The different courses of events in Poland and Hungary in October 1956 have long intrigued scholars. Why did the Soviet Union intervene in Hungary but not in Poland? One group of Cold War historians has explained Soviet actions by focusing on the two countries' different historical experiences. They posit that, for the Russians, dealing with the Hungarians was a "novel experience," since no part of Hungary had ever been under Russian rule. The Second World War, they add, was less traumatic for Hungarians than for Poles.1 A second group has emphasized individual personalities, arguing that the outgoing heads of the Stalin-era leadership, Edward Ochab in Poland and Erno Gero in Hungary, shaped events the most.2 Others in this group argue, alternatively, that Wladyslaw Gomulka and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski were wiser, bolder leaders, better able to deter Soviet aggression than were Imre Nagy and Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty.3 Still a third group has argued that, in contrast to the Poles, the Hungarians alarmed the Soviet Union by going too far, especially by declaring neutrality, withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, and establishing a multiparty system.4
Nearly a decade has passed since communist bloc archives began to open, and thus perhaps it is appropriate to take stock and ask: do the new documents drastically alter these older explanations of the Polish and Hungarian events? This article will compare these events, drawing on recently declassified documents from Hungarian, Polish, and Russian archives. It will conclude that, while the documents do not alter the older interpretations significantly, they do highlight certain limitations of traditional explanations for the Soviet intervention in Hungary, as well as limitations of cold war historiography in explaining how the Soviet leaders managed their own backyard.
The crisis in Hungary was much deeper. Hungarian communist officials were perhaps more willing to tolerate Soviet military "assistance," because they were haunted by the political rightist "reaction" and their collective memory of the "white terror" that had overthrown Bela Kun's communist regime in 1919 and made the communist party illegal in Hungary. There was no real Hungarian "Poznan." Thus, Kremlin leaders, Hungarian party officials, Hungarian reform communist intellectuals, and even the student organizers of the October 23 demonstration were caught off guard by the revolution; it seemed to come from nowhere. Kremlin leaders could understand Polish workers' demands for bread, but had a harder time understanding Hungarian demands for freedom. Both Gomulka and Nagy attempted to bridge the fundamental contradictions of de-- Stalinization, namely, that to achieve political consolidation, their party leaderships had to strike a compromise between the aspirations of their populations and the demands of the Kremlin. Reasons why Gomulka succeeded, at least in the short-run, and Nagy failed can be found both in their different personalities and the differences in the natures of the Polish and Hungarian crises.
Historians can easily challenge the first explanation (dealing with the Hungarians was a "novel experience" for the Russians). It is beyond the scope of this article to compare at length Polish and Hungarian relations with the Soviet Union. However, historians can easily point, for example, to the 1849 tsarist invasion to help the Austrians suppress the Hungarian revolution; the communist regime under Bela Kun (March-July 1919); and the experience of the thousands of Hungarian POWs in the USSR, some of whom were not permitted to return to Hungary until well into the 1950s.5 Moreover, one could easily reason to a different conclusion: the Russians' alleged inexperience in dealing with the Hungarians might very well have discouraged them from intervening twice. Likewise, extensive experience with the Poles might very well have prompted the Khrushchev leadership to order a full-scale invasion.
As for the second group of historians, it is true in some ways that earlier personalities, such as Edward Ochab in Poland and Erno Gero in Hungary, shaped events to a great extent. …