At a time when the New York Times and many liberals are romanticizing communism, a refresher course on tyranny is in order. Here’s the story of my visit to communist Romania two years before a popular uprising overthrew the most oppressive government in Europe. An early version of this piece ran in the Freeman in 2010, thanks to one of my favorite editors, Sheldon Richman. This is a fuller, bawdier version of the story plucked from Public Policy Hooligan.
In 1986 and 1987, I slipped behind the Iron Curtain a half dozen times to study economic perversity and political slavery. In November 1987 I flew into Hungary before heading on to the most repressive regime in Europe.
The train from Budapest to Bucharest, Romania was called the Orient Express. The original 1880s Orient Express connected Paris to Constantinople. The menu on the train’s first run included oysters, soup with Italian pasta, turbot with green sauce, chicken ‘à la chasseur’, fillet of beef with ‘château’ potatoes, ‘chaud-froid’ of Game animals, chocolate pudding, and a buffet of desserts. In the communist rendition of the Orient Express, there was no food on the train in Romania, though a few morsels may have been available in Hungary.
I had a cabin to myself as the train rolled southeast from Budapest. I had been told that if border guards found a map of Romania or any other dubious papers, I would be arrested or denied entry. Late at night, nearing the Romanian border, I studied documents one more time, drilling into my head the things that I should be looking for, and then tore them up and threw them out the train window, piece by piece.
Shortly after midnight, the train lumbered to a stop in Transylvania, at the Hungary-Romania border. The scene had all the ambience of the original 1931 Dracula movie. I didn’t hear wolves howling but the mountain terrain, low-hanging fog and military guards with German shepherds endlessly circling the train sufficed.
My cabin was searched four times, with each team outdoing their predecessors. The mattresses on the bunk beds were jostled and practically every cubic inch of space was poked or prodded.
The final inspection was supervised by a cute (by communist standards) military officer. Perhaps the authorities thought I would confess my perfidy to a different gender. Nope: I was just another tourist heading to the “Paris of East Europe,” as Bucharest preened itself in pre-communist times. Except that there were almost zero tourists in a land renamed “the Ethiopia of Europe.” I entered Romania illegally, relying on an easily-acquired tourist visa instead of going through the hassle of getting a journalist visa (which would have also assured more harassment).
After the final search, guards bolted my cabin shut from the outside. The pseudo-luxury train had officially been transformed into a traveling jail. My American passport had earned me special treatment again. I leaned back and counted my blessings. In Western Europe, they charged double for a private cabin.
The Orient Express was no longer an express after it entered Romania, taking 13 hours to rumble 400 miles and running far behind schedule.
Everywhere were signs of a government increasingly fearful of its people. Throughout Transylvania, radio towers were surrounded by military guards and barbed wire. The train stopped at Brasov – a medieval-era city that had been briefly renamed Stalin City – until relations with Moscow chilled. Shortly before I passed through, thousands of workers responded to wage cuts by ransacking communist party offices and killing two government militia men.
There were horse drawn wagons next to spewing factories and huge apartment complexes. Many people had abandoned their slipshod cars after government sporadically banned the sale of gasoline for private vehicles.
Around 9 the next morning, there was a rapping on my cabin door – like someone sending a secret message.
I heard someone struggling with that bolted lock and then the door popped open and half a dozen ill-clad Romanian factory workers rushed in. They had heard there was a foreigner confined on the train. They stared at me like I was E.T. from outer space and two workers leaned over and pawed my leather boots, eyes wide in amazement. Leather boots had apparently become the same luxury there that full-length mink coats were in America. Yet, in the pre-communist era, leather boots were probably commonplace for factory and farm workers. We communicated with simple gestures since I did not speak Romanian and they spoke no English. They seemed to be full of good will, but vanished after a few minutes – perhaps fearful of being caught with a foreigner.
The workers were likely no fans of communist dictator Nicole Ceausescu, who seemed determined to starve the people into submission. Though Romania had been a breadbasket of Europe before World War One, food had become as rare as honest economist statistics.
Children could not get milk without a doctor’s prescription. It was forbidden for foreigners to send food to Romanians. The government responded to food shortages with a publicity campaign on the danger of overeating. The government also revved up advertising in western nations touting Romania’s “world famous” weight-loss clinics.
