1956: Uprisings in the USSR

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Flora Lewis ’42

In an era when accounts of the Soviet Union were often tainted by ideology, Flora Lewis reported fearlessly for the New York Times on mass unrest in Hungary and Poland as citizens protested Soviet domination and were brutally suppressed.

The New York Times – July 8, 1956
“The Satellites Ask for More: The Poznan uprising reflects the increasing boldness of East Europeans in expressing their discontent. Here is a firsthand report on their present mood.”

By Flora Lewis

Bucharest, Rumania.

When the people of Poznan, Poland, arose recently in bloody defiance of their rulers, their shout was the age-old cry of “Bread and Freedom!”

They could have been speaking for some 72,000,000 people in Russia’s European satellites. Their distress was not new, nor is it essentially different from that of the folk of other countries that choose to call themselves “people’s democracies”; but recent changes made it possible for the men and women of Poznan to dare proclaim it.

Their audacity was a naked revelation of the pressures that have been mounting in these countries since the right constrictions of terror were somewhat loosened. It brought sharply into focus the drab deficiencies of life that had in part forced the relaxation. For, despite dazzling statistics and perhaps because of the impressive construction, the people in the states that fell to the Communists after World War II have been living badly.

They put up with it for a time as the inevitable aftermath of war. Then they put up with it for a time longer because brute force made it impossible to do otherwise.

Some scenes and press snippets from a tour of these countries show clearly enough why their post-war poverty has persisted while the rest of the world has prospered.

In Stalinograd, Poland, Stalinvarosz, Hungary, and Orasul Stalin, Rumania, the drab new blocks of workers’ flats are already blackening with smoke from the rows of new chimneys.

In Warsaw, a newspaper reported disgustedly that the main Zeran automobile works, which cost more than a whole housing development and was scarcely necessary, was turning out a quarter of its planned output. In Prague, a newspaper shamefacedly dusted off the now-forgotten name Huko and explained that this gigantic industrial project in Slovakia, on which millions had been spent, had been abandoned for lack of suitable energy and supplies. The frantic pace of industrial investment drained off not only surplus but life blood.


No one knows how much was given away to Russia. But now, in Poland, it has been announced that the Soviet Union will pay a fair price for Polish coal. Czechoslovak factories are turning out radio equipment, turbines and locomotives for the Soviet Union and Communist China, and in return Czechoslovak shops sell cheap Russian books, Chinese brocades and tangerine jam. But they are short of meat and wool.

Other things, too, are bought with the exports, but not enough and not what is needed. Hungary, whose rich eastern plains are shimmering now with the tall wheat that once fed much of Europe, is buying grain from the West in order, it was explained, to fill export commitments.

There is a man on the second floor of the once elegant Hotel Athenee Palace in Bucharest who symbolizes another reason for the trouble. He sits all day in an armchair, looking up when anyone comes by. The Rumanian police have announced that they will cut their personnel by 30 per cent to put these hands to productive work; but their budget will seems ample enough to keep the main in the chair.

A Czech miner, leader of the Communist organization at his mine, complained bitterly about working conditions to the recent Czechoslovakia Communist party conference.

“A miner should be able to work with a tool and a lamp,” he said, “but it seems that we have to turn out a ton of (paper) forms for every ton of coal. Under capitalism the mine was run with six administrators. Now there are thirty.”


And when all this is siphoned off, what is left?

The Poles are a bit better off in Warsaw than they were a year or two ago, but there are still meat queues, and a pair of shoes costs a month’s wages. In Budapest people run to stand in line when they see a queue; it means some meat is being sold.

In Cluj, Rumania, the outdoor cafes are crowded in the evening; an engineer, a newspaper man and a school teacher sat drinking with their wives. It is expensive, but the engineer explained, “We live in one small room with my mother and our child. I am not paid badly. But what else is there to spend my money on but the café?”

