The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-foot-tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.
Inside, I watched a procession of riders—Azeris, Avars, Bashkirs, Chuvashes, Karakalpaks—take turns galloping around the amphitheater, a vast oval of trampled earth. Then, after each brother nation had been announced, the Battle of Pozsony began. Four hundred and fifty-four years after Attila’s death, in 907, a Frankish army came charging out of Bavaria into the heart of the nascent Hungarian kingdom. The Hungarians beat them with an old nomad trick: they fooled the Franks into thinking they were on the retreat, wheeled around at the last second to spring a trap on their unsuspecting foes, and showered them with arrows when they were too close to escape. The original bloodbath took place over the course of three days, but that day at the festival the Hungarian troops needed to wrap things up in thirty-five minutes.
From the start, the Franks, on foot and few in number, looked uneasy. Their swords and shields were distressingly flimsy, like toys. Prince Luitpold, their ostensible commander, didn’t seem to be around. When the Hungarians entered the field of battle on fleet-looking steeds, wearing far shinier helmets and brandishing what appeared to be actual swords, they made short work of the badly overmatched invaders. The crowd cheered—and with good reason. According to the Kurultáj’s website, the Battle of Pozsony is the subject of a generations-long cover-up, the battle “they” don’t want you to know about. Why, the site asks, is this most important military engagement not taught in schools? Why do students dwell instead on the routs at Merseburg and Lechfeld, which finally put an end to the Magyar menace hanging over Europe? (“Magyar” is the historical name by which Hungarians still refer to themselves.) Surely, it is all part of a socialist plot to make Hungarians feel like a guilty people, plagued by defeat, the post goes on, asked again and again by everyone from the Austrians to the Soviets to the European Union to “dare to be small.”
This is the key to the political message behind the Kurultáj: that the truth of the Hungarian past has been suppressed, obscuring the Hungarian people’s origins as a nomadic race of pagan warriors, born for conquest but forced into submission by treacherous neighbors, liberal ideologues, even Christianity itself. Given its nationalist orientation, it’s no surprise that the Kurultáj was established in close association with Jobbik, Hungary’s onetime ultra-nationalist political party. (It has since slightly tempered its message.) Today, the festival’s patron is Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which now occupies the rightmost spot on the political spectrum. Fidesz gives the event around a million euros a year, which is the reason admission is free and why, in the absolute middle of nowhere, it takes an hour of waiting in traffic to get in.
Fidesz’s sponsorship is also why László Kövér, the speaker of Parliament, was addressing festival attendees in the conference tent shortly after I arrived. He began by welcoming the “heirs and worshippers of Attila and Árpád’s people,” the latter name invoking the chieftain who formed Hungary’s first royal dynasty, and in a few short minutes laid out his own version of the conspiracy preventing Hungarians from knowing their true past. Once upon a time, he explained, the Huns broke their enemies with their ferocious mounted archers. Today, the enemies of the homeland employ a more insidious strategy: they attack the mind. They falsify history and sow confusion about people’s “gender, family, religious, and national identities” until they don’t know who they are or where they are from. But Kövér knows. Hungarians are “the westernmost Eastern people.” Their real roots are on the battlefield, on the steppes, with the nomads. With Attila the Hun.
Almost every country in Europe has a moment in its deep past that serves as its symbolic origin. These speculative beginnings are usually placed in the age of barbarians, where documentation is conveniently sparse. Along these lines, France has Clovis the Frank and “our ancestors the Gauls,” while the Germans celebrate Arminius, who beat back the Roman legions in the Teutoburg woods. Across the Atlantic, even the United States once flirted with the idea of Dark Age roots. Thomas Jefferson originally wanted to place Hengist and Horsa, the two ur-Saxons who launched the post-Roman conquest of Britain, on the Great Seal of the United States, arguing that they exemplified the “political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
The Hungarian version is only a little more extreme, although, as far as canonical history is concerned, Hungarian origins are already fairly spectacular. The early Hungarians appeared in ninth-century Europe as a collection of migrating tribes who raised hell across the continent for a century before settling down in the flatlands of the Carpathian Basin. As a result of their migration from points far to the east, Hungarians speak a language that is virtually unique in Europe. (Their closest linguistic relatives are a handful of tiny tribes living in central Russia, and they also share a distant link with the Finns.)
