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Post Watching the Soviet Troops Leave Hungary, 1991
Created by John Eipper on 10/26/16 4:22 AM

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Watching the Soviet Troops Leave Hungary, 1991 (Timothy Ashby, Spain, 10/26/16 4:22 am)

While the Hungarian Revolution is not even a memory for me, I have a personal story about the departure of the last Soviet troops from Hungary.

In June 1991 I drove from the UK to Budapest to work as an summer intern for Price Waterhouse Coopers and to conduct research for my MBA dissertation, "Prospects for Hungarian Privatisation." Street maps of Budapest were scarce in those days, and I had only the vaguest idea of the location of my hotel. I arrived in Budapest on the night of June 19th, 1991--the day that the last of the Soviet occupation army left--amidst the biggest celebration I've encountered so far. The streets were packed with revelers, laughing, singing, drinking. Loudspeakers on the streets were blaring "Back in the USSR" on a continuous loop, and young people were tearing down any street signs with a Communist era connotation--unfortunately for my attempts to navigate to my hotel, as the city map on my knee was based on many of these signs. I found myself crawling through the vast crowds in my right-hand-drive Volvo with GB plates. The police were apparently absent as I certainly never saw any.

Eventually I came to a complete stop in the midst of the sea of people, opened the window and asked (shouted): could anyone speak English? Soon a trio of friendly students appeared who could converse with me. I explained that I was trying to get to my hotel, and they summoned more young people from the crowd. While one sat on the bonnet (hood) of my car, the others formed a phalanx in front and parted the crowd, stopping often to swig from bottles of Palinka and sor (beer). Miraculously, we found the hotel.

The partying went on for several days. A week or so later I was fortunate enough to see Frank Zappa perform at a concert celebrating Hungary's freedom from Soviet occupation.

As an interesting historical note: I met several Soviet Army deserters who stayed behind in Hungary, selling bits and pieces of Soviet uniforms. Apparently they were harboured by Hungarian friends. I was told that a considerable number of young Russian soldiers remained behind. I've always wondered if they were able to return to their homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union a few months later.

JE comments:  A wonderful vignette.  There was such optimism when the Cold War ended--except among the Soviet authorities and apparatchiks.  This was the time (early '90s) when Fukuyama believed History had reached its culmination.  But History, alas, had different plans.

(Tim:  my one attempt to drive in Budapest, in 2007, wasn't much smoother than your experience in '91--with the probable exception of much more traffic.)

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  • A Visit to Hungary, 1977 (Nigel Jones, UK 10/26/16 4:00 PM)
    I too can add an anecdote on Hungary to those of other WAIS Magyar fans.

    Back in 1977 when I still had Leftist sympathies (I know, I know...but remember the well-known truism that those under 30 who are not socialists have no heart, and those who are still so over 30 have no brain). Anyhow, having got a visa from the Hungarian embassy in Vienna and fired by an interest in Hungarian history, I took a bus to Budapest. I managed to get a room in the run-down Hotel Astoria, a rebel stronghold in the 1956 uprising and spent three days touring the city. Two things struck me: The absence of anything worth buying in the shops. ( I finally managed to find a small set of wooden spoons); and (in contrast to Tim Ashby's experience of joyous crowds) the almost total absence of people after dark. There was next to nowhere for them to go anyway. And this was at the height of Kadar's goulash communism that was supposed to be liberal and consumer friendly!  Those three days of actual socialism did more to cure my infantile Leftism than anything else--apart from a brief visit to the even grimmer East Berlin.

    About 15 years later I returned to Budapest as a journalist covering an international conference. I saw Clinton, Yeltsin and Kohl and was impressed by their sheer--and in Kohl's case gross--physical size, and Berlusconi, who looked like a Mafia Don.

    Most impressive of all was the transformation of Budapest from a dark and miserable backwater to a humming, vibrant and beautiful city. I concluded that for all the faults of capitalism, the right side won the Cold War.

    How that victory was thrown away in the succeeding decades is, of course, another story. I would, however, like to hail Hungary's strong Premier, Viktor Orban, for standing up to the EU's bullying. Hungarians had enough experience of that with the USSR. They do not want or need more.

    JE comments:  I lived in the run-down Hostel Astoria, too, but eight years later and in a different country (Leningrad/St Petersburg).  I've heard that the Astoria (StP) has since been revitalized to its pre-Revolutionary glory--and at stratospheric room rates.

    My one visit to Budapest was recorded on WAIS, in July 2007.  Why didn't I write more about that trip?  I think it was too damn hot:


    But back to Nigel Jones.  Nigel:  could you tell us more about your wild days in Vienna?

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