___The Road to Budapest, 1956 [The Road to Budapest, 1956]___Back
János M. Rainer:

The Road to Budapest, 1956
New Documentation on the Kremlin's Decision to Intervene

Some Soviet documents relating to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were handed over by President Yeltsin on his visit to Hungary in the Autumn of 1992. As a consequence, the chronology of events has become clearer, and an insight into the kind of information the masters of the Kremlin had based their decisions on is now possible. However, one crucial link was still missing: no evidence was available on the discussions and debates in which the decisions were conceived.

The documents providing an answer to at least the majority of these questions are quite unparallelled of their kind. In the 1950s and 1960s, full minutes were not taken of the sessions of the Soviet Presidium. The head of the General Department of the Central Committee, Vladimir Nikiforovich Malin, however, was present at the discussions, and as a kind of aid to the formulation of decisions, he recorded who was present and made sketchy notes of what was being said. Through the efforts of Russian researchers, mainly of Vyacheslav Sereda, eighteen of these notes, including all those about discussions on the agenda concerning Hungary between 23 October and 4 November 1956, have been found in the Presidential Archives of the Russian Federation. The notes, in pencil and never actually used after the recording of the decisions, are fragmentary, making the work of the editors something of puzzle-solving. These rough notes nevertheless cast light on some major issues which were, up to now, pure guesswork for historians and laymen alike. [...]

[...]

Up to now, most information on the circumstances of the Russian intervention on October 23 was provided by Khrushchev's report of October 24. He had actually meant to invite the Hungarian First Secretary to Moscow when the latter told him over the telephone that "the situation in Budapest was serious, so he had rather not go to Moscow at this time. As soon as the conversation was over, Comrade Zhukov informed Comrade Khrushchev that Gerõ had asked the military attaché of the Soviet embassy in Budapest for the intervention of Soviet troops to halt demonstrations which were taking on unprecedented dimensions." Thus, up to that point, according to Khrushchev, only two members of the Soviet leadership, he himself and the Minister of Defence, knew anything about the events in Budapest where, at that time, to their knowledge, only demonstrations were taking place. "The Presidium of the the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party did not approve the intervention," Khrushchev added next day, "because no request has come from leading Hungarian functionaries." In Malin's notes, however, there is no trace of such a decision. If what Khrushchev says was true, then he must have discussed the issue only with a few members of the Presidium personally or over the telephone. "Shortly afterwards I received a phone call from the Soviet embassy in Budapest that the situation was highly dangerous, and the intervention of Soviet units was necessary." As opposed to this account (written a day later), Malin's notes read as follows:

"Note on the October 23 meeting

On the situation in Budapest and in the whole of Hungary.

(Comrades Zhukov, Bulganin and Khrushchev)

Report by - Zhukov

Hundred-thousand-strong demonstration in Budapest.

The Radio building on fire.

The headquarters of the county party committee building and the county chief department of the Ministry of the Interior occupied in Debrecen.

According to Com. Khrushchev troops should move into Budapest.

Com. Bulganin agrees with Khrushchev's proposal - troops should move in.

Com. Mikoyan: Without Nagy, the movement cannot be controlled. In that way it will be cheaper for us, too.

He has doubts about the use of troops. What can we lose? Let the Hungarians themselves do the job of restoring order. If our troops intervene, we will only make things worse for ourselves. Let us make an attempt at political action first, and have the troops move in only afterwards.

Com. Molotov: By relying on Nagy, we will only undermine Hungary. Supports intervention.

Com. Kaganovich: The government is being overthrown. This cannot be compared to Poland. Supports intervention.

Com. Pervukhin: We must intervene.

Com. Zhukov: This is different from Poland. We must move in.

A member of the Presidium of the CC should go there.

A state of emergency should be declared in the country. A curfew must be imposed.

Com. Suslov: The situation is different from what happened in Poland. There must be intervention.

Com. Saburov: Intervention must be carried out in order to maintain order.

Com. Kirichenko: Supports intervention.

Coms Malinin and Serov should be sent to Budapest.

Com. Khrushchev: Let us involve Nagy in political action. But for the time being, let us not make him Prime Minister. Let us have Comrades Mikoyan and Suslov fly to Budapest."

[...]

Khrushchev must have thought that even worse than a split was the fact that, quite obviously, no one had any idea about what to do when the momentary situation was changing, and no one had a sufficient vision of the alternatives for action. That raised the danger of incapacity for action and/or precipitousness. His thoughts may have gone somewhat farther forward than those of the others: if Imre Nagy and the Hungarian leadership had already been brave enough to disregard the Soviet instructions (for instance, on October 26, they let Mikoyan and Suslov know that negotiations should be started with the rebels, the students and the intellectuals, that politicians from other parties should be included in the government) then, should Moscow support the declaration including a radical change, they might go even further. When he spoke next, Khrushchev, unlike the others, openly expressed the dilemma that was on everyone's mind:

"Com. Khrushchev: We are responsible for many things.