However, the mythology on display at the Kurultáj posits that Hungarians, rather than being the orphans of Europe, are members of a great interethnic brotherhood, whose heroes include everyone from Attila to Tamerlane to Genghis Khan and whose territory stretches all the way from Budapest to Manchuria. Huns are this brotherhood’s shared ancestors, as are Scythians, Parthians, and scores of other nomadic would-be world conquerors. Thanks to this shared inheritance, the thinking goes, one can find traces of Hungarian kinship and influence in Turkey, in Mongolia, in Azerbaijan, even in Japan. This is why representatives of all these peoples and more were gathered in a field outside Bugac—to celebrate their common heritage as horse lords from the grassy heart of Eurasia, received history be damned.
Traveling the width of Hungary for two weeks last August, from Szeged in the south to Esztergom in the north, I came to understand that the historical nationalism that’s taken hold in the country is a genuine political force. Moreover, it isn’t confined to a few select spectacles like the Kurultáj, but comprises an entire alternative culture of its own. It has its own convention circuit and faiths. It has its own literature, its own cartography, its own musical genres. It’s possible to live entirely within its orbit—to eat from nationalist plates, worship according to purportedly ancient nationalist rites, and send your children to nationalist summer camps, where they can sleep in ancestral yurts, drink fermented mare’s milk, and learn the art of shamanic drumming.
Confronted with parades of martial horsemen kitted out in battle armor, or murals of Hunnic steeds grinding centurions into a fine paste under their hooves, part of me instinctively recoils. I have deep roots in Eastern Europe. My parents are Polish, and I grew up partly in Warsaw. My ancestors were petty tradesmen, yeoman farmers, bookbinders, glaziers, suspenders-makers, some of them (but not all of them) Jews, the kind of people more apt to play the part of the trampled than the trampler.
And yet, I can’t claim to be entirely immune to the draw of this particular bit of mythmaking. My grandmother was Hungarian. And unlike the welter of Jews, Poles, Czechs, and Germans composing the rest of my ancestry, she was a noblewoman. Somewhere down the line, her family must have been soldiers ennobled for fighting the Turks: the family coat of arms was the severed head of a Turk impaled on a sword. One of my grandmother’s sisters owned a signet ring engraved with a similarly grisly decapitation scene.
For a kid growing up between small-town Pennsylvania and the somnolent Warsaw of the late 1980s, this was potent stuff to dream with. My entrée into world history was mostly stories of dudes hacking at each other with swords. Any era would do, but I preferred tales in which the barbarians won. My bookshelf was stuffed with titles such as The Goths,A History of the Ostrogoths, and Narses, Hammer of the Goths. Standing in front of the Yurt of Attila at the Kurultáj (“the world’s largest yurt”), I realized that I still understood the allure of this barbarian past, not least because the Huns are such an appealing canvas for a certain kind of fantasy of male identity and belonging. Historically, the Huns appear to have been less a tribe than a hodgepodge of soldiers of fortune, escaped slaves, and refugees rallying together around the promise of plunder. A series of disciplinarian leaders directed their more violent impulses toward a cause, but also provided a sense of shared parentage. Like so many modern authoritarians, Attila appealed to his people partly as a surrogate father. We know this with some certainty: in the language of his vassals, the Goths, his name meant “Daddy.”
The theory of Hungary’s Hunnic origins far predates Orbán or Kövér. Mention of it can be found in medieval chronicles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, only a few generations after the Magyars converted from paganism to Christianity. For the ecclesiastical propagandists who first proposed the idea, the Huns were an obvious choice of predecessor. The Magyars’ foes, after all, had likened their nomadic fighting style to the Huns, and they had both hailed from the Asian steppes. There was the etymological link, too: Hun and Hungarian (seemingly compelling proof but, sadly, pure coincidence). From there, it was an easy step to claim that the ruling dynasty descended not just from old King Árpád but from Attila himself.
