The Hungarian revolution of 1956 started on October 23. Here was a nation refusing to be Sovietized. A crowd gathered at the monstrous bronze statue of Stalin and pulled it down, to leave only vast empty boots sticking out of the pedestal. Stalin’s hollow head, the size of a car, was rolled away to block off a road. The symbolic drama was re-enacted when Iraqis and American marines toppled the bronze statue of Saddam Hussein.
In the period when Communism was then suspended, political prisoners were released from the Hungarian version of Gulag. One of them was Cardinal Mindszenty who sought asylum in the American embassy. Prince Esterhazy had the honor of being imprisoned for the crime of being a large landowner by the Nazis and then the Communists, and he now escaped to Switzerland. Pal Ignotus, a prisoner in the labor camp of Vac and author of a beautiful memoir, crossed by night into Austria on foot. His wife then lost the baby she had been carrying.
By the time I reached Budapest, the Russians had tricked Imre Nagy and his government including General Pal Maleter, leader of the armed resistance, into surrendering. Offered safe passage, these men were arrested and later put to death in secret. An atmosphere of murder and treachery hung over everything. Russian tanks were in the street. People hardly dared speak. I interviewed Gyorgy Lukacs, the author of the kind of Marxist literary studies we were supposed to read and admire in universities like Oxford. He was gloom itself. I seem to recall that he was made to suffer for being a wrong kind of Communist.
Today the Hungarian embassy threw a party to celebrate the anniversary. The speaker was a chap called Lord Boswell whom I had to look up in the reference books where I found that his recreations are snooker, shooting, and poetry. Gerbeaud’s is a famous café in the main square of Budapest, and lots of its special chocolate-covered cake had been flown in for the occasion. But for some reason, the memory of those empty bronze boots doesn’t let go.