The communist era
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Twin Towers, communism was seen as the greatest threat to Western civilisation. The positive sides of the communist system were systematically disregarded or even denied by Western powers. Hidden behind the Iron Curtain, Romania lived both the best and the worst of communism. Opinions about the communist years range between idolization and disgrace.
Following the death of Romania`s first post-war leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Romania was placed under the caring leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu, himself a former prisoner and anti-fascist activist. Ceausescu started his presidential career in 1965 and surprised Romania with his reform plans. He put an end to the hugely unpopular Soviet influence in Romania. He unilaterally declared that all damages resulting from World War II had been completely paid back to Moscow, and that the Romania ceased the annual payment of 30% of its economic production to the Soviet Union. The Red Army was sent out of the country, which was a big relief for the population who suffered from the cruel and random behaviour of the Soviet soldiers. Russian was imposed in school, but Ceausescu changed that as well. From then on, the emphasis turned back to our Latin origins, instead of the Slavic culture that the Soviets imposed on the Romanians.
`The 1989 revolution was a giant conspiracy`
Romania was set to follow a course of independence, refusing to rely on any specific ideological block. Ceausescu thereby opened the door for investments from Western countries, even though it belonged to the Warsaw Pact of communist nations. In 1968, Ceausescu was the only Warsaw Pact leader who condemned the Soviet invasion of Prague that followed the uprise of anticommunist demonstrations. It gained Romania a lot of recognition and support from Western nations, who were already very eager to rely on Romania for trading with countries that Western nations themselves had put under embargo. Romania served as their bridge into Iran, Algeria, China, Chile and South Africa.
Following a state visit to North Korea, Ceausescu was caught by the idea to make Romania a self-sufficient and perfectly organised state, debt-free and happy. His ideas of achieving this stretched far. It required a further emphasis on agriculture and heavy industry, it required all exportable products to be sold on the world market, it required the destruction and remodeling of entire neighbourhoods of Bucharest to make space for the giant People`s Palace. It required all human energy to be directed towards production. It also required the prosecution of all individuals who threatened the perfect socialist society that Ceausescu had in mind. So did the church, which was not forbidden during the Ceausescu era but was forced to adopt a low profile. The education system would simply teach children that God did not exist.
Even the most feasible ideas from 1970s transformed into a huge burden in the 1980s. Industrial and agricultural production levels were very high, but Ceausescu focused on turning Romania into a debt-free state rather than listening to the strengthening needs of the Romanian people. Goods were rationed and shops ran empty. Resistance against the regime grew and so did the repression of those questioning the system. By 1989, Romania had become a grim country, with no food in the shops, petrol shortages, daily electricity blackouts and tough life conditions. Only a thriving black market could give people access to luxury items, which at the time also included products like oranges and bananas.
Citizens could no longer bear their submission to the system. Initial mass demonstrations in the city of Timisoara were beaten down by the army, but the rebellion soon spread to the capital Bucharest within a matter of days. Ceausescu returned from a state visit to Iran, but the chaos had spread into the heart of the communist party. Even his own supporters had turned against him, or at least failed to protect him from getting shot on Christmas Day. The 1989 revolution in Romania became know as one of the last and most violent ones in all of Eastern Europe.
Radu (29, photo) remembers that the 1980s were a very tough time: `The country was going paranoid. The secret service was everywhere and you never knew what you could say to whom. Phone lines were tapped and everybody was a potential informant of the Securitate. By the end, we only had two daily hours of television left, most of which told us how the country was making progress in reaching the production targets and how brilliant a society we were working on and for. Electricity was switched off for at least two hours a day, food and fuel were rationed and only available in small quantities. Plenty of products were unavailable in shops, even though their ingredients were produced in huge quantities. Everything of the slightest quality was exported, leaving the Romanians themselves to starve.`
Obviously, the system also had advantages for those who surrendered to it. `Education and health care were relatively well-developed and free-of-charge`, Radu says. `There was work for everybody and nobody was left out. Even though nobody actually owned anything, everybody was assigned a place to live. Being a gypsy or part of any minority did not make any difference. There was a long-term vision of what the country needed. Plannings were designed for each 5-year period and 25-year period. If you compare that to today, each government is coming up with new plans and nobody knows what will happen in 10 years. In the same way: we used to have no bananas but plenty of jobs. Now it`s the other way around. We used to have money but nothing to buy. Now there`s plenty to buy, but many people don`t have enough money to buy what they see.`
`Indeed, enemies were cast aside, just like the same happened with the regimes preceding the Ceausescu ones. It was no exception that former leaders of the country were imprisoned after a new leader took over. Other countries were having similar problems. Anybody wanting to change the system can be regarded as an enemy to the state. They were indeed put to work under severe conditions, but those conditions did not even differ much from what all of Romania was facing. At least they could stay in their own countries. When the Russians were around, they would send Romanians to Siberia. Without prior notice and without telling any family members of the prisoner in question.`
Ioana (22) was too young to really understand what was going on during the revolution: `I was three years old and I was at my grandparents` place in the North of Romania. We were watching TV and that was about it. What I do know is that Romanians now have a lot of freedom but they don`t know how to use it. There is so much to choose from. So much to win, so much to lose. Poor people are getting poorer, rich people are getting richer. The communist system was not fair for hardly respecting the individual, but it seems like today`s Romanians respect nothing but the individual. And no chance of seeing beggars in the street, especially when the Leader paid a visit to a city or factory. His procession would be protected on two sides by lines of blond blue eyed men from the Securitate. The streets were cleaned as everything needed to be done to show Ceausescu that the country was doing well.`
Ioana further tells me that her father had a somewhat troubled relation with the state authorities: `He initially wanted to become engineer, but he did not want to comply with the strict regulations of the university. He first got kicked out but my grandfather had some contacts at the university and he was allowed back in. The appreciation of science was a bit ambiguous in these days. The country was obviously in need of smart people, but anybody too smart would potentially have access to unflattering information about the country ? or information from abroad.`
Vadim (34) remembers quite some bits from the 1980s. He is not very enthusiastic about what he remembers from back then: `We did not have any information about what happened outside Romania. The country was completely isolated. Only very scarce TV programs ever made it to Romania. Donald Duck was something I had vaguely heard about. We did have Tom&Jerry, but only on Sundays. There were very few movies from Western Europe. Cultural life was very restricted in every way, I would say. Just like traveling. There was not even enough fuel for people to travel within the country. On Sundays, only half the cars were allowed to be driven, depending on the week it would either be even-numbered or odd-numbered license plates allowed onto the road. Buying cars was difficult too. People had enough money to buy them, but they simply needed to wait for 5 years before one came available. And those were obviously all Dacias, Wolgas, Ladas and Skodas.`
Vadim compares the 1980s to George Orwell`s book 1984: `Some people now say that the miss the old times, but I think they are suffering from selective memories. Everybody had a house, yes, but what kind of a house. Usually way too small and very dirty. All food and drinks were rationed, while the very few tourists who still came to Romania could have access to high standard products sold in hotels. Paid for in Dollars, which were illegal to possess for Romanians. We needed to queue for sugar, bread, coffee, butter, everything. People got lazy about their jobs because they would not lose them even if they did nothing all day long. On the other hand, education was very good. Despite the impossibility of traveling abroad, many people were even very interested in learning foreign languages like German and French. Many Romanians still today speak at least one foreign language.`
Vadim tells how he was 14 when the revolution came: `I was standing on Bucharest university square with a flag. Then the leaders of the revolution said that tanks were coming to kills us and could only think `What can I do`. I figured out that I would not win against any tanks and decided to run off. Before then, it all seemed like a big theatre show, with people acting very dramatically and making a lot of noise.`
At the same time, Veronica (26) was 7 years old: `I was in a countryside village with my grandparents. I remember eating pop corn at their neighbours` place. Everybody was happy that the Ceausescu times had ended.` Veronica further tells about the drastic changes that followed the revolution: `Until then, we had had advertisements for Pepsi Cola, but it was impossible to buy it so we wondered why they put all these posters. Starting in 1990, the market slowly saturated with Western products. We did have some time to adapt though. At the beginning, foreign investors were very hesitant to place their bets on Romania, but they gradually started giving it a try.`
`Coca Cola and McDonalds came to town. Especially the latter was a giant event. People came from everywhere to see this new concept. Some came to eat, others just to watch. It was something completely out of the ordinary and already unthinkable today. The first IKEA just opened and it also attracted huge crowds. But people already knew about the concept. They had seen it in other countries and now just took the opportunity to go buy something in Bucharest instead of abroad. McDonalds was completely new in every single way. Now, we are getting used to all the advertisements being fired at us. Nothing is strange or exceptional anymore.`
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