Edward Ochab, first secretary of the Polish Communists, spoke urgently a month ago on the need to do something about the standard of living. They saw in Warsaw that when Nikita Khrushchev was there for the funeral of Boleslav Bierut, whom Ochab succeeded, the Russian leader himself warned his Polish followers that they must improve the people’s lot. It is obvious enough, even to the Communist leaders now, that their people will not work better to fill the ballooning plans unless they have something to work for.

The slovenly inefficiency of workers who don’t care is often berated in the press. A traveler notices it in the simplest of services. A frowsy young woman who sells international train tickets in Bucharest consulted her schedule and announced, “There is a train for Timisoara at 8 A. M. You can change there for the Belgrade train.”

But she shrugged when she was asked about the connection. “My job is to know about trains leaving Bucharest. I am not responsible for trains from Timisoara.”

Yet the eternal drive that the Governments are seeking to tap is there. It appears whenever a pinhole opens for the push of individual initiative. There are only a few ancient taxis in Warsaw, but there are lines of shining official cars the drivers of which are willing to pick up a fare while their employers sit in the interminable conferences. A driver explained with a laugh, “No, this is not exactly a taxi. Call is half privatni and half statni.”

On the collective farm Viata Noua (new life) near Alexandria, Rumania, the president puckered his old peasant face with embarrassment when he told what most members do with their wages: “Usually they invest the money in cows of their own.”

A new vogue in Poland, one of the few things for which anyone saves money, is the breeding of minks at home.


The Communist Governments seeking now to launch their new campaign of economic competition with the West have found themselves in a maze of their own building. Their economists cannot do better unless the energies of their sullen people are awakened. And their people will not respond to more force.

But these Governments have found it impossible to create the goods which might prompt a greater effort from their populations without providing a little more freedom to work, to think and to live.

A little freedom, among people who have known life with none, sets off a chain reaction less easily controlled than that of the crashing atom.

Wherever they are snatched or granted, the bits of new freedom are used to ask for more. So far, the talk of democratization has been clearly labeled, “For Communists Only.” But freedom is mercurial and tends to splash about. Where the police have been leashed the people talk more openly with each other and exchange complaints.


The soldier who stopped the car for a ride in Hungary, crossed himself when he was asked if he were a Communist. He knew only a few words of any foreign language, but he managed to make himself clear.

“When I was small,” it came out, “my father died. I had to work very young. I would like see America. I would like to have something for myself, but”—and he made a gesture of pulling a sack over his head—”that is what happened in Hungary.”

The students who were hitch-hiking in Czechoslovakia said, “All that Marxism-Leninism we have to learn, it is a ridiculous waste of time. Besides, it has become silly now. They have taken away the old textbooks and there are no new ones.

“The teachers are afraid to say anything except what they just read in the newspapers. Of course, we don’t read the newspapers. Why should we?”


In Rumania, where the changes have been extremely slight, some workers were standing jammed into trucks on a Bucharest side street waiting for their organizers to take them to a spontaneous demonstration. They had done a full day’s work and they resented the extra demand on their time and their sweat, for it was a hot, yellow day. But these were the proletariat, the pride of the regime.

The question was put to one of them, “How are you making out nowadays?”

“I am not allowed to say,” he replied.

It is heartening and yet pathetic to see the way the crowds flock around a recognizable Westerner. To travel through Eastern Europe in an American car is like traveling in a circus wagon. At each stop, people cluster and press until there is no air to breathe, and they whisper such things as “I want to travel,” “Life is bad here,” “How long must we wait?”

In each of the countries, criticisms that are bubbling through the punctured crust of conformity come first from the Communist intellectuals—writers, journalists, student groups. This is partly because people who have nothing to do with the party can find no voice save in frightful explosions such as Poznan or risky parades such as the students’ demonstrations in Prague. And it is partly because the Governments have so forfeited the confidence of these people that there is little to discuss between the two sides.


But from Communists relieved at last of their monolithic muteness, words come rushing out. They are often harsh and bitter words, but they are meant to improve the system, not change it.

