In the summer of 1989, the Soviet Union was beginning to falter, and its grasp on Eastern Europe was slipping. But in Hungary, the Soviets were hardly gone yet: Moscow still maintained around 70,000 soldiers, 1,000 tanks, and 1,500 armored vehicles there. Janos Kadar, who had built and led the repressive, Soviet-aligned regime that had run the country for the past three decades, had resigned the previous year, as the economy sputtered and Kadar himself struggled with cancer. But the regime centered on Kadar’s Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party remained intact and still presided over an immense security apparatus and a network of armed militias.
The momentum, however, was with the opposition groups that sought to take advantage of the Soviet decline. On June 16, they organized a massive demonstration in Heroes’ Square, which includes a monument to the founders of the Hungarian state, in central Budapest. Part memorial service and part protest, the gathering was attended by some 250,000 people. On the steps of the monument lay six coffins. Five contained the unearthed remains of men who had been key leaders of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet uprising and who had been sentenced to death in a secret trial and buried in an unmarked grave. The sixth coffin was empty and symbolized the 300 other people who had been executed for their roles in the uprising. The demonstration was followed by the burial of the coffins, giving the remains the dignified resting place the Soviets had denied them.
The demonstration, broadcasted live on Hungarian television, finished with six speeches. The final one was delivered by Viktor Orban, a little-known, 26-year-old activist with a scruffy beard. It was just seven minutes long, but it electrified the crowd and the people watching at home. “If we trust our own strength, then we will be able to put an end to the communist dictatorship,” declared Orban, who the previous year had helped found the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fidesz, a liberal youth movement.
If we are determined enough, then we can
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