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18 May 2014

Everything and Nothing

Images from the Peaceful Revolution

What did the change of system mean to me? Everything and nothing. I know what the phrase means in terms of politics, in social life, in economics, in constitutional life, and so on.

I can also suppose that after two decades, even after two months, I had a clear idea of what it meant. I also remember what the printworkers said, when the Hungarian Diary (Magyar Napló) republished (in 1989) in facsimile the legendary issue of the Literary Paper (Irodalmi Újság) from 1956, which included the famous poem One Sentence On Tyranny, and essays like the Rising Nation, and an Obituary in the Style of Thucydides. On the front page there was even a series of photos of an ever shrinking statue of Marx – though formally the system had not been changed yet. It shrank like a bad quality nappy in the wash.

All of a sudden it was possible to say everything everywhere. And in practical terms, that was exactly what the paper was about, this “everywhere”. Because even before that, we – although there were not too many of us – already said almost everything, and not necessarily only in our trustworthy circle enriched by our intimate spies. But a closed circle does not constitute publicity. And it is also different, if one says something, and does not have to feel oneself hugely courageous. And it also makes a difference when the listener does not have to interpret what has been said differently, or does not have to close his ears to what I say.

So this was a genuine change, even if, for years, I had not had to say or think anything differently from what I said or thought. That is, that I could experience that the outside world accepted the system of my inside world.

In the first meaning of the word I did not have an internal reason to change the system. But the other system, that wanted to rule over everything, had changed. To put it another way, even at its highest peak the dictatorship reached only to my skin. Inside it I still remained I. The Kádár system was a dictatorship, but it was not tyranny. Not everybody was a link in the chain. It was enough for the power that its chain was not torn by anyone.

And no one did, but the chain was eaten by rust. For a long time, the rust wore it away, but it is the nature of erosion to accelerate exponentially.

So in myself I did not change systems. But I witnessed how the chain of the old system fell apart. I could only (only?) witness how from one year to the next I was becoming freer and freer, first just a little, and then faster and faster. But even this is not a fair representation. As a child I was free and while growing into an adult I recognised my freedom. I saw the barbed wire imprisoning my physical being, but soul and thought took no notice of the Iron Curtain. I considered myself free, and I lived my life – the true one, the internal one – freely. I did not have anything to do with power, and they did not have anything to do with me. I know, I knew that this is not the real freedom – at the level of thought. (But is this present one? Is freedom possible in our world of time and space?)

So the change of system meant for me that my own freedom also appeared in the outside world. I imagine the Christians of the Roman Empire must have experienced something like this, when the persecutions against them ended. When they could come out of their catacombs, their faith did not change at all, and the world accomodated itself to them. How Christianity coped with this turn of events, and how it changed from being the persecuted to occasionally the persecutor is not a theological question, but should rather be examined as one of the specialities of the theology of the two legged unfeathered species. And also, how the soul and character that have accomodated themselves to persecution, could bear freedom. The analysis of the decompression syndrome of liberation is again another story.


But I experienced the everyday euphoria of the big change often, and on many levels. First consciously, in a general meaning. Then by seeing and experiencing thousands of smaller and bigger signs. And sometimes – though seldom – in my emotions, as an act of mercy, a gift. Because one thing I have never believed is that the world itself, in its totality, can really, deeply change to the roots, in terms of its human contents. That it is able to change.

To achieve true euphoria I would have needed to believe that the quality of human beings could change. So I could never believe that the change of system would prove to be a redemption. Nevertheless, 1989 was a “sacred year” for me, despite all my instinctive reservations. Even if it was not a liberation, it was like  ridding oneself of all the tortures of a bad illness. On the eve of 1990, at the end of the most beautiful year of my life, I raised my glass to the old year, with the conviction that an era of unclouded joy was over, and that nothing would ever be as good again.


Like everybody else around me, I experienced on 16 June 1989 on Heroes’ Square in Budapest that the brilliant sunshine absorbed the black grandeur of mourning: light won a victory over darkness. The coffins of the martyrs of 1956 lay on the catafalque in front of the Museum of Modern Art as the symbol of rebirth rather than of death.

The images of two other days remain, nonetheless, even more firmly embossed on the film of my memory than those of that day.

The first was to witness one of the last sighs, or rather the dying gasp of the single party state.

