Two Funerals and Our Freedom

My great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, has been on my mind recently. I suppose it was the 50th anniversary of the so-called Kitchen Debate that he held with then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon that first triggered my memories. But the funeral last week in Budapest of General Bela Kiraly, who commanded the Hungarian Revolution’s freedom fighters in 1956, and this week’s funeral in Warsaw of philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose break with Stalinism that year inspired many intellectuals (in Poland and elsewhere) to abandon communism, made me reconsider my great-grandfather’s legacy.

The year 1956 was the best and worst of times for Khrushchev. His “secret speech” that year revealed the monumentality of Josef Stalin’s crimes. Soon, the gulag was virtually emptied. A political thaw began, spurring whispers of freedom that could not be contained. In Poland and Hungary, in particular, an underground tide burst forth demanding change.

Hungary, of course, had its short and glorious revolution. That first war among socialist states shattered the myth of inviolable “fraternal” bonds between the Soviet Union and the captive nations of Eastern Europe. But Khrushchev never envisioned the breakup of the Soviet empire as part of his thaw. So the Red Army invaded Hungary, and it did so on a scale larger than the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944.

Kiraly was released from a sentence of life in prison — one of the four death sentences he received from the Communists was commuted. He was offered the job of commander of the Hungarian National Guard and the defense of Budapest. Kiraly’s task was to knock the ragtag freedom fighters into an army, but there wasn’t time to stop the Soviet advance. So, after a week of heroism, he and a few thousand of his men crossed the Austrian border into exile.

Over the years, a mutual friend often tried to introduce me to Kiraly, but to my regret that meeting never happened. Any man who would frame the four death sentences he had received — one signed by Khrushchev and another by Yury Andropov, the Soviet ambassador in Budapest in 1956 — and hang them in his drawing room has the sort of quirky humor I relish.

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And from what I know of the man and his history, particularly his work in Hungary after 1989, I can only wish that my great-grandfather could have met him. Certainly, Kiraly would not have hesitated to meet the man who ordered the invasion. After all, when he learned that one of the Russian generals who had led the invasion was still alive in 2006, Kiraly invited him to Budapest to join the 50th anniversary celebrations. When General Yevgeny Malashenko declined in fear that he might be arrested, the 94-year-old Kiraly flew to Moscow, where he spent a long weekend reminiscing and going to a banya for retired Red Army generals.

Kolakowski, on the other hand, was someone I knew. We frequently met at conferences, where it was always a delight to hear him speak Russian — a Russian that had the accent and elegance of Tolstoy and Pushkin, not the degraded Russian bark of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Like Kiraly, Kolakowski in 1956 turned against the Communist Party he had once joined in the hope that it would build a better world.

Kolakowski, modern Poland’s most acclaimed philosopher, quickly learned that mendacity was the true building block of communism, and he withdrew from it in horror. By 1968, the Polish regime could no longer tolerate his presence. He was expelled from his post at Warsaw University, and when he went to teach abroad the government forced him into exile by never allowing him to return.

Khrushchev was a Russian peasant turned proletarian who became secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party. Kiraly was a Magyar soldier of Old World Europe, steeped in aristocratic traditions. Kolakowski was a gentleman scholar from Warsaw more attuned to Jansenist heresies than the perverse logic of Leninist dialectics. The question for me is how these three men with such widely different backgrounds and trajectories could ultimately contribute to the same goal — the resurrection of liberty in Europe.

Khrushchev did not really know anything other than communism. Although he tried to humanize it and undo the cruelty of Stalinist orthodoxy, Khrushchev never doubted that the Leninist system was the way of the future. Kiraly, who subscribed to the old codes of military honor — he was named a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, for the hundreds of Jews he saved by keeping them with his army during World War II — saw that very system as the enemy of his country and its liberty.

But today, Khrushchev is remembered mostly for his contribution to the demise of Stalinism. He is also remembered, via Mikhail Gorbachev, for ultimately helping to bring about communism’s demise. Kiraly and Kolakowski became voices of moderation and reconciliation in the Hungary and Poland that emerged out of communism’s darkness at noon. Kiraly will be remembered not merely as a warrior, but as a humanist — the conciliator who called for no reprisals after 1989 and a liberal model for many Hungarians. Kolakowski, in upholding the sanctity of truth in the empire of the lie, connected the new democratic Poland to the old Poland of intellect and culture.

In their own way, Kiraly, Kolakowski and Khrushchev are each a symbol of today’s new and uniting Europe — a Europe of rapprochement and forgiveness among erstwhile opponents.

Nina Khrushcheva, author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics,” teaches international affairs at The New School in New York and is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. © Project Syndicate