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Assembling the Square: Social Transformation in Public Space and the Broken Mirage of the Second Economy in Postsocialist Budapest

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017

Judit Bodnár
University of Gent, Belgium, and Center for Russian, Central and East European Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey


In early December 1994 in the Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, a new category appeared in the Page of Records–a sophisticated guide to the “best” places and services in Budapest: “The Most Unsighdy Square in Europe.” This award went to Budapest's Moszhva tér (Moscow Square). No other contender for this title has yet been found. On the last pages of his monograph on the current architectural transformation of Budapest, art and media critic Péter György reveals in parentheses how the book was inspired by the sight of this area: “I have been crossing the square every day for ten years, and in the last couple of years I would stop ever more frequendy–unable to move on–and fixedly stare at the decay.”

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1998

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I wrote the final version of this article while a MacArthur Fellow at the Chicago Humanities Institute at the University of Chicago. I am grateful for support received from the Central European University's Research Support Scheme and the Hungarian National Social Science Research Fund (OTKA). Special thanks go to Jozsef Borocz, Christopher Chase-Dunn, David Harvey, Dag MacLeod, and the two reviewers at Slavic Review for their valuable comments and criticisms.

1. Magyar Narancs 6, no. 48 (1 December 1994).

2. György, Pèter and Durkó, Zsolt Jr., Utánzatok városa, Budapest (Budapest, 1993), 184.Google Scholar

3. A monograph on the city written at the time the regime changed still depicts Moscow Square in a matter–of–fact way, mentioning its “many uses “: its transportation function, its weekday users going to work, and its crowds on the way to the hills at weekends; see Enyedi, György and Szirmai, Viktória, Budapest: A Central European Capital (London, 1992)Google Scholar. The emotional overtones that were to accompany later references to the square had not yet appeared.

4. Although citizens were critical of the widening inequalities that were a consequence of increasing market opportunities—see, among others, Hann, Chris M., ed., Market Economy and Civil Society in Hungary (London, 1990)Google Scholar—and the uneducated vegetable vendors who were making several times more than engineers hurt people's sense of propriety, many attributed these problems to the incompleteness of market conditions rather than to market exchange per se.

5. Stalin's name crossed the Danube in 1946 and, for seven years, settled downtown on the former Elizabeth Square. For years this square was considered the possible locus of a real socialist square modeled after Moscow's Red Square. The grand plan did not materialize: the name–giver's direct political significance shrank together with available resources. In 1953, in a cautious return to the classics, the square became Engels Square; after the collapse, the name Elizabeth was reinstated.

6. Enyedi and Szirmai, Budapest, 29.

7. Unless otherwise indicated, the following description is based on fieldwork data obtained through participant observation. The bulk of the research was carried out in the summer of 1995, but the site was revisited in 1996 and 1997, and some of the observations were adjusted accordingly. Thus although the exact physical time of the snapshot is 1995, the essay operates in an extended time frame, in “postsocialist” time.

8. To be noted is the distinction between “Magyars,” referring to ethnicity, and “Hungarians” denoting citizenship.

9. Hajnal Fucskó, “'Emberpiac’ a Moszkva téren,” Magyar Nèmzet, 27 April 1995, 7.

10. “Füstösképü” in Hungarian.

11. I have elected to use this terminology rather than Gypsy: it is considered less derogatory.

12. The Vietnamese element is made up of people who arrived as students and remained after their higher education was completed. When they graduated, the obligation to repay the cost of their education to the Vietnamese state if they refused to return to Vietnam pushed them toward entrepreneurial attempts. An apocryphal story tells of a young polytechnic student who supported himself so successfully by selling cigarettes that he established his own “business,” becoming his own supplier. With these business profits, he bought a year for himself at Harvard Business School.

