Selected Skirmishes: Expensive Accommodations


The perception is that once you've seen one East Bloc victim of Marxism-Leninism, you've seen 'em all. Yet a 50-minute socialist jet ride from Prague to Budapest opens one's eyes both to the complete equality of airline snack items around the world and to the vast inequalities of life under Egalitarianism.

Whereas the Czech social order remains user-hostile to the max—toxic quasi-food far below even British standards, ubiquitous lines, a host of 19th-century "conveniences"—the Hungarians are abuzz with economic activity. The cuisine is cheap and tasty (they have gotten arguably close to bona fide U.S. drive-thru quality); shops are filled with Western products from Sharp TVs to Panasonic answer phones to Ferrari Barbies; and queuing is a rarity. Hondas, Fords, and Mercedes cruise the crowded boulevards. Even the continuing communist yen for hard currency—window shoppers routinely see prices for jewelry and appliances quoted not in florints but in U.S. dollars—is a charming reminder of the failure of central planning.

Moreover, there is a resurgent vitality in Budapest's neighborhoods, where the whirl of drills, the scream of saws, and the pounding of hammers fill residential airs. (Each blast of the self-interest-driven power drill metaphorically drives yet another nail into Lenin's tomb.) Meanwhile, the streets of Prague sleep, as idle tenants dwell in an unseemly quiet, mourners at some sort of economic wake.

To what do the Hungarians owe their head start in the Communist Bloc's race to Westernize? All around know the answer, for the credit goes to one man alone: János Kádár, Soviet collaborator.

In July, Hungarians observed the one-year anniversary of the death of Kádár. They were confused as to appropriate attire. As the Hungarian news agency reported: "It is too early to say 'yes' [to Kádár's legacy], thus relieving the leader of his historic sins, or to say 'no,' which would quickly condemn a man for what he did."

What Kádár did was to be the "accommodationist" Communist Party Chief for 21 years. Beginning in 1968, and reading the writing-in-blood on Prague's walls, Kádár humored Brezhnev as though Lenny were the Godfather.

Kádár to the Kremlin was Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson, Quayle to Bush, Ronald Reagan to Nancy. The low profile bought wiggle room on socialist mythology. Hence Hungary's market reforms have a running start by virtue of a two-decade warm-up heat with capitalist co-venturers.

Yet Kádár's memory does not bring a smile to Hungarian faces. Neither steering the country on the most politically liberal path through Soviet tank-infested woods, nor allowing Hungarians to feast on Big Macs in an East Bloc simulation of bourgeois affluence, can trump János's Faustian bargain. This is a crime to which Magyar eyes will not be blinded.

The contrast with Prague is painful. There, Alexander Dubcek defied the Russian Bear, demanding Czechoslovakian freedom on principle. Dubcek gained ample time for philosophical reflection on his courageous deed during his next 20 years driving a bus. But today, he shines as a beloved national treasure.

And more: In January 1969, when the flowers of Prague Spring were in a very deep freeze, Jan Palach warmed the hearts of millions by setting himself ablaze in Wenceslas Square. The flame has not yet been extinguished: Czechs honor his memory by placing flowers and lighting candles beneath his photograph there. The intransigence of Czechoslovakia's leaders cost its citizens dearly in the 20-year crackdown that was payback. But these victims of repression today worship their heroes for the privilege.

No doubt Kádár's counsel has filed an excellent brief with the court of St. Peter. All else equal, Kádár lifted the material lot of his countrymen. As the Hungarian newspaper, Magyor Hirlap, editorialized: Kádár was a "behind-the-scenes tactician who managed the happiest barrack in the East Bloc."

To complicate matters, the cause of freedom may ultimately have been well served. The 1988 World Almanac noted that "Hungary leads the communist states in comparative tolerance for cultural freedoms and small private enterprise." And it was a Hungary infected with Western economic agents that self-confidently opened the floodgates to East Germans, which, in turn, triggered the collapse of the Communist Bloc's house of cards last fall.

But while Czech leaders were buying immortality in their 1968 revolution, Hungarian troops were marching against them. This at the very instant that major economic liberalization was introduced in Budapest. Kádár had alertly found a way to export Stalinism to a helpless neighbor: "Czechoslovakia has long been an industrial and technological leader of the Eastern European countries," says the Almanac, "though its relative standing has declined in recent years because of government rejection of economic reforms." Yeah, well, you see those Hungarian troops over there, next to the Bulgarians, hiding the Russians?

Kádár's eternal soul may well face a hung jury. Yet here on earth, his memory simply flunks the Hungarian smell test. On the 20th anniversary of Palach's fiery act of defiance, hundreds of oppressed Czechs were arrested attempting to attend the vigil. When the first anniversary of Kádár's death was marked last July, 2 million well-fed citizens of Budapest were free to mourn. Not a single one of them lit a public candle for Kádár.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.