Journalist Rubenstein debuts with a wild tale of true-life folk hero Attila Ambrus, who lost his innocence in post-communist Hungary as he and the nation grappled with the demands of capitalism.
The evolution of Attila Ambrus from janitor to the beloved “Whiskey Robber” (so called due to his penchant for getting stinking drunk before carrying out his capers) was slow, but in hindsight practically inevitable. Raised in Romania, where discrimination against ethnic Hungarians like himself was widespread, Ambrus at age 21 risked his life to cross the border into Hungary, clinging to the underside of a train car, only to be treated as a hopeless country bumpkin by his new fellow citizens. The Hungarians were mostly occupied, however, in figuring out how to negotiate the new economy as their country raced toward Western-style capitalism while corrupt officials and business people found new ways to embezzle millions at the expense of the common man. In this unwelcoming climate, Ambrus somehow had to land a job. A disastrous but gutsy tryout led to his employment as a janitor for the hockey team UTE (Ujpest Gym Assocation), but it didn't pay quite enough to make ends meet. Legitimate opportunities were scarce, so when the chance arose to smuggle some pelts from Transylvania, Ambrus made it work. From there it was no great leap to robbing a post office, and once that was done, it was easy to do it again. By the time he was finally apprehended, the nonviolent, unfailingly polite bandit had captured the Hungarian public’s heart as a gentleman crook in a country where corrupt captains of industry who had stolen far more than he went unpunished. The author makes abundantly clear his delight in Ambrus’s odd history, energy, and circle of friends; never was there a more entertaining case history of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Breezy, informative, and wholly enjoyable.