MOSCOW – My great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, has been on my mind recently. I suppose it was the 50th anniversary of the so-called “kitchen debate” which he held with Richard Nixon that first triggered my memories. But the funeral last week in Budapest of General Béla Király, who commanded the Hungarian Revolution’s freedom fighters in 1956, and this week’s funeral in Warsaw of the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose break with Stalinism that year inspired many intellectuals (in Poland and elsewhere) to abandon communism, made me reconsider my grandfather’s legacy.
The year 1956 was the best of times and the worst of times for Khrushchev. His “secret speech” that year laid bare the monumentality of Stalin’s crimes. Soon, the gulag was virtually emptied; a political thaw began, spurring whispers of freedom that could not be contained. In Poland and Hungary, in particular, an underground tide burst forth demanding change.
Hungary, of course, had its short and glorious revolution. That first war among socialist states shattered the myth of inviolable “fraternal” bonds between the Soviet Union and the captive nations of Eastern Europe. But Khrushchev never envisioned the breakup of the Soviet empire as part of his thaw. So the Red Army invaded Hungary – on a scale larger than the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944.
Béla Király, released from a sentence of life in prison (one of the four death sentences he received from the communists having been commuted) was offered the job of commander of the Hungarian National Guard and the defense of Budapest. His task was to knock the rag-tag freedom fighters into an army, but there wasn’t time to stop the Soviet advance. So, after a week of heroism he and a few thousand of his men crossed the border into Austria and exile.