Putin Goes Soviet: Shades of Hungary 1956

COMMENTARY: Right now, Ukraine is being martyred once again. And yet again, the persecutors march from Moscow.

At right, a Russian armored vehicle sits at a railway station in Rostov Oblast, Russia Feb. 25, awaiting deployment to Ukraine. At left, a Soviet tank sits on St. Joseph Boulevard in Budapest, on Nov. 6, 1956, two days after helping to crush the uprising in Hungary.
At right, a Russian armored vehicle sits at a railway station in Rostov Oblast, Russia Feb. 25, awaiting deployment to Ukraine. At left, a Soviet tank sits on St. Joseph Boulevard in Budapest, on Nov. 6, 1956, two days after helping to crush the uprising in Hungary. (photo: Stringer and Intercontinental / AFP via Getty Images)

I’m being asked for a sense of historical perspective to capture the gravity of what Vladimir Putin and his Russian troops are doing right now in the Ukraine. Is this unprecedented? Is there a parallel in recent Russian history?

In recent Russian history, no. Modern Russia is post-Cold War Russia, the once-hopeful product of the collapse of the USSR in December 1991. That Soviet disintegration was prompted by every “republic” of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, declaring independence from the monster parent-state prior to that December. 

By December 2021, I could write a piece for the Register celebrating the 30th anniversary of the end of the USSR, as Ukraine was joyfully celebrating its 30th year of freedom. Ukraine’s independence had been celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 2001. I wrote about that for the Register, as well, noting the Slavic Pope’s poignant description of that land “drenched with the blood of martyrs.”

Right now, Ukraine is being martyred once again. And yet again, the persecutors march from Moscow.

In terms of modern Russian history, this criminal act against humanity by Putin has no parallel. On the post-Cold War global stage, maybe the closest comparison would be Saddam Hussein’s raping of Kuwait in early 1991, but even that had ended before the USSR had ended. In fact, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin alike both condemned Hussein’s aggression and supported President George H.W. Bush’s rallying of the international community to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait in spring 1991.

As it relates to Russia, or perhaps I should say “Moscow” or the Kremlin, the current Ukraine invasion evokes memories of the Red Army assault on Afghanistan in December 1979, of the so-called Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and, most of all, of the invasion of Hungary in October-November 1956.

If we’re looking for parallels, I regret to say that I fear Ukraine 2022 could most resemble Hungary 1956, and that is not a pretty prospect.

It was Oct. 23, 1956, the feast day of St. John of Capistrano. Born in Capistrano, Italy, in 1385, the son of a German knight living in that city, John studied law and eventually entered the Franciscan community. He went to Hungary, where he became known as John Capistran. In the year 1456, leading a huge crusade force against invading Ottoman Turks, John marched at the head of an army of 70,000 Christian Hungarians, securing a monumental victory in the great Battle of Belgrade. Three months later, he died at Illok, Hungary. 

St. John had never hesitated to put himself in the thick of combat against invaders and oppressors who martyred many Hungarian faithful. In 1956, on the 500th anniversary of his death and remarkable victory — and on his feast day no less — the successors to St. John faced new invading forces. This time from the Soviet Union. It was Day One of the Hungarian revolution.

The Hungarian people had gathered that October 1956 in Budapest to tear down a giant statue of Stalin. It was the largest monument to Stalin in the world, and its location had profound significance. It stood on the site of Regnum Marianum, a church whose Latin name invoked the royalty of the Mother of Christ. The gorgeous church was built in 1931. In August 1951, the communists ripped down the church brick by brick. Erected in its place was the enormous edifice to Stalin, the bronze feet of which, according to lore, were situated precisely where the church altar had rested. Stalin’s bloated head alone was the size of five Hungarians.

That October, a huge crowd gathered around the base of the statue, chanting, “Let’s take it down!” Two dozen trucks showed up. People grabbed cables and rope and blow torches. They took it down.

The victory against the Kremlin was short-lived, however. Sensing this cry for independence, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, dispatched the Red Army. His regime ordered an immediate crushing of the Hungarian masses, going right to the capital of the country. Very quickly, countless thousands of freedom fighters were dead.

The Vatican responded swiftly, with Pope Pius XII — whom Stalin’s goons a decade earlier had tagged “Hitler’s Pope” — issuing a statement, Datis Nuperrime, with the pointed subtitle, “Encyclical on the Ruthless Use of Force in Hungary.” It was issued Nov. 5 and directed to the “Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and other Local Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Apostolic See.”

Not unlike Pope Francis issuing a worldwide call for prayer and peace for the Ukraine in 2022, Pope Pius XII called for “a new day of peace based on justice and liberty [for] the noble people of Hungary.”

But the prayers did not stop the Kremlin in 1956, just as they haven’t stopped the Kremlin in 2022.

Many people in Hungary subsequently endured terrible persecution. That included a Hungarian priest named Archbishop József Mindszenty, who was not surprised by his mistreatment. After all, this had long seemed to be his destiny. On Feb. 21, 1946, Archbishop Mindszenty had received the cardinal’s hat from Pope Pius XII. “Receive this red hat,” Pius told the prelate, “by which it is declared that thou shalt show thyself intrepid even unto death by the shedding of thy blood for the exaltation of the Blessed Savior.” As he placed the cardinal’s hat on Archbishop Mindszenty’s head, Pius XII looked at the other cardinals and prophesied: “Among the 32, you will be the first to suffer the martyrdom whose symbol this red color is.”

It didn’t take long. Shortly after returning home, the communists harassed and beat and tortured and incarcerated Cardinal Mindszenty. He spent the next eight years in a solitary confinement that nearly killed him.

The 1956 revolution, however, shook him loose. The cardinal was freed by rebel forces, though communists quickly regained control of the government. Rather than flee his people, Cardinal Mindszenty took residence in the U.S. embassy in Budapest, refusing to leave his country. He lived in the embassy for the next 15 years, offering up his anguish as a living martyr to Christian life under communism. Archbishop Fulton Sheen would famously call him “The Dry Martyr of Hungary.”

For the record, the Kremlin created a Mindszenty in every nation in Eastern Europe: Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac in Yugoslavia, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in Poland, Cardinal Štěpán Trochta and Cardinal Josef Beran in Czechoslovakia, Archbishop Josyf Slipyj in Ukraine (among numerous others in Ukraine), and too many priests and nuns to begin to name, and all of whose names are known only to heaven.

In every case, as they would with Pope Pius XII, the Kremlin smeared these Catholic clergyman as “Nazis,” as “Hitler sympathizers,” as “fascists.”

The current Kremlin campaign in Ukraine looks hauntingly similar. Putin and his propagandists are accusing Ukraine and its Jewish president of being pro-Nazi, an utterly ludicrous and laughable charge that no one believes. They launched their invasion under the pretext of a “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. They’re once again playing the “Nazi” card. Some things never change.

Putin’s big lies are reminiscent of the Big Lies told to the people of Hungary in 1956 by the head of the KGB — Yuri Andropov. Andropov, of course, would one day become Vladimir Putin’s boss at the KGB. (He was also the KGB head who approved the Kremlin’s attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.)

The current Ukraine situation also eerily resembles Hungary in the potential to send millions of citizens fleeing westward as refugees. Precisely that happened in Hungary in 1956, and it’s likely transpiring again now in 2022.

Worst of all, the situation has the potential for a large number of deaths from the Kremlin’s incursion. To this day, no one really knows how many people were killed in the 1956 invasion. We know only that it was many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. It was a bloody tragedy. 

We can only hope and pray that that similar fate does not befall the people of Ukraine in 2022.