Created 02/21/2018 at 2018:05AM
Russia celebrated a holiday on November 7 that under the Julian calendar, was in October. The holiday used to be called the “Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution”, but has since been renamed the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation”. That makes perfect sense as now we can only speak of the U.S.S.R. in terms of the deceased. November 7th would have been the 87th anniversary of the revolution that violently brought the Bolsheviks to power and proceeded to unleash the great experiment upon the now independent 14 republics that used to make up our former greatest natural predator.
If you can think of a better day than this to haggle over the purchase of a 60s era aluminum bust of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of this nightmare, I’d like to see it. You could say that my haggle session with shopkeeper Acs Ballint was ironic, but even with stretching its fingers and standing on its tippy toes, that adjective doesn’t quite reach. My childhood days were spent in a rural Kentucky community known as Kings Forest, a place of working class folks happy in their trailers set just off the gravel roads. It was also a community with its own peculiar brand of fireworks courtesy of the Fort Knox practice range, which was on the other side of Price’s Field, adjacent to our land. I went to sleep many a nights listening to the practice fire that would be for real should those commie bastards ever decide on any invasion type shenanigans and in that regard I slept like the dead. What did manage to keep me up was the stark idea that the Soviets had a bull’s eye painted on Fort Knox. Every kid in Kings Forest knew this to be a fact and it made for ludicrously thought provoking conversation at our Algonquin round table of nine year olds: the bus stop.
Here’s an example of an exchange between me and my childhood friend Philip Heacock…..
Philip: “You know if there’s a war, we’re gonna die first”
Philip: “The Russians have a missile pointed right at Fort Knox and it’s going to blow everything up from here to Louisville”
If you doubt me, I have Philip Heacock ready to back me up that this ground breaking discussion actually DID happen.
Growing up with this looming spectre of annihilation was surreal to say the least. You can never really drive home the point to the kids today that in the not too distant past, we had an enemy equal to us that was, equally, bent on destroying us. No, talk like that just elicits quizzical looks not unlike those of a man who’s just witnessed a magic act of someone pulling a chandelier out of a walnut shell. Puzzling.
It was a time when you would watch the NBC Nightly News and were completely and utterly amazed that someone at risk of life and limb smuggled video footage out of the U.S.S.R.. They were always images of the type of a less than cheery Brezhnev at some reviewing stand watching numerous tanks and missiles drive by. Here’s a link if you’d like to re-live the time. 1984 Soviet Parade - Crimson Tide
Of course we never realistically had to worry about the threat of sleeping under the flag of the hammer and sickle since the Soviet Union was about as stable as nitroglycerin on a wagon train. Other countries were not so lucky and this haggle session was taking place in one of them: Hungary.
The lights went out on Hungary in 1944 when, after World War II, Europe was being carved up into spheres of influence by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Hungary, along with seven other eastern European states became satellite states of the Soviets: the fabled Iron Curtain or, officially, the Eastern Bloc.
Magyar Népköztársaság, the People’s Republic of Hungary, suffered the human injustices that we now know were commonplace in the satellite states and in 1956 the people were having no more of it. In late October of that year students decided to peacefully protest and among their demands was that the Soviets should leave. The police fired tear gas and then switched to live rounds. The Soviets, concerned that Hungary was not acting in a manner befitting one of its affiliates, decided to roll in the military in early November. It’s estimated that upwards of 20,000 people died in the uprising which one could assume probably didn’t phase Joseph Stalin all that much. He was, after all, the man who famously said that one death was a tragedy and a million was a statistic.
I thought about that earlier when walking around Budapest and stumbled upon the 1956 Hungarian Revolution Memorial, a bold headstone that had the numbers “1956” carved into it, surrounded by several Hungarian flags that had the coat of arms cut out. This was the common practice around the revolution since that coat of arms was a communist one.
This was my second trip to Hungary. The first happened right after the communists fell and Budapest at that time was a filthy, polluted, corrupt place. It had a thriving black market in currency and taxi drivers were commonly moonlighting as police informants who were more than happy to entrap you. I didn’t think I would ever be back again and getting extorted for money twice didn’t enthuse me to any future prospects of returning. I was exceedingly happy that I did come back because the Budapest of today is a sterling example of a beautiful stately capital.
“Oh Lenin he’s a bad man. Very bad man”. Acs’ mother said as she reached down to pick up the aluminum bust of Lenin after noticing my interest in it. “Yes very bad” I muttered back all the while mentally appending “……. but very good for my collection”.
After agreeing upon a reasonable price and Acs agreeing to throw in several Soviet medals, the kind commonly given to the populace by the party, I went outside and continued exploring Budapest’s main shopping drag, the Váci utca.
In a way journeying to these places is a way to come to grips with my childhood nightmare and here’s the best part: I now own a piece of this nightmare….as does Philip Heacock. I made a point of sending him some of the Soviet medals.
After all is said and done the Hungarians have their preferred coat of arms back. It contains the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen on top. Before the communists took over Hungary this national treasure was given to American soldiers to prevent it from falling into Soviet hands. The place where this treasure was guarded? Fort Knox, on the other side of Price's field.