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What was it like to grow up under communism in the old cold war?

An extract from Goulash And Solidarity, by ZSUZSANNA CLARK, a memoir of life in Hungary in the 1970s and ’80s, written from a working-class perspective

VIKTOR ORBAN, the current Hungarian Prime Minister, has described my generation — those whose fate was sealed by the “failure” of the famous 1956 uprising against the communist government as — “the lost generation.” 

Now, it’s true that some things were lost to us. We were not, until 1988, able to travel whenever we wanted to countries outside the socialist bloc. 

We weren’t able to vote for parties other than the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (and the affiliated Patriotic People’s Front), because none was allowed to exist. 

But other, much less desirable things were “lost” to us too. Violent crime. Social breakdown. Drugs. Unemployment. Fears about paying the utility bills.

As I hope to show, Hungarians like myself, who grew up in the years of so-called “goulash communism” were actually the lucky ones. 

Luckier than my parents’ generation, who had to endure fascist oppression in the 1940s and life in the harsh immediate post-war years and luckier than my children’s generation growing up in the materialistic, “dog-eat-dog” years of the early 21st century.

My life as a Pioneer

When I was 11 I became a fully-fledged Pioneer. To mark the occasion, we had a big ceremony in the school and I got my red tie and belt with the slogan “Elore” (Forward). 

It was a very proud moment for me. Our school’s Pioneers’ motto was “Together for each other.” 

Each new Pioneer received a little membership book. In it were the 12 principles to follow. 

They were: 

** The Pioneer is a loyal member of the homeland, the Hungarian People’s Republic.

** The Pioneer strengthens the friendship of the peoples, defends the honour of the red tie.

** The Pioneer increases his knowledge ceaselessly and faithfully fulfils his duties.  

** The Pioneer helps wherever he can.

** The Pioneer works in a good mood and serves the community voluntarily.

** The Pioneer always speaks the truth and acts righteously.

** The Pioneer loves, respects parents, educators and appreciates the elderly.

** The Pioneer is a true, loyal friend.

** The Pioneer is courageous and disciplined.

** The Pioneer exercises his body and looks after his health.

** The Pioneer loves and protects nature.

** The Pioneer lives to be worthy of membership of the Young Communist League.

Each school class worked with the same system. The children chose a different name for their group for each year. 

One year, when we were about 13, we named our group “The Beatles,” after the English pop group. 

In another year we called ourselves “Susu” after the animated dragon on Hungarian television, which everybody loved.  

A few more supervisors were chosen by the group to do specific tasks. There was the “Moka Mester” (The Joker), whose job was to entertain the group in our spare time. 

There was “The Notafa,” whose responsibility was to teach us new songs. There were also one or two people responsible for our news board. All the others had to help out as much as they could.

Pioneer work was not meant to be regarded as a chore, but something to be enjoyed. However, I know not everyone, including my friend Kriszta, liked the extra work!

Between school classes there were many competitions. For example, helping older people with their housework, helping them to do their shopping, cleaning, chopping up firewood, carrying coal in and out from the cellar. 

There was collecting waste paper and waste metal competitions, sports activities and a prize for the best notice board of the week or month.

Every class had different duties which were rotated week by week. When we were on cleaning duty we had to go to school half an hour earlier and sweep the pavement outside the school. Because our school did not have central heating one of the class had to help carry the coal and logs in for the stoker.

These duties were compulsory (for me too as a Pioneer leader), and every day someone had to do them. 

But they never felt like a burden to me or something that I hated doing. Extra duties, that were not compulsory, were also available.

I volunteered for sorting out the books in the library, partly because my favourite teacher Endrodi tanar neni (our Hungarian literature and grammar teacher), was also the duty librarian, but also because I loved books and reading and it was a good opportunity for me to know more about different writers and poets. 

I also signed up for selling rolls and little tubs of milk in our made-up school tuck shop during break time for children. I loved this job and did it for over two years.

As a Pioneer, if you performed well in your studies, communal work and school competitions, you were rewarded with a trip to a summer camp. I went every year because I took part in almost all the school activities. 

At the camp we all had to do our duties, sharing between those who lived in the same tent — just like at home, the only difference being we didn’t know each other as well. 

But we soon made friends and we all got along with each other very well. Our duties were: cleaning our wooden house, cleaning the dining area and taking it in turns to stay up at night to keep watch over our camp at the gate. Keeping watch in the dark was frightening, but thrilling too.

In the morning we took exercises. These weren’t very popular because they took place before breakfast and we were hungry. 

We went swimming in the Danube, played games, including table tennis, chess competitions etc. The most popular game was szamhaboru or “number war.” 

The group teacher hid our camp flag somewhere in the forest. The Pioneers divided into two groups. We had a paper sign with a number on which we attached to our heads with an elastic band. We then went to try to find the camp flag. 

If anyone spied and called out correctly the number of a member the opposing team, that person was “dead.” Everyone was so excited the night before szamhaboru, making their own numbers.

On our last night at Pioneer camp we had a huge bonfire and sang songs while one of us played the guitar. At Pioneer camps we sang songs which cheered us up like ‘Mint a mokus fenn a fan, az uttoro oly vidam” (We are as happy as a squirrel on a tree) — the national Pioneer anthem — and other traditional Hungarian children’s songs. 

On our last night our feelings were mixed: we were sad about leaving camp, but at the same time happy at the prospect of seeing our families again.  

My history and geography teacher wrote of his experiences of going on a Pioneer camp in 1950: “When the day came to leave the camp, it was hard and really deeply touching to say good bye to each other, because we got to know each other well, and it felt that we were brothers and sisters. 

“I will never forget the life in the camp and the experience ingrained into my memory forever.”

The duties of being a Pioneer may seem burdensome to some, but the sense of togetherness the organisation engendered was really something special.
I contrast the times then and now. 

“If we are unable to ensure them [young people] the opportunities for positive creative deeds, if the school and the Young Communist League too, are unable to offer suitable conditions, suitable communities for the activities of the youth, if they do not feel at home within the family, then in some cases a gang will serve this purpose instead.” 

So warned Gyorgy Aczel, the government’s chief ideologist and culture minister in the 1970s. 

When I look back at my childhood in socialist Hungary and compare it to the sort of life many young people are living in the “advanced’ capitalist” nations today, in which nihilistic gang culture (and associated drugs and knife crime), becomes more and more predominate, I believe Aczel’s words have a particular relevance.

Goulash and Solidarity: A Memoir of Life Behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ by Zsuzsanna Clark is available online at (price £8.95) and shortly through bookshops and Amazon.


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