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Culture

Gleanings

One in a series of occasional excerpts from books that catch our eye.

The following is an excerpt from “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt-Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts,” by Julian Rubinstein (Little, Brown). In it, Rubinstein offers a hilarious account of crime in the heart of the new Europe, centered on the story of Attila Ambrus, also known as the Robin Hood of Eastern Europe.

On the nights Attila didn’t stay at Judit’s, he whiled away his insomnia in his sparkling red Opel, acquiring another kind of education. Budapest’s narrow, downtown streets thumped with hypnotic bass beats emanating from basement-level techno clubs. At traffic lights, vendors stood draped head-to-toe not with newspapers but with every variety of porn publication imaginable. Outside the neon-lit casinos near the Hungarian Science Academy, women in unbuttoned black mink coats over bikinis handed out drink tickets for the establishments whose call Attila could avoid only by staying inside his car.

Some nights, Attila would turn a familiar corner and find himself on a street he’d swear he’d never seen. Stereo and discount furniture stores that had opened only months earlier were zapped and re-opened as computer and imported leather joints the next. Ferenc Liszt Square, famous for its cafes, now had another claim to fame: across the street stood the world’s largest Burger King.

The traditional, intellectual Eastern European cultural scene — opera, classical music, folk dance, art film, satirical theater — was supplanted by new movie theaters showing foreign films like “The Untouchables,” and blockbuster imported television shows like “Miami Vice.” Some started referring to the changes Hungary was undergoing as the Amerikanizacioa or Americanization, as if it were a state of consciousness that had been intravenously introduced. Like a Happy Meal or a Peanut Buster Parfait, most people knew it wasn’t good for them but it also wasn’t easy to turn down when dangled in front of their faces.

Meanwhile, day by day, protective fences and security cameras were being installed around buildings and warehouses. In the first five months of his tenure, the new Budapest police chief had his car stolen. Twice. Hungary’s suicide and alcoholism rates soared. Among those who took their own lives in 1993 were 12 of the thousands who had been lured into a failed ponzi scheme to raise and sell ring worms.

Disillusionment with capitalism’s side effects was hardly unique to Hungary. The former Soviet republic of the Ukraine, which abuts northeast Hungary, watched inflation hit 10,000 percent in 1992. The cost of a loaf of bread sometimes doubled from one day to the next. In Poland, which like Hungary was offered up by Western pundits as a model of democratic transition, a group of protesters marched on the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw with signs reading, “We are gradually becoming Los Angeles blacks, living in poverty among luxurious hotels and shining supermarkets.” Yet the highest measured level of discontent in the first several years of the post-communist era was not among the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Russians or the Romanians. It was in Hungary, purportedly the most progressive country of them all, where by 1992, more than 40 percent of the population concluded that they preferred communism to the so-called free market capitalism that they were, according to the Western press, enjoying.

Attila had never thought of himself as a politically minded person. But it was hard not to wonder what the $2 billion of U.S. corporate investment in Hungary, which the Hungarian government had touted as a triumph for its people, had done for him besides presenting the opportunity to bet the house on a round of roulette. In the neighborhood near the Las Vegas Casino, where Attila got his Opel waxed, the local mayor backed a foreign company’s $1.2 billion proposal to build an officer tower with luxury shops and apartments that required knocking down part of the historic old Jewish Quarter, and dislocating thousands of people. “Why sell to foreign interests?” complained one resident at a raucous town hall meeting on the issue. “Local entrepreneurs should be given a chance.” Half of Attila’s teammates had resorted to setting up fictional international businesses just to get the tax breaks offered to foreign companies.

To make matters worse, Hungary’s privatization process was beginning to look more like a crash course in cronyism and money laundering than an equal opportunity method of redistributing state-owned holdings into public hands. Valuable buildings and companies formerly owned by the Communist state were being bestowed — for little or even nothing — to the ruling political party and its allies, after which they were sold for hundreds of millions of dollars — to yet another branch of the government. With that as the new prototype, some Hungarians began referring to the post-communist era as “Szabad Rablas,” or “free robbery.” It was a term that had last been used in Hungary at the end of World War II to describe the Nazis’ pillaging of Budapest before the Russians chased them away. The gravity of those final bloody days of the war was far greater than the sinister but somehow weightless aura of nascent capitalism. But there was one distinct similarity: It was every man for himself. And that was a sentiment with which Attila Ambrus had always identified.

During one of his late-evening/early morning rides, a building on Huvosvolgyi Street up in the northern part of the city suddenly jumped out at him. It was an interesting edifice, he thought, and not only because it was a Post Office and he was veering into debt. It was also because the structure was located on the opposite side of the district from the police precinct station, a distance he discovered required three minutes and twelve seconds to cover going 80 miles per hour at 3:00 a.m. During heavy traffic times, it would take at least twice that long. Plus, when he popped in for a look at the place during business hours, twice, he saw only female employees, whom he imagined would be less fussy about unorthodox requests for withdrawal. This robbery business wasn’t going to be a regular thing, Attila rationalized; he just needed to get back on track so he and Karcsi could get their legitimate endeavors up and running. And the last gig had been so easy. He’d really have to screw up to get caught.

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