An Appendage to the History of Democracies in Transition: 
A Preliminary Appraisal of the Records of Soros Foundation Hungary


By Gabriella Ivacs



The life of the Hungarian-born millionaire George Soros could very well be taught in schools to illustrate the history of the twentieth century.  Growing up in Hungary between the two World Wars under the dark shadow of persecution; drifting to the West after the Second World War as an adolescent; receiving education at the London School of Economics; and then rising to the top on Wall Street.  These were the stages of a career that would stand a good chance of success.  They sound just like the script for a Hollywood movie.  However, after Soros’s financial successes the script takes an unexpected turn: it is almost like the start of another spectacular film story set in a historic period of ferment and sweeping changes.


While it would be difficult to give an exact date, it was sometime in the late 1970’s that Soros launched his first philanthropic project by giving support to Nelson Mandela.  In the 1980’s, he set up the Open Society Fund in New York to sponsor the trips of Hungarian, Czech, and other Central European intellectuals to the West, acting as their “external” Maecenas.  Serving as a model for future NGOs, Soros Foundation Hungary was established in 1984 under the aegis of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; in fact, it functioned as a joint foundation of the Academy and Open Society Fund right until the fall of the Iron Curtain, or until January 1991 to be specific.  By that time, Soros had been supporting other foundations in Central Europe such as Charta 77.  Following up on overtures made by Zhao Ziyang, he also attempted to establish an organization in China in 1986, and actually managed to start his first foundation in the Soviet Union in 1987.  In the revolutionary atmosphere of the late 1980’s and beginning of the 1990’s, branches of his foundations started to spring up everywhere, from Prague to Kiev and from Sophia to Riga.  Naturally, these organizations were not without predecessors: and on every occasion they relied on already existing civil initiatives, on the “active forces of progression” who believed in the possibility of eventually transforming these “closed societies” into “open” ones.  The pragmatic financier George Soros’s credo rested on the views of the social philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994), who distinguished “closed” totalitarian states from democratic “open” ones.  In building his institutions, Soros always tried to minimize centralization, hierarchies, and formalism, encouraging a flexible matrix structure instead.  He rarely interferes with the running of his organizations; as he believes in the principle of “organic growth.”  These organizations elect their own board members to provide strategic guidance by involving prominent intellectuals from a given culture.  Soros even risks the possibility that in countries where civil society is weak, the management of the foundations occasionally may reproduce authoritarian practices.  In an article written in 1991, entitled “The Way Ahead,”[1] Soros already envisaged the establishment of the Soros Foundations Network of the future: “We support initiatives which have the potential to stand on their own feet and to generate other initiatives of a similar character.  The process leads to [a] multiplicity of organizations, each with its own individual character that interacts with each other.  Taken together, they form a complex structure that is beyond the purview of any one man including [a] sponsor.  Perhaps for that very reason it is active, alive and robust.”  In the same article, the author makes reference to the inevitable demise of this huge and powerful organization as the inescapable fate of every living organism, which is necessary to make room for long-term projects growing out of the debris of the Network and the foundations.  Later, Soros repeatedly asserted that the Soros Foundation Network will have fulfilled its mission by 2010 and the ambitious experiments will be phased out.  The only programs allowed to survive will, by that time, have either been successfully embedded in the local societies or acquired a supranational role and will have proved their ability to sustain themselves after cutting the umbilical cord.  As early as 1993, the founder saw a good chance of the long-term functioning of a number of organizations such as the Central European University (CEU), which was originally established in Prague in 1991, along with the regional Media Program or the CEU Press Publishing Venture.