The communists destroyed hundreds of square miles of prime farmland to erect factories and open pit mines. Hundreds of villages were razed and the residents corralled into cities and conscripted to work in factories. The government put almost all investments into heavy industry – the ultimate source of bragging rights for communist leaders. But roughly half of Romania’s output was so shoddy that it was ready for the junk heap moments after it rolled off the assembly line. Romanian industry was also extremely inefficient, consuming up to five times as much energy per unit of output as western factories. The government compensated by cutting off electricity to people’s homes for up to six hours during the winter, and permitting only one 25-watt light bulb per room.
The health system was collapsing, and the infant mortality rate was so high the government refused to register children as being born until they survived their first month. The government also routinely cut off power to hospitals, causing a thousand deaths the previous winter.
Yet, some western experts hailed Ceausescu as a path-breaking visionary. A 1979 World Bank report, the “Importance of Centralized Economic Control,” praised the Romanian regime for pursuing “policies to make better use of the population as a factor of production” [italics added] by “stimulating an increase in birth rates.”
And how did the benevolent ruler do this? By prohibiting distribution of contraceptives and banning abortions. Because the Plan called for higher birth rates, every female forfeited the right to control her body or life. Ceausescu proclaimed in 1985: “The fetus is the socialist property of the whole society… Those who refuse to have children are deserters.” The government forced all women between the age of 18 and 40 to have a monthly gynecological exam to assure that no one robbed the State by having a secret abortion. These policies turned Romania into the World Capital of abandoned babies.
Finally arriving in Bucharest, I learned that the Hotel Intercontinental was the only place westerners were allowed to stay. After I checked in, a beefy 30ish woman with bad eye makeup came flat-footing up. She asked in a gravely, three-pack-a-day voice: “Would you like to have some company?”
“Would you like some company – in your room?” She smiled and pointed upstairs.
“Uh… no, I’m doing fine.”
“Why are you here in Bucharest?” She cooed gutturally.
“I’m a tourist.”
“But it is so cold outside. Let’s stay inside. Aren’t you lonely?”
There were several reasons I demurred, including my strict rule to never tussle with any woman who had a better mustache than I did.
The Romanian government was known for using intelligence agents as prostitutes. Instead of a simple honest hooker, she was probably a spook-whore. Seeing how badly everything else in that country functioned, I had no itch to learn the Romanian standard for “good enough for government bawdy work.”
I checked into my room, which looked custom-designed for surveillance. There was “dead space” and unmarked doors between each guest room. I flipped on the TV and saw choruses of peasants and workers in overalls listlessly waving flags and singing praises to Ceausescu, the self-proclaimed “Genius of the Carpathians,” as the camera zoomed in for close-upsof the great man’s face.
Fascinating stuff, but the plot line was thin, so I sought entertainment elsewhere.
When I visit a new city, I love to spend hours walking around and getting a feel for the turf. I stopped and asked the concierge for a street map of downtown Bucharest. I figured he might have a guide to the Greatest Triumphs of Ceausescu-ism within an eight block radius of Communist Party headquarters.
The concierge grimaced even before I got to my verb. This gray-skinned, beady-eyed guy was hired for this job because he naturally exuded hatred of mankind.
“For what do you need a map?”
“Because I want to see the city’s landmarks.”
“We have no maps. If there is some place you want to go, you tell me what it is and I will tell you how to get there.”
“Where is the old part of the city?” I asked, knowing that most of it had been leveled to make room for the ugliest “socialist realism” monoliths outside of Pyongyang.
The concierge scowled and muttered something – perhaps a Romanian slur for vexatious foreigners. My hunch was this guy didn’t make a living from tips.
On the street, many people darted their eyes away – as if looking at foreigners caused leprosy. I had heard that it was a crime for Romanians to talk to strangers. But a few people summoned up a hodgepodge of English phrases to plead for a pack of Kent cigarettes to bribe doctors to treat their sick children. Because the Romanian currency was practically worthless, packs of Kents circulated as a black market currency. I had bought a couple cartons of Kents before going to Romania, and I gave packs to a few people who spoke to me.
I stepped into the largest department store in Bucharest; it was dark, dank and miserable. Sales clerks were sitting on piles of new clothing heaped on the floor. While workers in Hungary had lazed around, Romanian workers seemed stupefied. One of the store’s main attractions were incredibly rickety baby carriages – the kind to use when you want to kill your kid and sue the pants off somebody. Except that this government never had any liability to its victims, no matter how many perished from its products or policies.
