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Commemorating the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

“Revolutions, like natural disasters, cannot be predicted.” – Professor Laszlo Borhi

On the morning of October 23, 1956, mass demonstrations began in Budapest, Hungary.  By the end of the day, more than 200 000 people had gathered together in the streets of the capital, a radical and unexpected challenge to Hungary’s communist regime and its patron, the USSR.   Fifty-seven years later, on October 21, 2011, Indiana University faculty, students, and community members gathered in the Indiana Memorial Union’s Club to commemorate the events that began that day in Budapest and ultimately grew into the tragic 1956 Hungarian Revolution. 

The evening, cosponsored by the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, together with the Indiana University Student Association, the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, and the Russian and East European Institute, brought together a wide range of people all somehow connected to the events of 1956.  Laszlo Borhi, Chair of Hungarian Studies at CEUS, speaking against a backdrop of pictures taken during the heady days of the uprising and seeming new order that quickly arose, gave a moving and dramatic account of the revolution and ultimate tragic defeat at the hands of the Soviet army.  Neither the USSR nor Hungary’s own Communist Party, Professor Borhi was quick to point out, predicted the revolution.  “Communist leaders were baffled by the democratic movement,” he said: “they had no idea how to respond.”

In just a week, from October 23 to 30, 1956, the democratic movement in Hungary was able to do more than just pull down Budapest’s statue of Stalin, as they did in the first days of unrest.  They ultimately toppled the Hungarian government, established multiparty rule, withstood shootings by Soviet forces, and brought the USSR to the negotiating table.  Soviet troops, having taken up aggressive positions around Budapest in the early days of the revolution, even  pulled back.  It truly felt as though a new order had been established – that Hungary might be able to pull out of the Warsaw Pact and pursue its own, neutral path.

This, unfortunately, was not to be.  The USSR quickly reversed positions on October 30, having heard of continued unrest and violence in Budapest, and its troops turned around before the end of the day.  Professor Borhi described Hungarian consternation as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest on November 4 and fighting continued across the city until November 8.  The revolution was over just as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had begun.
Over, and crushed, said Professor Borhi, but not forgotten – not today, and not in 1989, when Hungary, along with other countries across Eastern Europe, was finally able to shake off the Soviet yoke. “The collective memory of unity and strength,” Borhi concluded, “fueled the mass movement for democracy” that came later and found its ultimate reflection in glastnost

Following Professor Borhi’s lecture, Indiana University’s Hungarian Cultural Association organized a poetry reading, in which Finnish, Estonian, and Romanian poems – representing the shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties between these countries and Hungary – were read in commemoration of the tragedy and long-simmering hopes of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.  In addition, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 was played in final recognition of the thousands who lost their lives in those few short weeks in October and November 1956.

Following the commemorative program, everyone was treated to an impressive and delicious spread of Hungarian sausages, pastries, salads, and other delicacies, all prepared and brought to the event by volunteers.  The audience livened up after the somber tone of the commemoration with the appearance of this spread, and stayed right through to the end of the evening, intensely discussing the events of 1956 and their reflection today in both Hungarian politics and Hungarian studies, including here at Indiana University.

2011 marks the 55th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in which thousands of Hungarians were killed and many thousands more injured.  The event is now annually commemorated in Hungary on October 23, which has become, since the fall of the USSR, a national holiday.