It’s the Russians! It’s the Russians!

I’ve been to Hungary twice.

On our first visit, we arrived on a train from Vienna. The train stopped a half mile from the Budapest station. In fact, we were in an open field. In less than a minute, uniformed soldiers had surrounded the train—one on each side of every passenger car, each one with a rifle at the ready. Outside, another pair of soldiers began slowly walking the length of the traIn. One of them held a long pole with a mirror attached to the end which was extended under the rail car. He was clearly looking to see if anyone was clinging to the underside of the rail car, trying to sneak into the country.

Meantime, another pair of soldiers had entered our car and were slowly proceeding down the center aisle. It was a first class car, so there were enclosed compartments on either side of the aisle. The pair stopped outside our compartment and one of them gestured for us all to step out into the aisle where our passports were carefully inspected by one of the young men. 

The other soldier then entered our compartment.  He stood on one of the upholstered seats and removed one of the ceiling panels. With a flashlight, he peered into the narrow overhead space between the ceiling and the roof of the rail car. Then he stepped down and, one by one, lifted the cushions on our seats to be sure there was no place for anyone to hide there.

Meanwhile, the soldier holding my passport was quizzing me in broken English to be sure I could recite my home address correctly, right down to and including the postal code. Finally, he looked at me sternly and said “You have naughty magazines?” I looked blank, so he got specific: “Playboy magazine?”  I shook my head. He stared at me for a couple of seconds, then moved on to the next compartment, where the whole routine was repeated.

It was about ten years later when we made our second visit to Hungary. Once again the train stopped short of the Budapest station and a uniformed young man boarded our car. His demeanor was relaxed and he was smiling when he asked for our passports.  He looked at mine and suddenly brightened. “From Hawaii!” he exclaimed. I said yes and there followed a brief exchange in which he asked if Hawaii is really as beautiful as the pictures he had seen. I assured him it is and he said, rather wistfully, that he would like to visit one day. Then he welcomed us to Hungary, wished us a pleasant visit, and moved on down the aisle.

Hungary was part of the Soviet bloc the first time we were there and the Russians were running things.  But they had left the country three years before our second visit. I’ve been thinking about the Russians today and a lot about the people of Ukraine.

It’s pretty clear what accounted for the difference we experienced on those two visits:

It was the Russians.