George Orwell Got It Right: How I Experienced 1984 in Communist Hungary

The year 1984 has a special significance for anyone studying totalitarian regimes, thanks to the work of that name by English author George Orwell. That’s certainly true for me, and it’s personal, too.

On the night of 8 August 1984, according to my secret police dossier, which I was able to get a copy of recently, a young lad and I were on this winding country road in the Börzsöny mountains in Hungary. We were on a camp organised by a ‘rebel’ Catholic priest, Father Miklós Blanckenstein, or just ”Miki”, as he preferred to be called. He had disobeyed the Catholic Hierarchy and the Pope (Paul VI and his weak successors), who urged Catholics to accept Communism and collaborate with them. (A bit like Pope Francis and the Chinese Christians today.)

Well, this young man and I had been having one of those deep talks you tend to when you’re young and seeking the meaning of life and that sort of thing. I was probably only five/six years older than him, but had travelled, been in the Army, and wrestled with the “big questions” for longer than he had. Also, I knew my Bible, which he evidently didn’t.

We’d reached a village and turned around, it was late, maybe 2 A.M., with us going down this narrow, forested mountain lane with ditches on either side (for the rainwater) and suddenly we heard this roar, as of a vehicle coming down the road at high speed. The vehicle turned out to be a four-door jeep-type light military transport, inspired by the US Jeep of WWII fame. It was a GAZ-69, if memory serves.

The youth urgently grabbed my arm and said we should hide in the forest! I pointed out to him that we had done nothing wrong and if we did go hide, it would appear we had something to hide, which we didn’t. He agreed. The Gaz went roaring past us, screeched to halt and came roaring back at us at high speed. If we were in any danger, it was from the crazy driver!

A couple of armed soldier-types came tumbling out of the vehicle and made straight for us. One shoved an AK-47 against the ribs on my right side, another against my left side. They ordered us to get in. I recall I managed to say something like, ”if you insist”! I ended up in the back with these two on either side. I suppose my friend must have been in the front.

Eventually, I said to one of the soldiers: ”You guys are not too bright! If you shoot me, you’ll kill him too!” They muttered something, but one moved his AK. I reckoned these were not elite soldiers, as their AKs were the old ones with the wooden stocks, and I had seen newer ones than that in the hands of African guerrillas.

It turned out they were part of the Border Guard and my friends on the camp (some 120 or so) told me they were not the cream of the crop within what was then the Hungarian People’s Army.

Actually, the Hungarian people had very little to do with it, it was the Hungarian Communist Party’s armed wing in actual fact.

We then roared along the narrow road and the Border Guards accused us of being terrorists and asked where our ”hideout” was. I informed them that we didn’t have a hideout, just a tent camp and many of our members were in a clearing to the right of the road playing a popular (and for the time, edgy) rock opera, István a Király (Stephen the King, which was about Saint Stephen of Hungary, the country’s first Christian king, crowned in 1000 A.D.) There were a lot of elements in the rock opera, including parts of the script that the Communist regime would not like, if it had paid attention. I recall there was a scene when a rebel against St. Stephen, Koppány, sings, purportedly against Christianity, saying ”we don’t want a God who can’t speak Hungarian”. Of course one could take this as railing against the Catholic Church of the day, which prayed in Latin, but everybody understood it
was all about the Soviet Union, the ”god” who couldn’t speak Hungarian. And there were many other similar elements in the rock opera.

Of course, this was the summer of 1984, when the grip of János Kádár’s ’Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party’ (Communist Party) was loosening, but nobody knew when the Soviets would roll in their vast numbers of tanks. Everybody also knew from bitter experience that the West – as always – be that at Yalta in 1945, Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Vietnam in 1973 – would never intervene to save the victims of Communism. The West during the Cold War did not cover itself in glory, to put it mildly. So people in Communist countries lay low and watched what they said and did. But not everyone.

Miki, our priest, was one such. He organised ”illegal” camps where he held mass in the mornings, organised outings during the day, and then arranged Biblical plays and other fun things, which also included lots of singing and dancing around the campfire. On one of the days, we visited the nearby ruin of Drégely Castle, lost to the Turks in 1552, led by György Szondi, who fought to the death with his garrison. Unusually, the Turkish Pasha, Hadim Ali, allowed him a proper funeral. His two pages, or
squires, would not submit to the wiles or threats of the Pasha and remain famous in song and poetry.

When we were there, it was hard to tell where there was a gate or where there was wall. It was all overgrown, but still fascinating because of its history.

But, let’s go back to the night of the Border Guard’s ”visit”. Once they spotted our friends playing the rock opera through a car sound system, they stopped and demanded that everyone go get their pass books, or ”work books”. This was a kind of pass, or I.D., that had every detail of the person in it and also where they were employed. As it was a criminal offence to be unemployed, some of my friends would be worried.

The paramilitary types then asked where our camp was, and as I was one of the older guys, I reckoned I’d lead them to the camp. It was on the other side of the road, past the ditch and through some trees. (Trees are very common on both sides of country roads in Hungary, for shade in summer.) At that point, one of the young Border Guard soldiers started swearing, as the saying goes, ”like a trooper”.

”Hush!’, said my previously-frightened friend. ”There are believers there!!” At this, the poor chap was filled with fear, and although he was holding the gun and we were unarmed, he sputtered that he was sorry and he would not go into the camp! While he was scared, we felt uplifted. Quite an experience!

