(By Zsuzsanna Clark)
When people ask me what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary in the Seventies and Eighties, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state.
They are invariably disappointed when I explain that the reality was quite different, and communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact, rather a fun place to live.
The communists provided everyone with guaranteed employment, good education and free healthcare. Violent crime was virtually non-existent.
But perhaps the best thing of all was the overriding sense of camaraderie, a spirit lacking in my adopted Britain and, indeed, whenever I go back to Hungary today. People trusted one another, and what we had we shared.
I was born into a working-class family in Esztergom, a town in the north of Hungary, in 1968. My mother, Julianna, came from the east of the country, the poorest part. Born in 1939, she had a harsh childhood.
She left school aged 11 and went straight to work in the fields. She remembers having to get up at 4am to walk five miles to buy a loaf of bread. As a child, she was so hungry she often waited next to the hen for it to lay an egg. She would then crack it open and swallow the yolk and the white raw.
It was discontent with these conditions of the early years of communism that led to the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
The shock waves brought home to the communist leadership that they could consolidate their position only by making our lives more tolerable. Stalinism was out and ‘goulash communism’ – a unique brand of liberal communism – was in.
Janos Kadar, the country’s new leader, transformed Hungary into the ‘happiest barracks’ in Eastern Europe. We probably had more freedoms than in any other communist country.
One of the best things was the way leisure and holiday opportunities were opened up to all. Before the Second World War, holidays were reserved for the upper and middle classes. In the immediate post-war years too, most Hungarians were working so hard rebuilding the country that holidays were out of the question.
In the Sixties though, as in many other aspects of life, things changed for the better. By the end of the decade, almost everyone could afford to go away, thanks to the network of subsidised trade-union, company and co-operative holiday centres.
My parents worked in Dorog, a nearby town, for Hungaroton, a state-owned record company, so we stayed at the factory’s holiday camp at Lake Balaton, ‘The Hungarian Sea’.
The camp was similar to the sort of holiday camps in vogue in Britain at the same time, the only difference being that guests had to make their own entertainment in the evenings – there were no Butlins-style Redcoats.
Some of my earliest memories of living at home are of the animals my parents kept on their smallholding. Rearing animals was something most people did, as well as growing vegetables. Outside Budapest and the big towns, we were a nation of Tom and Barbara Goods.
My parents had about 50 chickens, pigs, rabbits, ducks, pigeons and geese. We kept the animals not just to feed our family but also to sell meat to our friends. We used the goose feathers to make pillows and duvets.
The government understood the value of education and culture. Before the advent of communism, opportunities for the children of the peasantry and urban working class, such as me, to rise up the educational ladder were limited. All that changed after the war.
The school system in Hungary was similar to that which existed in Britain at the time. Secondary education was divided into grammar schools, specialised secondary schools, and vocational schools. The main differences were that we stayed in our elementary school until the age of 14, not 11.
There were also evening schools, for children and adults. My parents, who had both left school young, took classes in mathematics, history and Hungarian literature and grammar.
I loved my schooldays, and in particular my membership of the Pioneers – a movement common to all communist countries.
Many in the West believed it was a crude attempt to indoctrinate the young with communist ideology, but being a Pioneer taught us valuable life skills such as building friendships and the importance of working for the benefit of the community. ‘Together for each other’ was our slogan, and that was how we were encouraged to think.
As a Pioneer, if you performed well in your studies, communal work and school competitions, you were rewarded with a trip to a summer camp. I went every year because I took part in almost all the school activities: competitions, gymnastics, athletics, choir, shooting, literature and library work.
On our last night at Pioneer camp we sang songs around the bonfire, such as the Pioneer anthem: ‘Mint a mokus fenn a fan, az uttoro oly vidam’ (‘We are as happy as a squirrel on a tree’), and other traditional songs. Our feelings were always mixed: sad at the prospect of leaving, but happy at the thought of seeing our families again.
Today, even those who do not consider themselves communists look back at their days in the Pioneers with great affection.
Hungarian schools did not follow the so-called ‘progressive’ ideas on education prevalent in the West at the time. Academic standards were extremely high and discipline was strict.
My favourite teacher taught us that without mastery of Hungarian grammar we would lack confidence to articulate our thoughts and feelings. We could make only one mistake if we wanted to attain the highest grade.
Unlike Britain, there were ‘viva voce’ exams in Hungary in every subject. In literature, for example, set texts had to be memorised and recited and then the student would have to answer questions put to them orally by the teacher.
Whenever we had a national celebration, I was among those asked to recite a poem or verse in front of the whole school. Culture was regarded as extremely important by the government. The communists did not want to restrict the finer things of life to the upper and middle classes – the very best of music, literature and dance were for all to enjoy.
This meant lavish subsidies were given to institutions including orchestras, opera houses, theatres and cinemas. Ticket prices were subsidised by the State, making visits to the opera and theatre affordable.
‘Cultural houses’ were opened in every town and village, so provincial, working-class people such as my parents could have easy access to the performing arts, and to the best performers.
Programming on Hungarian television reflected the regime’s priority to bring culture to the masses, with no dumbing down.
When I was a teenager, Saturday night primetime viewing typically meant a Jules Verne adventure, a poetry recital, a variety show, a live theatre performance, or an easy Bud Spencer film.
Much of Hungarian television was home-produced, but quality programmes were imported, not just from other Eastern Bloc countries but from the West, too.
Hungarians in the early Seventies followed the trials and tribulations of Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga just as avidly as British viewers had done a few years earlier. The Onedin Line was another popular BBC series I enjoyed watching, along with David Attenborough documentaries.
However, the government was alive to the danger of us turning into a nation of four-eyed couch potatoes.
Every Monday was ‘family night’, when State television was taken off the air to encourage families to do other things together. Others called it ‘family planning night’, and I am sure the figures showing the proportion of children conceived on Monday nights under communism would make interesting reading.
Although we lived well under ‘goulash communism’ and there was always enough food for us to eat, we were not bombarded with advertising for products we didn’t need.
Throughout my youth, I wore hand-me-down clothes, as most young people did. My school bag was from the factory where my parents worked. What a difference to today’s Hungary, where children are bullied, as they are in Britain, for wearing the ‘wrong’ brand of trainers.
Like most people in the communist era, my father was not money-obsessed.
As a mechanic he made a point of charging people fairly. He once saw a broken-down car with an open bonnet – a sight that always lifted his heart. It belonged to a West German tourist.
My father fixed the car but refused payment – even a bottle of beer. For him it was unnatural that anyone would think of accepting money for helping someone in distress.
When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people – me and my family included – did not take part in the protests.
Our voice – the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism – is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.
Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.
Communism in Hungary had its downside. While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the West was problematic and allowed only every second year. Few Hungarians (myself included) enjoyed the compulsory Russian lessons.
There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and freedom to criticise the government was limited. Yet despite this, I believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.
Twenty years on, most of these positive achievements have been destroyed.
People no longer have job security. Poverty and crime is on the increase. Working-class people can no longer afford to go to the opera or theatre. As in Britain, TV has dumbed down to a worrying degree – ironically, we never had Big Brother under communism, but we have it today.
Most sadly of all, the spirit of camaraderie that we once enjoyed has all but disappeared. In the past two decades we may have gained shopping malls, multi-party ‘ democracy’, mobile phones and the internet. But we have lost a whole lot more.
• Goulash And Solidarity, by Zsuzsanna Clark, is awaiting publication.