The three of them were like many others I recall 25 years ago -- men weeping when the Soviets crushed the 1956 uprising. Many of my friends left Hungary then, but these three stayed behind, and I visit them every five years or so. It is part of my return to origins, as other Americans return to their hometown to see what has become of it, what life would be like had they remained, what has happened to familiar streets and buildings, to youthful faces and dreams.

Today one of my old friends is a builder, another a metal worker, the third an art historian. Each has risen high under Janos Kadar's regime, and each is too secure in his rootedness to transplant himself. The free-for-all of the West, and particularly of the United States, puzzles and frightens them.

But they are not optimists about the communist system in the Soviet Union or in Hungary, the Soviet bloc's economic and human rights showcase. According to the builder, "no post-Stalin regime has found a strategy to make people work hard, and Soviet socialism has failed to win the loyalty of its subject nations." From the metalworker's vantage point, the state has been unable to supply the worker with the right tools, and buying every important item from the West will only lead to bankruptcy. The art historian expects a breakdown, but for noneconomic reasons: He fears that Russian ideologues will reject "the humanizing influence of the West."

Hungarians make a specialty of watching the rise and fall of empires. For a people who believes itself doomed by geography, plotting its latest imperial master's curve of decline is an alternative to despair, a way of striking back, a rational daydream. But there was a deeper dismay that I had detected before. Like the majority of their fellow oppositionists, they had signed a pact of live-and-let live with Kadar. That pact has gone sour. The notion of working together for the good of the country has turned out to be illusory. Now they know that they have been deceiving themselves. Now they see the system heading for decline.

The builder I'll call Peter and I were sitting on a park bench, looking up at Castle Hill, once the fortified city of Hungary's kings and captured by the Ottoman Turks about the time Western Europeans began their conquest of the Americas. The Turks ruled here for 150 years, building baths and gardens and mosques. After they were driven out by a Christian coalition -- the NATO of the 17th century -- independent-minded Hungarians looked to the sultan for help against the new masters, the Austrians.

Now it's the Russians' turn, and the Hapsburg monarchy -- so tolerant in its last decades, so respectful of the rule of law -- is a focus for nostalgia. It was Franz Josef, the old emperor, who completed the reconstruction of Castle Hill. In World War II, the Germans chose the baroque palaces for their last-ditch stand against the Russians, and it was only in the past decade that the area was renovated. The current regime's proud addition is a 10-story, five-star Hilton hotel.

Peter is a pillar of the Hungarian state, a respected builder. He is the son of workers -- self-taught, tough-minded and independent. He works 12 hours a day, and then goes home to pore over a briefcaseful of plans. Had he come to America, he would have risen to the top.

He said that the socialist system -- whether "the crdue Soviet or the refined Hungarian model" -- cannot work as long as people do not take pride in the product and share in the profit. In the 1950s, he recalled, the worker who didn't meet the requirements had his salary cut and faced the secret police. Now that piecework has been abolished and the secret police restrict themselves to political dissidents, Peter said, workers hang around doing as little as possible, take long breaks, ruin new machinery -- claiming an accident -- and let equipment deteriorate.

Productivity, he said, is down to 50 to 60 percent of that of the 1950s. Managers pay little attention to maintenance -- hoping for replacement of equipment by more modern machinery -- and refuse to ride herd on the workers. "Firing is unheard of and people steal whatever they can lay their hands on: hammers, windows, cables," he said.

Peter, who spent a few months in jail for his role in the 1956 uprising, is against returning to the Stalinist policy of terror. But, he said, no regime anywhere in the Soviet bloc has found "an alternative strategy to make people perform well in the workplace."

He thinks of the Russians as "the last great 19th-century nationalists -- the type of empire builders you can't find anywhere else any more." The Russians are losing their grip on their subject nationalities, he said, but the Russians are not getting soft. Their functionaries are "routinely harsh and oppressive" in dealings with non-Russians; they may grit their teeth but they welcome increases in their military budgets; and "many of them are really convinced that communism and Russian patriotism -- it's hard to tell the difference between the two -- will eventually win over the West."

He finds the Russians "blind" to what he sees as a fatal weakness of the system; too much power concentrated in too few hands, leading to arrogance on the top and lack of initiative everywhere else, and many hands being able to retaliate by not doing the little tasks allotted to them. "The military is the only part of Soviet society that is getting stronger," he said.

With his colleagues, Peter avoids talking about politics. "We build because we owe it to ourselves and to our children to realize our potential and to do our best," he is in the habit of saying. When speaking to friends, he adds that there is a difference between the state and the nation, and that he is working for the nation. He told me that had I stayed in Hungary I would do the same. "Mine is an honorable way out," he said.

He was delighted to have an opportunity to speak his mind to a Western visitor. People no longer have such conversations in Hungary, he said; even friends have too much to hide from each other, too much to be ashamed of, and thinking about the long run or taking a historical perspective is a little risky.

The talk on the park bench was followed by a stroll on the cobblestoned streets. He spoke about his personal drama. "I build because I have to," he said, "it's my passion. Yet I know that the factory or the housing development I build will be left to deteriorate after I hand it over. Still, there is nothing more beautiful in the world than to build."

The man I'll call Robert is a metalworker. A child of poor farmers, he grew up in the 1950s -- a decade of misery in Eastern Europe. He was the poorest kid in my class, and the lunch he brought to school consisted of a thick slice of black bread, sometimes complemented with an onion.We children, like our parents, spoke ever so cautiously, afraid that someone might overhear us and denounce us to the secret police. Robert thought he had nothing to lose cracking an anticommunist joke on a crowded trolleycar. I remember the fear I felt when I saw him deface red stars on a street poster.

These days he is well off, and he is proud of it. For years he matched his salary by selling automobile parts he made on a lathe "when nobody was looking," and he thought that the communist regime was wise in allowing such "flexibility and freedom." As recently as five years ago, he said he "didn't buy the party line." Nowadays, however, he doesn't feel he can risk any work on the sly. "I am a trusted man of our party and government," he declared to his old friends. He attributed their snicker to jealousy.

He said he is invited to speak at a high-level conferences. "Believe me," he told his old friends, most of them white collar, that "I represent the proletariat. I know what it means to work and to get my hands dirty. I tell the party it better listen to us." What matters, he said, his voice rising, is that the party learn to organize production better, and make sure that workers have all the equipment and material they need, and on time. Solidarity's Poles are "on the wrong track -- they don't want to work, they want to wreck the system."

"But does the Hungarian worker really work?" his friends asked. "The worker could work more, it's true," he replied. "But our system is unquestionably the best in the Soviet camp. In Hungary, all those who are willing to work can live well. Our economy keeps improving."

I asked him to come and look around in the new, supposedly luxury apartment where we held our reunion. I invited him to inspect the gaps between the windowsill and the wall, the doors that are so warped they don't close and the parquet floor that had pieces rising, some of them unglued. Robert was embarrassed, and muttered something about "poor craftsmanship and even worse inspection."

But, as someone observed, "he just wouldn't shut up." He lecutred us that "our Soviet friends" are making a great mistake in not learning from Hungary's two key success stories: the reorganization of agriculture after the American model (Corn Production System) and in the new accountability of party officials to the rank-and-file. Hungary's party is the true vanguard of the international movement, he said. His old friends made faces, but he ignored them. He said he speaks up at party meetings on these subjects and doesn't at all mind being called a nationalist. "I am a patriot," he declared, "and the party knows it."

He has risen in the party hierarchy, and his salary is correspondingly higher. He and his wife -- also a party activist -- earn "well over 10,000 forints (between $250 and $300) a month. We don't need more." That's a good income in Hungary, where most workers earn between 3,000 and 4,000 forints.

Robert also raises vegetables on a small piece of land he inherited; nowhere else, he said, do tomatoes and peppers taste better. He has renovated his stone house, built by his grandparents. In the factory he wears blue overalls; outside, he dresses formally. But three suits and maybe a nice sports jacket are all he needs. He has a cheap car which he keeps in top shape.

His old friends suggested that Robert praised the regime a bit too fervently. They, too, have made their separate peace with communism, and each of them enjoys good positions. But they are not as loud as Robert is in declaring that they live in the best of all possible worlds.

It was past midnight, and everyone had had a lot of wine -- rough Bull's Blood or a light, soft Badacsonyi. We were saying an extended goodbye on the street.

Robert called me over for a private chat. He said he couldn't imagine how anyone might enjoy living in a country where he wasn't born. He noted that he doesn't even go abroad on vacation. "Do you really like it abroad?" he asked. "I am not abroad," I said, "I am home." "Well, I don't know how you could fit in here, in Hungary," he mused. "Our journalists write only what they are told."

"Don't get me wrong," he said, and this time he wasn't shouting. "I am praising our regime because I must. Not because I am afraid of being overheard or denounced to the secret police. Those days are past. But if you are where I am you have to really accept the party's ideas. I have to tell myself that I believe. Otherwise I cannot do what I am doing."

His real feelings? "Dark, dark, dark," he said. He spoke of Western machinery giving "a new lease on life" to the communist economies. But we are far, far behind, he said with a deep sigh, and we need much more equipment, know-how, reorganization. People at the top know that but are not doing anything. "But no way can the East pay for what the West is selling," he said, shaking his head, "even if we workers worked much harder." He said he didn't believe the West would keep selling to the East and thus shore up its economies.

One way or another a crash is coming, Robert said in parting, but we ought to pretend that all is well and enjoy what we have as long as we can.

The person I'll call Daniel is an art historian. He speaks familiarly of Titian and Erasmus, scholarly monks and Venetian merchants. He worships the Renaissance and pays homage to its broadminded kings.

For Daniel, the Soviet Union is an incarnation of the medieval Church militant, seized of a passion to turn the world into a perfect theocratic society by suppressing individuality. In the years since Stalin's death Daniel has seen a withering away of those religious convictions that "make life unliveable and thinking dangerous." He prays for an Eastern European renaissance of the art of living, which to him means above all tolerance of diversity and dissent, an open and friendly partnership between the rulers and the ruled -- "the ice palace of authority dissolved by the sunny smile of the masses."

Daniel talks about his colleagues in academia -- communists confessing their loss of faith and seeking friendships with anticommunists who in turn have become not so firm in their opposition. "Perhaps we should call them ex-communists and ex-anticommunists," he said with a smile.

Since the 1956 revolution and the subsequent repression ended, he said, the communist courtship of the former enemy has been fierce. In the 1950s, someone who wasn't an avowed Stalinst had to be as quiet as a mouse just to survive; in the 1960s and 1970s, it was better to be somewhat critical of the regime so one could be bought off with a book contract, a research grant or a sabbatical in the West. In the past few years, he said, things have gotten a little tighter, with more suggestions to join the party. But, he summed up, we have come to the end of communism as we used to know it -- the end of manhunts, inquisition and show trials.

He told the story of a telephone call he recently made to a colleague in france. The connection was bad, full of noises suggesting that someone was listening in. "Respected officer -- I mean, dear sir," Daniel finally raised his voice, in Hungarian, "I do ask you to disarmj yourself of your devices and permit me to indulge in the privilege of a private conversation.I assure you that no state secrets pass between my colleague and me. I, for one, know of none."

Miraculously, the line became clear.

"You see," Daniel said, "one can have commerce even with the secret police. Don't you think that Russians too are Europeans, or would like to be Europeans, attracted to the abundance and splendor of the West? Can the Russians possibly enjoy their darkness, their scarcities, the routine confiscation of goods and ideas at their border checkpoints -- the oppressive atmosphere that tyranny creates?"

I reminded him that in the 1970s he was optimistic about the beneficial effects of Eurocommunism. He acknowledged that he had once thought that the Italian communists would bring the Renaissance to Russia. His hopeful views are perhaps true only in the short run, he cautioned, good mostly for encouragement. "Remember," he said with a courtier's smile, "I live off the assured magnificence of the past." He warned that his thoughts about the present, or the future, may not be reliable.

His expression turned grave, as the elaborate meal featuring slices of cold roast goose concluded with a series of tiny cakes filled with marzipan. He hates saying it, he said, but Eastern Europeans -- and particularly Hungarians -- might well be deluding themselves in hoping to "corrupt and thus humanize the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist church." Perhaps art lovers, people of good will and mere opportunists cannot face the sordidness of the reality: "The Russians exult in their isolation, and the dominant mode of the Slavic East is agony ending in tragedy."

Above all, my friend Daniel said, he fears war -- war unleashed by a Soviet leadership either afraid of losing its European dominions, the biggest of which is Poland, or overly confident of victory over a divided, weak, pacifist West. He believes that regardless of whether the West will pursue detente or begin a new arms race, the decline of Soviet power and ideology will continue. But, he fears, the Soviet decline is less likely to lead to that "grand reconciliation" which people of good will hope for, than to a desperate striking out by a state that has remained "a marauder rather than a partner" in Western civilization.