From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, there was nothing unusual about concocting an elaborate, historically dubious pedigree for a ruling house or a people. Hungarians just had to do a little more public relations work than most, given prevailing theories that the Huns had been spawned by witches and demons mating on the shores of the Sea of Azov. Chroniclers and other royal propagandists worked hard to rehabilitate Attila by depicting him as a just, almost Christian king, someone who showed kindness to Pope Leo by not sacking Rome. Emended by humanists and apotheosized in Latin verse by eager Jesuits, this friendlier Attila persisted well into the Enlightenment and by the nineteenth century had become firmly entrenched within Hungarian national dogma.
Then came a deep blow to nationalist consciousness. Eighteenth-century linguists discovered that there was an ethnic group closely related to the Hungarians out there in the wider world. The Mansi, as they are now known, also spoke a language distantly akin to Finnish, but were far from horse-riding conquerors—they lived deep in the Siberian woods and subsisted mostly on fish. Bent on disproving these ignoble origins, adventurers set off across Central Asia in search of other, more martial, tribes of lost Hungarians. One claimed to have found millions of Hungarians living in the Caucasus. Another was so convinced of the Hungarian-Turkic connection that he learned Turkish and traveled disguised as a dervish across Central Asia to Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan. Sándor Csoma de K?rös, a polyglot Transylvanian, set out on a similar journey, making it all the way to Tibet.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the search for Hungary’s Hunnic past had gradually coalesced into a theory called Turanism. (The name ultimately derives from Old Persian, in which Turan meant something like “the land of darkness” and designated a fringe region of the Sassanid Empire inhabited by unruly nomads.) Part political movement and part religious revival, Turanism was big-tent nationalism in the style of pan-Slavism and pan-Germanism, born of Hungary’s nineteenth-century imperial ambitions. It held that the Hungarian people hailed from Asia, were related to Turks and other Central Asian peoples, and that their nomadic and pagan history should serve as the basis for Hungary’s cultural life and foreign policy, rather than being subordinate to the concerns of their nominal Austrian Hapsburg overlords.
After Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, Turanism became an ideology of resentment, serving as inspiration to Hungarian fascist movements. It offered a way for Hungarians to become equal competitors in the racialized violence of the interwar years—in a world in which Nazis were proclaiming their historic mission as leader of the Aryan nations, it made sense for Hungary to cast a wide net in search of friends. In the Turanist imaginary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Japan were all possible allies whose support could be used to claw back the greatness (and territory) that had slipped away after Hungary’s defeat. Beginning with the postwar communist takeover of Hungary, however, Turanism was banned. Its leading journals ceased publication, its institutes were shuttered, and its scholars (such as they were) were silenced. Activists prominent in the movement’s glory days of the 1930s either left for exile or died in obscurity.
As Turanism was driven underground, its ideas took on new and fantastical forms. Émigré scholars and nativist autodidacts met secretly in rural museums and published samizdat treatises filled with runic letters and outlandish ethnological hypotheses. In these pamphlets, ancient Magyars mingle with and beget Parthians, Sumerians, Mayans, Basques, anyone, really, without a firmly established line of ancestry. Sometimes, the theories ranged even farther, to Atlantis and Asgard. Thor was deemed Hungarian, as were Jesus and King Arthur. One account posited that the first Magyars were extraterrestrials from a planet orbiting Sirius B.
To most, however, the fact that the Magyars initially appeared in the historical record on horseback suggested a more terrestrial ancestry. In 2006, a semiprofessional archaeologist named András Zsolt Bíró professed to have located the Hungarian homeland in Kazakhstan, a spot more in keeping with their putatively nomadic origins. Bíró made a perfect spokesman for Hun-Turkic matters. Deeply tanned in the manner of a career outdoorsman or an Adriatic club promoter, he had the physique of a judo instructor and a long, raven-black ponytail. To this day, he often makes media appearances in battle-ready lamellar armor.
The ancestors Bíró alleged to have found belonged to a group of Muslim nomads called—coincidence be damned—the Madjars, whose Y chromosomes, Bíró claimed, indicated a relation to contemporary Hungarians. (Critics say they do no such thing and that Madjar has nothing to do with Magyar, meaning simply “good Muslim.”) Undeterred by his detractors, Bíró returned to Hungary to share the nomadic heritage he had uncovered. The following year, he attended a tribal gathering of the Kazakh Madjars as the head of a Hungarian delegation consisting mainly of martial artists. There, the two peoples—Magyar and Madjar—signed a pact of brotherhood. The following year, Bíró founded the Hungarian Kurultáj, named after a Turkic word meaning “meeting of the tribes.”
