13 July 2020

A Clear-eyed Poet in the Land of the Soviets – A Background to Gyula Illyés’s Russia – Part I


A Background to Gyula Illyés’s Russia1


Part I


From 17 August to 1 September 1934 the first Congress of Soviet Writers was convened in Moscow – the first writers’ congress in the history of world literature. In addition to the 600 Soviet delegates, 40 foreign writers also participated. Though there were some prominent figures among the latter group – Martin Andersen Nexø, André Malraux, Louis Aragon, Vítězslav Nezval invitees were not selected on the grounds of artistic merit, but on their political reliability: only friends of the Soviet Union could expect an invitation. Among these foreign writers were two Hungarians, Gyula Illyés and Lajos Nagy.2 Though Illyés was considered one of the most gifted poets of his generation, political considerations played a large role in his selection.




As for why Illyés was chosen, two possible explanations may be suggested. The first is that he received an invitation because of his friendly relations with French Communist writers, and in particular with Aragon, who had influence in Moscow. If Aragon possessed considerable sway, however, that was even more true of his wife, Elsa Triolet (Ella Yurievna Kagan), who worked for the dreaded OGPU, the Soviet Secret Service.3 During his years in Paris, more than ten years before, Illyés had cultivated friendly relations with Aragon, and the latter may have intervened to secure him an invitation, though no record of this has been found in the available archival material.

The second guess is that Illyés was the choice of the Hungarian émigré Communist community in Moscow, after they had consulted their comrades in Hungary. The fact of consultation; however, was not confirmed by either the Muscovite Hungarians who returned after 1945, or the documentary record.

If we outline in some broad strokes Illyés’s primary left-wing links, we may come closer to understanding how his invitation was secured.

Like so many other Hungarian intellectuals, Illyés, then sixteen years old, welcomed the Hungarian revolutions of 1918–1919 with boundless enthusiasm, seeing in the Red God the potential for a better world. Most, however, had lost their enthusiasm by May 1919, when the Red Terror swept the country. It was also in May that the fortunes of the Communist regime changed, and from that point on only a dwindling minority continued to follow the “path of revolution” with Béla Kun and his acolytes. At seventeen years of age, Illyés still did not realise that the path offered by the Communists was in fact a dead end. After the proletarian dictatorship collapsed, he and a school friends worked illegally on plans to break their school history professor Sándor Varjas4 – who had been head of the scientific propaganda department in the People’s Commissariat for Public Education – out of prison. Varjas was ultimately sent to the Soviet Union as part of a prisoner exchange. It was also at this time that Illyés became friends with Antal Hidas,5 whom he would meet again in Moscow in 1934.

Illyés left Hungary in the autumn of 1921, spending time in Vienna, Germany and Luxembourg before arriving in Paris, then the cultural capital of the world, in April 1922. Writers, poets and painters travelled here from every corner of the globe with plans “to redeem the world”. There Illyés fell in with the left-wing émigré community, and became involved in the work of avant-garde Hungarian artists. He was able to witness surrealism from the moment of its birth, and forged lifelong friendships with many of its proponents, including Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, André Breton, René Crevel and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara. They were also aware of each other’s work with André Malraux, the writer and politician. His French friends were, without exception, enthusiastic supporters of the Soviet Union and later members of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF – French Communist Party): Éluard joined in September 1926, and Aragon, Crevel and Breton followed in 1927. Breton, however, outraged at Stalin’s methods, broke with the party and many of his friends, including Aragon in 1933. Tristan Tzara only joined the PCF in 1937, and left in 1956, in protest at the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of that year.

Thus all of Illyés’s literary friends in France joined the PCF after his return to Hungary in the summer of 1926. There are no documents which suggest that Illyés himself had any links with the PCF, though rumours and hearsay do continue to surface from time to time. It is, however, a fact that upon his return, he also fostered close links with left-wing circles at home.

By 1933–1934, however, those left-wing friends were beginning to shoot reproachful glances in his direction. Before his return, his poetry and criticism could be read only in the pages of left-wing, avant-garde publications, but from 1927 on they began to appear also in Nyugat (The West), which the avant-garde despised as a petit-bourgeois periodical. Nyugat even published his first collection of poems.

From this cursory overview it can be seen that while in 1934 Illyés met Moscow’s political criteria, that would not have been sufficient, in and of itself, to secure him an invitation. Who, then, were the decision-makers in Moscow with the final say?




After the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the Communists fled the country, as did almost everyone else who had reason to fear retribution from counter-revolution. Most went to Vienna and Berlin, but by the mid-twenties a larger proportion had begun to migrate to the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1926, those writers and journalists who had fled to Moscow from Hungary founded the Association of Revolutionary Hungarian Writers and Artists, the first large-scale gathering of foreign proletarian writers, which quickly found its place within the currents of international literary politics. Here we can only touch upon the most salient milestones of its history.

Under Lenin’s leadership, the Communist International (Comintern) was established in Moscow in March 1919, with the stated aim of fomenting world revolution. In its political struggles, Comintern also envisaged an important role for literature, and so in 1920 it established Proletcult, the Interim International Office for Proletarian Culture, which sought to unite the activities of proletarian writers around the world. After many transformations and changes of name, they at length arrived upon its permanent designation: The International Association of Revolutionary Writers, known as MORP after its Russian abbreviation (МОРП = Международное объединение революционных писателей). Its aims were ambitious: to bring together the world’s proletarian and revolutionary writers, the time having come to establish a “proletarian world literature”. Hungarian émigrés in Moscow played a leading role in MORP. During the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet literary life was remarkably vibrant and active, with writers’ groups and literary associations mushrooming across the country. Among these, the group with the most extreme political views and revolutionary tendencies was the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, or RAPP (РАПП, Российская ассоциация пролетарских писателей). RAPP systematically terrorised all other literary groups, until its dominance was unchallenged. It wished to place literature at the service of class struggle and the revolution, seeing it as a tool for improving production. Unlike all other literary and artistic groups, RAPP was directly subordinated to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), not merely ideologically, but also administratively.

Unsurprisingly, the CPSU resolution of 23 April 1932, which with a stroke of the pen disbanded all literary and artistic associations – including even RAPP, which had served the party in everything was a devastating and unexpected blow. The enemies of RAPP were the so-called “fellow travellers” – writers who were not party members, but at the same time not hostile to the Soviet Union. They did not yet suspect that the future would not be one of increased pluralism, but of increasingly strict uniformity: only one voice would be allowed to speak, the voice of “socialist realism”. After the disbandment of the writers’ groups, Stalin gave instructions for the establishment of a single, unified writers’ association. That “momentous stroke of the pen” was especially disastrous for Hungarian writers living in Moscow, almost all of whom held RAPPist views, jeopardising their writing careers and even their lives. Still, they continued to play a key role in selecting the Hungarian invitees to the congress of writers.

Lazar Kaganovich, head of the Organisational Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU and thus the second most powerful man after Joseph Stalin – decreed that foreign “comrades and sympathisers” would also be invited to the congress. The decision to invite one Hungarian was communicated by Béla Illés6 to Béla Kun, who was, in effect, the leader of the Hungarian émigré community in Moscow, and “whose personal proposal […] it was necessary to ask”. Kun considered one Hungarian invitee insufficient, and felt that two or three would be more fitting. Eventually Andrei Zhdanov, a prominent ideologue within the Communist Party and lead organiser of the congress, agreed to two Hungarians.

Given that Kun did not know Illyés personally, it is almost certain that someone “whispered” his name. It is equally certain that the “whisperer” could have been none other than Antal Hidas, the old school friend with whom Illyés had tried to break Sándor Varjas out of prison, and who was now Kun’s son-in-law. As Illyés had gone to Paris, so Hidas had ended up in Moscow, but they had remained in some sort of contact ever since.