George Soros apparently meant what he said in 1991.  Step by step, he closed down those foundations which had already done their job in sponsoring a given country’s cultural, artistic, and scientific life, and which have fulfilled their mandate with the consolidation of democratic institutions.  It is obviously difficult to assess how much financial support the former socialist countries, now members of the European Union as of this year, can rightfully claim; nevertheless, it is certainly true that there are places around the globe where these grants are needed far more urgently than in Central Europe or the Baltic states.[2]


Therefore, Soros Foundation Hungary, an institution financed exclusively by Soros, was all set to close down its operations by 2003.  The new foundation will use matching funds to carry on along much the same lines but with a different profile.  Also, the Hungarian model has proved to have staying power because the foundations operating in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe, and in countries where the forces of “a closed society” have not yet been abolished, followed its example.  While it is not the task of the present article to draw the balance, the assessment of every social aspect of the foundation’s activities spread to almost two decades is a task we could not undertake here.  (In any case, the first ten years of Soros Foundation Hungary have been thoroughly discussed in Béla Nóvé’ study).[3]  But in view of the fact that an era has come to an end, and since the records of the foundation will soon be transferred to an archive[4] where the first batch related to the period leading up to the Iron Curtain’s fall in Hungary will be processed, a number of basic questions arise, crucial questions from an archivist’s point of view.  What documents should be selected for preservation?  How faithfully can the history of a private institution represent a given historical period?  Besides documenting the institution’s operations, what additional information can such an archive offer to future generations of researchers?


For archivists, the appraisal of materials is comparable to getting stuck in a marshland: it is an area where they can easily get bogged down if they proceed without their familiar beacons.  They will do themselves a service if they observe Terry Cook’s admonitions, regardless of the point that he was probably more interested in the system of acquisitions of state archives than in the fate of the documents per se.[5]  He wrote, “records are not appraised and acquired to support use; rather, they are acquired to reflect the functions, ideas and activities of record creators.”  Later we shall come back to this quote, because the fundamental principle behind the phrasing not only conveys important lessons, but can also be applied concretely to a distinctly new type of document, which is only to be found in the archives of private foundations that have been disbursing grants before 1990.


In his essay entitled “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People,”[6] Eric Ketelaar lays down a principle similar to Terry Cook’s: the task of the archives is to document the diversity of activities and actions regardless of any moral judgment or sense of loyalty.  Nowadays it has become quite fashionable to attack the national archives for their faulty acquisition policy.  True, their misguided interpretation of their role in society is not only the result of outmoded traditions and concepts, but it is also dependent on actual politics, and all the more so in new democracies.  We daresay there is only a modest difference between the acquisition policies of Western European and Central/Eastern European archives: both concentrate on documents originating almost entirely from government bodies, thus wasting an opportunity to present an alternative.[7]  To illustrate the point, we refer readers to the case of the Central European state archives and libraries, where hardly any samizdat[8] or underground publications are systematically kept, despite their unquestionable contribution to the pulling down of the “information Iron Curtain” by providing invaluable sources for understanding recent history.  If a society wants to learn about its past in addition to what the “official version”[9] can offer, and if it wants to know more than the establishment’s self-promoting reflexes are willing to allow, then it should look for sources outside the state machinery, which represent the society of a given period from a different perspective.