At least, that is what is said, although there may be some truth to the angry charge from on high that not all the card-carriers who speak out are devoted to the party in their inner hearts.

The words expose and chastise in the effort to explain why things are going wrong. Sometimes words are a psychoanalytic dumping of guilt, but more often they are torrents of blame loosed directly or indirectly on the people higher up.


This outpouring has been greatest in Poland; and it is not surprising that, hearing such angry truths in public for the first time, other Poles also tried to make their greater hatred heard in their own way.

Some of the things being said are revelations. Everyone knew there was terror and injustice and waste, but they knew the details only of their own experience. Now the facts are beginning to pile up in the open and they still have the power to shock.

The facts are coming out, and from almost the same set of mouths in the other countries as well as in Poland. A long, searching article in the Hungarian Communist paper Szabad Nep sought to explain the truculence of the peasants. The new Hungarian Five-Year Plan required both a large increase in agricultural output and an intensive campaign for collectivization. The Government is loath to abandon either goal, and the article attempted to point out mistakes that must be avoided.

It spoke of the district party secretary who “persuaded the peasants to join the co-operatives voluntarily by lining them up against the wall, cocking his revolver, and giving them fifteen or twenty minutes to think it over.”

It bemoaned the new religious ardor of the peasantry, who used to think nothing of working Sundays, but who now sit home even on workdays in protest against the Government’s abolition of certain church holidays. “Thus,” it said, “we ourselves strengthen what we seek to diminish.”

It ridiculed the village Communist who was afraid to accept a glass of wine from a peasant who had been labeled a kulak. And it denounced the arbitrary regulations by which a tenant farmer who had been given twenty acres of land by his old master just before the way became a kulak, a class enemy. Kulaks, and until recently their relations, are not allowed to join the collectives, but are forced into menial tasks.

The role of the press and of literature has been made a central issue, almost the first issue among Communists in each country. The writers, privileged economically, nevertheless feel with particular acuteness the stultification of their jobs as mouthpieces for a doctrine they have not been allowed to help shape.

They want more scope for themselves and a chance for professional integrity within the limits of the Communist faith. Where, as in Rumania, they were bluntly told that their highest aspiration could be mo more than to “serve the party line” as devised by their superiors, they have been silent.

But where, as in Hungary, they have wrenched some room for thought from their reluctant leaders, they have found that they want to write about tabooed subjects and they must press further with their demands.


All this is not going smoothly. There had already been some efforts to shut down the lid again in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It is probably that Poland and other countries as well will suffer setbacks, with so dramatic an example of the risks of relaxation before their leaders’ eyes.

But while the new repression may control the pressures, it will not abate them. The causes remain and become increasingly hard to handle. Among the satellite leaders themselves there is a degree of sympathy with that part of the dangerous movement beneath them that is an expression of nationalism.

There are differences among the handful of personalities who run these countries. Some seem to cling to Moscow’s apron strings, while others are glad enough to accept what national leeway they are granted and even to look for more.


Poland, though she has special need for Russian help to maintain her Oder-Neisse frontier, is a country whose leaders appear eager to re-assert their Polish nationality.

In any case, one thing all the satellite leaders have in common is extreme sensitivity to the word satellite. This sensitivity has noticeably been heightened just now when a delicate readjustment is under way and consummate skill is needed to keep things from getting out of hand. The Soviet Union does seem to have placed a greater responsibility for keeping their countries in line upon the leaders of its minions, and they are touchy about suggestions that they may find it hard to manage with less direct help from headquarters.

Their recent conference in Moscow undoubtedly brought them some advice on what to do about their peoples’ desire for bread and freedom. But their tasks are in many ways more difficult than those of their Russian mentors. If the old terror is not to be relied upon, they will have to cope with the problems as they come along.

No one can yet say what will result. The force remains to crush a Poznan uprising and the tremendous restiveness it reflects. The pressures for change remain. As they meet and grapple, the future of the satellites will be molded.

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