The Day of the Strudel

A true story, from the annals of diplomacy, about shooting wild boars with Nikita Khrushchev.

In the fall of 1961, Chairman Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev scheduled a short trip to Hungary. It was one of his numerous unannounced trips on which he combined business with pleasure. This time he planned to undertake serious negotiations and meanwhile enjoy his favorite recreation, hunting wild boars. As chief of protocol of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, I was responsible for the Soviet guest’s program.

The job was not an easy one, especially the task of bringing the hunting party to a successful conclusion. Thus, prior to Chairman Khrushchev’s arrival we toured the gorgeous Budakeszi wildlife refuge (about eighteen miles from Budapest) and worked out even the smallest details in advance. My companions included six-foot-seven Colonel Sebestyén, head of the Hungarian Secret Service (better known in Hungary as the “Government Guard”), and a bearish Soviet security adviser who liked to be called Misha. Nadia Verök, an official of the Communist party’s Department of International Relations, and the director of the National Forestry and Wildlife Management were also in our expedition.

The walrus-moustached, cheerful forest ranger, István Varga, was our guide. We traveled in jeeps until we arrived at a narrow trail on the mountain slope, where we switched over to specially built, horse-drawn hunting carriages. After a half-hour of bumping we reached a swift creek which we had to cross on foot. Some 200 yards from the creek we sighted two skillfully concealed hunting stands fifty feet apart. “If the guests stay here on the plateau of the stand for an hour or two at dawn,” said Varga, “they will witness a troop of wild boars coming forth to their usual drinking place, the creek.” He grabbed a pillar of the structure with his left hand, took a deep breath, and added: “Only a blind man can miss the target from here.” Everybody burst out laughing. The two security men mounted the ladders to examine the plateaus and the rest of the stands. They designated three big trees nearby in which security technicians would put prefabricated treehouses for the sharpshooters.

Boar hunting, like bear hunting, is extremely dangerous. These wild pigs have tusks that can rip a man or an animal into shreds in seconds. I have seen hunters drop their rifles and leap for a tree when savage-looking wild boars charged them. Thus special security measures were indeed warranted. But Nadia was not satisfied with our arrangements. “Why is it necessary for our guests to get up so early?” she asked. “Could we not hunt with hounds later in the day?” For safety reasons Misha objected to the hunting with hounds, and the director of the Forestry Division quickly added that wild boars are nocturnal and withdraw into cover during the daytime. Nadia could not contradict these arguments.

Back in the ranger’s lodge, I inspected the spacious dining room. It was nicely furnished with a rustic round table and chairs. A large romantic painting hung on the wall immortalizing the tragic death of Miklós Zrinyi, a famous Hungarian statesman, military leader, and poet. This seventeenth-century anti-Ottoman, anti-Hapsburg national hero was killed by a wild boar, though some people maintain that the Hapsburg camarilla’s agents were responsible for the accident. I thought it would be appropriate to leave the painting in the room.

Mariska, the ranger’s wife and our excellent cook for the occasion, proposed the menu: bean soup with smoked sausage and sour cream à la Budakeszi, roast pheasant and special wild boar chops with the garnish of the house, and strudel with apple and cheese filling for dessert. The querulous Nadia wanted to serve borscht instead of Hungarian bean soup, but Misha cut her short, saying that Nikita Sergeyevich could eat enough borscht in the Kremlin. After the soup dispute was settled I reminded the Hungarian security chief not to forget the supply of Leányka, a very good Hungarian white wine and Nikita’s favorite, and the “Bull’s Blood of Eger,” a red wine from the well-guarded state cellar.

The program for the Soviet Party Chief proceeded smoothly. His TU-104 special plane landed at Csepel Airfield, a Soviet military base close to Budapest. He and his small party stayed in one of the government guesthouses at Buda Hill and the negotiations took place at Party headquarters. Khrushchev and Hungarian Party First Secretary János Kádár discussed the growing Sino-Soviet differences and their impact on the international communist movement. While Khrushchev wanted to put more pressure on Albania and its protector, China, Kádár tried to promote a “wait and see" tactic. On the Russian’s insistence, however, Kádár had a change of heart and promised full support. Like Khrushchev, he detested the Albanian Party boss, Enver Hohxa, “the most devoted disciple of Stalin,” and was tired of the self-glorification, the so-called personality cult, of Mao Tse-tung.

On the second day, Kádár and Khrushchev were ready to hunt, and we left the guesthouse at 2:00 AM The hunters were half asleep during the short trip in the car, but woke upon arrival in Budakeszi, where the air was clear and chilly. The forest was majestic. The brownish-yellow foliage of the huge trees sealed the sky from our view, and a slight breeze lightly touched the leaves. Red squirrels were jumping from branch to branch, and green woodpeckers laboriously hammered at the trunks of the ancient oaks. A band of motley starlings and yellow-billed throstles were cheeping in a beautiful musical medley. As our party traveled on the narrow trail, we saw a family of twelve magnificent red deer grazing peacefully. Unfortunately for the anxious hunters, the deer noticed our presence and fled in mad haste into the bushes. We moved on silently but did not see more deer or fawns.

