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Hungary zigzags when it comes to Russia

Some in the former Soviet satellite now part of NATO and the EU warn that Moscow is intent on reasserting influence, but others see Russia as a useful investor and lucrative market.

November 22, 2009|By Megan K. Stack
  • A soldier in historic uniform stands guard in front of a Russian-made armored military vehicle on exhibition outside the House of Terror museum in Budapest, Hungary.
A soldier in historic uniform stands guard in front of a Russian-made armored… (Laszlo Beliczay / EPA )

Reporting from Budapest, Hungary — There's a museum in Budapest called the House of Terror. It has a metal awning with the word "terror" carved out of it, and when the sun is high, the people below step on terror, pass through terror, because the shadow of the word hangs in the air before it hits the ground.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of Soviet dominance in Hungary, Russia's ghosts linger in a fledgling political system, and its oil and gas muscle spooks the Hungarian government. Russia exists today as an anxiety; to a rising generation, an abstraction. And yet, to some -- an opportunity.

The fall of the Soviet empire freed Hungary to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union and reinvent itself, along with other parts of the surrounding region, as the eastern edge of a unified Europe.

As an increasingly assertive Russia has capitalized on its oil and gas wealth, some former satellites have remained hostile and frightened; others have opted for greater cooperation with Moscow.

Hungary's dealings have been more ambiguous. Business and politics are typified by mixed impulses -- tentative steps together, sudden flashes of vulnerability and push-back.

Moscow is there, after all, and must be dealt with. Moreover, Russia is rich, and many Hungarians are bitter and disillusioned to realize that EU membership has failed to deliver them into wealth.

But there is the problem of the past in a country where Soviet tanks put a bloody end to a 1956 uprising -- the paranoia left over, but also a general unease about thinking too hard about the decades of quiet collusion that followed.

"Everything is mellowed and blurred. The past is defined as bad, but it's never engaged in a social discussion," said Gergely Romsics of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs. "People don't want to face the last 40 years, the little compromises they made with power. What happens with Russia in post-1989 Hungary is forgetting."

Walk through the door of the House of Terror and you are confronted by a star and the arrow-tipped cross of the pro-Nazi party that surged to power in the 1940s. The pair of symbols conjure the history of this building, which housed the Arrow Cross party before being seized by the Communists and converted to a secret police headquarters.

It's also the kind of thing that infuriates many Russians -- the conflation of Soviet and fascist occupation.

Walk a little deeper and you will find a television set flashing the same pictures, over and over again.

"Sixteen-, 18-year-old kids whose thinking was different, and they sent for the hangman, the executioner," weeps a man in black and white. "This was their socialism."

This is where the museum of history meets contemporary politics. Critics say the museum was opened as a political ploy on the part of the conservative party.

Socialists, who believe the museum was created to undermine their popular appeal, point out that the exhibits are weighted heavily on the side of recapturing and condemning the brutality of Soviet repression.

The museum's director brushed aside the complaint. Budapest already had a Holocaust center, she pointed out, but was lacking any public dialogue about decades of socialism.

"This created a big discussion about the past, which is good," Maria Schmidt said. "We had these very, very hot discussions."

Schmidt is a former advisor to Viktor Orban, the head of Hungary's most powerful conservative party, Fidesz. As a young man, Orban electrified the country during the heavily symbolic 1989 reburial of former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who had stood up to the Soviets in 1956 and been executed for his trouble.

The day Nagy was laid to rest, Orban stole the show with an audacious call for the Soviets to leave the country. He would go on to serve as prime minister from 1998 to 2002.

"It was very brave, and people were horrified," said Tibor Dessewffy, director of Budapest's socialist-linked Demos think tank. "With that single performance, Orban divided the country in two."

Today, Orban preaches that Hungary must avoid becoming the "happiest barrack of Gazprom," the Russian gas giant.

He is invoking the much- repeated line that Hungary, with its relatively liberal brand of socialism, was the happiest barrack of the Soviet bloc.

This is how Russia flickers through domestic politics, used as a bludgeon between the conservatives, who have found themselves relegated to the opposition, and the leftists, in power but beleaguered.

Ivan Boytsov is nostalgic for the Hungary he discovered in 1978, when he traveled the countryside as a student at St. Petersburg State University. As an administrator at the Russian Culture Center in Budapest, he is here championing the study of Russian language and culture, and trying to improve what he regards as deeply flawed perceptions.

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