In Hungary, personal freedoms smooth the hard edges of a totalitarian system. But outright political dissent is still taboo in this East-bloc state
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.