I saw that Tsar in the back of a carriage once

European Times BUDAPEST

IT WAS the winter of 1913. Europe was on the brink of war and revolution simmered in Russia. Natalia Puhlimszkaya had been given the day off from school, in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, to cheer the Tsar. Nicholas II did not cut a very imposing figure, even for an eight-year-old schoolgirl.

"He was travelling with the hetman, the Cossack leader. We all thought the hetmanwas the Tsar, he was dressed in such finery, while the Tsar just sat there, hunched up like a little soldier."

The Tsar had five years to live before he was shot in Yekaterinburg. Those bullets ushered in a new world for Russia and helped to shape Natalia's life. Her father perished in Stalin's purges; her brother, Sergei, killed himself in exile in Paris after fighting for the Whites in the revolution. Her late husband, Pal Sos, a Hungarian Communist, served as a doctor at the front during the Battle of Stalingrad. She was a major in the Red Army medical corps.

Born in 1905, she is one of the few who can recall those decades that shook the world. "My father was a delegate to the Congress of Workers and Soldiers in Moscow at the end of the [First World] War," she says. "There was a great feeling of tension in the air; it was the beginning of the Revolution and you could feel it, it was extraordinary. We felt the old system was collapsing and we would build something new to take its place.

"Our town [Krasnodar] was always shifting back and forth between the Reds and the Whites in the civil war. Our neighbours played revolutionary songs on their piano, while my brother Sergei played "God save the Tsar" [the old Russian national anthem] on his mandolin. When the Whites had Krasnodar there were British soldiers billeted in our school.

"When the Reds finally won they moved some Cossacks into our flat. One of them painted huge moustaches all over my picture book. The Reds ... stopped people using money and gave out ration cards. We stood in line to get our food, barley soup and barley cutlets, sometimes potatoes."

The civil war tore apart her family. While Natalia supported the Bolsheviks, Sergei passed by one day with the White army on a brief visit. It was the last time she saw him. "My parents weren't at home, and I ran a bath for him. He fled to Sofia and eventually France. He sent us many postcards and took a job in Paris as a railway porter. Then the postcards stopped. He committed suicide."

By the late 1930s Natalia was working outside Moscow in a hospital and had married Pal Sos. They were years of terror in the Soviet Union, and many of the foreign Communists she knew, such as Bela Kun, leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, disappeared in the purges. A word of denunciation from a neighbour was enough to earn a trip to the Gulag, and a foreign husband just increased the danger. "Everyone was scared. Fear was in the air and there were spies everywhere."

In 1938 her father, an adulteducation teacher, was arrested. "They took him without the right of correspondence, so we couldn't write to him. In Moscow I met one of his colleagues who had a relation in the same camp, who told us he was working as a stoker. But we never had a letter, so we don't know how he died."

During the war Natalia was sent back to Moscow, while her husband was sent to a military hospital on the Stalingrad front, sorting casualties into those who could be saved and those who could not. "They worked under terrible conditions, in incredible cold. The only way to keep going was to drink vodka, which they got as part of their rations. Sometimes they worked for three days and nights, non-stop."

In 1951 Natalia, her husband and two children were sent to Budapest, where they stayed until the revolution in October 1956.

The Hungarian National Uprising was dangerous for Russian Communists. "It was chaos on the streets. The Hungarians would even go into hospitals and kill any wounded Russians they found there. I wouldn't leave the house. At the end of the year we were evacuated to Russia."

After the Russian invasion she returned to Budapest. Hungary's new leader, Janos Kadar, ran a dictatorship, but it was also considered the "happiest barracks" in the Eastern bloc.

Natalia, like many old Hungarians, looks back on the Kadar era with nostalgia.

"Everyone had a job, there was free education and health care. Every factory even had its own free holiday resort and things were cheap. Of course, there are positive improvements now as well, such as much more choice in the shops, but I personally don't need all these things."

Natalia observes the collapse of the rouble, and Russia, with anguish. "I'm not a political person, but if someone had told me a decade ago there would no longer be a Soviet Union I would not have believed them.

"It was a great mistake to demolish the Soviet Union, instead of reorganising it. It was Stalin's fault - he killed so many of the intelligentsia, all the people with brains. That's why someone like [Boris] Yeltsin has come to power in all this chaos, and why the rouble has collapsed. They wanted to change everything so quickly. You can't do that in Russia."


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