Happy Barracks

Stephen Henighan

In the bad old days of the Cold War, when the countries of Central Europe were political satellites of the Soviet Union, Hungary was known as “the happiest barracks in Eastern Europe.” The 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an uprising against Stalinism that cost the lives of more than 2,500 Hungarians, shook the Soviet Bloc. To pacify Hungary, and to prevent a recurrence of this violent revolt, Moscow first repressed the insurgents, then struck a compromise with the population. For the next thirty years, Hungary was ruled by “goulash socialism,” a mild version of Soviet communism that incorporated limited free-market reforms and put fewer dissidents in jail than the sterner creeds imposed on neighbouring countries. This “soft dictatorship,” as a Hungarian friend referred to it, attracted the fascinated attention of Western visitors during the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

When I arrived in Hungary for the first time, in April 1989, the people I met were eager to recover what they regarded as their natural home in the West. It seemed as though everyone I spoke to during the month I spent in the country mentioned the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and praised Budapest’s historical ties to Vienna. The term “Eastern Europe” was disparaged as Soviet propaganda. It was pointed out to me that Prague was farther west than Vienna: why, then, was Czechoslovakia in “Eastern Europe” and Austria in “Western Europe”? The map with which we had lived since 1945 was a distortion wrought by Soviet tanks during the final days of World War II. Lingering socialist restrictions on the acquisition of hard currency limited young Hungarians’ ability to experience Western Europe for themselves. Many, after drawing out the meagre allowance of dollars or Deutschmarks to which they were legally entitled, would fill their backpacks with tinned food to see how far into the West they could travel—to Vienna? to Paris? to London?—before their money ran out. Among the younger generations of that spring of 1989, who aspired to lead Hungary into its European future, there were ethnic nationalists, doctrinaire Catholics and, more appealingly, a slender, charismatic young liberal who had started a political party for people under the age of thirty-five known as the Alliance of Young Democrats. I was shown this young man’s photograph and told he could be seen playing soccer in the park with his friends. His name was Viktor Orbán.

Charmed by Budapest’s languid allure, and wanting to keep in touch with my new friends, I returned every few years. In May 2018 I arrived for my seventh visit and found that, as in early 1989, Hungary was again a happy barracks. This time the authoritarian rule came from the right. Viktor Orbán, now the country’s prime minister, had become a stocky, glowering chauvinist who preached the superiority of “Christian democracy” to “corrupt” liberalism. After running an election campaign in early 2018 that was rabidly Islamophobic and incipiently anti-Semitic, Orbán had won a “supermajority” that would allow him to change the constitution in order to remain in power indefinitely. He and his former soccer buddies had appropriated much of Hungary’s land and productive capacity, and had built a fence to keep out asylum seekers. Cosmopolitan institutions—such as the Central European University, founded in 1991 in celebration of the resurgence of the idea of “Central Europe” as Hungary escaped the bonds of Sovietized “Eastern Europe”—were being driven out of the country. A young writer told me that his life had become more difficult since his name had appeared in an online list of “disloyal Hungarians.” Many of the young generation of 1989, who had expected to dedicate their lives to integrating their country into a democratic Europe found themselves, in middle age, being obliged to embrace Hungary’s “new friends” in authoritarian regimes to the east such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and China.

Yet no one complained—at least not in public. (The last opposition newspaper was shut down after the election.) The economy, though controlled by the governing clique, provided jobs. I saw more Chinese businesses and more overt prostitution (mainly in the form of massage parlours with English signs) than in the past, but the Danube remained as dreamy as ever. Tourists arrived on boat cruises. Gozsdu Udvar, a derelict older district in the city centre, had been renovated into an atmospheric warren of “ruin pubs” equally popular with foreigners and locals. Both Budapest’s venerable charm and its raffish bohemianism remained superficially intact, even though the cultural multiplicity that was the foundation of its cultural riches was being slowly extinguished. When I asked a younger intellectual how she reacted to the situation, she said: “It doesn’t affect me. I am in my own world. I stay at home and do my work. I try not to know about it. If you are in an office, if you are fired for having liberal opinions, then it affects you. But I can ignore it.” I suggested that some people in 1930s Germany must have adopted the same attitude. “Yes,” she replied. “You could say that I am putting my head in the sand.”

There seemed to be few alternatives to lying low. While no one is being killed or jailed for political reasons, jobs and opportunities dry up for those who dissent. In contrast to my first visit to Hungary, this time I found that opponents of the regime had no shining dream they longed to implement in its place. Western Europe, incarnated by the European Union, was a tarnished chalice. Some shared Orbán’s nationalism but were appalled that he had made himself president for life. The city’s famous trams and antique subway ran on time, grim Soviet-style apartment blocks had yielded to shopping centres boasting international brands, the cafés were open late, the restaurants served superb Hungarian cuisine. Only intellectual and cultural diversity was suffering. Why complain when you could be comfortable? In 1989 I had found hope in Hungary: the possibility of the revival of the cultural multiplicity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 2018 I found a warning: the realization that acquiescence to dictatorship comes not with a bludgeon, but with a job and a good meal.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.


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