In Hungary, personal freedoms smooth the hard edges of a totalitarian system. But outright political dissent is still taboo in this East-bloc state
Sopron, Hungary — For Theresia Schirer and Hedwig Tritremmel, the strains of Liszt's music knock down the Iron Curtain. Like many other Austrians, the sisters have traveled to this frontier town to enjoy the common culture that unites communist Hungary and their capitalist home. The local Franz Liszt museum is putting on a special exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer's death; he was born near Sopron and grew up in the town before leaving to study in nearby Vienna. Austrian visitors do not need a visa, and regularly scheduled buses bring them to Sopron.
The border traffic reveals Hungary's success in forging the most open society in the Soviet bloc. Personal freedoms, which smooth the hard edges of a totalitarian system, gradually have been introduced in the last 30 years, and economic reform allows freer markets and some private initiative. Hungarians can say what they want, write what they want, and listen to the music they want -- as long as they avoid outright political dissent.
Western tourists and Western culture flow in. In contrast to other Soviet-bloc countries, Hungary does not require Westerners to change a minimum amount of money every day, and it encourages them to stay with local families. Budapest is the most Westernized city in the bloc. This past summer, the city was host to Eastern Europe's first-ever Formula One Grand Prix Auto Race and the largest-ever concert by a Western rock group, the English band ``Queen.''
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Western influences also are visible. Poles listen to Western radio stations, watch Western films on videos, and read Western authors. After living two years in Warsaw, American sociologist Janine Wedel found that ``Poles value Western goods as Americans value French perfumes,'' and that ``Polish popular magazines and newspapers nurture Poles' infatuation with the West.'' Ms. Wedel writes: ``I was informed of the latest films, affairs, children, and sentiments of Sophia Loren, Debra Winger, Tony Curtis Barbara Streisand, Joan Collins. Yet I did not learn comparable gossip about actors and actresses from Poland or other East European countries.''
Even in neighboring Czechoslovakia, perhaps the most rigid Soviet-bloc nation, authorities are struggling to accommodate themselves to Western influences. For years, Prague has tried to suppress rock music, harrassing and arresting musicians in such underground groups as ``Plastic People'' and ``Yellow Dog.'' The groups went on playing their mocking songs to dedicated fans until June, when the authorities sponsored the first rock festival.
Past policy gave ``inadequate, incompetent, superficial, and unsystematic attention'' to young people's musical interests, said Josef Trinka, director of the Institute for Cultural and Educational Activity, in a July interview with a Czech newspaper.
Like the Czechs, Hungarians once tried to repress Western culture. Ivan Berendt, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, recalls when rock music was seen as a disruptive ``bourgeois'' influence -- along with hamburgers and even the music of Liszt and Bela Bartok, Hungary's national composer. ``The Hungarian opera didn't play Bartok from 1949 to 1955,'' Mr. Berendt says, ``because Stalinists believed it didn't express the correct socialist values.''
In 1956, three years after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's death, the Hungarians revolted and pulled their country out of Moscow's military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. Soviet tanks crushed the uprising, and the Soviets installed Janos Kadar, the former Communist Party first secretary, as Hungary's leader. Mr. Kadar set about ``normalizing'' the country through executions, show trials, and other forms of repression.
After these assurances to Moscow of his control, Kadar struck a bargain with his people. Although they had to concede the Communist Party's domination of the country, they would be allowed to dabble with Western-style consumerism and culture.
Where they once lobbed Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks, Hungarians now stroll past designer fashion boutiques and electronics stores stocked with imported stereos. Relaxing in a caf'e, they can order a Coke. For dinner, they can stop at a nice restaurant offering tempting traditional meals spiced with paprika -- or they can grab a fast-food hamburger.
The Soviets allowed this liberalization because Kadar's Communist Party holds domestic political power and toes Moscow's line in foreign policy. Hungary's troops took part in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and its athletes followed the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
But within these constraints, Kadar has proved ever pragmatic. In 1961, he proclaimed a new guiding slogan for Hungarian communism: ``He who is not against us is with us.'' The slogan was a pointed inversion of Stalin's dogma: ``He who is not with us is against us.''
The formula provided a way to slowly loosen control over individual liberties. In the past, Hungarians were not allowed to visit the West. Now they may travel there once every two years.
Restrictions on culture also have been removed. Jamming of Western radio broadcasts ended in 1964, although it continues in most other East-bloc countries. Hungarian TV viewers regularly tune in Austrian programs. Western papers went on sale in public last year.
At home, this country of only 11 million people boasts 1,500 magazines and newspapers, most of them remarkably free of ideological posturing. Hungarian filmmakers such as Istvan Szabo of ``Mephisto'' fame arguably make the most provocative films in the Soviet bloc.
Even dissidents may express themselves in the official news media. Take the case of economist Tamas Bauer. Although he works with the country's ``democratic opposition,'' he has been able to keep his job at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and publish in its review. A poster of Solidarity, the banned Polish independent trade union, hangs on his office wall.
Limits remain, of course. As in other communist countries, the government retains control over all publications, all films, indeed over all types of cultural expression. Before approving a film or play, Ferenc Kohalmi of the Ministry of Culture says he must make sure that it contains nothing anti-Soviet or anti-party, nothing that ``contradicts the basic tenants of the state.''
As the 30th anniversary of the 1956 revolt neared, the authorities used this power to suspend a literary review for running a poem on the uprising. They also warned a young artist that he would lose his right to live in Budapest if he held an exhibition about the period.
In general, however, Hungarian authorities use their powers sparingly. During his two years in office, Mr. Kohalmi says he has stopped only one production. ``That was because it was doing bad at the box office,'' he says.
This liberalism has permitted Hungary to forge cordial ties with the West. At the Sopron border, this balancing act has improved life for Austrians and Hungarians. Though Hapsburg rule united Sopron with Austria for centuries, Hungary's communists banned most Austrians from visiting the town in the 1950s. Hungarians themselves had trouble traveling to Sopron, because authorities feared they would try to flee to the West.
``This was a security zone,'' recalls Alto Domonkos, director of the Liszt museum. ``My family needed a special permit to come visit.''
A more normal, if formal, atmosphere was forged during the 1960s. Tourist Director Ferenc Szalontai says Austrian folklore groups began performing in Sopron and Hungarian groups played in Eisenstadt in Austria. When both countries abolished visa requirements in 1979, contacts blossomed. Last year 2 million Austrians and 400,000 Hungarians crossed the border.
This traffic has restored old cultural links. Tourist Director Szalontai says he is preparing a joint tourist brochure with his counterpart in Eisenstadt. Museum director Domonkos says his exhibition is being complemented by special Liszt concerts in Eisenstadt.
Besides such special projects, everyday links have rapidly developed. Culture is not just music and arts; it also is what we eat and how we dress. Austrians find food and clothes in Sopron that resemble what they can buy at home -- and at much cheaper prices.
Before visiting the Liszt museum, Mrs. Tritremmel and Mrs. Schirer head to the bakery to pick up the brown bread common throughout Central Europe -- at the bargain price of seven cents a loaf. ``It would cost at least seven shillings [about 50 cents] at home,'' Schirer says.
The commerce has grown so fast that Austrian authorities recently instituted currency controls for border residents. ``Now I can only spend 400 shillings [about $40] each time I come,'' says an unhappy Schirer. ``If we spend more, we have to pay a big duty, and the Austrian customs officers are tough.''
For her, the irony is clear. While Hungary's communists make it as easy as possible for Austrians to cross the Iron Curtain, Austria's capitalists would like to make it a little bit more iron.
Third in an occasional series. Previous articles appeared Sept. 19 and Oct. 20.