The C Word

The ‘c’ word in the English language is the worst word you can utter. I suspect it may also be the worst word you can utter in Budapest. But it’s a different ‘c’ word. Communism ruled the political and economical roost for more than four decades. In 1956 it ruled the roost in the streets too, when Soviet tanks reduced glorious avenues and streets to rubble during the famous uprising. Thousands were killed, injured or imprisoned during the rather brutal repression of those who thought differently. Thereafter, Hungary was allowed a higher degree of freedom than most of the Soviet Union’s satellite states, and became known as the happy campers of the Warsaw Pact. But then, they had already been cowed. And I suspect the majority of the citizens of Buda and Pest’s neighbourhoods were happier still to see the back of communism.

The scars of occupation and repression run deep and are still very visible. There are plenty of holes in grand old buildings where Russian bullets and munitions found (or missed) their targets. There is also the House of Terror, one of the cities finest museums, and a must-visit. It was home to the secret services of both the Hungarian versions of the Gestapo and the KGB.  You can see the portraits of the victims of 1956 on the outside of the building. Inside you are greeted by a brutal looking tank. And then the expected memoribilia, stories and photos of the horrors of World War Two and the Cold War era.

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The final stage of the tour rather sticks with you.  You enter an elevator, which crawls very slowly into the basement. It’s slow so that you can watch a video on a large flat screen. A grandfatherly figure recounts his role in the basement of the building, where undesirables were kept, tortured and executed. He describe the execution process in great detail. There was no last meal. No last rites. No last letters – they were torn up and binned. There was no drop either. The condemned was made to stand on a step, the noose placed around his neck, and the step kicked away. One man would pull on the rope and another wrench his head to the side. If the wretch at the end of the noose was lucky, his neck would break and he’d be quickly off to whatever is beyond. If he’s lucky. The film comes to an end, the elevator opens, and you are in the basement. The miserable cells line the corridor. And at the end is a small room, with a wooden post, a step and the rope. It is an eerie experience.

There’s another monument to communism in Budapest. It’s a very capitalist monument to communism, proof of the triumph of one ideology over the other. Memento Park. Whereas many former communist countries in eastern and central Europe took hammers to their sickly Soviet statues, the powers that be in Budapest simply packed theirs up, moved them to the suburbs and put them on display for all to see. For a small fee, of course. Tourists and locals alike can wander amongst the wannabe heroes of communism. Pose with Lenin. And mock him too. It’s allowed, these days, to poke fun at the Ultimate Comrade. And his motley crew. There’s plenty of goodies in the gift shop too. Postcards, fake Soviet papers, CD’s featuring the finest of Stalin’s bands. There’s a small building to tell the story of communism in Hungary, finishing with a series of 15 minute films. They are originals, from the secret services training programme, teaching new recruits on how to be good agents.

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The Budapest tour of communism isn’t exhausted yet, of course. Forty plus years of control leaves it’s mark. There are the concrete housing blocks. These featured in most propaganda style photos that were used by western governments to show what a dreary place a communist state is. The skies were always grey. The people always miserable. And if a uniform or two, preferably with jack boots, could be fitted in, all the better. The concrete blocks did, and still do, exist of course. I’m sure there were blue skies though. I’m sure some people had good days. And we had our own share of drab concrete housing blocks in Britain too. They didn’t tell the whole story then, and you’ll not notice them on your trip to Budapest beyond the drive from the airport in the burbs to your hotel.

There’s also the metro system. Budapest boasts the world’s third oldest underground railways line, after London and Liverpool in the UK. Line one was in use before the turn of the 20th century. It’s fabulous architectural masterpiece. It looks like a one hundred year old system, in all the right ways. The other two lines? They are pure 1970’s communism. I loved them too. Gloriously communistic. Look – this is public transport. You’d expect the reds to have some successes, here and there. If wasn’t going to be that most visible icon of socialism, public transport, then what else would it be? Budapest is a dream to get around thanks to the metro system, the fabulous tram network and even the very Soviet looking trolley buses. Cheap too. We paid little more than ten British pounds for a seven day travel card that allowed us to use all these systems.

Photos? Of course. The House of Terror wouldn’t allow photography inside, but I do have some shots of the incredibly foreboding exterior – click here. I confess – I did go a little bit renegade and used my phone to snap some discreet shots inside. Including one of that noose – click here. I shot plenty of photos in Memento Park – click here. And there’s some of me and Mrs P in the park in our own set – click here. Lastly, I brought back quite a few shots of the different transit systems – click here. I got a bit creative in the processing of some of those images. Anyway, this post, like communism in Hungary, is done. I hope you enjoyed my walk around the capitals dark side.

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