The history of Soros Foundation Hungary (1984-2003) overlaps nicely with the collapse of the socialist one-party system, the emergence of democratic forces, and the installation of a new, democratic social order.  No other foundation in Eastern and Central Europe has had its fate so intertwined with the changes; no other foundation took part in the events so authentically, acting as a natural, non-manipulated agent of the changes.  The project was not about a western foundation defying the authorities and gathering up the progressive forces of society, a group of people now commonly referred to as “the democratic opposition.”  This was not the case, regardless of the fact that by the late 1980’s, when the foundation gave open support to democratic elements, the slowly expiring regime no longer had the power to close down the organization.  The fundamental idea was to support those people who had been left out of the Kádár regime’s twisted system of sponsorship and to supply them with information and a means of livelihood.  This often meant providing the basic necessities for those artists, scholars, and scientists who were cut off from all forms of income by the regime on account of their political convictions.  Here is just one supplement to the story: in the early 1990’s, Soros set up an international fund in the Soviet Union, which explicitly meant to stop the “brain drain,” in other words the mass exodus of highly qualified Soviet scientists.  According to the evidence of the grant file, the $500 aid to individuals actually saved a large number of world-renowned physicists and mathematicians from starvation.  At the same time, when interfering in direct politics, the founder always displayed extreme caution in Hungary, carefully assessing the situation.  Instead of supporting direct political action, Soros regarded the dissemination of information and the demonstration of alternatives as part of his mission before 1989.  The simple fact that, on the eve of democratic changes and during the subsequent period, the foundations both in Hungary and other Eastern Central European countries openly backed the liberal and democratic values did not mean that they gave preference to one or another political party.  Later on, the foundation’s recurring conflicts with the various governments, whether democratically elected or not, signaled that the foundation’s commitment was to a specific system of values rather than to different political parties.[10]  For example, the Hungarian opposition movement, while always far from homogeneous but still united in its objectives, became polarized by 1990.  The process was further aggravated by the formation of different political parties.  Soros’s open support of the liberal forces eventually led, in 1992, to an exchange of public letters between Soros and József Antall, Hungary’s first democratically elected prime minister.  The reason why Soros had never had such a serious clash with comrades of the previous era was that he had played a clever tactical game with Hungarian party cadres, deliberately taking advantage of their mutual interdependence.


Actually, the pre-1990 history of Soros Foundation Hungary is not as mysterious as is often suggested.  Some conspiracy was inevitable in a social milieu where the law would not allow for the establishment of a private foundation; where, with one or two exceptions, private sponsorship was almost completely unheard of; or where the soft dictatorship used extremely sophisticated methods to keep the intelligentsia on a leash.  Nevertheless, the timing of Soros’s coming on stage in 1983 was highly propitious.  The embryonic seeds of the democratic movement had already been present in society, and all they needed was a little prodding, while the prospects of a steady inflow of foreign currency dazzled the functionaries of the one-party state, a regime constantly strapped by a shortage of foreign currency.  Therefore, it was not without good reason that George Soros devised a grant scheme, in which one particular grant was not really a grant: he exchanged the amount of Hungarian currency the applicant wished to spend in the West into US dollars.  This form of aid paid for the western trips and acquisitions of state-financed institutions in such a way that the foundation was all along able to monitor how the money was spent.  In addition, what Soros gave, he gave twice: the forint equivalent of currency was transferred to the account of the foundation to award it as a real grant.  For almost seven years, the foundation functioned as a sub-committee of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.  There was no other way than to merge it into an existing institution for there to be a legal framework[11] and a certain degree of professionalism.  The Records Center of the foundation has kept the documents of a very extensive correspondence that faithfully illustrate the initial difficulties.  Similarly interesting documents can be found in the archives of both the Ministry of Interior, the Academy’s supervising authority at the time, and the State Security Archives, which now forms a separate institution.  The latter provides ample evidence that secret agents lost none of their zeal during the late 1980’s, as they carefully recorded every move the foundation ever made, every visit Soros paid to Hungary.  For one thing, the files produced during these clandestine operations can fill in gaps which are so typical of the documents relating to the first period.  Just as Béla Nóvé pointed out in summarizing his research,[12] “…the documents can show us only the tip of the iceberg, at best, because an informal and personal handling characterized the majority of the cases--especially in the initial years; therefore, in paving the way to an open society, the foundation was rather paradoxically forced to engage in a conspiracy.”  During the years he was writing the book, Nové conducted oral history interviews in an attempt to fill in the gaps caused by insufficient sources.  Meanwhile, some of the foundation’s crucially important associates (Miklós Vásárhelyi and László Kardos, for example) have died and so the prospects of carrying out a comprehensive oral history project have further receded with the passage of time.  If the archivist is allowed to make one additional remark, this “informality,” which is so befitting to the principle of organic growth, has characterized the entire career of all Soros foundations.  Apparently, the founder’s--initially well-justified--abhorrence of all written or electronic records of institutional life has come to dominate the subsequent phases of the operation, also.  That is not to say that the various grant files have not been arranged neatly in folders, along with the decisions and the bills.  Ever since the 1990’s, nearly all of Soros’s technologically-minded foundations have installed powerful grant-tracking systems, in which the long-term preservation of the accumulated information is likely to cause considerable headaches in archivists.  But returning to a discussion of strategic issues, it is frequently observed that ever since the e-mail era within the non-profit sphere the background communication between supervisory bodies, along with top-level decision making mechanisms, are not properly documented.  Related also to Soros’s basic philosophy is the point that planning as such has a rather low-key status and is rarely reflected in documents.  Moreover, he repeatedly emphasized in connection with all his foundations that the implementation of new grant programs never took place according to some scheme or the founder’s deliberate intention, in which the aim of these programs has always been to give support to local demands and the initiatives of civil society.  This was how economics and management education enjoyed a high priority at the launch of the Open Estonia Fund in 1991.  In Lithuania, the emphasis was placed on educational reforms; and in the disintegrating Soviet Union after the aborted coup d’état in 1991, the attention was focused on public information and independent media.  For the same reason, Soros was against the idea of the foundation offering thematic competitions.  In the first two years following the establishment of the Hungarian foundation, the main trends were still not apparent; it was only gradually that social sciences and various branches of art gradually became important.  According to the balance sheet of 1985-86, the HUF fund of 106 million was divided as follows:

libraries – 12.6 million;

history – 7 million;

sociology – 4.3 million;

economics – 1.6 million;

music – 1.3 million;

psychology – 5 million;

other social sciences – 742 thousand;

education – 7.3 million;

management training – 50 thousand;

Hungarian – American cultural connections – 10 thousand;

youth – 7.7 million;

autonomous cultural initiatives – 5.8 million;

performing arts – 12.3 million;

visual arts – 3.9 million;

architecture – 3.5 million;

natural science – 30 thousand;

health – 4.4 million.[13] 


This bias against natural sciences can easily be explained when we look at the region’s historical processes of transformation.  A large proportion of the progressive intelligentsia in Central Europe came from the ranks of writers, legal experts, and  historians; in other words, they were intellectuals actively engaged in the social sciences, who went on to exert an influence on the first democratically elected governments of the 1990’s.  After 1986, the Soros foundation’s growing role in shaping public life, along with a clear shift in the allocation of resources, signaled a definite demand for changes by the public, at the same time indicating that the central authority itself had become ripe for change.  Although the activist inclination of the foundation continued right until 1989, the leaders took pains to avoid giving clear preference to this or that political demonstration.  For example, they gave support to neither FIDESZ, the rising star of the Hungarian political arena, nor the East-West meeting of 1987.  This policy changed in 1989 with the launch of the controversial Democracy program, which, while stopping short of giving direct financial support to political parties, did accept applications by any democratic organization for subsidizing their operating costs.  A similarly important point is that those members of the former opposition--who embarked on political careers after 1989 and whose numbers included the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and several ministers of his right-wing government in office from 1998 to 2002--received financial support from Soros in the early 1990’s.  This only deserves mention, because afterwards quite a few of the one-time grantees tried to deny having any links with the “Jewish capital,” to use the epithet by which the ultra-nationalist media has lately been referring to Soros.  To their misfortune, the records of the foundation have always been accessible to the public.  The biannually produced reports have invariably published the precise list of grantees, along with amounts granted.  Although the institution was privately funded, it still wanted to demonstrate its commitment to the principle of transparency to the one-party state, which was more interested in intimidating the public than in informing it.


