My guide is young and handsome and smart. His command of English is impressive. He is a law professor at the university. Before that he was a judge (at 24), but a judge is not permitted to work a second job as a tourist guide, and guides make excellent money. So he gave up judging for teaching. As a professor, Mike earns the equivalent of $100 a month. He will make $12 (before taxes and a percentage to the agent) for three hours spent with me.
Our first stop is what American guidebooks thoughtlessly refer to as the Hungarian Statue of Liberty. The Soviets built this monument in Budapest after "liberating" Hungary from the Nazis. Flanked by two other monuments, the central figure—a gigantic female holding aloft a laurel wreath—towers above the city, casting her dark shadow over the capitol in no subtle reminder of the Soviet presence. Soviet soldiers with dogs stand vigil at nearby guardhouses.
Mike and I walk past the guards in silence and are alone; the driver has stayed with the car. I begin the questions, wondering whether he will talk. I have never before hired a guide in any city in the world, and I do not hire this one to see the city but to gauge the pulse of Hungary.
What does Mike think of this monument? My guide flashes a winning smile. "Well, up until a few years ago, we were taught in our schools that after the war, our own people 'voted in' the Russian Communist regime because they liberated us. The education system was recently permitted to admit that the voters really had no choice, since there was only that one party on the ballot. It was a long time ago. What can you do?"
Mike is happier to show me Hungarian monuments than to talk about such progressive concessions to the truth. We tour the city of Budapest. Its once-vibrant beauty has faded to gray, like the colorless graveyard of a "dived out" reef where all life-sustaining coral has been pilfered.
Finally, on Castle Hill, Mike realizes that I change the line of questioning when we are alone. "You needn't be suspicious," he assures me. "We're allowed to say anything we want here." The former prime minister had realized that if the people are allowed to complain, joke, and criticize, they will feel free, he explained. "Here in Hungary, we have for some time been given the image of freedom. Only after observing our success does the Soviet Union begin to imitate us."
What else can you do to feel free? "We can also depart the country for vacations without any problems at all."
And if for some reason the government decided you shouldn't travel, what then? "Well, then, of course, we can't."
And if you want to leave for good? "Oh, if we get permission to emigrate, we can leave."
Is it difficult? "Not as difficult as the other Communist countries. Of course, you cannot return to Hungary for five years, even to visit relatives."
If a citizen emigrates, can he take his property with him? "No, nothing…well, perhaps a few hundred dollars."
Then he can't leave unless he has a means of sustenance elsewhere, right? "For all practical purposes, right. But really, you are too pessimistic. Things are not at all that bad here."
Compared to what? "The other Communist countries. Here in Budapest, almost every family has a car, for example."
That's true—cookie-cutter stamp-outs of primary colors and no style, but they are transportation. "And you must visit our famous shopping avenue, Vaci Street. There you will see our finest things to buy."
I go to the Vaci Utca shopping area the next day. Most of the clothing is of low quality and lacks style, but the shoppers do resemble those in any middle-class mall in America. An average pair of shoes costs around $30. On $25 a week, that's a lot. The supermarkets are busy, and food seems plentiful, though short on fresh produce. Always mindful of the wage scale, I wince at many prices higher than in New York. But staples are cheap by Western standards. And the availability and quality are better than in other Soviet bloc countries.
It is true that Hungary has benefited by permitting a tightly controlled modicum of "private entrepreneurship." But Mike and I agree that this government-created phenomenon is by no leap of the imagination an introduction of capitalism. It is a thin veneer of fascism laminated onto a solid Communist structure. The express purpose is to encourage individually motivated production, and the government can scrape off the shine of profits with taxes.
Permits must be obtained, and Mike tells me, with the authority of a law professor and a former judge, that much of the crime in Hungary is corruption—collaboration between would-be entrepreneurs and bureaucrats attempting to hasten or assure the process with bribes. (Another major criminal activity is the black-marketeering of hard currency.) Once established, a business must follow strict price guidelines and government-set profit margins. Taxes are high—70 percent; down from 90 percent only recently—and arbitrary. Permits may be revoked at any time, for any reason…or none.
Later, I hear other residents of Budapest, relatives of friends back home, rail against the city's businesses. Envy runs high in this country where the common man, yoked to a low standard of living, despises those who outsmart, outbribe, or otherwise make the necessary connections to live above the norm. "They're stealing from everyone, including the government," declared one man. "The average worker would have a beard to his ankles before he earned enough money to live as they do." To many educated under the Communist system, equality means equally shared deprivation. They are like the peasant in a Russian joke who, envious of his neighbor's cow, is granted a wish. Instead of asking for a cow of his own, he wishes only that his neighbor's cow be destroyed.
Other Hungarians I talk to, however, are just glad for a place to live and bread on their table. They're willing to pay for economic security in the coin of freedom. With a shrug, they observe that Hungary has always been ruled by someone.
