Two Weeks That Shook the World
Washington Post Book World, December 21, 1986


CRY HUNGARY! Uprising 1956
by Reg Gadney Atheneum; 184 pp; $16.95

by Charles Gati
Duke University Press; 244 pp; $ 40; paperback,

IN HUNGARY 80,000 troops are discreetly in place today. The 1956 uprising is still an all but taboo subject, officially dismissed in school textbooks as Fascist counter-revolution. Janos Kadar, who betrayed the revolution and then butchered its leaders, has outlived that reputation to become the popular leader of what he has helped make one of the richer and more liberal of the Iron Curtain countries. Imre Nagy, head of government during the few days when it looked as if Hungary might wrest its freedom from the U.S.S.R. -- and a return to multi-party system of government -- lies in an unmarked grave.

But every decade since, in the fall, articles and sometimes books like these two appear to commemorate the heroic though melancholy gamble taken by students and workers in the city of Budapest, now 30 years ago. And each time it is hard not to be stirred anew by admiration and regret and, if you are American and know anything about the events in question, also a certain shame that we encouraged the uprising to the extent that we did, and then found it impossible to help at all. In a longer perspective, on these anniversaries, it is possible to feel reflective sorrow for the world that whatever humanitarian impulses underlay the Russian Revolution have been drowned in blood and bureaucracy. The brutal putting down of the Hungarians, after some hopes of evolution stirred by World War II, was the most dramatic kind of Cold War proof that the Soviet Union seems practically incapable of change.

Cry Hungary! is a popular, headlong narrative running from Oct. 23, 1956, when thousands of students and workers marched to the parliament to present a petition, through Nov. 4 when Russian troops crushed the uprising at the command of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. By contrast, Professor Charles Gati's judicious and often graceful study, Hungary and the Soviet Bloc, etches in some of Hungary's 19th- and 20th-century history before moving on to the background of the 1956 uprising and what has been happening since in Hungary, Moscow and the Soviet Union's East European bloc in general. Each book in its own way, however, has profited by the three decades accumulation of image and information.

Cry Hungary!'s brief text is by Reg Gadney, a British novelist and film writer. He is passionate and partisan, as it is hard not to be, considering the events described. The book also includes a detailed and highly useful day-to-day chronology of events, and quotations, which provide a very good quick fix on the murky political background and still confusing events of the uprising.

Cry Hungary! is stunning and memorable, though, because it is also a book of black-and-white still photographs, more than have ever been gathered together before. Sometimes the bloodiness of the fighting is gratuitously exploited, as in the case of using three views (from different angles) of the same dead Soviet soldier. But collectively they create an overwhelming record of a city and its people during a terrifying struggle in which thousands were killed and wounded but hardly anybody really knew what was happening, in which people would be shopping beside parked Soviet tanks one day, and shooting at them the next.

Some of the most shocking, as well as famous, pictures are those made by British photographer John Sadovy who also provided one of the most graphic yet humane accounts of the savagery of revolution: "I could see the impact of bullets on clothes," he writes. "There was not much noise. They were shooting so close that the man's body acted as a silencer." Finally, Sadovy recollects, "The tears started to come down my cheeks. I had spent three years in the war, but nothing I saw then compared to this." He finds he has to sit down. "It was from the weight of it. Like carrying something I couldn't carry any more. In some way one is responsible for what other humans do."

CHARLES GATI, a professor of political science at Union College and a research scholar at Columbia, is one of America's great experts on Hungary.

For the most part, instead of recreating the events of the uprising he concentrates on context and overview, going into narrative detail only where he is exploring or correlating many new sources -- among them, notably, the 500,000-word memoirs of Zoltan Vas, politburo colleague and intimate friend of Hungarian communist party chief Matyas Rakosi. Gati knows what the Hungarian and Soviet communists said to each other, during, and before, the uprising. He presents a startling account of an angry and crucial meeting in the fall of 1947 of all Europe's communist leaders at Szklarska Poreba, a resort in Polish Silesia when Stalin finally gave up all pretence of permitting multi-party government in the East European countries acquired in 1945, at last turning loose Rakosi, backed by the Red Army and a legion of security police, on hapless non-Communist Hungarian politicians and parties. (What Rakosi and Company then did, not much dealt with by Gadney or Gati, makes the doings of Snowball and Napoleon in Orwell's Animal Farm seem almost benign and knowledge of them is crucial to anyone's understanding of why the uprising later occurred.)

Gati's detailed portrait of Imre Nagy in the midst of the uprising, being lied to by Mikoyan and Suslov representing Moscow, as well as Yuri Andropov, then Soviet ambassador in Budapest, while he is desperately trying to ease the violence and bring about some sort of reformist political solution, is the stuff of high human drama -- and ultimate betrayal and tragedy. Given the situation that Gati paints, it is hard to share his belief that a really cliff-hanging decision for the Soviets was involved. Even in Gati's telling, Nikita Khrushchev, despite his round of consultations in the communist world, really does not seem to have had much ultimate choice in the matter. The United States could (and would) do nothing, and Khrushchev, blamed by hard-liners back home for the more or less liberal reforms vis-à-vis Poland and Tito that initially encouraged Hungarians in their desperate course, had to crush the revolt to prove his toughness and keep his power.

Gati paints Janos Kadar convincingly as a tough, chess-playing poor boy from the provinces, literally a bastard and always an outsider, who believes in communism but always hated sophisticated and cruel smarties like Rakosi. If I have read him right, he regards something like what Kadar has managed in Hungary to be a tactical model of what may increasingly happen in the western parts of East Europe -- i.e. local leadership that can keep a country Communist and more or less happy by introducing domestic reform and Western technology without incurring further Soviet intervention. The method: have a few things you absolutely will not tolerate, like criticism of the Soviet Union or its role in East Europe, be officially loyal with regard to Moscow's foreign policy but otherwise permit all sorts of small freedoms, free-wheeling economic improvement and as much economically crucial access to the technology of the West as you can.

He sees the Soviet Union still following the same policy as Stalin, alternating expansion and accommodation while the United States, despite maximized tough rhetoric, now seeks liberalization rather than liberation, diversity rather than democracy. The Soviet Union has been forced to yield a little on diversity in order to maintain even the present level of political stability and cohesion in its East European bloc. The pressures within that bloc are still the same, a desire for economic growth, some measure of freedom and national tradition. What has really changed, and in this it would seem there is real hope for the people of East Europe, is the economic situation, for the satellite nations, now no longer guaranteed cheap fuel and power by Soviet subsidies as they were in the 1970s, must make use of West European technology or grow more unstable still -- something the Soviet Union fears.