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soviet influence

Important Soviet Influences in Hungary and Poland

Eastern European nations remain distinct and bear the influence of the Soviet Union. A strong and permanent imprint of Soviet influence may be seen in the political landscape of Eastern Europe. In Hungary and Poland, the challenge of navigating the turbulent waters of domestic politics is particularly acute.

Both nations have struggled to balance their aspirations for freedom and European integration with their historical ties to the Soviet Union. Using the Soviet issue as a strategy, political parties have regularly mobilised their supporters and built their political agendas.

This article examines the influence of Soviet-related narratives in Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on how political parties have utilised their Soviet past in their campaigns in Poland and Hungary.

It specifically looks at the complex relationships between the nation’s political landscapes today, their historical legacies, and the different ways that political parties have manipulated the Soviet issue to serve their ends. The Soviet ties have been a cornerstone of Victor Orban’s and the Fidesz party, which frames itself as a defender of Hungarian sovereignty against foreign meddling.

By connecting the Soviet heritage to issues like immigration and national security, Fidesz has underlined the necessity to protect Hungary from external threats. The Hungarian far-right Jobbik party has also brought up the Soviet issue differently to emphasise the need to reject the country’s communist past and revive traditional Hungarian values.

Other parties, such as the centre-left Hungarian Socialist Party and the liberal Momentum Movement, have adopted a more nuanced approach, recognising the country’s complex historical history while heavily focusing on democratic values and European integration.

Similarly, the Law and Justice party, currently in power in Poland, has used the Soviet narratives to advance its political objectives by framing its notion of “national sovereignty” as vengeance for previous wrongs and rejecting foreign influence. The Law and Justice party has strongly emphasised the necessity of upholding traditional Polish values and protecting the nation’s interests from alleged external threats, such as the European Union.

Other parties, including the liberal Nowoczesna party and the centre-right Civic Platform, have adopted a more pro-European posture, highlighted the relevance of democratic principles and European integration but also admitted the difficulties faced by the nation’s complicated historical past.

Historical Background of Soviet Influence

Hungary and Poland, the two countries in Eastern Europe, have distinct relations with Soviet Russia. Both countries have had a complex historical experience with the Soviet Union, which has left a lasting impression on their social and political landscapes. The imposition of Stalinist ideology which began in the 1950s was aimed at shaping societies in the Soviet’s image by “attempting to destroy social autonomy” (Borhi 2001: 48).

More specifically, it enabled the Stalinist Soviet regime to control and dominate Eastern Europe.  Its lasting impressions could be seen in the post-Soviet era from the 1990s. In seeking to understand the role of Soviet history in shaping Hungary and Poland, I seek to present a broad historical trajectory of Hungary and Poland under the Soviet Union.

History Hungary under the Soviet Regime

In the context of Hungary, the country was invaded by Soviet forces in 1944, and following World War II, it became a satellite state of the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, the German occupation of Hungary was replaced with Soviet domination (Bozóki and Simon 2010).

Hungary was given a communist government by the Soviet Union, and it ruled there until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Hungary was significantly affected by Soviet political and economic ideologies during this period, which resulted in a centralised and state-run economy.

Between 1948 and 1989, the Hungarian political regime was under the one-party dominance of the communist regime. However, it is also important to note that, although the country was under the communist regime, only over 10 per cent of people belonged to the communist party. And over 90 per cent of the people were non-party members in Hungary (Bozóki and Simon 2010).

Moreover, “every fourth Hungarian family had a member in jail in the early 1950s” (Bozóki and Simon 2010). The communist leader, Mátyás Rákosi, who ruled over Hungary until 1956, proudly claimed himself to be the “best pupil” of Stalin. Some scholars even claim that Hungary became a “client state” of the USSR (Borhi 2001).  

soviet influence
In Budapest, anti-communists and nationalists placed a Hungarian national flag atop a demolished statue of Josef Stalin in 1956 | Wikimedia Commons

The decades between 1948 and 1989 must be treated by no means as uniform. There were three epochs of communist rule in Hungary: “totalitarianism, post-totalitarianism, and regime disintegration” (Bozóki and Simon 2010).  The period between 1948 and 1962 is marked by totalitarianism. There was an increased use of totalitarian propaganda, the arbitrary use of secret police, hero worship, communist terror, and external control by the USSR.

During this period, Hungary did have a history of fighting back against Soviet influence. Hungary saw a popular uprising against the communist regime in 1956, which Soviet forces brutally put down. This incident became a symbol of Hungarian resistance to Soviet rule and is still seen as a historic moment in Hungarian history.

After the revolution, a reform-oriented communist leader, Imre Nagy, took over as the prime minister. He declared that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact. However, he was soon replaced by a puppet of the Soviet Union, János Kadar. While Kadar held onto power by employing terror, he softened his harsh rule in the early 1960s.

