Even in 1984 it was apparent that Hungary was not like the other Eastern Bloc vassal states I had visited. The Hungarian uprising in 1956 had been crushed by the Russians, but the Politbureau in Moscow realised that the Magyars could not be contained by more repression and violence. The Soviets quietly allowed Hungary to experiment with a limited free market in agriculture. Farmers working on their own little patches of land produced more food than entire state-run cooperatives. Consequently, Hungarians had consumer choices that would have been the envy of the rest of the Soviet Bloc, had they known about it. The Communist Party then loosened restrictions on residential ownership, and all over the country Hungarians started building their own houses.
By 1984, state bureaucrats were going through the motions, largely ignored by the citizens of their workers' paradise. People could talk comparatively freely, and the arts were flourishing. The cafes and restaurants were busy in the evenings, and the atmosphere was relaxed. To be sure, bars in Prague, Dresden and East Berlin were busy too, populated by desperate looking men, drinking to expunge their futile working day, reluctant to return to cramped apartments. In East Berlin, the management had moved local people away from us in restaurants, worried a party official might accuse them of allowing Westerners to pollute the minds of their citizens. But in Hungary, local people were often keen to talk, full of helpful tourist tips.
Some aspects of Communist rule were harder to change, but the Hungarian public found ways around the indignities forced upon them by the vanguard of the proletariat. For instance, although major thoroughfares had been renamed (Lenin University, Marx Square, Engels Road, People's Liberation Square) people continued to address letters to the pre-World War Two street names. If you asked for directions to Karl Marx Place, or Rakosi Terrace, people would respond with the former names such as Octagon or St Andrew's Street.
Yet, the facades of buildings were still scarred by Soviet bullets and shells from the Russian tanks that had roared through the city streets, killing 2,500 Hungarian civilians in 1956. Scores more were arrested, and the rebellion leaders, including the former prime minister, Imre Nagy (the Gorbachev of his day) were executed. No wonder 200,000 Hungarians escaped to the West.
Still, there were attempts to build solidarity between the subject peoples of the Soviet Union and their oppressors. In record shops you could find recordings of Russian folk music and Serbian pop groups. One day, I was browsing in a shop in Vaci Utca, clutching an armful of inexpensive Communist-era classical recordings. A local man flicking through the record bin alongside me suddenly turned and held out an LP of traditional Mongolian songs. "For your collection," he murmured with a mischievous grin.
On my first visit, I wandered the streets, poking my nose into courtyards and vestibules to marvel at the original Art Nouveau cornicing, wrought iron balconies and stained-glass windows. I met residents who were thrilled I had come to admire the strange ceramic ornaments dotting the façade of their homes and the elaborate bannisters, twisting like vines, up stair cases; we had not a word of language in common, but they pulled me, a stranger, inside their homes to admire an original light fixture or door handle.
The exterior of the Libyan embassy had a mural of half-naked pre-Raphaelite women writhing in ecstasy, alongside old photographs of Colonel Gaddafi. Even the zoo was Art Nouveau, with statues of polar bears guarding the entrance. In the 1980s they allowed the public to interact with the animals, feeding and petting them. It was probably dangerous, but it kept the animals perky and engaged. We found a line of Hungarian children queuing up to take their turn placing apples in a hippo's open jaws.
On my second visit, I visited Laszlo, an Art Nouveau collector. He shared a two-bedroomed flat with his wife and son, but as we entered, we had to turn sideways and shuffle along the corridor because it was so filled with Art Nouveau wardrobes and armoires. The living room was stuffed with museum-quality pieces of late nineteenth century furniture, porcelain, sculpture, and paintings. His wife, Margaret, perched in one corner as if she were afraid to move, hemmed in by lamps and chairs. She was quiet but friendly, resigned to living with a loveable obsessive.
When Laszlo became interested in Hungarian history, he tried to track down examples of National Revival design. The late nineteenth century movement coincided with the desire for liberation from the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Magyars rejected the Habsburg hegemony, they resurrected their own traditional designs and styles. It was a political act, as well as an aesthetic one.
Odon Lechner was the godfather of the movement, covering his buildings with majolica flowers, and putting turbans of the rooves for the birds to enjoy, as he explained it. The interiors combined the Indian Raj with the court of King Arthur. His museums and institutes influenced a generation of artists who were proudly rediscovering uniquely Hungarian ideas, shapes and symbols.
Lechner 's masterpieces survived because post-war Hungary lacked the money to replace his work with modern buildings. But Laszlo wondered if examples of Art Nouveau furniture and object d'arte were forgotten in cupboards across the nation. He combed through telephone directories, searching for descendants of the movement's designers, artists and architects. He worked his way through hundreds of phone numbers, finding granddaughters and great nephews by a process of elimination. Then, he bought the furniture, paintings, ceramics, notebooks or drawings they had inherited. The result was stuffed into his flat in a leafy street in Pest. Meanwhile, his wife and son clambered around dressing tables and plant holders to go about their daily lives. His collection was one of the finest in the world, now worth untold millions of dollars, if you offered it to Sotheby's. In the decades since then, I've seen Laszlo's name in museum exhibitions ("lent by…").
