Spies in the Kremlin

This piece appeared on History News Network as: Review of Eva Dillon’s “Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War”


We have learned since the end of the Cold War that the West had well-placed spies in the Kremlin, and that those double agents provided timely intelligence about Soviet aims and intentions. It’s impossible to gauge their full impact in hastening the fall of the Communist regime, but it’s clear that these inside sources helped policymakers in London, Paris, and Washington in assessing the thinking of the Politburo and other Soviet leaders.

A new memoir/history by Eva Dillon, Spies in the Family, offers a fascinating and deeply sympathetic account of perhaps the most important of the Kremlin spies, Dmitri Polyakov, code name TOPHAT, who was the third major GRU (military intelligence) officer to pass vital information to the CIA. All three were discovered. Polyakov lasted the longest; the other two—Pyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky—were betrayed, it is believed, by British mole George Blake (who is in his 90s, living in exile in Moscow).

Popov, a lieutenant colonel in the GRU, was the CIA’s first in-place source in the Soviet hierarchy. He approached an American diplomat in Vienna in 1953 and offered his services as a spy, motivated in part by anger over the harsh treatment of Russian peasants, including his own family. Popov passed along information about Soviet nuclear submarines and missile technology and alerted the CIA that the GRU had classified technical information about the U-2 spy plane. He was exposed and executed in 1960.

Penkovsky is perhaps the best known of Soviet double agents. He played a role in both the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. Penkovsky passed technical information about the Soviet nuclear missiles sent to Cuba that helped steer the Kennedy Administration away from a military response. As the CIA has noted: “Because of Penkovksy, Kennedy knew that he had three days before the Soviet missiles were fully functional to negotiate a diplomatic solution. For this reason, Penkovsky is credited with altering the course of the Cold War.” Also betrayed, Penkovsky was tried publicly and executed in May of 1963.

Eva Dillon’s subject, Dmitri Polyakov, considered himself a Russian patriot who in practice subscribed to the 17th century dramatist Pierre Corneille’s belief that “treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny.” Dismayed by Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bellicosity, he began spying for the FBI and CIA in 1961 and avoided exposure until 1988. (Popov lasted six years; Penkovsky, only two). Polyakov achieved the rank of general, becoming the West’s highest-placed spy. Eva Dillon’s father, Paul, a CIA officer and an Irish Catholic marine from Boston, was one of Polyakov’s handlers and developed a strong bond with him.

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As Polyakov rose in the GRU, he “had access to the highest level of Soviet war planning, strategy, and military philosophy. He knew the specifics of worldwide GRU operations. He knew the identities of GRU agents and their modi operandi.” His courage can’t be underestimated. To spy in the Soviet Union, a totalitarian society, required nerves of steel, with the danger of exposure real and constant. In Spies in the Family, Dillon captures this tension, and the moral dilemma Polyakov faced—he felt compelled to continue spying, even as he knew it placed his family (and their future) at grave risk. Dillon interviewed Polyakov’s son, whose career as a diplomat ended after his father’s arrest, and who moved to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union, his career prospects tainted.

In the end, Polyakov was compromised by the CIA’s Aldrich Ames, a mole who betrayed numerous Western agents. When arrested, Polyakov told his interrogators that he saw himself as a “social democrat,” one who saw the Scandinavian countries as a model for Russia. Despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Polyakov’s justification for his spying fell on deaf ears. Earlier, Polykov had turned down an offer of asylum from the CIA, explaining, “I am not doing this for you. I am doing this for my country. I was born a Russian, and I will die a Russian.” His words came true: he was tried, convicted, and executed, all in secret.

Polyakov must have had few illusions about how his countrymen would view him, even those who welcomed the fall of the regime. And yet he persisted, driven by his own sense of duty and an old-fashioned patriotism. As James Woolsey of the CIA later noted: “What General Polyakov did for the West didn’t just help us win the Cold War, it kept the Cold War from becoming hot. Polyakov’s role was invaluable, and it was one that he played until the end—in his own words—for his country.”

As U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller and several Congressional committees investigate Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, it’s logical to ask what the CIA and/or MI6 might know from inside sources in Moscow. Are there “social democrats” in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who reject his strongman approach and regard cooperating with the West as a patriotic duty? These sources might offer concrete information about the extent of Russian meddling, and possible collusion with Trump associates, well beyond the gossip, rumors, and conjecture of the dossier compiled by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele.

