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New Europe

Day Seventy-four: Budapest

60 Andrassy Avenue 
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60 Andrassy Avenue was once the most feared address in Budapest, home of both fascist and communist secret police. The apparatus of terror, as in the word projecting from the roof, is what this museum wants us to remember.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAlmost exactly fifty years ago, in October 1956, students and workers gathered in Budapest to protest against a Moscow-led regime that had run their country with increasingly ruthless brutality since the end of the war. A statue of Stalin was toppled, the police fired into a crowd and only the second ever anti-communist uprising in Europe had begun. (The first was in Poznan in Poland earlier that same year.) It teetered on the brink of success. Moscow withdrew its troops and the new Prime Minister, Imre Nagy (himself an old communist), was the hero of the hour. There was real hope that they would remain free. Only a few months earlier, in February 1956, Premier Khrushchev had denounced Stalin and the hardliners in a secret speech to the 20th Communist Congress. The Americans had been encouraging all the occupied countries to do just what the Hungarians had done so there was a good chance that the West would help them. In the end neither Russian revisionism nor American anti-communism delivered. Khrushchev ordered the tanks back in, and the West, distracted by a futile war over the Suez Canal, sat and watched.

Soviet control was reasserted and remained in place for the next thirty-three years, though it gradually merged into a less repressive, more pragmatic Hungarian form that came to be known as 'Goulash Communism'.

Many Hungarians, especially the young, don't want to be constantly reminded of their communist past. For them the most important thing that's happened to the country happened on 1 May 2004, when Hungary was admitted to the European Union. The future is where hope lies, not the past.

It's mostly curious foreigners who make the trip outside town to Statue Park, where, amongst delphiniums and rosemary bushes, an enterprising private collector has gathered together some of the great Soviet monuments, including a 15-foot-high Lenin, coat-tail flapping and red flag in hand, a running sailor ten times life-size, and mighty heads of Marx and Engels. It's all a bit sad, these images which had such power to alarm or inspire or change the world, stacked together out here in suburbia, like garden gnomes on steroids.

In the shop by the entrance they sell various memorabilia: medals, recordings of old Soviet songs, and cans labelled 'The Last Breath of Communism'.

A much slicker operation and a more profound experience is to be had at the House Of Terror, a part-museum, part-multimedia experience which graphically records the worst horrors of the communist period. It's suitably, and chillingly, situated at 60 Andrassy Avenue, the most feared address in Budapest, the very building that was at one time headquarters of the Arrow Cross fascists and, after the war, the AVO secret police.

From the garish grid of lettering which surrounds the exterior roof of the building, to the massive tank crouched in the darkness of the stairwell inside, the effect is dramatic and theatrical. Opened in 2002, it uses the most up-to-date multi-media effects, combining archive video and state-of-the-art sound and light effects. There is a courtroom where every surface is covered in a wallpaper of documents or box files, in which you can sit and watch compulsive footage of the secret trial of the leaders of the 1956 uprising glassily confessing to their crimes. Imre Nagy is the only one who doesn't appear brainwashed. He answers back his accusers even as he is sentenced to death.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-four: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Budapest
  • Book page no: 176

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