Khrushchev in Hungary: How Isolated Eastern Leaders Reinforced Each Other

Anastasia Felcher

What do we primarily remember Nikita Khrushchev for? We may remember the 1953–1964 leader of the Soviet Union for introducing a number of reform policies, on the one hand: de-Stalinization (see his Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, condemning Stalin), the relatively short period of “relaxed repression” and censorship known as the Thaw, or peaceful coexistence with other nations, including those in the West. On the other hand, we cannot speak about Khrushschev without mentioning the intervention crushing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, or the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, to say the least. Revisiting his career through the archival documents held at the Blinken OSA Archivum, one discovers plenty of minor episodes that the analysts working at the Munich headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) did, however, consider important. Through press clippings compiled at the RFE/RL Research Institute, we will recall two official visits the Soviet leader paid to Budapest, and examine how Western journalists interpreted these political events on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Forrás. [Source., or Boiling point] is a blog series by the Blinken OSA Archivum staff at the Hungarian news website Blinken OSA Archivum Slavic Archivist Anastasia Felcher’s post explores Western reporting on Nikita Khrushchev’s official visits to Hungary. The post originally appeared on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet leader taking office, on

With Nikita Khrushchev, nicknamed “The Tourist,” foreign visits became somewhat ordinary practice in Soviet politics. The relatively large number of his trips abroad were a subject of special interest to the Western public, as they were revealing of his foreign policy. His two visits to Budapest capture his political career in very different stages. The first trip, in 1958, took place in the aftermath of the 1956 Revolution, and strived to publicly demonstrate the Soviet leader’s support for Kádár and his political course. The second, in 1964, happened on the verge of Khrushchev’s downfall, which, however, was unimaginable at the time.

The New York Times on Khrushchev’s 1958 visit to Hungary, alleging that “Mr. Kadar’s authority still is being challenged within the Hungarian party, diplomatic informants say, and the public blessing from Mr. Khrushchev may help to reinforce his position.”
(HU OSA 300-80-7 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute, Soviet Red Archives, USSR Biographical Files)

In 1958, the Hungarian leader János Kádár, still at the beginning of his tenure that had started in 1956, was in relative isolation. However, with time, recognition of his regime grew, in parts thanks to visiting Socialist leaders endorsing him. On April 2, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Hungary at Ferihegy Airport, for an eight-day visit to the capital and a number of industrial cities. Hungarian officials met the delegation at the airport, and both Khrushchev and Kádár addressed the crowd from a tribune erected in front of the terminal. Kádár delivered a speech on the growing strength of the Socialist camp, and denounced the use of nuclear weapons in solving international disputes; Khrushchev stressed how the two countries stood firmly together. While the 13th anniversary of Hungary’s liberation from Nazi Germany served as the official reason for the trip, the common understanding in Western press was that with this visit Khrushchev had given Kádár a blessing. In exchange, Kádár was expected to demonstrate unchallenged and long-standing loyalty to the USSR.

On April 4, Khrushchev, in the company of Kádár and other senior officials, attended a military parade demonstrating the force of the Hungarian army as well as the Red Army stationed in Hungary. Western reporters questioned why Soviet troops continued to be present in the country, especially after suppressing the 1956 Revolution. Khrushchev himself addressed the matter on several occasions during this trip. Speaking to the workers in Cegléd, he claimed he was ready to withdraw the troops from Hungary—and other countries, such as East Germany—as soon as the West did the same. Then in Tatabánya, he declared that Socialist countries would never force their system on other countries by armed force.

The most obvious bone of contention through which Western journalists covered the visit was the Soviet involvement in suppressing the 1956 Revolution. Besides Western media outlets reminding readers that only a year and a half ago Soviet bullets and tanks ruined Budapest, the reports hinted at an uneasiness around the matter. At the parade in Budapest, the officials’ stand was installed by carefully covering and decorating the empty pedestal of the Stalin monument that had been toppled in October 1956. Later, meeting workers in Cegléd, Khrushchev spoke at length about 1956. He blamed Mátyás Rákosi, Kádár’s predecessor, for creating “distortions” that, together with “forces from abroad,” were responsible for the “bourgeois counter-revolution.” He claimed having sleepless nights before taking the decision to intervene, yet explaining that this prevented the “Socialist achievements of Hungarian workers” from being drowned in the blood of the people by Fascist rebels. Reports cited him saying, “our hands never tremble when we have to strike a blow at the class enemy. We saw that workers were among the counter-revolutionaries, but bullets do not make a distinction about their target or whether they hit the class enemy of misled workers.” Some accounts noted the Hungarian crowd taking breaks from enthusiastic cheering and rhythmic clapping, especially in Tatabánya, one of the last strongholds back in 1956.