That first event, staged without government sponsorship, featured mostly Hungarian and Kazakh folkloric groups. But as word spread, the event broadened its international reach, attracting groups from across Central Asia and a domestic audience in the tens of thousands. In the process, it evolved from a combination of outdoor banquet, yurt campground, and demonstration of equestrian skill into a multiday musical extravaganza, crowned by the signature spectacles of the Yurt of Attila, a climactic bonfire, and vast reenactments of the original Magyar conquest of the Hungarian homeland.
Strolling around the Kurultáj, I noted archery demonstrations (both mounted and on foot), armor-making workshops, bonfires, and vendors selling traditional crafts. In the food court, representatives from the Mongolian Embassy served dumplings, and, in the conference tent, archaeologists from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey discussed the historical unity of Turkic peoples across the millennia. From the main stage, an Azeri folk band rendered mellifluous praise to Allah; they were followed by dancers from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and throat singers from several remote Russian republics. Inside the Yurt of Attila, artifacts from Hunnic tombs sat in cases next to reproductions of the characteristically oblong skulls of the Hunnic nobility. A mural depicted Attila’s army in action, savaging their Roman opponents with composite bows and what appeared to be battle wolves.
As for the other visitors, I found that some were simply curious. Some—especially the Turks, Azerbaijanis, and members of the Central Asian delegations—arrived with diplomatic support. One visitor, a shirtless Turkish traditional archer, celebrated with Instagram posts proclaiming the eternal union of the Turanian brotherhood “from the steppes of Kazakhstan to the mountains of Turkey, to the plains of Hungary.” (He self-identified on social media as a “researcher of Hun Turk history & culture & spirituality.”) Others had come because, as one festivalgoer put it, they “heard the call of the drums,” and were there for a taste of Hungary’s vanished historic glory. A large proportion of the merchandise for sale at the craft booths was aimed at this audience. Many products—plates, T-shirts, salad trays, handbags, and huge, Texas-style belt buckles—featured a map of Greater Hungary, the larger, pre–World War I territory whose restoration is the ultimate aim of the country’s irredentists. The same map, I noticed, was featured on decorative decals and bumper stickers, handed out for free by volunteers stationed next to the port-a-potties.
The day after the Kurultáj ended, I traveled to Ópusztaszer National Heritage Park, an open-air museum located about an hour south of Bugac, in another nondescript patch of countryside. According to legend, Ópusztaszer is the place where the Hungarian nation was born. Here, a thousand years ago, the seven Magyar tribal chieftains pledged fealty to one another, an act symbolized by the seven bus-length metal arrows plunged into the ground that greet park visitors. Within the gates, tourists are treated to a nationalist wonderland, complete with a collection of authentic rural architecture transported from Hungarian villages, a garden stocked with traditional Hungarian herbs, a horse corral, and a yurt field.
But the high point for any visitor—most of whom are schoolchildren or Hungarian retirees—is the Feszty Panorama. A massive painting from the close of the nineteenth century, it depicts the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin. The war wagons of the chiefs stand on a high mountain pass, the lands of their conquest stretching before them. A defeated Slavic prince weeps in extremis. Hirsute barbarians herd nubile girls into a cart. A nomad queen stares malevolently from her throne, carried aloft by a herd of longhorn bulls. A shaman slits the throat of a white steed. Girls dance around a sacred flame. (Its white smoke, the guidebook explains, is a good omen.) The crowd at the park moves slowly along the panorama, savoring every detail as a mournful melody of flutes and drums issues from somewhere in the rafters.
In 2012, Viktor Orbán chose Ópusztaszer as the venue for a speech during which he unveiled a ten-meter-tall statue of the mythical Turul bird, which heralded the coming of the Magyars. The bird, Orbán explained, “is an archetype of the Hungarian people” that belongs to Hungarians’ “blood and motherland.” Once effectively banned under Communism for its associations with the prewar revisionist right, the Turul bird is now everywhere, from clothing brands to the logos of the Hungarian Army and the Military National Security Service. At least 250 Turul statues—many erected on orders from Fidesz—now dot the landscape of Hungary and its neighbors, the most visible markers of the degree to which medieval and pagan symbolism have now penetrated the political realm.
