Wednesday, June 21, 2017

30 years ago today: The time when the ghost of Yuri Andropov tried to punch me out, up in the Buda Hills.

Previously: 30 years ago today: Thought and reflection in Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest.

My digressions can be impenetrable, so bear with me.

In 1982, when Yuri Andropov replaced the enfeebled Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the USSR, there was no way of knowing that the ex-KGB operative's stint at the top would last a scant 15 months. Andropov's severe health problems were never made public, but he was dying almost from the moment of his accession to the red throne.

When yet another wheezing and debilitated party boss (Konstantin Chernenko) assumed the leadership position in 1984, anything even remotely resembling the forthcoming roller coaster ride of the Gorbachev era would have been regarded as an impossible dream.

Decades later, we can see that while Andropov was no cuddly liberal, his many years in the KGB and frequent travels through the East Bloc had provided him with a realistic perspective – in context.

Andropov's methods of "reform" within the Soviet Union surely would have been brutally repressive; after all, he was Moscow's man on the scene during the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and yet he seems to have grasped the fundamental need for reform, something eluded the ossified Brezhnev gerontocracy.

This isn't to imply that cosmetic reform had any real chance of success; such were the fundamental contradictions of localized Communism in a steadily evolving neoliberal "global" economic system. It remains that while Andropov utterly lacked photogenic flair, he was Mikhail Gorbachev's crucial patron, without whom Gorbymania would have been stillborn.

A few years back, I read a political biography of Andropov written in 1983 by a husband and wife team of exiled Soviet journalists. The book purported to help Westerners understand the milieu of Ronald Reagan's new adversary in the Kremlin, and it is a fascinating account of the deadly, Byzantine maneuverings behind the scenes in times and places that seem impossibly dated today.

Coincidentally, I received my degree from Indiana University Southeast in 1982, stepping into a world defined by these geopolitical matters. Upon resolving to become a European traveler, I also would come to be defined by the Cold War, whether I knew it or not.

Chernenko's final resting place in the Kremlin Wall barely had been sealed and his plaque mounted when I entered the USSR for the first time in August, 1985. Gorbachev had been in charge for only six months. Crossing the border from Finland aboard a bus bound for Leningrad, the route took us through the Finno-Russian area known as Karelia, which I later learned was Andropov's first power base in the Soviet hierarchy.

The bus was mostly filled with young Americans like myself, but I made friends with an Aussie named Mark, who helped me celebrate by 25th birthday at a Leningrad restaurant, where we negotiated an all-you-can-drink meal (with a few little bits of purely optional food included) for something like a tenner each -- dollars, not rubles.

This and other vignettes are related here: Euro ’85, Part 31 … Leningrad in three vignettes.

Saturday, August 3, 1985 was my 25th birthday, and when Mark found out, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. A splurge was merited, and my meal was his treat. We’d heard about Baku, an Azerbaijani restaurant on Sadovaya Street, close to Nevsky Prospekt, and arrived there hopeful of somehow gaining entry.

Two years later I made my debut in Budapest, scene of Andropov's defining ambassadorial experience in 1956.

(Andropov's) big contribution - the thing that made his masters in Moscow respect him - must have been tough, accurate appraisals of the situation in Budapest. The key lesson of that episode is not the arrival of the Soviet tanks, which was obviously decided upon at a much higher level than the embassy, but what came after the tanks.

What came after the tanks was János Kádár. With Andropov's crucial support, Kádár was installed as Hungary's Communist kingpin in the aftermath of the failed uprising, and he remained atop the heap until 1988, dying the following year just before the heap collapsed into rubble.

Even now, Kádár's legacy is complicated. In the beginning, he readily authorized arrests, imprisonments, purges and violent reprisals against his own countrymen, as considered necessary to restore order to a Soviet satellite and appease his overlords in Moscow.

Having done so, Kádár then began loosening the reins in 1962, producing what came to be known as "Goulash Communism," or a limited measure of economic decentralization. This allowed small-scale "free" markets and private ownership in some retail and service sectors, accompanied by massive loans from foreign interests eager to reward comparatively "good" Commie behavior.

The result was a higher standard of living in Hungary than in other Eastern European countries. Kádár's Hungary was said to be the "happiest barracks in the socialist camp," and his tacit "deal" with the Hungarian people an inversion of the repressive axiom: "If you're not against us, you're for us."

Consumer goods were in greater supply in Hungary than its COMECON allies. The household items depicted on the side of this building surely were manufactured by the state.

Conversely, these three businesses probably were in private hands, although I'm a bit suspicious about the Arany Hordó wine cellar, located near the castle and a bit too swank to be completely sure.

Obviously, as I wandered through Budapest in June of 1987, Kádár as yet retained the keys to the executive washroom. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika were changing the Bloc's dynamic, and his unlamented predecessor Andropov was long gone.

