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Birth and Death in Romania

The following is by a writer who frequently travels in Eastern Europe and whose name must be withheld.


It was May in Transylvania. The days had been mild, the evenings cold, and the Romanian people, as much obsessed with their situation as anxious to forget it, were watching for Halley’s Comet with childlike anticipation. Their gaze was suddenly, brutally brought back to earth by the events in Chernobyl (a name somewhat avoided by the local press). Faced as they were with a danger unknown, inexorable, and impossible to defend against, the special quality of imagination that seems endemic to the Romanian people was less an asset than a liability. Stores of tinned goods that had lain about unsold for years disappeared overnight and when the crop of spring vegetables that had been dreamed of through a worse than austere winter was finally harvested, few were willing to eat it. Everyone had his own theory about the effects of radiation, a subject on which official discretion served only to make the panic more acute. Then the public mood shifted. Late into the night everyone stayed up, neighbors from time to time relaying this or that impression from one window to the next, until finally an excited group of people converged in Bucharest, shouting at the top of their lungs. Fallout was forgotten (at least for a night), and there was a positively Mediterranean sense of joy: for the first time a Romanian soccer team had won a game in the competition for the European Cup!

Two old friends of mine stayed on the sidelines. After three years I had found them visibly changed, each in his own way. The more unbending of the two was becoming more rigid in his views, the more flexible seemed at times incoherent. Romania itself had changed considerably, it too in its own way: the three years seemed to have been the culmination of a much longer social ordeal that had left its mark on the country. One of my friends said that to understand the recent developments I must first consult a decree by the Council of State of the Romanian Socialist Republic issued on October 10, 1981. The exact text ran as follows:

It shall constitute illegal trading activities and, in accordance with the terms set down in the Penal Code, shall be punishable by six months to five years in prison, to purchase from any state commercial center or cooperative store, either with a view to hoarding or in any quantity that exceeds the requirements of a family for a period of a month, oil, sugar, wheat or corn flour, rice, coffee and all other foodstuffs the hoarding of which might affect the interests of other consumers and proper provisioning of the population.

Since then, he said, the situation has changed drastically. Coffee can no longer be bought by private citizens and has been replaced by an ersatz substance disapproved of by physicians, which the public, guessing at the ingredients, has nicknamed “henna.” Meat, buttermilk, and bread are rationed in most districts, sugar and cooking oil throughout the country—and the ration is much more generous than the shops charged with distributing them can supply.

Since 1968, it should be explained, Romania has been divided into more than forty districts, each with a Party secretary, who is its supreme head. He is responsible for delivering a quota of food from his district to the central government—a task that must give him bad dreams. For it poses an insoluble problem: if he distributes locally less food than is called for by the plan—as he is virtually obliged to do—he will be popular with the authorities but held in contempt by the people of the district; and if he tries to help the population get more food, he will be unpopular with the authorities. Everyone has a different approach to the same dilemma—for even in the CP no district secretary is quite like another—and this psychological diversity makes for diversity in the distribution of food shortages throughout the country. In Cluj or Pitesti the situation, I was told, is frankly horrible; in Sibiu or Vilcea it is merely wretched. Thousands go from district to district on shopping excursions from which they often return empty-handed.

Romania seems unique in many ways. It is the only European country in which one can be sentenced to five years in prison for buying excessive quantities of food that is generally unavailable to the public. It is also, in my experience, the only such country in which the legal work week is forty-six hours and the urban population often spends three to four hours a day shopping for groceries. In Romania President Ceausescu takes upon himself to compose lyrics for a new national anthem, rather than entrusting the task to a poet. And in spite of a republican form of government of which he is the constitutional head, the president carries a scepter and is grooming his son as his successor.

Workers often spend entire days waiting for raw materials that their factory cannot obtain. If they leave the premises without permission or bring alcoholic beverages, or cigarettes, or lighters, or matches onto the shop floor, they are regarded as having broken the law and can receive prison sentences from three months up to two years (Decree 400 of December 29, 1981, Article 18).

The average wage, according to experts I talked to, is less than one fifth of the average Common Market wage, while the minimum wage is ignored. The state each month withholds a percentage of wages that can be returned at the end of the year only if the government’s economic goals have been met—something that rarely happens.

Virtually every business establishment has (in addition to spies) a member of the Secret Police with a permanent desk, who reports to his superiors on the proper running of the business. All typewriters must be registered and presented for inspection at the police station every year to show that the keys have not been tampered with.

Perhaps this list is enough to suggest that the special quality of daily life in Romania bears little resemblance to Western perceptions of it. When Americans think of Romania they think of the 1984 Summer Olympics and the gymnastics team—even the US secretary of state on the occasion of his visit this spring mentioned this; about less heroic activities he said nothing. Some Westerners (those with good memories) tend to remember that, under President Ceausescu, Romania refused to take part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. They forget that what made the act possible was something that happened in 1958, before Ceausescu, when Soviet troops withdrew from Romania’s borders. This was an obscure event at the time but one that laid the foundation for Romania’s military independence. From that moment Romania’s foreign policy changed radically. It was not under Ceausescu, but under his predecessor that Romania refused to subordinate the nation’s economy to the Soviet bloc’s COMECON. The regime refused to break relations with China and the Romanian Central Committee adopted a declaration of openly denying the Soviet Union’s right to control other countries.

Before he died in 1965, Gheorghiu-Dej appointed Ceausescu as the new head of the Party. In spite of the accepted impression in the West, the new leader was not the father of Romania’s independence but its beneficiary and heir. His job was to preserve and cherish it for the good of the Romanian people. Twenty years were all he needed to transform it into a disaster.


Rumania, with an area and a population twice as large as Bulgaria, and a much greater wealth of resources, seems to have been able to mould an economy that is more successful and prosperous than that of its smaller ally.

—H. Gordon Skilling,
Communism, National and International (University of Toronto
Press, 1964), p. 65.

GNP per capita in 1980, in US dollars:

Romania 2,300

Bulgaria 3,690

(Source: World Bank)

Among the innumerable projects that Khrushchev set in motion, one that was never fully abandoned by his various successors was that of so-called “economic integration.” Soviet “integration” called for reorganizing the Soviet-controlled territories into coherent “economic regions,” without respect to their national borders. It hinged on a system of economic specialization, and “international division of labor between brother nations.” “Specialization” meant favoring the development of those economic activities in which a country already excelled—a reasonable idea from the standpoint of the new economic community; but from the standpoint of long-term national strategy, one that meant serious problems for some of the countries involved. For Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, it meant specialization in agricultural production at the risk of slowing down their already slow industrial development; both countries were to have the status of an agrarian hinterland for the more industrially advanced members of COMECON.

The Bulgarians bowed to Khrushchev and risked perpetuating their country’s economic backwardness; this left Romania the sole opponent of economic integration. Profiting from the general confusion in the Kremlin during the early 1960s, Romania managed to resist the Soviet project. It was during the years when the Romanians were fighting this battle in COMECON that the first articles openly critical of the USSR appeared in Romania.

First set up in the USSR under Stalin, the overall model established in the countries of Eastern Europe relied on centralization under Party control not only to shape their political systems but also their social structures. Centralization exists in all those countries to varying degrees. During the last twenty years, when most of the Eastern European countries have been making attempts to relax internal centralization, Romania has taken a diametrically opposite path and has used its relative political independence from the USSR to reproduce an exaggerated version of the Soviet social model. The other states of the regions—Bulgaria, Hungary, etc.—have accepted that they are politically dependent on the USSR while managing to put distance between themselves and its social model. As a result, Romania today is the Eastern European country that is both the most independent with regard to foreign policy and the most Stalinist in its political and social structures; indeed, it could be called the most eloquent embodiment of anti-Soviet Stalinism. The country’s bankrupt economy is not the result of its political independence, but rather of its own extreme form of Stalinism.

In effect, autocratic Romania has refused to allow the Soviets to impose their social model on it, but it has voluntarily imitated that model, and in a markedly more retrogressive form. In doing so the regime apparently decided that the best way to avoid unfavorable specialization in the national economy was to avoid any specialization at all. Ignoring the economic cost, Romania set out to diversify its industrial production to the point where it would be virtually an autarchy. Autarchy, untenable for world powers, was thought to be perfect for small countries.

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