Since Orbán and Fidesz came to power for a second time, in 2010, Turanism has been made into something of an official ruling ideology, with little room for dissent. Fidesz maintains an absolute majority in parliament, which allows it to pass any law and pack the courts to suit its whims. Constitutional amendments, new laws, and forced retirements have given the party control of the highest courts, and electoral “reforms” make it nearly impossible to dislodge gerrymandered districts from Fidesz control. Punitive taxation has forced most independent media outlets to either close or allow themselves to be bought by the government. Foreign NGOs are being driven out of the country. Theater performances and museum exhibits are subject to censorship and increasingly present a vision of the nation’s past that is revanchist, anticommunist, and preoccupied with its medieval roots.
In recent years, Fidesz functionaries have fanned out across Turkey and Central Asia, bearing the Turanist message with them wherever they go. The secretary for culture, Géza Sz?cs, long active in fostering closer cultural contacts between Hungary and “Turanian” peoples in Central Asia and Siberia, visited Kazakhstan in 2010 for a security conference. “We should not wish to be secondary in Europe,” he told the crowd. “We should promote ourselves in Asia.” In 2013, the director of the National Institute of Oncology ordered a genetic study of a member of Hungary’s founding royal family, hoping to connect their line to the ancient Huns. (That official, Miklós Kásler, has since been appointed minister of human capacities—a cabinet position combining authority over education, sports, culture, and health care—and announced the formation of a scientific institute designed to find definitive proof of Hungarians’ supposed Eurasian origins.) László Kövér, the speaker of Parliament who spoke at the Kurultáj, makes frequent reference to Hungary’s historical connections to Attila and, in a September address to the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries, which Hungary formally joined last year, expressed his pleasure at being accepted by “our Turkic brothers.”
Even more significant, however, has been the Turanist enthusiasm of Orbán himself. Throughout his political career, Orbán has proved to be a master of symbolic politics, especially as they pertain to the most emotionally resonant periods in Hungarian history. He has built a museum dedicated to the crimes of Communism and adjusted the statuary near the Parliament building by diminishing the prominence of left-leaning leaders. In 2011, armed with a parliamentary supermajority, Orbán pushed through a new constitution in which the Holy Crown, a jeweled diadem that once served as the coronation crown of Hungarian royalty, was officially declared to embody the “continuity of Hungary and the unity of the nation.” A year later, the government invited a Hungarian folk singer and her Tuvinian singer-shaman partner to perform a special “purification ceremony” on the crown, meant to endow it—and by extension the whole country—with positive energy. László Kürti, a professor of political science at the University of Miskolc, has written that this consecration, mixing as it did pagan and Christian symbolism in the very heart of the state, marked the beginning of “a new civil religion with neo-shamanism at its core.”
Under Orbán, Hungary has also pursued something like a Turanist foreign policy, seeking strategic partnerships with the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. At a meeting of Turkic-speaking states held in Kyrgyzstan last fall, the prime minister declared that “Hungarians consider themselves late descendants of Attila, of Hun-Turkic origin.” That same day, Zsolt Bíró, the Kurultáj founder and head of the Hungarian Turan Foundation, was on hand to lead Hungary’s delegation at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. (The Hungarian team, whose specialty is mounted archery, won 12 medals—an impressive showing, though far behind Kyrgyzstan’s 103.)
Orbán’s turn to the East is, at least in part, pragmatic. He’s interested in gaining investments from countries with little or no interest in human rights, many of which, like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, are members of the pan-Turkic brotherhood. He also sees these family-run dictatorships as models for the kind of stable, dynastic rule he’s been building at home. But whether Orbán actually subscribes to Turanist dogma or just pays lip service to it is an open question. Over the course of his political career, he’s drifted from being a liberal anticommunist in the waning days of state socialism to an authoritarian populist-nationalist today. He knows how to present himself as a moderate Christian Democrat in the European Parliament and a fire-breathing populist at home. When he takes up Turanist talking points about Hungary as the westernmost Eurasian state in the brotherhood of Turkic peoples, it’s unclear whether he speaks from inner conviction or for tactical advantage.
