Budapest – what was life behind the Iron Curtain like?

Whilst the history of post-war Communism is likely to show up in a classroom textbook or a museum; I wanted to know what life behind the Iron Curtain was like in my lifetime.

Budapest’s museums and tours help me tell the story of Csilla, my Hungarian alter-ego. Here’s her story.

1987 – behind the Iron Curtain

My name’s Csilla, and I’m twelve years old. I was born in Hungary in 1975.

My birth was difficult, because, even though we have very well educated doctors and midwives, we don’t have much medical equipment. Mum was in a lot of pain so dad had to pay some money to the hospital staff so they found her some pain relief drugs.

I understand now why dad had to pay that bribe. Those doctors had to study for ten years or something crazy and they must’ve been really narked that the hospital porter got nearly the same wage as them.

I don’t have many toys, but we have a set of Monopoly. It’s not like your Monopoly in the West. It’s all about life in the city, but my friend Laszlo lives on a farm, and his Monopoly is a game of farming. We can’t own homes, so that’s why our Monopoly is different to yours.

life behind the Iron Curtain - The last surviving Russian monument in the centre of Budapest

The last surviving Russian monument in the centre of Budapest – the remainder have been relegated to Statue Park

Mum and dad aren’t Communists, but they tell me the schooling I get is good. We have to learn Russian, but no-one speaks it beyond the school gates.

The Government runs all the TV, and the adverts tell us to drink milk, read books and smoke cigarettes. I think most people must listen to the TV. We drink milk and read books, but we don’t smoke cigarettes. Mum and dad are the only two grown ups I know who don’t smoke.

Mum goes to church, but not many people do. The Government doesn’t like religion or the priests; they say we should follow them, not God. I’ve heard that some priests are Government spies, I suppose being a spy makes the Government forget they are preaching. Mum makes sure she doesn’t confess anything worse that forgetting to get something for dad’s dinner.

Everyone works. It’s a crime not to. But I don’t understand what many workers do? When I go and see mum at her work it seems to take two people to do anything.

Dad is a gardener – he keeps the Budapest City Park looking its best. Mum works for the state bank. They both get three weeks paid holiday every year. I heard that’s more than many people in the US.

When we have holiday, we’re only allowed to travel in Hungary and to other Eastern Bloc Communist countries. We go to Lake Balaton with my friend Erzsébet and her mum and dad. Only the top Government people get to travel to the West.

It’s very expensive for Westeners to visit Hungary, but the West Germans have a lot more money than us, so they save up and pay the special fees to the Government.

They come here to meet their relatives from East Germany, who can also travel here. I see them running towards each other on Chain Bridge into each others’ arms. Sometimes they’ve not seen one another for more than thirty years – that’s longer than I’ve been alive! I can’t imagine not seeing my grandma or grandad for that long.

life behind the Iron Curtain - Chain Bridge today

Chain Bridge in Budapest today

Fast forward to 2014

Csilla’s now 39.

In 1989, when I was fourteen, everything changed. In East Germany the Berlin Wall came down, and it wasn’t long before Hungary and our neighbours declared their independence from the USSR. Russia – strapped for cash after investing in a decade-long war in Afghanistan instead of in Hungary and its’ other Socialist Republics – didn’t put up a fight.

We didn’t know what to expect next.

Our new Government quickly realised they couldn’t afford to pay the wages of staff who weren’t really doing that much, so they let them go. Including mum. Unemployment in the early 90s hit 30%.

It dawned on us then how much the old Government had subsidised basic goods. Bread. Milk. Metro tickets. Their costs rocketed more than ten fold.

Our apartment – which previously the Government had owned – was now ours. It seemed like a brilliant deal at first, especially as we had a place in the city centre, not on one of the awful blocks in neighbourhoods that looked – and still look – like a monotonous Jenga puzzle.

Home ownership was tough to start with, as we suddenly had to pay for all the upkeep and bills on only dad’s wage. When the communal entrance hallway in our block needed repairing with new electrics and plasterwork, we had to wait years until all the apartment owners had enough money to put in their share. We carried torches for more than two years to go up and down the stairs. Thank heavens there wasn’t a leak! We were lucky: at Erzsébet’s place they’re still waiting. Her spruced up apartment behind a peeling façade is the definition of shabby chic.

The end of the Communist era meant we were free to travel abroad; and – post 2004 when Hungary joined the EU – work in other EU member countries. “Brain drain” is a reality here; Hungary has a well-educated population where the average wage runs at 550 Euro a month. Even a doctor gets only about 900 Euro a month.

Ironically, despite an influence of two generations, Russian is around the sixth most spoken language in Hungary. German and English are the foreign languages of choice. It feels as though we’ve tried to wipe our Communist legacy from the map, but after two generations of rule – some things are engrained.

What did you think of Csilla’s story? Did you grow up in Eastern Europe? What were the realities of life behind the Iron Curtain for you?

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