October 23, 1956

Stalin’s statue comes tumbling down: the destruction of a symbol of regime’s tyranny

The toppling of the despised statue of Stalin has become one of the most emblematic scenes of the 1956 Revolution.

The statue’s history goes back to 1949 and Stalin’s 70th birthday, which was also the same year that the communists officially took power in Hungary. At the time the Budapest City Council wished to pay their respects to “our liberator” and “the greatest friend of our people” with a grandiose statue.

The statue, which was completed in 1951, stood 18 meters tall together with the pedestal on which it was fixed, and towered over the square built for party processions. The construction of Felvonulási (Procession) Square required the demolition of the Regnum Marianum Catholic Church, but only after a human chain attempting to prevent said demolition was dispersed by the ÁVH secret police.

In 1953, the statue’s pedestal was decorated with two reliefs: one featuring the liberating Red Army, the other praising work to build socialism. Throughout the 1950s this square became the location for all official state processions, where student and worker attendance was compulsory.

With this backstory, it’s no surprise that the bronze colossus became a symbol of the dictatorship and oppression, and that this embodiment of Soviet tyranny was one of the first targets once the revolution began. In fact, its removal featured as one of the items on the list of demands compiled by the student protestors.

On October 23, 1956 the statue came tumbling down in front of a cheering crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. The statue was cut at the top of its boots, while the body was pulled down with cables wrapped around its neck. The boots that remained atop the tribune had Hungarian flags placed in them, and for a long time afterward locals referred to the location at “Boot Square”.

Stalin’s statue was then dragged by truck to Blaha Lujza Square in central Budapest, where it was covered with revolutionary slogans before being broken into pieces. Many took a piece of “Comrade Stalin” home with them. Having a piece of the Stalin statue, for a Hungarian, is similar to a German having a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Although the revolution was crushed, the Kádár regime that followed had no intention of rebuilding the statue. But the pedestal remained, so they converted it into a ceremonial tribune from which the party leaders waved to the procession that passed by every year on May 1st. After the regime change of 1989, the tribune lost its function and was last used in 1991 as a stage for the “Goodbye Ivan!” pop music festival held to celebrate the withdrawal of the last remaining Soviet troops. The structure was later removed, and today the square goes by a different name, the Square of the 56ers, with a memorial to the revolution.

Ajtony Virágh