Posted by: cousindampier | 10 October 2016

A Day In Communist Budapest

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I stood at the head of a hundred faces, the wave of sunshine making it difficult to see. Some marching music played behind me, but the weight of the wave drowned it out and muffled it. As the music receded, the deadened faces stared back at me, bronzed and determined.

I focused on the music, even as the sun stared me down. It was a lifeboat, a cord to ground me to this place. Without it, I may as well have been on the moon or Mars or in the apocalypse. That same sun brought a heavy haze, distorting any length of vision. The red brick wall blended in with the yellow sky, as if the sun was simply a drop of paint and a brush came along to sweep the yellow across the page.

The faces looked far into the horizon with a sense of purpose. The horizon they looked to was not the rising sun – the era the remembered was long into the darkness. A fallen hero here and an idol there, members and moments of Communist rule in Hungary, all captured and locked up in a flat space of ground surrounded by one story houses and small warehouses outside of Budapest.

In the early 1990’s Hungary found itself facing a question of history. The Soviet Republic had worked hard to re-create Hungarian history, and with its fall left history etched in bronze and marble. Those memorials had to go somewhere. Now they stood behind large walls on a deserted field outside of Budapest, as if the new Hungary had simply wanted them to disappear.

**

As I entered through a small brick passageway, to my left power lines stretched towards the end of the sky, towers connected by silver rope. On my right stood a different tower of sorts, an enormous Y-shaped concrete funnel-except some sort of structure was built in the funnel part, a gray dome and though I stared at it from many angles I could not determine what it was. I decided on water tower, but it easily may have been an antenna, air-traffic control tower, anything out of a James Bond movie and as I moved the gravel crunched underneath my feet and I’d hear the occasional chirp and bark and growl of an engine, but there was nobody else, only me and the faces and the sun.

I’d reached the end of the earth.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that before the Cold War ended, there was no end in sight. There was no capture of territory or sacking of capital which would bring the conflict to a close. In the mid-80’s some voices could be heard predicting the collapse of the USSR, but the rapidity with which the bottom fell out surprised nearly everyone. It was an endurance affair with no end until suddenly there was.

It is also somewhat difficult to remember that the Soviet Union only existed for a short period of time, given how much of the 20th Century revolves around the USSR. With the end of the civil war in 1922, the USSR came into being; by the end of 1991, it was over. As a superpower, the time is even shorter – the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949. A person born in 1941 likely remembers both the rise and collapse of Soviet superpower.

However brief, that period was intense.. The Soviet Union worked with rapidity and purpose to create history anew. “All post-communist societies are uprooted ones because Communism uprooted traditions, so nothing fits with anything else,” the philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici told Robert Kaplan. The socialist governments of Eastern Europe attempted to overwrite the history of their nation-states, emphasizing different figures and movements. These manifested themselves in monuments, statues, and places of memory – all key in creating a new historical narrative. Memorials are cultural icons, created and displayed publicly to convey a sense of meaning and purpose, a place for all to gather and share in some emotion. They are, largely, generalist, conveying a sense of theme instead of the specifics of the event – details are often messy.

Put enough of them in one place, however, and a historical textbook begins to appear.

**

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Getting there was a process.

After taking the subway out to a bus depot, we spent some time on a busy road headed south. I sat on a bus staring out the window on a warm November day. The driver was speeding away from the Buda side of the city, the Danube somewhere off to our left. Memento Park was the only stop in English on the route.

As the bus sped away with a goodbye of dust, I found myself in the middle of a lonely stretch of road. Some tall wooden walls guarded a building supply storage area, painted solid colours with the occasional two panel gap for an entryway. I could pick out some peaked roofs and what looked like a few blocks of houses in the near distance, and the sound of the highway was not far off.

An elderly man with a cane got out the front door as I hopped out the back. I watched him for a second because I did not know where to go – how could I have not looked up where to walk, dammit – but a tall brick wall stood out above the low-level structures, a brick wall with an open arch for an enormous statue.

I headed that way, passing the old man.

The statue came into form as I stood at a crosswalk waiting for traffic to part. That proud face, with the unmistakable goatee. One arm held back a jacket, revealing a tight-fitting vest while the other beckoned me to come and listen. Vladimir Lenin towered over me. I was so tiny underneath him I felt I was entering an ancient temple underneath the gaze of a god carved out of brick and stone, protecting the history inside. There was no sign or announcement that I’d arrived, just an open entryway leading to a white building, marching music drifting out.