Another intriguing question: can the current Administration be trusted with the names of any highly-placed Russians passing information? The fear of a leak, or inadvertent disclosure by an erratic President not known for his self-control or caution, is real. The fate of some of Putin’s critics (journalists murdered; opposition leaders assassinated; former cronies dying under mysterious circumstances) suggests the potentially dire consequences of exposure (no less, perhaps, than those faced by General Polyakov.) Putin is, after all, a creature of the KGB.

If history is any guide, there are covert Western intelligence sources in Moscow. (If there are not, then the CIA is not doing its job.) How to shield them, and yet fully explore what they can tell us about the extent of Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns, is a pressing challenge for the leaders of the intelligence community. Before too long we may learn what they know, and what it means for the health of our democratic institutions and the rule of law in our country.


Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author. His trilogy of novels, The First Trumpet, is set during the early Cold War.

Berlin Spy Stories

This essay first appeared in the Mystery Tribune

Spy novelists have long been drawn to Berlin’s dark and violent past, and its mix of seamy counterculture and shadowy intrigue. That should come as no surprise: Germany’s rulers prosecuted, and lost, two world wars, and after 1945 the country occupied the frontlines of the Cold War. With these conflicts came heightened covert activity—false flag operations, code breaking, sabotage, and spying by all sides.

As the capital of Germany, Berlin served as the center of political and military power for both the Kaiser and Hitler. During the Nazi years, numerous intelligence agencies (Gestapo, SD, Abwehr) competed for influence with the Führer, while at the same time Germany’s adversaries sought to place moles in the inner councils of Hitler’s regime. After the war, occupied Berlin became a place where East and West intersected, a unique Treffpunkt (meeting point), a cloak-and-dagger venue for the Western Allies and the Soviets. The city swarmed with agents. By the late 1950s, the U.S. had 15 separate intelligence outfits at work in the city, and the KGB had taken up residence at a massive complex at Karlshorst in East Berlin. Both sides recruited sources, placed penetration agents, and, when it was deemed necessary, took more “direct action,” including abductions and assassinations. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin a “swampland of espionage.” Before the Wall went up in 1961, agents and informants could cross sector borders without too much trouble.

Beyond the clandestine, Germany’s largest city has offered an intriguing, and sometimes contradictory, backdrop for fiction. Berlin has been a cosmopolitan home for artists, writers, painters, actors, and the “decadent” demimonde for more than a hundred years—think the “anything goes” atmosphere of Cabaret during the 1920s and 30s, or the free-spirited city of bohemians, drop-outs, permanent students, and punk-rockers that David Bowie and Iggy Pop inhabited in the 1970s. There’s always been a gritty Berlin underworld, filled with petty thieves, pimps, prostitutes, con men, and crime bosses. Berliners have proved remarkably resilient. They’ve endured Allied bombing raids, the brutal Soviet pillage of the city in 1945, the Berlin Airlift, the erection of the Wall, and the years as a divided and (for West Berliners) isolated place.

Berlin’s spies

John le Carré, a master of the espionage genre, began his breakthrough 1963 bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with a fatal encounter at a Berlin checkpoint, and ended it with a desperate escape attempt at the Wall. In the character of Alex Leamas, a jaded MI6 veteran, Le Carré offered readers a more realistic and nuanced alternative to James Bond, Ian Fleming’s dashing super-spy. Graham Greene praised the novel as the best spy story he had ever read, and JB Priestley said it possessed “an atmosphere of chilly hell.” The screen version of the book, directed by Martin Ritt, starred Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, and introduced the general public to Le Carré’s bleak vision of the twilight struggle between the liberal democracies and the Soviet bloc.

Le Carré wrote later that Berlin in the 1960s was “a paradigm of human folly and historical paradox.” Stationed at the British Embassy in Bonn, he had “watched the Wall’s progress from barbed wire to breeze block; I watched the ramparts of the Cold War going up on the still-warm ashes of the hot one.” (Le Carré has had a life-long interest in Germany and its literature and culture; he has set many of his other thrillers there including A Small Town in Germany, The Looking Glass War, and A Most Wanted Man.)