Absolutely none of this back story occupied my thoughts as June 26 drew steadily closer. On the 26th, I'd commence a 36-hour train trip to Moscow to meet the Danish-operated tour group. In the interim, I'd been living on solid but basic cafeteria fare, acceptable meals for the dirt cheap price and drinking lots of beer.

On June 21, I decided to splurge at a much praised, privately-owned restaurant in the Buda Hills, the sort of place that ordinary Hungarians could ill afford on their paltry salaries, but I could easily manage periodically on a budget. The prospect of rich, savory, lard-laden Hungarian cuisine off the cafeteria assembly line was a strong motivator, indeed.

On a quiet and sunny Sunday, I boarded the tram and rode almost to the end of the line, hopped off, and quickly found the recommended eatery. As customary, the full menu was posted by the front gate, and I was studying the possibilities when there was a commotion at the entrance, which was hidden in tall shrubbery perhaps thirty feet away.

An older man dressed in regulation rumpled Communist party gray suit came staggering out toward the sidewalk. I could smell the alcohol on his breath all the way from the street. The man was mumbling in Hungarian, that most incomprehensible of languages, transported to the Danube by the westward migration of Asiatic peoples a thousand years ago,.

What struck me immediately as he lurched in my direction was that this sodden suited Hungarian looked more like the deceased Andropov than the Soviet leader did while he was alive. It was uncanny. A long-lost son, perhaps?

Finally the man made it to the gate, where I persisted in trying to translate the menu. Stumbling on a cobblestone in the process, he slurred something angrily in Magyar-speak, leaned back, and launched an attempted slow-motion haymaker in my general direction.

The punch didn't come anywhere close to landing, and the force of his fist's impact with the stale evening air caused him to completely lose balance and fall to his knees, where he was briskly intercepted by the group of comrades who had come running behind him. Two of them packed the old man off into an adjacent Lada, and two others began apologizing profusely to me in approximate German.

I was confused, not upset, and responded in Hoosier-laced American. This caused them even more consternation, and as they huddled to sort things out, one sidled over and whispered, "We like your Mister Reagan."

Their communication skills were inadequate to convey why the Andropov lookalike wanted to slug me. I'd already decided that plainly, he didn't like Germans.

As it turned out, the first beer inside the restaurant was on them, and the Chicken Paprika and sour cherry soup that followed on my own forints were damned good, too. In the end, it gave me an atmospheric story to tell two years later, in August of 1989, when I sat drinking beer with Vladimir Putin (another of Andropov's KGB men) at the Radeberger beer cellar in Dresden, German Democratic Republic.

Pilsners with Putin: 1989 Revisited (Part One)

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Unfortunately, my camera wasn't with me that evening at the restaurant, so following are standard tourist photos from the Buda side of the Danube.

The Buda Castle complex is situated atop the hills rising from the western bank of the Danube. Matthias Church shares this hilltop to the north of the castle (behind it in this photo, taken from Gellért Hill to the south). This district is the core of historic Budapest.

Here is the view south toward Gellért Hill, in a photo take from the castle parapet. The Citadella (Citadel) is on top of Gellért Hill,

The modern Citadel dates from the mid-1800s. After World War II, the requisite "hail to our Soviet liberators" monument was built on the eastern side of Gellért Hill, facing the greater portion of the city as intended to be a constant reminder of the (then) new world order.

The Liberty Statue (above) is surrounded by smaller metaphorical statuary, as with the hero smiting the fascist dragon.

The origins of Matthias Church go back more than a thousand years. It's a Roman Catholic shrine, and the place where Hungarian kings were crowned. The terrace known as the Fisherman's Bastion is perched on the hillside to the church's rear. Behind them is the Hilton Hotel.

The Fisherman's Bastion was built during the period 1895 - 1902.

In this view from the Fisherman's Bastion, Matthias Church and the Hilton are seen.

An example of Kádár's efforts to strike trade deals with non-Communist economic interests, the Hilton Budapest was built in 1976, incorporating 13th-century Dominican abbey ruins. Recent renovations have focused on highlighting the ruins, and the history of this adaptive undertaking is fascinating.

The Erzsébet híd (Elisabeth Bridge) from Buda to Pest originally was built in 1903, and was destroyed during WWII. It was rebuilt in the early 1960s.

Construction of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament was completed in 1902. In 1987, I settled for outside views like this one from Castle Hill, but in 2002, one of my small tour groups received a wonderful guided tour thanks to Jeno Ats.

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is considered one of the most distinctive symbols of Budapest. It was completed in 1849, and rebuilt after being almost completely destroyed in WWII. Pest lies on the other side, and my narrative will end there, next time.

Next: 30 years ago today: Saying goodbye to Budapest, and an era now long gone.

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