In 1956, they were idealistic schoolchildren. The Revolution changed everything. Forty years on, one of them, an exile, returned to Budapest in search of his former classmates
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There were 37 of us in Form IVa of the Imre Madach Gimnazium in the autumn of 1956. It was one of Budapest's better grammar schools. Every room in that squat, neo-renaissance building, every picture and map on its walls, spoke of a dedication to learning (though the air smelt chiefly of adolescent feet). Yet the main experience we took from our final school year was the one that began on 23 October, when we set out from a pavement in front of the school on a march that led to a revolution.

For 17-year-olds, we had already witnessed quite a lot. Infants during World War II, we had seen much of Budapest reduced to rubble. We had seen the scarcely less destructive turmoil of Stalinism (replacing a brief period of democracy), the brief thaw on Stalin's death in 1953, then a new freeze. Yet until now we had remained a fairly normal lot of young animals with interests other than politics: sport, our budding friendships, officially decadent Western music, girls - even, occasionally, a subject for which some teacher had managed to communicate a passion.

But following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the Soviet 20th Party Congress, all that changed. All that spring and summer, reformists mounted challenge after challenge to the Stalin's Hungarian minions, and news of their efforts would spread like wildfire through the city - by word of mouth, or, as the year progressed, in literary and political journals which we read in class at least as eagerly as the sports pages. The world was on the move, and it seemed good to be alive.

On 23 October 1956, a large crowd of us joined the march called by students at the Technological University of Budapest - in support of Poland's defiance of Russia, and of the 16-point manifesto for change in Hungary the students had devised - which led to the outbreak of the Revolution that evening. The school's Hungarian flag was borne at the head of our column by my friend Tamas Fener, a fat boy with parted dark hair and a melancholy face. Schoolmates since we were six, he and I were about to experience the greatest upheaval of our lives.

I remember thinking - when the shooting started and I dived for cover near the headquarters of Hungarian Radio - that this was the thing that you read about in history books: revolution. Neither I nor my classmates actually fought - the teenagers who took up arms were mainly the children of manual workers - but we were overwhelmingly behind its aims: to get rid of the Russians and attain democracy. Within a few days, however, it had all gone horribly wrong. Hungary was crushed by the tanks of the Kremlin. Thousands died, and 200,000 people, including me and five of my classmates, fled the country. A campaign of terror followed in which the regime imposed by the Soviets ensured that Hungarians would never forget who was in charge.

I had imagined that I would return to Hungary after a few years, when things had settled down. But things turned out differently. By the time I had completed my degree at Cambridge, in 1962, I had absorbed too much of the democratic way of life to want to return. I made my life in Britain, and, 40 years later, am still here.

My classmates and I have thus gone through adulthood in separate worlds. The changes in Hungary since 1989 have brought those worlds closer - in fact, the key aims of the Revolution have now been realised - but they are still a long way from being the same, and for most of those four decades they could not have been more different. And so it was with considerable curiosity that I returned to Hungary this summer, to make a radio programme (Where's 1956?, broadcast on Radio 4 last week) and to find out what had happened to them.

THE first thing that struck me was how well they had done. Of the 31 of my classmates who stayed in Hungary, 22 got degrees or teaching qualifications, with a good few taking further degrees or foreign language diplomas - the key means to get ahead under the Communist regime. Several rose to the first ranks of their professions.

Tamas Fener, the fat boy who carried the banner, became a leading photographer; Janos Lehoczky, whom I remember mainly as a keen canoeist, became a lecturer in electrical engineering at Budapest University, and a pioneer of the science of cybernetics; Pal Doleschall, who was always the most intelligent as well as the gauntest among us, won international recognition as a nuclear physicist. Some gained other kinds of fame. Peter Sos, never one of the brightest in the class academically, represented the country in gymnastics at the Olympics. Istvan Berczelly became a leading singer at the State Opera House; Laszlo Kovacs - a quiet, rather mysterious boy - became an inventor, author and international chess master.

