Orban was hit with a textbook. How propaganda in Russian schools created problems for Putin’s ally in Europe

In August-September 2022, when a full-scale war had been raging in Ukraine for half a year, and Hungary was cementing its image as a country willing to remain an ally of Russia even under these circumstances, another bombshell exploded in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations.


The Hungarian authority regulating school curricula approved a geography textbook for the 8th grade before the start of the new school year. In this textbook, fragmented information about geography was incorporated into teaching children from a Hungarian perspective on the world. The treatment of geography was not straightforward — for example, readers of the textbook would be led to conclude that the Carpathian Mountains are Hungarian mountains and have nothing to do with Ukraine.

But the greatest outrage in Ukraine at that time was not even caused by these theses, but by what pertained to Russia’s annexationist war against Ukraine.

The symbol of “educational propaganda” became an illustration in which Russia’s bear tears apart Ukraine, and men in the symbolism of the United States and the European Union. And to top it off, the caption under this picture: “Who should own Ukraine?”

It must be acknowledged that the textbook, published in print and online versions, only reached a portion of the students. Hungarian educational institutions are much more autonomous than in Ukraine, and some Hungarian speakers in the EU, who have eighth-grade children, confirmed that they were taught with different materials. But the fact of such blatant propaganda in educational materials was infuriating, and what was even more infuriating was how the Hungarian authorities reacted (or failed to react) to it.

Only at the end of October, almost two months after the scandal began, the Hungarian government promised to remove at least the most scandalous pages regarding Ukraine from the online textbook.

However, a year passed, and Hungary faced the same problem.

The “betrayal” came from a country that Orban had chosen as a partner. Manipulative and shameful anti-Hungarian propaganda theses were found in new Russian textbooks!

“Hungarians — fascists” and the “hand of the West” instead of the revolution

For the current Russian government, propaganda, especially among children, is one of the key tools for political survival. So it’s not surprising that after the outbreak of a full-scale war, there was a need to incorporate this into school education.

From 2023, Russian high school students will be studying with new “history textbooks.”

One of the co-authors is Vladimir Medinsky, a pseudoscientist and the author of the famous phrase about the “extra chromosome of the Russian people.” He was formerly the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation and is currently an assistant to President Putin and his advisor on military history.

The term “history textbook” is in quotation marks because these books have nothing to do with history as a science.

For example, in the book for 11th-grade students, as readers claim, around 100 pages are dedicated to the rule of Vladimir Putin.

See also: Orban’s 11 hostages: how Russian Orthodox Church and Russian authorities “trade” Ukrainians with the Hungarian government

18 pages are devoted to the so-called “ATO,” which Russian propaganda labels the current stage of aggression against Ukraine. The tone and level of manipulation in these sections are not difficult to imagine. Even in the official description of the textbook in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, it is announced that the authors will share their thoughts with children on the “reasons for the resurgence of Nazism in Ukraine.”

But it’s unlikely to surprise anyone in Ukraine.

In Hungary, however, this textbook has caused quite a storm of emotions.

This is because it portrays Hungary, allegedly “friendly” to the Kremlin, in a very similar tone.

References to Hungary in the book are few, mainly related to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 — an anti-Soviet uprising that was brutally suppressed by the regular Soviet army.

However, the authors of the “textbook” have a different view of history on this matter.

They refer to the participants of the 1956 revolution as fascists and “radical insurgents” who fought against Soviet monuments.

“The catalyst for the Hungarian crisis was the actions of Western intelligence agencies and the internal opposition they supported,” claims the “history textbook” and further criticizes Hungarians for “deciding to abandon the Stalinist legacy” (interestingly, this characterization seems intended to portray Hungarians in a negative light for Russian schoolchildren).

An important detail: unlike the aforementioned Hungarian textbook, this propagandistic textbook is mandatory for use in Russian schools. Therefore, all Russian eleventh graders will see the world through Medinsky’s eyes.

It would seem that official Budapest cannot ignore this. But…

Is Hungary like Ukraine?

Let’s add important context to this story.

A small Hungarian liberal publication, G7.hu, which was the first to learn about this textbook and published excerpts from it in Hungarian (and is now being referred to by other media outlets in the country whose editors were not prohibited from writing about it), pointed out that the Russian rhetoric about Hungarians is identical to that which Russian propaganda uses regarding Ukrainian revolutions, including the Revolution of Dignity.