13. The technology of the hot dog—an American invention—has its local version in the Hungarian fast–food cuisine. Hot dogs have never been available in their original American form. Hot dog technology came to Hungary from France, where a roasted frankfurter is stuffed in a piece of fresh baguette with some dijon mustard. The bread is pulled over a heated aluminum stick, creating a hole inside for the sausage. The French equipment was adjusted to suit local Hungarian ways and ingredients. The frankfurter was boiled, the mustard was minimized, and the baguette was replaced by half of a giant, crescent–shaped salt stick, a typical central European bread.

14. Simmel, Georg, “The Poor,” in Levine, Donald, ed., On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings of Georg Simmel (Chicago, 1971), 152.Google Scholar

15. Ibid. In a similar vein, perhaps the most efficient method of acquiring personal donations is that of African immigrants sitting in the streets of German cities with a purse and a note saying: “For going back home. ”

16. Benjamin, Walter, “Moscow,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing, ed., with an introduction by Demetz, P. (New York, 1986), 106.Google Scholar

17. Lengyel, Péter, “Belsö európai tájakon,” interview by Mihancsik, Zsófia, Budapesti Negyed 1, no. 2 (Fall–Winter 1993): 186 Google Scholar (emphasis added).

18. Magasépitési Tervezö Vállalat (MATERV), Moszkva tér: Részletes rendezési ten (Budapest, 1991).Google Scholar

19. Stark, David, “Recombinant Property in East European Capitalism,” American Journal of Sociology 101, no. 4 (January 1996): 995.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20. Names and signs that appear in English in the Hungarian context are enclosed in quotation marks.

21. The building has recently received another face–lift. The billboard has been removed, red lanterns have been placed in all the windows, and the Chinese restaurant that has replaced the pub is frequented by quite another type of audience: Chinese families, local couples, and mid–echelon office workers from the international corporate community.

22. Many people in staunchly cosmopolitan and well–read Budapest also wonder why Ernest Hemingway came to be associated with the most popular candy shops in the city.

23. Open from 9: 00 A.M. to 12: 00 A.M. except for Sunday, when the needy and their caregivers are supposed to be in church.

24. This need for pet food is entirely created by foreign companies’ efficient advertising. From one day to the next, grocery stores, so pressed for space that they had to pile up toilet paper in their windows, installed separate shelves designed and provided by companies producing pet food.

25. Chris Hann presents stories that demonstrate citizens’ mixed sentiments concerning privatization and free markets, and their nostalgia for the security of the old regime. See Hann, , The Skeleton at the Feast: Contributions to East European Anthropology (Canterbury, 1995).Google Scholar

26. Hárs, Ágnes, “Migration and the Labor Market,” in Fullerton, Maryellen, Sik, Endre, and Toth, Judit, eds., Refugees and Migrants: Hungary at a Crossroads (Budapest, 1995), 85104.Google Scholar

27. A district that starts at Moscow Square and includes Rose Hill, a few older inner Buda suburbs, and the most rapidly growing new suburbs on the outskirts.

28. Budapest Statisztikai Evkönyve, 1993 (Budapest, 1994), 143–45.

29. Endre Sik, “Measuring the Unregistered Economy in Post–Communist Transformation,” Eurosocial Report 52 (Vienna, 1995): 15. Little surprise, then, that more extensive informal social network ties produced advantages in both incomes and the quality of housing. See József Böröcz and Caleb Southworth, “'Who You Know …': Earnings Effects of Formal Informal Social Network Resources under Late State Socialism, Hungary, 1986–87,” Journal of Socio–Economics (1998): fordicoming; and Judit Bodnár and József Böröcz, “Housing Advantages for the Better–Connected? Institutional Segmentation, Setdement Type and Social Network Effects in Late State–Socialist Housing Inequalities,” Social Forces 76, no. 4 (June 1998): forthcoming

30. Sik, “Measuring the Unregistered Economy,” presents data for 1992 and 1993 that reveal a monotonic decrease in the proportion of unregistered work as one moves from the lowest income decile—in which it is around 50 percent—to the highest decile. Even in the highest decile, however, it is still 30 percent. Using a different methodology, Sik also offers estimates that conclude with significantly lower numbers and a reversed relationship by income, suggesting in fact that the proportion of unregistered work positively correlates with income. Regardless of the discrepancies in the estimates, the point can still safely be made that unregistered activities are not limited to the poor.

