An Infernal Play

by Daniel Kovalovszky

In 1945 in Hungary, Mátyás Rákosi the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, following the Soviet example, introduced a new Stalinist dictatorship in which human rights were severely violated. He established the State Protection Security (AVH) which was the secret police of Hungary from 1945 until 1956. It was responsible for much cruelty, brutality and many political purges. As a result of show trials, several hundred thousands of innocent citizens (political prisoners) were sent to forced labor camps, were imprisoned and hundreds were executed based on fictional charges. In most cases the charges consisted in supplying data to western powers and secretly organizing a revolt against the people’s power.

Having found the memoirs of some political prisoners a very dreadful and unknown world opened up for me and made me realize how little and superficial my knowledge is about this historical era. I decided to start a visual collection to shed light on a segment of what was happening during these obscure years that is unknown to many but still significant: the world of prisons and labor camps of the dictatorship in Hungary between 1945 and 1963. I visualized this dark and chaotic period in a light-toned, transparent and easy to understand way which is factual and was controlled by historians.

In 2016 I started investigating the fragility of human freedom and democracy while visiting the historically important scenes of the Hungarian communist dictatorship in their present state. The places themselves also continuously disappear or change their function but they will be holding the remembrance of the physical and mental suffering of thousands for a long time. The years survived there cannot be fully represented by photographs, yet I will try to bring forward some of the memories of the prisoners evoking the characteristics of the era. Naturally while visiting these places I am also overwhelmed by a strangling feeling thinking how I would have reacted to the horrors and the imprisonment.

In 2017 I started taking portraits of old political prisoners and recording their personal stories. They, almost still in their teenage years, had been the darkest places of the criminal justice system of the time. Preserving their human dignity, they survived what was not possible to survive. They live privately, hidden from publicity, carrying this heavy historical burden for which they no time left in their lives to process and still haven’t received proper moral or financial compensation for their sufferings. I have made long interviews with them which have significantly changed my personal approach to the 20th century history of Hungary. There is a time pressure for my work as there are fewer and fewer former prisoners who are still alive. This world is disappearing unnoticed, with  last old surviving witnesses and the historically important scenes.This is the time to record what happened in the past for the next generations, because it will not be possible to do this in 3-4 years. Being aware of the time constraints my project was speeded up significantly. Preparing the series needed lots of background work. (Archive research, emails, phone calls).

I hope my work will also become historically meaningful at one point and can show something to the future generations who are born into a free world and know very little about what this generation had to live through. As far as I know, up to this date nobody has created an over-arching, thematic photo archive on this chapter of the history of Hungary in the 1950s. Unfortunately not only photographically, but neither from social or emotional perspective has the past been processed. Hungarian society still carries and passes on the burdens and negative reflexes of the past unconsciously. Facing the past as it was never happened. I strongly believe that the period I wanted to shed light on determined the present and the future of Hungarian society.

My grandmother often told me a frightening story when I was a child, the gravity of which I only came to understand as an adult. When she was a young woman, during the years of dictatorship, my grandfather narrowly escaped getting lost in the maze of the criminal justice system, since an officer of the State Protection Authority (AVH) started courting my grandmother; my grandfather became an obstacle. The officer made an offer to my grandmother, that should she choose, he could get rid of my grandfather so that no one would ever find him. If that were to happen, I might not have been able to start my work, either.