Other lives turned out less happily. One of our classmates, Arpad Papanek, a black-haired, shy boy with a slight speech defect, died trying to rescue someone from Lake Balaton. Another, Peter Rigo, who became a jazz musician, died in his thirties of cirrhosis of the liver - one of the two causes of early death for which Hungary is notorious. Two, Bela Hajdu and Ferenc Rothschild, died of the other: suicide.

Overall, however, my impression was one of lives having turned out remarkably well, with successes greatly outnumbering failures. The fact that they spent so long living under a totalitarian regime seems to have made remarkably little difference.

They experienced fear, of course, instilled in the wake of the Revolution. "Everybody was afraid after '56," recalls Peter Urban, large, silver-haired civil engineer who came from a working-class background so had less to fear from the regime than many of our classmates. He had no direct involvement in the Revolution. (In fact, at one point he persuaded some revolutionaries to let go of a neighbour they wanted to shoot on suspicion of being a member of the security police.) None the less, "I remember my mother quickly took the newspapers that I had bought in the street during the Revolution, and burnt them. You could get a heavy prison sentence if they found them, or leaflets from that time."

Once instilled, however, fear became simply an accepted part of life - a parameter that prevented people from doing or even thinking of doing certain things (protesting, for example). But it did not prevent you from getting on with life along more approved channels. Laszlo Muller, for example, a thick-set boy with glasses who had a small jazz band at school, was unable to get into the Academy of Music to study the piano because of his suspect origins as the son of a small private tradesman. Instead, he went into the family trade as a piano tuner. It proved a good move. He now counts among his clients the majority of Hungary's professional singers and musicians, as well as the State Opera House with all its 40- odd pianos, and the main concert halls and recording studios and a slew of western embassies and official bodies. "I wasn't interested in politics," he explains. "I was about pianos." And as long as he remained uninterested, he and the regime managed to co-exist quite painlessly. "I worked. I tuned pianos even in the Ministry of the Interior, and at the house of the Minister of Defence."

For the majority of my classmates, however, it was not as simple as that. In most lines of work, it was impossible to get very far without confronting one crucial dilemma: whether or not to join the Party. Few people doubted, in the wake of 1956, that its rule over Hungary would last at least for their lifetime. And, despite propaganda insisting that expertise and reliability rather than party membership decided who got what post, there was unquestionably a glass ceiling in most professions between non-party members and senior jobs. To break through it, they had to sign up.

Even in theory, the choice was not simple. Those who did join were colluding in a sys- tem of which most - though not all - disapproved. Those who didn't were powerless to influence the system for the better. Who made the better choice?

In practice, it was even more complex than that. Imre Popp, an open and companionable boy who was and is a devout Catholic, studied agronomy at university and subsequently found himself working in a soil analysis laboratory. In the early 1970s, he was invited to join the Party almost as an act of charity. Retirements had cut the number of party members in the laboratory below the level that would justify a full-time secretary, and the incumbent, a former skilled worker named Csepreghy whose reports to his superiors were known to say only harmless things about people, feared losing his sinecure. "So Comrade Csepreghy asked eight or 10 of us younger people in," Imre recalls, "He said, 'Look kids, here's what's up. You're young, it won't hurt you and it'll help me, you join the Party. Think about it, but you come back tomorrow and sign up.' What was there to think about? We went back next day and signed."

Some of my classmates joined the Party for political reasons - with a small p. That is, they wanted to tap into support and a network of connections useful in whatever game they happened to be involved in. This wasn't necessarily as cynical as it sounds. Laszlo Mezei, a friendly, smiling boy who was generally liked for his integrity, became a doctor, and went to work in the general hospital of the major mining town Tatabanya, where he has remained ever since. He joined the Party in 1979, by which time he was head of the accident and emergency department. "I joined, I think I can put it this way, to be able to represent my patients better," Laszlo says. "Frequently we ran out of this or ran out of that. It was harder to shut you up if you had the party in power behind you. You got injection needles sooner, surgical instruments sooner, even convertible currency to buy equipment."