A glass window appeared as I stepped through the entryway, the kind from a movie box office with the small hole at the bottom to exchange money. Images were taped to the glass and some small mementos laid neatly behind it. A lady stood there, unsmiling as I approached and pointed to the sign. 1500 florents to enter.

I handed over the money.

She gave me a ticket.

“Guidebook?” I asked.

She pointed to a little book next to her. “one thousand five hundred.”

“Ah. Kusunum.” Thank you was one of the few Hungarian words I knew. I smiled at her and she stared back at me with the same apathetic look as before. I walked around the corner and into the park and found myself on a wide path between the brick entryway and the white wooden complex I’d seen through the door.

I didn’t see anybody else in the park. A river of cars flowed by in the distance. I hadn’t bought the guidebook, and didn’t know where to start, so I went right, where a bronzed man proudly held a flag, a gun strapped tightly to his chest, memorializing the liberation of Hungary by the Red Army. The soldier was immense and looked proud and it was difficult to determine if the solider brought with him freedom or slavery. The memorial said liberation; he looked like a conquering hero.

Hungary is a nation which has always been strong enough to maintain a vibrant and unique culture, but not always strong enough to be independent. It was absorbed by the Hapsburg Empire in the 17th Century, after control of the land was wrestled from the Ottoman Turks. The Revolutions of 1848 began process which forced upon the Hapsburgs the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until the end of the First World War.

The years between the wars were chaotic at first. Hungary elected Count Mihály Károlyi to lead the new state. A devotee of the west, he demobilized the military and accepted temporary borders, believing the final map to be drawn at a later date. Everyone else invaded. French, Serb, Czechoslovakian and Romanian troops all occupied Hungarian territory; as all inched further and further into Hungary, Károlyi lost support, eventually handing control to, he thought, the Social Democrats.

The force behind the Social Democrats was the Hungarian Communist Party, and their leader, Bela Kun, was installed as leader and the new Hungarian Soviet Republic was born in the Spring of 1919.

It was short lived.

Romania continued to push deeper into Hungary, eventually occupying roughly a third of the modern state. Kun asked for an armistice, the Romanians temporarily agreed. Despite intervention from the Entente Powers, Romania refused to move back to the pre-war border until Hungary demobilized, and Hungary refused to demobilize until Romania moved back.

The two nations came to blows again, and the might of Romania won out; advancing to Budapest and controlling nearly all of modern Hungary, Romania forced Kun from power (he fled to Austria and eventually the Soviet Union). The former Austro-Hungarian Admiral Miklós Horthy was installed as regent and ruled until 1944 – when once again Hungarians would lose control over their nation. First occupied by Nazi Germany, the Red Army lay seige to the city, and by 1945 would liberate the nation. Hungary would be a Soviet satellite state until the end of the USSR.

* *

Next to the soldier stood a monument to Soviet-Hungarian friendship, the first of many such memorials in the park. Every decade or so, the Soviet powers seemed to deem it necessary to remind Hungarians of the friendship between Moscow and Budapest and the whole process brought to mind the apocryphal story of the triumphant Roman General and the slave who would follow him through the streets, whispering in his ear, “You too are mortal.” The Soviets brought liberation and proclaimed freedom and all the while their monuments came with a whisper, tangible mementos reminding people of power and control.

Faces began to appear. Dmitriov, leader of communist Bulgaria and advocate of a trans-Balkan Slavic state. Kun, Landler, and Szamuely shared a memorial together, three of the leaders of the initial Hungarian Soviet Republic etched in stone and jutting out of a brick wall as if they were part of the wall, the inward face of the communist state, guarding against what lie outside. János Asztalo, member of the Communist party in 1956, killed while defending party headquarters. His nose is missing, with no mention if it was purposeful or just the result of age.

It is the forgotten history of Hungary, a park of statues which tried to Hungarians forget their own past and create one anew.

* *

I discovered later the first ring of the park focused on liberation movements. It spanned the whole run of Communist Hungary. The statue memorializing Hungarian “liberation.” Bela Kun and the initial steps towards a communist state after the First World War. Janos, and the revolution of 1956.

The Revolution of 1956 did not just alter Hungarian history. It fundamentally altered the way in which the Soviet Union administered its empire. What began as a peaceful protest turned violent after shots were fired outside the Parliament building, the first real threat to Soviet control of Eastern Europe since Nazi Germany. The Soviets were not prepared – the Stalinist regime in Hungary collapsed, and Hungry declared its intentions to leave the Warsaw Pact only to have Soviet troops invade, crush the uprising, and install a puppet regime, silencing dissent until the 1980’s.

