“He has a real hunger for knowledge,” says Zsuzsa Hegedus about her friend Viktor Orban.
“So apart from the fact that we laughed a lot… he wasn’t just interested in what I had to say, he really wanted to understand.”
That was in 2002, when they first met in her leafy garden in the upmarket Budapest residential suburb of Pasaret – the Pasha’s Meadow, named after the last Turkish ruler of the city.
That passion for learning accompanies Orban to this day – he reads widely, peppers his speeches with thoughts and quotations from world literature, and loves to entertain famous writers and intellectuals in his office in a former convent overlooking the Danube river.
More recently, he waxes lyrical about the “decline of the West” – a view he shares with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, among others.
Alone among EU leaders in 2016, he backed Donald Trump for the White House. Alone among EU leaders, he repeatedly criticises Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And alone among EU leaders, he slams sanctions on Russian oil and gas as doing more to harm the EU than Russia.
A Nato member since 1999, his government refuses to send arms to Ukraine, or allow the shipment of arms from other countries across Hungarian territory. But his latest controversy hinges on a more ancient argument – about race.
“There is a world in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe. Now that is a mixed-race world,” he told an annual gathering of tens of thousands of admirers at Baile Tusnad in Romania in July. “And there is our world, where people from within Europe mix with one another… in the Carpathian Basin we are not mixed-race: we are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland.”
Two days later, Zsuzsa Hegedus publicly condemned Orban’s remarks as “a pure Nazi text, worthy of Joseph Goebbels” – Hitler’s propaganda chief. She resigned as his adviser on social inclusion, and a bruising exchange of letters followed. He said his remarks were misrepresented.
The story of the 20-year friendship between the thin, Jewish, chain-smoking, left-wing sociologist and the larger-than-life, right-wing Hungarian leader with a fondness for pork, reveals much about Orban’s thinking, his success, and the spell he casts on his admirers – from Texas to Turin. It may also contain the seeds of his downfall.
The key to understanding Orban and his Fidesz party, Hegedus explains, “is that they came from below”.
Orban grew up in a typical rural Communist-era family in the villages of Felcsut and Alcsutdoboz, south of the Hungarian capital. Brought up mostly by his grandparents, his sports teacher was the first to recognise his footballing skills, and took him to the nearby city of Szekesfehervar to buy him his first football boots.
Their common interest in the poor and downtrodden of Hungary brought Orban the politician and Hegedus the sociologist together. His ambition was to return to power and stay there, and for that he needed the rural vote – where the vast majority of Hungarians still live. She was appalled that a quarter of the Hungarian population were living in dire poverty, and was willing to support a leader who didn’t just talk, but acted. What a team they could make together, they realised.
Since he returned to power in 2010, the number of Hungarians out of work has fallen from 11% to 4%. Marriages have doubled, and divorces and abortions have fallen to record lows. The birth rate has risen by a quarter.