Assuming that I want to browse and buy, Mike invites me into one small shop that sells the well-known Herend porcelain. Now it's his turn for questions.
When I tell him that I will not buy anything beyond necessities during my stay, because I do not believe in contributing to the support of a closed-border system that oppresses its people, he stops and stares at me. I have only come to his country, I explain, to do research on a project critical of such a political system.
"This idea of non-support has occurred to many of us," he says. "We can't understand why America sells grain to the Soviet Union, which aids the Russians in feeding their people. This only results in providing the Soviet government more opportunity to build weapons in order to expand Communism over the free world and still keep their people acquiescent. You even sell them advanced technology! We can't understand that.
"Hungary has established the pattern to gain Western help—Gorbachev is now emulating us," Mike continues. "Our former prime minister understood for over two decades that if the government seems to honor certain human rights or makes certain gestures in that direction, the West will lend money and extend credits. That's one of the reasons we're so much better off here. The other reason is, of course, the so-called private sector. But the loans are crucial. All Communist countries desperately need hard currency."
Hungary does have the highest per capita debt of any Communist country, around $13 billion for a population of 10.6 million. Hungary is also in deep trouble. The new prime minister, Karoly Grosz, dictated price increases last spring "to reduce consumption in a country that has for years been consuming more than it produces."
I express concern about how Mike manages when prices go up 18, 19, 20 percent overnight. Even now, he is living with his aunt in order to rent out his small apartment to two Polish men on vacation. But he smiles. "What can we do? We have no choice."
And this, Mike stresses, is the best that can be expected of Gorbachev's glasnost—which, Mike reminds me, does not mean "openness" but "publicity" or, in common usage, "propaganda." If Gorbachev institutes enough reform to convince the West to invest in the Soviet system (as in Hungary) and injects a shot of fascism into commerce (as in Hungary), all of this "publicity," this window dressing, will some day only bring the Soviet Union up to the level of Hungary today.
Tipping is what makes the world go 'round in Hungary, right down to the purchase of an ice cream cone or gas for the car. For my part, I am glad to tip Mike generously. In return, he offers me a gift: a small jar of Hungarian paprika. Covering the top, tied with a ribbon, is a hand-embroidered square of cloth. It will be my only souvenir.
I will send Mike other things, I have decided, because I respect his intellectual independence and his defiant determination to enjoy life. If I send packages, will he receive them? Mike laughs, as to a child. "Of course I will get them. We are not Russia!"
What if I send a book? "One of yours?" he asks?
No. But I don't think he'll have heard of the novel I have in mind, which is political as well as philosophical in theme. I test the system: What if I send you a book written by, say…Bukovsky? The smile fades; he knows the name. "Well, probably not Bukovsky…" Even this perceptive professor doesn't always recognize the subtle ways in which he has been duped by the image of freedom.
Tomorrow, other American tourists will ask Mike about his country. "Can you own businesses? Can you leave? Can you…?" The answers will all be yes, because that satisfies most and is easiest for Mike. Unless probed deeply and sincerely, this basically honest young man will not think to add, "at the pleasure of the government." And so, many tourists return home from closed-border countries commenting that things aren't so bad. Lack of freedom is not something you can see walking down the street.
My departing train takes me past small towns, neat and pretty with houses all alike. Earlier in my trip, driven by the hotel chauffeur, I had passed miles and miles and miles of public housing—identical, rectangular-box apartment buildings.
At the border, straining from the window, I can just barely discern the border markings, behind the tree line and running parallel to the train tracks—armed guards and gatehouses and presumably barbed wire. Way in the distance, because I am looking so carefully, I finally see a perpendicular marker. This is barbed wire I can see. It stretches on and on until distance alone fades it from sight. Years ago, my Hungarian friends at home crawled under and over that wire somewhere along its great length. But most of the world, on either side of the barrier, does not want to be reminded of unpleasant realities, so even the barbed wire is subtle here.
The shock of reentering the West is immediate and immense. It is as if I am emerging from a black-and-white photo into a four-color movie. The roof lines change: a cantilevered one here, a square one there, and—how exciting—one made of funny little triangles. Orange! There's a terrace—there—jutting out from its structure. And another that hides coyly behind a grape-vined trellis. There's a yard with perfect roses and, right next door, a yard with a broken-down, rusting truck. Rust. Beautiful rust! Cars of all ages, shapes, makes, and sizes. Signs. Commerce. "Buy me!" "No, I'm better, buy me!" Garish designs. Gaudy colors. Beautiful!
I am back in Austria. Back to freedom and all it means: individuality, diversity, ambition, energy…independence of mind, body, and soul.
Author Alexandra York lives in New York City. She visited Hungary in 1988.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Hungary: Guide to Glasnost’s Best".