Three individuals are suddenly, unexpectedly arrested, charged and taken to prison.
Unacquainted beforehand, they finally ask one another, "What brings you here?"
Person 1: "I said something rude about comrade Kovács."
Person 2: "I said something nice about comrade Kovács."
Person 3: "I am comrade Kovács."

What makes a real clairvoyant?
Someone who also sees into the pasts, as well as into the futures of those at the political top.


Absurd, these witticisms and others of the communist era may have been but at their best they captured the situation wholeheartedly in a short, eloquent way, with some ironic cheer. At worst, these dark ditties bring back unwanted remembrances. The last thing I want this article to do is undermine and trivialise those adversities – and some of this old silliness still has value and an occasional embarrassing relevance today.

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As many know, it was no laughing matter in Hungary during the 1950s when the feared Rákosi dictatorship was in full force. There was no freedom of speech. Oppression reigned over schools, churches, universities, media and general everyday life. The secret police and surveillance squads prevailed everywhere. Everyone was under some form of suspicion for "something". With overbearing censorship, it did not matter about quality, humour, intellect or stupidity: any jokes, gossip or complaints that ridiculed the government, no matter how slight and regardless of any truth, meant serious trouble.

The penalty for political jest or (as the authorities would view this) creating some form of propaganda and/or treason, would generally be a three-year prison sentence for the "conspirator". And probably two years incarceration for anyone (on the listening end) not reporting this "crime" to the officials. As for publishing any deemed offences, that would have been even more unthinkable.

After the 1956 Uprising and into the 1960s, speaking "openly" was still a high-risk factor. Fortunately, the Kádár era of 1956 to 1988 was less repressive. A modicum of relief' came with a new wave, exclusive to Hungary, called "Goulash Communism". Alongside the rise of popular music and culture, authorities displayed some acceptance of political humour and criticism.

With this newfound "thaw", Hungary was tagged "The Happiest Barracks", surreal though this notion may have seemed in a nation still not free. Finally, in 1989 – like the genie from the lamp or birds kept in cages for far too long – the people, the treasure trove of stories, literature and good and bad jokes alike all "flew out". The people were released and communism, dictatorship and tyranny dispelled.

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For a further understanding of those times I highly recommend the 1969 satirical film "A tanú", meaning "The Witness". This farce is based on a peasant father whose only wish is for him and his family to live a simple life without hindrance. But the accident-prone Mr. Pelikan is either being suspiciously pursued or simultaneously decorated with honours by the local authoritarians, all by moderate chance. He is continually caught for various misdemeanours that see him in and out of jail for offences he either did or did not commit.

Remarkably, the authorities at that time allowed this dark production to happen. Yes, it was immediately banned on release but gained a cult following and has become a classic. Although very sombre, this story is beautifully and artistically filmed with a strong earthy atmosphere throughout. It is very well scripted and there is splendid River Danube and Budapest scenery. This intriguing parody was screened at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and comes with English subtitles, if not other language options too.

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Here are more vintage vestiges, ridiculous perhaps but all carrying a message:

"Why do we have to build socialism?"
"Because it is better than having to work."


"Is it possible to create socialism in Switzerland, Monaco, Hollywood?"
"It is, but why bother?"


"How to compare freedom to communism?"
"Compare a chair to an electric chair."


One day a conservative, a socialist and a communist decide to put differences aside and engage in an informal family tea party.
Unfortunately, the socialist arrives late and, as always, starts complaining about long queues and short supplies of ham, jam and cheese.
"What is queueing?" asks the loud, proud conservative.
"What is ham, jam and cheese?" asks the communist.


"How many people does it take to sweep a road?"
"Three. One sweeps up, the other two watch over this dangerous and suspicious intellectual."


"With wanting to deliver socialism, what are the main obstacles which get in the way?
"Spring, summer, autumn, winter."


And so the stories and jokes from the former regime fly on. They may be far from humorous for those who really were there and went through this time. I wonder if in 10 years time there will be similar accounts relating to the follies beyond this point, such as "champagne socialism", political correctness, mass consumer culture and anything relating to mass decadence from the Western sphere. I have made a few notes and prepared a few jokes already.

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