© COPYRIGHT NORA TERJAN
Russian Troops Invaded Budapest in October 1956I was ten years old in October, 1956. I have heard stories at home. Before the riots broke out and Russian troops invaded Budapest, many people had been taken to Gulag camps. Many had been deported and strangers had moved into their homes. Then there was the propaganda what teachers taught as at school, it sounded very different. However, for my dad, "dictatorship of the proletariat" was dictatorship anyway. My mother always closed the windows carefully when we talked about politics. An eavesdropping doorman, a neighbor might have meant a threat. My dad did not get a job, he received a friendly premonition: he should have gotten an actual job (he was an artist, artists and intellectuals were undesirable in Socialist regimes). Officials also advised him to stop painting portraits and landscapes, instead, he should paint happy workers in factories and other respectable objects of Socialist realism. My father, at last, chose to become a truck driver. We hardly could make ends meet, so he gathered metal scraps and sold them. He painted amazing paintings at night, and he sold them at a very low price on the black market. His hands were always swollen and rough, sharp metal scraps cut his fingers.
23 October, 1956 - the day when the Hungarian revolution had started, as a result, Russian troops invaded Budapest - fell on Tuesday. I was with my dad that day, we were walking in the city centre, we have seen ten thousands of people gathering at Heroes Square. We were not afraid: grey, weary faces of people seemed bright and happy now, people were laughing and talking aloud. We have been near the headquarters of the Party Congress. We saw the statue of Stalin, a loathed symbol. Josip Stalin’s gigantic statue was looming above us, watching, observing, threatening. By the time my dad and I reached the headquarters, rioters had climbed up the building, they were kicking and battering the large red star fastened upon its façade, another symbol of control and oppression, a memento that Russian troops invaded Budapest and stayed around forever. The star was robust and heavy, hard to get rid of; when some pieces of it at last fell off, the crowd cheered. Some of the rioters climbed up Stalin's statue. They had steel ropes, and they tried to destroy the statue, but it did not move for hours and hours.
My dad and I were wavering with the crowd, heading home. Soon we heard deafening cheers again, the crowd was going crazy. We turned back to see what was going on. Behind us, a huge, dark shadow fell down from its pedestal: at last, the protesters managed to tear down the statue. My father looked at me and told me that this was a historical moment. This was sometime at half past nine, p.m. On Dozsa Gyorgy Street, we saw trucks, packed with shouting, armed people. "Hungarians, come with us!" "Russians, clear off!" "We want neutrality!"
When father and I got home, neighbors told us that the state police shot some of the rioters at the headquarters of the radio. Those years, the radio was the only source of information. Newspapers were writing about Soviet propaganda, the party congress and glorious new laws, no real news.
My parents were excited and worried. Mama said a revolution was worse than any war, because there was no way to hide away from it. She must have known it, she was born in 1910, and, until 1956, she has seen too much.
The next day, people did not go to work, everybody stayed at home, there was no mass transportation. This time we did not have to turn down the radio when we listened to Free Europe. It had great news. Freedom fighters won all over Budapest. Soldiers sided with the rioters and turned against the Soviets. Protesters destroyed the headquarters of the radio. They set political prisoners free. Free Europe made us believe that the world was watching us and supporting us. There were no rumors that Russian troops invaded Budapest or planned on doing so. We knew little about what was going on all over Budapest. We, kids, had no clue that many people died at Republic Square and near the Parliament. We could not see brutally lynched KGB officers and gory corpses of Soviet soldiers on the roads. My dad was almost shot on his way to work: he was turning into a side-street when a Russian tank targeted him.
How happy we were when we heard that Russian troops that invaded Budapest and have been there “temporarily” in Hungary (since 1945) were going to leave at last. It was our first victory. The Western world hailed us. Hungarians were afraid, but full of hopes. We tested the word freedom.
On 4th November, we woke up to a creepy sound. Screeching noises. Metallic clanks against the pavement of the road. I cannot remember who has said it aloud: “The Russians are here”. It was frightening. The clanks came from tanks: Russian troops invaded Budapest. Then we heard shots. My mother ordered us to hide in the basement. The same basement where she had been hiding in 1944 when Russian troops invaded Budapest. Her face had been stained with soot, this was how women wanted to avoid getting raped. Some people had walled up young women in basements to prevent rapes. Some of the neighbors had never emerged from that basement. And now, in 1956, the Russians were here again. We were afraid. We lived in the basement for a week. Some of the men lurked out to bring food for us, one of them was shot dead on his way back. People were whispering about dead bodies on the streets and Russian tanks that shot Hungarians. All the promises of the Free Europe were useless. They told us the world would not let Russian tanks destroy us. There were rumors about UNO troops rushing to our aid. However, soon we realized that it all ended for us. We heard another voice on the radio, that of Janos Kadar: “We have successfully destroyed anti-revolutionary groups, along with the Russian troops that came to help us . . .”
When we left the basement, my dad took us to his truck and showed us around in the destroyed city. “You’ve got to see it, so that to remember everything,” he said. After the Russian troops invaded Budapest, the city was in ruins. Some buildings were missing, only debris was left where once had been homes.
There were whispers that the secret police was after the former rioters. There were whispers that some people were going to leave for abroad, since the borders were still open. People have been searching for lost family members through Free Europe for several years, using only first names. Sometime in mid-November, we went back to school. We have studied that 1956 was the anti-revolution of a mob, destroyed with the help of Russian troops. We have seen photos of murdered KGB men, but no murdered university students.
A few years later I was in the cemetery at Fiume Street on 23rd October, accompanied by a friend. We have seen dozens of parents, grieving for their children; is a little known fact that the gist of the victims murdered during the revolution and executed in the aftermath were at age 15-18, students of the University of Technics and young workers. That evening, the Fiume Street cemetery was dazzling, illuminated by thousands of candles. At six p.m., policemen appeared, they shouted at people and pushed and shoved them out of the cemetery, they turned away everyone. For decades, there was a palpable tension in Hungary on 23rd Octobers and the following days, the time when Russian troops invaded Budapest.
What is freedom? It is an eternal question. Is it an ideology, a freedom of decision-making above all? Fifty years ago, Hungarians wanted the freedom of thoughts. They wanted neutrality. They also lived in poverty, they were desperate. They could not accept that they had to live a lie or they were taken away to a prison from where they returned as wrecks or they did not return at all. My parents wanted a good life, safety, living without fear. They, having seen WWII, learned that freedom of your everyday life is simple. You can talk, work, plan your future freely. In 1956, when Russian troops invaded Budapest, there were no ringleaders in the revolution: by chance, a couple of persons turned into heroes, even if they never wanted to be ones. In 1956, plenty of them died.