Communist living standard in retrospect
In the Cold War it became clear that democracy and human rights are not among the advantages offered by Communism. Politicians of the Western hemisphere recognized this shortly after World War II, but in a few decades people living behind the Iron Curtain started to recognize this too. Indeed, for those who did not care about free speech and democratic elections, life was not so bad during the Communism. Each country in the Soviet Block had its own specialty. Rumor had that people in Poland were allowed to speak their minds more freely than in other countries. Similar views were in vogue regarding Hungary, often referring to it as "the happiest barrack."
The lack of common sense and the ignorance regarding the principles of market economy were the two major characteristics of Communist economy which ruined the industries of many Communist countries. In Hungary, light industry somehow survived, and along with the government's effort to maintain the standard of living, contributed to the development of "the happiest barrack" by the early 1960's.
During the Communist era, Hungary carried the widest variety of commodities in Eastern Europe. Food shortages were not rare in the surrounding countries, while Hungarians got to pick their food and clothes out of a small, but ever increasing variety of domestic and imported products. Other goods and services were also offered under reasonable conditions -- at least compared to Communist standards. Moreover, inflation was unheard of. The government made every effort to maintain the prices, even by means of enormous state subsidies, so that Hungarians got all the goods at the same price for decades.
Unemployment was also nonexistent. The government managed to find everyone a job, even if this meant that the person did not do any real work. People received a salary which they felt adequate, and they had products they could spend their money on. If you worked hard, or pretended to do so, and saved for a few years, you had the opportunity to buy a home, a car, and to bring up your children in safety. Under such conditions, freedom of speech and "democracy" were not that essential. After the terror ceased in the late 1950's, Communist Hungary, or as it was called, The People's Republic of Hungary was truly the "happiest barrack" of the Soviet Block.
The Democratic Transition in 1989 made people remember that "good" and "bad" were only relevant when compared to each other. While civil rights gave hope to those who had been missing them, and everyone rejoiced over the end of the Communist oppression, the "common folks" soon had to realize that their future was not as bright as their past.
Maintaining a state-controlled Communist economic system took enormous amounts of money. The huge state subsidies which resulted in a continuously high living standard, low prices and full employment needed an equally big amount of credit to maintain. Naturally, the new government inherited the debts, and, began paying those back. Hence, the Democratic Transition introduced some changes into Hungarian economy: both inflation and unemployment appeared and reached the level they should have reached without the state subsidies of the past forty years. With freedom and democratic rights, Hungarians also received a heavy dose of reality which many of them, especially the older ones, still prefer to reject.
Generally, when Hungarians are questioned about their living standard, they tend to say that they had a better life during the Communist era. The Hungarian citizen of "the happiest barrack" had a safe job with a safe income, a safe future with a comfortably limited amount of choice, and an opportunity to purchase the products that enhanced his life. The Democratic Transition took these "safe" aspects of life away.
Knowing this, one could say that Hungarians had a higher standard of living during the Communist era, even though the country was oppressed politically. But more importantly, many Hungarians feel that they traded a better and safer life for democratic rights they did not really need or understand. The younger generation understands that life in the new Hungary is often up to the individual and with some work and hustle you can make the best of it. But for the elderly citizens, Communism will remain associated with more pleasant living conditions.
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Was life in Hungary was better during the Communism?