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33rd György Ránki Hungarian Chair Conference

The following was written by Jason Vincz for the Russian and Eastern European Institute. Reused with permission.

The 33rd György Ránki Hungarian Chair Conference, entitled Transformations of Urban Social Fabric in East Central Europe, 1880 to present, took place in the Indiana Memorial Union over the weekend of March 28th. Organized by the current Ránki Chair, urban sociologist János Kocsis, and the staff of the Central Eurasian Studies Department, the conference welcomed a number of distinguished guests to Bloomington, including Hungary's ambassador to the U.S., Réka Szemerkényi, and urban planners like Melinda Benkő of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Géza Salamin of the Central Bank of Hungary, and László Csák of Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania.

Popular topics across the day-and-a-half of panels included the demographic evolution of Eastern Europe, patterns of regional economic growth, and the paradoxes of modernity in cities like Budapest. Former Ránki Chair László Borhi, whose Dealing With Dictatorships: The U.S. and Hungary from World War II to 1989 is forthcoming from the Indiana University Press, prefaced the conference with a discussion of the effects that a century of invasions, coups, and counter-revolutions have had on Budapest and the Hungarian national psyche. Kocsis described the processes of urban decay, suburbanization, and gentrification in post-communist Budapest, while Csák discussed urbanization, re-ruralization, and the destruction of cultural heritage in Romania. Salamin offered a regional contextualization of Hungary's potential for economic growth, focusing on the roles EU cohesion funds and Hungarian public-employment initiatives have played in Hungary's post-crisis economic performance. Robert Nemes of Colgate U. explained the effects railroads and engineered waterways had on the social development of 19th-century Satu Mare/Szatmárnémeti and Carei/Nagykároly, Romania.

Trends in construction were also an important component of the conference. Benkő discussed the prevalence and features of prefabricated housing projects in Budapest. Sociologist Virág Molnár of the New School for Social Research looked at gated communities and social fragmentation in post-socialist Berlin and Budapest. And U. of Michigan professor Krisztina Fehérváry, whose Politics in Color and Concrete: Socialist Materialities and the Middle Class was recently published by the Indiana University Press, presented a fascinating account of the relationships between organicist architecture, natural materials, and nationalist moral aesthetics.

Ethnic and religious identification were also frequent themes. Gergely Romsics, the current director of the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York, outlined völkisch intellectuals'interwar approaches tothe multiculturalism of "battleground"cities across  the former Austria-Hungary; Erika Szívós of Eötvős Loránd University discussed Jewish identity, interethnic symbiosis, and the effects of the Holocaust on the Inner 7th District of Budapest; former Rezler Fellow Béla Janky catalogued the results of his survey of 119 Hungarian towns on the subjects of social cohesion and interethnic trust;and another former Ránki Chair, Pál Hatos, spoke about the role religious heritage has played in the identity politics of the "Calvinist Romes," Debrecen and Geneva.

Urban culture was another significant subject. Indiana historian Toivo Raun discussed the socio-economic and ethnic evolution of Riga and Tallinn in the period leading up to World War I. Indiana ethnomusicologist Lynn Hooker analyzed radio broadcasts of Gypsy orchestras' concerts in interwar Budapest cafés. And Fulbright Visiting Professor Bence Ságvári closed the conference with an account of the migration to Budapest of the American notion of "the creative city," which produced some jovial exchanges typical of the informative and entertaining conversations that followed the panelists' remarks all weekend. The conference was sponsored by the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center as well as the Russian and East European Institute.