Recent quotes:

The Picnic: An Escape to Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain by Matthew Longo review – a break for the border | History books | The Guardian

Review The Picnic: An Escape to Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain by Matthew Longo review – a break for the border The US academic has written a thoughtful and vividly realised account of the extraordinary chain of events around a summer party in Hungary that precipitated the end of Soviet power in central Europe Tim Adams @TimAdamsWrites Sun 7 Jan 2024 02.00 EST Last modified on Sun 7 Jan 2024 03.17 EST 5 A t a time when we have become bleakly accustomed to political capital being made of militarising borders and building walls, it is a timely corrective to read a book devoted to the romance of the alternative. The Picnic re-examines events in Hungary in 1989 that precipitated the collapse of Soviet power in central Europe. In particular, it recreates, through intimate personal histories and eyewitness recollection, the ways in which one idealistic, grassroots protest – the staging of a summer party in a field near the Austrian border – became a catalyst for the dramatic peaceful revolutions that reunited the continent. The idea for that summer gathering was first imagined by a young Hungarian radical, Ferenc Mészáros, at a meeting organised by a European figure from a very different age: Otto von Habsburg, heir to the long-dismantled Austro-Hungarian empire, who was, in 1989, president of the pan-European movement. Habsburg was in the Hungarian city of Debrecen in June 1989 as a guest lecturer at a university founded by his ancestor and he used the opportunity to connect over dinner with covert groups opposed to the communist government. At that dinner, Mészáros floated to “Uncle Otto” his notion of a gathering near the border, perhaps an afternoon picnic, at which Hungarians and Austrians could be permitted to come together in a tiny gesture towards a new pan-European spirit. How a pan-European picnic brought down the iron curtain Read more From Megalopolis to Joker 2: the 2024 films Guardian writers are most excited about Mészáros’s idea was originally dismissed as trivial in the earnest politics of the underground Hungarian democracy movement, but over that summer it gained support and traction, eventually becoming a pivotal – and exhilarating – moment in late 20th-century history. As Matthew Longo’s book deftly dramatises, great geopolitical shifts always happen at both a macro and a micro scale. The possibility of relaxing border controls had been set in motion that March by Hungary’s communist leader Miklós Németh in a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow at which the Soviet leader suggested he would not stand in the way of greater openness.

Republican congressman Andy Harris’s real Hungarian roots – Hungarian Spectrum

So, Zoltán Hariss was never a forced labor inmate in the Gulag. Instead, he got involved with a very bad cause and ultimately served under the Hungarian branch of the SS. I suspect that Andy Harris is not entirely familiar with the true story of his father’s involvement with the Hungarian Nazi movement, which applauded the extermination of Jews and sent more than 400,000 people to die in Auschwitz. But if he is ignorant of his family history, it would be high time to learn the true facts.

Cai Xia: An Insider Breaks with the Chinese Communist Party

Why was the Organization Department so territorial about publishing? It all came down to money. Many departments have slush funds, which are used for the lavish enjoyment of senior officials and divided among personnel as “welfare subsidies.” The easiest way to replenish those funds is to publish books. At that time, the CCP had more than 3.6 million grassroots organizations, each of which was expected to buy a copy of a new publication. If the book was priced at ten yuan per copy, that meant a minimum of 36 million yuan in sales revenue—equivalent to more than $5 million today. Since that money was coming from the budgets of the party branches, the scheme was essentially an exercise in forcing one public entity to transfer money to another. No wonder the Organization Department promoted a new political education topic every year. And no wonder almost every institution within the CCP had a publishing arm. With nearly every unit inventing new ways to make money, venality has permeated the regime.

Cai Xia: An Insider Breaks with the Chinese Communist Party

The People’s Liberation Army assigned me to a military medical school. My job was to manage its library, which happened to carry Chinese translations of “reactionary” works, mostly Western literature and political philosophy. Distinguished by their gray covers, these books were restricted to regime insiders for the purpose of familiarizing themselves with China’s ideological opponents, but in secret, I read them, too. I was most impressed by The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the American journalist William Shirer, and a collection of Soviet fiction. There was a world of ideas outside of the Marxist classics, I realized. But I still believed that Marxism was the only truth.

