北京的记忆

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When The Day Comes

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19 October, 2007

Friday, 9:00 am

Thick cloud had pressed down on Budapest all night, and now it was lingering into what passed for the morning. The municipal weather authority just issued a local hazel alert, one that occurred many times in recent years. Most Hungarians had gotten used to it, including Ferenc Horváth, Junior inspector of the Department of Political Investigation. “What a day!” He climbed out of his car and tilted his face to the rain. As an inspector who worked for the Ministry of Interior for 14 years, his nose could recognize over sixty kinds of odors. “Something probably caught fire.” Hungary was arguably one of the important manufacturers and industrial producers in the Soviet Bloc. More and more agricultural lands were held in state-owned enterprises, and inevitably, safety accidents had been happening continuously in the country in recent years.

“Comrade, how are you?” Ferenc’s colleague Peter Bela asked playfully.

“Busy as usual.”

“So am I. As you know, the President of the United States, Al Gore, is going to meet the No.1 next week. All my men are busy examining potential safety leaks, and we had called for reinforcement from other counties.”

“Good for you,” Ferenc said.

Ferenc had been working for Division VI, one of the largest divisions in the department, which was responsible for monitoring the Internet (local area network, more precisely) in Hungary. They had over 300 servers in the basement to filter sensational information the officials disliked. Besides, they had applied the “Red Shield” system which could monitor every mobile terminal. If anyone sent so-called “harmful information,” the division would target the terminal and get all the personal information because all Hungarians had to apply for the network with their ID. Recently, they had to pay more attention to the internet because 23 October was the anniversary of the 1956 uprising. October was always the tensest time of the year for the leaders in Hungary, because the critical discussion around the ’56 revolution was a political taboo. However, young people who did not forget the event could always find a way to express their respects and memories, for example, they used 1978 to imply 1956 (7 times 8 equals 56) or typed Ygan as backward Nagy. As time went on, more and more weird censored words and terms were created, even Morse code was considered for communicating sometimes. A “New Speak,” like the one invented by George Orwell in his famous novel, came about in reality in the twenty-first century.

Ferenc was told that a chemical plant in Baranya County had exploded during the night, and that at least twenty-nine people had been killed in the building destroyed by the blast. The number of those who were injured was not sure but supposed to be over one hundred. The Danube River had been polluted with excessive levels of methanol and chloroform. The air nearby was also polluted by toxic materials. “Damn!” Ferenc snarled. Although this was a serious accident, the officials decided to hush it up because the President of the United States was on his way to Hungary to meet with the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. The officials did not want to reveal the accident before the Americans left Budapest. It would be a vital meeting for the Soviet Union because it was becoming increasingly difficult to remain a totalitarian empire. The Soviets desperately needed money from the West.

On 12 November 1982, the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, died and left a stagnant empire to his successor, Yuri Andropov. Serving as head of the KGB, Andropov became the new leader of the USSR. He knew that the Soviet Union had to change if communists wanted to hold on to power as long as possible. According to the information the KGB received from China, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party had abandoned the mindless ideological struggles and applied the “economy first” policy in 1978, only two years after Mao’s death. The endless chaos stopped in China and everything seemed to have a promising future by introducing capitalist markets. “Unbelievable, flexible,” Andropov thought, “perhaps we should have a try as well.” He also knew that his health problems did not allow him to put his ideas into practice. So, he called up his trusted allies and began drawing up secret plans to replace the old guards in Politburo. It was the morning of 8 November 1983, Soviets who had enjoyed the October Revolution vocation were still in beds. Andropov suddenly announced his resignation, leaving his allies in control of the Politburo and ministries, and of course also the radio and television stations. Getting informed from the evening news, people in the Soviet Union peacefully accepted the new government with straight faces, as they always did for decades.

In the beginning, when these young technocrats took the power, they launched a series of programs to improve living standards in the Soviet Bloc. They introduced foreign investments, partly opened the market to western Europe and the US, and privatized some state-owned industries. More significantly, they withdrew troops from Afghanistan, a country where the Soviet army had been involved for years but had gained nothing. From the spring of 1984, people in the Soviet Bloc both saw and also felt the obvious changes in their daily lives. Long queues at stores disappeared. All the shelves were now filled with products from the Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany, Britain, and the US. This was the first time that Ferenc’s mother bought him a box of Belgian chocolates which made him happy throughout the whole week. She was also liberated from ceaseless housework when she was able to buy a washing machine. Four years later, in 1988, the Horváth family moved from the old, shabby collective dormitory to a brand new apartment, and Ferenc eventually had his private room when he began to court his first girlfriend.