For reasons of secrecy, neither Illyés nor Lajos Nagy named in their travel accounts any of the Hungarian émigrés they met while in Moscow, but after his return to Hungary in 1945, Béla Illés often spoke of his first meeting with the two Budapest writers. “When Lajos Nagy and Gyula Illyés arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1934, for the first congress of Soviet writers, I was sick in bed. After bringing them to a hotel and dropping off their luggage, Antal Hidas brought them to my apartment.” (It is possible to infer from the travel accounts of both Nagy and Illyés that this meeting actually took place the day after their arrival.) In Béla Illés’s account, Kun arrived soon after in Illyés’s recollection, he was already there when they arrived – and when Illyés realised who this squat, portly man was, he burst out laughing: “When I received my passport”, he said, “the police called me. ‘You can meet anyone you like in Moscow, but steer clear of these three men.’ All three – Béla Kun, Antal Hidas and Béla Illés – are here in this room…” Kun had evidently come to decide for himself whether it had been a good idea to give Illyés his blessing.




The reader of Illyés’s Russia would hardly guess that he met with any Hungarian émigrés while in the Soviet Union. However, his travel diary now published together with the Russia manuscript for the first time – and several later recollections confirm that during his first ten days in Moscow, there was hardly an afternoon or evening which he did not spend in meetings and conversations with old friends. On the day of his arrival in Moscow, 22 June, he was surprised to learn that the congress had been postponed to August. Unable to prolong his stay, he would not even see its opening day, but would have to travel home on the date originally planned. Still, he did not particularly regret this turn of events, as the country itself interested him far more than the speechifying of the writers’ congress. During the ten days his Soviet confrères spent organising a tour of the nation, and whenever he was not occupied in one of the “mandatory” events laid on by his hosts, he looked up old acquaintances now resident in Moscow. Though his travel diary carefully avoids mentioning any of them by name, certain remarks made many years later, as well as the recollections of the Moscow Hungarians themselves, make it possible to establish not only that he met with old friends, but that he made several new acquaintances as well. This is all the more notable as it was a period (hardly unique in Soviet history) when the preponderant mood was one of “prudent fear”: the “membership revision” (party cleansing) which had begun in 1933 was still under way, and had already resulted in the expulsion of 800,000 party members. Suspicion went hand-in-hand with fear: people avoided one another, and everyone saw everyone else as a potential saboteur, “wrecker”, spy, or enemy agent. Scapegoats were sought for the failure to meet the impossible targets set in Stalin’s five-year plans, and if they were not found, the NKVD would create them. The first of the Stalinist show trials was the so-called Shakhty Trial7 of 1928. Then, when Stalin declared that there were “Shakhty men” in numerous branches of industry, such show trials began to follow one another in ever more rapid succession. In 1930, 48 directors within the food production industry were executed, and this was followed by the Industrial Party Trial, the Working Peasants’ Party Trial, and the Menshevik Trial. In 1933 it was the turn of Metropolitan-Vickers, the British company constructing electric power plants in the Soviet Union. Their engineers, including British engineers, were arrested on charges of deliberate sabotage. Illyés and Nagy would certainly have sensed something of this atmosphere. It is precisely for this reason that the task of establishing whom exactly Illyés met remains something of a gap-filling exercise.