The History and Design Behind Prague's Concrete Apartments - Bloomberg

The real push for fully industrial building methods came from a speech by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, who specifically called for the use of concrete panel construction as an efficiency measure in a bloc-wide drive for more and better housing. Despite the Soviet incentive, the housing produced to meet this call was nonetheless not fundamentally different from much being constructed in the West at the time. The internal layouts of paneláks, and their arrangement into planned, self-contained neighborhoods, had clear contemporary counterparts in Western Europe , where Sweden, France, West Germany and Britain were also building mass housing projects on a grand scale. In keeping with this exchange of ideas across the Iron Curtain, the name given to this 1950s new wave of Czech architecture and design was “Brussels Style,” after Czechoslovakian architects gained international attention for their designs at the Brussels World Fair in 1958. What was markedly different, however, was the paneláks’ delivery method, and the social aspirations behind them. The idea in Czechoslovakia was to rapidly urbanize the country through buildings that could be reproduced using the same prefabricated components, creating not just new homes but entire neighborhoods and even cities. Catering to all levels of society and allocated by need rather than ability to pay, these new quarters wouldn’t be public housing along the Western model. Because there was no private housing to counterbalance them, they were simply — well, housing.  For their new tenants, these panelák homes often represented an improvement. Coming from tenements heated with coal stoves and often lacking hot water or reliable plumbing, many residents were relieved to move in. These new units offered central heating, balconies and much more light than you might have gotten in Prague’s existing courtyard buildings (akin to Berlin’s Mietkasernen). They also had more modern conveniences than the cramped cottages previously occupied by migrants from the countryside.

March 30, 1988, the birthday of Fidesz, in the news – Hungarian Spectrum

Stumpf “informed György Aczél, who was already on his way to meet [János] Kádár, on the phone” about the news. In this version, Aczél met Kádár for dinner that evening, where he managed to convince the general secretary that Fidesz was “in good hands” and that the student organizers were harmless. Aczél, according to Varga-Sabján, assured them that “all obstacles had been removed, Fidesz is allowed to operate.” He adds that, in the wake of Kádár’s explicit permission, “it is understandable why Viktor Orbán and his associates were awarded Soros scholarships for their preparation” for a political role in the government.

One by one, historical events are rewritten by the Orbán regime – Hungarian Spectrum

The Budapest Festival Orchestra was performing an all-Beethoven concert on August 18, and Iván Fischer decided to give away 400 tickets to the German visitors. And they came. As he said later, they could easily be spotted by their casual outfits. Once the concert was over, a large group of diplomats from the West German Embassy thanked Fischer for his gesture. They told him that during intermission they had distributed pamphlets to the refugees informing them of the narrow window of opportunity at Sopron the next day. Of course, the concert was just one of the places where the German refugees could be reached, but this story is further proof of the joint domestic and international effort to help the refugees. I should add that Prime Minister Miklós Németh paid several visits to the Zugliget temporary shelter. Opposition leaders were giving the government advice on possible ways to solve the problem, as László Kovács, deputy to Gyula Horn, wrote in an article yesterday titled “On the background of the opening of the borders.” But this is not how the Orbán government wants Hungarians to remember the summer of 1989. As we know, Helmut Kohl’s government felt enormous gratitude for what the Germans considered to be a courageous and humane gesture involving considerable danger considering the still fluid political situation in the Soviet Union. As Boris Kálnoky relates in his article “Merkels überraschend neuer Ton bei ihrem Orbán-Besuch,” Zoltán Balog, former politician and apparently future bishop, said at a two-day conference on the Pan-European Picnic’s thirtieth anniversary that “this praise of the Germans for the former communist dictatorship disturbed us, dissidents even then, and it bothers us to this day.” He claimed that “without our pressure, the communists would never have changed.”

Polarization in Poland: A Warning From Europe - The Atlantic

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

The Communist Cookbook Responsible for Prague’s Slow Culinary Comeback - Gastro Obscura

Cooks that wanted to deviate from these recipes had to get approval from the Ministry of Health, a request that could take years to go through. Most people opted for the easier route, which is how thousands of nearly identical menus came to be established across the country. Paired with limited ingredient diversity, the nation suffered a creative drought: It wasn’t just that all the same dishes were served, but the dishes were prepared exactly the same way, resulting in identical versions of dishes, too. Each bite was calculated as a means of productivity, and dining for pleasure was considered extravagant. “Special” meals were no longer considered, and the scope of Czech cuisine shrunk. Yet as NYU Prague sociologist Vanda Thorne points out, people were eating outside the home more than ever before. Children ate at school cafeterias, and parents dined at work cantinas. Since prices were controlled and salaries were largely uniform, everyone could afford restaurants. “Meals at home were often prepared from prefabricated components as there was a noticeable lack of fresh produce,” Thorne says. Though homemade meals weren’t as strictly regulated by the state, there was still little opportunity for originality there.

The Communist Cookbook Responsible for Prague’s Slow Culinary Comeback - Gastro Obscura

When communists came to power in 1948, citizens were hopeful they could return to a life containing more prewar luxuries. Though the quality of food improved, life under socialist ideas still proved restrictive. Twenty years later, when liberalization started to gain traction, the party saw a need for even stricter control. In an effort to consolidate power, they purged reformist officials from the government and established a range of restrictions on everyday activities. Eating was no exception. The state Restaurants and Cafeterias company soon issued a national cookbook entitled Receptury teplých pokrmu, or Recipes for Warm Meals. Dubbed “normovacka,” or “the book of standards,” it dictated what cooks in the country could serve in 845 recipes. Ladislav Pravaan, curator of the Gastronomie Muzeum of Prague, explains that the book even specified sources and serving styles for everything from sauces to side dishes.