31. See, among others, Böröcz, József, “Dual Dependency and the Informalization of External Linkages: The Case of Hungary,” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 14 (1992): 189209 Google Scholar; Böröcz, József, “Simulating the Great Transformation: Property Change under Prolonged Informality in Hungary,” Archives européennes de sociologie 34 (1993): 81107 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Sik, Endre, “From the Multicoloured to the Black and White Economy: The Hungarian Second Economy and the Transformation,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 18, no. 1 (1994): 4670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32. The survey (MATERV, 1991) included three groups of Budapest citizens: those from areas surrounding Moscow Square, those who live further away on the outskirts but travel through the square, and a general control group from the rest of the city.

33. State socialist economies also had guest worker arrangements, but these individuals were few and hardly visible (e.g., Hungarian machine tool operators working in East Germany, Cuban women textile workers in Budapest, or the Polish construction workers who used to work only in the basement of Budapest's Karl Marx University); they worked and lived together, and mixing with the locals was not encouraged.

34. Portes, Alejandro, “Toward a Structural Analysis of Illegal (Undocumented) Immigration,” International Migration Review 44, no. 12 (Winter 1978): 469–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35. Hárs, “Migration and the Labor Market,” 100.

36. Portes, Alejandro and Böröcz, József, “Contemporary Immigration: Theoretical Perspectives on Its Determinants and Modes of Incorporation,” International Migration Review 87, no. 23 (Fall 1989): 606–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37. György Csepeli and Endre Sik, “Changing Content of Political Xenophobia in Hungary—Is the Growth of Xenophobia Inevitable?” in Fullerton, Sik, and Tóth, eds., Refugees and Migrants, 121–27.

38. Ibid.

39. Polanyi, Karl, “The Economy as Instituted Process,” in Polanyi, Karl, Arensberg, Conrad M., and Pearson, Harry W., eds., Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory (Glencoe, III., 1957).Google Scholar

40. Konrád, György and Szelényi, Iván, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, trans. Arato, A. and Allen, R. (New York, 1979)Google Scholar; Szelényi, Iván, “Social Inequalities in State Socialist Redistributive Economies,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 19, no. 1–2 (1978): 6387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41. Stark, David, “Rethinking Internal Labor Markets—New Insights from a Comparative Perspective,” American Sociological Review 51 (August 1986): 492504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

42. Needless to say, one should avoid positing markets and redistributive systems with impermeable boundaries and their subordinate elements as incomparably differentfrom each other. Calculative behavior even if pertaining to a smaller sphere of things was a defining characteristic of the second economy of state socialism. The differences between market and Market are subtle.

43. He does this in a way that suggests the analytical subtext of state socialism.

44. Polanyi, Karl, The Livelihood of Man, ed. Pearson, Harry (New York, 1977), 166.Google Scholar

45. Ibid., 187.

46. Ibid., 167.

47. The political importance of this policy can be seen in the fact that, pardy due to the second economy, there was no food shortage in Hungary. In fact, Hungary enjoyed a food surplus, making the food industry and agriculture a net contributor to the gross national product—a rare occurrence in today's world market of highly subsidized agribusiness and food production regimes. By contrast, in Poland, a worse–than–usual shortage of food was one reason for the 1980 strikes—which led to the emergence of the Solidarity movement.

48. Portes and Böröcz, “Contemporary Immigration. “

49. Akos Róna-Tas, The Grand Surprise of the Small Transformation: The Demise of Communism and the Rise of the Private Sector in Hungary (Ann Arbor, 1997).