People not only enjoyed a better life under the new regime, but also could access books and magazines that had been inaccessible since the “Khrushchev Thaw” was interrupted by Brezhnev. Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Sakharov, and other dissenters’ works were on sale publicly in bookstores. Soviet litterateurs and those who could read in foreign languages began to translate books written by foreign writers. Soviet scholars began to discuss differences between anarchism and liberalism and some of them concluded that there might be something to learn from these theories. Ferenc’s dad, who was the son of the former owner of a small factory, could once again publish articles in journals. With the alleviation of censorship, investigative news projects set up in Hungarian Television and Kossuth Radio, ferreting out various social problems and criticizing inequities all around the country. Journalists, who used to be mocked as the mouthpiece of the Party, gained respect for the first time.


19 October, 2007

Friday, 10:30 am

Cocooned in her thin quilt, 25-year-old journalist Katalin Tóth reached out for her cell phone. She scrolled on the screen but failed to connect to the Internet. In recent weeks, the “Red Shield” intensified its tireless siege against all foreign VPN applications. As a state-sanctioned media journalist working for the Party (who didn’t?), viewing news from abroad was in theory part of her job, but who the hell really knew what exactly the rules were? Thanks to the upcoming official visit, Katalin and her colleagues had no time for a short break. She had stayed up until midnight last night to finish the first draft of the headline. Although she worked extremely hard and had done very good reports, awards always evaded her just because she was not a party member. Another young journalist who joined the media last year had won the Awards of Annual Report which titled “An Industrial Complex Has Completed in Baranya County – A Shining Example of Glorious Great Achievements Under the Leadership of the Party.”

Twenty minutes later, she woke up and opened her computer. She eventually connected to the Internet after many attempts. At once, the headline “Austria detects high levels of chemical pollutants” caught her eyes. According to the Austrian Environmental Protection Bureau, airborne chemical pollutants from southeast border were approaching Vienna. “Southeast border?” Katalin subconsciously turned around and looked out windows. Southeast wind rarely occurred in Hungary. It only happened from mid-October to late-November. “Something happened in Hungary, I suppose.” She said to herself.

A few moments later, she found a video of the explosion recorded by a resident who lived in the nearby county. On account of her journalistic instincts, she immediately downloaded the video to her hard drive and then backed it up on her USB and Google Drive. In the video, a frightened man was saying that the chemical plant exploded and that some people were still working in the workshop during that time. Katalin saw that the remaining wreckage and fuel were burning, surface, painting the night sky in dark red. The accident reminded her about Géza in the first place, who was fond of her in Eötvös Loránd University. Unfortunately, Géza returned to Baranya where he was born after graduation because he had to raise his parents and a young sister. Last year, he luckily received a position in the newly founded industrial complex with a fairly decent salary. Katalin was planning to ask for a short leave to see him when the busy week was over, but she could not contact Géza, not now at least. She sent a message to her boss, chief editor Lajos Simon, and pitched her idea for a headline story. Unsurprisingly, her proposal was rejected almost immediately by Lajos who had been told that reporting on this story had been forbidden.

“Forget it, Katalin, the top brass do not want to see something like this in the news, especially these days. Please find some good news, if there is any.” Lajos said.

“But it’s serious. Not only will it damage us, but neighouring countries will investigate the accident. Austria and Serbia have detected pollutants, and I’m pretty sure that Romania will not keep in silence. We can’t cover it up anyways.”

“Don’t worry about it. The National News Agency will dispel the rumours that they were spreading disinformation. And off the record, I don’t want my wife and kids get in trouble.”

“Yeah, sure. Do think of your children and toxic pollutants.”

“They will go to Australia for a Master’s degree as soon as they graduate.”

Katalin did not say anything. She hung up the phone with her editor, but she did not give up.


19 October, 2007

Friday, 12:00 pm

After lunch, Ferenc left his office to pick up his son, András, from school. He and Anna had divorced. According to the agreement, András would live with mother, and Ferenc was allowed to have the kid on weekends. Anna could not bear him as a workaholic. They had less and less sex after they married. Soon after they divorced, Anna married a wealthy businessman.

“Papa, are we going to the zoo?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And the amusement park?”

“Yes.”

“And a big dinner?”

“Absolutely.”

“Brilliant! Love you, dad!”

