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Tracing communist history in Budapest’s landscape

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Published : 2014-03-28 20:42
Updated : 2014-03-28 20:42

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) ― The toppling of statues and monuments during times of political upheaval has been a well-documented act in Eastern and Central European history.

Among the cathartic gestures following the fall of communism in 1989, many of Budapest’s granite and stone giants were swiftly uprooted and later carted off to a field 30 minutes away from central Budapest that has become a sculpture park for the scorned monuments.

Save for a cubist rendition of Marx and Engels flanking the entrance, Memento Park is an open-air depot of rusty socialist-realist statues, arranged inside a walled complex lined mostly with pebbles.

The iconic Republic of Councils Monument, a giant statue of a worker charging forward and the most inadvertently comic of the installments, is even the butt of irreverent jokes: Some say it looks like a running beachgoer, others say a cloakroom attendant. Beyond that, however, the grounds are meant to serve as grim but honest reminders of 40 years under communist regimes.

In Budapest, once seen as the western gate of the Eastern bloc, an unknowing tourist’s interest in communist history is sometimes regarded with suspicion, even by those too young to have firsthand memories of the country’s bygone era.

The grimy but functional M3 metro system, built mostly in the 1970s during the height of Hungarian “goulash communism” (a less oppressive era than earlier regimes), stretches from the Kobanya-Kispest station near the airport to the north end of Pest. With a transfer at Deak Ferenc Square to the M2 metro, one can reach Szell Kalman Square (formerly Moscow Square), a busy transport hub in Buda that still bears the socialist-realist aura of the Soviet era.

Driving from the airport via the southeast of the city reveals a smattering of unrestored, sometimes crumbling residential monoliths, dating to a period when the government was developing large-scale low-cost housing. In these flats, insulation was poor and kitchens were deliberately small to keep politically subversive dinner conversations at bay.

But in the more central cultural hub of District VII, or the Jewish Quarter, some of the city’s many unrestored buildings have been transformed into “ruin pubs,” an attraction for curious tourists and hip urbanites. Instant Bar is one of these warm haunts salvaged from a defunct residential building. The courtyard now boasts an array of beer taps and a palimpsest of psychedelic lighting, the entire space decked up in an “enchanted forest” vibe, signified by a group of rabbit figures suspended from the ceiling.

The city’s various walking tours, including communism-themed tours originating from Vorosmarty Square, will drop travelers off at some of these dives.

Other tours are available looking at the city’s Jewish history, which dates back centuries. The Jewish Quarter is home to several 19th century synagogues, and during World War II, the Nazis created a walled ghetto here from which thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent to concentration camps.

Soviet soldiers drove out the Nazis from Budapest in 1945, and a monument dedicated to them sits in Freedom Square ― an unlit, 5-meter obelisk. There is nothing here to mark the turn of events 11 years later, however, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary again ― this time to crush opposition to communism. An irony not lost on Hungarians is that the U.S. embassy also sits in the same square, along with a larger-than-life-sized bronze statue of Ronald Reagan in mid-stride facing the Soviet World War II monument from behind.

The city’s current street names mostly date to the 19th century and the period in the 1920s and ’30s between World War I and II. Many of those streets were called something else under the Soviet regime and then restored to their original names when communism ended.

Budapest’s Liberty Statue at Gellert Hill is one of the last communist-era structures to have avoided being trucked off to Memento Park, but the monument has changed over time. It was erected in 1947 to commemorate the end of the Nazi occupation. Its height ― a 14-meter statue of a figure holding a palm leaf aloft, atop a 26-meter pedestal on a hill ― makes it a prominent feature of the Buda skyline, higher than structures around it and easily viewable from a boat cruise on the Danube. But its inscription has been altered: Once a tribute to Soviet troops, it’s now a memorial for those who died for Hungary’s freedom.

Arguably the most poignant place on the city’s post-communist landscape is the House of Terror on 60 Andrassy Ave., which chronicles Hungary’s occupation first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. The reconstructed Beaux Arts building was the headquarters of both the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party and later the secret police of the communist regime. Its three-floor, art deco interior hosts a permanent exhibition complete with evocative soundtracks and lighting and a wealth of images. (Most of the signage is in Hungarian, but audio guides are available in other languages.) The tour ends when visitors descend to the basement into reconstructed prison cells where captives were once left to the secret police. The museum tour is not a harrowing remake of political terror, but a candid way of dealing with the country’s past.

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