A map outlining Khrushchev’s tour in Hungary in 1964, published in the weekly Hungary.
(HU OSA 300-40-1 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute, Hungarian Unit, Subject Files)

In 1964, 10 days before Kádár traveled to Moscow to celebrate Khrushchev’s 70th birthday, the Soviet leader arrived at Budapest on April 2. Just like in 1958, Khrushchev once again came, officially, to attend the anniversary of the Soviet Army liberating Hungary from the Nazi occupation. This time, however, Hungary’s Liberation Day parade failed to draw much attention, having been overshadowed by a major concern looming over Soviet foreign policy; the Sino–Soviet split, a political-ideological clash between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Already in the 1950s, Chinese Communists, including Mao Zedong personally, expressed discontent with de-Stalinization and, remaining belligerent toward the West, denounced the very idea of international peaceful coexistence.

During his Hungarian visit in 1964, Khrushchev referred to his Chinese counterpart a number of times. Speaking in front of workers at the Miskolc railway station, for instance, the Soviet leader claimed that “only a complete idiot can pretend to prove that it is easier to build Socialism alone, than by using the possibilities and support of the fraternal community of peoples”; on another occasion, he mentioned “people who want to bring Stalin’s corpse back to life.” In Budapest, he delivered a speech milder in tone; then, causing a scandal, the original version of the text was obtained by Western journalists. Deleted paragraphs in this advance text would have accused the Chinese of seeking “hegemony over the Communist world” and “irresponsibly playing with the lives of millions of people,” instilling the danger of “a thermonuclear war.” Embarrassing the host, the fact that the original was leaked hinted at the unreliability of the Hungarian apparatus. While RFE/RL raised that it may have had been Kádár who “prevailed on the Soviet leader to make the alteration”, publicly he sided with Khrushchev, as expected, stating that the Chinese attacks on Soviet policy were “dramatic distortions.”

This internal guidance sent to RFE/RL editors speculates that it was Kádár who insisted on softening the tone of voice of Khrushchev’s speech.

(HU OSA 300-40-1 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute, Hungarian Unit, Subject Files)

Still, Khrushchev’s eventual removal in October was uneasy to predict at the time. Judging by RFE/RL’s Background Reports, Khruhschev’s downfall came as a surprise even to experts at the radio’s Research Institute. Back in April 1964, on Khrushchev’s 70th birthday, analysts did consider the question of succession soon to overshadow Soviet domestic and foreign politics, but predicted it to be a “long drawn-out affair.” The sudden ouster, however, was something totally unexpected. Officially explained with Khrushchev’s “advanced age and deteriorating health,” his “voluntary” retirement was result of a plot designed and implemented in the highest echelons of power within the Communist Party, due to a growing dissatisfaction with his arbitrary decision-making in internal politics. 

After 10 years in power, Khrushchev stepped down as leader of the Soviet Union on October 15, 1964. His fall raised many questions the RFE/RL analysts, striving to understand what had happened in Moscow, were trying to get a take on. First was its constitutionality; the procedure was labeled as “stretching the provisions of the Soviet Constitution rather far, to say the least,” and also as “irrational” and “unceremonious.” Second was how Communist leaders across the world reacted. While it was generally believed that a successful coup d’état would inflict harm on the international reputation of the Soviet government, no responses from Socialist leaders—who agreed with the deposition, though with no uniformity—proved that. All of them praised Khrushchev, in sharp contrast to how he was treated in Moscow. Kádár was reportedly slow to respond, yet he filed no objection to the CPSU decision, demonstrating that he was loyal to ally countries and not to leaders; even in spite of his long-standing personal relations with Khruschev. The third aspect RFE/RL analysts highlighted was the development between Moscow and Peking right after the deposition; China did not comment on the Soviet leader’s removal officially, yet the Sino–Soviet polemics “disappeared” from the Chinese press, which was interpreted as a sign of readiness to relaunch the dialog with Russians.

“– Aren’t you tired? – No way, I’m only 70!”
In April 1964, the Hungarian party newspaper
Népszabadság (People’s freedom) still depicted Khrushchev as a tireless leader;
six months later, he would voluntarily retire due to his advanced age and deteriorating health.
(HU OSA 300-40-5 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute, Hungarian Unit, Biographical Files)

Three years after his fall, a 1967 news special on Khrushschev’s life aired on NBC. The documentary portrayed the former Soviet leader as an exiled pensioner peacefully sitting alone at his dacha, subdued to old age and silent thoughts. The former Soviet leader nostalgically revisited ceremonial gifts he had received from across the Socialist world back in the days. Interestingly, the political concerns that defined the era remain to be vividly relevant today: strained relations with the West and a search for allies in the East; the imminent danger of an all-encompassing war and nuclear escalation; the dilemma of succession, and its unforeseeable repercussions.