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Maziarski, Wojciech: The Brotherhood of Cherry Pits

In the early summer of 1981, we shot at a statue of Soviet soldiers on St. Francis Square in the heart of Budapest. At that time it was still called Liberation Square. It was good it still had this name. It would be silly to fight a battle in a place named after the Franciscan spirit of humility, joy and love for all creatures. On Liberation Square - you are welcome to shoot.

A lecture of the illegal "flying university" dedicated to the experiences of the Polish "Solidarność" had just finished. The participants had not yet left for their homes when, all of a sudden, a strange silence fell outside, and a low buzzing began to grow. We ran for the windows. From the fifth floor we had an excellent view of some lorries covered with canvas, jeeps and vehicles pulling guns and trailers. At that time in Hungary it was a common scene. After the 1956 uprising, the Soviet empire no longer hid its presence, and from time to time reminded the locals of the political situation and allowed their troops - on their way to base or the training grounds - to drive through the streets of towns and villages.

We attacked them with cherry pits that someone had brought in large amounts from the garden. The cannonade lasted a good few minutes and was aborted only after the last car in the column disappeared around the corner. "It's a fitting symbol of our mutual endeavors for freedom and democracy in Central Europe," somebody said, as the city outside the windows shook off the sound of the army's diesel motors and returned to normal evening life. "Here you have a small group of unemployed and marginalized Hungarian intellectuals and one student from Poland attacking the forces of the Soviet Union with cherry pits." It sounded as if he wanted to say: "Abandon all hope."

He was wrong. Today, the host of that meeting - Ferenc Koszeg - is the chairman of the Hungarian section of the Helsinki Committee, and, after 1989, became a politician and a member of parliament. The speaker at the time, Gábor Demszky, who was describing his stay in Poland and his meetings with the leaders of "Solidarność," is now one of the most popular personalities in Hungarian public life, and has been the mayor of Budapest for four straight terms. Others of those "marginalized intellectuals" are now journalists, businessmen, employees of research institutions, and representatives of elites and the middle class. Apparently, the Polish-Hungarian brotherhood of cherry pits was more effective than it realized.

Budapest express train

However, cherry pits were not the main weapon in this alliance. The written word played a much more important role, multiplied in several thousand copies and distributed among Hungarian readers, who in the 1980s learned to their astonishment that it was possible not only to write something but also to print it without the authorities' consent. But what a paradox: The first issue of Beszélö, the clandestine (samizdat) periodical produced with Polish printing technology, went to distribution the same day that General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared the martial law in Warsaw. The distribution in Hungary of the underground press can be credited mainly to current Mayor Demszky, who brought from Poland not only stories about Solidarity but also silk-screen printing skills, and started the AB publishing house, the first Hungarian publisher of samizdat. He even borrowed some terminology from the Poles: the copying of the text from a stencil stretched over a frame was called "ramkazik" by the Hungarians, which was derived from the Polish word "ramka" (frame). Nowadays it is a forgotten term, as is the technique itself.

One of the first publications released in Budapest in samizdat was a selection of materials from the underground press from the beginnings of the martial law. On 13 December, 1981, the Jaruzelski regime tried to cut off all possible channels of communication and exchange of information within the country and abroad. However, they forgot about "the loos". Polish underground pamphlets traveled on the Batory express train through sleeping Slovakia, stuck in foil bags to the insides of the garbage bins in the toilets, and being delivered first thing in the morning straight into the hands of Hungarian publishers, as well as of middlemen who transmitted the information by telephone to the West and to Polish emigré centers.

Those who know the contemporary reality of the Poland-Belarus or the Poland-Ukraine border most likely by now have forgiving smiles on their faces. The naïve concepts of the conspirators a quarter of a century ago impress no one anymore. Now everyone and his brother can think of better techniques for smuggling spirits and cigarettes across the border. A bag in the garbage bin? You must be joking. At the time, however, it was an innovative idea, and the
secret police never discovered the contraband. Not only did the Hungarians adopt the Polish printing technique, they almost adopted their radio broadcasting methods as well. At the end of the 1980s the same Demszky, inspired by the experiences of the Solidarity radio, was thinking of starting a radio transmitting station in Budapest to interfere with TV programming. An envoy from Hungary came in the spring of 1989 to Warsaw for training in radio broadcasting.

The first programme was scheduled for 23 October (the anniversary of the 1956 uprising). However, the radio station never opened because communism had just collapsed. On that very day in Hungary, a multiparty democracy system was solemnly proclaimed.

Anti-communist internationalism

Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians. In those times we needed each other. The 1980s were a time of building democratic anti-communist internationalism. A decade of solidarity across borders. We were overwhelmed by the regionalization of our resistance and our shared feeling of a Central European fate.

Whenever a slight political thaw occurred and we could stick at least the tips of our noses above the surface, we immediately tried to fill the public domain with institutions and symbols of our community. In the second half of the 1980s, initiatives popped up like mushrooms: "Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity," "Polish-Hungarian Solidarity," "The Eastern European Information Agency," mutual publishing initiatives, statements, demonstrations for mutual expressions of solidarity, and observance of our neighbors' anniversaries.

Sometimes - as in the case of the Polish-Hungarian Solidarity - these organizations were not needed and did not serve any purposes. What do you need an institutional framework for when you are a group of friends and acquaintances who get along well and for years have done things together without needing any such structures? Nevertheless, for some reason we thought that such institutions were necessary. We probably wanted to demonstrate our mutual presence in the public domain. We wanted symbolic endorsement of the importance and longevity of our relationships.

Life vetted these ambitions: institutions that arose from authentic necessity, such as the Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity or the Eastern European Information Agency, flourished, whereas those that were artificial, like the Polish-Hungarian Solidarity, ended their lives with their mission statements.

And then came the Autumn of the People in 1989. Some of us hoped that the moment had come when the conspiratorial internationalism of resistance to totalitarianism would come to the fore and shape the politics of this part of Europe. Many of us in Poland hoped that our spiritual fatherland, based on our mutual experiences and fate in Central Europe, would take an institutional shape and materialize in the form of... well, of what? Federation, confederation? Nobody was courageous enough to say it, but something like that was going through our heads.

Nonetheless, nothing of the kind happened. The citizens of Central Europe shared the fate of the East Germans, who had wanted to nurse their identity and autonomy. They were absorbed and digested by the German Federative Republic, while we were incorporated by the West, which we had always wanted to join, at the same time that we were convinced of the identity and exceptionality of Central Europe. The powerful wave from the West washed off our institutions and symbols. Our Visegrad Group, this joint political-economic-cultural creation, was not thought of as an independent being, but more as a tool enabling our integration with Euro-Atlantic structures. Somewhere at the local level there were some remnants of past alliances such as Polish-Czech-Slovak Solidarity, which was transformed into a forum for cross-border cooperation. However, the myth of Central Europe suffered a defeat. It disappeared in the turmoil of globalization and Euro-Atlantic integration.

Perhaps it was a great triumph, but were we not able to foresee it? Maybe the solidarity of the Central European nations lies in what they do not have. There are no border disagreements, no territorial claims, no sharp ethnic conflicts in our part of the continent. Perhaps it is easier to assess the Central European legacy of international resistance when we turn our eyes towards the former Yugoslavia - and ask whether, without the brotherhood of cherry pits shared by the Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, and Ukrainians, we would still enjoy the peace and quiet that we are blessed with today.

Wojciech Maziarski
Chief of the publicist column for Newsweek Poland. Co-founder of the Eastern European News Agency (panel for cooperation between Polish, Czechoslovak, Hungarian, and Lithuanian opposition). From 1989 to 2003 journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza.

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