This review should make it clear that the most exciting period in the Soros Foundation’s two-decade operation has been faithfully captured in grant files pertaining to the period before 1990.  That is not to say that grant applications from subsequent periods--notably those submitted in the first few years of the democratic transition--were less noteworthy, but the termination of the “semi-legal” state and the acquisition of a separate legal status in the new historical context meant that the foundation had to maneuver in an entirely different milieu.  Following the euphoria brought on by the fall of communism, Hungarian society had to face up to a new challenge.  Its most pressing problems included the need for reforms in the education and health care systems, the establishment of democratic institutions, the protection of the environment, and the social welfare of the Roma population and their integration into society.  By contrast, any presentation of the year 1990 as a watershed seems contrived when considering such grant schemes, since they simply continued to do in the new era whatever they had been doing before, such as donating copying machines to public institutions or subsidizing the so-called “independent publications,” which have contributed to the preservation of the high-quality printed press to this day.


Since the scope of this paper will not allow for a comprehensive appraisal of the entire volume of documents covering a period of over twenty years, it seems appropriate to focus on those documents which were produced and processed during the historic era of 1984-1990, i.e. during the fall of the regime.  As we have already pointed out, the giving of grants, which was the main activity of the organization, was manifested in two forms: the aim of the first form, to be paid out in US dollars, was to provide hard currency for western travel and acquisitions of budgetary institutions, but here the beneficiaries were obliged to reimburse the Soros Foundation Hungary in Hungarian currency.  This must be underlined, because the dollar-based transactions went through the Open Society Fund of New York and, therefore, presupposed cooperation between the New York office and the Hungarian team.  The idea for one of the most successful and largest projects--for distributing copying machines in Hungary--was suggested directly to Soros by Gábor Vályi, the head of the Hungarian Library Council.  The shortage of copying machines, which were widely available in the West, greatly hampered research in Hungary and the shortage also reinforced the government’s monopoly on information.[14]  This was the period in socialist countries when even electric typewriters had to be registered and locked up securely at the time of national memorials.[15]  Soros’s attempt to break this taboo immediately aroused the suspicion of the “comrades” of the state security services, who thought that new equipment amounted to a state security risk.[16]  Despite the fears of the secret service, only two or three years later the members of the democratic opposition started to use copying machines for distributing pamphlets and samizdat or secret archive materials.  By that time the range of organizations entitled to apply for support had been extended beyond libraries, to include archives, schools, and churches, while Soros increasingly exempted applicants from the reimbursement in Forints.  Ironically, even the Institute of Party History of the HSWP’s Central Committee participated in the program.  By 1995, approximately one thousand copying machines had been distributed either through this project or through others.  And while the foundation also benefited from the program financially, no one could question its success as a PR campaign.  The public popularity thus achieved, along with related field experience, was later turned to good use by the foundation’s associates when launching or supervising new programs.  But viewed from a broader perspective, one can safely conclude that this was the enterprise that laid the groundwork for some of Soros’s later projects, which included the donation of printing machines to independent publishers of former Soviet states, the distribution of computers and Internet access in the region, and the subscription of western publications for public libraries.  In other words, they helped to create the infrastructural preconditions necessary to achieve freedom of information in totalitarian states.  At the same time, it should also be noted that the documents associated with such equipment grants--along with the documents relating to the financial support lent to conferences--are not suitable for a comprehensive survey of contemporary social relations, as these insufficiently worded applications and administrative papers fail to provide truly exciting material for sociologists.


