On November 4, 1956, Soviet tanks entered Budapest to perform the “fraternal task” of suppressing a short-lived popular revolt against the Soviet-installed Communist government and ending the shorter-lived reform government of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who had committed the ultimate political sin: he had declared that Hungary would exit the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviet “peacekeeping forces” spent the next week organizing a full-scale military assault against the Hungarian forces of democracy, which fought back relentlessly. At the end of the week 2500 Hungarian civilians were killed and 20,000 wounded; Nagy was evicted from office, and replaced by Soviet-leaning Janos Kadar, who pledged to work with the Soviet troops to “put an end to the excesses of the counter-revolutionary elements”; over 30,000 Hungarian citizens were arrested, many subsequently imprisoned or executed; and eventually Nagy and his close associates were executed after secret trials, their bodies buried in unmarked graves.
Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was secured for the next thirty-plus years (though similar “fraternal” efforts were effected by Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968, and then threatened against the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980).
At the same time, for a great many the suppression of the Hungarian uprising was a vivid, and decisive, sign of the illegitimacy, and brutality, of Soviet Communism, and of the absurdity of the notion that the Warsaw Pact was a “fraternal” agreement of equals.
Albert Camus had long been a critic of Russian communism. He was not surprised by what happened in Budapest in November of 1956. But he was outraged.
In February of 1957 he gave a short interview to the French magazine Demain, published under the title “Socialism of the Gallows,” that indicted the “generalized lie” of Communism and chastised Western intellectuals “who insist on seeing nothing but doves in the East and vultures in the West.” Camus acknowledged the complexity of the political world, and the dangers of political moralizing (“the continual signing of manifestoes and protests is one of the surest ways of undermining the efficacy and dignity of the intellectual”). But he also insisted that in certain situations, like Spain under Franco and Hungary under Kadar, the intellectual “must leave no room for doubt as to which side he takes; he must be very careful not to let his choice be clouded by wily distinctions or discreet balancing tricks, and to leave no question as to his personal determination to defend liberty.”
The next month he published a short piece in France-Tireur with the title “Kadar Had His Day of Fear,” expanding on his outrage at the Soviet suppression of liberty in Hungary, and in Eastern Europe more generally. Conceding that “the defects of the West are innumerable,” he nonetheless insisted that at least citizens of Western societies enjoy a modicum of intellectual freedom and political pluralism, whereas there is “room for nothing in Stalinist culture except for edifying sermons, colorless life, and the catechism of propaganda.”
In a subsequent 1957 interview published in Demain under the heading “The Wager of Our Generation,” Camus was asked whether “we really [must] be willing to forget all that is bad on one side to fight what is worse o the other.” He responded by quoting Richard Hilary, the heroic British fighter pilot who lost his life during World War II: “’We were fighting a lie in the name of a half-truth.’ He thought he was expressing a very pessimistic idea. But one may even have to fight a lie in the name of a quarter-truth. This is our situation at present. However, the quarter-truth contained in Western society is called liberty.”
The political world today is so very different from the world of 1956.
The Soviet empire in Eastern Europe fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union itself disbanded a few years later. Much has changed. But some things are not that different.
Vladimir Putin is no Stalin or Kruschev. But he longs to Make Russia Great Again; sees himself as the tribune of a “Eurasianism” that stands in stark opposition to Western liberal democracy; and claims the right—at once historical, strategic, moral, and spiritual– to reassert Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe.
By all appearances and based on credible sources, Ukraine—including its capital city of Kyiv– is now under Russian attack.
Today Russian bombs, and tanks, and troops, are again ravaging another country under the pretext of “fraternity” and “peace.”
The “defects” of Western liberal democracies are even more glaring today than they were in 1956. There is much forgetfulness, much hypocrisy, much injustice. We who live in these liberal democracies have our hands full doing what we can to keep our societies even barely liberal and barely democratic—imperfect, frail, corrupt, and yet free.
Putin is a declared enemy of this. He has made war on democracy in his own country, and he now is making war on Ukraine. He aims to regain control of the country and to replace its very imperfect liberal democratic regime with the kind of “managed democracy” run by him in Russia, and by his soulmate the brutal Lukashenko in Belarus—a form of electoral authoritarianism which brooks no political opposition or social pluralism. And he aims to prevent, at all costs, the “pollution” of Russia by “Western values,” by which he means civil liberties, intellectual freedom, gender equality, and liberal democracy itself.
Putinism is a brutal lie.
And today the citizens of Ukraine have been left no choice but to fight the lie.
They may be standing for only a half or quarter truth.
But that truth, however partial, is called liberty.
And it deserves our spirited defense and our steadfast support.
Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.