András was only in eighth grade but he had looked like a little adult when he was in a Hungarian Youth League uniform. Every middle school student had to join the Hungarian Youth League since 1957 when János Kádár took over power from Imre Nagy whose name had become a political taboo in this country. He could remember the day when he joined the league in 1981. He was one of the first members of his class whose teacher presented him with a large certificate and a badge. Like many students of his generations, he attended Technical University of Budapest and registered the civil service examination when he was in fourth year. As he hoped, he passed the examination and the interview while many of his peers were rejected even he came from a bourgeoisie family.

Eventually, Ferenc joined the National Police Service as he wished to protect people since young ages. By embracing the opening-up policy, Hungary and other “Iron Curtain” countries did not miss the wave of digital revolution and accomplished several significant achievements, after all, Hungarians had won over a dozen Nobel Prizes. Their scientific competency was not inferior to the Soviet Union. Before the millennium, almost every Soviet Bloc’s country had an Internet connection. Thanks to his technological background in university, Ferenc received bombarded recognitions from his supervisors, and was promoted as Junior inspector. In 1998, he married his beloved Anna and had a baby. Everything was going to be better and better in Hungary.

However, the seemingly happiness covered serious problems that disturbance simmered below the surface. In the name of privatization, the officials sold state-owned industries to capitalists at giveaway prices and lined their pockets. In the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin, who had been the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1997, owned at least three luxury villas in Moscow and the Black Sea, and other countless private properties. As a consequence, the influx of foreign investment and products severely damaged domestic industries, which led to a rapid increase in inflation rates. The price of economic growth, moreover, was environmental degradation. Haze was no longer news and the Danube River was no longer clear. Hungary’s neighbours had infected environmental pollutants for years and protested many times.

What’s worse, Yugoslavia showed a negative example of the reform. From 1970s, Tito initiated some programs proposed by nationalist non-party groups. Many of the demands made in the Croatian Spring movement in 1971, such as giving more autonomy to the individual republics, became reality with the new federal constitution 1974. The opening-up policy from the Soviet Union overlapped the death of Tito, weakening the situation in Yugoslavia. Ceaseless internal conflicts eventually gathered together in March 1989 that Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia held independent referendums. A vast majority of residents in each country voted for independence. A month later, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia no longer existed. The breakup of Yugoslavia deeply shocked the Soviet Union and its allies even though Yugoslavia was not a member of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. There were rumours that it was the Soviet Union’s conspiracy that made Yugoslavia broke down because they refused to be polar bear’s vassal. Encouraged by the Balkans’ minority, nationalist movements and anti-regime activities in the Soviet Union were growing rapidly. For the leadership in Moscow, it was time to think of the reform carefully.

From the beginning of the stwenty-first century, Hungarians perceived obvious changes in their daily life, not promising but depressive. Inevitably, they began to complain about the declination of living standards and pointed out that the officials did not do any efforts to change but only accumulated wealth through various means for themselves and those who were in power in Moscow. In order to cope with growing complaints, Hungarian authorities had to reinforce the ubiquitous censorship with more strict regulations. Since László Kiss, the First Secretary of Hungarian Youth League, became the second president of Hungarian People’s Republic in 2002, censorship has been significantly stepped up. Compared with the old Soviet system, the new system was able to monitor the society much more effectively by applying technological methods. Although the Berlin Wall had not existed since 1985, an invisible wall had risen up in its place. The officials expected people to forget the past as long as the state kept providing bread, but humans are not animals. They could pretend to forget so long as their basic needs were being met. However, the financial crisis of 2007 shattered this illusion and reawakened the suppressed memories of the people.

When András and his dad walked on the street, Ferenc looked pensively. The explosion haunted him for the rest of the day. The toxic materials that the explosion leaked would damage his health and the health of his family, and the nation. Yes, local authorities had taken actions, but it would impact the rest of the country sooner or later. Unlike the Soviet Union, Hungary was a smaller country and Hungarians had not forgotten how the Chernobyl disaster damaged the Soviet Union’s economy and environment. He looked around. Workers were busy decorating the buildings and streets. The powerful propaganda machine controlled by the party kept up its boasting without interruption. Governmental officials prepared for off duty meetings with their wives or mistresses. “How can I get my kid out of this black hole?” He asked himself.

“Inspector Horváth, come back to the office immediately.” An urgent message interrupted his anxious musings.


