Jul 30th 2009

Two Funerals and Our Freedom

by Nina Khrushcheva

Nina Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, teaches international affairs at The New School and is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.

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.

Over the years, a mutual friend often tried to introduce me to General Király, but, to my regret, that meeting never happened. Any man who would frame the four death sentences he had received (one signed by Khrushchev, another by Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador in Budapest in 1956) and hang them in his drawing room has the sort of quirky humor I relish.

And from what I know of the man and his history, particularly his work in Hungary after 1989, I can only wish that my great-grandfather could have met him. Certainly, Király would not have hesitated to meet the man who ordered the invasion. After all, when he learned that one of the Russian generals who had led the invasion was still alive in 2006, Király invited him to Budapest to join the 50th anniversary celebrations. When General Yevgeni Malashenko declined in fear that he might be arrested, the 94-year-old Király flew to Moscow, where he spent a long weekend reminiscing and going to a banya for retired Red Army generals.

Kolakowski, on the other hand, was someone I knew. We frequently met at conferences, where it was always a delight to hear him speak Russian - a Russian that had the accent and elegance of Tolstoi and Pushkin, not the degraded Russian bark of Vladimir Putin. Like Király, in 1956, Kolakowski turned against the Communist party he had once joined in the hope, formed in the charnel house that the Nazis had wrought in Poland, that it would build a better world.

Kolakowski, modern Poland's most acclaimed philosopher, quickly learned that mendacity was the true building block of Communism, and he withdrew from it in horror. By 1968, the Polish regime could no longer tolerate his presence. He was expelled from his post at Warsaw University and, when he went to teach abroad, the government forced him into exile by never allowing him to return.

The question for me is how these three men with such different backgrounds and trajectories - Khrushchev, a Russian peasant turned proletarian who became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party; Király, a Magyar soldier of old world Europe, steeped in aristocratic traditions; and Kolakowski, a gentleman scholar from Warsaw more attuned to Jansenist heresies than the perverse logic of Leninist dialectics - could ultimately contribute to the same goal: the resurrection of liberty in Europe.

Khrushchev did not really know anything other than Communism. He tried to humanize it and undo the cruelty of Stalinist orthodoxy, but never doubted that the Leninist system was the way of the future. Király, who subscribed to the old codes of military honor (he would be named a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, for the hundreds of Jews he saved by keeping them with his army during WWII), saw that very system as the enemy of his country and its liberty.

But today, Khrushchev is remembered mostly for his contribution to the demise of Stalinism - and, via Mikhail Gorbachev, whose hero he was, ultimately for helping to bring about communism's demise. Király and Kolakowski became voices of moderation and reconciliation in the Hungary and Poland that emerged out of communism's darkness at noon. Király will be remembered not merely as a warrior, but as a humanist, the conciliator who called for no reprisals after 1989, and a liberal model for many Hungarians. Kolakowski, in upholding the sanctity of truth in the empire of the lie, connected the new democratic Poland to the old Poland of intellect and culture.

Király, Kolakowski, and Khrushchev: each in his own way is a symbol of today's new and uniting Europe, a Europe of rapprochement and forgiveness among erstwhile opponents.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