Other spy novelists have mined the rich material in Berlin’s troubled history, producing numerous thrillers, including series by Len Deighton (ten Bernard Samson novels), John Lawton (two Joe Wilderness books), and, most notably, David Downing (six John Russell novels) and Philip Kerr, with his critically-acclaimed Bernie Gunther series.

In Downing’s first Berlin novel, Zoo Station, we meet John Russell, an Anglo-American expat journalist of leftist political tendencies who has been living quietly in Berlin for more than a decade. It’s 1939, and Hitler is threatening war with Poland. Russell wants to stay in Germany; he has a glamorous girlfriend, an actress named Effi Koenen, and a young son, Paul, from a failed marriage. As the Third Reich moves toward outright conflict, Russell draws the attention of the Soviet, German, and British intelligence agencies, who all see him as a potentially valuable operative. To protect his family, Russell begins to cooperate with various and sundry spymasters, reluctantly compromising himself in the process.

In the five novels that follow (the Train Station series), Russell struggles in his role as amateur spy, caught in the very dangerous game of “playing the ends against the middle,” as Germany careens into war. While he despises the Nazis, Russell has little choice but to work with the Abwehr (while also running errands for the NKVD, MI6, and American military intelligence). When he can, Russell tries to help Jewish friends and acquaintances escape the roundup in Berlin, the beginning of the Final Solution, but there are limits to what he can accomplish—the Gestapo is a watchful and ever-present threat. Downing’s novels brilliantly capture the fear and paranoia of life in a dictatorship, and they illustrate the moral conflicts that confront average men and women face in a society that has abandoned the rule of law. Downing paints a harrowing portrait of the impact of the Nazi regime on Berlin and the brutal consequences of German militarism, the devastation of the city by Allied bombing and by the rampaging Red Army.

The prolific Philip Kerr offers an equally dark vision in his Berlin Noir trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem), which he had extended into another nine (and counting) Bernie Gunther novels. Kerr’s Germany is run by uniformed criminals with swastikas on their armbands, arrogant men driven not only by a warped racist ideology but also by greed, lust, and corruption. While Kerr’s work is categorized as crime fiction, his novels bridge several genres— they’re a compelling mashup of police procedural, murder mystery, and spy thriller. His plots typically follow the thriller outline established by John Buchan in The 39 Steps: take an ordinary man, give him a difficult and dangerous mystery to solve with a pressing deadline, and then have him chased by shadowy enemies.

Kerr’s brash, wise-cracking Everyman hero Bernie Gunther is a veteran of the Berlin police department from the Weimar years. He’s a survivor, willing to work for the Nazi elite in solving politically-sensitive crimes even as he recognizes the absurdity of traditional police work when civilized moral boundaries have been erased. Gunther has a stubborn sense of right and wrong, and when confronted with evil, he’s not above settling scores and seeking rough justice. The series, which spans the 1930s, the Second World War, and the early Cold War, illuminates a violent and tragic period of human history.

The Cold War and beyond

It’s been the American author Joseph Kanon who has most evocatively explored the struggle between American and Soviet intelligence agencies in the ruins of post-war Berlin. In The Good German, his protagonist, war correspondent Jake Geismer, is shocked by the devastation as he flies over the divided city: “Below them there seemed to be no movement. Shells of houses, empty as ransacked tombs, miles and miles of them, whole pulverized stretches where there were not even walls.” When Geismer is drawn into a murder investigation which involves his pre-war lover, Lena, he learns that the line between guilt and innocence is blurred. Who should take responsibility for the horrific Nazi past, and for wartime atrocities? Who is complicit? And how is justice best served?

In Leaving Berlin, Kanon focuses on life in the Eastern sector of the city, occupied by the Soviets and watched over by the dreaded East German secret police. During the Berlin Airlift in 1949, Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author, is blackmailed by the CIA into returning to East Berlin as an agent. The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal: the German Workers Paradise is a grim, oppressive place where informing on friends and colleague has become commonplace. Meier must negotiate a vastly altered personal and professional landscape, where he can’t be sure who to trust, where the fear of the Gestapo has been replaced by fear of K-5, later known as the Stasi. As the novel ends, Meier crosses from East to West through the Brandenburg Gate, a man wounded and hardened by his experiences.

