Communist Budapest: The “Happiest Barack” in the Soviet Bloc

Communist Budapest: The “Happiest Barack” in the Soviet Bloc

Communist-Budapest-2Communism in Hungary had two faces: Stalinism and Kadarism. Stalinism started in 1948 when Soviet dictator Jozef Stalin helped a hard­line communist party to take power in Hungary. After the uprising against Soviet dominance and communist dictatorship in 1956, which was violently crushed, the new Hungarian party leader János Kádár soon started introducing reforms. This Kadarism or “goulash communism” was a soft dictatorship in which Hungarians had certain liberties and were guaranteed a certain level of material well­being, in exchange for silence and obedience on major issues. It made Hungary into what was also called “the happiest barrack in the Soviet Bloc”.

The “Communist Budapest” tour takes you along some of the scenes of crucial events in these strange decades of oppression as well as progress; You’ll get a rich glimpse of daily life during this era. We start at Bem József Square, where the first big demonstration of the 1956 uprising started. On the square is also a coffeehouse that has retained its original interior from the 1960’s. From there, we go by subway to Kossuth square in front of Parliament to see several monuments that bear witness to the political and armed conflicts that took place during the 1956 revolution.

Communist-Budapest-3It is just a minute walk to Freedom Square, where the Cold War is symbolized by four edifices in stone: the US embassy, a monument to the Soviet army, the statue of President Ronald Reagan and the entrance to a secret atomic shelter. The subway takes you to one of the 1970’s housing estates at the edge of the city centre. These housing blocks may seem drab and grey today, but at the time young Hungarian families were overjoyed to be awarded an apartment here because the newer building had elevators and modern conveniences unknown in Budapest’s older constructions. You’ll also get a feel of what a communist era shopping centre looked like.

We then drop by at the former People’s Stadium (now Puskas Soccer Stadium), one of the few places in town where there are some typically socialist realist statues of heroic workers, soldiers and intellectuals, pointing the way towards a bright future, still standing. A short ride in one of “Stalin’s trolley buses” – yes, we’ll explain – brings you to Dozsa György Street, the broad boulevard that was used for May Day parades. We use iPads and old photos to show you the contrast between the city’s present topography and its former communist appearances. These visual aids help you to grasp the changes that have taken place since the collapse of communism in Hungary, for example when we examine the monument now standing at the spot where, in October 1956, demonstrators toppled the gigantic bronze statue of Stalin.

Communist-Budapest-4Around the corner is, last but not least, the House of Terror, a museum housed in the former headquarters of the fascist as well as the Stalinist secret services. It commemorates the crimes of communism, especially during the Stalinist years. In front of the building is a slab of the Berlin Wall. A visit to the museum is not included in the walk, but it is certainly a worthwhile sequel for those interested in examining the daily experience of Hungarians under communism more deeply.

ZoltanZoltán Csipke was born and raised in Los Angeles. After starting his PhD in History at the University of Liverpool in 2006, he moved to Budapest in 2007 for his research, where he has lived ever since. Zoltán’s research focused specifically on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and collective memory, with a wider interest in the Cold War. He formerly lectured at Eötvös Loránd University and the Balassi Institute, having also been a senior editor at the All Hungary Media Group, where he focused on Hungarian politics and Budapest nightlife. He can frequently be found wandering the streets of Budapest with his camera as he indulges in his hobby of cityscape photography or providing impromptu history lessons at a table with friends in one of the city’s cafés or ruin pubs.
RunaRuna Hellinga is a freelance journalist, writing for Dutch newspapers. She came to Hungary in 1989 when communism was just collapsing and the century’s most exciting political, economical and social changes were unfolding. From 1994, she spent a number of years in South Africa, covering the end of Apartheid in that country for the Dutch press. In 1998 she returned to Hungary as a freelancer, and has been living in the country ever since, first in Budapest and the last couple of years in the small Baroque town of Vác. In 2008 she wrote a book about Budapest, covering the city’s history and culture, but also the social and political developments from the times of the Romans until today. Together with her husband Henk Hirs (also a journalist) she organizes themed tours, covering subjects from Jugendstil architecture and the remnants of the Turkish occupation to the communist past. As a correspondent, she can also offer a lot of insight in recent Hungarian political and cultural developments. On request, she also organizes tours around special subjects like Hungarian literature or current social issues.
HenkHenk Hirs is a Dutch radio and newspaper journalist who first came to Hungary in the summer of 1989, when the country was in the midst of pulling down the Iron Curtain. He has been reporting on its many ups and downs ever since,getting to know the people, their turbulent history, their various cultures and their impossible language in the process. Between 2006 and 2010, he was editor in chief of Business Hungary, the monthly magazine of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary. After living in Budapest for many years, in 2008 he moved with his wife, Runa (also a distinguished journalist), to the lovely little Baroque town of Vác close to the Hungarian capital. Suddenly, he got to know “the other Hungary” of gracious suburban town life. He has published several books on the country, among them a tourist guide which he updates yearly. He is also the co-author of various Dutch-language blogs on current events and tourism developments.
CsabaCsaba Tibor Tóth born and raised in Szeged, acquired a distinguished interest in the history of his country quite early on, finishing his BA studies in 2010 at the University of Szeged, with a double major in history and cultural anthropology. On the cultural anthropology track, he finished a thesis on the beginnings of Hungarian Jewish Folklore in the 1890’s, then he expanded on with this topic at Central European University, where he achieved a MA with Honors in 2011. In order to study Jewish history and culture in a broader context, Csaba went through a second Masters program at the University of Southampton, UK in 2012. He currently works at Budapest’s Holocaust Memorial Center in as a guide and educator, while regularly blogging in Hungarian about the country’s history and daily politics.
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Starting Location:
Bambi Eszpresszó
Frankel Leó út 2/4
1027 Budapest

 

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