Author: Antje Mayer
REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, January 2007

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution
Magyar Rádió online

A Day in the Life of Hungarian Radio Journalist Anna Lengyel

There are some days in your life when you have the feeling that you are at the right place at the right time. 23 October 2006 was one of those days and the city of Budapest was the place.

Every political action has its important symbolic building and the building of Magyar Radio on Brodý Street in Budapest, behind the National Museum, is one of these.

Fifty years ago, on 23 October 1956, this street was full of furious demonstrators, mostly students and young people, who wanted to enter the radio building so that they could read out their demands there: “Withdrawal of the Russian troops! An end to Communist dictatorship!”

The forces of law and order that had collected in front of the place did not hesitate long before firing at random into the crowd of demonstrators. Upon which the enraged masses stormed the building and shot back with weapons they had hastily procured. Then the uprising, which had been peaceful up to that point, turned violent. In the early hours of the following day the first tanks of the Soviet army rolled through the boulevards of the city. There followed weeks of bitter street battles between soldiers and the freedom fighters. There were thousands of dead persons and, ultimately, the defeat of the revolution followed by 32 years of a repressive regime under head of state János Kádár. “Budapest ´56” became – in the East and the West – a symbol of the struggle against the communist regime.

2006: on this beautiful October morning I have an appointment with the grande dame of Hungarian radio, Anna Lengyel, in the legendary main building of Magyar Radio where the revolution started. Today on the 50th anniversary of this revolution when in fact the courage of the citizens should be celebrated there is a fear of the anger of the Hungarian people, of those discontented people that demonstrated the previous week against the Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and his “admission of lying” and of the so-called opposition forces, that is all of those that did not vote for him in April 2006 which amounted to almost half the Hungarians.

On my arrival I am met by the barricaded doors and windows of the radio building. The ground floor windows are even closed up with metal sheets. A row of armed police secures the entrances. Anyone who wishes to enter the building must produce a special permit. I have one in the person of Anna Lengyel who eloquently steers me through the security check. She is in her late fifties, her dark hair is cut in a sporty short style and she is discretely made-up a woman who approaches ageing with considerable charm. She was a radio journalist during the communist era, after 1990 she was truly popular but nevertheless she was never really successful. “I was never sufficiently adapted. I never belonged to the Party and I refused to allow it take me over. This was eventually accepted but I have had to face the fact that, during the three decades that I have worked for Magyar Radio (for the station Kossuth, red.). I have not ascended the career ladder. Not even after the political changes. I have three university degrees, whereas many of my bosses didn't even graduate from secondary school, and I still live in a two-room apartment in a prefabricated housing block.”

She tells all this in a completely enchanting way, always with a smile on her lips. When she speaks about her annoyance it seems a little too rehearsed. Lengyel learned in the long years of Communism that it was better not to show what she was feeling and not to say directly what she thought. It could have cost her her job or sent her to jail. Once she did say what thought. That was back in 1985. To be more precise she said the wrong thing. She was meant to do research work for the programme “House of the Year”. She was sent to a house in Budapest that, for those times, was unusually lavishly furnished. She asked the owners where the money had come from to pay for it all. It would have been wiser not to do this. The editor-in-charge, the superintendent, the external editor, the head of programmes and the six-person committee, all the censorship organs that, back then, had to vet a programme before it could be broadcast in the first place, accused her of professional incompetence. Lengyel recalls: “I summoned up all my courage and took them to the labour court – successfully. I was able to disprove all the accusations. Nine months later I returned to radio. Incidentally, the people who had denigrated me back then are once again in influential positions. One of them is even in the ultra-conservative Party of Justice and Life (MIÉP).” That is Hungary's great problem today, the radio journalist explains, as a result of the peaceful nature of the political change of 1989 there has never been a radical social renewal. All the important positions, from the universities to the media, cultural institutions and politics, are still occupied by former communists.

She briefly shows me the courtyard of the radio building. “I remember that on the anniversary of the revolution a 'party comrade' always stood here on a red carpet, accompanied by a widow who had lost her soldier son in 1956. But not a great deal of fuss was made, by and large sleeping dogs were let lie. After the obligatory laying of a wreath, a tearful obituary for the Soviet dead and vicious accusations against the freedom fighters the party comrade generally vanished pretty quickly”, Lengyel recalls.

We take the lift to newsroom of the Kossuth station. The editor-in-charge on this 23 October is a smart young man. He is in his early thirties and already has a better-paid job than Lengyel has had in her entire career. His assistant is editing the news for the half-hourly news reports. A Hungarian living in Slovakia has been attacked on account of his nationality. Otherwise it is just the usual stuff. No, it is not planned to bring any live reports of the expected confrontations on the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. The main focus is on the official government celebrations. Anna Lengyel whispers into my ear: “I'm disappointed, I though I would be able to produce something. But he will see: when the first foreign guests are at the airport the violence will break out.”

