Monday, October 23, 2006

Today in history

October the twenty-third.

Five years ago today, Apple released a small, white gadget: an MP3 player that changed... a lot of things. It changed Apple, and, as many journalists will no doubt say, it changed the world. Here's why I will be reluctant to say that.

Fifty years ago today, students demonstrated in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, against the totalitarian communist dictatorship imposed upon the country by the Soviet Union. As the protests grew larger in scale, the Stalinist State Security Police fired several rounds into the crowd, leaving hundreds dead. Thus began the great Hungarian revolution of 1956.

While the nation fought fiercely with the communist militia and the occupant Soviet troops, a new government was formed, lead by Imre Nagy, with universally accepted legitimacy. A ceasefire was reached with the Soviets, and Hungary had high hopes of a brighter future: a welcome change after a few excruciating decades.

Hungary had drifted into WW2 on the losing side, it was occupied and ravaged by both the German and the Soviet armies, and despite free elections dismissing any forms of communism, by 1950, the Soviets had gradually turned Hungary into a Stalinist regime. There was poverty, no freedom of speech, and an unbelievably paranoiac system of secret service agents and party officials making sure that nobody would ever feel safe. From laborers to suspicious intellectuals to highest-ranking party officials, people were terrified to hear their doorbell ring at night, for it usually meant being escorted to a black limousine waiting outside, and never being seen again. Torture, executions and deportations were commonplace. At one point, a full ninth of the entire population was under some kind of criminal procedure.

This was coming to an end in that October fifty years ago, as Hungary's new government had set out to transform Hungary into an independent democracy with a multi-party system, and the whole world seemed to agree.

But it was not meant to be. By November, the Soviet Union had decided that it cannot let its important satellite state gain independence. While international attention shifted towards the Suez Crisis, new Soviet troops entered Hungary and brutally crushed the revolution, killing and wounding thousands. Hundreds of revolutionaries were executed, including the Prime Minister. Over ten thousand people were imprisoned, and two hundred thousand fled the country.

The dark days of communism returned. A milder, less brutal form of dictatorship followed, as the powers tried to buy the support of the Hungarian nation by relatively elevated living standards and relative freedom: as opposed to many other countries in the Soviet bloc, Hungary's citizens were allowed to travel freely in a few hand-picked countries. The country earned the harrowing, cynical distinction of being nicknamed "the happiest barracks."

The 1956 Revolution was one of the first nails in the coffin of the Soviet Empire and the communist ideology. Yet those hoping for a quick resolution were bitterly disappointed: the communist dictatorship in Hungary lasted for another thirty-four years.

Thirty-four years.

When I was born, it had fifteen more years to go. The first fifteen years of my life were spent under a demeaning, soulless, grey, petty, humiliating dictatorship.

Hungary is now a democracy again, has been for sixteen years. But the traces of the communist rule are still all too strong.

For starters, a Hungarian gross average salary is about €700 (US$880). So, for example, buying a Mac has a different kind of impact on your budget when you're Hungarian.

But what fills me with even greater sadness is the way these old communists have reinvented themselves as "Socialists," became successful businessmen (instead of jailbirds) by selling out state property, and have bought their way back into power. As I'm writing this, they are taking a break from lying about the economy they ruined, and are actually shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters and bystanders commemorating the fiftieth anniversary.

How apt. By the way, the clip above (courtesy of PestiSide) wasn't filmed fifty years ago. It was filmed today.

Oh, here's my initial reaction to the iPod. I wrote it five years ago tomorrow. An interesting read in hindsight.

No comments: