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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber
Julian Rubinstein with Attila Ambrus at the prison in Satoraljauhjely, June 10, 2003; and (right) with Attila in Budapest following Attila's release, Feb 1, 2012.

From The Author

I first interviewed Attila Ambrus in the Hungarian Supreme Courthouse on Decemeber 14, 2000, the day he was sentenced to 15 years in prison (later extended to 17.) I was there on a magazine assignment and the basics of what I knew already qualified it as one of the greatest pure stories I'd ever heard. Nonetheless, as a youngish magazine writer at the time, it took me almost a full year to land an assignment, first from Talk magazine, and then as that magazine began to fall apart, it was taken on at Details.

Attila had become a Hungarian folk hero by pulling off an outrageous crime spree that played out like a serialized satire of the corrupt political and banking systems in nascent capitalist Hungary. ("He didn't rob a bank," read one editorial in the Hungarian papers, performed here on the audio book by Jonathan Spottiswoode. "He just performed a peculiar redistribution of wealth that differs from the elites only in its method.") Targeting only state-owned banks and post offices, where he handed flowers to tellers and mailed wine to investigators, Attila remained at large for almost seven years and 29 robberies, becoming known as the Whiskey Robber because witnesses always described seeing him downing a shot at nearby pubs prior to his heists. For real work, he was the goaltender for Budapest's best known pro hockey team, UTE – and arguably the worst pro goalie ever to play the sport, once giving up 23 goals in one game. Then again he was only paid a janitor's salary, and was in fact hired as the team's Zamboni driver; the club's economic trouble led to his untraditional leap up the depth chart. (Attila also worked as a gravedigger, a church painter and an animal pelt smuggler.)

It was rarefied material to work with and that was only the beginning. Everywhere I turned, characters and details emerged that made this story and all of its absurdity so illustrative of so many things: free market capitalism, Hungarian national identity, Transylvania, and the struggles of Underdogs, everywhere.

Attila was sent to the maximum security prison in Satoraljaujhely in December, 2000. As I write this text, I sit in the Keleti train station in Budapest, awaiting my train to Satoraljaujhely for what will likely be my 15th and final trip to that factory town on the Ukraine border. After 12 years behind bars, Attila will be released tomorrow, January 31, 2012. He is 44 years old.

This site was put together in part to collect some of the other material that Attila's story has inspired, artwork, songs, academic research. Today, I can't help think of the words to the song I wrote based on my interviews with him in the prison. "What if when I walk outta here, I'm not the same man that I used to be? Will you believe in me? Who will I be? When they're through with me."

To underdogs everywhere, and to Attila Ambrus, on the eve of his release.

-Julian Rubinstein


For their work on the audio cabaret:

Joe Mendelson, Eric Bogosian, Demetri Martin, Tommy Ramone, Jonathan Ames, Gary Shteyngart, Arthur Phillips, Samantha Power, Darin Strauss, Jonathan Spotttiswoode, Jen Cohn, Barry Yourgrau, Mary Birdsong, Eugene Mirman, Csaba Bereczky, One Ring Zero

Drawings: Seth

Budapest photo: Steven Ivanoski

Website: Mark Ovaska, Benjamin Ziggy Lee