Bicycle Diaries: <i>Sztálin-szobrot vigye haza!</i>

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25.10.06

Sztálin-szobrot vigye haza!

Take the Stalin Statue Home!

When I was a kid in Upstate New York, my parents would take me to a pastry shop at a crossroads outside our village. It wasn't until college that I realized that my favorite mezeskalacs (honey cakes), isli (half-moon cookies), and dobos (cakes) were Hungarian. When I moved back to work for the Boy Scouts I got to know the owners, an elderly couple who had escaped Hungary after resisting the Soviet Army in 1956.

I've been thinking a lot about pastry and politics this week. Fifty years ago, student demonstrations demanding reform of the Communist government quickly blossomed into an all-out revolution. For the following 11 days the world held its collective breath as Hungarians became the first Eastern Europe nation to resist Soviet occupation.

Although it would ultimately fail with the brutal return of Soviet troops and tanks, the October-November revolution was the first sign that the Soviet Union could not fully control its empire in Eastern Europe. And so, I'm posting excerpts from a recent essay by Peter Nádas. It appeared in The Opinion Journal on Monday. Now a novelist, Nádas was a student eyewitness of these events. I'm also posting 4 YouTube videos commemorating the 50th Anniverserary of the Hungarian Revolution.
So, on that Tuesday afternoon, a single flow of humanity was moving down the avenues; they were coming on Váci Avenue, on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Avenue, but on Marx Square many stopped in hesitation: Which way now? The piled-up streetcars stood motionless where they had gotten stuck in their tracks, with the lights burning in the empty compartments. There were about 80,000 people stranded around the edges of the square, on the banks of this vast intersection. They were singing, shouting demands, having visions, speechifying. A crowd, half a million strong, was already in front of the Parliament building. They demanded that the Russians go home, and clamored for Imre Nagy to make a speech.

Someone appeared on the left balcony. This, of course, couldn't be noticed from below but the news came that someone had come out to the balcony. He appeared to be talking but it was no use, he couldn't be heard. The crowd was screaming that nothing could be heard. Then the word came and spread that Imre Nagy--the former prime minister, and a symbol of resistance to Moscow--was on his way. For that someone on the balcony was, indeed, saying that Nagy was on his way. And they proceeded to install a microphone on the balustrade of the balcony and they hung a few huge, funnel-shaped loudspeakers on the façade of the building. They kept rapping on the microphone, testing it by saying, "one, two, three . . . this is a test," and the sound was echoed by the facades of the surrounding buildings. All this made things even more cheerful, and the square burst into a joyous laughter. But then it started to look like they would screw around with this for an eternity, with this technical preparation; they were just stalling for time. The crowd roared and clattered; losing patience, it gave voice to its discontent and restlessness, its body became lumpy as small groups started to form here and there while impatient orators rose to express their opinion. No one could predict what would emerge suddenly, which of the demands would take hold on the square, and what would come of it.

Then, from the cheers arriving in waves from the main staircase we could tell that Imre Nagy had arrived. The square roared, then fell silent wanting to hear how well it could hear itself, then it roared again. Someone in fact announced that he had arrived. From this point on, my recollections diverge from those of others. As he stepped out to the balcony (others remember him to have appeared in a window) clumsily they were trying to put some light on him, but he stumbled over something. It might have been due to a high doorstep, or to his nervousness (for he had never addressed a crowd of this size), or he was unsuitable for this role by nature; but perhaps the balcony floor was simply too steep. Since then I always wanted to take a closer look at that balcony. As I remember, during his speech two people, one on either side, were holding him in the doorway of the balcony. This is why he was so far away from the microphone, and this explains why it was so hard to understand him. According to other recollections, those two people were holding him in a window. But I stick to my own memories. All you could see in this awkward beam of light was that someone stepped forward, stumbled, his hat flew off, while he himself disappeared for a moment. Laughter arose above the square, for it was a ridiculous sight, but it wasn't the entire square that laughed, there were patches of laughter stifled immediately by a general sense of shame.

In a revolution there are no great entrances. It doesn't matter that your arrival is awaited by a whole city, it doesn't matter that you are Imre Nagy--you are just like anybody else. Every emotion was a mass emotion on this gentle autumn evening, or rather, only the crowd could legitimate or suppress individual emotions. To this day I cannot understand how I could hold out from three in the afternoon till midnight without feeling hungry or thirsty, or the urge to pee.

The first--you could say benign and jovial -- phase of the revolution included massive desertion in the police and military corps, the opening up of weapon-factory warehouses, the ritual pulling down and sawing up of Sándor Mikus's Stalin statue, the siege of the radio building in Bródy Sándor Street (I was still standing on the square when the news was approaching from the direction of Nádor Street, "They are shooting at the radio, they are shooting at the radio") and also the first serious armed street fights. This phase ended with a bloodbath. It happened on Thursday.

A good friend of mine was there, in front of Hotel Astoria, when the crowd occupying the pavement simply wouldn't budge. It held up a Russian tank column, forcing the commanding officer to stick his head out of his tank. "What do you want, why did you come here? Why don't you go home?"--they shouted at him in Hungarian and in Russian. The officer shouted back that he had come to free the city of fascist bandits. It wasn't hard for them to convince him that there were no fascists and no bandits there. There were students, there were workers, there were bureaucrats, and there were scientists there. The Hungarian revolution--contrary to popular opinion, and despite all of its anti-communist excesses--was not an anti-socialist revolution, and in its early days not even an anti-communist one. It would have based its envisioned order on public ownership and worker self-government. "Can't you hear that we are talking to you in Russian?" The officer defended himself desperately by saying that he had been duped then. Hearing this, the crowd started to celebrate the Russians, fastening Hungarian flags on the tanks, which the confused Russian soldiers, to show their peaceful intent, allowed it to do. At this moment, another Soviet tank column approached on Rákóczi Street, and when the crowd noticed that these too were decked out with Hungarian flags, a great cheer went up, "The revolution is won! Let's go to the Parliament!" On that Thursday the news that the Russians were with us, that they crossed over, did in fact spread like wildfire.



The next day, on Friday in the early afternoon hours, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, along with President Eisenhower's disarmament adviser, Harold Stassen, assessed the situation in Hungary. Stassen proposed that following the Austrian example, the satellite countries, too, should be made neutral. We hasten to add here that in these days the Hungarians fervently hoped to be treated by the Great Powers in the way the Austrians had been treated. Stassen advised the secretary of state to approach the matter through Marshall Tito or to use some other diplomatic channels; in one way or another, the Russians had to be told that the neutrality of the satellite countries was not unacceptable to the U.S. Dulles doubted that they had to go that far, and rejected Stassen's suggestion by saying he wouldn't have wanted to give the impression to the Hungarian insurgents that the State Department was negotiating behind their backs with the Russians. Judging by the testimony of contemporary documents, however, it seems as if the secretary of state had wished to do even less than the diplomatic minimum. When, an hour later, Eisenhower called him on the phone, he appears to have wrapped his intentions in rhetoric in saying to the president that it was very difficult to know how to handle the situation.

But Dulles did know, since the next day, on Saturday, in a speech in Dallas, he laid out very plainly what to do. He made it clear that in Eastern Europe one form of occupation had simply given way to another, and called the Soviet oppression imperialistic. He left no doubt about the sympathy felt by the U.S. toward those patriotic revolutionaries to whom freedom was dearer than their own lives. However, he also left no doubt about the limits of American responsibility. The U.S. didn't consider these nations, namely the Hungarians and the Poles, to be its potential military allies.

On Thursday of the following week, Imre Nagy, yielding to the dynamic forces of the revolution, made a solemn and desperate speech in which he announced Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and declared the country's neutrality, making his compatriots happy, but only for a few hours. Neither the happiness, nor the declaration, had any foundation in the reality of international politics. After all, the U.S. secretary of state had spoken rather clearly and acutely on the previous Saturday.

But on that Sunday morning when the Soviet army returned with its hastily reassembled tank divisions to Budapest, enveloped by this time in wintry fog, to show the world how to smash into pieces a great city which hadn't even had time to recover from the devastation of World War II, on that morning the Cold War project of sundering Europe in two was completed.



The Hungarian Revolution takes a place of honor in the history of European revolutions, in the series of increasingly refined riots, insurrections and mass movements which marked the attempt of the Continent's oppressed peoples to break out of the isolation created by the Yalta agreement and to return to constitutionality and self-determination. Its significance cannot be denied, yet in the past 50 years it has remained unclear where exactly this significance lies.

It put an end to the escalating phase of the Cold War, reduced the risk of an atomic war and compelled the opposing powers to consider the idea of peaceful coexistence as an acceptable minimum. This pressure, however, was not brought by the victory of the republic or democracy, but by their defeat. The Hungarian Revolution remains a memento, a negative experience which continues to be part of the European subconscious.



With some exaggeration, one could say that in October 1956 the peoples of Europe and North America, together with their legitimate governments, decided to put an end, once and for all, to the age of revolutionary change. And they were right to do so. To avoid another world war, the existing orders had to integrate, in some way or another, the social and political dissatisfaction of the age; this became the supreme commandment of the day. Expressing deep regrets, with bleeding heart and being fully conscious of their responsibility, they opted not to support the headless and 150-years-late Hungarian Revolution either by diplomatic means, or by sending volunteers or weapons.

I say this without any pathetic overtones or sadness: My life has passed in the context of this double bloodletting. Since those days, I have hated despotism. But I also find it difficult to turn my head silently at the sight of the weaknesses, cheap little farces, self-endangering prejudices and overall vulnerability of the republic and democracy.

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