Much more information is contained in documentation related to the Forint-based grants of the Soros Foundation.  Grant files constitute a new family of documents in modern practice.  Because under existing laws of Central and Eastern European countries the retention period of grant files is almost completely unregulated, at the moment it depends primarily on the consciousness of the producer of the document or the personal initiative of the archivist whether such papers will survive as historic documents.  A superficial observer may wonder why anyone should keep grant application files full of personal details when the names of the grantees and the amount of the grants would be recorded in account books anyway.  The way NGO’s function cannot be compared to the standardized procedures of government bodies.  NGO’s are seemingly chaotic, absent of bureaucratic pedantry, and inclined to produce documents that are more abundant in detail and information precisely for operating with a “greater margin of error.”  On the other hand, they target specific social groups that the mammoth state bureaucracy could not or would not study thoroughly or in a timely fashion.  Possessing greater flexibility both in organizational structure and in their conceptual approach, as well as demonstrating greater speed in mobilizing resources, non-profit organizations are more likely to come face to face with minorities and social groups with specific problems.  Also, they start to find answers to problems even before the state bureaucracy recognizes them.  Therefore, if we failed to make an attempt to determine how successful they are in their most essential function, which is grant giving as a record producing activity, and if we neglected to try to assess what type of documents they actually produce, then this would, indeed, demonstrate that we have serious problems with our principles concerning appraisal.


In some cases, grant applications submitted to Soros Foundation in the general category have led to the establishment of various special committees; as the years went by, these subcommittees started to proliferate and the funds at their disposal continuously increased.  Experts who formed the committees were either professionals well respected in a given branch of science or a field of art or, in some cases, artists and scientists branded by the authority as “merely tolerated.”  For them the honorarium they received for working on the committee was quite often the only source of income they drew.  Judging from debates reconstructed from minutes, ironic remarks jotted in the margins of grant applications, and the professional opinion of secretly-appointed external experts, the material makes for vivid and highly educational reading.  The entertainment value of proposals written by inexperienced applicants verges on the hilarious.  The addresses range from the communist-styled “comrade” through some highly anachronistic civilities to a number of ingeniously vague expressions--behind the linguistic contortions there lies a genuine crisis of social values.  In the view of some historians, these early grant files, including the refused grants,[17] offer a peculiar angle on the birth of civil society.


In the words of Miklós Vásárhelyi, Chairman of the Board, the foundation’s proclaimed mission is meant to merely hoodwink the supervisory bodies, the Academy, and the Agitation and Propaganda Committee of the Communist Party:[18]  “We are unable to provide scholarships to those who have already been barred from academic life or been relegated to what is known as ‘the secondary media,’ because MTA (the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) as a government body could not endorse such scholarships; however, we give full support to everyone who is on the borderline, i.e. everyone classified as ‘tolerated’ is eligible.”  According to this principle, a few people including the poet György Petri and the philosopher Miklós Tamás Gáspár were not eligible for grants subsidizing their foreign trips before the change of regime, but even if they had been, the authorities would not have issued them a passport.  Nevertheless, from time to time a dissident artist managed to pass through the screening, costing the foundation a severe scolding each time.  As we have already pointed out earlier, the foundation showed no ideological bias in its selection process when subsidizing the translations of János Kiss and Árpád Göncz just as much as the works of Dénes Csengey and Sándor Lezsák, regardless of the fact that these people later found themselves in opposing political camps.  The real objective, in some ways contrary to Miklós Vásárhelyi’s declaration, was to broaden the regime’s threshold of tolerance, so as to give a chance to those people who had previously been kept out of the cultural life for being amateurs--see the support given to amateur theatres--or those who were simply too young to tolerate the apolitical self-censorship of literary celebrities.  Some errors undoubtedly tarnished these efforts.  For example, the works produced with support of literary grants turned out to be a rather mixed bag.  Soros himself had serious doubts regarding the awarding of literary grants, when he saw that after picking up the grants some applicants either failed to deliver the goods altogether or produced some very mediocre results.  (Those who look into the grant files can see this for themselves, as the manuscripts or the publications were almost invariably enclosed).  Meanwhile, the overwhelming demand for sponsorship in the fields of literature and social sciences clearly indicated that the distinctly Hungarian invention of “literary politics”[19] started to fail and, on the pretext of filling in a gap, the foundation was able to contribute considerably to the aggravation of this crisis.


