50 years ago today, revolution in Hungary forced the resignation of its neo-Stalinist government and the appointment in its place of Imre Nagy, a reformist Communist, as prime minister.

Nagy proceeded to form a national government that promised neutrality, freedom of the press and multi-party democracy, but within two weeks it was overthrown by a Soviet invasion. Despite a promise of safe-conduct, Nagy was arrested, tried in secret and later executed.

That much is clear, but the interpretation of those events remains controversial in Hungary and elsewhere. Celebrations overnight in Budapest have been marred by violence, with police using tear gas against anti-government protesters.

Prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has been the centre of controversy since last month’s release of a tape in which he confessed to lying about the economy in this year’s elections.

Hungary’s right-wing opposition professes itself outraged that Gyurcsany’s Socialist Party — heirs of 1956’s Communists — should be at the helm for the anniversary celebrations.

Yet Nagy himself was a Communist, as were the Hungarian leaders of 1989 who eventually dismantled the one-party state. Both acted under pressure from the population, but they still deserve credit for what they did.

The story of the defeat of communism in central and eastern Europe needs to find room for both reformers and revolutionaries — for those who fought to change the system from inside as well as those who risked their lives fighting it in the streets.

So John Howard, when he acknowledges (as he did at the recent Quadrant
anniversary) Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II as the heroes of the Cold War, he should also find room in the pantheon for Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought down the curtain on the Soviet empire.