Soros Foundation–Hungary Records
Budapest Arany János utca 32, Hungary 1051
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Name of collection
- HU OSA 13 Records of the Soros Foundation–Hungary (A Soros Alapítvány iratai)
Provenance and cultural activities
Records of the Soros Foundation, Hungary (1984–2006)
at the Blinken–Open Society Archives Budapest (HU OSA 13)
The Hungarian Soros Foundation (HSF), which was founded in May 1984, was George Soros’ first pilot enterprise in the one-time communist bloc, years before he opened his similar Beijing, Moscow, and Warsaw offices in the late 1980s or established his foundation network in the early 1990s throughout Central and Eastern Europe. During its 23 years of public operation, the HSF spent more than 150 million dollars by providing grants, stipends and other means of support for artists, writers, scholars, and students, and it ran several new cultural and educational, social, and health projects and remained the main supporter of NGOs and civil society in Hungary. By breaking many taboos before and after 1990 with its challenging new policies, especially in the cultural field, the HSF was strongly opposed by both the communist and nationalist protagonists of state-controlled culture. Its grantees and supporters saw its main mission as the preservation and nurturing of the spirit and values of ongoing cultural resistance.
In 1984, a gloomy year from the perspective of prospects for the countries of Eastern Europe, it seemed almost a foolishly risky idea for a New York stock investor to try and set up a private fund in a small Soviet satellite country with the mission of promoting an “open society,” meaning transparent independent civil initiatives vs the state-controlled “socialist system.” It was in fact a daring challenge to the negative Orwellian vision of 1984 just to see if perhaps this narrative, which bore strong resemblances to the realities of life under the regimes of Eastern Europe, could be turned into a positive tale with new horizons over both “Oceania” and “Eurasia.”
The Budapest foundation, founded in May 1984, was George Soros’s first pilot enterprise in the one-time communist bloc, years before he would open the similar Beijing, Moscow, and Warsaw offices in the late 1980s or established his foundation network in the early 1990s throughout Central and Eastern Europe. At that “pre-Gorbachev” time, it was the only authorized “foundation” as such, even in Hungary, with a more or less protocol-like, official partnership with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Nevertheless, this “strange marriage,” which was forced by the regime, could not prevent the foundation’s inventive curators and a small but animated operative team from going on with the daring “expedition” and breaking more and more taboos of the late Kádár era by offering hundreds of grants, stipends, and other means of support for artists, writers, scholars, students, etc. every year. The Budapest Soros Foundation, which split with the Academy of Sciences in 1991, has continued to work independently on a steadily growing yearly budget from New York and to face the old and emerging challenges faced by a civil society.
In a historical assessment, four main aspects can be highlighted from among its many-sided activities: its support given to 1. civil society, 2. intellectual and technical innovation, and 3. preserving and saving cultural values, and last but not least 4. its influence on public affairs and political life.
The Soros Foundation Hungary was in itself a real prototype of civil society, of the way such a society should work and cooperate autonomously for the sake of the common good. From the outset, the foundation has been eagerly seeking creative and independent-minded civil partners in all sectors of the arts, literature, education, research, social work, and health services. It entered contractual partnerships with thousands of individual grantees and also with a good number of cultural, educational, and health institutions and special chambers, associations, etc. After 1989, when new legislation and radical political changes made it possible, it gave vital support to many hundreds of newly-established, democratic organizations, including clubs, human rights groups, minority and environmental protection movements, church reform initiatives, newly-established trade unions, independent newspapers, publishers, etc. Even after 1990, it continued to play a significant role in supporting and coordinating Hungarian NGOs, e.g. by running an information and training center as a free service for the non-profit sector.