Just as with art scholarships, an impressive volume of grant files give evidence of the support lent to various colleges of advanced studies (szakkollégium), a type of institute experiencing a sudden boom in the 1980’s.  Colleges of advanced studies can look back on a history of several hundred years in Hungary.  Established on the pattern of the École normale supériure of Paris, the Eötvös Kollégium of Budapest along with colleges (népikollégium) reserved for the first generation of students coming from the countryside after World War II and the new elite movement emerging in the 1970’s demonstrate the existence of a progressive young intelligentsia in Hungarian society, independent of political regimes.  By setting up a separate college program after 1986, the Soros Foundation tried to encourage the nationwide spread of democratic self-government in the name of alternative youth politics through either subsidizing subscription to special journals, or purchasing equipment, or even offering individual and institutional grants.  In addition to the larger Budapest colleges such as the Bibó István Szakkollégium or the Rajk László Szakkolégium, similar initiatives by university students in Debrecen, Szeged, and Szombathely began to emerge, all of which later became incubators for the future political elite.  At the same time, the symptoms of the special college movement’s decline necessitated the rerouting of support to other areas.  These symptoms included political actions quite radical in comparison to the elitist workshops of the colleges, as well as the formation of students’ parliaments, the publication of newspapers, the establishment of debating societies, and the staging of open demonstrations.


We must call attention to one particular type of grant program among the numerous existing versions, all of which are just as interesting as those described above.  Rather than giving exclusive support to one particular field of art or one branch of science, it was the unrelenting and recurring determination of both Soros and the foundation to counter-balance the regime’s attempts of self-mythicisation, and to check its inclinations towards rewriting history by sponsoring projects that somehow opposed the official propaganda in the name of a new type of historical authenticity.  One such experiment was the creation of the Contemporary Art Center within the framework of the Palace of Art in 1985.  The idea behind the establishment of the institution, which incidentally enlisted a team of internationally renowned experts, was to support and document the work of contemporary Hungarian artists.  By that time, state sponsorship did not want to cover the entire range of the lively Hungarian avant-garde art and underground movements.  On the one hand, the weakening of censorship was favorable to the flourishing of alternative art forms; on the other, problems of new, highly autonomous artists, challenged by lack of a means of livelihood and their isolation from the West, jeopardized the survival of these movements.  There was a void here, which could be filled quickly and efficiently with the help of the Palace of Art.  However, in 1992 the Contemporary Art Center (later called C3) shook off the Palace of Art custodianship, thus becoming the prototype of what has become known as a spin-off institution.  After splintering off from the Soros Foundation Network, these organizations come into more freedom as they gradually lose out on Soros funding.  The incubation experiment must have been successful, judging from the fact that its example has been followed by a large number of similar institutions in the former Communist countries.  The Center for Culture and Communication (C3), an organization that still exists in Hungary, has not received any form of support from the Soros Foundation since 2000.  Its computerized archives of slides is open to the public. 


As demonstrated by the several years of support it gave to two important projects, the foundation has shown its determination to bring to light an alternative historical truth.  For almost forty years, the one-party system kept archives locked up in a fossilized structure; archivists had long ceased to adhere to the principal rule of the profession vis-à-vis archives, which is to “preserve it and make it accessible to research.”  And why would they have chosen to do otherwise?  The documents of that era were full of empty lies, while folders which contained genuine information were locked safely away from the public in the authority’s impenetrable fortresses.  And although the moral basis of the historian’s and archivist’s professions had eroded beyond repair, there were still people who worked arduously to record historical facts by interviewing eyewitnesses.  The primary aim of both the Oral History Archive and the Video Library of Historical Interviews was to document, rather than to publish and reap the rewards immediately.  When the foundation committed itself to supporting these projects in 1987, it had no idea how long this rescue operation was going to last: nobody in his wildest dream suspected that the archives would be opened within a few years.