There were also at least three boys in my class who joined the Party because they believed in its ideology. One of them was Janos Horvath, who now heads the international department of a Hungarian bank. A bulky boy at school - where he was nicknamed Teddybear - he has since filled out even more around the waist. He was the son of a tailor who lived in constant uncertainty and near penury, so was hardly a fan of the regime. But his initial sympathy for its opponents soon began to evaporate as he saw that they too were prone to violent excesses. He was particularly shocked by an incident during the Revolution in which a group of Party people and security policemen who had come out of Party Headquarters with their hands held above their heads were shot down in Republic Square - where their mutilated bodies were subsequently hung on trees. "What alarmed me most," Janos recalls, "were the violence and the atrocities which I saw as I wandered all over the city, and especially what took place on 30 October 1956 at Republic Square, which even today I would term a bloodbath."

In early 1957, Janos joined KISZ, the new Communist Youth League - and was ostracised by most of his classmates as a result. But the two people who persuaded him to join were also in the class: Tamas Fener, who was a good friend of his, and Pal Doleschall who sat next to him at the back of the classroom. Tamas, like Janos, had started off by supporting the Revolution, but was put off by the excesses he saw as he roamed the streets taking pictures. What particularly disturbed him was a growing sense that anti-Semitism, which had wreaked such devastation in Hungary in the last year of the war, was rearing its head again. "I started to hear about pogroms in the provinces," says Tamas, who is Jewish. "I'd never been a professing Jew, but Jewishness is something you can't shed. Certainly, one reason I supported the system afterwards was that I believed it was a system which by its nature made no distinction between races. It was only much later I realised that it simply drove racial tensions underground."

Pal Doleschall - who initially supported the Revolution but became worried by its direction when he saw people being lynched - joined KISZ motivated by the idea that it offered a way of helping to take things forward after all the trauma and upheaval. He subsequently became a party member, for broadly similar reasons. "I joined the Party in '63, when I was a university student," he recalls. "It was a period when you really believed that now we were building a society which would be more just, with people equal and so on. You could believe that you might have an effect on the future."

His doubts began to grow in the 1970s, when as his career took off he began to get invitations to visit western scientific institutions as a result of his work on sub-atomic particles He was given exit visas to accept some of these invitations, but not the rest. He protested, was rebuffed, protested again, and the affair grew into a conflict that came to affect his whole attitude to the core Communist idea that a self-perpetuating elite knew what was best for everybody else. "I had always felt that I knew what other people had to do," he says with a bitter smile. "The conflict started when other people wanted to tell me what I had to do, when I was convinced what they wanted was unjust, and wrong. And since the socialist system was based on the idea that there were some clever people on the top who would tell others what to do and how to do it, I became suspicious about its whole method. I know this is a primitive way of realising something, but it was the way it happened in my case. I began to realise that personal freedom is more important than I thought before, and in the end I reached the point that maybe it's the most important thing of all."

For many of my classmates, the period in which the Party finally lost its grip on power, between 1987 and 1989, was more exciting than any since 1956. Of course, none of them knew that this was the endgame. Indeed, in Tamas Fener's heart the reforms revived old hopes. "I showed myself once again a sucker for the idea that the system was reformable," he says, laughing. "It seemed to me that it was finding a way of turning itself inside out and becoming a democracy, while preserving some basic values to which I still hold. There was a fantastic momentum to the whole thing. It was a frenzy, just like in '56, with people rushing about to meetings and devouring papers and television programmes."

By 1988, Pal Doleschall had become a founding member of the first free trade union since the Revolution - an association of natural and social scientists - and handed in his Party card. "I realised that socialism, though I had believed for a long time that it could be achieved and be a basis for a just society, was just a non-working system. There were too many proofs that no reform could be introduced which could eliminate its problems. After that I said OK, this was a mistaken idea, let's try something else."

THAT something else has not come without pain. Most of my classmates realised that Hungary's transition to a different political and economic system would not be simple. But few of them foresaw how hard it might be. The picture magazines that Tamas Fener worked for - latterly as a picture editor - lost their subsidies and either closed or slashed editorial jobs. As he watched his work drying up, he had a heart attack. There were similar shocks for some of the others, even if they took them less badly.

