In 1953, Stalin, the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union, who had been in power since 1925, perished. The Soviet Union, and the entire Warsaw Bloc, experienced many changes in the aftermath of his passing. This article will attempt to explore many of these changes, discussing the changes in Soviet and Eastern European Society, will outline the process of De-Stalinization analyzing the international and domestic implications of the policy particularly focusing on the Hungarian Revolution, discussing Krushev era reforms, and the perils and promises of reform in the post-Stalin Era in both Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Hungarian Revolution (Historical Background)
In 1956 many major events occurred within the Warsaw Pact. In 1956 Krushev denounced Stalin in a speech to the Soviet Congress. Stalin once had a “cult of his personality” surrounding his person, this was one of the first jabs at the mythical deity-like status he had established around himself. The speech marked a major change in Soviet policy and marked the shift towards reform and changes in society. That same year Polish workers revolted due to the poor wages and the failure of communist officials to answer to their complaints. Poland and Hungary both had largely unpopular communist regimes, they were imposed on them after the Second World War, and were largely fragile. The Hungarian Revolution had its origins in many of the developments within that year, and many of the same factors that led to the Polish unrest of that year were shared. The Poles had successfully gotten some of their demands for more liberalization answered, and a more liberal figure was put into power, which fueled Hungarian aspirations for more liberty and liberalism in their own country.
Hungary, similar to the Soviet Union, in 1953, started shifting away from its hardline path, and Imre Nagy took the reigns of power from a hardliner Stalinist, Matyas Rakosi’. Imre Nagy took Hungary in a path towards increasing liberalization and openness. In 1955, the popular Nagy, was removed from power by Rakosi’s supporters, and Matyas Rakosi’ reassumed power in Hungary. Rakosi’s hardline leadership was not popular, and economic hardships and political unrest followed. The revolt had its origins in both popular discontent towards his rule as well as the revolts that occurred in the neighboring Warsaw Pact country of Poland, a historical friend of Hungary. Hungarian students took to the streets, similar to what happened in Poland, and sang patriotic songs and demanded change, the government of Rakosi responded through violent force, but this action greatly enhanced public sympathy with the protests, and the protestors turned militant and actively worked for change. Nagy was brought back to power, but the unrests were still ongoing, he negotiated with the protestors, allowing for more free and open elections, and allowed parties outside of the Communist party to operate freely. The ground was set for the Hungarian crisis and the inevitable international response to it, a new government had assumed power and had distanced itself from the more hardline policies of the past. (Siegelbaum)
Soviet Response to Hungarian Uprising in the context of De-Stalinization
The initial Soviet response, similar to their response to the Polish unrest, was non-violent. They decided to patiently wait and see where the course of the protests would be taken. In Poland, they had a more liberal communist government as a result of the uprising, which the Soviet Government came to accept, as they still maintained their relations with the Soviet Union and maintain Communism in Poland. The Soviet Union was not eager to stamp down on the revolt, at first, fearing its international ramifications. The Soviet Union at the time was involved in the Suez Crisis, supporting the Egyptians and their attempts to nationalize the canal, against the objections of Britain and France. The Soviets were busy in another crisis and did not want to further antagonize the Western powers, and were worried about their international perception if they brutally “stamped down” on the Hungarian Revolt. They were attempting to present themselves through the Suez Crisis as the “vanguard against Western Imperialism”, they feared the ramifications of what would be seen as an “imperialist action”, stamping down on liberty in foreign countries, that this action would make them appear hypocritical. The Soviets had taken a more reformist approach to government, themselves, and wanted to distance themselves from the legacy of Stalin and his brutal suppression of reformers and critics across Eastern Europe. Thus, because of the negative implications, that would result from a military response, the Soviets initially waited to see how the events in Hungary would progress.
As the protestors went further and further with their demands, and the Hungarian government of Nagy, kept acquiescing to those demands, the Soviets feared for the future of Communism in Hungary and their membership in the Warsaw Pact. The Hungarians eventually motioned to leave the Warsaw Pact, which mitigated a response. The Soviets had hoped the Hungarian protests would turn out like those in Poland and had shown flexibility to their protests, it is very likely the Soviets would have responded differently had the latter events of the revolution not occurred. The Soviets believed that the Hungarians were turning against them, and thus, responded with brutal military force. The Soviets feared looking “weak”, in the eyes of the international community, and took a strong approach towards the threat. They brutally crushed the revolt, had executed many of the ringleaders and had put a more pro-Soviet hardliner in place. (Kramer)
The aftermath of the revolt saw hardliner rule restored in Hungary. The Soviets, from that point on, until the period of Gorbachev, responded with brutal force to protestors who demanded reform, and had stamped down any threat they saw in the Warsaw Pact, like they did in the 1960’s in Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring. The Soviets had seen the unrest as “counter-revolutionary sentiments”, despite the pro-Communist leanings of many of the Protestors. They had also scapegoated “Western imperialists” for the uprising, despite the lack of any official Western response towards the crisis in Hungary, ignoring the legitimate grievances of the Hungarian populace that had led to the crisis. In one source they quoted:
“One must not underrate the responsibility of the West for the development of events in Hungary. The rebels were sure that the Western powers, primarily the U.S.A., would not leave them helpless. The crystallization of the extreme right-wing elements around Cardinal Mindszenty was a very important phase of the Hungarian drama” (Ratiani).
The Perils and Promises of Reform in Post-Stalinist Eastern Europe (with regards to the Hungarian Revolution)
The death of Stalin and the period of De-Stalinization that followed afterward offered many new opportunities for reform and hope for a better and more free future for the people of Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, and in other countries across Eastern Europe, the tyrannical stranglehold and the fear that had existed, had partially subsided.
Nikita Krushev offered new hope, he relaxed many of the restrictions on artistic expression, relaxed state censorship, and moved the economy in a more “Leninist direction”, away from the Stalinist model that had dominated Soviet society and the economy for a generation. Similar changes started seeing fruition across Eastern Europe, Poland liberalized as a result of the uprisings in 1956, but not all turned out well for the nations of Eastern Europe. (“Khruschev’s Reforms”)
In Hungary, the death of Stalin opened up the way towards Nagy, and towards increasing liberalization. There were initial hopes for change, but they were quickly dashed when Rakosi was brought back to power. The violent revolution followed, and it was brutally crushed. Much of the hopes of reform and liberalization, were reversed. Hopes for liberalization across much of Eastern Europe were dashed over the next 4 decades, as the Soviets sought to increase and maintain their stranglehold over Eastern Europe.
“Khruschev’s Reforms.” Schoolshistory.org.uk, School History UK, schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/european-history/russia-soviet-union/khruschevs-reforms/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020
Kramer, Mark. “The Soviet Union and the 1956 Crises in Hungary and Poland: Reassessments and New Findings.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 33, no. 2, 1998, pp. 163–214. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/260972.
Ratiani, G. “Imperialist Reaction bears responsibility for Counter-Revolutionary action in Hungary” Current Digest of the Russian Press, 26 Dec. 1956, https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13977416.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Hungarian Crisis.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Michigan State University , 21 May 2017, soviethistory.msu.edu/1956-2/hungarian-crisis/.