Hungary is one part old world glamour and one part soviet concrete. The decadent opulence of the Austria-Hungarian Empire glimmers through the cracks and peeling paint like the smile of an octogenarian, revealing just a hint of the youth that once graced it entirely.
But the age does not wear well, in part because Hungary was one of those nations that fell behind the iron curtain. It sat in the communist clutches of the USSR for an agonising forty years.
Before World War II, the Hungarians’ had been staunchly anti-communist, so it didn’t take long before this resentment bubbled over. In 1956, they tried overthrowing the Soviets and their sympathisers. This was quickly crushed and led to the massacre of Kossuth outside the Parliament buildings, where hundreds of people where shot dead by Russia forces.
The West did nothing. Constricted by policy and over stretched in other directions; theirs was to maintain peace – even if it was decidedly chilly – even if the Hungarians suffered for it.
The Memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising
But ‘peaceful’ wasn’t exactly how the Hungarians’ would describe their new lives. The pressures of Moscow meant their existence was unacceptably cruel. Anyone speaking out again the regime was taken to the gulags after a show-trial; the street signs were changed from Hungarian to Russian; listening to Western music could lead to arrest. The USSR were in the business of obliterating what made the region different and independent. The Church was swept aside and replaced with the alter of Communism – the Cardinal was imprisoned.
According to the Hungarian National Museum, though, Hungary was “the most cheerful hut in the Socialist camp”. It did not say why, but perhaps it was in part due to the failed revolution, and the leaders’ slight relaxation of the rules. Although, that it not to say they were any less oppressed.
The Hungarian National museum was old world and our feet tapped upon the marble of the grand staircase with an intrusive and spidery song. There was a strange variety of things on show, from Mozart’s piano to the paraphernalia of the Masons’ (including the Grand Wizard’s sword). The museum charted Budapest from it’s medieval beginnings to the present day. And I was particularly impressed with a communist portrait of some hard boiled leader created entirely in beans – even the frame.
Some say that communism worked well for the poor of Eastern Europe, and if you look at life expectancy alone, it does. Hungarians decreased the life expectancy gap between itself and Western Europe. The poorerest countries in the alliance, such as Bulgaria, made larger leaps. Which is quite astonishing if you think about it – but easy to achieve when you have a nationalised vaccination programme. Growth under the USSR (according to more modern analysis) was considered comparable to its Western counterparts, but from around 1970 onwards the decline started; by the 1980’s the economic situation was painful with 61% of Hungarians saying that their circumstances were “hopeless” or “continually worsening” and by the 1980’s – it was all but dead.
The ‘House of Terror’ or Andrássy út 60, as is its postal address, was the former headquarters of the AVH (Arrow Cross Party). It tells the story of the horrors inflicted by fascism and communism: its relationship with Germany and Russia and in that order.
It is a striking building; the word terror, cut out from an overhanging steel ledge around the roof. I could just imagine, back in the day, the locals crossing the street to avoid such a place; starting at it horror; hearing that their loved ones had been taken to number 60 Andrassy street and weeping. Now, people queued for hours to enter. We had clocked the snaking queue the previous day and planned to turn up early, even so, we still had to wait around 30min.
In the covered courtyard, at the centre of the building was a T-54 tank, sitting in a bed of oil, which slowly dripped into the basement below. It’s within this basement, where the AVH brought political prisoners and locked them in small tortuous cells. They hung those that were deemed too dangerous. The lift down to this floor was slow; someone whispered in the gloom that it represented the time it took to die from strangulation.
Hungary achieved independence in 1989 and the fall of the Union occurred in 1991. The first ‘free’ elections were held in May 1990 and today Budapest is thriving.
We learnt a lot from the 20th century about freedom of speech and governance, and this railing call has permeated the 21st century; although in ways that are now twisted and deformed. Freedom of speech nowadays is about the freedom to hurt and wound and be cruel. We should never forget what freedom actually means.
One morning we took the metro; a delightful turn-of-the-century box car a mere two metres below the road; the tram, with its enormous steps; and finally a bus (quite normal) to the most Soviet place I’d ever seen – the chairlift to the Buda Hills. Built in 1970, it is almost entirely unchanged (with the exception of the electronic ticket machine). We were met by a concrete exterior, general air of grunge, and a faded, but still bright, propaganda style sign.
I’ve never been on a chair life before, but it was good fun and I could have easily just have sat and ridden the thing around and around all day. I couldn’t help but feel, if my daily commute was a chairlift, I’d cope much better with the stresses of life. The 15min journey up Janos Hill costs about £4 return. Although, to be fair, I kept loosing track of what a forint was worth and hoping for the best. I supposed the chairlift was created as part of a gloriously socialist dream. Investing in communal leisure activities for the enjoyment of the people. And Socialism is actually a pretty good idea – corruption isn’t – but at least for a little while, high above the city, we didn’t let such thoughts trouble us.