It was the start of the book fair in Sopron. The opening speech was delivered by none other than Károly Grósz himself, the first man of the Communist party, who was also prime minister. He was the wielder of key positions, the very epicentre of power. I was not interested in his speech, anymore than I was   interested in the speeches of the other men of power. I was not interested and thus not bothered that some petty pushy person had invited him to fill this role, and that there were people who supported him, and thus expected their own rise from this weightless party bureaucrat – a man who had clearly been sentenced to fall, but who was still mesmerised by his own power.

The greyness of the sky was worse than the greyness of the personality and the speech of Grósz. It was more important that the books should not get soaked by the rain showers which are so frequent at that time of year at such book fairs. We survived the speech almost without noticing it, then I joined the other invited guests as we strolled over to the nearby hotel to enjoy the gourmet snacks of the obligatory reception. The personalities at the top of the hierarchy of power of the Hungarian Peoples’ Republic had to be properly fed.

On this short journey I realised for the first time that the party state, the state party, the Peoples’ Republic, the system which declared the leading power of the proletariat, and the First Secretary of that party were over. Kaputt. Konyets filma. Finita comedia.

Though nothing happened. The nothing happened. The honorary guest who had delivered the speech, as the First Secretary of the Party, as Prime Minister of the Republic, and as the Orator beaming like the sun to light up the great day, was left alone. In his position, he deserved to be surrounded by public figures at least from the county level, by the hangers-on. But at that reception, there he was tasting his goose liver in aspic, his ham roll, his cold pike-perch, even the salmon on his own, with only his body-guards to keep him company. When a politician, a leader is in the act of falling, it is obvious that the air around him grows thinner. But that should not have been the case with the leader of a dictatorship, the most emblematic figure of the system. And at that time Grósz was still at the head of the system. In the structure of a dictatorship the power remains the power, for each member of the apparatus, even if the role of its leader has already been shaken. The visible distance was not only from the person but from the system. For me, Károly Grósz’s lonely meal in Sopron was a parable of the loneliness and therefore of the  inevitable fall of the system itself. The people who distanced themselves from him then were the same ones who, only a few months earlier, would have fought one another to get their hands on just one of his words as their own. Not in awe of his personality but of his position, because even if a politician falls, his position stays.

Unless that is, as everyone realised, much later, the whole system falls with him. The image of Grósz left alone reminds me of a rather hard line from the poet Sándor Csoóri: a putrid smell spread from him / as from a hung dog.

A system is not over at all once, but at many times and in many ways. Visually for me it was over just then. Seeing its first man alone I began to feel sympathy, without feeling pity.

The postscript of the story is that, after leaving Sopron, Károly Grósz’s convoy forced a Trabant off the road on the way home. Grósz was travelling in a miracle BMW that he had received from the factory in Munich, and it was common knowledge that Trabant drivers were capable of an arrogance even towards BMWs with blue flashing lights on their roofs. A criminal case was launched against the driver of the Trabant, on the testimony of the security guards travelling with Grósz, on the pretext of endangering public traffic. The charge against him was lifted only years later, after the establishment of democracy. As a postscript to the postscript, let me mention that the Trabant was driven by the grandchild of the 56‘ martyr, Attila Szigeti.


The Trabant, which was mentioned as the car of the year in a leading German magazine in 1989, also appeared in another context, in my mental film of the change-of-the-system. By then I saw, experienced, and knew that a dictatorship which was gray and soft and rotten to its bones was over. But on 12 September 1989 I sat in my own Trabant, watching the brotherly Trabants, and their bigger two-stroke sisters, puffing by.

At the Szigliget junction of Highway 71, which runs along the northern shore of Lake Balaton, I watched an endless convoy which filled the landscape with the blue fog of happiness. Beeping relentlessly, in each car sat five, six, sometimes as many as eight East German refugees with expressions of pure euphoria on their faces, shouting and waving. They flew ribbons, carried flowers – it was like a wedding march, or a honeymoon on which the bride was freedom. They kept on coming for about – who knows – just a quarter, or half an hour. I was a witness to this breathtaking happiness, this ecstasy of others. They had already been told, but the radio had not yet announced, that the Hungarian government would allow refugees who had already fled to Hungary, and who even now awaited a decision on their fate (on the dead end trail of the armoured train of the glorious Soviet Republic).

I could not tear myself away from that vision of their procession. I was beeping my horn, flashing, and waving. I felt on my own skin, in my own bones that happiness of liberation, of freedom, with those people rolling down the country road towards Sopron. I had never experienced anything like that before, and I never will again. I felt so light, that if someone had asked if I could fly, I would certainly have tried. Yes, my soul was soaring as I watched this procession. I hardly noticed when I began to weep.

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