The facts [must be] faced. The question is whether there will be a government that is with us or one that is not with us, and will ask for the withdrawal of troops.

What is going to happen then?

Nagy said that if we take action, he will resign.

Then the coalition will disintegrate.

There is no firm leadership there either in the party or in the government.

The (uprising) may spread to the provinces.

The military may go over to the rebels.

Let us not insist too much on Hegedüs.

Two variants.

The government acts, we help.

That may end the whole thing fast.

Or Nagy turns against us.

He will demand a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops, next there will be capitulation.

What are the possible variants?

1) The formation of a committee which takes over (that is the worst variant) when we […]

2) To keep this government.

Send officials of the government to the provinces.

A platform is needed.

Perhaps [to issue] an appeal to the population, the workers, peasants and the intelligentsia - because [without this] we are only shooting.

3) Ought not the Chinese, the Bulgarians, Poles, Czechs and Yugoslavs send an appeal to the Hungarians?

4) Let us firmly put down the rebels. Let us persuade the fraternal parties to turn with an appeal to the Hungarians. The documents should be drafted by Comrades Brezhnev, Pospielov, Shepilov and Furtseva. Should we support the present government when it issues declarations like this?

Yes, we should. There is no other way out."

[...]
Com. Shepilov: Developments have shown that our relations with the people's democracies are in a crisis.

There is now a widespread mood of anti-Sovietism.

The deeper causes must be disclosed.

The fundamentals must remain unchanged.

There must be no ordering about of others.

Let us not allow that the present situation be taken advantage of.

A whole set of measures must be worked out concerning our relations.

The Statement - the first step.

It is not necessary to make an appeal to the Hungarians.

On the armed forces: we profess the principle of non-intervention.

We are ready to pull out with the agreement of the Hungarian government.

An ongoing struggle must be fought against national communism.

Com. Zhukov: Agrees with what was said by Com. Shepilov.

Most important: to resolve [the situation] in Hungary.

There is a widespread anti-Soviet mood.

The troops should be withdrawn from Budapest; if necessary, from all of Hungary.

This is a military and political lesson for us.

The problem of the troops in the GDR and Poland is much more serious.

It has to be discussed in the [Political] Discussion Panel. The Discussion Panel must be convened. If we go on being stubborn, who knows what might happen?

A brief resolution must be passed; already today a statement must be made concerning the most important matters.

Com. Furtseva: A general statement should be accepted rather than an appeal to the Hungarians. It must not be long. The second:

important from the point of view of the internal situation. The relations maintained with the people's democracies should be investigated from other aspects as well.

On meetings with the leaders of the people's democracies (on the issue of relations).

A meeting of the CC must be convened (i.e. to inform the members of the CC).

Com. Saburov: Agrees on the issues of the Statement and the troop withdrawal.

We did a good job at the 20th Congress but afterwards we failed to take the lead in mass initiatives. We did not change over to the genuine Leninist principles of leadership.

We may find ourselves overtaken by events.

I agree with Com. Furtseva. Ministers, CC members are asking questions.

As for Romania: they owe us 5 billion roubles for property which was created by the people.

Relations should be reviewed.

Relations must be based on equality.

Com. Khruschev: [You spoke] unanimously.

The first step: to issue the Statement."

The "hardliners" had become confused, and the "liberals" went to the limit, not just in general but also with regard to settling the Hungarian situation. From the aspect of the final outcome, with hindsight, there is just one question that emerges in connection with that meeting: how was it possible for some of the Soviet leaders, including some in high positions, to use such words? How was it possible that some of them got to the point where they were actually thinking about giving up Hungary militarily? However, Marshal Zhukov arguing in favour of a troop withdrawal from Hungary will look a great deal less unlikely, if we place him into the ongoing, still unfinished process of decision-taking. No matter how little it was detailed or how uncertain the support for this was, one of the alternatives before the meeting, now into its third day, had indeed been, for some time, a partial reduction of the Soviet military presence in Eastern Europe. On October 30 that position also received open expression, rather belatedly, too, since the opposite alternative had been employed in practice in Budapest on the 23rd of October, and, on the 28th, a "scenario" had been constructed by Khrushchev for later use. The October 30 statement of the Soviet government may be regarded as a temporary victory - indeed, the last up to the mid-eighties - of the "liberal" view in the international area, the kind of thinking which dared to mention the withdrawal of troops. Even though the actual decision ultimately went the other way, that statement, when it was created, was by no means a cynical maneuver meant to mislead, but a genuine mirror of the debates and power struggles going on within the Soviet leadership, one of the rare moments when the Empire sent signals to the outside world that it might be opening up. The initiator, Khrushchev, must have still believed in the usefulness of the October Polish formula, if in very different circumstances. [...]


Hungarian Quarterly, Summer 1996


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Last updated:  Monday, 18-September-2006

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