22 August 2017

The Travels of the Hungarian Revolution

"The 1956 Revolution was a rare, an almost unique event, a spontaneous, leaderless revolution: small groups of fighters battling the mighty Red Army to a standstill in the streets of Budapest. As a story, apart from the lack of a happy ending, it could not be better. And because the Revolution died young, its perfect complexion was unmarred."

Let me start by formally offering my sympathy and esteem to the generation of writers who form the bulk of contributors to this volume. As a novelist whose greatest problem has been deciding exactly when to get out of bed in the morning, I have enormous admiration for those who experienced the Second World War, the Revolution of 1956 and then the straitened creative circumstances that followed, working in difficult conditions in a language difficult for outsiders to learn.

I suppose, as the semi-foreigner, it falls to me to talk a little bit about how 56 has been seen, remembered and interpreted outside of Hungary.

One of the consolations of ageing is that you get to see some extraordinary changes. I came to Hungary in 1986 to work on a documentary for the BBC about the thirtieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution.

Of course then, it was still officially known as a counter-revolution, or sometimes more gently as the “regrettable” October events. We interviewed a number of people here, among them János Berecz, in his office at the White House. He gave me a copy of his book Counter-Revolution in Hungary – Words and Weapons, which I still have, as I have rather perverse tastes. Berecz of course was seen as the much-fancied successor to János Kádár.

We interviewed Imre Mécs, on the quiet, about his time on death row, and we went to film in section 301 of the Kerepesi cemetery, where the revolutionaries executed by the vindictive Kádár regime had been unceremoniously buried. It was more like an overgrown field with a few homemade crosses and memorials to the dead. I believe we were the first to film there (although it is possible we were beaten by some Germans). At the time it was almost an overgrown field.

The BBC crew were impressed by Budapest. They expected something grey and dingy. They loved the city and were delighted by the restaurants and the goose liver.

It looked very much as if the Communist system could carry on for decades. The opposition amounted to, at most, a few dozen intellectuals. The Western press took the obligatory pictures of the chess players at the Széchenyi swimming pool and gave sympathetic, even glowing accounts of the reign of János Kádár, a dictator imposed on the country by Soviet tanks, and who executed hundreds of his fellow citizens.

I did not guess I would be back ten years later, to see Kádár and Berecz gone, so gone it was as if they had never been there. I did not expect to discover that the few intellectuals who had bothered to openly stand up to the Soviet empire, the samizdat gang, were in government with the remnants of the Communist party who had rebranded themselves as Socialists. That was not so surprising, on reflection, because, ironically, the “confrontational”’ opposition in the 1970s and early 80s had always come from the Far Left, not the Right.

In 1990, the MDF government of József Antall had been voted into power in the first free elections of the post-Communist period. The Antall government represented the centre right elements of society, many of whom had been imprisoned or oppressed by the Kádár regime, and it immediately made the 23rd of October, the day the Revolution started, a national holiday that year. So in Hungary, at least, the process of proper celebration of 1956 and investigation of its history had begun.

The 1956 Revolution was a rare, an almost unique event, a spontaneous, leaderless revolution: small groups of fighters battling the mighty Red Army to a standstill in the streets of Budapest. As a story, apart from the lack of a happy ending, it could not be better. And because the Revolution died young, its perfect complexion was unmarred. What Tamás Benedikty refers to in his extract Köztársaság Square as “the disease of rank” and other ailments had not taken hold.

That is the main reason I decided to write a novel about the Revolution, because it was a big story that had everything in it, not just because it was family history. To this day, I do not think the Revolution has had its full due in the outside world.

The story of the Revolution in the West, and everywhere else, has travelled mostly through written rather than visual sources. One of the curious things about the Revolution, for an event of its magnitude, is the lack of visual material. There is very little film and although there are many photographs, they generally date from the lull period, when the Western journalists had turned up, There is almost nothing of the actual fighting, and almost nothing about what happened after 4 November. There was also very little coverage of what happened outside of Budapest, something this anthology works very hard to remedy.

So the writers and intellectuals were the ones who had a major role in carrying the story out to the rest of the world and in maintaining its memory. And the writers and intellectuals were mostly Communists. Avowed Stalinists like Tamás Aczél and Tibor Méray, or Communists like Pál Lendvai, Péter Kende and Béla Király.

And even the Hungarian version of these events was coloured by these émigrés as it was their works that were published by the Hungarian publishing houses in the West. For a long time the best Hungarian bookshop in the world was in New York, the Püski-Corvin shop, that had all the books published in Budapest, and all the ones that were not.

We are here to celebrate writers tonight, many of whom paid a high price for their writing. This collection is a wonderful selection. I was familiar with many of the names, but I have made some new friends.

It is tricky judging how the Revolution is viewed outside of Hungary; in this question, like everything else, everyone has their opinion. However, in regards to 56, outside of Hungary, I would argue the influence of the Petőfi circle and other intellectuals has been somewhat overestimated.

In the West, certainly until recently, there is less a sense of the Pesti srácok. The young, often very young, usually working-class kids, who fought the tanks on the streets of Budapest, like the fourteen-year-old Muki, whose death Rózsa Ignácz recounts in this anthology.

And if one man triggered ‘56, it was Khrushchev, with his secret speech, just as Gorbachev was the key factor in the next revolution in 89.

While Imre Nagy and his associates stood up for the Revolution in the end, it was the students, and as always, the Poles, who started it and took to the streets.

If you look at the list of the dead, those who died fighting in 1956 or who were executed afterwards, few were members of the Writers’ Union.

One of the ironies about the Soviet Bloc is that many of the writers who are revered in the West at least, as noble spokesmen for liberty, were supporters, often very enthusiastic supporters of the Communist system, for a while at least. There is Sławomir Mrożek and Czesław Miłosz from Poland, Milan Kundera from Czechoslovakia, Ismaïl Kadaré from Albania, to name a few.

Csepel was probably the last area of Budapest to fall silent under the Soviet onslaught. It was Bill Lomax’s book that was one of the first to stress the role of workers, and the role of youth in the fighting, along with the memoirs later on of Gergely Pongrátz, the commander of the Corvin alley group.

I would like to offer my congratulations to any of the translators and writers present here tonight. Down Fell the Statue of Goliath offers a comprehensive introduction to 1950s Hungary and the Revolution. There is nothing like it in the English language; it is an excellent one-stop shop for anyone who wants to survey the literary response to the Revolution.

Let me end, while praising this volume of fine writing, with a salute to those who never got a chance to write their stories, or even tell them. I would also like to echo the sentiment that best sums up the spirit and beauty of the revolution, István Örkény’s entreaty, published on 2 November 1956, when many were sure the Revolution had triumphed, and in this collection: He wrote: “Be forever as you are now, Budapest”: “légy mindorökké olyan, amilyen ma vagy, Budapest”.

That is a sentiment we can all agree with.

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