The rest of us went through to our tents and got our ”pass books”, except me. I was lucky, I was a British citizen, so I got my passport. As we trooped back over the road to the clearing, I told all the younger ones, some of whom were really scared, to get behind me. I saw the guy whose car it was beckoning me (he was from an aristocratic family, hence he had to live by driving a taxi). He was standing with the officer of the Border Guards, so I got everyone to go line up behind me and walked up to this lieutenant. He took my passport, and laughed with my taxi driver friend, and said: ”British!

He must be a friend of James Bond. He’s a spy!” And they had a good laugh.

I then asked the lieutenant to come for a brief walk with me, which he did. We had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: “You realise I’m Hungarian, but I’m now a British journalist.”
Him: “Interesting. But you do realise this is an illegal activity.”
Me: “What’s illegal about it? We’re camping in the middle of nowhere.”
Him: “True, but you are not registered.”
Me: “What are you talking about?”
Him: “The priest didn’t register the camp with the religious authorities.”
Me: “And why should he?”
Him: “It’s the law. All activities must first be registered with the legal authorities.”

By this time, we were both in good humour. He was saying what he had to say and I could tell he wasn’t into this. I pointed out to him that the People’s Republic of Hungary was advertising itself as a ”Reform Communist” country, and touting the good life people enjoyed as well as the freedoms it supposedly had. We understood each other. We went on like this:

Me: ”Look, I can’t stop you from locking me up, but there’s just one thing. Don’t ever let me out.”
Him: ”Why wouldn’t I want to release you?” (As if he didn’t know! Unlike the others, he was a bright fellow.)
Me: ”Because if you do let me go, I will tell the international media, from the BBC to The Times to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about how religious freedom looks here in the People’s Republic.”

I could see that gave him a shock. He began to look really worried and pretty soon he was saying that the whole arrest was a “misunderstanding”. Then we began to talk about the rock opera and it looked like the whole thing was over. But it wasn’t.

In English Common Law, when a police officer or other authorised person takes someone into some sort of custody (using AK-47s, for instance), that is an arrest. In Hungarian law, it is not. It is called ’őrizetbevétel’ (”taking into custody”) but is not considered a formal arrest until the person is charged. Once they are taken to the police station with the intention of laying a charge, this is called ’letartóztatás’. This is a proper arrest. What happened to us was this ”pre-arrest”, then release.

But. The next day, all sorts of high-ranking police types showed up at our campsite. They demanded to see the priest, who – understandably – was very respectful but also stood his ground, and then they asked for ”that British citizen”. I went forward. Well, I was given a long lecture about how there are laws in the People’s Republic and I, as a foreigner, have to report my movements (within 24 hours every time I visit another town) to the police (which I had tried to obey, but no police had ever
heard of it, so I gave up on that). I tried to be respectful, as the Good Book tells us, I tried to be reasonable, but the guy kept on at me, and eventually I got annoyed.

”Where do you want me to report, at the nearest tree?!” I said, with rather more annoyance in my voice than I had intended. Well, the ”little king” as we call people like that in Hungarian, really didn’t like that! ”This is not over,” he said. ”Wait till you get to the border!” (He kept his threat.)

So, after chewing the priest and me out, but not stamping my passport (I suppose he didn’t have the right stamps either), they left. We thought, ”now, it’s over.” It wasn’t, and it could have cost us our lives.

I don’t have the period of time that elapsed in my diary, but it was either the next day or the day after that the woodsmen came to our camp. They were looking very concerned and asked us if we were crazy. I remember one actually asked whether we wanted to die! We assured him that we were all for living and he explained that the valley had been evacuated because the Soviet Red Army was moving into the next valley for a live-fire anti-aircraft drill. He pointed out that our valley was in the fallout zone and the chance of being killed or injured by falling shrapnel or unexploded shells (which might still explode on contact with the ground) was pretty high!

So we packed up in a hurry and began looking for somewhere else to camp. And then came the irony! We reached one of the Communist Youth-type camps. It was either a ”Young Pioneer” or a Communist Youth camp, I’m not sure which. (And I certainly didn’t care.) In front of the camp across a road was a cable connected to a military field telephone, with a Soviet soldier manning it.

Somehow, one of our guys produced a bottle of vodka and went over to the soldier, and said something to him. The soldier then used his phone and apparently spoke to some big boss on the Soviet side, and then waved us in. So the Soviet Red Army gave us shelter from our beloved ”fellow Hungarians”, the local Communists, who conveniently forgot to tell us of the fallout danger. Lovely lot, they were!

The following evening we saw some really impressive ”fireworks”! This was the Soviet’s anti-aircraft drill, with missiles, cannon of all calibres exploding a few kilometres away in the night sky. We were thankful not to be under that lot. It did look impressive, once we knew we were safe. But I imagine if we hadn’t been warned, there might have been some ”accidents” with the requisite deaths or injuries.

Finally, we had a big fire and got meat and had a big farewell supper, with the usual relaxed talks, songs, promises to keep in touch and so on. Interestingly, not one of the people whose address I took down ever answered my letters. I strongly suspect they were intercepted by the state security apparatus.

As a final thought, I’d like to share something that one of the girls, whom I only knew by her nickname, ”Nyugi”, which means ”relax” said. She came up to me in the midst of all the feasting and said this: ”You know, I’m glad this happened.” Now unlike me, with my foreign passport and therefore my special status, where the worst they could do was deport me, she was a local citizen and knew they had taken her name down. This meant she would have a ”black mark” against her name, would not be allowed to study or have a good job, yet here she was, saying she’s happy about all this. I asked her why.

She simply said: ”I used to think I was a Christian, but now I know I am.”


Christopher Szabo

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist in Pretoria, South Africa.

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