The head of the Hungarian émigré community in the Soviet Union was Béla Kun, whom Illyés had once heard giving a speech in the summer of 1919 but did not know personally. As already mentioned, they were introduced to one another in the apartment of Béla Illés, the day after Nagy and Illyés had reached Moscow. Kun’s haste to meet the younger man is understandable: the choice of Hungarian delegates had been a gamble, and if Illyés proved a disappointment, the consequences would likely fall on his own head too. Illyés only admitted to meeting Kun in 1939, on the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, when Kun had already been dead for a year. There were some tense moments during their conversation, as the Moscow Hungarians looked askance at the fact that Illyés was regularly published in Nyugat, which had been banned under the 1919 proletarian dictatorship, and at his friendship with its editor, the poet Mihály Babits, who had penned And Didst Thou Sow Slow Poisons?, a poetic excoriation of the Communists, in July 1919. Kun raised this point explicitly: “With the benevolent condescension of an insider, he told me that sooner or later I would leave Nyugat, and that ‘Babits and I would never survive under one roof!’” By 1934, however, Illyés had fallen into a much more grievous “error”: it was around that time that a national sensibility began to awaken within him, and he had begun to turn his attention to questions of Hungarian destiny. For the internationalist Kun, this was a mortal sin. Illyés’s essay Decay, published in the September 1933 edition of Nyugat, had examined Hungary’s declining fertility rates, and the enormous reaction it generated helped launch Hungarian “populist” (népi) writers. This issue was also touched upon by Kun: “He then criticised the rural inquiry movement, but in such an icy, severe manner that I felt obliged to answer in kind, and we almost fell into a blazing row, as Kun later recalled. I insisted on the legitimacy of differentiating between the defence of nations and the defence of peoples, of races. He said that I was treading a narrow mountain ridge, and he feared I was beginning to slip down the wrong side.” They did not fall out, however, and indeed met twice more during Illyés’s stay. Their third meeting was on the day of Illyés’s departure, when they bumped into each other unexpectedly outside the Comintern offices, and Kun invited him for lunch. At the end of our lunch, with my hat already in my hand, I asked him, half-jokingly: Any message for the Hungarian proletariat? I’ll be in Budapest the day after tomorrow.’ He too had stood up to say goodbye, but at my question he abruptly sat down again. After a moment’s pause I sat down too, but awkwardly, on the edge of my chair. I thought he had forgotten something, because he was looking towards the waiter. Then he turned to face the wall. I had never seen anyone weep like that. His face was motionless, he never so much as blinked. Back straight and arms folded, the tears trickled down his face in a ceaseless, unhurried flow, like the recitation of a good student.” In this 1939 article Illyés paints a moving portrait of Kun as a man tormented by homesickness, yearning for the land of his birth. Not that he deserved any compassion! Kun’s name was associated with the Red Terror, and not only in Hungary. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was only the beginning; he went on to play a still more murderous role in the Russian Civil War. Treacherously, in violation of a solemnly pledged amnesty, he had ordered thousands to be executed. That is to say, he was a mass murderer. Illyés knew of these massacres, and brought them up in his article: “I once heard that when he put down the counter-revolution in Crimea he had twenty-five thousand people executed. Let us assume that this is an exaggeration, but the fact remains that he decided the fates of thousands.” The murder of 25,000 White officers was no mere rumour or exaggeration. The Crimean massacre of 1920 is now an established historical fact, and scholarly debate continues only in regard to the total number of victims: the lowest estimate is of some 20,000, while others suggest the true figure could be as high as 120,000. In November 1920, Kun was made chairman of the Crimean Revolutionary Committee, and it was in this capacity that he ordered the slaughter of officers and civilians left stranded on the peninsula after the defeat of General Wrangel’s army.

Kun thus had the final word on Illyés’s invitation, but there can be little doubt that it was Antal Hidas who suggested his name. Illyés and Hidas had become close friends in 1919: “I knew Hidas when I was eighteen – for about two months. My eyes and ears retained a vivid, lasting image of this thin youth with disordered curls, passionately enthused by the latest edition of MA”. (MA meaning TODAY was an activist periodical edited by Lajos Kassák.8) Fifteen years later they met again in Moscow. In 1926 the Communist Party had led Hidas to the Soviet capital, where he quickly made a glittering career for himself, and became one of the defining figures in the cultural life of the Hungarian émigré community. Of course, this success was not unrelated to his marriage to Kun’s daughter in 1931. Hidas liked nothing better than to bask in glory and adulation, and was able to do so for years. “[H]is poems were recited alongside those of Mayakovsky, in factories and at public gatherings. He himself gave readings, in competition with the most celebrated performers […]. [T] he most effective of his poems celebrated the uprisings of the colonised and oppressed peoples of the world, interpreting these as steps towards world revolution, for an audience which with every passing season still expected the arrival of this glorious apotheosis.” His marches were sung across the Soviet Union. Anatoly Lunacharsky, a people’s commissar and the translator of Hungary’s national poet, Sándor Petőfi, from German to Russian, wrote a foreword to Hidas’s first volume of Russian-language poems, in which he declared Hidas the direct descendent of Petőfi”. Hidas did not consider this an exaggeration! In 1931, Pravda included a poem of his in an edition welcoming the return of Maxim Gorky. Fortune is fickle, however, and never more so than in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In the final few months of 1933, Pravda published eight of his poems in quick succession, but by early 1934 he had disappeared permanently from the paper’s list of writers. His star probably fell as a result of his father-in-law’s stubbornness: Kun was incapable of adapting himself to Stalin’s new political course, which tended to cooperate even with former “enemies”, such as the Social Democrats and fellow travellers.