I returned to see him as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians were pulling their tanks out of Hungary. Laszlo and his son had been out all night with a step ladder, unscrewing Communist street signs, and bringing them home. "One day," he said, "there'll be collectors who want this stuff." I caught his wife's eye. No doubt she was already dreading the arrival of statues of Lenin.
This is our message to the future
Back in 1988, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Laszlo directed us to Kecskemet, a market town surrounded by the puszta, Hungary's version of the prairies. Kecskemet means goat district, and its coat of arms is, fittingly, a goat on its hind legs. At the high point of Hungarian national consciousness, in the 1890s, the burghers splashed out on a town hall, designed to convey their belief that they would soon be living in a country free of Habsburg domination. They commissioned Lechner and the artist Gyula Partos to create a building owing nothing to the prevailing baroque Austrian wedding cake style. It was a daring decision for a rural town of only 38,000 people. In 1897, when their neo-Gothic palace was unveiled, it caused shock waves across Europe. The exterior was dusty pink, with a giddy mix of Queen Anne gables, neo-Gothic turrets and medieval windows. Inside, were coats of arms and heraldry, as well as panels of traditional Hungarian designs you might find gracing the curtains of a rural cottage. As he cut the ribbon, the mayor announced, melodramatically, "This is our message to the future."
The new town hall set the tone, and its citizens embraced their image as forward-thinking, independent and artistic. Another ground-breaking building followed in 1902: the Cifrapalota, or ornamented palace, designed by Markus Geza. Its exterior was white, but the roof line undulated, as if it was being pushed around by waves. Across the façade were long vertical panels of ceramic decoration, studded with multi-colored majolica love hearts, animals and flowers. In the 1960s, when flower power exploded from Carnaby Street to San Francisco, designers claimed their daring psychedelic designs were breaking new ground. But in Kecskemet, they had reached the outer bounds of style seven decades earlier. In 1988, the Cifrapalota was a trade union center; now, it houses the town's Modern Art Museum.
Laszlo called the style Art Noodle, referring to the whiplash motif, as well as the Magyar love of eating noodles with their goulash. He conceded that some of Lechner's ideas came from Turkish design, reflecting the years of Ottoman occupation. But he was insistent that Art Noodle owed nothing to traditional gypsy fabrics and ceramics. His distaste for the country's Roma minority was shared by many of his fellow countrymen. And yet in every restaurant, there was a gypsy band playing music closely associated with Central Europe.
Once the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, Austrian supermarkets sprouted on every corner. The gypsy bands played Richard Clayderman and Fiddler on the Roof. And at an agricultural show, I found a group of Hungarian men standing around a Japanese electronics stall, spellbound by a video of a giraffe giving birth, with the help of a man who had tied a rope around the hoofs of the emerging calf. Hostels were filled with young people learning coding. The Museum of Working Class People became the Museum of Contemporary History; the exhibits remained the same, only with new explanatory notes.
Long neglected buildings were restored by international luxury goods chains. The baroque Café Hungaria reclaimed its original name, the Café New York, which had been banished by the Russians who couldn't bear any reference to America. The former Gresham Insurance headquarters was painstakingly brought back to magnificence by the Four Seasons Hotel group. In Soviet times, we would wander through its dilapidated arcade, among the dead pigeons and rubbish, mourning its sad state, fearing the authorities would stand back as it disintegrated.
As buildings were rehabilitated, so were people: Imre Nagy, the executed hero of 1956, was exhumed and given an official funeral. A student leader called Victor Orban was among the voices calling for the Russians to leave Hungary for good. He and his Fidesz Party rode the wave of anti-Soviet feeling to power. George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist, paid for Orban to study at Oxford; Orban eventually paid him back by plastering Hungary with anti-Semitic posters accusing Soros of trying to manipulate Hungarian politics. Orban would also remove the statue honouring Imre Nagy, along with the laws and institutions protecting civil liberties, thereby demolishing any checks and balances on his power.
Back in 1989, on a journey to Szeged, we passed a rail yard filled with Soviet tanks being loaded onto trains for transport back to Russia, just as Victor Orban had demanded. Thirty years later, Orban praises Putin, while pouring scorn on the liberal democracies that came to Hungary's aid when the Berlin Wall came down.
Mafia Capitalism Takes Root
When the Berlin Wall came down, we traveled all over Hungary visiting farms: Henry wanted to import produce for his prepared food business in the UK, hoping he could support Hungary's fledgling private agriculture. We took trains to obscure villages on the puszta, meeting the bosses of state cooperatives in the process of privatising.