19 October, 2007

Friday, 2:00 pm

“What the hell is this?” The head of the department, Márton Farkas, shouted to Ferenc. Ferenc saw a screenshot of an online chatting group which showed that someone told their friends about the accident. Her name was Katalin Tóth. Two hours earlier, she had decided to tell her friends for not going to Baranya County recently because it was dangerous. She even did not mention the explosion and the industrial complex’s name. Unfortunately, her text was intercepted by the censorship network. Her boss called her to his office and reprimanded her for a lack of “political consciousness.” However, it was too late to retract the information. Her text had already gone viral, with her name and occupation undeleted. In the Information Age, it was unlikely to contain a big story like this, especially neighbouring a country where free press thrived like Austria. Almost every Hungarian had known the explosion by now.

At 1:30 pm, Katalin was summoned to the police station where she was accused of spreading rumours and subverting the social order. She then had to give written answers to two questions: “In the future, will you refrain from illegal activities? “I will,” she wrote. “Do you understand that if you persist, you will be punished under the law? “I understand,” she wrote again, and signed her full name at the bottom of the paper. When Katalin walked out of the police station, she felt relaxed even though she had only recently been arrested. She insisted on her principles as a journalist, one who even worked for the party (but then again, who didn’t work for the party?). She had been committed to doing right since she had graduated from the department of journalism at the university. Besides, Hungary was no longer the giant prison it had been under the dictatorship of Rákosi. At least she had not been tortured or beaten, and her license to practice had not been revoked. She had not even been fined. So much for that. Yet why should she have been? She had been right to raise the alarm while the officials were still busy covering up.

Friday afternoon was always busy. People could not wait to get home. When Katalin was on the way back to her office, she scrolled down the screen and saw the news that the police station had announced she had been apprehended for spreading rumours. “Damn! Don’t expect this month’s salary.” She did not notice that a car was approaching her. Suddenly, she was hit by the car and knocked to the ground, bleeding for minutes. The ambulance arrived a little bit late because of the terrible traffic. She was sent to hospital immediately.


19 October, 2007

Friday, 6:00 pm

Chief editor Lajos Simon was stunned when he received the grievous news from hospital. Katalin had died. The traffic delayed the treatment. Doctors did their best to save her life but this had changed nothing. Lajos felt sad because she was not merely a competent, righteous journalist, but also was a daughter who lived with a single mother. Katalin was her whole world. He could not imagine how would she live without Katalin. Even his editorial was reprimanded by Cultural and Publicity Department of the Party for loss of political principle earlier, he decided to go to hospital to express his condolences.

The traffic looked more terrible than in the afternoon that taxi moved merely thirty feet within an hour. From the radio in the taxi, Lajos and driver knew that mass protests had been reported in many districts in Budapest, and the police were trying to stop them. Lajos decided to go on foot. Walking in the darkness of the evening, he saw that small groups of protestors gathered together at Andrássy Boulevard, the main avenue in Budapest, to express their angers and dissatisfactions. Some protestors were holding Katalin’s picture, shouting “murderer, murderer.” Protestors who looked like they we in their fifties were calling for a repeat of 1956 and the rise of someone like Imre Nagy. The memories of two generations united and created a formidable strength that could break the totalitarian chains.

Katalin’s death lit a fire of anger which had been suppressed in people’s minds for many years. The more energy officials expended in the suppression of the memory of the past, the more significant the past became, largely because the pressure imposed by the state gave rise to new victims. 1956 stood not merely as a symbol of the victims who were killed by the Soviets AND their Hungarian puppets, but also a rallying cry for those who wanted to know more and speak out. In Hungarian People’s Republic, people were not supposed to know something in particular, nor the reason of not knowing these, even worse, they had to pretend that these things never had happened. Ironically, Hungarians did not know exactly what were prohibited because the officials did not issue a “forbidden words” list. Political taboos like this were an insult to human dignity and wisdom. The 1956 uprising became a knot in the minds of Hungarians. When Hungarians talked about 1956, it suggested not only a historical event, but also all lies in the regime. The huge gap between the regime and the people was growing rapidly.

When Lajos arrived at the hospital, he found the corridors full of flowers and cards. Katalin had become an instant heroine of Hungary, even though she was just doing her job. Who was not? Ferenc, Lajos, Béla, the taxi driver, everyone was doing their job, and the day came. Encouraged by Hungarians, people in Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, even East Asia began to clamour for their rights and call for change. Unsurprisingly, the agreement between the Soviet Union and the US was not as good as Putin expected. The Congress, which controlled by Republicans, approved only a few bills. The unemployment rose to 14.7% that knocked Gore’s popularity down to the rock-bottom. In the election of 2008, Al Gore lost and the Republicans took over the government. The right-wing was growing and the world was changing. What were people expecting? No one knew.

16 May 2020


16 May, 2020

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