Within hours, the crowd had swelled to 200,000 -- and the first large-scale revolt in a Soviet satellite was under way. Three weeks later, thousands of young Hungarians lay dead after Soviet troops brutally suppressed the uprising.
A Glimmer Of Hope
It started as a glimmer of hope. And while it ended in death, and defeat, the revolt helped chart a course for successful anti-Soviet resistance across Eastern Europe.
It also served as a wake-up call to Western European leftists, many of whom abandoned communism after witnessing the display of Soviet brutality.
Hungarian-born Charles Gati, who now lives in the United States, was a young journalist in Budapest at the time of the failed revolt.
"It showed that communism was unsustainable and didn't work," Gati says. "On the other hand, it also showed that communism could not be overthrown as long as the Soviet Union resisted it, and other methods had to be found. So the lesson for the United States was that instead of confrontation, and such empty slogans as 'liberation' and 'rollback,' the United States and the West in general should work toward gradual change."
Yet on October 23, 1956, change seemed possible.
Thousands of students, inspired by recent anti-Soviet protests in Poland, marched through Budapest with a list of 16 demands. They ranged from the withdrawal of Soviet troops to free elections, a review of the economic system and foreign relations, and punishment for the alleged crimes of local communist officials.
But as the protest grew -- swelling to 200,000 -- secret police suddenly opened fire to disperse the crowd. Several marchers were killed.
The uprising had begun.
"Today's broadcast is devoted entirely to the reaction in the Western press to the Hungarian student movements," Radio Free Europe's Hungarian Service reported at the time. "We report on the unusually long articles and comments that were published in important Western newspapers in connection with the youth movement in Hungary."
From the start, foreign media such as Radio Free Europe (RFE) played a key role in transmitting to Hungarians Western hopes that the protests could help end Soviet control of Budapest.
But such media, in particular RFE, later came under strong criticism for allegedly encouraging the demonstrators, despite knowing that the United States would never step in with military help lest it risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Yet U.S. government rhetoric had amply stoked hopes for freedom -- and expectations that the United States would intervene to back up such hopes -- across Soviet Eastern Europe.
The administration of then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had frequently encouraged Eastern Europeans to seek "liberation" and "roll back" the Soviet oppressors.
Yet the world could not have been more surprised when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian students appeared to take Washington at its word -- and seek liberation.
"Nobody foresaw it," says Ralph Walter, who was a senior RFE executive in Munich at the time of the uprising. "Nobody was ready for it -- neither in Budapest, Moscow, Washington or anywhere else. It just happened. But once [shots] had been fired during this mass demonstration, the bloodshed began, the revolution spread, and the demands increased."
For a few brief days, it looked like the uprising might triumph -- that Hungary might follow neighbor Austria in charting a neutral course between Moscow and the West.
On October 24, the students had a key demand met when reformer Imre Nagy was appointed prime minister. The news was seen as a victory despite the presence in Budapest of Soviet tanks, which had fired on and killed some protesters.
As the rallies spread through the countryside, Nagy began negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops on October 28. In an address on national radio, Nagy also told Hungarians that the dreaded secret police, the AVH, would be disbanded and there would be a return to the traditional national flag.
Two days later, progress was palpable: The Soviet Army retreated from Budapest, apparently on their way out of the country.
But the move proved merely tactical.
On October 29, France, Britain, and Israel attacked Egypt following Cairo's nationalization of the Suez Canal. The world's attention turned away from Budapest -- perhaps fatally so.
Moscow Lowers The Boom
The turning point came on November 1. Nagy declared that Hungary would be neutral and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
Three days later, some 1,000 Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. At 5:15 a.m., Nagy would make his last appeal to the nation on Radio Budapest.
"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," he said. "Our troops are engaged in battle with the Soviet forces. The government is in its place."
By the time the fighting subsided a week later, more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers had died. Some 200,000 Hungarians ended up fleeing abroad. After a secret trial in June 1958, Nagy was executed.
Changing The Course Of The Movement
The Soviet defeat of the Hungarian revolt sent shockwaves across Eastern Europe.
Miroslav Kusy was at the time a young anticommunist dissident in Czechoslovakia.
"Hungary was a frightful example that an open revolt could not change the communist state because that regime was hard, cruel, cold-blooded," Kusy says. "It just was not possible. That's why we looked for ways [to resist] that better fit the situation, because the regime simply had massive means with which to stamp out any form of resistance."
Kusy tells RFE/RL that the failed uprising had a major impact in how he and dissidents such as future Czech President Vaclav Havel would later seek change.
For instance, Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 movement sought change through apparently legal means, by holding the communist authorities to account for violating the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights, of which Prague was a signatory.
Washington, in turn, was forced to adopt a more "gradualist" approach to the way it sought to help the captive peoples of Eastern Europe in seeking freedom and democracy.
Hungarian-born scholar Gati recently published "Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, And The 1956 Hungarian Revolt," a book that casts a critical eye on U.S. policy leading up to the Hungarian Uprising.
"Today the situation is different," Gati says. "This is a world in which there is no balance of power. This is a world with different geopolitical content and so, therefore, the search for freedom is far more possible than it was in that time, in the shadow of the Soviet Union. And the real lesson of 1956 is don't offer more than you'll deliver. We should not tell people that they can be free and independent unless we are willing to assist them."
To mark the anniversary on October 23, Hungary has invited 56 officials and dignitaries from around the world to attend a solemn ceremony in Budapest. There will be several other commemorative events in the capital, including the unveiling of a monument recalling the horrors of Stalinism.
"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.