Monday, 22 December 2014 00:00

Children of the Revolution: Memories of Hungary

Written by Dora Vuk
Street signs HU
Photo: habeebe (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Renaming streets following the collapse of communism in Hungary


In the next edition of our mini-series marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, we hear from Dora Vuk about growing up in post-socialist Hungary and memories of the socialist era.

The moment I was asked to write about my impressions of the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism, I was forced to realise that my feelings, memories related to this occasion, and the stories I had heard from my parents and grandparents about communism were more complex and ambivalent than I had thought before. So I decided not only to highlight the significance of the subsequent transition in our lives, but also to use scraps of thoughts to present my impressions of the so-called "socialist era" and the last 25 years.

As I originally come from a small Croatian community settled at the Hungarian border with Croatia, most of the scenes appearing now before my eyes are in a particular way related to this minority population and its life in a period characterised by totalitarian policy, and in another, a more free one after that came later. I remember my grandmother and one of her memories from her childhood after the Second World War –  when, during the realisation of the state ownership programme, the Hungarian Secret Police (ÁVO, after 1956 ÁVH) took all of her family's agricultural land, animals, and cereals. Once, when the police came, she had to hide in the attic with a basket of corn to ensure that they would have the necessary amount of food to survive the winter.

She often spoke about the constant violence and brutal assaults against the Croatian minority in Hungary, among them her brother, who spent seven years in prison because of his origin, after the Tito-Stalin Split in 1948.

Pan-European Picnic
Photo: Wik1966total (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
At the Austrian-Hungarian border in the summer of 1989

Following the revolution in 1956, from 1962 onwards, if you want to be precise, Hungary became the "happiest barrack in the socialist camp"; its political system was often called Goulash Communism (Hun. gulyáskommunizmus), which is an apparent allusion to the relative freedom, high standard of life, and improved human rights record. All these elements represented a deviation from our "Soviet brothers" and their political strategy, so this "soft dictatorship" meant a special mix of values, ideas, and leadership strategies similar to the Hungarian national soup with many different ingredients.

My parents and their generation feel a specific sort of nostalgia when they speak about their lives in the late 70's and early 80's. There were no more groundless restrictions, at least not as intensive as before, or limitations concerning language use in minority populations etc. They could travel to Eastern bloc countries without any limitation, among them Yugoslavia to visit their relatives. After 1978, travel to Austria was allowed and in the next few years to many other Western countries (Sweden, Finland, Malta etc.) without a visa. These were the first steps towards the transformation process.

If I ask people who witnessed the symbolic removal of the Iron Curtain, which in Hungary was marked by the Pan-European Picnic (a peace demonstration held on the Hungarian-Austrian border), the re-establishment of the Communist Party as the Hungarian Socialist Party and the so-called Round Table Talks, about their impressions and feelings, they say they were excited and full of expectations about "decadent" Western culture, lifestyle, products, and goods. But on the other hand, they did not actually know what transition really means and how they should imagine their lives in another system. Among the older generations, there was a particular scepticism towards the events at the Hungarian-Austrian border and in the capital because they thought the system, which had existed 55 years, could not be reformed and changed in such a short period.

We are incapable of realising that being able to choose from many different sorts of toothpastes in a drug store is actually a special manifestation of freedom.


Since Hungary declared itself as an independent republic 25 years ago, the question now arises as to how we have managed to benefit from all this.

Young people, who were born shortly before the collapse or even after it, cannot imagine what freedom really means because it has become tangled in every segment of their lives. For me, a Croat from Hungary who studied in Zagreb, spent a semester in Germany, another one in Austria, and is now living in Germany, life without travel is just unimaginable. Buying a pair of Levi's jeans in a shopping centre is a common thing now and we cannot picture the enthusiasm of our parents felt when they managed to buy a smuggled pair from Yugoslavia 30 or 40 years ago. We are incapable of realising that being able to choose from many different sorts of toothpastes in a drug store is actually a special manifestation of freedom. What's more, people do not seem to be conscious about the significance of elections or other achievements of democracy. This kind of public apathy is related to the general disappointment with the "transformed Hungary", with all of its corruption scandals, rising unemployment, high migration rate, and the extreme social security contributions (just to mention a few of negative side-effects of the new system).

After 25 years, we have to consider that older generations were maybe right and such a transition process takes more time, not just a year, a decade, or two decades. In October 1989, the reformers took a significant step towards democracy, but obviously it is our task now to learn how to "cope" with this phenomenon and its tools to avoid a return to an autocratic system and to really change our lives not just in terms of "freedom", but in the social field too.


Last modified on Sunday, 25 January 2015 20:11

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