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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Goulash and Solidarity: As Happy as a Squirrel up a tree

This article by my wife Zsuzsanna Clark, on her positive experiences of growing up under communism, (a digest of her forthcoming book ‘Goulash and Solidarity’), appears in today's Mail on Sunday.

Above, some memories of growing up in the Hungarian People’s Republic, put to that wonderfully poignant song Iskolatáska by Demjen Ferenc.(video by 'Agness 401')

Zsuzsanna Clark

Next month Europe will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Zsuzsanna Clark was born and raised in Hungary but after meeting her British husband, she moved to the UK in 1999. Here she explains why, contrary to Western beliefs, there were many benefits to life behind the Iron Curtain.......

When people ask me what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary in the Seventies and Eighties, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state.

They are invariably disappointed when I explain that the reality was quite different, and communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact, rather a fun place to live.

The communists provided everyone with guaranteed employment, good education and free healthcare. Violent crime was virtually non-existent.

But perhaps the best thing of all was the overriding sense of camaraderie, a spirit lacking in my adopted Britain and, indeed, whenever I go back to Hungary today. People trusted one another, and what we had we shared.

I was born into a working-class family in Esztergom, a town in the north of Hungary, in 1968. My mother, Julianna, came from the east of the country, the poorest part. Born in 1939, she had a harsh childhood.

She left school aged 11 and went straight to work in the fields. She remembers having to get up at 4am to walk five miles to buy a loaf of bread. As a child, she was so hungry she often waited next to the hen for it to lay an egg. She would then crack it open and swallow the yolk and the white raw.

It was discontent with these conditions of the early years of communism that led to the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

The shock waves brought home to the communist leadership that they could consolidate their position only by making our lives more tolerable. Stalinism was out and 'goulash communism' - a unique brand of liberal communism - was in.

Janos Kadar, the country's new leader, transformed Hungary into the 'happiest barracks' in Eastern Europe. We probably had more freedoms than in any other communist country.

One of the best things was the way leisure and holiday opportunities were opened up to all. Before the Second World War, holidays were reserved for the upper and middle classes. In the immediate post-war years too, most Hungarians were working so hard rebuilding the country that holidays were out of the question.

In the Sixties though, as in many other aspects of life, things changed for the better. By the end of the decade, almost everyone could afford to go away, thanks to the network of subsidised trade-union, company and co-operative holiday centres.

My parents worked in Dorog, a nearby town, for Hungaroton, a state-owned record company, so we stayed at the factory's holiday camp at Lake Balaton, 'The Hungarian Sea'.

The camp was similar to the sort of holiday camps in vogue in Britain at the same time, the only difference being that guests had to make their own entertainment in the evenings - there were no Butlins-style Redcoats.

Some of my earliest memories of living at home are of the animals my parents kept on their smallholding. Rearing animals was something most people did, as well as growing vegetables. Outside Budapest and the big towns, we were a nation of Tom and Barbara Goods.

My parents had about 50 chickens, pigs, rabbits, ducks, pigeons and geese. We kept the animals not just to feed our family but also to sell meat to our friends. We used the goose feathers to make pillows and duvets.

The government understood the value of education and culture. Before the advent of communism, opportunities for the children of the peasantry and urban working class, such as me, to rise up the educational ladder were limited. All that changed after the war.

The school system in Hungary was similar to that which existed in Britain at the time. Secondary education was divided into grammar schools, specialised secondary schools, and vocational schools. The main differences were that we stayed in our elementary school until the age of 14, not 11.

There were also evening schools, for children and adults. My parents, who had both left school young, took classes in mathematics, history and Hungarian literature and grammar.

I loved my schooldays, and in particular my membership of the Pioneers - a movement common to all communist countries.

Many in the West believed it was a crude attempt to indoctrinate the young with communist ideology, but being a Pioneer taught us valuable life skills such as building friendships and the importance of working for the benefit of the community. 'Together for each other' was our slogan, and that was how we were encouraged to think.

As a Pioneer, if you performed well in your studies, communal work and school competitions, you were rewarded with a trip to a summer camp. I went every year because I took part in almost all the school activities: competitions, gymnastics, athletics, choir, shooting, literature and library work.

On our last night at Pioneer camp we sang songs around the bonfire, such as the Pioneer anthem: 'Mint a mokus fenn a fan, az uttoro oly vidam' ('We are as happy as a squirrel on a tree'), and other traditional songs. Our feelings were always mixed: sad at the prospect of leaving, but happy at the thought of seeing our families again.

Today, even those who do not consider themselves communists look back at their days in the Pioneers with great affection.

Hungarian schools did not follow the so-called 'progressive' ideas on education prevalent in the West at the time. Academic standards were extremely high and discipline was strict. My favourite teacher taught us that without mastery of Hungarian grammar we would lack confidence to articulate our thoughts and feelings. We could make only one mistake if we wanted to attain the highest grade.

Unlike Britain, there were 'viva voce' exams in Hungary in every subject. In literature, for example, set texts had to be memorised and recited and then the student would have to answer questions put to them orally by the teacher. Whenever we had a national celebration, I was among those asked to recite a poem or verse in front of the whole school.

Culture was regarded as extremely important by the government. The communists did not want to restrict the finer things of life to the upper and middle classes - the very best of music, literature and dance were for all to enjoy.

This meant lavish subsidies were given to institutions including orchestras, opera houses, theatres and cinemas. Ticket prices were subsidised by the State, making visits to the opera and theatre affordable.

'Cultural houses' were opened in every town and village, so provincial, working-class people such as my parents could have easy access to the performing arts, and to the best performers.

Programming on Hungarian television reflected the regime's priority to bring culture to the masses, with no dumbing down.

When I was a teenager, Saturday night primetime viewing typically meant a Jules Verne adventure, a poetry recital, a variety show, a live theatre performance, or an easy Bud Spencer film.

Much of Hungarian television was home-produced, but quality programmes were imported, not just from other Eastern Bloc countries but from the West, too.
Hungarians in the early Seventies followed the trials and tribulations of Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga just as avidly as British viewers had done a few years earlier. The Onedin Line was another popular BBC series I enjoyed watching, along with David Attenborough documentaries.

However, the government was alive to the danger of us turning into a nation of four-eyed couch potatoes. Every Monday was 'family night', when State television was taken off the air to encourage families to do other things together. Others called it 'family planning night', and I am sure the figures showing the proportion of children conceived on Monday nights under communism would make interesting reading.

Although we lived well under 'goulash communism' and there was always enough food for us to eat, we were not bombarded with advertising for products we didn't need.
Throughout my youth, I wore hand-me-down clothes, as most young people did. My school bag was from the factory where my parents worked. What a difference to today's Hungary, where children are bullied, as they are in Britain, for wearing the
'wrong' brand of trainers.

Like most people in the communist era, my father was not money-obsessed.
As a mechanic he made a point of charging people fairly. He once saw a broken-down car with an open bonnet - a sight that always lifted his heart. It belonged to a West German tourist. My father fixed the car but refused payment - even a bottle of beer. For him it was unnatural that anyone would think of accepting money for helping someone in distress.

When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people - me and my family included - did not take part in the protests.

Our voice - the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism - is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.
Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.

Communism in Hungary had its downside. While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the West was problematic and allowed only every second year.
There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and freedom to criticise the government was limited. Yet despite this, I believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Twenty years on, most of these positive achievements have been destroyed.

People no longer have job security. Poverty and crime is on the increase. Working-class people can no longer afford to go to the opera or theatre. As in Britain, TV has dumbed down to a worrying degree - ironically, we never had Big Brother under communism, but we have it today.

Most sadly of all, the spirit of camaraderie that we once enjoyed has all but disappeared.

In the past two decades we may have gained shopping malls, multi-party ' democracy', mobile phones and the internet.

But we have lost a whole lot more.


Villy said...

Awesome! I wanted to post a comment on that article, but I was too lazy to register on the daily mail website.

This is my chance! It was a great article, I was also born in Esztergom, but I socialized after the socialist era, so I don't really have first hand experience, but most actors, directors say that theatre meant something completely differnt. Every sentence had double meaning, and it was a chance for people to deal with policics. It was a place to let out steam, so more people went to the shows than nowadays, and maybe it was better for theatre life back then.

Sorry, this interview will be in Hungarian, but your wife will understand it. It's about theatre before and after 1989.

Best wishes!

Neil Clark said...

Zsuzsi says Köszönöm szépen !

many thanks for the link too!

Minden jót !

jack said...

"I was born into a working-class family in Esztergom, a town in the north of Hungary, in 1968. My mother, Julianna, came from the east of the country, the poorest part. Born in 1939, she had a harsh childhood."

Wasn't everybody in Communist countries working class except those affiliated with party members?

Whats happening in Hungry now?

Surely it is better of now despite the global economic situation than it was under Communism.

Villy said...

"Surely it is better of now despite the global economic situation than it was under Communism."

Well, an article appeared today on According to a Sonda Ipsos poll only 19% of the asked people think that Hungary benefited from the fall of communism in the country.
56 percent believe the polical and economic changes were harmful.

My grandfather had to rebuild his life after WW2, and he managed to raise and educate 3 children, get a car, buy a weekend house. Try doing this from one sallary.

Gregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jock mctrousers said...

Great article by Zzuzsanna, thanks.

Gregor: ".. the communist ideology which, no matter the exalted claims, created immensely selfish and opportunistic societies. "

Compared to what? You talk as if the ideology was practiced in isolation instead of under siege from the capitalist world; and also as if the capitalist world means only the middle classes in Europe and North America. Remember all the starving billions, all the wars - were the nazis not capitalists? The black Americans who didn't have a vote till the 60s? It's laughable to claim that there was anything like the wealth differential between the elites and the masses in the communist world as in 'the West' - that certainly was one of the reasons the elites sold out. But yes, these were not truly 'communist' societies, implementing a pure 'ideology'. There was little if any democracy from the start. But this was down to circumstance rather than ideology. What's happened since 'capitalism' is that all the good things have gone and the bad things have got worse. You can not credibly blame that on communism, whatever you mean by communism. ' Genuine effective democracy plus production for need not profit' would do me as a definition. Because it hasn't been made to work perfectly so far is no reason to give up trying. What's the alternative? You can see where the 'trickle down' excuse for capitalism is leading us.

