The Open Society Archives in Budapest


A review of the Open Society Archives, Budapest, Hungary

The Open Society Archives (OSA) in Budapest are a private collection of materials pertaining to the history and aftermath of Communism and the Cold War in Central and Eastern Europe. The OSA, which is affiliated with the nearby Central European University (CEU), first opened in 1996. In 2005 it moved to its current location in a turn of the century building in central Pest that was originally built to house the offices of a textile factory.

The OSA’s holdings are divided into three main categories: 1) material from the research institute of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL, the CIA funded radio stations that broadcast anti-Communist news and analysis to the Eastern bloc states and the Soviet Union during the Cold War) 2) materials documenting human rights violations under Communism (including an extensive samizdat collection) and during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and 3) materials on the development of post-Communist societies, especially the establishment of CEU and the Open Society Foundations network, an organization founded by the investor and philanthropist George Soros “to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people.”

My experiences working at the OSA have been with the RFE/RL holdings. These collections shed light on the stations’ Cold War mission, as well as life under Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the experiences of refugees from these countries. The staff at RFE and RL faced a unique challenge: they were supposed to report on events in countries that they could not visit in person. In response, they developed a series of methods to determine what was “really” going on behind the “iron curtain.” These methods included continual monitoring of each Communist country’s press (and sometimes radio), conducting interviews with refugees and tourists from these countries in the West, and—during the later Communist period— soliciting mail and phone calls from listeners. The RFE/RL collections are arranged by individual Communist countries or groups of countries (the Balkans, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the USSR), and consist of documents in English and local languages. They include press clippings, reports from interviews conducted with refugees or tourists in the West, anonymous reports on conditions behind the iron curtain that were sent to the stations, and surveys of audience mail and phone calls.

The RFE/RL collections are particularly well-suited to projects investigating the history of the stations themselves, media during the Cold War more broadly, or the anti-Communist movement in the West. Researchers interested in RFE/RL should be aware that the collections at the OSA are limited to materials compiled by the stations’ research institute in Munich. The Hoover Institution, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA has the stations’ corporate records, as well as transcripts and recordings of the actual broadcasts. The RFE/RL collections at the OSA also contain material, which—when analyzed with a certain degree of caution, owing to the ideological nature of the stations’ mission—can be used to research a variety of topics pertaining to life under Communism, ranging from the economy to women’s roles to social problems to discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The collections are also particularly strong on documenting the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

When planning a trip to the OSA, the website is a good place to start, as it provides a detailed overview of the scope and content of the collections. While it is a good idea to e-mail or call the archive in advance, when you arrive, all you need to do to register is to show an id (such as a passport) and to fill out a brief form. The working conditions at the Goldberger house, where the archives are located, are excellent. The building was beautifully renovated ten years ago. Researchers store their coats and bags in lockers by the front entrance; the reading room is on the second floor. Since most of the collection is housed on site, orders generally only take 10-15 minutes to fill, and you can make several orders throughout the day. The reading room is clean and well-lit, with plenty of electrical outlets; there is even a special light for those who want to take high quality digital photographs. The staff who work in the reading room are friendly and helpful; they all appear to speak English and Hungarian, and some may also speak other languages from the region. They can arrange consultations with the archivists, who work in the same building. Free wifi is available. My only word of caution is that the reading room overlooks an open space on the ground floor that is often used for conferences, and it can sometimes get noisy. You may want to bring headphones or earplugs.

The OSA, in keeping with its mission to make its collection as accessible as possible, has developed an online, “parallel archive.” Researchers are allowed (and in fact encouraged) to take as many digital photos of the archive’s collections as they want. In exchange, they are supposed to upload a portion of their photos to this parallel archive on the OSA’s website. The point of this system is to enable researchers who can’t afford to travel to Budapest the opportunity to use at least part of the archive’s materials.

The OSA’s location in Budapest’s fifth district, a few blocks from CEU and the Hungarian Parliament, is very convenient. For lunch, you can stay in the archive building, where there is a vegetarian-friendly café, Fruccola, which serves a variety of Californian-style salads, sandwiches, and cooked entrees (about $10 a meal for a drink and main course). Or you can walk to one of the many restaurants or cafes nearby, serving Hungarian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mexican cuisine. Compared to other European cities (even nearby Prague) Budapest remains very affordable, not only for food, but also for lodging. The city is famous for having been built on a series of thermal springs. After a day spent reading about political oppression and human rights violations, there is perhaps no better way to relax then to go for a soak in one of nearby Turkish baths.

Open Society Archives address:

1051 Budapest
Arany J. U. 32
M-F, 10-5:45
closed in August

Rachel Applebaum
Department of History
Tufts University

Image: Photograph by author from the OSA Archives.

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