October 12, 2016

Impossible to Avoid: Rákosi’s Cult of Personality in the 1950s

The cult of personality for the Hungarian and Soviet party leaders during the dictatorship may seem comical from today’s perspective, but for those living through them it was a phenomenon that permeated every facet of daily life.

Mátyás Rákosi and Joseph Stalin were the artificial and exclusive “celebrities” of the 1950s, with their names, falsified résumés and portraits a familiar sight for everyone from toddlers to the elderly.

According to the propaganda, Rákosi was depicted as “our father” and “the wise leader of our people”. Pictures of him and Stalin were placed in a prominent location in every public building or office, and in many places, they were adorned with red drapes over and actual altar. Additionally, these mass murderers warm-heartedly gazed down from the walls of nurseries, kindergartens and schoolrooms onto the future working youth. Their achievements became a part of the curriculum, and their names were spun into nursery rhymes and children’s songs. Numerous factories, streets and public spaces bore their names, and should one of their names be mentioned, it had to be followed by a long and loud round of applause.

Rákosi’s 60th birthday in 1952 was a state-run, weeklong celebration. The subservient intellectuals praised him in verse, while works of art extolled his virtues either on a canvas or as statues.

The list of the surreal was long. Another example was that for Stalin’s 70th birthday, a new trolleybus line with the number 70 was launched in Budapest (and still runs today, although without any reference to Stalin). Another is that cadres wishing to show their loyalty to Rákosi named their children Mátyás. But that’s not all, a snake species that bore the same common name as Rákosi had to be renamed because, afterall, a viper could not have the same name as the party leader.

This catalogue of the absurd from the miserable 1950s was no laughing matter. Many who dared to make unfavorable remarks about the party leader received beatings or prison sentences. Here’s a famous joke from the era:

Rákosi, wanting to discover what the people really think of him, decides to sit in on a film at the theatre while hiding his identity. Publicly known informants and plainclothes police also sat in the audience. When Rákosi’s name was mentioned during the newsreel, everyone in the audience jumped to their feet in a round of wild applause. Rákosi, satisfied with the response, continued to watch from his seat. Seeing this, the person in the seat next to him gave him a nudge before adding: “Hey baldy, start clapping or the secret police will take you with them!”

Ajtony Virágh