THERE WAS an iconic moment in twentieth century history. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Here’s Radio Rákóczi. “This is Hungary calling. This is Hungary calling. The last remaining station. Call to the United Nations. Early this morning Soviet troops launched a general attack on Hungary. We are requesting you to send us immediate aid.” But the aid never came. Nothing came. The West was busy with the Suez Crisis, and Khruschev was free to send in his tanks and brutally suppress the revolt against Moscow. After that there were no more revolutions, and Hungary remained a satellite communist state – until 1989.
I was barely a month old, when the Uprising happened in November 1956. My friend István was seven. He lived with his parents in Miskolc, in the North East of the country. So, whilst my parents heard the desperate radio broadcasts from Hungary in the safety of a small English town – István’s parents heard them pouring out of a sturdy transistor, in a kind of Hungarian hell: his mother holding him tightly against the thickest wall of the flat, beside the window, as the shootings and the lynchings began. He still has that radio (you can see its picture here) – a solid relic of revolution, which sits, mutely now, on a small table in his Budapest flat. Lest he forget.
I first went to Hungary in 1988. (See Walking Back Home1). My Hungarian editor and friend Ria – Marike – had moved back from London to her home country, to work as a dramaturg in the South East of Hungary, at the brilliant Csiky Gergely Theatre in Kaposvár. A kind of mini defection-in-reverse. She was very cool. She invited me over, in the dead of winter, January 1988. The snow was thick on the ground. Icicles hung from the trees. The country was foggy, moody, hidden from view. Everything was deeply intriguing, from the incomprehensible language, to the tribal pride, the poetry and music, and carefully preserved customs, food, folklore. I loved it instantly, and went back several times, throughout 1988 and 1989. I worked as a movement coach in two theatres, but mainly was just hanging out with the actors, breathing in a very different air.
It wasn’t so easy, going back and forth. Visas had to be queued for. Reports to the police – as a foreign alien – were regularly required. But I always felt protected and safe. I had the arrogance of youth – and possessed the undoubted talisman of power and freedom: a British passport.
István became one of my closest friends, and still is. We never spoke of 1956, until a couple of years ago, when I asked him all about his youth, and mentioned the Uprising, and the unforgettable SOS broadcasts to the West – heard but never answered. It was then that he pointed to his parents’ old radio, an artefact I’d never noticed till that moment, but a permanent fixture, on a little side table next to his telephone. “We heard them too,” he said, “on that radio.”
In a calm, dispassionate voice, he spoke of his seven year old’s memories, then: of Miskolc in revolution; of men running in the street; of a man climbing to the top of a tall building to topple a Red Star, the people below him clenching their fists in support and shouting, shouting, shouting.
This was before the tanks arrived, pouring across the border from the Ukraine. And then the killing began. “I remember a huge hole in a building in the the main street – a tank went right through it…I remember people hanging from lamp posts… We heard machine guns, there was shooting, and we saw people running along the bank of the River Szinva. The little river in Miskolc was important for the town’s iron works, and the river always ran red.” Never more so than in that distant November.
It was all, said István, “strange and exciting” to the barely comprehending mind of a seven year old boy. His words made my blood run cold. How different our lives were, like two people from distant planets – now so close, such friends. And some old memory stirred in me, too. My father used to talk, when I was a child, about colleagues of his, at the college where he taught: idealistic left wingers, full of the zeal of revolution – tucked inside the safety of our sleepy, leafy Essex suburban town. One of his friends, a glamorous, charismatic figure, was a Communist Party member. “But he came out in 1956”, my father told me. “He couldn’t stomach what happened then”. A revolution betrayed.
The Hungarian politician in charge during the ill-fated Uprising, was a mild-mannered reforming communist called Imre Nagy, who looked more like a bank clerk than a party leader. He was there by popular demand. But the changes he wanted to implicate were too liberal for Moscow, and he was removed, put on show trial, and later summarily executed and thrown in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Budapest.
In June 1989 – just as a new kind of revolution was dawning in Hungary, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only months away – there was a huge ceremonial “re-burying” with honours of Imre Nagy, in Budapest’s enormous Heroes Square. Thousands upon thousands of Hungarians gathered to celebrate a new beginning, with a massive sense of sorrow, of hope, and of collective celebration. I was there too, wandering in and out of scenes so vivid and emotional, it was impossible to grasp the enormity of what was happening: but I was happy to be a witness to it, all the same.
“Freedom” has proved a poison chalice for Hungary in many ways, over the past 25 years. The government now is openly right wing. There is a powerful far-right Jobbik faction too, that disseminates a stream of anti-semitic, anti-gay, anti-intelligentsia invective. As in the rest of Europe, the liberal voice is being shushed. We simply have to wait for it to get louder and freer again, to trust that it will.
As for me, the resonance of Hungary, this tiny,tiny country, continues to sound, deep in my heart. Maybe it’s because I was born in 1956 – because I remember fragments of things my father told me, of a politics I could hardly decipher, but which somehow struck a chord… Or maybe it’s just that I have always felt at home in that foreign place, loved by the people I meet there, defended by their intelligence, their warmth, and their deep ability to survive. And there it stands still: that old, squat radio on István’s table – silent witness to so much that has gone before. To everything.
There is a wonderful, though harrowing museum, which documents much of the troubled twentieth century history of Hungary on Andrássy Út, Budapest: http://www.terrorhaza.hu