Operation 'Whirlpool.' (Russia and the Hungarian Revolution, Oct. 23-Nov. 4, 1956)

By Medvedev, Roy Alexandrovich | Russian Life, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Operation 'Whirlpool.' (Russia and the Hungarian Revolution, Oct. 23-Nov. 4, 1956)


Medvedev, Roy Alexandrovich, Russian Life


Forty years ago this month, an uprising in Hungary tested the liberal credentials of the new Khrushchev regime and ended a warming trend in the Cold War. Noted historian Roy Medvedev describes the events of autumn 1956 in Budapest from a contemporary Russian standpoint.

The 1989 Velvet Revolutions, which brought democracy to Eastern Europe, were preceded by many decades of dramatic struggle, complex political evolution and revolutionary upheavals. Among them, the popular uprising in Budapest has a special place. Though cruelly suppressed by the Soviet army, or perhaps because of this fact, it left an indelible mark in the national consciousness of the Hungarian people and the political history of Europe.

Over the last 40 years, assessments of the events of October 23- November 4, 1956 have changed many times both in Soviet/Russian and Hungarian historical literature. It has been seen variously as an anti-Soviet imperialist counter-revolutionary revolt, a popular democratic reform movement, a national liberation movement and outright civil war.

One thing is clear - various political movements with very different aims joined together, and the character of these groups was distorted by interference from outside. But even so, the main ideas which inspired the youth, intelligentsia, soldiers and workers of Budapest were freedom, democracy, independence and socialism with a human face.

Roots of the crisis

Hungary is a country with a contradictory and complex history. For over three centuries it was under Austrian rule, against which it rebelled many times. In fact, it would have been independent in 1848, had not Russian Tsar Nicholas I sent 130,000 troops across the Carpathian mountains to shore up his Austrian allies, thus earning himself the title 'the gendarme of Europe.'

The collapse of the Habsburg Empire and independence in 1918 was followed by a brief period of socialist rule. This, in turn, gave way in less than six months to a rightist dictatorship under a former rear-admiral in the Austro-Hungarian navy, Miklos Horthy. Twenty years later, Horthy became one of Nazi Germany's staunchest allies, and as a result of Hungary's position in the war, the resistance movement was weaker than elsewhere in Europe. Consequently, the progress of the Red Army through the country in 1944-5 was slow and painful.

After the war, Soviet troops remained in Hungary, facilitating a communist takeover and later stalinist purges by Party leader Mathias Rakosi. Paradoxically, among those imprisoned was the moderate Janos Kadar, who was to lead Hungary after the 1956 uprising.

Although Hungary remained economically backward at the beginning of the 1950s, it set a course for the rapid development of Soviet-style socialism. In this small, poor country, huge metallurgy and machine-building factories sprang up which did nothing but undermine the economy and the nation's strength. Hurried measures to collectivize agriculture also caused great harm.

A new wave of repressions left 150-200,000 political prisoners in the jails and camps. But even this was unable to stop the growth of dissatisfaction and rumblings which gripped society soon after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Reformers gain control

The breaking point came after the famous 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (February 1956). Khrushchev's secret speech exposing Stalin very quickly became known not only to the Soviet Embassy in Hungary (then headed by 42-year-old Yuri Andropov) but also to many ordinary Hungarians, on which it had a huge effect. Meetings and demonstrations were held throughout the spring and summer, where demands for the removal of Rakosi and freeing of political prisoners grew ever louder.

Rakosi and security heads wanted to suppress this movement by force, but the Soviet Embassy opposed this, and, without the approval of Moscow, Rakosi was afraid to take decisive measures. Leading Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan came to Budapest in July for a plenum of the Hungarian Workers' Party Central Committee. …

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