Illyés saw the effect this new situation was having on Hidas’s state of mind when he met him the day after his arrival in Moscow, on 23 June 1934: “He had hours of deep depression, and showed signs of illness. We hardly saw each other; his wife, who looked young enough to be a university student, took him off to a rural sanatorium for treatment.”

Illyés paid close attention to Kassák’s circle, and knew the poetry of Sándor Barta.9 Even the title of Barta’s first volume of poetry, published in 1919, was a political declaration of faith: Red Flag. No surprise, then, that after the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, he too fled to Vienna. Though he had stood by his editor in the disputes that erupted between Kun and Kassák during the Soviet Republic, Barta fell out with Kassák in Vienna. After breaking with MA he set up his own periodical, provocatively entitled Akasztott ember (Hanged Man). This later became Ék (Wedge). Destiny gradually drove him and his brother-in-law (he had married Kassák’s younger sister, Erzsi Újvári) further apart: Barta took the more radical road, joining the Communist Party in 1924, and moving to Moscow in 1925, while Kassák returned to Hungary in 1926.

For a short period Illyés and Barta moved in the same direction, but their paths soon diverged: Illyés “gave up [his] rootless existence” and returned to his homeland. There, confronted with the seemingly hopeless situation of the rural peasantry, he saw that he had a calling in Hungary. No longer animated by doctrinaire notions of world revolution, the national element now began to play a role in his thinking. Barta, by contrast, remained a staunch internationalist. In Moscow, at the inaugural sitting of the Hungarian branch of RAPP (MARP) there were heated arguments about his membership, but while the political and artistic views of RAPP went against his own artistic instincts, he soon adapted himself to them. By 1934 Illyés only wished to meet his old editor – whom he had once persuaded, in letters sent from Paris to Vienna, to abolish private property in his periodical, and publish all poems anonymously – for nostalgic reasons. Indeed, it was one of the reasons why the prospect of a trip to Moscow attracted him: Among a host of motives, not the least compelling was the thought of once again conversing and sharing ideas with Hidas and Barta, my old comrades in activist poetry.”

Barta never felt at home in Moscow, and lived a secluded life. Though he admitted Illyés to his apartment, there were to be no long conversations or lively exchanges of ideas. Illyés left with the bitter sensation that while still acquaintances, they were more strangers to each other than before their meeting. They never saw each other again, and in 1938 Barta died in an NKVD prison.

Máté Zalka10 was one of the Moscow Hungarians who did not know Illyés before his journey. They met in Furmanov Street, in the so-called Writers’ House. Zalka had initiated and overseen the construction of this building, and lived there in the company of several other émigré Hungarian writers. Antal Hidas would later move there too, but in 1934 he was still living in the Herzen House, a former aristocratic palace which had been made the headquarters of the Writers’ Institute, and converted into a number of apartments for writers. He and Zalka were also close friends, however, and so it was almost certainly Hidas who sent their guest from Budapest to meet Zalka. Though Zalka was an important figure, his prominence rested not upon his artistic merits so much as upon his achievements during the Civil War. The picture Illyés sketched during his stay in Moscow suggests that Zalka’s apartment had become the main meeting place for Hungarians in Moscow. It was most likely from Zalka that Illyés heard about the question which preoccupied him most insistently: the widespread famines caused by collectivisation. Zalka had been one of the “twenty-five thousand”. In 1930–1931, 25,000 party workers had been mobilised to implement full collectivisation within a demarcated area, and Zalka was among the nineteen writers appointed as commissars to oversee the process. Hidas later recalled “what a wretched state he was in when he returned from Kazakhstan, where he had experienced first-hand the now widely recognised excesses of collectivisation”.

After ten days in Moscow, Illyés and Nagy set off on their tour around Russia. They were accompanied, as a sort of “spiritual advisor” by János Matheika, a Hungarian Communist of legendary incorruptibility. Matheika had graduated from university in Budapest with a degree in philosophy, and had imbibed radical left-wing principles as a member of the Galileo Circle. He fought in the First World War, first on the Italian and then on the Eastern Front, and in 1915 he was taken prisoner by the Russian Army. Like many other prisoners held in Russia, he returned home in 1917 armed with Bolshevik ideology. In the spring of 1919 he joined the Hungarian Communist Party, and during the Soviet Republic he became a member of the directorate in the town of Vác, where he edited a newspaper called Vörös Újság (Red Newspaper). He was also a prosecuting commissar in the revolutionary court. After the collapse of the Communist government he was sentenced to death, and by the banks of the Danube he was hit by two bullets of a Romanian execution squad, but survived. He was then imprisoned (Illyés writes that he was sentenced to fifteen years, but legal records suggest it was a life sentence). The first time Illyés personally encountered this revolutionary who had returned from the dead was in Vác Prison, while he was plotting the escape of his teacher, Sándor Varjas, who was being held in the same place. Matheika was sent to Moscow in 1921 as part of a prisoner exchange, and from 1923 he began, in the company of Zalka, to participate in the work of the most extreme writers’ group within RAPP, and to expedite the establishment of a Hungarian section.

Lengthy arguments meant that this Hungarian section was not finally operational until October 1925; Matheika was elected as its first secretary, and held this post until 1932. From 1924 he administered the Comintern Library, taught at the Marx–Engels Institute, and was appointed deputy director of the international department within the Gorky World Literature Institute.

To be continued

Translation by Thomas Sneddon




1 Russia, an account of Illyés’s travels in Russia, first appeared as a newspaper serial in 1934, but was published in book form later the same year. Two further editions were published after 1945. During his time in the Soviet Union, however, Illyés also kept a diary, and wrote letters to his wife almost every day. A single volume containing Russia, the diary and his letters was first published by Magyar Napló Kiadó in 2019. The present study is an abbreviated version of the afterword to that edition, reduced to approximately one third of its original length.

2 Lajos Nagy (1883–1954): writer, publicist, and pioneer of literary sociography. His experiences of the same journey were published under the title Ten Thousand Kilometres in Soviet Russia. He joined the Communist Party in 1945, but never adapted himself to dogmatic party politics.

3 The Soviet secret police went through numerous changes of name over the years: Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, KGB etc.

4 Sándor Varjas (1885–1939): teacher and Communist philosopher. He joined the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and taught several subjects, chiefly logic and dialectics, at Moscow State University.

5 Antal Hidas (1899–1980): writer, poet, literary translator. From 1926 he lived in Moscow, and diligently served Stalin’s literary politics. After the arrest of his father-in-law, Béla Kun, he was sent to the Gulag, but was allowed to return to Hungary in 1959.

6 Béla Illés (1895–1974): writer, editor. After the suppression of the 1919 proletarian dictatorship he left Hungary, and lived in Moscow from 1923. He was the general secretary of MORP between 1925 and 1936. In 1945 he returned to Hungary, and occupied a series of important literary-political positions.

7 In a trial named after Shakhty, a city in the Donetsk Basin, several coal-mining executives were convicted on false charges of sabotage and espionage, and were subsequently executed.

8 Lajos Kassák (1887–1967): poet, writer, painter, editor. One of the most influential exponents of the Hungarian avant-garde.

9 Sándor Barta (1897–1938): poet, writer, editor.

10 Máté Zalka (1896–1937): professional revolutionary and writer. Taken prisoner on the Eastern Front in the First World War, he joined the Communist Party and enlisted in the Red Army. He fought throughout the Russian Civil War. From 1936 he fought in the Spanish Civil War, under the nom de guerre General Lukács, and died a heroic death.


by BL Nonprofit Kft. It is an affiliate
of the bi-monthly journal Magyar Szemle,
published since 1991

Publisher: Gyula Kodolányi
Editor-in-Chief: Gyula Kodolányi
Editorial Manager: Ildikó Geiger

Editorial office: Budapest, 1067, Eötvös u. 24., HUNGARY
E-mail: hungarianreview@hungarianreview.com
Online edition: www.hungarianreview.com