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János Bak (25.04.1929 – 18.06.2020)

János Bak died on 18 June 2020

From this picture János looks at us strictly, as if he were judging us. Those who met him for the first time may have perceived him as harsh. Some people were even afraid of János: quick-tempered, he complained loudly, raged and thundered; but he was also quick to let it go. However, all his friends knew that he was the kindest person. Always wise, always elegant, always ready to help – one could not miss these qualities in János. He had countless friends: he knew how to choose and charm them, and to connect them with each other. One could exchange a couple of nice words about János with almost any major medievalist across the world. A whole academic community – Majestas – lasted for two decades almost exclusively through his friendships and enthusiasm (the membership fees would barely have covered a couple of years).

János’s biography would be enough for four, five, maybe eight people. A childhood in a Budapest family of the intelligentsia, not very rich, but with enough means to have a German governess. A passionate involvement in the scout movement. In late 1944  the beginning of 1945, János, then in his teens, spent several dramatic months in bomb shelters and wandering with fake documents from one refuge to another, on the very brink of the Hungarian Holocaust. Tanks in squares and street battles. The enthusiasm, if not the madness, of a young fighter for Communism, and at the same time reading medieval Latin charters at the university. Stalinism, Imre Nagy, a revolution, street battles and tanks in squares once again. He never forgave Kádár for the execution of his friends. János left Hungary by illegally crossing the Austrian border in a forest zone – his scouting skills came in handy at that moment.

Studying at Göttingen, with none other than Percy Ernst Schramm! János used to say proudly that he was Schramm’s very last pupil. Not many people know that at the very top of the bell-tower of the church of St Jacob in Göttingen, there is a little fachwerk house let to students. János lived there, writing his German thesis. Every time one returned to the flat, one had to climb 70 metres above the street, which was excellent exercise. To Schramm’s great surprise, János continued working on his thesis even after he found a job as a sailor-telegraphist on a boat that ran between Hamburg and Chicago. He studied at a maritime school to do this job. After his thesis viva, János held rather modest academic positions at Göttingen, Cambridge and Marburg. He got a 2-year fellowship at the University of Vancouver, but stayed there for a quarter of a century.

At the age of 65, a Vancouver professor could have enjoyed his deserved retirement, living peacefully on an ocean shore. Instead, János began another new life – the fourth, or maybe the sixth one – now as a professor at the Central European University, which was then founded in Budapest – the city, the entry to which had been for decades closed to him as a political emigrant and an enemy of the regime. Thanks to his countless connections and overwhelming charm, János almost immediately built an international centre for Medieval Studies, today one of the leading centres in Europe. This department has always been friendly to Russian professors and students: it was CEU that opened a path towards international careers for many young scholars from the former USSR. Today, the medievalists of CEU remain the close partners of our centre.

In contrast to so many Western colleagues, János knew ‘really existing socialism’ from the inside, not from the Hollywood movies and propaganda scares. He had his own serious (also practical, not only theoretical) reckonings with socialism and the USSR, but he never distributed blame indiscriminately. He understood the peculiar soul of the homo sovieticus very well, and followed its evolution, ordeals and sometimes even convulsions with a slightly ironic sympathy. This deep understanding and wise kindness distinguished János from many former ‘brothers and sisters’ from the former Soviet bloc, who used every opportunity to demonstrate their absolute moral and intellectual superiority over the squalor of the Soviet life and those who were and still remain stuck in it. Those who may have just acquired, after long and humiliating hassle, a longed-for new passport, would be eager to prove to those who had ‘remained behind’ their organic – evident already at birth – not-belonging to the absurd Soviet reality.

I remember a grotesque case that happened to me also in Budapest. Naively, I gave to a slightly younger colleague from a Baltic country the copies of some of my first publications in Western journals and volumes, which were directly relevant to her thesis. It could have never occurred to me that I put her in a difficult situation. Since the articles were not in Russian and were printed in reputable publications, she probably could not afford simply to ignore them. But something did prevent her from citing directly the work of an occupier – perhaps that was the heroic spirit of resistance and a feeling of moral and civilizational superiority. It was astonishing what a smart solution she found. After respectful references to the publications of European and American scholars of impeccable civilizational and moral identity, there followed a footnote: also, some articles on a closely related topics were occasionally published in such and such journals and collections. Thus any mention of the name of the problematic predecessor was successfully avoided.

