Stepping back in the past: a communist tour of Budapest.

The communism walking tour I went on in Budapest was more of a storytelling, rather than a sightseeing tour. It was given by two guides in their early 40’s, old enough to have lived in communist Hungary, albeit in their teenage years only. They did a great job at presenting the inconveniences of living under the system, the advantages, and the realities of daily life. I certainly realized, visiting North Korea, that even in regimes of which we only hear about horrors, strangeness and oppression, most of the time, most of the people are going about normal daily routines in a very normal and boring way. Hungary was no different, I am sure.

But before going into the good and the bad, I must talk about the ugly. A key year in communist Hungary’s history is 1956. Before that, Hungarians lived under terrible oppression, with constant fear of arrest, arbitrary detention or deportation based on secret denunciations. The ideology of the regime was one of “if you are not with us, you are against us”.

I won’t write a history lesson, but in short, the level of oppression in communist Europe had been greatly reduced since the death of Stalin in 1953 and there was an attempted revolution in 1956 to establish an independent Hungary. The Soviet Union invaded the country, thousands were killed and the revolution was crushed. However, the end result was surprising. Instead of resulting in a harsher regime, like after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it produced a more liberal regime, known as “Goulash Communism”, and Hungary became known as “the happiest barrack in the socialist camp”! The new Government policy was: “if you are not against us, you are with us”, meaning that for the average folks who were not liberal intellectuals and the like, life under constant fear ceased. Perhaps, for example, identifying as a religious person would be bad for your career, but you wouldn’t end up in a Gulag with the rest of your family.

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The bullet holes downtown were never fixed and instead were transformed into a memorial to the deceased would-be revolutionaries, most killed not by the Soviets, but by the Hungarian KGB.

One of the guide, Agnes, talked of Hungary not as a democracy, but as a “post-communist” country, the idea being that you can change the laws, but you need two generations to change the mentalities. For example, she identified excessive bureaucracy and rampant corruption as two persisting legacies of communism.

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One thing which apparently declined after the fall of communism was entertainment. The socialist regime used to subsidize the arts heavily, live performances were available all over the country, and artistic productions of all kinds were broadcasted on TV. Today, the national broadcaster has moved out of its massive downtown location, into an inexpensive suburban building (apparently a Canadian company bought the building with the intent of transforming it into a luxury hotel). Local productions apparently revolve mostly around reality TV and stupid game shows, and very few live artistic performances are available outside Budapest. So people watch dumb TV all day, especially pensioners.

I think in all former communist countries, pensioners are the ones who got the worst deal. Today in Hungary old age pension is only $375 a month. Of course, none of them built their own equity, the concept simply not being part of the world they were raised and lived in.

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But even the young can feel nostalgia. Agnes showed us the “horrible itchy blue polyester scarves” they wore in some sort of youth league, between the ages of 7 to 11. The activities were not yet focused on indoctrination, but on teaching the kids to work together, something which has gone away for the most part with the fall of communism. The other guide, Aron, recalls his schoolmates staying an hour after school to help him with math, while he would do the same in return for language classes. Today, tutoring is available at all levels in Hungary, but none of it is for free.

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Between the ages of 12 and 15, you wore a red scarf and the tone was more political, but neither Agnes nor Aron attended. But they got ideological games, like this improbable communist version of Monopoly. It contains now funny lines like: “You have read all books by Lenin, move ahead 3 squares”!

Guaranteed employment is probably something a few are also nostalgic about, especially the unemployed. Back then, you would go to the employment office and they would place you somewhere, that’s it. Building tanks in the suburbs may not have been your lifelong dream, but at least it was a job. In fact, work was not only guaranteed, but mandatory. If you quit your job and failed to register at the employment office, you were considered a threat and labeled: “közveszélyes munkakerülő”, “person dangerously avoiding work”!

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Housing was also guaranteed, although you get what you pay for! Cheaply built apartments popped up all around the city centre, in what became known as “The Grey Belt” of social-realistic architecture. These apartments were meant for sleeping, not living. Socialist life kept people busy in collective activities, whether work-related, educational or recreational, for long hours a day. Furthermore, people didn’t eat much at home, preferring to eat in the cafeteria of their place of employment, where the heavily subsidized food was very cheap. Like in other post-communist countries, a lot of the units were sold to the former tenants after the revolution, and home ownership rates are very high. Unfortunately, many found them quite unaffordable as energy subsidies disappeared and they had to pay the real cost of heating the poorly insulated units.

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They also found it impossibly expensive to maintain the buildings. This structure is very typical of downtown Budapest; crumbling residential levels (complete with 1956 bullet holes), and renovated commercial ground floors.