50. Members of the police, military, and judiciary were excluded from these activities, along with those employed in health care, child care, most educational and legal services, wholesale trade, and advertising. See Róna-Tas, Grand Surprise of the Small Transformation. Membership was based on work participation—investment did not make one a partner.

51. Róna-Tas, Grand Surprise of the Small Transformation

52. Böröcz, József and Southworth, Caleb, “Decomposing the Intellectuals’ Class Power: Conversion of Cultural Capital to Income, Hungary, 1986,” Social Forces 74, no. 3 (March 1996): 797821.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

53. This is the main terrain of wide–ranging reciprocity that is usually forgotten in the dualism of “mirrored comparisons.“

54. László Diósdi, “Szakszervezeti tagok kérdezik: Hogyan lehet ugyanazért a munkáért a költségek terhére többet fizetni, mint a bérgazdálkodás keretei között?” Népszava, 12 March 1983, 5.

55. Petit bourgeois not necessarily in a derogatory sense but mostly for its scale. Striving for security is not unknown for higher groups of the bourgeoisie, but it may be accompanied by more leverage and playfulness.

56. Tamás Kolosi, “A ‘mellékes’ nem mellékes,” Élet és irodalom, 29 March 1980, 5.

57. Elemér Hankiss's discussion of the “first” and the “second society” captures a similar tension. After registering initial surprise that “the ‘second society’ had failed to develop into an autonomous sphere of social existence, an alternative society governed by organizational principles different from those of the ‘first society, '” Hankiss notesthat they were intertwined in a parasitic way implying the radicalness of their separation. Hankiss, Elemér, East European Alternatives (Oxford, 1990), 107.Google Scholar

58. Statistical Yearbook of Hungary, 1993 (Budapest, 1994), 260.

59. Sik, “From the Multicoloured to the Black and White Economy. “

60. On this, see, e.g., Hegedüs, József and Tosics, Iván, “Privatisation and Rehabilitation in the Budapest Inner Districts,” Housing Studies 9, no. 1 (1994): 3954 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Bodnar, Judit, “'He That Hath to Him Shall Be Given': Housing Privatization in Budapest after State Socialism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 20, no. 4 (1996): 616–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

61. Ákos Szilágyi, “A kelet–európai szököállam,” 2000, no. 9 (October 1997): 12–24. The typical model of the runaway state in Szilágyi's analysis is the current, post–Soviet Russian state that has had, indeed, many external burdens to drop: Afghanistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, the “eastern Bloc,” the world's communist parties, the non-Russian former Soviet republics, the costs of the arms race, and so on.

62. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London, 1992), 143. Beck's notion of “risk society” as a successor to “industrial society” is inspiring in a generalmetaphorical sense. Much of Beck's concrete discussion of risk society focuses on global ecological hazards—a level different from the kind of risk exposure and risk taking my material discloses. He coined the phrase but did not fully exploit it, thus an unmarked reference to his notion of risk may be misleading. Beck's ultimately “supra national, nonclass–specific, global” risk production incorporates at places a rather more class–specific aspect of risk, for example, in the description of the privatization of physical and mental health risks of work that accompany spatial flexibilization.

63. Multicolored has become black and white, writes Sik on the experience of the transformation of a “first “/ “second” economy into a “formal “/ “informal” one. Sik, “From the Multicoloured to the Black and White Economy.” He is right in emphasizing the polarization of possibilities. The metaphor of black and white captures only part of the trudi, however: the process does not entail any loss of complexity; polarization is taking place along widi wild diversification.

64. The really wealthy live, of course, in the isolation of their villas and cars and rarely interact widi the population of Moscow Square. Theirs is almost a nonpresence in so far as public space is concerned, more so dian ever before. Their attention and wallets are caught elsewhere, in the semipublic spaces of malls and clubs of all kinds.

65. Magyar Hirlap, 19 March 1998, 15.

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