Self-affirmation as the key to argumentation

Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

Grow up controlled, become paranoid?

“Small children are justified in being conspiracy theorists, since their world is run by an inscrutable and all-powerful organization possessing secret communications and mysterious powers—a world of adults, who act by a system of rules that children gradually master as they grow up,” write the cognitive scientists Thomas Griffiths and Joshua Tenenbaum in a 2006 study on coincidences.

Grow up in a fog and you'll believe mysterious, malign winds move the world

Földi’s favorite theme is that Europe is at war. A war that was started by the United States and her allies and that by now has reached Europe in the form of the influx of migrants. They are foot soldiers sent by ISIS to destroy Europe. He is convinced that there is a whole intelligence network behind the refugees whose members organize the movement of the people. “This is a consciously planned, built-up system in which everybody to the last man is channeled in.” All of them receive instructions from the organizers. Földi believes that the intelligence agencies of European countries are fully aware of all this and that, if the fence is not enough, “if necessary even weapons must be used.”

Canada's beer monopoly

“Truth be told, it is a highly cost efficient model for consumers,” said a Beer Store spokesman. “I know what’s best for consumers. And having seen a wide range of retailing across the world, I can tell you that this is a system that is low¬ cost and passes that cost along to consumers.” Which might be fine except for two things. First, it’s not actually low cost. Second, The Beer Store is actually owned by three of the world’s largest breweries – Anheuser¬Busch InBev, Molson Coors and Sapporo – which include Canada’s two largest firms, Labatt’s and Molson. And that spokesman for The Beer Store? That’s the CEO of Molson Coors Canada. What seemed like a good idea at the time has become problematic now that the industry subject to regulated distribution has effectively captured the distribution.

Ivan Klima's library

As he explains all this, Klima goes to the bookshelves that line his living room and starts pulling down thin volumes, typed double-sided on air-mail paper. "This is one of Havel's plays, this is a volume of Jaroslav Seifert's poetry." A neatly bound history of dissent. "In the end we managed about 300 titles in 18 years," he says. At first the police tried to confiscate individual samizdat copies during house searches but the words spread too quickly; they could not cope. It was a secret policeman's worst nightmare. "It was also," says Klima, "really what kept us going."

Ivan Klima recalls the early 70s

Klima began to fight back against these privations straightaway. "I organised a reading the week after we got back," he says. "I invited about 45 guests, which I'd worked out was the most I could get into our living room. And I prepared meatballs, 'Klima-balls' as they came to be known. There was some wine, and somebody read something that was newly written. That was how it went on, every week. I remember Havel read two of his new plays; Kundera, who was still in Prague at that point, came and read some things." After about a year, Klima's friend Ludvik Vaculik (the author of A Cup of Cof fee with my Interrogator ) brought along a man from Ostrava to one of the gatherings, a writer who had spent a year in prison. The man, who later committed suicide, had signed an agreement in prison to work with the secret police and he passed on the names of everyone who was there, and pictures were taken of people coming in and out. "So from that point," Klima says, "we were known." The writers were followed, and their houses searched. Meetings became more difficult but, Klima says: "We were determined to be in close contact." Someone suggested circulating typewritten pieces of writing, and books, as a way of continuing to spread ideas - samizdat ("self-published"). Novels or poems or plays were typed up - originally by Vaculik's girlfriend - copied, and circulated among the friends, to begin with in editions of 14 copies, later 50 or 60 and eventually, in an underground network of printing and binding and copying, several thousand.

Havel needs a beer

By the 1980s, before Gorbachev and glasnost, Havel sensed his growing authority. When the American Embassy in Prague gave parties, visiting writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee, and Philip Roth sought him out. When Havel ran out of beer at a gathering in his Prague apartment, the cop assigned to surveil him volunteered to go to a nearby pub to refill his jug. This was when he knew that power was flowing his way.

Czechoslovakia in the 70s

In January 1969, Jan Palach, a philosophy undergraduate, burned himself to death in Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion. Unlike most of his fellow dissidents, Havel did not react to Palach’s death with tears, desperation, or hopeless rage. Instead, like the politician he was to become, he gave a television interview in which he declared, with strange—and up to this point uncharacteristic—bravado, “There is just one road open to us: to wage our political battle until the end … I understand the death of Jan Palach as a warning against the moral suicide of all of us.” Moral suicide—taking a job with the regime, informing on your erstwhile dissident friends—became a standard if depressing mode of collaboration in the 1970s. The parallel polis collapsed, leaving the few remaining dissidents to face the full pressure of the regime alone. Of that long decade, Zantovsky writes, “few … can imagine the twilight mood, the torpor, which resembled a state of semi-anaesthesia.”