In the middle of the 1956 revolution, with Soviet troops in the capital fighting to crush the breakaway anti-Soviet government of Imre Nagy, a well-dressed Hungarian official appeared in Vienna with two bulging suitcases.
He was solemnly ushered into a bank where he opened the luggage and calmly counted out several million dollars, the interest and principal due that day on a Western loan the Hungarian government had taken out months before the troubles started.
"That's Hungary," said a Budapest friend who told this tale as we sat in a quiet cafe recently, sipping the strong coffee that is one tasty legacy of the Turkish rule that ended here in 1686.
"It is the same today," he said, using the possibly apocryphal anecdote as a starting point for his message. "Everything must be on a realistic and businesslike level -- no matter what." My friend, a party member by conviction, has little time any more for Marx.
Although the retreat of the state and party from direct daily involvement in the Hungarian economy, and therefore, from suffocating control of the lives of its citizens, has been the major news story from Budapest for more than a decade, the phenomenon takes on added meaning in view of the political and economic crisis in Poland. In assessing Moscow's approach to that continuing turmoil, Hungary stands as an example of how the Kremlin will allow economic deviation in a satellite while insisting on political conformity.
For example, private enterprise and private ownership, anathema to Moscow's authoritarian ideologues, flourish here with state encouragement. Perhaps nothing better summarizes the reality of Hungary's dedication -- and success -- in pursuing whatever is "realistic and businesslike" than the advertisements in the party newspaper of people wanting to buy a home in Budapest. In one recent ad, a man offered about $208,000 for a suitable residence for his family.
The state, which took over much of the housing here and elsewhere after it came to power at the end of World War II, is now asking renters to buy their apartments. The ability to control peoples' lives that ownership conferred upon the authorities is no longer worth the economic drain. And the political repercussions of raising rent prices to cover actual costs could be severe for the leadership of Janos Kadar, which has successfully knit together people, party, and policies to a degree that does not exist elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc.
Interestingly, however, renters seem less than eager to shoulder the extra financial burdens that ownership entails. As some friends explained, they pay about $12 a month for a stateowned apartment on a lovely side street in Buda on the right bank of the Danube across from Pest (the two cities were united in 1872). The state wants to sell it to them for about a million forints -- roughly $40,000 -- with a 300,000 forint down payment and a low-interest, 30-year mortgage.
Since this family dreams of someday owning a house in the Lake Balaton vacation area in western Hungary, and the official limit is one home ownership per family, they have no intention of taking up the state's offer.
"No profit in it," observed one member of the family.
DEEPLY WORRIED by the Polish crisis and the unmistakable threat it poses to their own way of life within the Eastern Bloc, Hungarians ease their tensions with swarms of jokes. Most are of the "better Kania than Vanya" variety, but some neatly skewer not only the Soviets but also the Poles, whose self-made economic woes bewilder as well as endanger the Hungarians. An example is the apocryphal conversation between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Polish leader Stanislaw Kania:
Kania: "Leonid Ilyich, we'll need 2 million tons of wheat."
Brezhvev: "At once. What else, Comrade Stanislaw?"
Kania: "A million tons of meat."
Brezhnev: "Agreed. What else?"
Kania: "10 million eggs."
Brezhnev: "Easy to arrange. What else?"
Kania: "Half a million tons of bananas."
Brezhnev: "Hmmmm . . . I think Kadar will have trouble with that ."
In fact, Budapest markets even a few days after the Christmas buying binge were brimming with food in a way seldom seen in Moscow at any time of the year. The cavernous old peasants' market on Dimitrov Ter was full of fresh meat, vegetables and fruits, savory Hungarian hams and sausages from the Soviet Bloc's most productive cooperative farms, and imported and domestic cheeses of more than 20 varieties.
Paprikas of every flavor and description, in garlands, packets, bags and sacks, from red hot to blistering maroon, glistened everywhere. But to me, the market's crowning glory was the fishmongers' corner, where large tanks stand filled with river carp.
FINALLY, A WORD from here about Jimmy Carter. Denigrated by almost every European leader from the Urals to the Atlantic, the former president will be remembered fondly by Hungarians as the man who ordered the Crown of St. Stephen, historic symbol of Hungarian nationhood, retuned to Budapest from years of exile in the United States.
The crown, two interworked bands of gold intersecting above a horizontal gold band and ornamented with precious stones and enamel miniatures, dates from 1000 A.D. It was the gift of Pope Sylvester II to Istvan (Stephen), first king of Hungary, for spreading Christianity to every part of his realm. Together with a coronation sword, orb and scepter, the crown was turned over to U.S. troops in July 1945 by the head of the Hungarian royal crown guard, who had fallen into American hands as he was fleeing west from the Soviet Army, looking for safety for his precious burden.
For most of the intervening years, the ensemble lay safely in Ft. Knox. Carter, in a gesture that angered Hungarian Americans and inspired some lawsuits, decided in late 1977 to send the treasure back. The crown was returned on Jan. 6, 1978, by former secretary of state Cyrus Vance in a ceremony that later was televised throughout Hungary and praised in the press.
Like the royal ensemble itself, Carter's decision was an enduring symbol for this country. "He's got 10 million friends here," said one city dweller.