A Chilly Spring in Budapest by Nyiri, Janos; New Statesman; June 8, 1973; 85, 2203; Periodicals Archive Online pg. 834
A Chilly Spring in Budapest
8 June 1973
The official checking the passports greeted each of us very politely. The customs man opened my suitcase, counted up my excess cigarettes and spirits and as I reached for my wallet, waved me through with a smile. That day I met an old friend. ‘It’s great to see you,’ he said. ‘I’ve been wanting to tell you something for 16 years. You’re a rotten pig.’ I could see he wasn’t joking. ‘Why? Why didn’t you tell me you were going?’ ‘But I did. You’ve forgotten.’ ‘But you didn’t say you’d got it all planned… A safe way out…’ ‘But I hadn’t. I was just lucky. Would you really have come too?’ ‘I would have thought about it . . .’
I began to realise that every Hungarian of my generation has a bad conscience – those who stayed, and those who left in 1956. I warned myself not to build an alibi by denigrating everything I found. For 16 years I had lived with the idea that I had left Hungary more from a spirit of adventure than through necessity. If I had stayed, I reckoned I might have got a year or two in jail at most. And there was always the dream of one day going back and finding that the Revolution had been worth while and that things were changing. Things are changing, certainly, but not quite how I had imagined.
But my first shock was personal. In the course of two weeks, I met many old friends, and the general opinion was that, with luck, I would have got away with six years’ prison for my part in the uprising. And they knew what they were talking about, many of them having served long jail sentences themselves. ‘But I didn’t even fire a shot.’ I protested. ‘Nor did I,’ replied a friend laughing, ‘but they gave me eight years.’ I shivered. From this moment until my plane took off to return me to London I felt illogically nervous. Another jail-bird friend ‘condemned’ me to four or five years, a third to eight or ten. I had to go to the police station within twenty-four hours of arrival to declare my address and, although it was not more difficult than asking for a glass of Tokay in a bar, I heaved a sigh of relief when this was done. I took a taxi from the police station, then found myself stopping it and taking·a bus instead. Then I got off the bus as it moved away and took the next one. Six years of prison is not to be sneezed at. I felt like someone in a restaurant, slipping away without paying the bill. Was the waiter going to call after me: ‘Sir, you owe us six years’?
I was struck by the politeness of officials, and was grateful for this, but outside official contacts, I found that politeness has broken out like an epidemic. It is difficult to translate the spirit of this politeness into English. The French vous and tu has its equivalent in Hungarian, but that is not what I mean. I suppose the Spanish usted is closer. In the olden days, elderly people or high church dignitaries were addressed in the third person singular, as a sign of great respect. Or servants sometimes addressed their employers in this way. In the Fifties, however, in the atmosphere then prevalent, complete strangers used the familiar equivalent of tu. Once, in France, I overheard a friend saying to his maid: ‘Monsieur ne rentrera pas pour diner’. When I realized that by Monsieur he referred to himself, I almost reached for the phone to call an ambulance. In Budapest, I was continually tempted to do so.
Despite the new-found wealth which might help account for the reversion to old-fashioned politesse, it is almost impossible to find a rented flat. There is not even a proper market for private rented property, as few people own more than the flat they occupy. The housing authorities have few available flats for renting. Yet there are signs of building everywhere. The new blocks are impressive, but the shortage of flats is still acute. Most people I met were hoping to buy a flat when they could afford to, and most of the new flats are for sale, not rent. You put down a deposit of 80,000-120,000 florins, which is the equivalent of two years’ full joint income of an average couple, and then pay off the mortgage. Practically all women work, full time. Many people indeed do second jobs as well. Unemployment is non-existent and even illegal.
A friend who has now reached the top of his profession, and a corresponding standard of life, has an elegantly furnished four-room flat to himself. When he divorced his wife, he took his hat and his son and left his villa to his ex-wife. ‘I look on the bright side,’ he commented. ‘Until I save enough for another villa I am sure at least not to get a new wife.’ He also helped me to understand Hungarian car mania and other social phenomena. A vital status symbol, second to owning one’s own flat, is having a car. Also, it must be a really expensive one, if possible. A friend had a Mercedes. I said that not many people in Europe could boast a Mercedes. ‘No,’ he agreed, ‘nor would I if I could expect to change my car every few years. Here cars have to last.’ The state sells second-hand cars cheap to senior employees through their firms. The profit for the state lies in the fact that if employees did not have their own cars but needed them for work, they would have to use the firm’s cars, and maintenance and often drivers would have to be financed by the govern ment. There is no car industry in the country at all, and the state imposes a 100 per cent tax on purchase of new cars from abroad. Also, one has to wait between a year and two years for a new car on order.