The end of the Cold War hasn’t diminished Berlin’s allure for those crafting spy stories. In 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon) meets a CIA contact in Alexanderplatz during a student demonstration; later, he’s chased through a Berlin subway station. The producers of Homeland chose the German capital as the locale for the series fifth season with storylines involving the Islamic State, a resurgent Russia, and terrorism in Europe. Novelist Olen Steinhauer’s Berlin Station television spy series focuses on modern-day CIA field agents dealing with terror plots and damaging cyber leaks. And the creative team responsible for the well-received BBC adaptation of Le Carré’s The Night Manager has announced its next project will be a limited-series remake of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

With renewed tensions between the West and Russia, and with German intelligence agencies warning about jihadists hiding in the recent flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Berlin, the city will continue to have more than its fair share of intrigue—and writers eager to tell new spy stories.

Jefferson Flanders is the author of The First Trumpet trilogy about the early Cold War. His novel An Interlude in Berlin will be published in 2018.

Copyright © 2017 by Jefferson Flanders

The journalists of Budapest, 1956

Sixty years ago the striking photograph of a teenage girl dressed in a cotton-wool jacket and clutching a Soviet PPSh-41 submachine gun became an iconic image of the Hungarian Revolution.

A Danish photojournalist, Vagn Hansen, had snapped the photo as Hungarian insurgents battled Soviet troops in the streets of Budapest in late October and early November of 1956. First published in the Danish magazine Billed Bladet, the photograph quickly was reproduced in newspapers and other publications around the world.

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Hansen was one of a talented and brave group of foreign correspondents and journalists who covered the Hungarian uprising. Historian János Molnár has estimated that some 150 newsmen and women, most from the West, found their way to Budapest during the uprising.

The mass media coverage of the Hungarian Revolution offered an object lesson in the value of a free press. As the faltering Communist regime lost control of the borders, foreign correspondents were able to enter the country. Once there, the absence of government “minders” and censors allowed journalists to report what they saw, “without fear or favor of friend or foe.” The result: a balanced, independent, and accurate account of what was happening on the ground in Hungary.

This on-the-spot coverage had an impact. The stories, and pictures, of Hungarian insurgents resisting Soviet power helped illuminate the gap between Communist propaganda and the reality of life in the satellite nations of Eastern Europe.  The brutal crackdown on the revolutionaries damaged the appeal of Marxist ideology in Western Europe and elsewhere, hurting the image of the Communist parties in France and Italy.

The reportage from Budapest also influenced U.S. foreign policy. Journalists found that many Hungarians believed, falsely, that NATO would intervene to defend the revolution based largely on Radio Free Europe broadcasts that had encouraged resistance to the regime. In response,  President Dwight Eisenhower publicly claimed that the U.S. had never “urged or argued for any kind of armed revolt which could bring about disaster to our friends,” and privately curtailed rhetoric about rolling back Communism in the satellite nations.

Witnessing the revolution

While the uprising caught most Western news organizations (and intelligence agencies) by surprise, there were a few experienced newsmen in Budapest when students and workers began demonstrating against the repressive regime and the presence of Russian troops on October 23. Endre Marton of the Associated Press, John MacCormac of The New York Times (assisted by Aurél Varrannai), Sefton Delmer of the London Daily Expressand Leslie Bane of the North American News Alliance reported on the extraordinary events of the first hours of the revolt, the mass rally in Parliament Square,  the battle over the Radio Budapest station, and the toppling of the giant statue of Stalin in Heroes Square.

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Delmer filed an emotional first-person dispatch by telephone: “I have been the witness today of one of the great events of history. I have seen the people of Budapest catch the fire lit in Poznan and Warsaw and come out into the streets in open rebellion against their Soviet overlords. I have marched with them and almost wept for joy with them as the Soviet emblems in the Hungarian flags were torn out by the angry and exalted crowds. And the great point about the rebellion is that it looks like being successful.”

Soon more journalists arrived in the city, cramming into the Duna Hotel on the east bank of the Danube. Newspaper and wire service reporters and broadcasters came from the United States, England, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Polish and Yugoslav correspondents, who proved sympathetic to the insurgents, also filed reports.

