Hungarian retro: the 1950s and 1988

Those who speak Hungarian have a rare treat. The Nemzeti Audiovizuális Archivum (National Audiovisual Archives) has made available 77 old movies and news clips that are available free of charge on the Internet ( Some of the news clips are truly old, from the 1930s, but the bulk of them come from 1988, the last full year of the one-party system, which this year has its twentieth anniversary. Anyone who is nostalgic for the good old days of the Kádár regime ought to take a look at the news from 1988. I especially enjoyed three short clips about Christmas shopping that year. Of course, the managers of the department stores assured everybody that the offerings were as good as if not better than in 1987, but it turned out that there were "chronic shortages" of certain items, even food. For example, if one wanted to buy a freezer it might be difficult to find one. The choice in color television sets was also poor, even according to the head of the department. Indeed, the three or four sad-looking sets on display were pretty pitiful.

As for foodstuff. It seems that shortages were common among items whose ingredients came from abroad. There were shortages of raisins, margarine, even baking powder. By contrast, the department store Skála whose very forward-looking manager made all sorts of deals with foreign companies had an impressive array of toys. Practically all foreign made judging from the writing on the packaging.

There are also political news items from 1988 and 1989. One can see that first encounter between Fidesz and KISZ concerning the financial support of Fidesz by the state. I recognized the youthful Tamás Deutsch, Gábor Fodor and György Szilvássy, currently the undersecretary in charge of the secret service. Viktor Orbán considered him to be one of the two smart ones in the KISZ leadership. The other was Ferenc Gyurcsány. There is also a very candid interview with Gyula Horn, then foreign minister, about international relations and the reduction of Soviet troops in Hungary. I was really looking forward to the video of the reburial of Imre Nagy in 1989 but it was a disappointment. For almost ten minutes one could see only thousands walking by and placing flowers next to the coffins. Perhaps the Hungarian state television wasn't quite sure whether they wanted television viewers to hear the speeches at that reburial.

As I mentioned these are short clips, lasting only a few minutes. The movies, of course, require a greater time commitment. I decided to watch a film that I have heard a lot about called Állami Áruház (State Department Store, 1952). What a promising title! It was a comedy and a musical of sorts. The plot is simple enough. A young working class fellow called Ferenc (Feri) Kovács who used to work in the warehouse was "selected" to go to school (most likely some kind of party school). He was destined to leave his manual labor behind and become part of the management. Indeed, the current head of the department store offers him a desk job but our Feri prefers something more practical and thus he becomes a salesman in the women's clothing department. Soon enough he finds out that the ready-made women's clothing simply cannot be sold to anybody. They are ugly, they have no collars or pockets. The same is true about the men's jackets. They are too short. Someone tried to save material. Our Feri is mighty upset, and immediately there is ill will between him and the director of the store. The director goes to the ministry in the hope of removing Feri, but the ministry officials realize that Feri is right and the director is wrong. They make Feri the new workers director. It turns out that the former director is an old reactionary who wants to ruin the department store and with a little help from the American imperialists he causes panic buying. But never fear, the workers and Feri, their director, overcome all difficulties: plenty of merchandise, people are happy, all is well.

Alongside this political story there is a love story between Feri and the designer of the horrible dresses who of course in reality is a very talented designer. There is also a less important comic love story between one of the sales girls and two department heads who are in "socialist competition" with each other. One of the department heads is Kálmán Latabár, a famous comedian from the 1930s, who occasionally makes a few jokes at the expense of the regime. Very mild ones but given 1952 one cannot expect more. Most of the  jokes have something to do with the "planned economy" when in July there are plenty of fur coats but nothing else. Or Latabár tries to sell useless garden gnomes by saying "during winter a garden gnome always comes in handy." That "innocent" little remark made history. It's enough to repeat the sentence and everybody knows what you are talking about.

Tomorrow I think I will return to politics: to Orbán's Christmas message about which Sic has already written a couple of very interesting comments. I see that Odin even without knowing Hungarian felt the venom in Orbán's speech in front of the Astoria in 2006. Well, since then he has become worse and this last interview, especially at Christmas time, simply boggles the mind.