Hungary, 1989: Reform Stirs in the Big, Bad, January S(z)mog
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Budapest-born George Szirtes returns to Hungary in a year of change as the communist system edges hesitantly into an unknown, uncharted future
Photo: Geroge Szirtes in more modern light. The poet and author lives in (szmogless) Norfolk, England. In this guest post, he recalls some of his salient memories of the heady days he and his wife spent in Hungary in 1989.
My third British Council Scholarship was in 1989. It was originally for five months, longer than the two previous ones in '85 and '87, but, I the event, it was to extend to close on nine. The Kádár era was over. János Kádár, who had led Hungary since the crushing of the revolution in 1956, had been ill and was pressured into resigning in 1988. The man appointed in his place, Károly Grósz, was not to last long. Gorbachev’s declaration of perestroika and glasnost two years earlier had destabilised everything somewhat as the death of Stalin had done in 1953. A friend, the poet Péter Kántor, had arranged accommodation for us in the inner city, at the penthouse flat of one of the major underground opposition figures, Miklós Haraszti. Haraszti, whom we hadn’t met, was away in the States on a funded residency, so his place was available for some months. We drove to Hungary in early January having arranged for the children to follow us later. The key to the flat on the fifth floor was to be left with Haraszti’s ex-wife, the economist Vera Pécsi who lived in the flat next to him (he had a new partner), a room between the two of them being given over to their daughter. We rang Pécsi’s bell. She appeared, gave us the key then quickly excused herself saying she was watching a debate in parliament on TV. Watching parliament?! Who watches parliament? What debate? Surely parliament was just a rubber stamp for the party whose headquarters lay very close to our friend Péter’s flat just on the Pest side of the Danube embankment? So we turned on the TV. There was a very polite formal exchange of some sort going on. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing very watchable in fact. By the next day the city was full of anxiety. Asking a question in parliament was tantamount to a revolutionary act, a provocation at least. What would the Russians do? That question was to be asked at several points of our stay over the next few months. Nothing happened. We settled in, visited our friends, walked around, bought provisions and I got down to work on my translation and on a set of poems that were to form the core of my next book. I took a regular fifteen minute walk to Vörösmarty Square and the offices of Corvina, the publishers of my translation, to consult with my editor Day by day, the press reported something new and unheard of, something small in itself, but significant in the order of things. That order was splintering if not exactly cracking apart. There were small demonstrations in sympathy with Vaclav Havel who was in prison, the events advertised on slips of paper stuck to lamp-posts. Meanwhile the underground press, both political and literary, was to be found literally underground, being sold, ever less regulated, at the various Metro stations. Smog covered the city through February. The legend I LOVE SMOG* was scrawled on parked cars. Dogs trailed up and down the street leaving piles of poop we had to negotiate. We made new friends and visited my retired uncle Pista and his family. Pista was a kindly old Stalinist who was deeply distrustful of anything after Kádár. His son-in-law, Tamás, had an official post in the party, regulating state advertisements on radio. Pista used to take us on excursions. On one occasion back in 1985 he had taken us and the children to Eger by train. A white moustached Hungarian farm-worker – he might still have been referred to as a paraszt or peasant – shared our compartment. Hearing my wife and the children speaking English he leaned to Uncle Pista and asked, ‘Where are they from?’ ‘England,’ Uncle Pista replied. ‘Ah they are free there,’ said the peasant. ‘Here we are all slaves.’ Uncle Pista was embarrassed and searched for a quick answer. ‘We are all slaves to something,’ he muttered, ‘to our jobs, our wives, or hobbies…’ Pista was a decent man. He had been imprisoned in Mauthausen (the principal Nazi death camp in Austria) and survived to be an enthusiastic party member: but the party had cut him loose. Events accelerated in 1989. We met various members of the underground opposition or the opposition press in one or other flat. I was asked to translate the Hungarian version of the Internationale into English. I did so. I’ve lost it since but I don’t think it was much good. I was somebody but they weren’t sure who. I had made literary news when I first returned in 1984 (‘prize winning English poet is really Hungarian’) and some of it still hung around. In any case, scenting that there was something momentous going on, I started collecting the daily newspapers, spotting advertisements for political meetings among Dogs-for-Sale notices. The government, it seemed, was splitting into a diminishing number of hard liners on one hand and a growing number of new liberals, who hardly seemed communists at all, on the other. But that was no surprise. The party, as was common knowledge, had long ceased to have an ideological function. It was a career structure based on privileges, operating - with considerable Kádár-negotiated licence - within the Soviet system. Within that system lay another system: a world of moonlighting and black-markets where overstaffed factories and workshops let their employees out to make ready money that they secretly changed into hard currency and stowed under the mattress. That economy was thriving: the official one was living with increasing debts. The party itself was a mixture of managers, operators and chancers. Tamás, it was to turn out, was such a chancer. As for Károly Grósz, he was the party’s falling man, falling slowly but surely. The only question was where he – and the party - would land. * I thought it was Magyarised and spelled I LOVE SZMOG George, but perhaps we saw different cars :) I have a feeling the one I remember was on Dózsa György út, or somewhere in XIV - but my memory could be playing tricks. Kester
George's blog: http://georgeszirtes.blogspot.com/
To be continued