Communist rule meant singing silly songs

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Life under Communism often seemed like a tedious progression from one anniversary to another. The calendar swarmed with red-letter days, pageants celebrating Lenin's Great October following on the heels of feasts dedicated to lesser-known revolutions, labour days and assorted liberations.

On these occasions, school-children wearing their little red scarves were herded onto the streets and urged to sing the Soviet anthem and odes to the proletariat. All the world could see our faces lit up with joy, smiling at every stanza. It was indeed hard to keep a straight face whilst singing about "the shining wind blowing on our flag", or the improved versions that were so much more entertaining than the original. Instead of voicing our "yearning for peace" in the Communist youth hymn, for instance, we made a plea on behalf of "our rumbling stomachs". Our teachers, hiding their amusement behind handkerchiefs, pretended not to hear.

No such frivolity was allowed on the anniversary of our own Great October. The 23rd was always sombre. Some people made a furtive visit to the cemetery, perhaps lit a candle in the privacy of their living room, but the majority clenched their teeth and got on with the grim task of survival. Its significance could not be gauged from our history books, which devoted one paragraph to the "counter-revolution" of 1956, but we had extra tuition on the subject at home. We knew and they knew that on that day Communism had sustained a mortal wound.

The problem with the "counter-revolution" was that it was fought by workers against the greatest workers' power on Earth. It began with a peaceful demonstration in Budapest in support of Polish reforms. When the unarmed assembly of workers, peasants and the intelligentsia came under fire from the secret police, it was the People's Army who fired back.

The Communist Party's leader, Janos Kadar, seemed to support the "revolution" and vowed to fight the Soviet tanks with his bare hands. But on being told that the Russians were about to send in 200,000 troops, Kadar fled, to return later in one of the very tanks he had threatened to annihilate.

On the morning of 3 November, short-wave radio sets around the world began to crackle with the news that Budapest was again under attack. The people scoured the skies, looking for Nato paratroopers. But there was no help. The Russians could fire their tanks at will.

What happened in Hungary 40 years ago can be cast as a heroic David-versus-Goliath battle, or as a futile gesture by the world's most suicidal nation. Either way, most of the relatives of the thousands who died seem to think that it was worth it. At least nobody in Europe has to sing silly songs any more.