Birth and Death in Romania

Nicolae Ceausescu
Nicolae Ceausescu; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.