I did not tell János about this episode: he would have gotten angry first, then we would have discussed with compassion the trauma inflicted on the colleague by the Soviet regime, but this would not have been the end of it. At the first opportunity, he would have emphatically lectured her about universal academic norms. It would have looked like as if I complained to him. János hated all types of nationalism, both imperial and local: he not only felt, he also truly was a citizen of the world. His biography and passports are a proof of that.

János did not like to talk about his love for Hungary, concealing it behind such phrases as ‘no Hungarian can feel happy away from Hungary, in this sense, Hungarians are most similar to Russians’. But he considered it as his (in a sense, patriotic) duty to mock those historical myths which were meant to inspire every true Magyar from school age onwards. János was very sceptical of the old claim that Hungary was the homeland of the most ancient constitution, deconstructed the meanings of Feszty Árpád’s (in his view, problematic) painting the ‘Arrival of the Hungarians’, analysed the composition of the Millennium Monument...

As a pupil of Schramm (who introduced the very term Herrschaftszeichen – the ‘symbols of power’ – to designate an infinite research field), János paid particular attention to the holy Crown of St Stephen. He saw in it an outstanding medieval object – a key to understanding the past notions of power, but he did not consider it to be ‘a symbol of continuous Magyar statehood’, which ‘the Hungarian nation must be proud of’. As so many medievalists, János was not happy when society was nudged towards the Middle Ages, real or imaginary, through, for example, the inclusion of the above quoted phrase in the preamble of the new Hungarian Constitution. As for those political forces that introduced this Constitution in 2011 and are still ruling Hungary (among other things, they moved the crown from a museum into the political-sacred space beneath the dome of the Parliament), it would be more diplomatic to omit those conventional but unambiguous terms which János used to describe them.

János visited Russia often and had many friends here. He was deeply respectful of his main friend Aron Gurevich, although disagreeing with him on various issues, medieval as well as quite modern. He also liked to meet new promising medievalists and give lectures for our students. János even managed to break his leg in Yaroslavl of all places, and would later recall with gratitude the city’s municipal hospital and its doctors and nurses.

We would meet up with János in different cities and countries from time to time. The last occasion was in Budapest in September 2015. He was always a generous host and, while worrying that he was too busy to entertain his guest properly, he would give any guest a lot of his time. We spent those two days talking at the hotel, during the conference breaks (not at CEU, but the Eötvös Loránd University  – an ‘alien’ territory for János), at a restaurant... He was walking slowly with some difficulty, using an elegant cane. My third day was scheduled very tightly: at noon – an obligatory visit for any medievalist to the Visegrád castle, with a flight to Moscow in the evening, which also could not be missed. Visegrád is located to North-West of Budapest, while the airport is in the South-East. ‘Do not worry’, the organisers told me, ‘János said that he would drive you to the airport’. And, indeed, he specially came from Budapest to pick me up from a place at the bottom of the castle hill. What followed impressed me a lot. Although there was enough time before my flight, János drove his tiny car at terrifying speed. A narrow forest road zigzagged along the low mountains almost like one of those winding roads in the Caucasus, but János’s hand was firm, even though when cars were coming straight at us his approach to using breaks was a bit hectic. The speed of his reaction was enviable. Simultaneously, he was telling stories about his life, and one could envy his memory even more than his fast reactions.

János was a wonderful storyteller. If one recalls the historical events he partook in, what people he knew, one hopes that somebody did write his recollections down as a valuable source for oral history. I should confess that I only remember his words spoken after we left the mountains and were driving on a calm flat road. He was talking about how, after the war, young Communists, to whom János belonged, were trying, quite successfully, to trick young social-democrats… In this passionate driving, and in this colourful, ironic and (in contrast to driving) measured narrative – was the essence of János. He turned 86 in the spring of that year. In reply to my congratulations on celebrating his eightieth birthday, he wrote, almost apologetically: ‘In truth, I did everything not to live until 80: never did any sports, smoked a package of cigarettes every day, and so on, but still somehow managed to last until now…’. János perfectly well ‘lasted’ until his ninetieth, when as a gift his friends collected funds to set up a scholarship for young medievalists, named after him. This will be a good commemoration of János…

Mikhail Boytsov