything in Budapest seems more fantastic than truthful. A miasma of doubt hangs over the place like the lovely warm mists above the thermal baths. A sign in my apartment warned me against being picked up by “attractive-looking strangers”. Fat chance, but it is best not to be too beguiled.

Still, Fischer may have a point about the national character. The escalators in the Budapest metro are like precipices, as though overcompensating for all the mountains Hungary lost in 1920. After a night on the goose soup, suckling pig kaiser, Esterházy torte and Tokaj, one might try to lose weight by racing up one. But it’s impossible. The locals sprawl across them anarchically, with no regard to London-style etiquette. It seems like an act of small defiance, characteristic of a communist past and an increasingly dictatorial present. I’m not sure they bother much with tickets either.


Corruption is hardly new in Hungary. Neal Ascherson, the former Observer correspondent who spent much of his career in central Europe, says that if you were in trouble in the Iron Curtain days, there was a reasonable though not certain chance of bribing an Eastern Bloc border guard or cop. The exceptions were East Germany, where the idea would be met with outrage, and Hungary, where it was always accepted “in a friendly, routine sort of way, without fuss, threats or hypocrisy”. There is also an ancient tradition of tipping one’s doctor.

Communist ways have died hard here, because there was no final catharsis. The benchmark year in Hungary, aside from 1920, is 1956, when the heroic failed revolution took place. Once vengeance was brutally completed, the new leader, János Kádár, spent his 32 years in power allowing not-too-bad times to roll within Soviet-imposed limits. He is remembered quite fondly. Communism then morphed into presumed democracy, without purges or serious recriminations. This was perhaps a mistake.

Orbán, aged 26, made his name with a stunning speech at the reburial of the executed 1956 leader, Imre Nagy, in 1989. Nine years later he was prime minister. His Fidesz party was a chumocracy, dominated by old student comrades, though the chums slowly became either acolytes or enemies: his imperious tendencies were noted at the time. His first term was generally well regarded, however, and his defeat in 2002 was a surprise.

He spent the next eight years in opposition learning lessons, shifting the party ever further right. “The key to Orbán is his anti-communism,” says John O’Sullivan, the British president of the Danube Institute, a right-of-centre think tank based in Budapest and Washington. Less charitable souls saw the ideological shift as a marketing ploy, designed to mop up the votes of the varicose, the re-emerging bourgeoisie, and the countryside. Which it did.

Orbán was also appalled by the corruption of the socialist (largely ex-communist) government that replaced him. Hindsight suggests his objections were to its amateurish nature. Back in office in 2010 he showed everyone how to do things properly: centralise power in a single individual, spread wealth among his friends, and neutralise his enemies. And on 8 April, almost all the evidence suggests, he will win a fourth term with another large majority among the 199 pliant and/or cowed MPs, rattling around their huge building.

Tibor Fischer thinks Western journalists talk rot about Orbán. “The socialists are more market-minded than he is. He has often scourged the fat cats. He is very, very good at what he does. The opposition is very, very bad. There are about 90 political parties registered so there’s plenty of choice. The elections are fair: there’s no more skulduggery than in Britain. And the idea that he controls the media is simply absurd. There are plenty of media outlets that spend 24 hours a day shitting on him.”

There is much truth in what Fischer says. Indeed, the foreign press gets fooled by Orbán’s grandstanding about immigrants, Jews in general, George Soros in particular, the EU and the UN, none of which has translated into a traditional reign of terror – midnight knocks and torture chambers – that might awaken even the dozy EU. It is intended to frighten, in different ways, both his enemies and his political base. Hungary is never going to be overrun by migrants because a) the wages are terrible; b) the language is terrifying; and c) the lack of welcome is notorious.


But the bland version is not the whole truth. The anti-Orbán media have been rendered almost invisible and inaudible. And the worst is below the radar. Ferenc Takács is a retired professor of English in Budapest, witty, urbane and past-caring enough to go on the record. “The worst feature is the general fear in the country,” he told me. “People won’t express views on Facebook. Teachers are afraid to say critical things about their head teacher or the government.

“There is an unpredictability about the whole thing. Someone somewhere thinks you are a nuisance. So someone tells the tax authorities: ‘Look into their business and find something.’ Most cases end up being dropped but it can take years. The thing has an effect. It’s devilishly ingenious.”

Others were far more nervous. Some planned meetings with me were cancelled at short notice on flimsy excuses. Anonymity was a condition of nearly all the conversations I did have. “People do feel threatened,” one woman told me. “I don’t know how real that is. But if you are a public employee you cannot be on the opposition side.

“What is also definitely frightening is the way friends of the state are buying up everything. There is no such thing as public interest any more. If you have a business with ambitions, they will try to buy it. If you refuse, they’ll say, ‘Or we’ll buy it for two forints tomorrow’. Meaning they’ll make it worth two forints.”

The rhetoric has been successful enough to cut the oxygen supply even from the far-rightists of Jobbik. In February the opposition parties united in a municipal by-election and beat Fidesz. Some optimistically see this as a template for local deals before 8 April. But Orbán saw opportunity, warning that Hungary would be filled with immigrants and that “women and girls would no longer be safe”.

In the middle-sized, Fidesz-dominated city of Kecskemét, I met the socialist candidate, József Király, a local builder. It is too late for him to seek anonymity: he says his activism has long since damaged his business: “I hardly get any jobs in the city. If they see my van outside their house they’re scared.” I ask him if he employs many people. “Not these days. It used to be 50. Now it’s 20.”

There are signs that the arrogance of power is making Orbán careless. The Felcsút train is one example; the Trumpian enrichment of his son-in-law is another. (For a full analysis, I commend Paul Lendvai’s Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman.) But I would not be too hopeful of change.

Szentendre, home of my fellow passengers on Orbán’s toy train, turned out to be a lovely riverine town, full of knick-knack shops and the bourgeois elderly, all terrified of non-existent immigrants. Spring was in the air by now, and the small and leftish Democratic Coalition was in town, giving away little pots of pansies for International Women’s Day. How could any woman refuse? Many did, with a shudder.

Hungary’s biggest problem is not immigration but emigration: as happened after 1956, the best and brightest are already leaving for better money and more congenial regimes. Orbán’s fourth term will be vile. He said last week of his opponents: “After the election, we will seek satisfaction: moral, political and legal.” One of my interviewees finally sighed: “It’s an old east European story. Such a promising young revolutionary. Now look at him. This is his tragedy. And ours.” 

For the next article in our “Lost Continent” series, Matthew Engel will visit Berlin

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
Show Hide image

Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special