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Hungary: U.S. President To Honor 1956 Uprising

By Richard Solash Hungarians atop a Soviet tank outside parliament during the Hungarian Uprising, Budapest 1956 (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, June 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush will travel to Budapest on June 22, the day after the EU-U.S. summit in Vienna. One purpose of his trip is to meet with the Hungarian president, prime minister, and other government officials, but he also will take the opportunity to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising.

It is November 4, 1956, and the city of Budapest is being invaded. "In the early hours of the morning, Soviet troops started an attack against the Hungarian capital with the apparent purpose of overthrowing the lawful democratic government of the country. Our troops are engaged in battle with the Soviet forces. The government is in its place," said embattled Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy.
"I would say that one of the most important messages of '56 outside of Hungary was that it definitely proved that communism itself couldn't be reformed." -- analyst

After the Soviet troops crushed the resistance, Nagy was arrested and, two years later, executed by hanging. On June 22, Bush will pay tribute to Nagy and all those who died for their cause in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against communism (October 23 to November 4, 1956).

Remembering The Uprising

After meeting with Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom and other top officials, Bush will use the opportunity to commemorate the uprising's 50th anniversary, which will officially be celebrated in October.

"To lay a wreath at the eternal flame to pay respect to those who lost their lives during the 1956 revolt against communism," U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley said in describing some of the highlights of Bush's agenda ahead of the trip.

"Later that day, the President [Bush] will deliver remarks commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. He will also highlight the inspiration and lessons offered from Hungary's remarkable transition and will welcome efforts to further advance reform in the region today," Hadley added.

Bodies on a Budapest street after the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising (TASS)

A sagging economy, worker discontent, and a worsening standard of living were some of the causes behind the 1956 uprising. The death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin three years earlier encouraged some Communist parties in Eastern Europe to develop reformist wings and publics saw a window for change.

Although the uprising against communist control was eventually defeated, analysts say it marked several important milestones in Eastern Europeans' struggle for freedom from Soviet power.

"I would say in the long term, 1956 definitely weakened the Soviet power, not only in Hungary, but in general," says Attila Lengyel of the Balassi Balint Institute for Hungarian Studies in Budapest.

End Of Illusions Of Reform

"I would say that one of the most important messages of '56 outside of Hungary was that it definitely proved that communism itself couldn't be reformed," he adds. "And it also destroyed an illusion that perhaps the Stalinist system was not as bad as its reputation showed sometimes after the 1930s."

Lengyel believes this, in turn, provided ideological motivation for later revolts against the communist system, such as Poland's Solidarity movement.

"Because the illusion of reformable communism was probably destroyed forever, I think the later anticommunism movements could count on the fact that it was a leftist illusion -- how to reform [communism], how to make it human-faced," he says. "This is why I would say that [the 1956 uprising] was not only a Hungarian revolutionary event, but it is much more, because its message went beyond the borders [of Hungary]."

For Hungary itself, Lengyel says, the 1956 uprising has a special, national meaning as well. He says that much of Hungarian history can be described as wars of independence through the centuries.

And he notes that "there were only few [events] when the whole nation could unite as one against something, and one of them was 1956."

Two Recollections Of The Secret Speech

Two Recollections Of The Secret Speech
Below, RFE/RL presents recollections of Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev's son.

"A POWERFUL TEXT": Former Soviet President MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, speaking about the secret speech in 1994, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nikita Khrushchev:

I was among those who were acquainted -- after all, not everyone was -- with the speech. At the time, I was the deputy chief of the agitation and propaganda department of our region's Komsomol. I had the opportunity to be invited to the party's district committee, where I became acquainted with this text.
This acquaintance took place in a closed environment, and the speech was taken away five days later. This is why, after I read it, I never saw it again until perestroika. Later, many found out about the text, but slowly. In the West, on the other hand, it was published and became popular.
It was a powerful text. It isn't marked by strong analysis, or a deep approach to the roots of all these phenomena, like why the personality cult became possible -- you won't find these things there. But there is something there that moves and touches the soul. It talks about what was happening to us, what was happening to people, to outstanding people -- how they left and were turned to sand and everything vanished...and people's fates.... This is simple and terrifying. In that sense, the speech creates a strong impression.
I remember how my grandfather was arrested. When the revolution happened, his family got land, and it was apparent to them that it was theirs to manage. So he became a communist. He created kolkhozes [collective farms]; he was the chairman of a kolkhoz for many years. Then, suddenly, in 1938, he is an enemy of the people! This is why, in this sense, I was prepared for the speech and interpreted it differently than others.
But even I was haunted by the question: Was it really like that? Can it be?! My grandfather, who survived torture, returned to the village alive. The grandfather Raisa Maksimovna [Gorbachev's wife -- ed.] was also a peasant and was shot as a Trotskyite. It was a shame, because he did not know what a Trotskyite was. This was in the Altai region.
I interpreted it to some extent as -- yes, this is what happened, this is what happened in my family, and this is what happened in the entire country. It was a tragedy, many people died, a nation was drained of blood and, to a certain extent, decapitated. The intellectual part of the army, and of the politicians, and the administrators was annihilated, decimated -- and the artistic intelligentsia.... But around the world, I noticed a shocking confusion. It was hard not to believe, but some still didn't. Can it really be that it happened this way? But the most important question that arose was: Why did all this collapse and why in this way?
I think this is exactly what Khrushchev must be credited with. They say he trembled while he read the speech, but he read it nonetheless. I think this is where we begin our difficult, dramatic separation from Stalinism and everything it bore.

From left to right, Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikita Khrushchev, and Josef Stalin watch a parade from the top of Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum in 1938 (TASS)

"TO TELL THE TRUTH": In February 1996, RFE/RL correspondent Vladimir Tolz spoke with SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV, Nikita Khrushchev's son, about his recollections of the 1956 secret speech.

Sergei Khrushchev: I found out about the speech not from my father, but later, when people came and said, "You know, there was this report...." Then I rushed to him with questions.

RFE/RL: And what did he tell you?

Khrushchev: He actually didn't tell me anything. He said, "Well, you know, we decided that we had to..." -- I forget his exact words now -- "tell the truth." He probably said it a bit differently, but in any case he gave me the text and said, "Here, read it. I'm tired of talking...."

RFE/RL: Do you remember your impression? Was it somehow discussed in your family?

Khrushchev: It wasn't even discussed in our family. We all kept to ourselves because we all had -- I assume -- thoughts of our own about the matter. For me, it was the end of the world. Later, when I asked my father about this and he told me about his friends who died, I became an anti-Stalinist, and it seemed to me at that moment that it would be impossible to resurrect the name of Stalin and speak of it positively. But as you see, we were all wrong about that.