Playback: Hungary in 1989

Lately MTV (Magyar Televízió) has been airing a series called "Visszajátszás" (Playback) recalling Hungary in 1989. They just finished the twentieth installment (interestingly the series started with the number zero!). Each program is half an hour long, so viewing the archived videos takes a chunk of time. Moreover, the videos often stop due to server problems and it takes some tinkering not to miss portions of the program itself. Episodes of "Playback" can be found here: I would recommend watching it, not only to those who lived abroad at that time but also, and perhaps even more, to those who lived through it but by now don't remember what Hungary was like before the change of regime.

There is a general nostalgia for the late Kádár days. "Playback" belies some of this nostalgia. There is extensive original footage from MTV's programs. These news items, interviews, and political cabaret snippets are interspersed with current interviews with people who played some role in these events. I must say that I found these memories of the olden days less enlightening than the 1989 television appearances of the young László Kövér, Viktor Orbán, Gábor Fodor, Péter Tölgyessy, or Ferenc Gyurcsány, just to mention a few. It was also interesting to see and hear some of the people from the other side: Károly Grósz, György Fejti, or Imre Pozsgay. It is amazing how rapidly the regime collapsed: a few months and "the party" agreed to the idea of a multi-party government and, after some hesitation, also decided to sit down with all the parties at the "Round Table Discussions" in which the parties put together the outline of a new democratic Hungary.

But for me the most interesting segments of "Playback" were the ones dealing with the everyday life and travails of citizens. Stories about people who had waited for twenty years to get an apartment from the city "council." Or about people who had to wait five years to receive a Trabant for which they had paid in advance–and it wasn't even cheap. Or that only eight families out of one hundred had a telephone. There was a true story told by the man himself who applied for a telephone in 1967. His son's arrival into this world was imminent, and of course they had no telephone. Not only  didn't they have one but nobody in the apartment building had one, and there was no telephone booth anywhere to be found. Luckily they managed to get to the hospital just in the knick of time. But he decided that a telephone was a necessity. For twenty-two years he waited for that wretched phone. Occasionally he got a letter from Magyar Posta that also handled telephones to inquire whether he was still interested and, if so, he should fill out the attached questionnaire. He did so dutifully to no avail. The last time that Magyar Posta inquired was in 1989. This time they asked what prizes he had received, whether he was he a member of the Workers' Militia. The man got so mad that instead of writing to Magyar Posta he wrote an angry letter to HVG (Heti Világgazdaság), a weekly that in many ways was a pioneer in the new Hungarian journalism.

There was a segment on the "world passport." Prior to 1988 there were two kinds of passports: the red ones and the blue ones. The red one was good to travel in the socialist countries while one needed a blue passport to travel to the west. Travel to the west was greatly restricted not just for political reasons but because of financial constraints. People needed "hard currency," and the country didn't have an abundance of that. Thus a Hungarian citizen could visit the West only every three years and received, if I recall properly, one hundred dollars' worth of hard currency. In 1988 that practice changed, and suddenly half the country wanted to go to Austria to shop for items in short supply in Hungary. Immediately after the government (actually the party because it was always the party that gave the final okay) announced that everybody can have a blue passport, 350,000 requests arrived just from Budapest. And that was just in the first week or so. They were expecting four times that many from the capital alone. And once there was a passport and plenty of hard currency available, families began driving in their Trabants and Ladas toward the Austrian border. There were miles-long lines at the crossing. Often they didn't get farther than the first Austrian village where clever businessmen were waiting for the Hungarians. They brought back freezers, video players, brand names that were not available in Hungary. It is hard to give exact figures, but the loss to Hungary was considerable. According to one estimate perhaps 1,000 billion dollars was spent by Hungarians outside of the country. Eventually the government decided to act: they set up "hard currency" shops where they sold the same items Hungarians were buying abroad.

"Visszajátszás" challenges some of the recollections of friends, always a bit suspect. They try to convince those of us who didn't live in Hungary in those days that by the eighties there were no shortages in Hungary. Everything was available. But here are the original pictures and words of MTV from those days, and it is clear that their memory is faulty. They also seem to forget that all those travels they so fondly remember could have happened only after 1988 when the regime was already on its deathbed.

I will do my best to convince people to watch the series and refresh their failing memory.