We don't have to wait long for the first reports. The centrally located Kossuth Square has been closed to the public. Demonstrators have been sighted near the parliament. The first violent confrontations between police and citizens take place. Tear-gas, water canons, rubber bullets. The first injured persons. There is even a report that someone has been killed, which is then denied. The situation starts to collapse.

I ask whether they intend to send journalists there to report on the current situation. No, the editor in charge shakes his head. I have to understand that this kind of thing is difficult for a radio station that is financed by the government. Above the entrance there are four flickering screens. The state television MTV (Magyar Televizió) shows an old black and white documentary film about 1956, even Duna TV, generally regarded as liberal, broadcasts a costume drama, it is only the BBC that brings lives reports of the demonstrations. Censorship? Hungary has been a member of the EU since May 2004, has committed itself to democratic principles, I say, getting upset. Given the situation one cannot act as if everything is completely normal. “They are attempting to reach an agreement with the government”, Lengyel pulls me by my sleeve into the smokers' corner in the corridor. “Censorship is a big word, let's call it 'live and let live'”.

Around the corner from the radio building, on Octogon Square a friendly demonstration organised by the opposition politician Viktor Orbán (Fidesz, Federation of Young Democrats) is forming. Basically this is the only larger publicly accessible event of the day where the people of Budapest can celebrate the 50th anniversary. Anna Lengyel and I decide to go there. I ask whether she can at least report about it for the radio. No, she answers, her participation will be private.

As we approach the square several thousand people have already gathered there. Later the international media will report: “Hungary is also split as regards the commemorations (of 1956, ed.), and that this was a demonstration by nationalist conservatives. In the Austrian daily Der Standard and in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (from 24.10. 2006) this demonstration is not even mentioned, instead there are reports about right wing radicals, prepared for violence”. The Süddeutsche Zeitung quotes prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who in an interview broadcast on television defended the tough police response: “We are dealing here with an attack by a minority on the rights of the majority.”

But Lengyel and I find a rather mixed group at this meeting, who have apparently spontaneously made their way to Octogon Square. Their reaction to Orbán's speech is restrained. They are clearly not fanatical supporters of his middle-class party, but rather peaceful people of Budapest who wish to celebrate 1956 together and, at most, to express their dissatisfaction with the current socio-political situation. Nobody here seems motivated by party politics. One can make out a few nationalists in Hungarian costume, but there are more young people, students, numerous middle-class families with small children, artists, intellectuals, and pensioners. Anna Lengyel is recognised, every few metres someone wants to shake her hand. She introduces me to Tullassay Tivadar, Rector of the Medical University of Budapest. I shake the hand of Kovács István, former ambassador to Poland, writer and author of a book about 1956. A member of the committee of the Hungarian association of authors gives me a photocopy of a declaration, which demands that demonstrators should not be treated so brutally. “You're a journalist, tell people abroad how things are for us Hungarians these days”, the man distributing the leaflets shouts after me. If even the Hungarians themselves cannot manage to do this, I think to myself...

My reflections are rudely interrupted by a wildly gesticulating man who must have come from the far side of Octogon Square. His jacket is completely wet and has strange blue stains. An old Soviet tank from the Budapest “Terror Museum” on Andrassy Street has been stolen by the demonstrators, he exclaims, his eyes reddened from the effects of tear-gas. “There was still some petrol in the tank. They are driving it through the streets of Budapest. The police have gone wild and are riding on their horses into the crowd. Even peaceful passers-by, mothers with children are being brutally driven into the side streets by the forces of law and order. Demonstrators have been marked with blue dye”. Later we learn that a demonstrator has been blinded by a rubber bullet.

For safety's sake we decide to go back to the radio building. On the way there Anna Lengyel confesses to me that for her rebellion always meant keeping her pride and still being able to look people in the face that she met in previous times. How has she managed that? Lengyel raises a finger: “First of all I believe in God. And secondly: Up to the level of state president I am known and respected because, as a journalist, I have never lied and I have always investigated things thoroughly. I was a specialist worker at a high level.”

When we enter the radio building we meet the technical director of the radio in the corridor. Of his own accord he has returned to work earlier from the long weekend. If the building is stormed he has to see to it that broadcasting can continue. The newsroom has filled up in the meantime, there is a feeling of excitement, a dozen journalists telephone and type feverishly. Finally, “Magyar Radio” has reported on the demonstrations. The editor-in-charge wants Lengyel to immediately canvas the opinions of politicians about the events of the day. Anna Lengyel does not even take off her coat but at once picks up the phone. I can see how her eyes are gleaming, saying my goodbyes I make my way into the uneasy Budapest night.