Regardless, Orbán’s adoption of Turanist language and symbols has helped buttress the xenophobic jingoism that has become the hallmark of his reign. Orbán is smart enough to know that Hunnic hordes and pan-Turkic brotherhoods are useful ways of maintaining his hegemony through popular enthusiasm. And as he has looked to expand his populist appeal, the targets of his rhetoric have multiplied. While earlier they were largely internal and political, Orbán has shifted to fearmongering about refugees, the European Union, and George Soros. (Donald Trump, for his part, praised him at the White House in May for doing a “tremendous job.”)
Academia, where Orbán got his start as the leader of an underground student movement, is one of his favorite subjects. The day after I arrived in Hungary, the speaker of Parliament compared gender studies to Nazi eugenics, and the government announced that the subject would no longer be taught in state-funded universities. (Fidesz and its allies were waging a war against the Central European University, which Soros cofounded, that summer. A few months later, the administration announced that the school would be relocating to Vienna.) Gábor Klaniczay, a professor of medieval studies at the university, told me that Fidesz’s attack on gender studies and the revival of Turanism were of a piece: both promise a return to an imaginary, idealized past. “This type of right-wing populism wants to undo everything certain types of twentieth-century progressive thinking achieved,” he explained.
The Hunnic past—martial, autocratic, and patriarchal—stands in clear opposition to contemporary liberalism. As revived and promulgated by modern-day activists, this past is not so much a genuine template for society as an ideological counter-utopia, where men are men, women are women, and Hungary’s neighbors tremble before the approach of its warriors. It’s a stark vision, but also one that’s dangerously easy to get lost in. Like the fantasies of Tolkien or Game of Thrones, Turanism can be fun. Balázs Ablonczy, a professor at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University who wrote the leading history of Turanism and is critical of the movement, told me that his own son would have trouble resisting the spectacle of an event like the Kurultáj. In his scout troop, Ablonczy said, they’ve been learning to read Hungarian runes.
I first noticed these runes myself when I saw a few strange symbols tattooed on a policeman’s calf in Budapest. These, I discovered, were rovás, the curious, lenticular script of Old Hungarian. Few can read the characters, but they are increasingly the alphabetic calling card of the far right. Once I started looking for them, rovás were everywhere. They were used for street signs and public announcements in towns and villages governed by extreme wings of Fidesz. They were on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and stray bits of graffiti. They were above a museum toilet, on a book jacket, and on the packaging for a runic alphabet soup. I even saw a men’s magazine, a blond model kneeling provocatively on the cover, with its title and headlines rendered exclusively in runes.
Many Turanists and amateur historians believe that the rovás arrived in Hungary from Central Asia along with the Huns. More skeptical scholars think they are a Renaissance invention, the work of a forger bent on establishing the antiquity of Hungarian writing. Others maintain that they are peculiar to the Székelys, an ethnic group related to Hungarians who reside in Transylvania. The question of the true origins of the script, not unlike those of Hungarians themselves, has inspired stacks of antically footnoted monographs. It seems impossible to settle. But by now the rovás are part of the nationalist imaginary, the hieroglyphics of the ancient Turantan-Magyar race. They’re so pervasive, in fact, that even the political opposition has begun an effort to reclaim them for its own purposes. One day, wandering across Budapest, I saw a graffiti tag spray-painted in runic letters at the base of a bridge spanning the Danube. People were taking pictures of it, but no one could tell me what it said. Weeks later, after transliterating it into Latin letters and checking my dictionary, I got the secret message: “Orbán is a motherfucker.”
The rovás are a frequent sight around the capital, but certain events bring them out in even greater abundance. A week after broiling in the hot sun at Bugac in the center of the country, I took a train to Hungary’s northern border. Rovás were visible in practically every compartment, on backpack patches, bags, and especially on T-shirts, where they spelled out kárpátia, the name of the band most of us were traveling to see.