Despite the danger, small groups of journalists ventured out to observe the street battles between the revolutionaries (many of them teenagers), and Soviet troops in places like the Corvin Passage and Széna Square. Photojournalists maneuvered to get close to the action. Michael Rougier of Life magazine shot a series of dramatic photos of the carnage that included images of  burned-out tanks, bodies lying in the cobblestone streets, and makeshift graves of the fallen. Erich Lessing, an experienced Austrian photojournalist, documented the intensity of the fighting and the resulting devastation of the graceful boulevards and buildings of the city.

The journalists in Budapest didn’t shy away from reporting the often grisly scenes of the revolution. Marton and MacCormac were eyewitnesses to the massacre of civilians in front of the Parliament Building on October 24, when Russian tanks and secret police snipers killed hundreds. At the same time, there was no hesitation in reporting atrocities by the insurgents.  Life magazine’s John Sadovy took disturbing photos of the summary execution of Hungarian secret police in Republic Square on October 30. One of the photographers on the scene, Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini of Paris Match, was hit by machine gun fire and later died from his wounds.

As the Red Army encircled Budapest in the first days of November, many foreign correspondents decided to leave while they still could.  Some left with the convoys to Vienna organized by British and American diplomats. Nearly all of those who stayed after the Soviet onslaught of November 4, took shelter in Western embassies.

Two of the last Western journalists in Budapest were MacCormac and Russell Jones of United Press International. Jones, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the revolution, was expelled on December 5, and the János Kádár regime sent MacCormac packing  on January 10, 1957.

After leaving Hungary, Jones challenged Soviet claims that the uprising was fomented on behalf of capitalists or large Hungarian landowners. “I saw with my own eyes who was fighting and heard with my ears why they fought,” he wrote, adding, “Wherever came the spark, it found its tinder among the common people. The areas of destruction, the buildings most desperately defended, and the dead themselves are the most eloquent proof of this.”

Despite the thousands of news stories filed about the Hungarian Revolution, the name of the girl with the submachine gun in Vagn Hansen’s iconic photo remained unknown until the 21st century. It was only then that researchers identified her as Erika Szeles, a young soldier and nurse. She was already dead by the time her photo appeared on the front cover of Billed Bladet,  killed on November 8 trying to help a wounded friend during a firefight with Russian soldiers. Szeles was fifteen years old.


Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author. His novel The Hill of Three Borders is set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

This essay first appeared on RealClearHistory.

Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

Imre Nagy, the unlikely and reluctant hero of the Hungarian Revolution

Sixty years ago this month, an avuncular Communist apparatchik named Imre Nagy became the unlikely hero of the Hungarian Revolution.

Nagy was thrust onto the world stage during the last weeks of October 1956 as Hungarian students and workers rose in revolt against an unpopular and repressive Communist regime and battled Soviet troops in the streets of Budapest.

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In the space of a few fateful days, Nagy assumed leadership of the revolutionary government and advanced previously unthinkable political changes, calling for an independent, neutral Hungary, a multiparty democracy, and free elections. He moved to disband the hated secret police and to free political prisoners.

Nagy publicly rejected the Soviet propaganda line that the uprising represented a counterrevolution led by fascists and reactionaries, arguing instead that “this movement aims at guaranteeing our national freedom, independence, and sovereignty, of advancing our society, our economic and political system on the way of democracy.” As the Red Army began to encircle the Hungarian capital in the first days of November, Nagy must have known that he was signing his own death warrant by forming a coalition government—challenging Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy which insisted that the Communist Party alone should rule—and appealing to the United Nations General Assembly for help in defending Hungary’s neutrality.

Nagy was an implausible hero. A portly, 60-year-old with a distinctive walrus mustache who liked to take his grandchildren for ice cream at Café Gerbeaud and rooted for Honved, the Hungarian Army’s soccer club, Nagy didn’t fit the romantic Hollywood image of a revolutionary leader. He had spent most of his adult life as a Communist functionary. The son of a peasant, he became a Communist in his early twenties, living in Moscow on-and-off from 1930 to 1944. During the Stalinist purges, he was an informant (Agent Volodya) for the NKVD (later the KGB).