Once again, the “hand of the West” is blamed for supposedly controlling a group of “fascists,” which allegedly led to bloody events, even though people and the country’s leaders, supposedly, wanted to be with Russia overall.

In reality, there are indeed some similarities between the events of the Maidan protests in 2013-2014, the Russian aggression against Ukraine that began during that period, and the Hungarian uprising in 1956. However, it is difficult to believe this now, especially given the current state of Hungarian-Ukrainian relations.

Ukrainians today and Hungarians back then faced the same enemy. Although formally, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Hungarians perceived it as “Russia” at the time. One of the key slogans during the 1956 revolution was “ruszkik haza,” which means “Russians go home.” More precisely, the word “ruszkik” is slang, derogatory, and can be translated as “Muscovites.”

In 1956, it’s worth noting that on one of the central squares in Budapest, in front of the parliament, peaceful demonstrators were shot from the rooftops of surrounding buildings, much like the shooting of participants in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.

Another striking similarity is the slogan that Hungarians have been using to honor the participants of the 1956 uprising for over half a century, which goes as “Dicsőség a hősöknek,” and literally translates to “Glory to the heroes.”

And most importantly, the 1956 revolution holds a sacred significance for Hungarians, perhaps even more so than the Revolution of Dignity does for Ukrainians. Even in the Hungarian constitution, the 1956 uprising is recognized as one of the three official national holidays, alongside the War of Independence of 1848-49 and the Day of the Foundation of the Hungarian state celebrated on August 20.

See also: Between Russian and Hungarian captivity: how the “game” with 11 Ukrainian soldiers led Orban into the Kremlin trap

Furthermore, for Viktor Orban and his party Fidesz, this historical event has been a part of his political platform throughout his entire political career.

A “split” for Orban

It’s not difficult to understand the scale of outrage among many average Hungarians due to this scandal involving the Russian “history textbook.” And it’s not just any Russian textbook but one authored by a Putin advisor!

Public outrage over this book has united all politicians and parties in Hungary, except for one very significant exception.

That exception is Viktor Orban and his team.

None of the high-ranking Hungarian officials or members of the Fidesz party have reacted to what society perceived as a Russian incident. The spokesperson for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tamás Menczer, limited himself to a very diplomatic comment for the pro-government media, suggesting that what happened in 1956 when the Hungarian people rose against communist dictatorship is so obvious that they don’t need to prove it to anyone.

Peter Szijjarto, well-known to all Ukrainians, who rarely misses an opportunity to make harsh comments about Ukraine, even when it involves not a real but an imaginary “insult to Hungary” from Ukrainian authorities, remains silent as well.

But when it comes to Russia, not a word.

This silence is particularly surprising because in 2016, the same Peter Szijjarto and his department summoned the Russian ambassador in a similar situation. Back then, it wasn’t a book but a 10-minute program about the events of 1956 in Hungary with similar narratives. However, Budapest couldn’t tolerate such disgrace at that time.

Yet now, the willingness to endure offenses from Russians in Budapest is incomparably higher.

It’s evident that the directive for silence doesn’t come from the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or even from Minister Szijjarto. It appears to be a personal stance taken by Viktor Orban. For him, it seems that avoiding a confrontation with Putin is far more significant than the need to defend Hungary’s honor.

Meanwhile, the pressure on Orban in this regard continues.

The story with the Russian history textbook has become a convenient tool for Hungary’s opposition to confront the current government. It’s likely that all leading opposition politicians, from parliamentarians to the mayor of Budapest, have called on Orban to immediately summon the Russian ambassador (although it’s difficult to talk about “immediacy” considering that the scandal has been unfolding for almost a week).

This criticism seems like a winning issue because it appears that the Prime Minister is betraying his principles of defending Hungarian history. Orban has no substantial response to this and is left with nothing but silence.

However, the question of whether “textbookgate” can shake the popularity of the authoritarian Hungarian leader among his supporters remains open. This is especially pertinent considering the anti-democratic control over the media landscape in Hungary that Viktor Orban has built during his 12 years in power.

Originally posted by Sergiy Sydorenko and Dmytro Tyzhanskyi on European Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: The Ministry of Truth of Orban. How do anti-Ukrainian and anti-European propaganda work in Hungary?

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