I passed by the boarded-up front door of an ancient church, standing forsaken amidst construction projects that had obliterated surrounding edifices. Many Romanians fretfully crossed themselves as they passed it by.
Outside the U.S. embassy, Romanian guards with machine guns stood to dissuade locals from seeking asylum. After Prague, visiting U.S. embassies was a luxury I could not afford.
Like other communist regimes, Romania was an economic theocracy. The government used its iron fist to make sure everything happened according to Plan. For instance, according to the 1986-90 five year plan, Romanian scientists would make 4015 discoveries, of which 2,423 would result in new products by Romanian businesses. The Plan did not specify how insufficiently creative scientists would be scourged.
Romania was one of the World Bank’s favorite regimes, receiving more than $2 billion between 1974 and 1982. The World Bank predicted in 1979 that Romania would “continue to enjoy one of the highest growth rates among developing countries over the next decade… and become an industrialized economy by 1990.” But much of Romania’s apparent economic growth was the result of World Bank aid. The more handouts the World Bank gives a country, the easier it becomes to portray the nation as a success story. World Bank president Robert McNamara cited Romania to vindicate his “faith in the financial morality of socialist countries.”
The World Bank also praised the Romanian regime for its ability to “mobilize the resources” required to boost economic growth. In reality, the government was brutalizing its subjects to squeeze out “surpluses” to lavish funds on World Bank-approved industrial enterprises – the same tactic Stalin used to finance his Five-Year Plans.
The Romanian regime also “mobilized resources” by pawning its ethnic German and Jewish inhabitants. West Germany paid roughly $20,000 for each German exported, and Israel paid a similar amount for each Romanian Jew released. There were international agreements banning slave trading in the nineteenth century, but selling human beings in the twentieth century was acceptable if the receipts went for progressive purposes.
The World Bank never cut Ceausescu off; instead, he ceased borrowing after he became convinced that western debt was a curse on his country. Championing Ceausescu did not prevent McNamara from being appointed to the Board of Directors of the Washington Post or from being canonized as a benevolent saint by the American media when he kicked the bucket in 2009.
As I knocked around Bucharest, I assumed I was being followed. Roughly 1 in 15 Romanians was working as a government informant. Since I knew that pulling out a notebook would set off alarm bells, I instead jotted notes on the palm of my hand. Such behavior was seen as merely weird, not menacing. I could use single words as pegs to later pull up a strand of facts and thoughts.
When I arrived at Bucharest’s main airport to exit to Frankfurt, I noticed that most of the travelers ahead of me were openly giving a pack of Kents to each dreg at the multiple security checkpoints. I was soon passing out cigarette packs to guards like an old widow tossing candy to kids on Halloween.
I saw one or two German businessmen yanked aside for more punitive searches, and their clothes were scattered far and wide across the guards’ tables. As I passed the last checkpoint, I counted my blessings that I had avoided such depredations.
That Lufthansa jet on the tarmac was the prettiest thing I had seen since the Orient Express crossed the Romanian border. There was one past-his-prime soldier standing listlessly about 20 yards from the plane. I held up my passport and he waved me on.
I’d almost reached the plane’s gangway when I heard: HALT!
I turned and saw the guard running towards me, his submachine gun bouncing off his ample belly.
Puffing a bit, he caught up to me – grabbed my left arm, yanked it back, and, pointing at my palm, demanded to know: “WHAT IS THIS?!!!?”
I looked at my hand, then I looked at the guard.
He paused, squinted, nodded his head knowingly, and then waved me on to the plane.
As soon as the Lufthansa jet cleared Romanian air space, I retrieved my small notebook from the usual hiding place – inside my underwear – and began extracting my palm notes.
The following month, the New York Times printed my “Eastern Europe, the New Third World” which declared that “Eastern Europe is much closer to economic collapse than most westerners realize. After hundreds of so-called market-oriented reforms, there are still no market economies in Eastern Europe.” The Readers Digest piece on the same topic appeared in their Norwegian, French, Dutch, Swedish, German, Danish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi editions. I was trying to help East Bloc regimes get the credit rating they deserved.