A doctor friend of mine has just bought privately a new Volkswagen, for 120,000 florins. He had told me he earned 3,500 florins a month. ‘How did you manage to pay for it?’ I asked. What he told me came as my second major shock. ‘Here, in theory all medical treatment is free,’ he said, ‘but nobody believes in free medicine. We live on tips. That is why the state can afford to give us such low salaries. We ask for nothing, but we get double our salary in tips.’ The customary tips in hospitals, I discovered, were 200-300 florins per patient for an assistant doctor, and 500 florins for the boss; 1-2,000 florins if there was an operation. Some one told me: ‘There’s nothing to be done about it, small shopkeepers with two or three assistants are our rich men. Waiters cheat, employees in our national shops steal and, in factories, private work is done on the side. Everybody has his personal in come supplement.’
I asked a friend about a current ideology in this petit-bourgeois, Socialist state. ‘Not petit bourgeois?‘ He hooted with laughter. ‘Feudal! Come back in a year or two and you’ll find people riding their bikes with spurs on! More reflectively, he added: ‘But it’s better this way. Less hypocritical. You remember how, before ’56, “little bourgeois” was synonymous with “enemy of the people”, in a country where half the population was little bourgeois. Now we are more realistic. In 1956 you and many others wanted a human, ideal socialism. So did we. But you shut your eyes to the growing danger… Cardinal Mindszenty, Dudás…’
‘And now?’ The only answer I got was a request to listen to the Prime Minister’s budget speech, then due on TV. Like his counterparts in other countries, the Prime Minister explained that Hungarian inflation is far from being as bad a it seems. But the tone of voice, the sincerity and good sense of his arguments, were a surprise to me in Hungary. He explained that concentration on consumer-goods production necessarily goes with inflation – Socialism or not.
I remembered so clearly the Rákosi-style speeches of the Fifties when, if a bridge was being built across a river somewhere, it was declared a victory of the Socialist camp over the Imperialists of the world, and from time to time how every member of the audience would jump to his feet and break into positive or negative ecstasy as the occasion demanded. If there was no bread at the baker’s the reason was that the enemy had secretly given it to the pigs. If there was no meat, it was because the enemy had secretly eaten the pigs. Now here was this man, speaking calmly, quietly, unheroically and explaining his policies to people he obviously considered to be intelligent grown-ups. Where were ail those political alibis and slogans? Of course, his task: is made easier now that there is bread at the bakers and meat at the butcher’s. There is also more variety of food in the shops and a lack of queues.
‘How much does a worker earn?’ I asked a friend. ‘Something between cold water and 4,000 to 4,500 florins.’ I met a skilled mechanic who was on the cold-water side of the continuum. He earned 2,500 to 2,800 florins a month, and has a wife who can not work at the moment and two small children. I asked my friend how four people could live on such an income. He agreed that it is hard, but told me that their standard of living is gradually improving, thought be a worker is still the hardest way of life in Hungary. To somebody whom I hoped might be able to help, I put the case of a friend. B.L. came out of jail for political offences after six years. Since then he had had nothing but difficulties. Somebody wanted him back in prison. Three years ago, he was charged with having known that a certain person intended to stay in the West if granted a passport. He had failed to report the person in question, who never got a .Passport, and never defected. After a long trial, B.L. was acquitted – but only on ground of lack of proof. He appealed and was finally re-acquitted on the grounds that the accusation! was deemed unfounded. My friend interrupted: ‘What more could you Want?’ ‘But,’ I asked, ‘is wishing to live abroad still a crime?’ His answer was convincing. ‘Do you know how hard Kádar had to fight to establish law and order and to set up independent courts? And they are established now. Justice was done.’ I changed the subject. ‘Everyone I meet sings the glory of Kádar. I hope that you are right to respect Kádar, but what is this cult of personality?
In England even the most extreme Conservative is content to say of the Queen that she is a “very nice woman” and pity her a bit for overworking. But nobody would sing her praises for not having people dragged out of bed, driven away and shot in the night without explanation.’ ‘I can understand the English people,’ replied my friend. ‘To my know ledge in the near past they have not been shot without ceremony by representatives of the state. We are not yet quite used to not being frightened, so forgive us a little gratitude.’
Hungary may not yet be enjoying a Prague Spring of 1968 but it has come a long way from the dogma ridden terror of the Fifties.