There was once a college student here who spent three years in jail for his contributions to the free press of the 1956 uprising. A few days after his release, he went to a movie theater and called on the people to rise against the Soviet Union and its puppet, Janos Kadar. The police appeared promptly and dragged him away, as voices in the crowd expressed sympathy with him.
He was jailed once more, this time for a year. After he got out, he again went to a movie theater and made his speech. Don't be foolish, people in the audience said, sit down and let us enjoy the film.
The police came to get him at the end of the show, and he spent a few months in a lockup. Don't do it again, an officer told him upon his release; if you do, you'll be sorry.
He went home and thought about a new speech for many weeks. Finally, he picked a theater in a neighborhood known for its anticommunist sentiments.
The audience hissed. Idiot, shut up, people shouted, get out of here.
Next day, he received summons from the police. A high-ranking officer met him and offered coffee and cake. We don't want to see your talents wasted in jail, the officer said. We'll give you a job instead. A good job.
The rebel was too stunned to resist.
His friends haven't heard from him for years. But as they approach the 25th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising this weekend, they are sure that he has done well for himself. Perhaps he has built a little summer cottage by Lake Balaton, and by now he may be a member of the Communist Party -- if not a party functionary.
The party's counterrevolution has won. Its finest hour came when it convinced the revolutionaries -- excommunists, social democrats, neo-Marxists, plain nationalists -- to join the system and fight for reforms from within. The counterrevolution offered the nation the reality of prosperity instead of the daydream of independence.
"Let us prosper," declared Party Secretary Janos Kadar, thus coining the most bourgeois of communist slogans. It helped that people felt numb after the Soviet invasion -- as if robbed and raped -- and angry with the West for standing by, wringing its hands. They had had enough of bread-and-potatoes meals, and common sense suggested that revolutionary romanticism could only lead to another defeat.
A historic compromise was called for: a trade of the body for the soul. The man who fixed it was Kadar, a former underground communist and himself a victim of a Stalinist purge in 1951.Premier Imre Nagy, in whose revolutionary cabinet Kadar had served, was secretly tried and executed.
Today, Kadar is one East European party boss who has made his people forget that he is a communist and that they live under a communist regime. "The regime pretends that our system is communist," says one erstwhile revolutionary, "and we pretend that we live in the West."
Surrender has its sly joys. One is knowing that nothing worse than defeat can happen; another is letting the victor think that the loser has made peace with him.
But who is deceiving whom?
Many former revolutionaries believe that they have won because the communist they are friends with tells anti-Russian jokes and denies that he is a communist. But they acknowledge that in the more than three decades of its rule, the party has never been more in control than now.
What is one to make of a communist regime that permits -- or perhaps authorizes -- one of its spokesmen to speak of the Soviet bloc as "our concentration camp." The same man lowers his voice -- the restaurant is crowded -- when expressing pity for "the poor Russians" who have even less to eat, having to pay for the new arms -- his voice rises again -- demanded by "the fat, dumb marshals."
A young man who once led a unit of the revolutionary guard now makes jewelry -- a private business which has earned him a villa in the hills of Buda and a Peugeot in his garage. "Don't ask me about my political views," he recently told an old comrade-in-arms who settled in Switzerland after 1956. "Let's compare how much money each of us makes and what we do with it."
Was there really an uprising? Were today's well-fed cynics and dapper bon vivants once lean and hungry, and crazy enough to write articles and harangue crowds about civil liberties and national independence? Could it be that the working-class regulars at a wine cellar, now discussing the high wages at a new private workshop for plastic flowers, once went on a general strike for months?
Ask one of them today, and you'll get an embarrassed mutter, as if you reminded a seasoned diplomat of his one terrible faux pas. Could any of them really think that they could undo the 1945 Allied agreement dividing Europe into spheres of influence and awarding the lands east of the Elbe to Russia? Could they have been so foolish as to believe that they could win?
A revolution is one of the heart's reasons that reason doesn't understand. Bookkeepers end up fighting on the barricades; moderate politicians searching for a compromise find themselves on the fringe.
Revolutions come from desperation, thrive on repression and mock common sense. No CIA agent, no politburo, no network of midnight conspiracies decides that Stalin's statue must come down or that the Bastille be stormed.
Messages picked up by some inner antennae direct huge crowds to city squares. When marching together, thousands of hearts beat like one. Individual differences vanish; the risk of being shot at is a promise of immortality. Engaging in a revolution is like falling in love, or an LSD vision. No wonder that American youth of the 1960s kept switching from one to the other.
These days Hungarians are angry with Poland's Solidarity for upsetting the region's stability and for ignoring their example. "Why don't the Poles realize that their struggle is hopeless?" Hungarians say. "There is no way of jumping the Soviet ship without Western help."
Hungary has its small group of dissidents -- about 300 writers, artists and other intellectuals. They organize "free universities" in private apartments where as many as 150 persons listen to lectures on subjects such as Soviet policy on literature or World War II history. They monitor civil rights violations and provide funds for the families of the persecuted. They mimeograph forbidden books and booklets -- Xerox copying machines are guarded as if they were missile silos.
The dissidents are harassed -- several of them lost their jobs or have been threatened with dismissal. High-level officials suggest that they visit the West -- and then stay there. Sometimes the advice is paternal; in other cases threatening. There have been some half a dozen expulsions and more house searches -- along with reminders that the authorities could be more stern, far more; but perhaps the person will mend his ways.
Hungary's dissidents are all, or almost all, intellectuals, many of them ex-communists or sons of communists. Their influence is limited. Their objective is to work within the law but not to accept the limitations and rules imposed by the authorities. "We try to operate like the underground Communist Party before World War II," says Ferenc Merei, 72. "Our projects are modest and nonprovocative. Too many of us are old and retired. We are an opposition, not a resistance." Merei is a psychologist who spent several years in various European jails as an underground communist; after 1956, he served five years in jail for publishing a pamphlet criticizing the Kadar regime. A Marxist, he is concerned that Solidarity is beholden to Roman Catholocism. He fears that sooner or later Solidarity will push too far and invite Soviet intervention, which in turn would mean repression everywhere in Eastern Europe.
Janos Kis, 38, has another view. He believes that with each passing day, a Soviet invasion is less likely and that the Polish government cannot undo the reforms forced by Solidarity. He has high hopes for positive changes Solidarity's example will bring throughout Eastern Europe.
This is how Kis explains his optimism: "The difference between my generation that grew up since the revolution and those who fought for it is that we didn't share in the gratitude of those who were given jobs and honor by the regime after their jail sentences . . . We don't feel we owe anything to a regime for having liberalized itself.
Communists dismiss their opponents as an isolated and minuscule minority. "A Hungarian dissident has no place to go," said one functionary. Dissidents acknowledge that they haven't made an impact on the masses.
But who is to know what popular reaction will be, once prosperity wanes, as experts fear it already is beginning to. And what will happen if the Soviets invade Poland? Would that go unnoticed in Hungary?
"No, not quite," one dissident assured me. "If the Red Army marches into Poland, call me." He gave me his telephone number. "There will be something happening here ."