Equally important were the steady efforts by which the Budapest office contributed from the outset to intellectual and technical innovation in Hungary. Starting with a one-million dollar base for the first year, within a decade, the foundation gave or transmitted financial and technical help in the value of some 50 million dollars. Over the course of the next decade, this sum grew to roughly 150 million dollars. This is an odd “national record” in Hungary’s history, since there are no records of comparable amounts having been donated by private individuals for public purposes in the written sources from the past ten centuries. Most of this foundation money was used for innovative purposes, either in an intellectual or a technical sense. A wide range of examples illustrates this, from regular support for new artistic, research, or pedagogical experiments to the enormous scale of the supply of badly lacking Western technology: computers, copy machines, laser and ultrasound equipment, computer tomographs, etc. for Hungarian libraries, schools, museums, and hospitals. As a result of the foundation's various grant-giving programs, thousands of young researchers and talented students were given chances to teach, study, or pursue research at Western universities, to publish their work, or to attend international conferences in a difficult period when the yearly Hungarian state budget for Western grants or the whole volume of official exchange programs were often smaller than the funding provided by the Soros Foundation Hungary.
The foundation also played a uniquely active role in preserving and saving cultural values, whether these values (or valuables) belonged to the intellectual or material part of the national heritage. This part of its mission can be seen in the many practical methods of support, e.g. providing financing for the restoration of medieval codices, organs, and materials in church collections and underwriting dozens of archaeological explorations or ethnographical fieldwork, as well as providing support for many traditional folk bands, dancing and theater groups, etc. Due to the generous help of the foundation, two important contemporary archives were established in Budapest by means of independent initiatives: the “Oral History Archives,” which consists primarily of life interviews with people who were active in the 1956 Revolution, and the “Video Archives of Historical Interviews,” a unique collection of video memoirs with interviews with Hungarians who were prominent in the twentieth century. As a joint effort with the Bethlen Foundation (another active civil organization of the late 1980s) the Budapest Soros Foundation launched a semi-conspiratorial rescue program to support endangered intellectuals and cultural values in some of the neighboring countries, especially in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Mention should also be made of the valuable financial and technical help offered to ethnic minorities, e.g. the Hungarian German, Roma, and Jewish communities, in order to help them to preserve their traditional cultures and identities.
The most exciting—and the most debated—issue since the foundation was created has been how it has influenced public affairs and political life in the course of rapid, radical changes. There are two controversial but equally prevalent views about this, each of which rests on ideological bias. According to the first one, the Budapest Soros Foundation has always been merely a form of “logistical support” for democratic opposition, i.e. for the one-time dissidents, or as they have more recently come to be called, the founders of liberal parties. According to the second view, the secret strategy of the foundation is intended to preserve the late Kádár elite. Thus, from the outset (according to this view), the foundation was nothing but an entity which collaborated with the communists. In light of the relevant facts and documents, each of these contentions seems utterly false, and both seem to have more to do with the new prejudices and the political fights than reality. These extreme and often paranoid charges, which are very much a part of official government campaigns even today, should be dismissed. What should be emphasized instead is the public role of the foundation as a step-by-step development in a dynamically changing, interactive context. A clear understanding of this would prevent anyone from denying the foundation’s genuinely democratic attitudes and functions, as it turned openly to the public offering a real competitive chance for thousands of civil initiatives. The curators and advisers and the executive team who were active during the first five years never ceased to challenge the party-state bureaucracy by creating newer programs. There were dramatic moments when it seemed the “game would soon be over,” but these conflicts with the “soft” (and ever softening) dictatorship usually ended in an acceptable compromise: for example, the debates on the competence area and the composition of some juries, the treatment of dissident applicants, etc. “Open society” as a strategic goal of democratization was publicly proclaimed only in the spring of 1989, when the founder, George Soros, offered an extra two million dollars to hundreds of new democratic organizations in an “open tender.” This was the brightest moment for both the society and the foundation, as it got rid of the last chains of party-state control. The doors were fully opened for ambitious applicants, and all the emerging opposition forces which wanted change and met the minimum standards for “being democratic” received support. Small wonder that as a result of the first democratic elections of 1990, the virtual “Soros-fraction” became the most numerous in parliament, since almost every third representative–from both the benches of the governing and the opposition parties–had previously had some form of contact with the Soros Foundation Hungary, either as curators, advisors, program assistants, or, in most cases, grant recipients. This was and is also true of people who held or now hold prominent public posts. It was true of half a dozen members of the government, of the new President of the Republic, of the new Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Parliament, and of members of the Constitutional Court. However, the early 1990s brought bore witness to regrettable changes in general attitudes towards the Foundation, and as an effect of new conflicts, the Budapest Soros office (like others in the region) soon became one of the main targets of harsh nationalistic campaigns. During these troublesome years of 1990–1994, the Foundation was forced more and more into a public opposition role, which certainly reduced its former efficiency. Yet it never gave up its efforts to strengthen the foundations of democracy and to enlarge its widely beneficial programs.