Prices during communism tended to be absurdly low. For some things, it worked reasonably well, like the 1 Forint metro fare, which everyone could use (it now costs 350!). For others, it simply resulted in massive shortages, and having a good or a service depended more on accessibility than money. When Agnes was 3 years old, her parents ordered and fully pre-paid for a Trabant, a very popular but very basic East-German car made in good part from Duroplast, a composite plastic reinforced with recycled cotton fibres. It was delivered when she turned 13!

The same went for tourism. Peasants could vacation in various locations in the country for next to nothing. City dwellers might have access to more options within Eastern Europe, but the well connected could travel across the communist world. The price of an all inclusive, week-long trip to Vietnam, including airfare? $40! If you could get your name on the list…

Travel outside communist countries was another matter. First, you needed a blue passport (the normal red one was only for travel to other communist countries). Before 1956, it was impossible to get one, but then ownership rates went from around 10% of the population in the 60’s, to about a third before the revolution. An exit permit was also required and that could be more difficult to get, depending on how loyal you were assessed to be. As a rule, if you wanted to travel only with part of your family, it was reasonably easy. For example, a father travelling with his teenaged daughter would not arise suspicion if the wife stayed behind with a young boy, as it was assumed the father would return to be with the rest of his family.

Agnes had a chance to go to the West for the first time in 1979, in Austria. She saw bananas for the first time and did not understand how there could be fruits for sale in the middle of winter. Her family bought 10 kg of bananas to share with friends and family, but they were stopped at the border. The guards suspected them of wanting to engage in illegal commerce and said they had to eat them all or leave them behind. She never ate so many bananas since!

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St. Stephen’s Basilica. Unfortunately next to a horrible facade of socialist architecture.

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The funny thing is that it wasn’t always this way, the Government built a narrow extension to the neighbouring building to “socialize” the plaza!

Like many countries in Eastern Europe – Ukraine above all nowadays – Hungary maintains a complex relationship with Russia. On one side, they have close economic and historical ties, but on the other, Russia has somehow become the de facto “representation” of the Soviet Union. The Putin has been particularly keen on reviving some of the Soviet imagery (although not the economic system).

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This monument to the Soviet “liberators” is a good example of this dichotomy. Symbols of totalitarian regimes, like the swastika or the hammer and sickle are actually illegal in Hungary. Yet the later features pre-eminently on the monument. A few years ago, protesters broke off the bronze plaque and threw it in the Danube. Putin was apparently furious and the Hungarian Government negotiated a deal that would allow the monument to remain “for all times”.

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They never found the plaque, but they made a new one and today the monument remains as before, albeit the only fenced off monument in the city. It reminded me of the equivalent monument I saw in Sofia, defaced by very rude graffiti. Part of the battle may be political as well as historical. Due to the monument’s location, all employees of the adjacent US Embassy have to walk past the hammer and sickle on their way to work!

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In “retaliation”, Hungarians put a statue of Ronald Reagan next to the monument! The former US President is very popular in the country, although maybe not as much as George H.W. Bush, who made 2 visits as President in the days of the revolution.

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Agnes and the statue of Imre Nagy, the Hungarian politician who, despite being a marxist, pulled the country out of the Warsaw Pact in 1956. He was arrested by Soviet troops and hanged for treason. The highly symbolic statue stands on a bridge, going from oppression to freedom.

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It turns its back on the Soviet monument in the distance.

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And looks towards the Parliament, symbol of democracy.

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The Parliament building is the second largest in the world, after Ceaușescu’s monster Palace of Parliament in Bucharest.

Next, more contemporary stuff about Budapest.

#Hungary

4 thoughts on “Stepping back in the past: a communist tour of Budapest.

  1. Ha, Colin you could become addicted to communism walking tours – first Sofia (Bulgaria), then Bucharest (Romania), now Budapest (Hungary). Not to foget your trip to North Korea …. And we can expect more. Happy Easter.

    • You can expect more for sure; I’m going to the Soviet Union this morning… Transnistria! 😉 As a kid of the Cold War, it is fascinating for me to learn about the details of daily life in what used to be “the other side”. Happy Easter to you too.

  2. Thanks for the post. Soviet Block countries are so interesting and strange to Westerners “stand in line, you might need something”. I saw my (almost) daily post from Colin’s Notes and got my coffee for a good read.

    • Thank you so much! More to come, but I am a little behind right now because it is tax season in Canada and I have to file soon. Easier to do when I am in Canada instead of Ukraine! You can ditch the office job, but some realities are hard to escape 😉

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