50 years later, a new Hungarian uprising

Times Staff Writer

The bullet scar on her arm has faded like a distant star, but Maria Sebestyen remembers when tanks clattered through moonlit alleys, the enemy wore a Soviet uniform, and for a brief, bloody moment this city held the world’s attention.

Revolutions get crushed and enemies change. Today, the fervor and romanticism that defined Cold War defiance seems like quaint history from a worn book. University students carry iPods instead of Molotov cocktails.

But for Sebestyen and her compatriots from the doomed 1956 Hungarian uprising -- Monday will be its 50th anniversary -- there is something incomplete, as if a painter abandoned his canvas. Communism was brought down 17 years ago in a quieter revolution. And from its ruins a new revolt rumbles through former Eastern Bloc nations still trying to blend into the West.

Divided governments and political lies have failed to modernize the communist welfare state. Public debt and pressure from investors are forcing Hungary and other new members of the European Union to undertake long-neglected reforms.


The prospect outrages Sebestyen, who has watched her nation’s economy grow but is told that government wages will be frozen and tens of thousands will lose their jobs.

“Taxes will be doubled. Layoffs are coming,” she said. “Things keep rising on us.”

Central Europe “is facing two common dynamics,” said Krisztian Szabados, director of Political Capital, a research and consulting institute in Budapest. “The first is that people raised in communism believe that for every problem, the state must provide a solution. The second problem arises out of the first. There is a rising populism. People want protection from globalization and market economies.”

The region’s political map bristles with unease: Conservatives in Poland have postponed reforms and realigned with a populist party to avoid another government collapse, lawmakers in the Czech Republic are paralyzed by ideological differences, and the reformers who improved the Slovakian economy were ousted by populists and right-wing nationalists. In Hungary, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany faces protests outside parliament after he admitted lying to voters “morning, evening and night” about public spending.


Voters feel twice duped. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and communism vanished, joy gave way to uncompromising capitalism. Now, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia must shrink deficits and cut social programs to be eligible for European Union development grants and move closer to their Western counterparts.

The atmosphere has been further agitated by corruption scandals involving public officials, many of them reconstituted communists.

“The problems these countries kept hidden under the blanket in order to meet EU standards are now coming to the surface,” said Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. “Their democratic systems are not that stable yet. It will take a while for these young democracies to mature.”

Sebestyen is weary of waiting. A 22-year-old bartender when rifles and bandages were passed through the streets of Budapest in 1956, today she wears a gray-orange ponytail and has a smoker’s rasp. More than 2,500 Hungarians died fighting Soviet forces, and survivors meet these days on the sixth floor of a dusty building, remembering yesterday’s bloodshed and pondering today’s turmoil.


“It was beautiful back then,” said Ilona Styop, who was 17 when she climbed the tower in her town hall and cut the communist symbol from her nation’s flag. “The enemy was clear to us. Everyone on the street was your brother. Today, people are divided over what they want. We believed that if we beat the Russians back then we’d have had an ideal state. Yet even if our prime minister resigns today, what would we get? More of the same.”

Protests against Gyurcsany, a millionaire with his own blog, began in September when a recording of a speech he gave to members of his Socialist Party became public. The prime minister said political leaders had misled voters for years, and that his party had lied about the economy and budget cuts in order to get elected. The EU and foreign investors backed Gyurcsany’s reforms, but the public was given a wincing glimpse behind the facade of a government with a deficit equal to 10% of its gross domestic product.

It seems to many that the nation is bedeviled by contradictory twins: one who boasts of strong international investment and a 35% rise in the standard of living; the other who reveals over-subsidized hospitals and pensions and the prospect of firing thousands of teachers, doctors, street sweepers and clerks.

“I think we are now finally learning about capitalism,” Szabados said. “Reforms were started years ago, but the left and the right pushed them aside to win votes. Now we’re in for a period of street protests and strikes.”


Pensioner Peter Barath predicts that the coming economic reforms will encounter deep resistance and revive the spirit of 1956. He noted that opposition parties recently won elections in 18 of 19 counties. Barath looked down at the trampled grass around parliament and listened to a man with a microphone try to rouse about 30 people into rewriting the nation’s constitution. The men shook their heads and clapped politely.

“These are desperate times in Hungary,” Barath said. “Industry is gone. Agriculture is suffering. Everything on the ground has been sold, and now this government even wants to sell the land. There is prosperity for foreign companies, but not for Hungarian companies. They sit by while the multinationals drive out truckloads of money.”

Around the corner, lace and porcelain and polished end tables sit in the windows of antiques stores on Falk Miksa Street. Anna Maria Simon has a shop here.

Born in 1950, she has no recollection of the uprising, but she has seen her country improve in the last 16 years, she said, and she questions the angry, populist spirit she hears in the protests.


“People like complaining,” Simon said. “Yes, many do have reasons. But people here can make a living. They go on holiday. They buy cars. I know it’s tough for pensioners, and Budapest has a lot of homeless. But, in general, people are dressing the same smart way. The reforms have not been deep enough, and society has divided into the socialists and the right wing.”

She paused as a customer perused trinkets. “We were euphoric when communism fell, but we didn’t see all the difficulties,” she said. “Maybe it’s a weird expression, but I think the older generation has to die out before you can start a new tablet.”

Fifty years ago, Sebestyen figured a tank, not cuts in pension programs, would do her in.

She and other rebels had retreated to the basement of a house. Gunfire echoed, boots scraped over the streets. A tank whined and a shell struck, killing seven people. She hurried out carrying a baby pocked with shrapnel. She talks about it like a woman who left part of herself back on that smoky street.


“They call it democracy, but that’s not what we have today,” she said. “There’s a lot of extremely poor out there.... We fought the communists all those years ago, and today we’re fighting the grandchildren of the communists.”

Times special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw contributed to this report.