Captain Ostapenko's statue

Statue of Captain Ostapenko (1951) at the junction of Balatoni and Budaörsi roads, at the southwestern gate of Budapest, 1958. From

Dear readers of Río Wang: this post heralds a new series within the blog, on the best of those former statues of Budapest which were created between 1947 and 1988 by the socialist cultural policy and ideology, and which can be now seen together in an outdoor exhibition area, the Memento Park – or Park of Communist Statues –, designed by the architect Ákos Eleőd. The statues will be presented in the consecutive posts by the guide of the Memento Park, Dóra Szkuklik.

The statues of Captains Ostapenko and Steinmetz today in the Memento Park

“But where is Ostapenko?”

Most of the Hungarian visitors of the museum already in the first few minutes of our encounter would like to know something sure about the statue which once stood at the southwestern entrance of Budapest. Well, Ostapenko, if you please, is the last figure in the museum, together with Captain Steinmetz, to say good-bye to the visitors.

As it was the landmark in the outskirts of the city at which the traveler leaving Budapest cast a last glance, and the arrival at the capital was also marked by the figure with the flag, so the name of Ostapenko became more and more known and merged with its immediate environment, already marking the place itself. The statue became a dominating figure of the cityscape, and a reference in everyday language, for example as a starting point of hitchhiking to Lake Balaton: “Let us meet at the Ostapenko!” And a common response for an unrealistic proposal was: “When Ostapenko will change step!”

“Ostapenko has changed step” (on the transfer of the statue to the freshly established Memento Park)

Thus, the original political meaning of the statue was weakened over the years. Not surprisingly, after the change of regime, when the process of the removal of the public sculptures with political content began in 1992, the most heated debates emerged around the statues of the two captains. Finally, as the attitude prevailed that these sculptures recall for many people the beginnings of Soviet oppression, they must also be removed from their original location.

After the removal of the Ostapenko statue, a first proposal of the reorganization of the space at the junction of Balatoni and Budaörsi roads was to erect on the empty pedestal a statue representing Saint Cristopher, the patron saint of motorists. The renowned sculptor Imre Varga even prepared the plans for the statue, but its realization ultimately did not happen.

This was not the only idea. The operators of the nearby gas station dreamed the inflatable replica of the Ostapenko statue on the top of the roof of the building. The bizarre idea has also not been realized.

Who was Ostapenko?

29 December 1944. The Wehrmacht and the Red Army are in fight for Budapest for exactly two months.

29 December 1944, 10 a.m. Captain Ilya Afanasevich Ostapenko from Budaörs and Captain Miklós Steinmetz from Vecsés, at the southwestern and southeastern borders of Budapest, respectively, depart to the besieged city with the ultimatum of Marshalls Malinovski and Tolbuchin to the German generals. Here the two stories will be separated. On the mission and statue of Captain Steinmetz we will write in a later post.

Photo of Captain Ostapenko from the end of 1944, from the RIA Novosti portal

The members of the Soviet group of negotiators departing from the Buda side were Ostapenko, Lieutenant Colonel Georgi Chebotarev, Lieutenant Orlov and Sergeant-Major Gorbatyuk. They went by car until the Soviet front; from there Chebotarev and his crew followed with binoculars the path of Ostapenko and the other two officers on foot through the no man’s land.

From this point on we can rely on very different stories, but at least now we have this option, as until the change of regime the voice of the Soviet side proved to be stronger, and in fact the only one: according to this, negotiators Ostapenko and Steinmetz were intentionally killed by the German fascists. Even photographs were included in contemporary reports and history books, which allegedly represented the unfortunate officers, and which were produced during the Communist propaganda already during the siege.

Jenő Kim, producer of the Budapest film studio, dressed as the killed Captain Miklós Steinmetz, but wearing an infantry uniform by mistake. Propaganda photo, December 1944. From the Open Society Archive, Budapest. This photo is still used by the Russian literature as an authentic illustration.

Even today there are people who know only this version. During my guided tours I have even met Hungarian visitors who left the country well before the change of regime, and who were just as astonished at discovering the “secret” of the photo as the foreign tourists who had just been initiated to the story.

The statue of Captain Ostapenko and its place from the Russian database ОБД Мемориал

The German side offers a different story. Here we can rely on the interviews made by the renowned Hungarian historian Péter Gosztonyi. In the account of the former German officer Joseph Bader he was appointed by his commander to accompany the refused negotiators back to the front line. They approached on foot the front line of the Germans, while the Soviet shellfire became more and more violent. Bader then suggested to Captain Ostapenko to withdraw to cover until the shellfire subsides, but the captain refused this by saying that they must return to theirs in the shortest time possible. The German officer then decided to let the Russians go:

“…I commanded stop to the group, I took off the bond from the eyes of the Russians, and I told them that I am no suicide candidate. I will not go further, but if they want, they can do it alone. I wished them good luck and let them go on to theirs, through the no man’s land. I must stress that on our part it was cease-fire. One could hear just the hits of the grenades of the enemy.”

After that, Bader followed their way with attention. After some 50 meters a new shell hit was heard, and then he saw only the standard-bearer sergeant officer going on, the third person was laying motionless on the ground. A short while later, when the area became quiet, the Germans began to search for the wounded. Bader rushed to the Soviet officer laying on the ground, and discovered him to be the captain. His forehead was hit by a shell splinter which immediately caused his death.

The credibility of this version is supported by the fact that although the Soviets made responsible for Ostapenko’s death Captain Erich Klein, commander of the anti-tank grenadier division defending Budapest who, although denying the charge even under physical force, was sentenced to 25 years of prison in 1949, four years later, after Stalin’s death was suddenly released and the Russian military prosecutor rehabilitated him in 1993.

Although the contemporary Russian historiography, if ever mentions the case, recalls the former Soviet version, a signal of a change is that Andrei Vasilchenko’s book on the siege of Budapest (2008) already quotes Gosztonyi’s story in full detail.

We must also mention that this counter-story as an urban legend was also widespread well before the change of regime. In this version, the Soviets deliberately shot down their own negotiators, in order to invoke the barbarism of the Germans. It would be difficult to find out whether this version was merely based on the consideration of “cui prodest” and on the knowledge of the Soviet propaganda methods, or any real piece of information played a role in it.

Eight years after the publication of this post, on 13 February 2020, Hungarian historians Krisztián Ungváry and József Meruk presented documents from the period, published by Russian military archives, according to which Ostapenko was killed by a Soviet grenade. This was known to the Soviet military leadership from the very first moment. However, Soviet propaganda announced from the next day on that the Germans had murdered their envoy.

Ostapenko and Steinmetz, in principle, would have deserved a promotion after their death, but this did not happen, and instead of the title “the Hero of the Soviet Union” they only received the honors of the Red Flag.

A statue is born

After the end of the war – or even in its final days – the preparations began to erect memorial sculptures for the Soviet soldiers who fell in the battles.

Captain Ostapenko’s statue in 1961.

After the inauguration of a whole series of monuments to anonymous soldiers, in September 1948 the capital announced a competition for the creation of the statue of Captain Miklós Steinmetz. In the decision of the jury it was won by Jenő Kerényi, but the assignment was finally given to Sándor Mikus – the creator of the monumental statue of Stalin on the former Ceremonial Square –, who was supported by the Soviet experts. The inauguration of the statue took place on the anniversary of the negotiators’ death on 29 December 1948. Three years later, however, the statue of Captain Ostapenko, inaugurated at the junction of the Balatoni and Budaörsi roads, was already the work of Kerényi.

The two works were always mentioned together, so their comparison was obvious. After the statue of Steinmetz, finished in a rush, the work by Kerényi won high honors from the professionals and the official criticism as well.

And what does the visitor see today?

The visitors of the museum often remark at the sight of the two statues that Ostapenko’s figure seems more natural, as if it were on the move with force and dynamism. Interestingly, some even considered on the basis of the facial features of the two figures – before I told anything about Steinmetz’s Hungarian origins – that Ostapenko has typically Slavic features, while Steinmetz seems to be rather Hungarian.

61 years ago, at its creation, this statue served purely propaganda purposes, it was one of so many monuments to Soviet heroes. However, we often encountered it when leaving the capital to Lake Balaton or to a shopping tour in Vienna. The often seen figure seemed less and less alien and unknown. Finally, after being transferred to the Park of the Statues of Communism, today’s Memento Park, it gained a new meaning, and now it recalls, together with the other 41 sculptures, one of the most significant turns of Hungarian history, the years of the peaceful change of regime and transition to democracy.

“Ostapenko Exhibition Bakery”. The memory of Captain Ostapenko today in the bus stop facing the former place of the statue

• Is there something, apart from the tiny bakery on the picture above, which refers to the removed Ostapenko statue near to its former place?
• Why was the statue placed exactly behind the three thematic walkways in the museum?
• How were the monumental statues moved to the museum?

The reader will get answer to these questions as well if he or she visits the Memento Park.


Boros Géza: Emlékmű-metamorfózisok, 1989-2000, 2001
Gosztonyi Péter: Budapest lángokban 1944-1945, 1998
Prohászka László: Szoborhistóriák, 2004
Rózsa Gyula: Kerényi Jenő, 2010
In the shadow of Stalin’s boots, Memento Park visitors’ guide. Conception, edition, layout: Réthly Ákos, 2010

2 comentarios:

languagehat dijo...

Very interesting! Quibble: "the ultimate" should be "the ultimatum."

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks, Language! Apparently, it is worth to smuggle some errors in the text, because they inspire you to comments! :D