Hungary Hums Old Communist Hits

Album that fueled 'Red chic' may be released in the US

You won't find Marx strumming his favorite tunes. Or Lenin belting out the hits.

But "Best of Communism: Selection of Revolutionary Songs" is one of the hottest-selling albums in Hungary this year. There's even a slim chance it may hit stores in the United States.

Released three months ago, locals and tourists alike are snapping up the new CD, with its 22 original recordings culled from Hungarian archives.

It offers foreigners one of the last peeks at life behind the Iron Curtain, from the somber communist anthem, "The Internationale," to triumphant marches such as "Onward, Reds and Proletarians," and "The Song of Liberation."

No, Hungarians are not having second thoughts about democracy. But the album has stoked their nostalgia, not for the four decades of repression, but for the songs of their youth.

An era that produced little amusement is suddenly eliciting smiles. "Eight years have passed since the changes of 1989" and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, says Akos Rethly, the album's creator. "Now maybe people can start to face their past, laugh about it, and remember more the good things than the bad."

The "Red chic" seems to be catching on: Producers in Prague are combing the archives to assemble a Czech version of "Best of Communism."

But the Czech producers are running into a problem familiar to Mr. Rethly. The formerly state-owned publishing companies - now privatized - are reluctant to remind the public of their ties to the communist past. To appease the Hungarian publisher, Rethly promised to stick a disclaimer on the album stating it was for "educational entertainment" only.

A popular topic, the album has also touched a nerve in Hungarian politics.

On the floor of Parliament in September, opposition leader Jzsef Torgyan needled Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn about his communist past. Mr. Torgyan remarked, "I would be very curious what the prime minister thinks personally about [the album], since I heard the Socialists were singing it with great enthusiasm" at a party congress this past year.

Not surprisingly, the comment spurred album sales further.

While Rethly is thrilled with the public response, he had ulterior motives when compiling the album. He's the director of Statue Park, an outdoor museum in Budapest for the 42 Communist-era statues and reliefs - including two Lenins, a Marx, and an Engels - that once decorated the capital.

Many had been torn down by angry mobs in 1989, but were preserved and relocated to the park four years ago.

For mood music in the park, Rethly chose period classics. After numerous requests from visitors for copies of the tape, he decided to make the album.

"I could spend my money in better ways," says postal worker Tamas Arato. "But if I got it as a present I'd listen to it once in a while, just for fun."

Aside from its value as either a souvenir, a memento, or a gag, some buy the album as a pleasant reminder of life before today's harsh economic transition.

And it's not only the old-timers who are buying. "That system wasn't good, but it was better than this one," says Imre Kovacs, an unemployed twentysomething. "I owed it to that system and to myself to buy that tape."

Once a tool of communism, the music is now an agent of capitalism. The album recently hit the streets of London, Amsterdam, and Istanbul, Turkey. Japanese and US distributors have also expressed interest.

And Rethly has just released an additional single - a techno version of a 1934 Russian military song.

But that's it. He says there are no plans for another greatest-hits album.

"This," Rethly concedes, "is a joke you can only laugh at once."

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