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The Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 | Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1960s, Kadar began to push for less harsher policy leading to normalcy in Hungary. It was then, that the regime moved from classic totalitarianism to post-totalitarianism. He also granted amnesty to political prisoners, people were allowed to travel abroad, and students were allowed to enter universities. It was also a period where non-Communist books were translated, and jazz and rock music were allowed and tolerated.

Between 1985 and 1989, with changes in the Soviet leadership and an increased space for political dissent, civil society was now able to organise itself. In the process, it also questioned the political structure that ruled for years, i.e., the communist rule. It also caused an erosion of the tight communist structure that held the satellite states together. The revolutionary changes of 1989 in Hungary “can be characterised by elite-driven negotiations and non-violence (Bozóki and Simon 2010).

This sensitivity was further informed by the memory of 1956 when thousands of young people died in the streets. Therefore, by the end of 1989, Hungary had transitioned to a full-fledged democracy. Since the 1990s, Hungary has enjoyed a fully free, and independent democratic political rule. Hungary joined the European Council in 1991, NATO in 1999, and the EU in 2004.

Poland Under the Soviet Regime

Poland and the Soviet Union have had a protracted and complicated relationship. Poland was profoundly impacted by the Bolshevik revolution starting in 1917, which resulted in a turbulent relationship that lasted for many years. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had an immediate effect on Poland, marked the beginning of Poland’s Soviet era.

Poland’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1918 sparked a conflict between the two countries. To impose communism in the mould of the Soviet Union, the Red Army, led by Trotsky and Stalin, invaded Poland in 1919. The war lasted for over a year and ended with Poland emerging victorious. However, the war had already deepened distrust between the two countries.

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Soviet propaganda depicting the Red Army as the liberator of Ukrainian and Belarusian peasants from Polish tyranny | Picture: Wikimedia Commons

During World War II in 1939, Nazi Germany seized Poland, while the Soviet Union launched an eastward invasion. The two countries had agreed to divide Poland between them, with the Soviets occupying the Eastern territories, and Germany occupying the rest.

The Soviet occupation was marked by political oppression, mass execution of Polish prisoners and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles to Siberia. In 1940, the Soviet secret police executed over 22,000 military officials, police, and intellectuals in the Katyn forest, known as the Katyn Massacre. This incident has deeply strained relations between both countries.

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Soviet document, proving the mass execution of Polish officers in the Katyn massacre | Picture: Wikimedia Commons

After the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union established a puppet government in Poland to impose its own political and economic order. Poland’s relations with the Soviet Union, however, were tense and contentious. Poland’s anti-Soviet attitudes raised suspicions in the Soviet Union, which attempted to stifle opposition activities there.

The Solidarity movement led a surge of pro-democracy demonstrations in Poland in the 1980s, which the Soviet Union perceived as a danger to its sway in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union finally failed in its attempt to put an end to the movement, which ultimately resulted in the fall of communism in Poland in 1989.

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A mural depicting the murdered priest Jerzy Popiełuszko who publicly supported Solidarity during the 1980s | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, both Hungary and Poland have moved away from the Soviet political and economic models of governance, and have been members of the European Union. However, the legacy of Soviet influence continues to shape the politics of Hungary and Poland. In the following section of this paper, I seek to study how political narratives of Soviet history play a part in Hungary and Poland’s domestic politics.

Hungarian Narratives on the Soviet Union

Hungary’s political narratives of the Soviet Union and Russia have evolved. But they continue to dominate and play a significant role in domestic politics. For instance, Fidesz, led by Victor Orban has adopted a pragmatic approach towards Russia. In recent years, Fidesz has pursued a closer economic and political tie with Russia.

However, it has also come under severe criticism for being too accommodating towards Russia, despite the tumultuous Soviet Relations. In one of his 2018 speeches, Orban emphasized that “We Hungarians have a realistic view of Russia and the former Soviet Union. We have historical experience of being in the Soviet bloc, and we understand the complexities of our relationship” (“Hungary’s ‘pro-Russia’ Stance Was Inevitable” 2022).

Orban’s propagation of “illiberal democracy”, anti-refugee rhetoric, and “pushing forth an aggressive nurturing of traditional values” all resonate with the former Soviet influence on Hungary. Similarly, in his tacit support of the Russian actions in the Russian War in Ukraine in 2022, Orban has repeatedly expressed that “this is not our war”, and it is a “dispute that the relevant parties should settle among themselves” (Verseck, 2022).

His country has repeatedly tried to block EU support for the war-torn Ukraine. Orban has further rejected the delivery of arms to Ukraine, refusing to allow the transit of weapons through Hungarian territory. His opposition also must be understood in terms of his own desire to push forward a “Greater Hungary”, which includes parts of Ukraine (such as Transcarpathia).

Jobbik, another right-wing nationalist party in Hungary, which was historically critical of Soviet Union policies, has undergone a notable shift in recent years. Jobbik has advocated a more balanced approach towards both Russia and the West—emphasizing the national interests and economic cooperation as important for the state.