In the thaw after Stalin’s death, the Soviet leadership elevated Nagy, regarded as a moderate, to premier of Hungary in 1953. Nagy introduced a series of agricultural and economic reforms, dubbed the New Course, and sought to liberalize political discourse. His vision was of “Communism which does not forget about man.” Hungarian hardliners, led by the widely detested and feared Party boss Mátyás Rákosi (known as the “Bald Murderer”), struck back in 1955, removing Nagy and drumming him out of the Hungarian Workers’ Party. He was not admitted back into the Party until a week before the uprising.

When students and workers began demonstrating on October 23, partly in response to political unrest in Poland, they called for Nagy to lead the country, seeing him as an honest man of the people. As Nagy reluctantly re-entered the political arena, the regime’s hardliners summoned Soviet troops and tanks to suppress the insurgents. Freedom fighters took to the streets of Budapest, and the revolution rapidly spread to the rest of the country. Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Presidium, hoping to avoid a protracted and violent conflict, agreed to Nagy assuming the premiership, believing that he could be trusted to tamp down the unrest. After several days of street battles, the Russians accepted a ceasefire and pulled back their troops. On October 30, Moscow announced it would respect Hungarian sovereignty and negotiate the presence of Russian armed forces in the country. Further signaling an apparent willingness to compromise, the Kremlin broached the idea of a commonwealth of socialist states. For a brief moment, it appeared as if Hungary might throw off the Soviet yoke, perhaps adopting a system similar to Tito’s national communism in Yugoslavia.

Pressured by the revolutionaries, Nagy reluctantly went further, announcing a series of dramatic reforms that would have transformed Hungary by ending one-party rule and adopting “bourgeois freedoms.” In his radio address on November 1, when he declared the country’s neutrality, Nagy made a bold claim: “…The revolutionary struggle fought by the Hungarian heroes of the past and present has at last carried the cause of freedom and independence to victory.” He was wrong about winning a victory, of course, as Hungary’s brief flirtation with democratic governance was to end in a few days.

Moscow, however, could not accept this outright rejection of Communist rule and Hungary’s departure from the Warsaw Pact. Even the Politburo’s Anastas Mikoyan, who privately counseled against any military response, admitted: “We simply cannot allow Hungary to be removed from our camp.” The Kremlin feared contagion. Hungary’s uprising had stirred unrest in other satellite nations—protests in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania—and Mao Zedong and the Chinese pressured Khrushchev for a crackdown. Soviet heavy T-54 tanks rolled into Budapest on November 4, and the Red Army crushed the uprising, killing thousands. Moscow quickly installed a puppet government led by Hungary’s Quisling, János Kádár. Nagy was tricked out of temporary sanctuary in the Yugoslavian Embassy, arrested, and held in Romania until his trial in June 1958.

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Today, Nagy’s home on Orsó Street in the Buda hills is open to the public as a shrine of sorts to this martyr of the revolution. Like the man, it’s modest and unassuming (by American standards). It’s here, in this comfortable Bauhaus-style villa, that you sense Nagy’s quiet courage and resolve and realize the sacrifice he made. Nagy had suffered a heart attack in 1955—he could have honorably resisted the calls for his return to political power and remained safely out of harm’s way. Or he could have denounced the uprising as a counterrevolution? Or he could have resigned from the government as the revolution pushed well beyond cosmetic reforms into forbidden political territory. But he didn’t.

What was the tipping point for him? Was it seeing the demonstrators from all walks of life outside the Parliament Building, calling for the Russians to go home? Or observing the courage of the teenagers of Budapest, attacking Soviet tanks with home-made Molotov cocktails? Or perhaps even guilt over his complicity in the Great Terror of the early 1950s, when the Communist regime purged and prosecuted hundreds of thousands of innocent Hungarians?

Nagy claimed to have remained a Communist to the bitter end, but he must have been conflicted about what that meant. Defending his actions during the uprising, Nagy argued that he had been trying to preserve a socialist future for Hungary by rejecting the “forms of ideological, political and governmental dependence that were developed in Stalin’s regime.” Yet Nagy must have recognized what historian Johanna Granville has called the “fundamental contradictions of de-Stalinization.” Reformers struggled with the realization that Stalin was simply the personification of a deeply flawed ideology—and they learned that Marxist-Leninist dogma doomed attempts to establish “socialism with a human face” (Alexander Dubček’s later formulation during the Prague Spring).