Kárpátia are leaders in the world of nemzeti, or nationalist, rock music. More of an ideological orientation than a proper genre, nemzeti music expresses an aggressive yearning for various forms of revived Hungarian greatness. Politically, the bands are creatures of the far right. Sonically, they run the gamut of white-guy rock. Nemzeti music has its own radio station, Holy Crown, as well as its own festival circuit, which culminates in the Magyar Sziget, held each summer outside Budapest. (The original festival, called simply Sziget, is held in Budapest, and attracts the stars of the mainstream global pop scene. Magyar Sziget caters to an almost exclusively Hungarian audience and was founded by a far-right politician who left Jobbik last year to form a new nationalist party called Our Homeland Movement.)
Some of the biggest acts in the nemzeti scene are Hungarica, Pannonia (the Latin name for Hungary), and Kárpátia themselves (named after the mountain chain Hungary lost to Slovakia after World War I). Others have names that translate to Romantic Violence, Wolves, and Scythia. None are exactly primed for export, although Hungarica has recently made inroads to the north, with an album of patriotic ballads sung in Polish.
Kárpátia, who have been banned from performing in most of Hungary’s neighboring countries, have written songs addressing almost every pressure point of nationalist Hungarian nostalgia. They have written odes to the Turul bird and the Holy Crown, paeans to the heroes who stood against Soviet tanks in 1956, and whole songs in Cuman, a medieval Turkic language eventually adopted by descendants of the Mongol horde. Their lyrics tend to oscillate between the lachrymose and megalomaniacal. “Székely Anthem” laments that “our bitter past has been a thousand years of misfortunes.” In “Hungarian Chant,” the bodies of dead Hungarians, dug up with the singer’s bare hands, stand watch on the borders of a restored nation stretching from “the snowy Carpathians to the crystal blue Adriatic.”
Most often, Kárpátia’s songs are about resisting—or lamenting—some foreign incursion. In the song “My Friend, Tell Me Where You Are,” the speaker imagines himself facing down mounted police in the streets of Budapest, wearing a shawl to keep out the tear gas. The enemies of the nation, he sings, “are ravishing my daughter, / My nation, my religion, / They are torturing me deep in the prison.” “Civitas Fortissima” (“The Bravest City”) is a celebration of Hungarian partisan fighters during World War I who found themselves “in between foreign countries’ claws.” And in “Highlands,” the mountain scenery of Slovakia prompts the singer to weep for his nation’s sufferings.
On their posters, the members of Kárpátia often pose in full medieval dress, but the night I went to see them, in a rugby field in the town of Esztergom, they looked liked an average bar band that happened to have a smoke machine. In between songs, their bald and goateed lead singer, János Petrás, who wrote the anthem for Jobbik’s short-lived paramilitary wing and was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit by the Fidesz government in 2013, accentuated his more aggressive lyrics with fist pumps and jabs. Between songs, he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, speaking about the plight of Hungarians living in Slovakia and the more general threat posed by a global liberal order. At one point, he led the crowd in the “No, no, never” chant that has heralded opposition to the Treaty of Trianon, which, at the end of World War I, left Hungary with less than a third of its former territory. The audience erupted in cheers and waved assorted Hungarian flags, most of them variations harking back to the Middle Ages.
The mood at the show was at once festive and angry, typical of a gathering celebrating a shared grievance, but I saw none of the violence associated with other nemzeti acts. The fan base of Romantikus Er?szak, or Romantic Violence, for instance, is heavy on skinheads and soccer hooligans and has a reputation for brawling. (Within the nemzeti subculture, Romantic Violence may be the hardest act. Their front man, Balázs Sziva, has “Long Live the Homeland” tattooed on his neck and sings openly about freeing Hungary from the influence of capitalism and Jews.)
Kárpátia, always more popular—if now several years past their prime—are comparatively more family-friendly. Although there were concertgoers dressed as the nineteenth-century warrior bandits known as betyárs, and others wearing T-shirts telling the interwar president of Czechoslovakia to go fuck himself, there were also plenty of teens and small children. Grandmothers leaned against grandfathers, married couples shared sausages and beer, and toddlers struggled to stay awake in spite of the 140-decibel noise. At the end of the show, everyone headed into the night together by the murmuring Danube. Hours later, in the deserted, cobblestone streets, I saw a teenage fan, dressed all in black and still holding aloft his red-and-white-striped Árpád flag, pledging allegiance to the first dynasty of the conquering Magyars in the shadow of Esztergom’s churches and ice cream parlors.
