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Kálmán Sütö and his struggle against Hungarian dictatorship

A street magazine vendor led protests against prime minister Victor Orbán’s rewriting of history. He tells openDemocracy how his life led him to that point.

Kálmán Sütö Kálmán Sütö. Image, Adam Ramsay, cc2.0.

In Budapest, I had coffee with Kálmán Sütö, a homeless man who sells a magazine outside the country’s parliament, and with a friend who translated. This is what he told me.

“I was a driver and many other things. Originally I was working on these old engines. I worked at a car plant outside Budapest. I was about to get a permanent post. But I had a stroke ten years ago. I have three young children but we separated [...] and now they are in care. They are still young children, they are in care. They are now in foster care and the foster parents are very good and they are all together and they have a good life.

“I am allowed to see them once a month. But they don’t live in Budapest but from time to time they come with their foster parents and we go on a tour – we go to the parliament or the zoo or the circus. The main thing is they keep them very well. They learn German. I suppose I couldn’t have given them such a good life that they have now. They are lucky now that they [...] got into the care system. There are always lucky breaks even in bigger misfortunes.

“So I had this stroke and I didn’t want to go the the doctor because I didn’t want people to find out. I didn’t want to go on sick leave, but somebody found out and they told the company. They had been going to make me permanent but after that they didn’t renew my contract. That was exactly around 2008 when this big crisis hit and already the companies were pulling back their production because they knew they didn’t have as many contracts and so they wanted a smaller workforce. So part of it was the stroke and part of it was the smaller workforce. The way they dealt with this, they found the people who were not yet permanent and the ones they didn’t want to keep, they lost their employment rights. I had been working there two years and they didn’t want to be sacking people. Exactly at the end of September my probation would have finished. So in 2008 not just the auto industry but a lot of industries got into crisis and a lot of people lost their jobs.

“I had a number of temporary jobs so for example working in agriculture. When it was the season I got more work, when it was not I didn’t. Then I was out on the public works programme – and this was before Orban, not after him. So it wasn’t Orban who came up with the public works programme.

“So at this time I was still married, but the social workers [who are usually from Fidez, the ruling party] broke up my family, getting involved where they shouldn’t. They were really overpowering and got involved in every little detail and just made it worse. So they broke up our family with their stupid advice and interventions.

“So I tried to get the children to be with me but I didn’t manage because I didn’t have a flat. Even though there were empty houses in the local authority housing stock, they would rather it sat empty than go to me.

“I don’t know why they don’t like me. I could only speculate. I really don’t know why they didn’t like me. But I think they were blinkered Fidez activists.

“So this was outside of Budapest in Mezökomárom, so I wasn’t living where I worked. But I couldn’t live there with no job and no housing so I came to Budapest about ten years ago.

“I worked on the new metro as a construction worker. I used to be a truck driver then I couldn’t find my driving licence one day and I couldn’t afford to get a new one but now I wouldn’t drive because my health isn’t good enough – for example I’ve had two bypasses on my legs – and if something went wrong anything could happen.

“We worked on the Metro 4 when the work lasted and that was hard work and you had to go up and down but when that finished it was done. Then I worked on the rubbish and it was just day work and there were people with permanent contracts and they just sat and watched while we did all the work and it was really hard work.

“That company, the refuse collection company, FKF, I couldn’t work there any more because I had a huge infection from one of the operations and I had to go all the way back to Mëzok and this is when I started selling the newspaper – this is my only income.

“I tried to get this big infection sorted and the hospitals wouldn’t help. So the original hospital that did my operation was not willing to help and they looked at my papers and saw I hadn’t come from Budapest and made me go back there to be treated. All the bureaucracy was so complicated. They think maybe a foreign body was left in my leg from the new treatment. I would have been at the front of the demo against the constitutional changes, but I was in hospital.

“Now I live in a workers’ hostel with about 30 of us. We’ve been living there for three years but it’s still not painted. It’s around the flyover that takes you to the airport, near the train station. It was the workers’ hostel of a big textile factory which is now shut.

“Of the three types of government [that he has experienced], I preferred democracy.

“I don’t have bad memories of the communist period. I was a young man then so I have good memories. We didn’t have freedom but we had more security – job and life security – and we were quite happy. It was my youth so it was definitely some of the best times.

“I cannot see the future.

“I just have wishes. I would like to see democracy reinstalled and this dictatorship come to an end. It’s really hard without the freedom of the press so I think that would be the first thing to put right. And the rule of law would be good to put back. Because right now we are governed by the mafia. Throughout Europe, we haven’t had this kind of mafia state for a very long time. It’s Putin and his lapdogs that are running this country. But you are also in trouble now in Scotland if I hear right. Putin and his lapdogs have done well, to kick you out of the European Union. Although we have much bigger problems than you, that’s true. Because we don’t have democracy. But he can still cause you problems. And then you have the Trump lapdogs.

“I think Trump is also a lapdog of Putin. Putin has created Trump.

“And then there’s the Chinese communist mafia coming too. So I don’t see much hope for the future. And the Germans are trouble too.”

At this point, Sütö took me to a memorial, built by prime minister Victor Orbán’s government, which claims to commemorate “the victims of the Nazis”, but the iconography makes clear that the “victim” was Hungary as a whole, rather than the real groups who were persecuted by both the Nazis and Hungary’s own fascist state.

The memorial to the 'victims' of the Nazis. Image, Adam Ramsay, cc2.0.

“When they launched the Nazi ‘victims’ memorial I made a big banner saying ‘Horthi was the biggest Nazi of them all.’. I signed it ‘Kálmán the historian.’ The protests were so big that Orbán was afraid to come. It was fenced off with some protected material and I started writing on it and as soon as I started writing the police jumped on me took me to the police station and charged me with vandalism.

“I made sure that they wrote down in their statement that I protested against the illegal arrest. But I also wrote in what I accused them of and what my problem is with this statue.”

openDemocracy asked Sütö’s permission to publish his comments online. He replied:

“I send greetings to Trump and to your government too!”

As we part, we pass people gathering signatures for the petition against the University of Central Europe – funded by George Soros – being kicked out of Hungary by the government. Sütö’s parting words are:

“I was the first one to sign the petition for the Central European university!”

(With thanks to the translator, who wishes to remain anonymous.)

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