The blockade of Berlin changed the Cold War in that it clearly marked a smoldering conflict. It was a move by the Soviets to force the West out of Berlin, and possibly out of Germany. The detonation of an atomic bomb increased the tension, and led to Mutually Assured Destruction. The Hungarian Revolution, seven years later, marked a different theme – the willingness of the Soviet Union to crush any uprising within its newly-formed empire. Like the Prague uprising of the next decade, the Soviets reacted to revolutions within satellite states as if they were revolutions within the homeland.

In the west, they may well have been. No matter the emotional pull of the November Uprising – Time awarded its ‘Man of the Year’ to the Hungarian Freedom Fighter in 1956 – the west did not attempt to push back. President Dwight Eisenhower, an advocate of pushing back Soviet advances, declined to intervene, fearing a third World War with nuclear weapons. After 1956, the Soviets had free reign in Eastern Europe. Containment won out over interference.

* *

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I kept moving through the statues. The glorification of the Soviet Union ended as I moved into the second loop, focusing on workers movements. Monuments to Hungarian communists began to appear. The Red Army may have liberated the nation, but the memorials they installed were local, focused on the homegrown Hungarian movement. A mass of silver people appeared on the left, layers of men, the front row marching while the back rows seem to break rank and give a sense of charging forward. Over the top stands a man in a thick coat, arm straight out to one side with a cap in his hand, pointing the way for the mass of revolutionaries below.

Bela Kun appears again and again to stands watch, though for many years he did not.

The First World War changed everything within Europe. “It had been World War I that legitimized armed conflict in a way no other war had or could,” writes Robert Kaplan, “the emblematic and meaningless sum total of all the wars that Europe had fought in its thoroughly violent and therefore discredited past.” The war did not end all wars, but it brought an end to the sense of order within Europe. War no longer renegotiated the balance of power – it had become total.

The end brought with it the last gasp of air from Central Europe. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw Central Europe emerge, briefly, as a series of nation-states. Kun was part of this, the brief leader of Communist Hungary. By the early thirties, with depression spreading worldwide and the early murmurings of Nazi Germany, Central Europe would begin its slide into history.

Bela Kun bridged one era to another. Communist Hungary existed for a blink before he fled. When the Soviets returned, Kun was not with them, having been caught up in Stalin’s purges in 1938.

* *

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I reached a monument of three bodies which, at first glance, had no faces. The individuals stood tall and broad-chested, hands saluting someone in the distance. This was a recurring theme – staring off into the horizon, looking towards the future or, at the least, towards some other, far-away meaning. After seeing so many with this theme, I started I felt small and like I was not part of the movement, which was probably the point.

As I moved closer, features appeared in the faces of the three soldiers. The monument was to the communist brigades which fought in the Spanish Civil War. They looked beaten and smoothed by weather, but it may have been a purposeful move. Other monuments also contained unrecognizable faces, I presumed to subvert individuality to the collective whole.

This last ring focused on the people’s movements themselves, not just the individuals leading them. A bronzed man held his jacket in his hand as if a flag, frozen in time as he rushed forward towards some life-defining event. He was a celebration of the first version of Communist Hungary by its alternative name – the Hungarian Republic of Councils.

When Kun and the Social Democrats took control of Hungary in 1919, the Communists had the only organized fighting force in the state. Károlyi’s demobilization left Hungary without means to fight. The Social Democrats – who merged with the Hungarian Communist Party – were not only the most popular political group in the state at the time, Kun also promised the help of the newly formed Red Army.

No help was forthcoming.

Given the circumstances of Kun’s death, the sheer number of images dedicated to him was impressive. His presence trailed me around the park, part of every ring of memory. The first ring contained a monument of three blocks of stone, each with an individual carved out. The two outside faces stared towards the middle; and the man there stared straight ahead, jacket neatly buttoned and hair swept back. Bela Kun seemed to have a strong jaw, and even in the stone his face seemed weathered. His hands rested at his sides and proved his most ominous feature, his left clenched into a fist and his right open, as if ready to extend friendship. Tibor Szamuely and Jenő Landler, two other individuals instrumental in the creation of that first communist state, simply looked to Kun for guidance.

Further down was a solid concrete block with a single star in the middle. The concrete was chipped away exposing steel rods which helped articulate individuals, soldiers – though again, never enough to define features. It was a celebration of the Volunteer Regiment of Buda, Hungarian soldiers who fought with the Red Army to free Hungary from the Germans.

