Interview with Zsuzsa Hetényi - The Future of Europe

Interview with Zsuzsa Hetényi - The Future of Europe
CENTRAL Network talked to Prof. Zsuzsa Hetényi about the future of Europe and relations between Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe. Prof. Hetényi was part of the expert panel which discussed “War in Ukraine: a turning point for the relationship between Central Europe and Russia?” as part of the event on June 2.

What role will Central Europe play in the future of a new and different Europe after the invasion?

First, I wish to repeat my statement (from the panel discussion) about how the current situation takes scholars out of their comfort zone. For example, as a specialist in Russian literature of the 20th century, I had to and must become a specialist in everything: internal and foreign politics of several countries, their history, language borders, military questions, and religious issues. So please consider that my position is that of a researcher of literature.

I think that the European reaction is not adequate to the situation, because it is very slow. For example, in May in Strasbourg, there was a big conference on the future of Europe to which specialists from every European member country were invited. I hoped that I would get to know the opinions of specialists there, which was the case, but they only pointed out theoretically those vulnerable points which need more attention. They didn't propose any action. There was a kind of agreement: “The Conference on the Future of Europe is a unique and timely opportunity for European citizens to debate on Europe’s challenges and priorities". (

In addition,  a specific problem for Central Europe in this situation is that most Central European countries cannot take a univocal position due to their internal political troubles.

I also see cracks in the relations among the Central European countries. They are divided more than before this war. It's disappointing to see that specialists play a much smaller role than it would be necessary. Moreover, intellectuals are given much less influence over events because they cannot implement in practice those ideas of human existence for which they stand. I don't speak of philosophy. I simply speak of peaceful life, respecting and not violating the lives of other people, or democratic principles. I think that Central Europe will play an increasingly secondary role inside the European Union, also because the EU is not in a very stable situation. Meanwhile, Russia – like Germany 100 years ago – wants to establish its supremacy in a completely new world order, where a duel will be played out between the US and Russia, .

Plus, we need to think about environmental issues, climate change, water problems, energy problems. By the way, Hungary’s dependence on Russian gas is probably the highest in Europe, and the government does not seem to intend to break these ties. So of course, Hungary is in a special situation. But even here we play the role of a “ferry state” (a metaphor applied by our poet Endre Ady in 1908): a ferry going back and forth, hesitating, or tactically changing directions all the time between East and West. Hungary’s leadership is not able to choose which system of values to apply. At the same time as we try to buy gas from Russia, we sell nearly the same amount of gas to Serbia. If you look at the Central European situation, Hungary wants to be a centre of Russian influence in Central Europe, and that's very risky. Of course, we are experiencing a global economic crisis that forces people to leave their countries, as well as depleted energy resources and the pandemic, so it's a general crisis and I don't see a special optimistic Central European strategy to deal with this.

What can we do for Ukraine? How can we help scholars and students to keep researching and studying?

First of all, we have to make our positions clear – and these should not necessarily be the positions of our governments. We have to offer strong moral support, and this is very difficult because a generalisation is much easier, for example, for Ukrainian refugees. I spent all of March at railway stations as a volunteer translator, until the government decided to change the way that refugee arrivals were managed and opened a transit station in a stadium from where most of the civil help was excluded. So, I had the opportunity to see and know these people very close. We must lend them moral support and help them handle this traumatic situation. For example, we don't have to let political actors create an atmosphere of catastrophe, especially when states take irrational and even absurd actions. For example, Odessa port was bombed one day after signing the grain deal, an agreement to export grain from the same port. So how can we think clearly? We must stay rational and not let the government open the way to fear because these fears give rise to the need for a “strongman” at the helm of a country.

Another problem is that most refugees don't speak other languages than their native Ukrainian. 30% speak English, which will give them more opportunities to be helped, but we must organise interpretation and translation at schools. That is a very hard task.

In Hungary, there are many people who can speak Russian on a certain level. It is very important to consider Russian as a language for communication, just like any other language. Russian-speaking translators should not be considered representatives of Russian culture or the Russian state.

How should we deal with Russia and Russian scholars and students in the future?

Obviously, this is a question of boycotting. I will elaborate on how I personally understand this because neither the university nor the government nor the state has an official position on it. My approach to boycotting only applies to persons who are alive, meaning I exclude dead writers from my scholarly boycott. I boycott supporters of the Putin regime, obviously, because they benefit from Putin’s state. I agree with the boycott of artists who support the regime, because they have an undue advantage over those who are not only prevented from working but banned and even punished. So that is the reason why I think that the boycott must go on. Of course, that will not do significant harm to Putin himself, but it will keep our values intact.

Of course, Russian literature must be re-evaluated. I work with people who publicly condemned the war when condemning it was not yet criminalised, and they were able to sign petitions, and now privately condemn the war. For example, at online conferences, when we switch off the recording, they start to express their opinions openly. I have even invited Russian scientists and scholars to stay at my home in Hungary who wanted to temporarily pause for breath and decide whether to emigrate or not. And my home is open to all, not only to Ukrainians but also those Russians.

I think it is better not to invite or accept Russian students internationally, at the same time, I sympathize with them, and I know some of them personally. But if everything goes on as before, if everybody who is critical leaves Russia, there will be no force there left to form any opposition. How can we hope for any change in Russia if we invite everybody who is able to think, the intellectuals and members of the opposition, to emigrate? That is a big problem. We should try to provide help locally within their borders to avoid brain drain.

How will the war in Ukraine change the focus of Ukrainian or Slavic studies? 

As I mentioned (during the panel discussion), there are international projects focusing on decolonization and researching the themes of imperial ambition, imperial identity and imperial consciousness in Russian literature from the very beginning. I find this new focus very interesting, provided that it doesn't seek to blame, expel or censor books and research itself. Any new theoretical focus is interesting and acceptable. For example, that was the case with gender studies. Indeed, with all the results of gender theory studies, we were able to redefine works from the point of view of how female heroes are positioned and also extend the scope of research to female authors who were hidden in the shadow of male-focused Russian literary canon. In this same way, we can apply a new focus and see Russian literature from another point of view. But I don't think that pacifist Tolstoy should be blamed because he lived in an empire. We have to trace imperial consciousness in his writing, but again, I will not support radical change – as in Soviet times – in any way. For example, it would be ahistorical to exclude Leo Tolstoy from the curriculum or label as an “imperial” author fully instead of analysing his/her ideas in different texts. We cannot reevaluate writers of the 19th century out of the context, only from a 21st century perspective.

The most important task to fulfil in my field is that of detaching Ukrainian studies from Russian studies. We must stop looking at Ukrainian culture through a Russian lens; I would even say with the words of Apostle Paul “see through a glass, darkly”. This will be not easy, as many writers born on Ukrainian territory belonged to Russian literature. As I was always interested in double identity and bilingual authors, most of “my” authors are free from blame for being nationalists. Moreover, they were Jewish and suffered a lot from many different nationalities, including Ukrainians, Russians and Hungarians. And from that point of view, I can see very distinctly that an important, axiomatic thing is to bear in mind that revenge in politics for historical mistakes of former states or losses of territories is not acceptable. That's why this war is going on. My thinking is that borders cannot be corrected, just as Tolstoy cannot be punished for living in an empire. He can be criticised. But to banish his works from libraries and schools would damage the principle of world literature. His works can be taught with the appropriate contextualisation. This is absolutely necessary. If we re-read Tolstoy, we can take into account that he was read by his contemporaries in one way, in another way by the turn of the century, and another way again by the Soviets, under whom there were new “corrected” (censored) editions of classical writers and poets. This “cult” culture under the Soviets, during which many authors’ works were re-written, is a very interesting field of research and should be taught at schools nowadays too. But you shouldn’t allow the mistake of going to any extreme of hate-love position.

It is important to keep a distance in order to remain rational in your analysis, and not to let personal or ephemeral emotions mix with a judgement. At a conference I attended recently, I put the following statement under my slides: “After February 24 we all live in an extreme situation of barbarism, lies and violence, but we should protect bridges and values, also for the sake of a different future for Russia.”

Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview!

This interview has been conducted by Magdalena Lindorfer, CENTRAL Network Coordinator and edited by Katy Burgess, Circle U. European University Alliance Project Manager.

Zsuzsa Hetényi is Professor of Literature at ELTE University, Budapest, translator, and essay-writer awarded Szépíró (Belletrist) Prize of 2020 and the Füst Milán Award for literary translation (2002). Among her more than half-thousand scholarly publications, she is the author or editor of around 50 books, including on messianic motifs in Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry (1992), on Russian-Jewish prose (2000, in English: 2008), on Daniil Kharms (2013) and Vladimir Nabokov (2015), on literary interpretation and on the 20th-century Russian prose (2020) and again on Nabokov, in Russian (2022, Boston).

She has been active in helping refugees from Ukraine at train stations and has published a diary about this. Her report on the refugee question was published by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Prague: A derailed train - The role of the Hungarian state and of civil society in supporting refugees from Ukraine,


CENTRAL is an interdisciplinary teaching and research network, uniting leading universities in central European higher education. Its members include Charles University in Prague, University of Warsaw, University of Vienna, ELTE Budapest as well as Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The multilateral network of partnerships is founded on a principle of close academic and institutional cooperation between the CENTRAL universities. It reinforces the interests of its partners and supports intensive and strategic collaboration in research, teaching and higher education governance. One of the network’s aims is to promote Central Europe as a hub for academic excellence.