1956—Budapest is rising. 1956—Budapest is fighting. 1956—Budapest is falling.
Though we only had two days in Budapest, we made the most of them. One of the most interesting and fulfilling things we did was go on a free walking tour of communism’s impact on Budapest.
Communism is one of those topics that I didn’t really study extensively in school. History classes are a marathon to reach the end, and inevitably, we started sprinting after the Kennedy assassination. Though I learned about Vietnam and the Iron Curtain, those topics only came up in my tenth- and eleventh-grade history classes, and they came through the lens of Americans.
Let me tell you about bomb shelters, y’all. My tenth-grade teacher made herself (aged five or so) a bomb shelter out of a refrigerator box. Accordingly, that was everyone’s end-of-term project. It was awesome.
Anyway, it was super interesting to learn about the Communism regime. Our tour guide grew up in Budapest during the regime, so her perspectives were fascinating. Our sub-tour guides were a Rastafarian and a (shall we say) effeminate gentleman from Chicago, which kind of perplexed me.
These are the remains of the international bus terminal. Aggie, our tour guide, told us that it was exceedingly difficult to get permission to go to the West. You had to have a separate passport and a visa from the USSR to leave as well as a visa to enter the country you wanted to go. Getting to leave the country was difficult because cars were so expensive and so hard to purchase. People with means waited up to two years just to get a crappy little car.
Once you were coming back into the country, customs regulations were strict. Aggie’s family went to Vienna, where they were delighted to find bananas everywhere. Bananas, in the Communist era, were extremely difficult to come by and were such a treat that they were what Santa left for you. Her family bought kilos of bananas, which they were not permitted to bring back into Hungary. The Soviets feared that they would use the bananas as bribes or that they would incite riots, so the family had to eat every single banana on the side of the road outside customs.
Thanks to my helpful commenters, I now know that kilos of bananas equals A LOT of bananas. No wonder Aggie said they are among her least favorite foods now.
Communist block buildings are everywhere in Budapest, and they look so weird mixed in with the beautiful architecture of ages past. Housing is so expensive and hard to come by in Budapest that these buildings are completely inhabited. People shell out for these beauties. They apparently have terrible heating and AC and are miserable to live in.
That’s Aggie in the grey jacket, and she’s telling us about the health care system in Hungary. They kept their public, national healthcare after communism, but it is the pits. Technically, it is always free to see a public doctor, but a story Aggie told illustrated the corruption that’s present in all sorts of public life in Hungary.
Aggie has two kids under the age of five. When she was pregnant with her first one, she decided she would buck the norm of paying doctors under the table to get good service. “I am not blackmailing my way to a baby!” she said. After she went into the labor, she (naturally) went to the hospital with her husband. She was left alone for about 20 hours until a doctor magically appeared to deliver the kid.
Her experience was so miserable that she said she paid everyone she could when pregnant with the second. Her OB/GYN got a little something after every appointment. The nurses, ultrasound techs, receptionists, and anesthesiologist got some cash moneys. When she went into labor, she was constantly surrounded by people offering her pain medicine, chocolate, breakfast, water, ice, and anything else she could possibly want.
That happened in 2008 and 2010, guys. How absolutely insane is that?
This building is now empty. During Communism, they got two channels: Hungarian public access TV and MTV. I guess they figured they’d be anti-west if they heard things like this:
Sweet mullet, bro.
An extensive bomb shelter for important government officials. Sometimes I forget that the entire idea behind the Cold War was they thought we were going to bomb them, too.
The last standing Soviet war memorial in the city (country?). The Hungarians and Russians struck a deal: if Budapest kept the memorial, the Russians would tend a Hungarian cemetery in what is now Russia.
Bad part of this? This memorial is directly across from the US Embassy. But we Americans, we are not ones to be cowed. What did we do?
Erected this statue right next to the war memorial. TAM.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the site TFM (total frat move): Total America Move.)
The title of my blog post is a quote from the musical Chess which alludes to this uprising. In 1956, the Hungarians had had enough and had an uprising in a square across from Parliament. They were ultimately defeated, but they gained Hungarians more rights and less restrictions for the rest of Communism. The sphere signify places where bullets hit the building. A row of statues behind this picture show those who were murdered. A Hungarian flag with the middle cut out now flies in the square opposite to memorialize those sacrifices.
This walking tour was the one I learned the most on, I think. Now I’m looking for a good read on life under communism, so if you’ve got a book to recommend, please drop me a comment below.