I lingered in this section for longer than the rest. Here was the epochal history of modern Hungary, a focus on the historical forces which swept through the nation. The stone and bronze testified to the youthful rise and the angry fall. The reminders of Soviet-Hungarian friendship seemed to get harsher and larger, harder to miss. In a corner of this third ring a man falls forward with one hand in the air and the other over his heart. In ways it was the same man as earlier, the youthful man who led the way with his jacket in his hand. There, he was fighting for a communist state. Here, he was protecting it, fighting against the 1956 uprising, protecting the people’s republic.

This last ring was a testament to the forces which went into that state. In 1989, Hungary removed the fence along the border with Austria, which resulted in a flood of movement across the border into the west. Later in the year, the Communist party re-branded itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party and by 1990, Hungary was holding free elections.

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**

As the 1980’s dragged on, there was a growing sense of Austrians being better off. While partially due to an economic downturn which lasted most of the decade (and inevitably helped push the country towards the end of communism), it was also true. By the 1980’s, the west was pulling economically ahead of Eastern Europe.

But it also once again brought a theme of division. Hungary – or perhaps the Hungarians – had always existed near the schism between Western and Eastern Europe. Imperial Roman territory stretched to the Danube, which splits the nation in half, and Rome’s primary settlement formed the basis of Budapest. From the collapse of that empire until the early 1700’s, Hungary remained a crossroad, conquered by Huns, Germanic tribes, Mongols, and Turks. Along the way, the nation realized a series of homegrown regents and became one of the most wealthy nations in Europe. For a few years the Hungarians found themselves with a King who was simultaneously the head of the Holy Roman Empire; nearly a century later, Budapest would be under threat from the Ottomon Turks, eventually conquered by them and only freed in 1718.

On the Hungarian Plain, two historical rivers met and swirled together.

The regency ended after the First World War, but the crown remained emblematic of Hungary. Patrick Leigh Fermor described it as the defining symbol of this congruence: “Wrought in battered gold, with its culminating cross askew, it was the actual diadem Pope Sylvester II sent to St. Stephen when he was crowned first King of Hungary in AD 1000. But the later addition of enamel plaques, gold chains, and pendant gems give it an unquestionably Byzantine look, fitter for a mosaic sovereign by the Bospherous or at Ravenna, one would think, than for a canopied monarch of the west. No wonder: the gold-and-enamelled circlet was a gift of a Byzantine emporer to a later sovereign, who promptly had it clasped round the Pope’s original gift to his ancestor, and the gleaming hybrid is an apt symbol of the early Hungarian kingdom, for blandishments from the East as well as the West had flickered over the great Hungarian Plain with the ambivalence of a mirage.”

As I stood in the park, the borders to the east were closed. Movement into Croatia or the rest of the Balkans was impossible except by air. Refugees from the Middle East triggered a conservative response within Hungarian government. The nation, meanwhile, continued to move towards the west. Though an ancient city, dating from Roman times, the people and culture were young, bars and coffeeshops marking the map of the city. Students were everywhere and English was common.

Memorials can be removed, but art and architecture and design cannot. Though Budapest may look western and be moving in that direction, the city held too many memories of the communist years. New memories had been added – walk along the river and one will find bronzed shoes, a remembrance of Jews ordered to take off their footwear before being shot along the riverbank.

The city was alive and vibrant, built upon layers of history difficult to untangle while facing another moment adding to that layer of history.

**

In an essay on Orwell and censorship, Christopher Hitchens writes that in Orwell’s own experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he found “that the Communists relied very heavily upon the horror and the terror of anonymous denunciation, secret informing, and police espionage.” While it is easy to remember the Soviet Union and communism as a police state – in addition to oppression, the statues surely reminded Hungarians of their own mortality if they were to speak out, especially post-1956 – in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, there were doubts as to the oppression of the Soviet Union. Communists had, after all, been the ideological force fighting Nazi Germany during the 1930’s, when the West was struggling.

The memorials stored in Memento Park were an attempt to re-write history. Here was the physical evidence of what Communist Hungary wanted to remember. Hindsight calls communism what it was – totalitarian – but at one point, it was a possible version of the future. Like all eras, communism had its end, yet Memento Park brings the reality of living in it one step closer. For the man with his jacket in the air, running towards history and the liberating solider gripping his gun may now be historical symbols in the open air of a far-away park; but at one time these were the icons Hungarians passed on their way to work.

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