Related article: The Death of Poland’s Socrates by Andrzej Rapaczynski


 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 11th 2018
WASHINGTON, DC – Though he rarely admits even the slightest discontent with the job he schemed for in unprecedented ways and somewhat accidentally fell into (thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College), Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been what Americans would call a bowl of cherries. Yet no other week of his presidency so far has been filled with such problems and so many dark omens for him.
Dec 10th 2018
This Human Rights Day (December 10) marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, events over the past few years show that the world is failing to uphold the commitments enshrined in that document, particularly when it comes to protecting children. For example, in separatist-controlled parts of Eastern Ukraine, where more than 200,000 children are receiving their education in militarized areas, bullets have struck kindergarten windows. In April, the Afghan air force, backed by US-led NATO coalition advisers, reportedly killed 36 students, teachers, and parents, and wounded 71 others, at a graduation ceremony. And in August, the Saudi-led coalition that has been waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen dropped a bomb on a school bus, killing 40 boys between the ages of six and 11.
Dec 7th 2018
Figures like Boris Johnson, with his Churchillian pretensions, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resembles a minor character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, are anachronisms. In earlier times, they might have run an empire. Now they are mere politicians in a middle-ranking state. Brexit for the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg is more like a deluded grab for power, undertaken in the name of the common people, supposedly in revolt against the elites of which these politicians are themselves conspicuous members. Their nostalgia for grander forms of rule has already done great damage to the country they claim to love. This is all the more reason, now that the potential catastrophe of Brexit is so plain to see, why those common people should have a second chance to vote for a way to avoid it.
Dec 4th 2018
The argument against a second referendum is that it would be deeply divisive, especially if it leads to a reversal of the first referendum. But this rather misses the point. The hardline Brexiteers will reject any compromise with the EU. As ideological purists, they will not be satisfied until the UK is fully out of the EU, even if it means jumping off a cliff. Happily, the British public is unlikely to accept that option. So, whatever happens, the Brexit debate will rumble on. In the meantime, we Britons should apologize to our friends around the world. Our national spectacle of self-harm must be growing tiresome.
Dec 1st 2018
.......since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Nov 30th 2018
The Senate slapped the Trump administration around on Wednesday, voting 63-37 to bring to the floor a proposal to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. I should declare my own interest by saying that I was one of 50-some Middle East experts and policy-makers who signed a letter to the senators urging them to take this step........The vote was the most significant bipartisan measure to come out of the senate in ages, and fell just short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Nov 23rd 2018
Vibrant capitalist economies have always depended on a carefully calibrated balance between government policy and private competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s significantly extended the previously minimal role of the US federal government. But, rather than holding back growth and destroying private enterprise, it was followed by 30 years of spectacular capitalist development, spreading prosperity as never before and dramatically expanding the ranks of the American middle class. Ayn Rand’s free-market utopia, so beloved by climate-change deniers, is as detached from real-world complexities, and as likely to produce social and environmental disaster, as simplistic Marxist faith in the inevitable efficiency and incorruptibility of the state.
Nov 22nd 2018
Trump’s statement on his policy toward Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder in Istanbul of dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought a profound shame on the United States that will, as FDR put it, live in infamy. Trump began by saying he was putting America first, but that was the last thing he was doing. He was putting his own personal predilections and policies, and perhaps profit, above the interests of the United States. Here are the ways he put America last:
Nov 21st 2018
.......the Trump administration’s disruptive behavior has left the French and German governments furious. But, beyond fueling anger, Trump’s attacks on other countries’ sovereignty are adding momentum to a new push for European political unification...........Trump’s actions are actually something of a godsend, because they have forced Europeans to accept that they must stand together in defense of their sovereignty and prosperity. A union of almost 450 million people (after Brexit) cannot allow a country two-thirds its size to treat it like a group of vassal states.
Nov 20th 2018
The world’s central bankers have begun to discuss the idea of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), and now even the International Monetary Fund and its managing director, Christine Lagarde, are talking openly about the pros and cons of the idea. This conversation is past due. Cash is being used less and less, and has nearly disappeared in countries such as Sweden and China. At the same time, digital payment systems – PayPal, Venmo, and others in the West; Alipay and WeChat in China; M-Pesa in Kenya; Paytm in India – offer attractive alternatives to services once provided by traditional commercial banks.
Nov 19th 2018
They came in the middle of the night. At about 2.30am on May 11, Amal Fathy, her husband Mohamed Lotfy, and their three-year-old child were awakened by Egyptian security personnel. For hours, a special forces detachment of seven armed men in uniform and two plainclothes officers raided their home..........Amal, a former actress and fashion model, had posted a Facebook Live commentary expressing her anger about being sexual harassed two days earlier. In the 12-minute video,....
Nov 16th 2018
For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to balance this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely. ..........possibly the most significant implication is how sanctions have led to widespread de-dollarisation, whereby the dominant global status of the dollar has been challenged. Since sanctioned states are no longer attached to the established system, it is easier for them to adopt an alternative way of operating. An example is the Petro Yuan – whereby China’s oil imports have been priced in yuan rather than in dollars – which has been adopted by oil-rich states targeted by sanctions, most notably Russia and Venezuela. The sanctions on Iran will only exacerbate this process.
Nov 12th 2018
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Nov 2nd 2018
The cold-blooded killing of the journalist Khashoggi, however gruesome, pales compared to the brutality and gross human rights violations Saudi Arabia is committing in Yemen. The Saudis are deliberately preventing food and medicine from reaching areas where children are dying from starvation or disease. Their indiscriminate bombings are killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, leaving whole communities in ruin. The saddest part of this unfolding tragedy is that the US and other Western powers are supplying the Saudis with the weapons they need to massacre the Yemenites, who are trapped in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which neither can win), and the Yemenites will continue to pay with their blood.............Out of a total population of 28 million people, 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 5.2 million children are starving to death, and nearly one million are believed to be infected with cholera. Over 8 million people are facing famine, and 2 million are displaced and deprived of basic needs.
Oct 29th 2018
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice. The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Oct 23rd 2018
As the Brexit negotiations peter out this week in Brussels, fevered Brexit fanatics – from Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg in the Telegraph, to many others on Twitter – are ranting and raving about the most sensible thing Theresa May has done in two and a half years of Brexit negotiations by suggesting extending the transition period in an attempt at genuine compromise. This would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of some salient facts. These Conservative MPs are speaking on behalf of the hardest of Brexiteers, a collection of somewhere between 60-80 of the Tory MPs. That’s somewhere between 60 and 80 MPs out of a total of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. And while having 317 MPs means the Conservatives are the largest party at the last election, they did not win enough of the votes to form a majority. Therefore, for all their bluster and bloviating, let’s just state clearly what the members of this small group are: they are a minority faction, holding a minority view, in a minority government.
Oct 23rd 2018

A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.
Oct 14th 2018
Now the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. According to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), dollars are used in nearly half of all cross-border payments, a share far greater than the weight of the US in the world economy. In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. “Plans” may be a bit strong, given that few details have been provided. But the three countries have described in general terms the creation of a stand-alone financial entity, owned and organized by the governments in question, to facilitate transactions between Iran and foreign companies.
Oct 5th 2018
There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.