How was it growing up under communism?

In a recent article in the London Daily Mail, Suzanna Clark, now a British citizen, talked about what it was like growing up “behind the Iron Curtain” in Hungary in the Seventies and Eightees.

“Most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state,” she writes in an unpublished article quoted by that newspaper.

“They are invariably disappointed when I explain that the reality was quite different, and communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact, rather a fun place to live.

The communists provided everyone with guaranteed employment, good education and free healthcare. Violent crime was virtually non-existent.”

Clark says that the thing she misses most about living in a Communist country is the degree to which people cooperated with one another on a wide range of things.

“But perhaps the best thing of all was the overriding sense of camaraderie,” she said. “a spirit lacking in my adopted Britain and, indeed, whenever I go back to Hungary today. People trusted one another, and what we had we shared.

I was born into a working-class family in Esztergom, a town in the north of Hungary, in 1968. My mother, Julianna, came from the east of the country, the poorest part. Born in 1939, she had a harsh childhood.

She left school aged 11 and went straight to work in the fields. She remembers having to get up at 4 a.m. to walk five miles to buy a loaf of bread. As a child, she was so hungry she often waited next to the hen for it to lay an egg. She would then crack it open and swallow the yolk and the white raw.”

Refusal to live under such conditions and the determination of people to make things better, Clark said, were major factors in the 1956 uprising against Hungary.

“The shock waves brought home to the communist leadership that they could consolidate their position only by making our lives more tolerable,” she said. “Stalinism was out and ‘goulash communism’ – a unique brand of liberal communism – was in.

“Janos Kadar, the country’s new leader, transformed Hungary into the ‘happiest barracks’ in Eastern Europe. We probably had more freedoms than in any other communist country.

“One of the best things was the way leisure and holiday opportunities were opened up to all. Before the Second World War, holidays were reserved for the upper and middle classes. In the immediate post-war years too, most Hungarians were working so hard rebuilding the country that holidays were out of the question.

Change for the better

Clark says the 1960s were a time when things changed for the better.

“By the end of the decade, almost everyone could afford to go away, thanks to the network of subsidized trade-union, company and co-operative holiday centres.

“My parents worked in Dorog, a nearby town, for Hungaroton, a state-owned record company, so we stayed at the factory’s holiday camp at Lake Balaton, ‘The Hungarian Sea’.

“The camp was similar to the sort of holiday camps in vogue in Britain at the same time, the only difference being that guests had to make their own entertainment in the evenings – there were no Butlins-style Redcoats.

Clark had fond memories of her life as a youngster girl at home.

“My parents had about 50 chickens, pigs, rabbits, ducks, pigeons and geese. We kept the animals not just to feed our family but also to sell meat to our friends. We used the goose feathers to make pillows and duvets.

“The government understood the value of education and culture. Before the advent of communism, opportunities for the children of the peasantry and urban working class, such as me, to rise up the educational ladder were limited. All that changed after the war.

“There were also evening schools, for children and adults. My parents, who had both left school young, took classes in mathematics, history and Hungarian literature and grammar.

I loved my schooldays, and in particular my membership of the Pioneers – a movement common to all communist countries.

Her ideas about the Pioneers are at great variance with notions about the Communist youth groups that are normally prevalent in the press. “Many in the West believed it was a crude attempt to indoctrinate the young with communist ideology, but being a Pioneer taught us valuable life skills such as building friendships and the importance of working for the benefit of the community. ‘Together for each other’ was our slogan, and that was how we were encouraged to think.

As a Pioneer, if you performed well in your studies, communal work and school competitions, you were rewarded with a trip to a summer camp. I went every year because I took part in almost all the school activities: competitions, gymnastics, athletics, choir, shooting, literature and library work.”

Clark does admit, however, that being a student in Hungary during the Communist days was far from easy.

“Hungarian schools did not follow the so-called ‘progressive’ ideas on education prevalent in the West at the time. Academic standards were extremely high and discipline was strict.

“My favorite teacher taught us that without mastery of Hungarian grammar we would lack confidence to articulate our thoughts and feelings. We could make only one mistake if we wanted to attain the highest grade.”

Cultural facilities were widely available during the Communist era, according to Clark.

This meant lavish subsidies were given to institutions including orchestras, opera houses, theatres and cinemas. Ticket prices were subsidized by the State, making visits to the opera and theatre affordable.

‘Cultural houses’ were opened in every town and village, so provincial, working-class people such as my parents could have easy access to the performing arts, and to the best performers.

Programming on Hungarian television reflected the regime’s priority to bring culture to the masses, with no dumbing down.

“When I was a teenager,” she said, “Saturday night primetime viewing typically meant a Jules Verne adventure, a poetry recital, a variety show, a live theatre performance, or an easy Bud Spencer film.

Much of Hungarian television was home-produced, but quality programmes were imported, not just from other Eastern Bloc countries but from the West, too.”

Clark points to her father as an example of how people got by in those days without the modern obsession on money. “As a mechanic he made a point of charging people fairly. He once saw a broken-down car with an open bonnet – a sight that always lifted his heart. It belonged to a West German tourist.

My father fixed the car but refused payment – even a bottle of beer. For him it was unnatural that anyone would think of accepting money for helping someone in distress.

“When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people – me and my family included – did not take part in the protests,” said Clark.

“Our voice – the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism – is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

“Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.”

Clark admits that Communism in Hungary had its down side. “While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the West was problematic and allowed only every second year. Few Hungarians (myself included) enjoyed the compulsory Russian lessons.

There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and freedom to criticize the government was limited. Yet despite this, I believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Twenty years on, most of these positive achievements have been destroyed.

People no longer have job security. Poverty and crime is on the increase. Working-class people can no longer afford to go to the opera or theatre. As in Britain, TV has dumbed down to a worrying degree – ironically, we never had Big Brother under communism, but we have it today.

Most sadly of all, the spirit of camaraderie that we once enjoyed has all but disappeared. In the past two decades we may have gained shopping malls, multi-party ‘ democracy’, mobile phones and the internet. But we have lost a whole lot more.”

Photo: The author notes that under capitalism, Hungarians can, on one hand, now enjoy shopping malls like the one above in Miskolc. But job security, healthcare, and affordable vacations are things of the past. Alensha/Wikipedia


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.