In 2004, the year in which Hungary and several other countries from the post-Soviet area joined as full member states of the European Union, the Budapest office, in line with George Soros’s decision, was closed for the public, with all its projects, except for one, the ongoing support for some selected Hungarian NGOs until the end of 2007, when the Soros Foundation Hungary was terminated both de facto and de jure.
About the Soros Foundation Hungary records held by the Blinken Open Society Archives. Among the papers and documents concerning its 23 years of operation, many were published while the Foundation was active, e.g. the yearly budgets of the projects, lists of curators, grant and prize recipients, etc.. (See the online available collection of these data together with other Soros Foundation Hungary publications: http://www.kka.hu/_soros/Sweb.nsf/pages/mithogy.) The entire collection of Soros Foundation Hungary operational papers and documents was donated to another Soros-founded organization, the Open Society Archives (OSA) at Central European University (CEU) Budapest in 2007. Since then, the archival collection has been in the process of being organized and described according to international catalogue standards, but the bulk of the work is still to be done. Thus, for the time being (as of December 2017), the collection is available for limited research only, and in some cases special permission is needed to examine personal documents. (e.g. the over 20,000 grant applications which were not awarded support). The data of the collection:
Reference code: HU OSA 13
Title: Records of the Soros Foundation Hungary
Total extent: 117.420 linear meters
Description level: Fonds
Name of creator(s): Soros Foundation Hungary
Donation of the Soros Foundation Hungary
Scope and Content: Contains documents created and received during the 23 years in which the Soros Foundation Hungary was active, including administrative records, applications, budgets, strategy papers, annual reports, photos, films, and sound recordings. The administrative records contain valuable information on the establishment of the first national foundation and its first 7 years of operations (1984–1994) in the communist era in Hungary.
Accruals: Not expected
Conditions of access and use: Some records are restricted. See conditions on series level.
Languages: English, German, French, Hungarian
Description of content
The collection contains the documents created and received during the 23 years in which the Soros Foundation Hungary was active (arranged by theme and according to chronology): administrative records, applications, budgets, strategy papers, annual reports, publications and press clippings, photos, films, and sound recordings. The administrative records contain valuable information on the establishment of the first nationwide Soros foundation and its first 7 years of operations (1984–1990) in the communist era in Hungary. The papers of the collection include more than 20,000 project applications (of which roughly 200 were given support).
- grey literature (regular archival documents such as brochures, bulletins, leaflets, reports, intelligence files, records, working papers, meeting minutes): 1000-
- photos: 1000-
- publications (books, newspapers, articles, press clippings): 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
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- Jombach, Márta
- Kardos, László
Important events in the history of the collection
- Ha minden jól megy [’If everything goes well’. A literary anthology of the authors supported by the Soros Foundation–Hungary], 1994. Book
- Personal notes of the Founder, In: ’Yearbook of Soros Foundaton–Hungary 1984-1985’, 1985. Publication
- Project for supporting democratic organisations, In: ’Yearbook of Soros Foundaton–Hungary 1989’, 1989. Publication
- parts are closed to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Nóvé, Béla
Radnóti, Sándor, interview by Nóvé, Béla, December 05, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection
Jombach, Márta, interview by Nóvé, Béla, November 27, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection