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Communism - A child's glimpses in Communist Romania

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Razvan T. Coloja's picture Razvan T. Coloja
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I wrote this today on impulse and for whatever reason thought of publishing it here. Excuse any grammatical errors, I haven't proofread it yet.

A child's glimpses in Communist Romania

I was born in 1979 in Romania, at the height of the Communist dictatorship that had been ruling this country for decades. When you're a kid, the world around you doesn't revolve around politics or the problems of society but takes simpler forms such as "will I get socks or toys for Christmas this year?". Nevertheless, this simpler world of black and white, of good and evil, of right and wrong, is the one you're living in and pieces of it enter your life whether you like it or not.

I spent the last few days watching online documentaries on Communism, especially North Korea, trying to find a resemblance on what I experienced myself in Romania prior to 1989. What struck me were some of the comments people left to these videos - Americans and Brits claiming to sympathize with Communism and the rule of Kim Jong-Il. These comments pushed me to start writing this piece of text, so that communists living in democratic countries might catch a glimpse of what life really is under such a regime.

I have never seen a Snickers bar until I got to be 10. About that same time I got to touch the first computer I laid my eyes on, and it was a ZX Spectrum clone my desk-mate in school got from the black market just before the Revolution. Color TV was a privilege few people enjoyed and in a town of 200.000 souls, about 10 or 20 had a VCR by 1988. Speaking of TV, we had only one TV station, managed by the State, that ran only two hours per day and only to distribute political propaganda or musical shows sanctioned by the Communist Party. Much prized at that time was the technical skills necessary to craft antennas that could bootleg on TV shows broadcasted from neighboring countries such as Hungary or Bulgaria, both with much more tolerant Communist regimes of their own.

As kids, we didn't know what Star Wars was and the first time I saw a Darth Vader picture glued on one of my friend's school notebook I thought that dark knight looked kind of cool. The toys we could buy in stores were mostly imports from China: plush bears, toy guns, soldier figurines and a few cars - all of them of questionable quality. Romanian toys were mostly plastic snakes and frogs, wooden trains or metal trucks crudely painted and with sharp and unpolished edges.

You must understand that from a child's point of view, all these were natural to us. We didn't know what M&M's were so we didn't crave for them. We never got to drink Pepsi but we saw empty Pepsi bottles in our grandparent's basement, and believe me - even those empty bottles were rare as hell. We didn't wonder if we should buy vanilla or strawberry ice cream because ice cream came in only one flavor and that was the only one you could get. We didn't wonder how life outside the borders could be because we were told that in America, 60% of the people are either drug addicts or starving to death and that our Great Nation has it way better than those capitalist lost souls.

Most of the things we learned from the outside were through movies or music - both heavily censored. For example, the movies we got to see were mostly Chinese action flicks, where good always prevails and the poor peasant rises up to the injustice of an evil, wealthy overlord. Throw in a western or two, so as not to start wondering where the rest of the world disappeared, and you've got your basic Romanian cinema. Since the TV was practically useless, most people went tot the movies. Romanian music being mostly patriotic anthems and traditional ballads, the few bootleg western tapes that started flowing around during the 80's were of high value and copied over and over again on magnetic tapes until half of the stuff you heard on them was white noise.

I remember the stores... The food stores were virtually empty. Imagine a building five times the size of your house, with a single large room under the roof, shelves and cabinets near each internal wall. And now imagine every second or third shelf being dusty and empty, with the populated ones displaying the exact same two types of items: pickle jars and metal cans of meat or beans. Imagine a 3 meter wide shelf with a pyramid of six cans stacked right in the middle of it as some decorative item and a lady wearing a white overall yawning bored and tired from her wooden chair. She asks you if you're there to buy pickles or beans, takes your money, handles you the product then returns to her seat in the silent coldness of the room.

I remember the blackouts... Each day, around 20.00 o'clock, the light would go out for about two hours. In winter, heating would be turned off as to preserve "our great country's energy" so my parents would mechanically light up candles and turn on the stove. I would to my homework by candlelight and play with the wax and watch the total darkness that engulfed our neighborhood.

I remember food shortages... Basic food that westerners took for granted was handed out in rations during the Romanian Communist regime. About twice a month my father would get up at 4 A.M. in the morning, get dressed, get a bag and start his way to the closest food distribution center were a long line was already forming. By 5 in the morning there were at least 30 people standing in line to get their rations of sugar, milk, rice or cooking oil. Cooking oil was especially hard to get by 1988. Bananas were sold only on the black market and by the time the Revolution came I was priding myself of having eaten three in my entire life. In the country side, most people have never even heard of bananas and most thought they were some sort of deformed, yellow watermelon. Oranges, lemons were also hard to come by, as was any other chocolate that was not Romanian-made or imported from Communist China.

I remember the propaganda... Each morning, as students, we had to stand up facing the portrait of Nicolae Ceausescu that was hanging in each public room of each institution and chant our national anthem. Each manual I had in school had the same picture on the very first page. Almost every poem we learned had something to do with the glory of our nation, the bravery of soldiers, the working class or the future of our communist youth that will bring on the flame of science and hard work. About twice a year, every schoolchild had to attend public marches and hold up signs bearing either the portrait of our beloved leader, either slogans praising the Communist Party. We didn't know what they meant but we were hearing them a lot so we took them for granted.

Crime was unheard of. Not that it didn't take place, but it wasn't mediated at all. No one stole or killed or raped. Homosexuality or pedophilia were looked upon as genetical diseases and were a taboo even in higher circles. Newspapers and the radio promoted well-being for everyone, chanting about the latest scientific accomplishments and how well everyone is doing. It didn't matter that all was bogus and people were starving as long as the State told us that everything was better than OK. We were raised to believe that this is as good as it gets and that other nations are doing far worse.

Culture and religion were frowned upon. If you were a painter, you were required to occasionally paint something grandiose involving Ceausescu or the Party. If you were a writer or a poet, you just HAD to write something glorious about the ruling class or how great the nation is, or you could find yourself scrutinized by the Romanian Secret Police and even wind up in jail like so many others. Journalism was a sham since media was regulated and severely hindered by the Securitate (Romanian Secret Police).

A lot of western jobs were non-existent in Communist Romania. There was almost no purpose of learning English since no one was allowed to leave the country and no one came in to visit. The few movies in English were all subtitled or had aRomanian narrator that translated everything the actors said. The computers we had were few and of Russian make and there was no Internet at the time to connect people the way it does today. Basically, the best job you could have at the time was either being an engineer or a doctor. Engineers had high State pay and doctors got more bribes than the guards at the border did. In communism, everyone is taught to be contempt with what they have and never yearn for more. So, normally, doctors didn't try to do their best and had to be "stimulated" by other means to do their job. You wanted a kidney examined? you had to shelf out some bills and pass them to the nurse under the table. Had a molar that was bothering you? Pay the doctor and he would take care of it, or even might throw in some anesthetics.

And what better to define Communist Romania than paranoia? Almost everyone was being watched and more then half the country had their phones tapped. Occasionally, as a child, I would pick up the phone and listen to the clicks the Securitate made or listen in to other people's conversations when the Securitate accidentally crossed our line with our neighbor's. Jokes about the Party, although forbidden, were abundant at the time. Stories of western culture and fruitfulness were told in secrecy, during the night, at birthday parties or New Years Eves. People listening to modified radios talked about Radio Free Europe and the Beatles and Michael Jackson, making us kids wonder what those names meant. We knew they were important somehow to the adults.

The first time my father got a VCR from someone who brought it in from Germany, I watched the same cartoon tape over and over again. Our TV was black-and-white but it didn't matter because I now had Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to watch whenever I wanted and not when the State TV dictated it.

Now that I think of it, looking back at that time, we didn't know how bad we had it. Everything was bad: the tobacco in cigarettes was bad, the magazines were bad, the candy was plain melted sugar with chemical coloring. To give you an idea, the closest thing to fun a child could have those days was either playing "hide and seek" or going to the circus, the few times it came into town. And that was it. No computers, no TV, no fancy battery-operated toys. No dreams of becoming more than you were.
The revolution that took place in December 1989 changed all that.

So next time you hear someone giving praise to Communism, do ask them if they'd like to see their kids growing up with almost nothing to live for.

Best regards

Razvan T. Coloja