Twelve hours later, I found myself back in Budapest in time for the eve of St. Stephen’s Day. Honoring Hungary’s first Christian king, St. Stephen’s Day functions as a sort of sacral Fourth of July. (Under Communism it was rebranded as the firmly secular “Festival of Bread.”) It’s the high point in the year for patriotic pomp—the day when Fidesz strives hardest to show off its role as custodian of the nation’s most precious treasures. In Kossuth Square, beneath the intricately carved stone corbels and pinnacles of the neo-Gothic Parliament building, I stood for hours in line with thousands for a chance to see King Stephen’s Holy Crown. While we waited in the nearly hundred-degree heat, a platoon of women in embroidered folk dress were ushered ahead of us for a special photo op with the jewels that would be aired on state news that evening. Elsewhere, King Stephen’s mummified right hand (it was found uncorrupted after his death and is regarded as a holy relic) was being readied to go on parade in its jeweled reliquary. Overhead, antique biplanes executed somersaults, trailing exhaust in the national colors of white, red, and green as jets disgorged paratroopers onto the city below.
At the Street of Hungarian Flavors celebration, across the Danube, artisan chefs showed off traditional foodstuffs from across the Hungarian state and the diaspora, still unredeemed, beyond its borders. The whole diversity of Magyar cooking was on display. Szatmár-style cabbage rolls and Karcag mutton stew bubbled over outdoor flames. A busó, a kind of demon clad in sheepskin with a prominent wooden phallus, stood guard over platefuls of bean soup from Mohács. A one-eyed man in an apron depicting a map of Greater Hungary served me a hefty portion of pasta cooked with pork belly and Szegedi peppers. Three old women worked together to serve me cornmeal porridge with sheep’s milk cheese.
That night, I joined tens of thousands of people on the banks of the Danube to watch the preparations for the night’s fireworks. Making my way through the crowds in search of a good vantage point, I saw a group of karaoke singers on a boat watching something projected on a big screen. It was István, a király (“Stephen, the King”), a 1983 rock opera about King Stephen and the pagan uncle who tried to kill him.
István, a király, a kind of Hungarian Jesus Christ Superstar, was a huge hit when it came out, as well as a sign of the thaw that presaged the end of Goulash Communism. It’s still a kitsch icon and surprisingly listenable, even for those without any Hungarian. (The music rocks much harder than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s.) The plot of the film is simple: the old king dies and his son, Stephen, struggles with the question of whether he should convert Hungary to Christianity, while his uncle, Koppány, leads a revolt to keep it pagan. Nominally, at least, Stephen is the hero, but he seems indecisive and weak. Koppány, who looks like a Hulk Hogan–era wrestler and spends the movie topless except for a leather sash, has all the charisma and all the most memorable songs. The enthusiasm of the karaoke singers peaked whenever he appeared onscreen.
The musical enacts, in miniature, the drama posed for Hungary by Turanism: whether to embrace the West, and the future, or the East, and the past. One choice has the force of modernity behind it; the other has the best tunes. (The choice has played out in the personal lives of the duo that wrote István, a király as well. The lyricist is a secular, liberal Jew. The composer spends much of his time in the hills north of Budapest, looking for shamanic shrines, and maintains close ties to Fidesz and the far right. They haven’t worked together in twenty years.)
Historically, Stephen won. An opportunistic convert and ruthless killer, he saw that his country’s future lay with Europe, Christianity, and the stability that comes with fitting in with the neighborhood. Koppány stood for the old ways and the inherited gods of the nomadic past. For his efforts at maintaining paganism, Stephen had him executed and quartered, and sent chunks of his body to be hung from the realm’s four greatest fortresses. Now, a thousand years later, the pendulum has swung the other way. For a generation raised under Communism, aspirations for the West, for democracy, even for wealth, have started to feel stale. Why be a small cog in the European machine, the Turanists ask, when you can be part of a vast, primordial brotherhood of conquering warriors? Better to be part of the horde, to make the earth shake under the hooves of your horses. Better, they would say, to heed the call of the drums.