Contra, the Hungarian Socialist Party, which is generally seen to be pro-European and Western-oriented, has constantly presented the narrative of acknowledging the historical complexities of Hungary’s relationship with Russia.

In doing so, it has criticized Fidesz for being way too accommodating towards Russia. Similarly, LMP, a green and left-leaning party, takes a critical stance towards Russia. The party has expressed its concerns over democratic backsliding, human rights violations, and Russian influence in Hungary’s politics.

While studying Hungary’s reactions to the Soviet Era, one can sense multiplicities in popular sentiments about the period. There are three running tropes of popular narratives sustained through the political narratives.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Era

Unlike the Polish history under the Soviet era, Hungary had since the 1960s been peaceful, stable, and focused on social welfare. Several parties tap into this sentiment by highlighting the lost days of the Soviet era and highlighting positive elements of the era, such as free education, healthcare, traditional values, and a sense of prosperity.

After the 2007 global economic recession, which had adversely impacted Hungary, the popular sentiments towards right-wing rhetoric of recreating nostalgia have gained momentum.

Anti-Communist Rhetoric

While some segment of the population craves the good old days of the Soviet Era, others bank on anti-communist rhetoric. These parties highlight the loss of freedom, abuse of human rights, and other misuse of political power that mired the period.

These parties claim themselves to be the guardians of freedom and democracy. Some parties have taken the route of tradition to argue against the Soviet era, by focusing on the need to protect Hungary’s interests from foreign domination and influence—including that of Russia.

Anti-Western Rhetoric

Post 2010, Victor Orban has shifted from his tacit opposition to the Western powers, to actively engaging in anti-Western rhetoric. Historically, Hungary feels humiliated by the Western powers due to the humiliating Treaty of Trianon signed at the Peace Conference in Paris.

It has invariably divided Hungary into three parts, with Hungary losing over 70 per cent of its land and over 60 per cent of its population. In that vein, Fidesz and its leaders have expressed their interest in, what they claim as “Greater Hungary”. Political parties also bank on this anti-West rhetoric to push forward their support for Soviet-era prosperity.

Poland and the Narratives on the Soviet Rule

The ruling Law and Justice Party has been critical of both the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. It has often emphasized the Soviet oppression in Poland and further advocated a firm stance towards Russia. It has also called for a strong NATO presence in the region and has often supported strong economic sanctions against Russia.

In a speech in 2018, Mateusz Morawiecki, Prime Minister of Poland, emphasized the importance of remembering Soviet atrocities and standing up against them. He said: “We must never forget the victims of the Soviet era and ensure that historical distortions are challenged. Poland will continue to promote the truth about the crimes committed under the Soviet regime” (“Mateusz Morawiecki at Heidelberg University – ‘Europe at a Historic Turning Point’ – The Chancellery of the Prime Minister – Gov.Pl Website” n.d.).

Similarly, Jaroslav Kaczynski, Leader of the Law and Justice Party, in a speech in 2017 said: “We cannot forget the lessons of history, and we must remain vigilant in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions. Poland will always prioritize its national security and protect its borders” (Kaczynski 2017).

Similarly, The Left, a coalition of left-wing parties in Poland have condemned past Soviet atrocities and has advocated for justice and remembrance of the victims. They have condemned Russia for continuing to curtail human rights and democracy, and have expressed concerns about the potential Russian influence in Polish elections.

However, Civic Coalition, which consists of centre-right and liberal parties, has taken a more balanced approach towards Russia. While acknowledging the historical injustices to its people, it has also sought to maintain dialogue and diplomatic engagement with Russia.

For instance, Donald Tusk, Former PM of Poland and leader of Civic Coalition has said: “We need to work towards reconciliation and understanding between Poland and Russia, acknowledging the pain of the past but focusing on building a peaceful and cooperative future” (Tusk 2014).

Two running tropes of Soviet history narratives in Polish domestic politics are as follows:

Historical Memory and National Identity

The narrative of Soviet atrocities has helped sustain Polish national identity and historical memory. Parties emphasize the experiences of resistance to power, suffering and pain meted on Poles, and resilience as a key element of Polish identity to push forth the narratives of Soviet Union historical experiences.

Another set of narratives arises from Poland’s European integration. Some Polish parties align themselves with Western values, and institutions, and advocate NATO expansion as a necessity.

Reconciliation vs. Confrontation

While all the parties acknowledge the Soviet historical atrocities, the approach they take defines their narratives. For instance, some political actors advocate for reconciliation and improved relations with Russia, emphasizing the need to move beyond historical atrocities.

They seek votes based on pushing forth a pragmatic approach towards Russia. Whereas, others take a more confrontational stance. They highlight the crimes and human rights abuses committed during the Soviet era, emphasizing the need for remembrance, accountability and justice for the victims.

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Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at a Young Scholars’ Conference, organised by the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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