‘The spirit is gone’


Every month for almost 20 years, a memo about cultural policy and administration has been sent by email from the Budapest Observatory. Its focus was on the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, but in a context that embraced the whole continent. Indeed, one of its implicit themes was culture’s place in healing the scars of the Cold War as Europe rediscovered its unity. The subject was culture, but rooted in the principles of democracy, human rights and tolerance that Europe has sought, not always successfully, to make its foundation since 1945.

The memo was a delight to receive. Written by Péter Inkei with various collaborators, it was informative, independent, and rooted in deep knowledge of the subject. It was also witty and encouraging, even when reporting data that was not always positive. A few years ago, I wrote this appreciative piece to celebrate the Observatory’s 15th birthday.

In April, the Observatory sent out a final, short memo, which included two photographs. The first was from the Pan-European Picnic in 1989 (the photo above), when Hungary opened its borders so that East German refugees could reach Austria, a revolutionary and humanitarian act that helped destroy the Iron Curtain. The second, from 2018, showed posters from the recent Hungarian elections advocating closing the borders against refugees: the government has since proposed a law to criminalise giving help to migrants.

‘So this is the last memo. Not because of direct coercion or threat, and not due to running out of money. No-one ever paid for making the memos, it was done pro bono, as BO’s public relations medium. No physical breakdown either, the undersigned is holding fit and keeps working. The spirit is gone, driven out by other, toxic spirits.’

Budapest Observatory, April 2018

In the dangerous, chaotic times we are living through, the end of the Budapest Observatory newsletter can only be regarded as a minor event. But it is a tragedy nonetheless because it is representative and symbolic of a wider retreat. Every light extinguished, however small, allows darkness to grow. This is a lament, not a criticism. Péter Inkei and his friends have sustained their work for years with courage and humour in the face of difficulties that people in more comfortable positions might have thought unacceptable. The Observatory itself will continue its important work and it remains online as an exemplary resource. Those who believe in such unfashionable things as human rights, democracy, culture, expertise, and truth must stand with the Budapest Observatory and everyone working diligently to advance these values in good times, and in bad ones.

BudObs memos


  1. Important and timely comment. I will send a short message about Belfast situation: the never ending hopelessness of extremes in political control, continually grinding us down. I recognise this phrase – the spirit is gone. [David Boyd, Belfast]

    1. Thanks David. I had hoped – with so many others – to see a strengthening of art and culture in Northern Ireland in recent decades. My experience there left me with the greatest admiration for the artists, activists and community organisations who commit their lives to this work. They deserve better.

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