Perhaps Nagy continued to believe that a purified Marxism could be the engine for a Socialist Paradise. His willingness to accept a multiparty state suggested otherwise. His hardline comrades saw things more clearly. State socialism demands a monopoly of power, and the unrelenting control of all aspects of life, with state-sanctioned terror to maintain order. It cannot allow the existence of free elections or democratic institutions.

What a man of the apparat like Kádár understood was that the Party could not risk an uncensored press or seek the consent of the people. The Hungarian Communists could not win free elections—they polled 17 percent of the votes in 1945 and 22 percent in 1947 during Hungary’s brief post-war period of political openness. They won power through Rákosi’s infamous “salami tactics,” eliminating the opposition through threats and intimidation. Unlike Nagy,  Kádár and the Party cadre would would never willingly accept relegation to a minor role in a parliamentary democracy.

At his secret trial for treason, Nagy was clear-eyed about the fate of apostates. He told the court: “If my life is needed to prove that not all Communists are enemies of the people, I gladly make that sacrifice. I know there will one day be another Nagy trial, which will rehabilitate me. I also know I will have a reburial. I only fear that the funeral oration will be delivered by those who betrayed me.”

After his execution by hanging, Nagy was buried in an unmarked grave. It was not until 1989, with the Soviet empire on the verge of collapse, that—as Nagy had predicted—he was reburied with full honors. Several hundred thousand Hungarians attended the reburial ceremony in Heroes Square in Budapest, and opposition leaders seized the opportunity to excoriate the ruling Communist regime. Nagy’s betrayers only had a few more months in power before they were swept away by the tidal wave of democratic revolution.

In the end, Imre Nagy’s legacy as the “lonely hero” of 1956 remains secure. His vision of a non-Stalinist socialist society may have been tragically flawed, but he had the courage to risk all in pursuit of that dream. “He did not make the revolution. But he made it possible,” former British diplomat Peter Unwin has written. “Nagy and the revolution went down to defeat, but they gave Hungary back its self-respect.”


Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author. His novel The Hill of Three Borders is set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

This essay first appeared on History News Network.

Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

A few thoughts on fiction and history

All novelists take liberties when they write historical fiction, drawing on their imaginations and from the raw material of the past. The question, then, is: how much should they stray from the historical record? How much should they rearrange facts, events, and timing to suit the needs of their plot?

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For some postmodern authors, the very idea of “facts” or of a “historical record” is an illusion. They’ll blithely deconstruct and distort because they argue that what we call history is a subjective narrative by and for the powerful. (Include E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover, among others, in this camp). Along those lines, the novelist Don DeLillo has written: “There is pleasure to be found, the writer’s, the reader’s, in a version of the past that escapes the coils of established history and biography and that finds a language, scented, dripping, detailed, for such routine realities as sex, weather and food, for the ravel of a red thread on a woman’s velvet sleeve.”

For counterfactual historical fiction (“what if Hitler had won the Second World War?”), there’s also a heavy reliance on elaborate fabrication. For example, novels like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or Dominion by C. J. Sansom—which all imagine a world altered by a Nazi victory—change history and then consider the ripple effect.

I prefer historical fiction grounded in reality. I like reading novels that are well researched about a given period of time and that are (for the most part) accurate in their depiction of events and personalities. It’s a more engaging way to learn about the past—Rudyard Kipling claimed that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. When authors stray too far from the record, or when their dialogue includes jarring contemporary phrases, I feel let down.

In writing historical fiction, I try to avoid errors of fact and also of interpretation on matters small and large. So I’ve spent time researching the cost of a pay phone call in New York City in 1949, and the footwear of Manchu women in Beijing in 1794. Details matter, because they help create a sense of time and place.

Sometimes there are questions without clear answers, or where historians disagree. I’ve encountered some of these unresolved questions during my research. Why did the French Revolution descend into savagery in the summer of 1793, into the Terror? Could there have been a different, and peaceful ending, to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956?

In the end, it’s a balancing act. An overemphasis on the historical can weigh a novel down; a lightly-researched book can feel weightless, untethered to historical reality. The trick is to breathe life into the past—a different country.

Literary scholar Daniel Aaron had it right: “Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music.”


©2015 by Jefferson Flanders