When people ask me what it was like growing up in Hungary in the 1970s and 80s, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state. They are invariably disappointed when I tell them that the reality was quite different and that communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact rather a good place to live.Victor Orban, the recently defeated rightwing Hungarian prime minister, described my generation – those whose fate was sealed by the “failure” of the 1956 uprising – as “the lost generation”.
But Hungarians like myself, who grew up in the years of “goulash communism”, were actually the lucky ones. The shockwaves of 1956 bought home to the communist leadership that they could only consolidate their position by making our lives more tolerable. Stalinism was out and “Kadarism” – a unique brand of liberal communism (named after its architect, Janos Kadar) from which Mikhail Gorbachev would later draw inspiration for perestroika – was in.
Instead of a list of achievements in health, education, transport and welfare, let me offer some personal observations on what living under goulash communism was really like.
What I remember most was the overriding sense of community and solidarity, a spirit I find totally lacking in my adopted Britain and indeed whenever I go back to Hungary today. With minimal differences in income and material goods, people really were judged on what they were like as individuals and not on what they owned.
Western liberals may sneer at such movements as the Young Pioneers, which sought to involve young people in a wide range of community activities, but they reflected an ambition to build a cohesive society – in contrast to the atomisation of most “advanced” nations today. I was proud to be a Pioneer; contrary to popular belief, we did not spend all our time sitting round campfires singing songs in praise of Lenin, but instead learned valuable life skills in social interraction and building friendships.
I was also privileged to be bought up in a society where the government understood the value of education and culture. Before the war, in the Hungary idolised by snobbish, reactionary writers like Sandor Marai, secondary education was the preserve of the wealthy classes. My mother and father had to leave school at 11; under the Kadar regime, they were given a second chance to resume their studies as adults. Communism opened up new opportunities for people of my background and led to a huge increase in social mobility.
A corollary of the government’s education policy was its commitment to the arts. Again, the emphasis was on bringing the maximum benefit to the largest number of people, and not just the wealthy in Budapest. Theatres, opera houses and concert halls were all heavily subsidised, bringing prices down to a level everyone could afford. The government opened up “cultural houses” in every town and village, so that provincially based working class people, like my parents, could have easy access to the arts.
Book publishing was similarly supported, so that prices remained low and bookshops proliferated. With 1 forint (1.5p) editions of a wide range of classic works available, reading became a national obsession. For those who believe a rigorous censorship existed, I can tell you that among the most popular published foreign writers were PG Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley and W Somerset Maugham, hardly Marxian propagandists.
Now, 13 years after “regime change”, much of this cultural heritage has been destroyed. Museums, theatres and galleries have had to sink or swim in the new economic “realism”. As ticket subsidies have been withdrawn, once again it is only the rich (and German tourists) who can afford to go to the opera. Hundreds of smaller art cinemas have been forced to close, while the big Hollywood multiplexes move in. Television has dramatically dumbed down, too. When I was a teenager, Saturday night prime time meant a Jules Verne adventure, a poetry recital and a Chekhov drama; now it means the same dreary diet of game shows and American action movies as in Britain.
Reform politicans sarcastically refer to Kadar’s “velvet prison”, yet they have surely created a prison of their own, where large sections of the population have been sold to the foreign-owned multinationals, which control 70% of the nation’s production and threaten to pull out of the country if wages or workers’ rights are improved. My best friend’s husband works for such a company, and tells how visits to the toilet are strictly timed and taking a full lunch break is seen as showing lack of commitment to the firm. It’s all a far cry from the paternalistic state-owned companies of 20 years ago, with their nurseries, subsidised canteens, holiday homes and free sports facilities.
Communism in Hungary certainly had a downside. While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the west was problematic and only allowed every second year. Few Hungarians (myself included) enjoyed the compulsory Russian lessons. There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and, of course, we were living in a one-party system where freedom to criticise the government was limited. Yet despite all of this, I firmly believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.
Today Hungarians have the theoretical right to travel to the west whenever they like, yet the fall in real wages has been so dramatic that few of them can now afford even to go to Lake Balaton. The “patriotic” politicans who shouted so loudly about Hungary’s “occupation” by a foreign power under communism, are now strangely silent when the country is effectively controlled by New York financial institutions and unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.
As a young adult in Hungary, I grew accustomed to a diet of news stories about the “imperialist” west and its wicked plans for global domination and control of the world’s resources. We were all aware that this was the official party line and so its effectiveness as propaganda was limited.
Now, more than 10 years on, with the US (and Germany) having connived in the breakup of Yugoslavia, colonised Afghanistan and now planning to invade Iraq for control of the world’s oil supply, it is surely obvious that what we were told about western intentions was true.
I have seen both communist and western news management and know which is the more devious – and therefore the more effective. I witnessed the way media manipulation works in the “free world”, when we were told the Stop the War march I went on in London recently was attended by just 150,000 people and in the dismissive coverage Britain’s biggest-ever peace demonstration was given in most newspapers.
Education, or rather the denial of it, is the key to all attempts at social control. Gorbachev said that education, in his view the greatest achievement of 70 years of communism, also paradoxically helped bring about its downfall. Put simply, the communist regimes educated their people to such an extent that they developed the critical faculty to challenge, and eventually overthrew the system. After three years of living in Britain, I see no danger of that happening here.