Czarny Kot said...

These memories are very similar to my wife's childhood memories, though perhaps a bit more cheerful-- I think a lot of Poles were jealous of Hungary's more liberal style of Communism. At the same time, they consoled themselves by looking at Romania...

On the topic of travel restrictions, Hungary was one of the few places Poles could travel to under Communism. Perhaps it explains the friendly feeling between the 2 countries.

Gregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Exile said...

Good piece, and one that has got Gimlet Kamm all frothy at the mouth. Going after someone via their family, which is what this shortarsed little maggot is doing is beyond the pale.

My blog has had two visits today from News International. This after I left a short comment, not published, at Gimlet's blog.

Do you reckon that the little fucker is sweating over something?

jack said...


Communism and Capitalism are/were controlled by the same international capitalist bankers with the “Russian revolution” actually as well organised and financed coup was financed and promoted by the major banking mainly Jacob Schiff of New York working through Japanese intelligence much like US does today with Georgia and exile groups in New York through Schiffs “Friends of Russian Freedom”.

That’s why Communist and Capitalist countries have Central Banks.

And the post Soviet transition economic policy was devised by George Soros international front man for the Rothschild family where state industry would be sold and bought up and below market price.

Actually the first war in Chechnya started because the situation there got so out of control and the leadership was trying to create a military style dictatorship the two opposing factions became engulfed in a civil war and Russia sent in troops to restore order not to crush an independence movement as western propaganda would like us to believe. Hence way they didn’t use any air cover during the first war and reported 90% fighting was conducted in the capital which was reported to be 50% ethnic Russian(could be wrong on that).

This gave foreign intelligence agencies and governments to cover to help intervene just like in the Bosnian war.

German BND, CIA, MI6, Turkey especially, ISI and Saudi Arabia in 92 started secretly training Chechen militants in Turkey and Bosnia in 92 who the President visited and setting up criminal links to the major cities and contacts in the Russian military.

As the Wall Street Journal (no friend of Russia) reported in 2001

"For the past 10 years, the most senior leaders of al Qaeda have visited the Balkans, including bin Laden himself on three occasions between 1994 and 1996. The Egyptian surgeon turned terrorist leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has operated terrorist training camps, weapons of mass destruction factories and money-laundering and drug-trading networks throughout Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Bosnia. This has gone on for a decade. Many recruits to the Balkan wars came originally from Chechnya, a jihad in which Al Qaeda has also played a part."

Most of the foreign commanders fighting in Chechnya are Bosnia commanders Abu Hafs, Walid, etc.
Also had help from within the highest level of government with the two Oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Guisinky.

Even today they still run Chechen camps in Bosnia through front Islamic NGO’s.
The Beslan school massacre was organised and rehearsed in Bosnia (at least there’s strong evidence to support this).

Read former CIA counter terrorism agent in Russia Paul Murphy's excellent book Wolves of Islam to get the full involvement of foreign countries supporting Chechen militants during the first war and beyond. Turkey and Jordan were running chartered flights during the first war and the ISI was so active during the first war they were actually running it.

That’s what this Al Qaeda terror network is an international Islamic mercenary force to fight CIA/MI6 proxy wars.

Anonymous said...

This guy's blog seems to be mainly focused on anything related to Neil Clark. (link)

I'm sure you already know who's blog it. If not here is a pointer.

Exile, Kamm's problem is that he couldn't really refute anything Mrs C wrote so had to come up with some double hearsay material and a bizarre story about toy soldiers. I would love to know what your comments were

Louis said...

Your wifes artical made me feel somewhat sad and nostalgic, as someone who has lived shortly in a former communist country. The country that Kamm contemptusly called the "illigitamate" GDR. Know it all Kamm's blog now jest comprises nothing but him spouting invective in his usual self important manner over everyone, to go after your wife because of her relation to you shows how low he is capable of sinking.

Una.BreathnachHIfearnain said...

Hi Neil,
I am an Irish architecture student who spent last summer working for an architect in Budapest. During this time I became interested in communism due to what my boss was telling me and what it was like to live in countries along the Iron curtain during this time.
This year I have to do my undergraduate dissertation for architecture to which we choose our own subject. I wanted to do something on the communist doctrine and its connection ideal ac well as actual to architecture, and how this was influenced. I read your wifes extract and her account of communism and it was much like those of Hungarians I have spoke to when I was there and afterwards.
I was just wondering really when her book is to be published as i would truly love to have it. She seems like a very honest and enthusiastic author. And if by any chance she would like to answer some questions I still have I would be ever so grateful... I wish both of you every success.

steve arloff said...

Has Zsusanna's book ever been published?
Steve Arloff (

steve arloff said...

Has your wife's book ever been published?
Steve Arloff (