Mátyás Rákosi: Committed Stalinist

Martyn Rady

In Mátyás Rákosi, First Secretary of the Hungarian Working People’s Party, Josef Stalin had a devoted acolyte.
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The young Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971) loved London. The son of a Jewish shopkeeper in southern Hungary, he had made his way there via Hamburg in 1913. Already a socialist, Rákosi had immediately joined the Communist Club in London’s Fitzrovia, whose Hungarian members had found him accommodation and a job as a shipping clerk. Rákosi spent his free time in pastry shops, joining in Suffragette demonstrations (he was hit on the head in one clash with police), visiting art galleries, and reading in the great library of the British Museum. He soon moved to the London suburb of Islington to be near an Irish girlfriend whom he wooed with apricots sent by post from his home near Subotica, in what is now Serbia. With war imminent, Rákosi hastened back to Hungary to enlist in the army. He would not see London again until June 1946, when he visited as Hungary’s deputy prime minister and head of the Hungarian Communist party. This time he ate at Claridge’s.

Rákosi’s service in the First World War was short. Deployed against Russia, he was captured in 1915 and made a prisoner. Three years later, he was a dedicated Communist, inspired by what he had seen of the revolution in Russia. When he returned to Hungary, it was as a so-called ‘people’s commissar’ of the Communist government that took power in the country in March 1919. Communist rule in Hungary was chaotic and brutal—it did not help that the Communist leader, Béla Kun, had a nervous breakdown and stayed in bed for most of its duration. Rákosi took charge first of trade policy and then of the Communist security apparatus. He soon learned how to kill, being implicated in more than forty political murders.

Hungary’s first Communist experiment lasted fewer than five months. By August 1919, Rákosi was on the run, first to Vienna and then to Moscow. For five years, he lived in the Soviet Union, where he worked for the international Communist organization known as the Comintern. In 1924, he returned under an alias to Hungary to take charge of its fledgling Communist party. But most of the party’s members were on the police payroll and he was soon betrayed and condemned to life imprisonment. Prison was not so bad. Rákosi was allowed to read and even to hold party meetings with fellow Communist prisoners, and he reckoned the food better than what he had been used to in Moscow.

On 30 October 1940, the guards instructed him to put on a suit. Rákosi expected to be executed, but instead he was escorted to a black limousine with diplomatic number plates. The car raced from the prison in Szeged to the Soviet border. Unknown to Rákosi, the Hungarian government had done a deal with Moscow whereby he would be released in exchange for the battle standards that the Russian army had captured at the end of the Hungarian War of Independence in 1849. Shortly after crossing into the Soviet Union, Rákosi saw crowds of (doubtless coerced) farm labourers and factory hands bearing banners of welcome. A week later, he stood next to Joseph Stalin in Moscow’s Red Square as the Soviet leader reviewed the great military procession commemorating the 1917 Russian Revolution. But when he began to look for his old friends in Moscow, he met with shrugs and evasions. Nearly all had been killed in Stalin’s purge of imagined rivals and traitors and their names obliterated.

Rákosi married in 1942 a lawyer and fellow Communist from Yakutia in eastern Siberia, Feodora Kornyilova. For the rest of their married life, she reported back to the secret police or NKVD (later KGB) on her husband. Since Kornyilova was a judge in Soviet Supreme Court, Rákosi doubtless repaid the favour. (Kornyilova died in 1980 in a small flat in Moscow, living off a widow’s pension). During the war, Rákosi headed up the Hungarian Communist Party in exile and ran the ‘Kossuth’ radio station that broadcast Soviet and Communist propaganda to Hungary. As soon as it was safe, Rákosi returned to Hungary under Soviet protection. There he learned that his father, brother, and sister had all been murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

Rákosi was Stalin’s choice to drive through the changes to make Hungary a Communist state, but where he could, Rákosi forced the pace. The first stage, which Rákosi had completed by early 1946, was for Communists to take control of the ministry of the interior and use the police and security service to threaten rival politicians. Then, Rákosi destroyed step by step the other parties, either forcing their dissolution or founding bogus parties that stole their programmes. Rákosi called this ‘salami tactics,’ slicing away at the opposition bit by bit. In 1947, he destroyed the Smallholders Party, Hungary’s largest party, intimidating its leadership with false accusations and using Soviet troops to kidnap its chief secretary. The next year, the Social Democrats folded, meekly voting to fuse with Communists.

In the elections of 1945 and 1947, the Communists had done badly, scraping just a fifth of the vote. But with the rival parties out of the way, Rákosi called a new election in May 1949, in which only Communist-approved candidates were allowed to stand. A reign of terror now descended on Hungary, administered by a 100,000-strong secret police force, with as many as 200,000 Hungarians held in labour camps and two thousand killed. At Stalin’s prompting, Rákosi ‘uncovered’ a plot within the party to hand Hungary over to the west. In the autumn of 1949, he purged the party, more or less at random, and sent a wave of previously loyal Communists either to prison yards or to the gallows.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Throughout Communist Central Europe, the new regimes copycatted the Soviet economic model, inaugurating ambitious five-year plans and building huge industrial plants, often using out-of-date designs and machinery. Their immediate goal was ‘socialism,’ by which they meant the threshold to the workers’ paradise of communism. But in the 1950s, the majority of Hungary’s population still lived on the land. Rákosi needed to create the working class in whose name he always claimed to be ruling. So, labourers from the countryside became a new industrial proletariat, initially housed singly in barracks and visiting their families only briefly at weekends. In the countryside, governments pushed through the collectivization of agriculture, forcing peasants to amalgamate their plots and pool their animals and equipment.