As planned, we stopped at the hunting stands. The host, Kádár, served a round of 90-proof apricot brandy (“aiming water,” he called it) to the Soviets. The first round was followed by a second and a third, and at the end everybody was well primed.

It was time to take up positions. Khrushchev and the ranger, Varga, mounted the first stand; Kádár stood alone on the second. The sharpshooters climbed to the treehouses and I took cover with Colonel Sebestyén on the top of the slope, from which we could see the whole terrain. The colonel and his men kept in contact with one another by means of Japanese-made walkietalkies.

Khrushchev held his rifle tightly and anxiously watched the creek. The stage was set—only the wild boars were missing, but not for long. As the ranger had predicted, after half an hour of waiting the wild pigs appeared one by one from the bushes. First came a sow with five young ones, and then a dozen other boars. Not suspecting any danger, they quietly moved to the creek and drank the ice-cold water. All of a sudden the leader, a 450-pound eight-year-old, pricked up his ears and turned slightly toward us. I do not know whether he heard a suspicious noise or whether the air flow brought human scent to his olfactory nerve center, but as he watched he got more and more worried, and his nervousness spread to the rest of his troop. No doubt, they were on the verge of withdrawing from the danger spot. The ranger, Varga, signaled Khrushchev to shoot the big one. Khrushchev aimed. Varga, who had received instructions to back up the guest, also grabbed his rifle and aimed. I heard a single shot and saw the boar lying dead on the ground with its two big lower tusks sticking out. A beautiful trophy!

The silence that followed could not have lasted longer than a split second, until the rest of the boars ran in confusion to the four winds. One boar could not escape, however, and was hit by the deadly bullet of Kádár. On the first stand the ranger warmly congratulated Khrushchev, pointing out that he had indeed hit the refuge’s most formidable beast. Khrushchev did not answer for a minute or two; then, looking up at the sky, he muttered that he had not pulled the trigger of his rifle at all. With a grim face he turned around and joined Kádár. We learned the sad story: Varga’s bullet was the one that had brought down the beast. We could do nothing; the boars were gone.

To break up the embarrassing situation, we took Khrushchev for a walk in the forest. Soon he and Kádár were engaged in a vivid political discussion which dissipated the gloomy atmosphere; we then enjoyed a good breakfast, which also helped. Later that same day, we took Khrushchev deer hunting, and, thank God, he shot a buck with a fourteen-point trophy rack. His unusual “hunting luck” cheered him, and on top of that, his secretary brought good news from Moscow.

By dinner time the Soviet leader had regained his good humor. He found the bean soup excellent, tasted the pheasant with gourmet expertise, and drank a good bit of the Leányka. He praised the cook for the superb feast and made small talk all around. I do not remember how the topic of Stalin’s life and time came up in the conversation, but I recall that he mentioned specifically how difficult it had been for him and others who were not blind followers of the late dictator to survive. Along the same line, Khrushchev spoke mockingly about Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov. “Nevertheless. there were a few humorous moments in those dark days,”he noted as he started to tell us an anecdote.

“It all happened in October 1943, when the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and the United States secretary of state, Cordell Hull, traveled to Moscow to hold talks with Molotov. Following a couple of days of heavy discussion on how to defeat Nazi Germany and how to punish all Germans guilty of atrocities, the three drove out to Molotov’s dacha. Great logs were burning in the fireplace and a few rounds of vodka created a rather warm atmosphere. It was even homey, with Molotov’s three cats nuzzling close to the guests. In the midst of the animated conversation, Molotov quite unexpectedly came forth with an unusual question. He asked Eden and Hull whether they knew how to force a Siamese cat to lick mustard. The Englishman did not know what to say. Then, His Majesty’s Foreign Secretary ordered a nice piece of prime rib steak. Soon the Russian chef delivered the meat on a wooden plate. Eden placed a spoonful of mustard in the middle of the meat and put the cat close to the plate. But once the distinct odor of the mustard hit the cat’s nasal organs, he angrily turned away. The next contestant was the self-confident Hull. Unlike his British colleague, he ordered fish. Then he put the mustard in the right branchia of the fish with the hope that the cat would start eating it and, in the process, consume the small amount of hidden mustard. But the American diplomat’s expectation came to a sudden end. The frisky pussy simply refused to touch the royal meal. Last in line came Molotov, wearing his goldframed spectacles—which always made him look like a high school teacher rather than the deputy of Stalin. He acted resolutely, and with great speed grabbed the poor kitty, lifted its tail, and smacked a handful of mustard on the backside of the animal. The commissar then threw the cat down on the floor. And as you can imagine, the poor animal, while screaming and running in circles, started to lick the mustard off.”

Everybody was convulsed with laughter, especially when Khrushchev remarked that he was sure that both the English and American foreign secretaries understood how Stalin’s diplomacy worked. Personally I had doubts that either Eden or Hull understood the Kremlin’s high diplomacy. But that was beside the point. What really mattered was that the story was a good one and it spread fast, in a matter of days, from Party circles down to the streets of Budapest.

All’s well that ends well, is the good old saying. And indeed, the ten-year-old “Bull’s Blood” was excellent and the strudel first-rate. When we left Budakeszi it had almost slipped out of our minds that Khrushchev had failed to pull the trigger at the crucial moment.