IN a certain sense Janos Kadar was almost as tragic a figure as Imre Nagy, whom he deposed after the Soviets crushed Hungary's uprising of 1956. Shortly before his passing July 6, Mr. Kadar seemed anxious to make peace with the past and his often equivocal role in it.
Nagy, who was executed in 1958, was long on his conscience, he said. ``Nagy's tragedy is my own personal tragedy too,'' he told the Hungarian weekly Magyarorsag.
This remark hinted at the intrigues within the Hungarian Communist Party before the revolt that toppled a Stalinist dictatorship and while Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was preparing to suppress it.
Kadar disclosed the events of Nov. 2, 1956: He secretly deserted his prime minister, Nagy, and went to Moscow for discussions. Khrushchev then flew to Yugoslavia seeking President Tito's approval of a plan to ``restore order'' in Hungary with the Army. Tito had a hand in toppling Hungary's Stalinist regime in favor of Nagy. But the revolt's anti-Soviet and anticommunist tone worried him. Though he said military intervention ``could do more harm than good,'' Khrushchev took that as acquiescence.
From the Hungarian point of view, the one good thing Tito did do was persuade Khrushchev to have Kadar, rather than a hard-liner, head the new government.
Kadar said he supported Nagy ``until the very last minute,'' but had no option ``because [I thought] the way things were, within hours we would all be swept away.''
Although Kadar was a tough ruler, in 1961 he adopted the slogan: ``Who is not against us is with us.'' It ushered in a process of ``national concilia-tion,'' which seven years later produced Hungary's ``new economic mechanism'' - a model for communist reforms, including Mikhail Gorbachev's.
The good years of rising standards it brought Hungarians may come to be viewed as Kadar's epitaph rather than his controversial rise to power.
Kadar had a uniquely modest life style, eschewing any personality cult. His code was old-school communism, but he persuaded Moscow to make concessions, and his increasingly tolerant hand at home led to the reforms Hungary is achieving today.