With its past spread over two decades that include one of history’s great watersheds, this private foundation in Central Europe has carried out enormous work, the essence of which can hopefully be reconstructed from the bits and pieces of information we have provided above.  Since the scope of this paper, along with the shortness of historical perspective, will not allow for a comprehensive appraisal, from the organically interconnected body of documents we selected only the major points of reference that stood out in the period immediately preceding the democratic transition.  Through the examples, we wished to demonstrate that without a historical context there could be no appraisal; the understanding of an institution’s functioning, and the study of the circumstances under which a group of documents was created, requires individual treatment, especially when the organization in question is not a routinely operated state apparatus.[20]  It has often been claimed that George Soros’s Hungarian foundations promoted the birth of civil society not only by expressing the concept verbally, but also by providing the blueprints for its institutions.  The embracement and propagation of intellectual and technological innovations, the adoption of democratic values and the work carried out in the area of social welfare--these are achievements that predestine the majority of the documents produced before 1990 to permanent preservation.


But this is not all.  There is a word that can perhaps best describe the pre-1989 activities of the foundation accurately.  This word is “information.”  The use of this word is more appropriate in the context of the absurd conditions of operations and the image of a semi-official organization possessing deficient self-documentation, which fights tooth and nail for the people’s access to information from the West, for the extension of society’s information rights, for breaking the state’s monopoly on information.  Information itself is being pitted against the deficiency and distortion of information.  Equipment was purchased to be able to access information; the writing and publication of books was supported to counter-balance the distortion; and education was developed to enable people to absorb information.  With eminent success, if we may add.


Gabriella Ivacs



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[1]George Soros, “The Way Ahead,” Open Society News (April 1991), 1.

[2]Soros was the first to set up a foundation in Afghanistan after the American intervention.  He has recently turned his attention increasingly to Africa and Asia.

[3]Béla Nóvé: Tény/Soros, Balassi Kiadó, 1999.

[4]The official archive of the organizations founded by Soros is the Open Society Archives in Budapest:

[5]Terry Cook, “Viewing the World Upside Down: Reflections on the Theoretical Underpinnings of Archival Public Programming,” Archivaria 31 (1990-1991), 123.

[6]Eric Ketelaar, “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People,” in Archival Image, Collected Essays, (Hilversum: Verloren, 1997).

[7] Based on the speech given by Andras J. Horvath, Director of the Budapest City Archives, at the annual meeting of Hungarian Archivists, in Szolnok on August 13, 2003.

[8]The expression “samizdat” refers to a clandestine publishing system within Communist countries, by which forbidden or unpublishable literature was reproduced and circulated privately, often requiring extreme caution from the dissidents to hoodwink the network of state security agents.

[9]Historians might question our simplistic approach to “official documents.”  In fact, we can hardly question the importance of public records.  They usually reveal much more information to a scholar than intended.

[10]The first democratically elected Hungarian government was not the only one that got into a conflict with Soros; in 1993, his falling out with the Czech government led to the Central European University’s relocation from Prague to Budapest.  An even bitterer row developed between the Belarusian state under Lukashenko’s premiership and Soros, as a result of which the government suddenly closed down the Soros institution in Minsk.

[11]The existing code of law in Hungary did not allow for the functioning of private foundations.

[12]Béla Nóvé: Tény/Soros, Balassi Kiadó, 1999, 11.

[13]The Soros Foundation, 1985-1986, Annual Report, 103.

[14]Before 1982, there were only twelve copying machines in Hungary.

[15]For instance, on March 15, the celebration of the Freedom of Press was always one of those occasions when opposition raised its voice for the protection of democratic values.

[16]Béla Nóvé: Tény/Soros, Balassi Kiadó, 1999, 61.

[17]Based on a conversation with István Rév, historian and member of the International Board of the Soros Foundations Network.

[18]Béla Nóvé: Tény/Soros, Balassi Kiadó, 1999, 81.

[19]Writers should write, no politics.

[20]This is also the reason why the quotas designed for government organizations producing mountains of documents cannot be implemented; according to these quotas, only three to five per cent of the documents can actually be regarded as permanent.