TURES COLUMN: For Lessons On Russia vs. Ukraine, Look At USSR vs. Hungary In 1956

Published 11:30 am Friday, March 11, 2022

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A smaller country wrests itself free from an authoritarian foe. Its leadership seeks its own destiny and independence. A brutal invasion follows, ordered by an angry autocrat.

Does this sound familiar to you? It’s not just Russia’s attack upon Ukraine. It’s also the Cold War story of Hungary, which hoped to chart its own course, providing freedom to its citizens. Let’s see what lessons we can learn from the USSR invasion of their East European neighbor back in 1956.

During World War II, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany, having been wrenched from the Austro-Hungarian Empire post-World War I. But after the failed invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin smashed through Eastern Europe with a vengeance. Hungary was conquered, and a Communist puppet state was imposed by the victors from the East.

In the mid-1950s, the Hungarians had enough of the totalitarianism. They pushed out the pro-Soviet regime. Prime Minister Imre Nagy came to power. He called for multiparty elections, a whole series of freedoms that many of us sometimes take for granted, and independence for his country.

Nagy and his supporters didn’t want Hungary to be forced to join the anti-NATO “Warsaw Pact,” a military alliance of East European Soviet client states designed to target the West.

The USSR, led by the bombastic Nikita Khrushchev, became angered by Hungary’s bid for freedom. Under the cruel Yuri Andropov, Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the new government. Nagy and thousands of Hungarians were executed; we’ll probably never know the full death toll. Hundreds of thousands fled to the West rather than suffer a similar fate.

I learned about this, not so much in my schoolbooks or textbooks, but in person. In 1990, my family joined a travel group to the newly-liberated Hungary, something few people saw possible even in the early 1980s. Among this group was a delegation led by former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary R. Clayton Mudd, who had served there at the height of the Cold War.

Like many countries in East Europe in 1990, the people had just ousted the pro-Soviet puppet regime.

They were free to talk about the terrible old days, from purges by Nazis and then Soviets to the awful events of 1956. Everyone seemed to know someone who was killed, wounded, or had to flee. I admit that the Hungarian language was a particularly tough one to try out, but I did my best. Through broken English and translator books, and emotion, I learned a lot. It’s why I joined Victims of Communism, which I suggest that you do as well.

Here are the lessons from that tragedy, which need to be applied today. We need to be prepared for a lot of Ukrainian refugees who will flee the country, no matter what the outcome of the Russian invasion and occupation is.

We have to be more united as a country, the way we were in the Cold War times in standing up to Communism, and not now when pro-Russian pundits and politicians can control the conversation. And we can’t take the side of those who seek to flatter us by day, and hack us and divide us by social media at night.

Finally, you do have a voice. You do need to contact your elected officials, and let them know exactly where you stand. You need to back your organizations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, when they do take a tough stand (knowing they’ll pay a price for economic sanctions too). And finally, it’s time to pray for these people who are being attacked, and even dying, just to try to live the lives you get to enjoy every day. It’s a tall challenge, of course. But as history showed us, nothing is impossible.