There was a pattern to these visits: first, there would be a mix up about who was collecting us from the train. This was before cell phones, so we would wait in one of the universally excellent station cafés. Eventually, a Jugo or Trabant would roar up, driven by a young man with George Michael hair, wearing a Manchester United or Arsenal shirt, and tight, faded jeans. The driver would rarely apologise for keeping us waiting. Macho culture never morphed into metrosexuality in Hungary.
We would hurtle out of town, the engine screaming like a sewing machine, past fields of women picking peppers and tomatoes. They defied the summer heat by wearing only bikinis. George Michael would speak English well, having recently memorised Western management jargon, and once we arrived at the cooperative, he would take the lead. Soon, however, we would realise that he had not grasped the principle of running a business without bribery or deception. We would also learn that there was no word for quality, and little notion of why it was important.
In the managing director's office, behind padded doors, we would meet George Michael's father or uncle. The older generation wore farm overalls or shiny, Socialist-era suits, sometimes flashing steel teeth. They would sit in silence around the boardroom table, staring at their calloused hands, during exchanges of business clichés. But if we gestured at the ego wall of photographs, they smiled, recalling the year they beat the Communist Party's five-year production quota. Then, using their few words of English, they would say, "Time for special project," and pull a bottle of Barack Palinka (a devastating Hungarian brandy) from a filing cabinet.
Unfortunately, the cocky young upstart would try to swindle Henry, and hours would be wasted while Henry explained he did not wish to take a stake in their business. More hours would disappear negotiating letters of credit and shipping arrangements. Once we had returned to the UK, weeks would pass when lawyers and bankers sent faxes promising that truck-loads of onions or red peppers would be dispatched, demanding payment up front; at the same time, Henry's side would explain that payment on delivery was the norm in the rest of Europe.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office wouldn't answer inquiries about trading with Hungary: the UK's aid was being funneled into teaching Hungarians about privatisation, which would, in turn, help British banks and financial institutions who would secure lucrative contracts.
Meanwhile, George Michael would push aside the more humble but honest Hungarians. His breed paid themselves bonuses, knowing the cooperative would collapse in due course, and that no member of the public had the money to buy shares in it. The red barons bided their time and then snapped up state assets cheaply. And the UK's financial institutions made money organising it.
After World War One, the treaty of Trianon punished the Magyars for siding with the losers. Subotica, now in modern Serbia, was a Hungarian town, and it still retains the distinctive Magyar flavour. The fine Hapsburg cities of Timisoara and Oradea went to Romania. It is no coincidence that Romania's revolt against the Communist Ceausescu regime began in Timisoara; its independent-minded folk were the first to rise up, facing down the ruthless Romanian security services in December 1989. The city had form: Timisoara was the site of the one of Christendom's last stands against the invading Ottomans in the 14th century.
The former Communist barons running the new Romania tried to delete Timisoara's role from history; the museum dedicated to the 1989 uprising is kept going by the efforts of a few volunteers. The curator is a survivor of the protests, and still walks with a limp from being shot. "They don't want any public discussion about those events, in case people start asking what went wrong? Where is our freedom?"
The main square in Timisoara, known as Little Vienna, boasts perfectly preserved Hapsburg buildings. On a warm summer's evening we watched the offspring of the former Communist elite cruise around in Ferraris. Not far from the cappuccino drinkers and their scantily-dressed girlfriends, there were old people with bandy legs, shuffling along the streets, checking garbage cans. They lived in grim and disintegrating apartment blocks, traveling on ancient street cars that are sticky with dirt. Even ten years ago, people still used a cart and horse; but they were invisible to those who cashed in on the mafia capitalist garage sale of state assets. No wonder two million of Romania's nineteen million citizens went abroad to work when the country joined the European Union in 2007. Since then, however, the authorities have tackled the country's reputed larceny, and Transparency International ranks it as less corrupt than Italy or Greece.
The larceny started at the top, long before the downfall of Communism: when Ceausescu and his wife ("she left her village with a scrubbing brush in her hand and arrived in Bucharest with a PhD," as the Romanian saying goes) visited the UK, they stayed at Buckingham Palace. But when Romania's first couple left, they removed everything they could from the bedroom, including the Queen's light fittings and sheets. A member of the household staff noticed the room had been stripped bare, and the stolen objects were quietly removed from the Ceausescu baggage before they were loaded into their limo.
We left Timisoara on a train with plywood walls. When we arrived in Oradea, another former Magyar city, there was no platform: everyone had to clamber down to the track. Evidently, the Bucharest elite doesn't use public transport.
Like Timisoara, Oradea is a Hapsburg gem, but what makes it interesting are its early Twentieth Century edifices. They were designed by Hungarian architects, most of whom were Jewish, celebrating their country's liberation from the Austrians. However, their story does not fit in with the current nationalist and anti-Semitic narrative, slithering out from beneath rocks across Eastern Europe. Adam Michnik, a founder of the Polish Solidarity movement, links this rise in chauvinism to peoples' need to blame others for their own collaboration with former Communist regimes. The heroes who gave their lives to fight tyranny in this region must be turning in their graves.
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