All this was supposed to lead to an upsurge in economic performance and incomes. But instead of doubling (as Rákosi had boasted in 1948), incomes fell, by more than a fifth in just three years. The command economy, with civil servants laying down targets, was no substitute for the market, despite its imperfections. Shortages, even of basic agricultural foodstuffs, were routine, and manufactured goods distinguished by their shoddiness. Bureaucrats in ministries applied only the most rudimentary accountancy measurements to enterprises. All they had to rely on were the optimistic figures given them by factory bosses, so the overall performance of the economy was a mystery to them.

Communist bureaucracies were the reverse of what bureaucracies were supposed to be. They were not knowledgeable and the decisions that they made were not rational ones but guided by ideology. Promotion was not on merit but by favour. At every level, from the party’s central organs down to the local party administration, Communist bosses kept lists of party loyalists who were eligible for office in ministries and local government, and to oversee hospitals, the police, state enterprises, and factory production.  As the party’s elite, the names had privileged access to shops where western goods were on sale in the otherwise worthless local currency. They drove chrome-heavy Buick lookalikes, called Volgas, and their wives wore furs.

The economies of Communist Central Europe survived the first few years, since governments raised cash by confiscating the assets of formerly private businesses and then plundering the state-owned savings banks and insurance companies. Thereafter, governments became increasingly dependent on loans, first from the Soviet Union, and then from western governments and bankers. By the mid-1950s, Rákosi’s Hungary had debts of close on half a billion US dollars. Much of what was borrowed went on servicing existing debts or was ploughed into capital-hungry but under-performing state enterprises. Of course, these liabilities seldom featured on the five-year plans, which instead reported bumper harvests and steady industrial growth.

Communist self-congratulation was nowhere more evident than in the leadership cult, borrowed from Stalin’s Soviet Union. The head of the party was feted as a visionary and inspiration, whose selfless dedication to the working class had brought it prosperity and peace. Poems spoke to Rákosi’s greatness and his name graced factories, schools, streets, and the new collective farms. On Mayday and other Communist feast days, processions in cities bore his portrait aloft. Shops kept ‘Communist corners’ in which Rákosi’s photograph was displayed next to Stalin’s, sometimes with a selection of his printed speeches. Perhaps mischievously, Hungarian shop assistants crowned piles of women’s underwear with Rákosi’s photograph, while one butcher in Budapest carved his bust in lard. The theatre too rehearsed the leader’s praises. In the nauseating ‘The Promise’ (Az ígéret, 1952) which has as its theme a family moving into a new housing block, the young daughter hangs Rákosi’s portrait on the wall and asks her mother, ‘Comrade Rákosi lives with us too, doesn’t he?’

There were people who believed all this, who dangled their babies at Rákosi, wrote him admiring letters, and were sufficiently shocked by any criticism of the regime to report the delinquency. Generally, they were not members of the working class, in whose name the Communist party claimed to act. Communist party members belonged overwhelmingly to the professional and managerial classes. Between eighty-five and ninety-five per cent of the ‘names’ in Hungary had university degrees or the vocational equivalent.

The 1956 Revolution was a failure, crushed by Stalin.

Communist complacencies were often broken. Wage cuts and shortages prompted strikes and occasionally riots. The response of the party was usually to arrest the ringleaders and drop a few concessions to the rank-and-file. The larger danger was when a rift among the elite prompted more widespread unrest, leading to a crisis that threatened the whole edifice of Communist power. This happened most spectacularly in 1956, with a split in the Hungarian Communist party between reformers and doctrinaire Communists, mirroring the political crisis in the Soviet Union that followed Stalin’s death in 1953. Reformers looked to the veteran Communist Imre Nagy and conservatives to Rákosi. Rákosi played a typically dirty game, discrediting his rival with smears, and having him ejected from the party.

But in February 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ in Moscow to a congress of the Soviet Communist party, outlining Stalin’s crimes and betrayals. The speech was not so secret since it circulated in summaries among local party organizations throughout the Soviet Union and Central Europe. Never less than loyal to Stalin and to his memory, Rákosi was (correctly) presumed guilty by implication of the same excesses as his master. Under pressure from Moscow, the Hungarian party bosses forced Rákosi from office in June 1956—he duly made his way to the Soviet Union, where he ended up managing a wallpaper factory in Kirghizstan in Soviet Central Asia.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out on 23 October and Rákosi’s rival, Imre Nagy, took power as the new head of government. Communist rule collapsed literally overnight and was restored in November only on the backs of Soviet tanks, with some three thousand civilians killed. Hungary’s new Communist boss, János Kádár, had been one of the victims of Rákosi’s purge of the party, suffering imprisonment and torture. Once he had established himself in power and seen to Nagy’s execution for treason, Kádár slowly unwound the Stalinist system of oppression and distanced himself from Rákosi. In a famous speech, delivered at the end of 1961, Kádár pronounced that ‘Whereas Rákosi and his clique used to say, “Whoever is not with us is against us”, we say “Whoever is not against us is with us”.’

No longer feted as a mastermind and sage, Rákosi now became the embodiment of every -ism in the Communist catalogue of errors—‘dogmatism’, ‘sectarianism’, ‘despotism’, and so on. Even so, in his lonely exile in the Soviet Union, Rákosi remained convinced that he would shortly be recalled to power in Hungary. A year before his death in 1971, he was given the chance to return to Hungary but only on condition that he refrain from political activity. He turned down the offer.

Martyn Rady is an acclaimed historian and author of The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power, and his latest, The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe.