I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?
1956 And All That
Communism in Hungary of course hadn’t been always as benign as in my childhood. There was a period of Stalinism the country had been forced to suffer directly in the aftermath of World War II and the brutal suppression of 1956 revolution. But all that was well before my time and I only know about it from family members and films made about it later – when I was growing up the regime mostly tried to pretend 1956 didn’t really happen. No surprise there for whatever the official take was, the regime knew itself to be guilty as hell. By the time I was growing up, however, things had eased up a lot, and so we had goulash communism (for those of you who don’t know goulash is a sort of a signature dish of Hungary): a very mild sort of dictatorship that tried to ensure its survival by bribing, in effect, the population with various ‘treats’ unknown in other countries under Soviet army boots.Embed from Getty Images
Admittedly, in goulash communism you still had to join the communist party – and many did – if you wanted to get on in life. And yes, people had their passports withdrawn for injudicious comments in front of a false friend. You were also likely to be manhandled or beaten by police if you turned out to celebrate 15 March, the no-longer national day (we’d been given the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution of the Russians for a holiday instead) and small wonder – because there was the unfortunate matter of the demands of the original 15 March in 1848 (at the time addressed to the Austrians) which, when quoted verbatim as of course they were, did rather embarrass the communist regime and its Russian masters:
What does the Hungarian nation want?…
We want the freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship…
We want that foreign troops be removed from Hungary…
We want political prisoners to be set free…
Well, you can imagine. Every blessed 15 March.
Having said that, the closest I ever came to being beaten by riot police was in Paris, when – a clueless teenage tourist – I allowed myself to be ‘kettled’ (not an expression I was familiar with then) while crossing a busy square. It turned out to be not a busy square but a demonstration for the liberation of Nelson Mandela. So I marched along shouting “ANC! Solidarité!” – the rest I couldn’t understand – but when it was all over, I felt it was time to resume my career as a tourist and cross the Seine. The riot police on the other hand thought that I should not want to cross the Seine. Owing to lack of a mutual language this disagreement on how we should proceed eventually resulted in a couple of them charging me with their batons. Being a coward, I ran away (and crossed the Seine somewhere else). I was a bit surprised to find the free world wasn’t quite as free as I had imagined.
Back behind the Iron Curtain, we constantly cracked jokes at the expense of the regime and its ideology, and most of us did, in fact, got away with it. There was the one that started with a classic communist quote, for example:
“Capitalism is rushing headlong towards the precipice.”
“To take a look at us in the bottom.”
Ordinary subversion took many forms, not just telling jokes against the regime. We were all, for example, taught Russian in school. Somehow we all failed to learn it. I spent ten years learning Russian, and I can’t actually ask for a glass of water. Despite of that, I walked away with the top grade in the final exam. I know nobody (apart from my father who studied in Russia for a year) who can actually speak Russian – and neither do I know anyone who failed the exam. Strangely, none of us suffered from linguistic inability when it came to learning German, English, French or Spanish!
But I saw the finest example of subversion imaginable while I was at university: we had to study Rhetorics as a foundation subject in the first year. Whoever prescribed it must have imagined that along with Political economics (another of the foundation subjects), it would help in our communist indoctrination. The lecturer had other ideas: he spent half a year taking apart Mark Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He never once openly referred to communist propaganda but nevertheless he gave a masterclass in how to see through it. It was, without doubt, the most useful class I’ve ever taken in my life: being able to recognise when a politician is trying to manipulate you is a skill all young people should be taught.
The Happiest Barrack
We travelled abroad, including to the ‘decadent’ west (as my experience in Paris described above proves it), coming back with consumer goods unavailable at home. Small scale smuggling was common of course. There were little privately owned shops and workshops all over the country, and peasants owned small plots of land although not being allowed to employ other people obviously limited the development of any enterprise. We even had our little – okay, not so little, it’s the largest lake in Central Europe – capitalist paradise: Lake Balaton, which in addition to being the place where the party functionaries had their nice private villas and where we all went to summer camps (singing lustily about Comandante Che Guevara around the campfire) turned into a German lake every summer where the East German family members met their West German family members. It was Zimmer frei (room to let) on every house, palacsinta (pancake) was suddenly spelt Palatschinke, and there was an amazing number of blond people burnt red like a lobster. Prices, needless to say, were thoughtfully adjusted by the local populace to West German wallets, making the whole lake by and large far too expensive to ordinary Hungarians who instead took over the Black Sea resorts in Romania and Bulgaria.
Society was – supposedly – classless. It was so classless that I went to a middle-class grammar school where for the first time in my life I came across people, classmates and teachers alike, who expressed their opinion on communism, the Russians and 1956 freely and with gusto. I learned an awful lot in that school and not just about classical Greek literature or how to set a middle-class dining table. (Our class tutor was fully aware that a small proportion of her students was in fact not middle-class and consequently had never seen a properly set dining table. One day she brought in her china from home and set the teacher’s desk with three plates, a set of cutlery including a dessert fork, plus a wine glass and a napkin. It was the first time I saw a table set like that.) But the most important thing they taught me was that I had a brain and should use it, rather than rely on other people thinking for me.
“Hungary is not red,” the communists used to assert with certain pride: “Hungary is pink.” The official slogan of the regime was, “if you’re not against us, you’re with us” a bit of a turn-around from the Stalinist era when, if you were not with the regime, you were considered to be against it… and were treated accordingly. Ultimately – and 1956 probably had something to do with this – a large number of Hungarian communists in the 70s and 80s were Hungarians first, and communists only second. We even practised fake democracy: every four years the population dutifully turned out to vote, choosing between communist candidates and the obligatory non-communist candidate – who had been approved by the communists.
To us coke was merely something we mixed with red wine and not a forbidden capitalist drink, the symbol of imperialism like, say, in Bulgaria. A pair of jeans was just a fashion item, not a political statement. Stasi was something that only happened to the East-Germans. And electricity only went out every now and then, to be repaired in a couple of hours, rather than being switched off at ten o’clock every night like, say, in Romania. We watched Star Wars and Jaws, albeit with a few years’ delay, and listened to ELO or the Queen, or Police or name your band… Kajagoogoo if you had absolutely no taste. 🙂
All the regime asked in exchange that you didn’t rock the boat.
You could still get in trouble, however, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. My mother, for example, spent hours at the police station, trying to explain how she did not know that her sister-in-law would emigrate (illegally) to Australia. One of my aunts one day had gone on a day trip to Vienna, and declined to come back. The government took a dim view of this and my mother was harassed for months, quizzed about her sister-in-law. My father, who was in Russia at the time, was flown home to give an account of his sister’s doings and explain how was it that he failed to prevent her emigration… I think the only reason the case was eventually dropped without any consequences to my parents because luckily, my father was, in fact, in Russia at the time and could claim with perfect truthfulness that he hadn’t exchanged a word with his sister for at least a year – while my mother could hide behind the fact that it was, after all, his sister and not her own.
The country was full of Russian troops of course, but you hardly ever saw a Russian soldier in the street. On the rare occasions you did, he would hurry by along the wall, with gaze lowered, obviously instructed to keep a low profile; 1956 had been a long time ago – both for them and for us. In fact, one of the most surprising thing for us during the Yugoslavian war – after Hungary had joined NATO – was the way the US soldiers, passing through the country, behaved walking down the street in Budapest. They looked people in the face. They went into shops and bought things as if they were tourists. They smiled at people, for the love of god! Needless to say, they turned heads.