1956 — a real life story
Budapest, September 1956: A young man in a casual greenish suit and rough boots walked into the Indian Embassy at Rozsa Dom in Buda and asked to see the Charge d’Affaires. Thirty-four-year old Mohamed Ataur Rahman had just arrived in Budapest and was keen to get his residence in shape. He was inspecting the house from the outside at the time. The young visitor said he was a writer, part of a group of young intellectuals seeking freedom from Soviet dominance. He came with an urgent message for Nehru to intervene with the Soviets with whom India had good relations. Rahman recalled to me recently how frank and disarming this highly intelligent young man was, and how remarkably free he was of any rancour or anger, given the strength of his feelings for his cause. He revealed to Rahman many meetings later that he was an associate of Istvan Bibo, minister in the government of Imre Nagy, seeking freedom for Hungary from the Soviet political orbit.
Some leather-jacketed toughs walked by as they conversed. Intuitively cautious, Rahman glanced up and down, pointing randomly at the walls, to pretend that he was talking about the painting of his house with a workman. It was important to protect the young man’s identity to keep him out of trouble with the government, then under the Soviet thumb. Within the Embassy, the visitor was instantly nick-named ‘The Painter’ — and that is how he was always referred to for reasons of security.
A political storm was brewing in Hungary, but they were no match for the military might of the USSR. Stalin had died recently — and the more liberal Khrushchev had taken over, raising the hopes of some Hungarians. But even Khrushchev was uneasy with the stirrings of freedom in the Soviet orbit, and not quite clear how to handle it.
The Painter met Rahman often in the ensuing days and weeks. He and his colleagues relied desperately on India — and Nehru. They were not wrong. India could not come out openly in their favour but carried considerable clout with the Soviet leadership. Aside from Nehru’s immense international influence, KPS Menon Sr, the Indian Ambassador in Moscow, was well connected with the Soviets, as was his Military Attache, Brig Nalin Nanavati, whose tennis partner — and friend — was Gen Serov, the all powerful head of the NKVD.
Amongst Rahman’s trusted colleagues at the Embassy was his driver, Drechschel, an intellectual — I believe of German origin. Many years later he was to become a Professor in Koln [Cologne] in Germany. Still young then, Drechschel had already won a prize as a composer at the Lizst competition as a 21-year-old. But in the communist ‘paradise’ one had to have more than just talent to get a good job. That depended on the Communist Party, through which in turn the Soviet Union exercised control over its satellites. Another trusted colleague was Kozsmovsky, Rahman’s messenger.
Rahman witnessed the first stirrings of the revolution on his way home from a meeting on October 23, 1956. A massive collection of young people, mostly students, marched along the streets of Budapest. By nightfall, they asked Radio Budapest to broadcast their 14-point agenda. In response, the Radio’s guards came out with their guns blazing. Many of the demonstrators lay dead and dying. But the uprising spread. Elements of the Hungarian army revolted. On October 31, Imre Nagy announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and appealed to the USA and the UK to recognise Hungary as a neutral state. Soviet tanks were rolling in.
In his deliberations, Khruschev also met Tito in Belgrade. They decided that the uprising must be crushed. By November 4, the Hungarian revolution was effectively over. The battle was unequal; courage alone could not withstand might. Much of the world looked on passively at the rape of Hungary. Rahman told me how astonished he was to see the extent of destruction by the Soviets.
The security forces began to round up suspects. The first lot of accused, including the famous patriot Imre Nagy, were tried — and most were sentenced to death in early 1957. Nagy was hanged in June 1958.
The Painter was arrested in May 1957. In February, he helped send abroad Imre Nagy’s manuscript In Defence of the Hungarian People On Communism; In Defence of the New Course. His arrest was on capital charges. The death penalty was a certainty. Kozsmovsky, Rahman’s messenger, was arrested soon after.
As for the latter, Rahman, caring as ever, intervened vociferously with the Hungarian Foreign Office — and also sent them official notes for his release, insisting that he was an official of the Embassy. But that, in fact, was the fundament of the problem. The new authorities knew about the Indian Embassy’s “nefarious” role. Kozsmovsky had been in touch with The Painter and, after the latter’s arrest, with his wife. He was harassed by the authorities to “get the keys.” Thanks to Rahman’s tenacious persistence, however, he was finally released on bail.
Rahman lost no time. He hid Kozsmovsky in the luggage boot of his official Mercedes — with diplomatic number plates — and, with Drechschel at the wheel, headed for the safety of Vienna. En route, security officials insisted on inspecting the boot — but fortunately did not look behind the large carton where he was hiding. Kozsmovsky escaped trial in Hungary and was soon free in Vienna, awaiting better times to return to his motherland.
Rahman pleaded through his friends in Moscow on behalf of the Painter and others. Decades later, he recalled how Krishna Menon, India's famous defence minister who had Nehru's ear in foreign affairs, sent Ambassador KPS Menon a secret cable: “I have had enough of these reports from Budapest.”
At Nehru’s behest, following Rahman’s urgent pleas, Ambassador KPS Menon and Brig Nanavati in Moscow used their clout with General Serov and others to plead for leniency. On August 2, 1958, the Painter was sentenced to prison for life — but was saved from the gallows. During his years in prison, he learnt excellent English and spent his time translating English literature. He was released under the 1963 amnesty.
Some of the moderate Hungarian demands were conceded by the Soviets to keep further dissidence in check. But Hungary, like the other countries in the Soviet orbit, got its true freedom only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Following Hungary’s first democratic elections in 1991, this is what the new President said in the Hungarian Parliament: “In those months (in 1956) the Indian Embassy in Budapest became the Embassy of the Revolution”.
The Hungarians never forgot Rahman. One of the first acts of their new President, Arpad Goncz, was to visit India. Rahman had long retired by then, but the Hungarian Ambassador in Delhi told the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that the President would like to meet him. Of course, said the Joint Secretary in the MEA. They would include Rahman in the banquet of the Indian President. The Ambassador came back to say: No, the President would like to meet him personally. Sure, said the Joint Secretary, we shall arrange for Mr Rahman to call on the President.
The Hungarian Ambassador returned soon with another message: No, he said. It would be the other way around. The President of Hungary would like to call on Ambassador Rahman.
This was out of sync with standard protocol — indeed rather unique — but who were we to deny the visiting President his wish?
So the Hungarian President, followed by a motorcade of officials and security, made their way to Rahman’s house at A-9/25 Vasant Vihar. President Arpad Goncz warmly embraced Rahman as he entered.
It was an intensely emotional moment. Thirty five years had passed since those eventful days in Budapest in 1956 when Rahman had last met The Painter at his home.
Epilogue: The Painter’s daughter, little Kinga, was nine years old when her father met Rahman for the first time in Budapest.
In 2006, the highly educated and erudite Dr Kinga Goncz became the Foreign Minister of Hungary. She visited India soon thereafter. Like her illustrious father, she met with Ambassador Rahman.
(The author was in the Indian Foreign Service)