Reflecting on the events of October 1956 in Budapest

Photo: CTK

This week, Hungarians are commemorating the anniversary of their dramatic anti-Soviet uprising exactly 50 years ago. On October 23, 1956 a pro-democracy rally brought 200 000 people into the streets of Budapest, singing national songs and destroying a statue of Soviet leader, Josef Stalin. Soviet tanks were forced to retreat from Budapest, but when they returned one week later the blow was devastating: reform Prime Minister Imre Nagy was arrested and executed, as were hundreds of other reformers.

Jirina Siklova
To get a Czech perspective on those dramatic events, I spoke to Jirina Siklova who later became a prominent dissident in Czechoslovakia but was still a student at that time. She told me about how independent student activities in Prague during the autumn of 1956 were affected by the unrest in Budapest.

"I remember that time. As students, we had started a new academic year and we had the idea to organize a special union of students at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University. We wrote a proclamation saying that the students should have an independent Socialist Union of Students. It was not something against the Communist Party. Though when we displayed this proclamation on the door at the Faculty of Arts, Mr. Cervinka—he was our professor—said to us, "Take it down, and quickly." We didn't understand him because we were not informed, and he said to us, "Don't you know what has happened in Budapest?" We didn't know."

So the news services between Czechoslovakia and Hungary were censoring this information?

"Yes, of course. We were not informed about it. Maybe there was something in our newspapers, but you know that students are not so informed, and it was interpreted such that we didn't draw a parallel between this. This was the reason why we were very angry with this professor, because he also had a high prestige among students. Until today, I can't imagine how it is possible that we were so isolated and that the censorship was really so deep."

Hungary 1956,  photo: CTK
If we fast-forward a few years into the mid-1960s, by that point you were quite involved in the political sphere as well, with reform communism. What were the reflections of that era like on Budapest 1956? Did you draw inspiration from that revolution?

"Yes, it was a big inspiration because we saw that it is possible to change something. By then, we were more informed about it but we were informed through information from Poland; in Poland it was possible to speak more openly about it [Hungary 1956]. I think that at this time the fear of our Communist Party regarding the so-called 'Hungarian events' was very deep. I think that it's typically reflected by the fact that in this time there was a special word used to describe what happened in Budapest—in fact, it is still used. Not revolution, not Hungarian take-over, not a word that would indicate it was something against the Communist Party, but instead a very neutral word: 'Hungarian events.' It was a new ptydepe, or a new Orwell's newspeak."