23 October 1956: Hungarian Revolution starts

Imre Nagy © Getty images
Hungary’s Imre Nagy was executed in 1958

From 1928 until his death in March 1953, Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union and its satellites with ruthless brutality. When Nikita Khrushchev took over later that year, he eased up on the purges, while setting up the Warsaw Pact, binding Soviet-occupied countries in eastern and central Europe to the USSR. In February 1956, Khrushchev made a speech to top party officials criticising Stalin’s methods, sparking hope of further change.

But with anti-communist feeling running high, protestors in Poland demanded the reinstatement of a less hardline leader who had previously been removed. Protests for similar reforms in Hungary followed. On 23 October, security forces attacked protestors, killing a student. This merely inflamed the situation and the protests escalated. Many police officers switched sides.

That night Hungarian leader Matyas Rakosi requested help from Soviet troops, but was forced to resign the next day in favour of Imre Nagy. The Hungarian army united behind the protestors and Soviet troops had to withdraw from the capital. Although a communist, Nagy realised the population wanted an end to the system, so he announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and demanded that Soviet troops withdraw from Hungary.

The Soviet response was brutal. Tanks rolled into the country and by 11 November Hungary was back under Soviet control. At least 2,500 Hungarians were killed. Nagy was arrested and executed in June 1958, effectively ending protest in the USSR. Under communism, Hungary stagnated. By 1990, GDP per head was around 40% of the western European average.

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