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Hungary heart

Budapest has changed dramatically since Howard Hannah saw pictures of Russian tanks rolling in 40 years ago

I was l0 years old when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956. And though I clearly recall the dramatic newspaper pictures, the events meant little to me until 1968, when another European capital, Prague, was invaded by Warsaw Pact forces - Hungarians included.

In 1968, the so-called Prague Spring was just one of a series of events worldwide which inspired young people with the belief that we could change the world.

Budapest was significant because the 1956 invasion divided us into two groups. The communists saw the "intervention" as the necessary suppression of a bourgeois counter-revolution that threatened the gains of the Russian revolution. Assorted ultra-leftists, anarchists and Trotskyists such as myself saw it as the Stalinist suppression of Hungarian workers trying to steer their country back on to a true revolutionary socialist path.

I may not have been ready to die for the cause, but I did devote hours in mind-numbing meetings to it. I always voted correctly and hated the right people (who were, of course, the Right people).

A visit to post-communist Budapest 30 years on put a new slant on the experience for me. For one thing, a walk through the Castle Hill district brings home the fact that this beautiful city has been a punchbag for invading armies since time immemorial.

Budapest is, in fact, three cities - Buda, Obud and Pest - which merged in 1873. Castle Hill is in Buda - a spectacular jumble of gothic and baroque, ancient and modern (a post-war Hilton hotel incorporates a 14th-century Dominican church and a baroque Jesuit college). The buildings house a host of excellent museums (specialising in military history, ecclesiastical art, music history - even telephones); there are churches, a medieval synagogue, government offices, national galleries, even some private homes.

The astonishing thing is that almost all of these buildings are reconstructions of earlier buildings, which were themselves reconstructions of earlier buildings, and so on. The area has been smashed to bits by Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs. The Russians were only the latest in a long line of wreckers.

Look down from the neo-gothic Fishermen's Bastion over busy Pest, and east and west up the great river Danube, and you see why. Whoever holds Castle Hill holds Budapest, and whoever holds Budapest holds Hungary and its great central European plain. The visit by the Russian Army in 1956 was its second in 11 years. In 1945 it had destroyed the hill's buildings as it struggled to dislodge the Nazis. The hill is a monument to the indomitable Magyar spirit.

The Chain Bridge, opened in 1849 and the first permanent crossing of the river, takes you to Pest, where the trappings of capitalism are all around - Marks and Spencer, prostitutes, American hotels and pimps, McDonald's and Pizza Hut. The fresh commercial riches sit comfortably in the grand architectural fabric of the Belv ros district.

In a cafe in upmarket Vorosmarty ter a Hungarian tries out his excellent English on me by proudly explaining why his nation enjoys the highest suicide rate in the world. "We decide whether we live," he says. "It's a choice we make. We are not beasts of the field."

His lecture is interrupted by a commotion 20 yards away, where an overweight middle-aged businessman has collapsed. His designer sunglasses are half off his face. As he edges back into consciousness, his hand reaches down for reassurance. His feudal forefathers would have checked their genitals, but not this new capitalist. He goes straight for his mobile phone, and, still prostrate, he keys in a number and explains his plight, ignoring the group of concerned passers-by around him. I look at my friend the suicide analyst with astonishment. He shakes his head and whispers mysteriously: "Mafia".

Beyond De k ter to Andr ssy Not, the modern miracle starts to fade and the splendour of the past re-asserts itself with Budapest's most beautiful building - the State Opera House, the golden interior of which leaves you sparkling for the rest of the day.

The flow of economic growth begins to weaken in this grand boulevard, built in the 1870s as Budapest's answer to the Champs Elysees. And, from the Oktogon down Erzsebet korNot to Blaha Lujza ter, the shabbier, darker side of capitalism is increasingly in evidence. Unemployment is high, and the dispossessed eke a miserable living selling worthless goods outside metro stations. No prospects here for a socialist revolution to improve their lot. The only hope is that the capitalist tide will strengthen and they can appropriate some of the benefits. After all, Marx himself recognised that capitalism had its benefits.

But such bourgeois sentiments would have appalled the bearded Bolshevik I became in 1968.

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