But on the whole they have bounced back. Tamas now earns more as a freelance than he ever did in his picture editor jobs, as well as giving photography classes at Budapest University (which he enjoys even if they are mostly unpaid). Pal Lellei, an instruments technician, saw the instruments industry collapse when orders from the Soviets and the military dried up. But this had happy consequences for him. A frustrated sculptor, he took a job, for a lot less pay, as a puppet-maker with the National Puppet Theatre in Budapest. "The changes of '89 turned out to mean for me a story with a happy end, because I made an enormous switch and find myself, in the last phase of my working life, doing what to me is play."

Others are thriviving materially in the new market economy. Janos Lehoczky, who lives with his wife and two grown up sons in the hills of western Buda, had already learnt the ways of the market in the 1970s and 1980s, when he turned from being a university lecturer to become an increasingly successful building contractor. Today he lives lavishly, with a lush garden behind his three-storey house, laid out around a 30ft swimming-pool and a large, newly-built conservatory. "The fact that I have this kind of life is due mainly to my not letting myself be crushed, or marginalised. If something won't work, I start something else, if I'm pushed out of some position, I work my way into a new one somewhere else, if I'm kicked out of the door, I come back in through a window."

Most of my classmates, however, seem to view the events of the last seven years with a greater or lesser degree of disappointment. "I rejoiced at the changes of '89, because I thought there would be great things happening," says Laszlo Muller. "But huge problems have emerged. In the streets there are vast numbers of unemployed people. If you open a paper, your stomach sinks. They've killed this person, they've murdered that one, they've robbed the third, they've beaten somebody to death, they've buried alive someone else. If you ask why you can't see a policeman around, the answer is, there's no money; why the health service is collapsing, because there's no money; why your pension is now threatened, because there's no money. There's no money for this, no money for that, no money for anything." What makes it worse is a sense of living in a country where corruption, often on a startling scale, has become the order of the day.

Istvan Persanyl, who was a top performer in our class academically as well as being a champion sprinter, is now a business consultant. He has observed at close quarters how the new corruption works. "They take the company to the brink of bankruptcy, so it can be had for less. They also have the right to limit the bidding process to tenders by invitation, and can select whom they invite, which means the company can be bought even more cheaply. It can also be bought not just for cash but out of loans. Then, as the purchaser has no finance to regenerate it, he has to aim at just getting rich by taking whatever money he can out of the company. In due course it either dwindles to its minimum size, or disappears, by which time the purchaser, and even his grandchildren, are wealthy people. There are also gains for everybody who helped him, by ruining the company, by rigging the tender, and so on, whether they be individuals or represent forces in politics."

This sense of disillusionment and betrayal is compounded by a sense that a generation of politicians able to conduct itself in a properly democratic way has yet to emerge. "I think most of our present politicians aren't up to the task," says Pal Doleschall. "They were educated in the last 50 years, and their instincts are not the best ones. They're willing to brush aside the legal system on the grounds that what they have to do is very important for some community reason. Which is in most cases just a way for them to try and do what they want."

"There are," says Pal Lellei, "many more poor people in Hungary now than in the last phase of the socialist system. There are more rich people too, it's true, but as time goes on, the two will diverge more and more. There will develop a very rich class and there will be, there is already a large segment of the population living on the dark side of life. I don't care for that."

AS the rest of the world looks back to the upheavals of 1956, Hungarians themselves - or at least my classmates - seem more uncertain than ever as to what their past really means. Would things have been very different if the 1956 Revolution had succeeded - or is what they are experiencing now what they would have experienced then? Are their troubles finally over - or only just beginning? At the very least, most seem to have accepted that, if there is going to be a golden age in Hungary, it won't be in their lifetimes.

"The main problem is that there are lots of reflexes bred in people by the last 40 years, and to get over them and to learn to live by a new system will be a long and hard process," says Peter Urban. "It's like the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. They had been slaves and then they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and nobody liked it, because they had little food and couldn't find water, and everybody was wishing they were back in Egypt, where they had had a secure life and had something to eat and to drink and somewhere to sleep. We have the same situation. We are going through a transition we have to have, but the road through it isn't covered in rose petals. We have to struggle very hard so that even if not our children, at least our grandchildren can have a better life." !