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Originally published October 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 18, 2006 at 6:22 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Hungary's moment of clarity in the fight against communism

Fifty years ago, Csaba Hegyvary crawled inside Stalin's head. The statue of the Marxist czar had stood in Budapest, the capital of Hungary...

Fifty years ago, Csaba Hegyvary crawled inside Stalin's head. The statue of the Marxist czar had stood in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, until Oct. 23, 1956. Insurrectionists had cut it off at the knees, decapitated it and rudely dragged the huge bronze head down Ulloi Avenue and deposited it in front of the National Theater.

Hegyvary, then 19, had grown up in a Stalinist state.

"You simply cannot imagine the enormous web and cloud of lies I grew up with," he recalls. "We had to worship the leaders. At the movies when they showed Stalin, we had to stand up and sing songs to him."

When he heard that Stalin's head was in the street, he went to get a piece of it. "I did get a piece of it," he says. But soldiers at the state radio station started shooting at him, which is why he crawled inside Stalin's metal cranium.

Here in Seattle, at Swedish Hospital, Hegyvary has made a career as a psychiatrist, figuratively getting inside people's heads. At 19, he did it literally, and has never forgotten it.

Hollywood has made no thrilling movie about the Hungarian Revolution, and most Americans know nothing of it. It survives as a moment of clarity in the worldwide struggle with communism, which took up much of the 20th century.

Today, only table scraps of real communism are left. The deficiencies of North Korea are obvious even from outer space: The lights have gone out. But in the world in which I grew up — the 1960s, — Marxism-Leninism had not yet imploded. The Reds had taken one-third of the Earth and given back none of it. Their cars and clothing were crummy, but they had beaten us into outer space. And they believed. They were organized. In Vietnam, they were on the offensive.

As kids in school in the mid-'60s, we argued about whether America should be fighting communism in Vietnam, or anywhere. Those who said yes, as I did, argued that the system was bad. Those on the other side often argued that it was not so bad. Maybe communism wouldn't work for us, because Americans had to have our Levis and stuff, but it was different for them. They — the Vietnamese, Chinese, Cubans — were poor, and communism put the poor first. Maybe it was better for them.

My side in that argument was wrong about some things — it was not necessary for America to fight the Reds everywhere in the world — but it was right about the one thing. Communism was a rotten system, and people hated it.

Hungary showed that. People there had cut the hammer-and-wheat emblem from the national flag and flown the flag with a hole in it. In Hungary, kids had used Molotov cocktails to stop tanks.

The West noticed. In France and Italy, the communist parties might have taken power, but "not after Hungary," writes journalist Victor Sebestyen in his new history, "Twelve Days." In France, the Communist Party shrank by half.

"They were shocked," says Kinga Csepreghy, a Hungarian immigrant who lives in Bellevue. "They never said thanks to us, but they were the ones who benefited, not us."

The Hungarians had hoped for help from America, but our Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, did not want to start a war. He signaled that the Soviet Union was free to crush the revolution, and it did.

Hegyvary remembers that, too. "The whole nation was in depression," he says. "We would hear on the radio that so-and-so was sentenced to death, and the sentence had been carried out."

The Hungarian Revolution was nothing to celebrate at the time. It is, now.

In Seattle on Saturday, St. James Cathedral will have a special Archdiocesan Mass at noon by Catholic Bishop Joseph Tyson, followed by an address by the Rev. Sándor Szabó, a Protestant.

Sunday night, Hungarian pianist Endre Hegedüs, a specialist in the music of Franz Liszt, will perform at Benaroya Hall. Tickets are — of course — $19.56.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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