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Remembering 1980s Romania

I have collected items that I obtained from my travel there in 1990, 1994 and from eBay pertaining to the 1980s life in Communist Romania. This is the decade of worsening deprivation and oppression that peaked in 1989; the year of the execution of dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day.

This month (December 2019) marks the thirtieth anniversary of the violent revolution and overthrow of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu on December 22nd.

I travelled to Romania in early March of 1990 when I was 21 and living in Philadelphia USA. I have never forgotten the joyous celebrations and incredible stories I saw and heard there. I wanted a way to memorialize what I experienced and what the Romanian people went through during the worst of Ceausescu’s reign; the 1980s.

I will post photos of these items, videos and stories from my collection. It will include the good and bad aspects of Romanian life through 1990.

There are several blogs in the Romanian language and museums in Romania dedicated to this period. My hope is to allow English speakers to experience an era that should not be forgotten and to see how freedoms in a country can be taken away gradually or even suddenly.

Phone (and TV) Tapping

Within is a Conversation with the Ceausescus’ regarding Phone Tapping

This is a continuation of yesterday’s blog entry showing the “new” phone models. The excerpt here from Pacepa’s 1987 book shows the connivance behind the introduction of the colorful phones. The extent of the control over Romanian’s daily lives is mind blowing.

From Ion Mihai Pacepa’s “Red Horizons” Pages I35-137

“ “Approved [Ceausescu speaks] Starting today March 28. 1978. this is the one and only phone approved for use in Romania. Period.   “How many old telephones do we have in use today?”

“More than three million,” [Lieutenant General] Diaconescu promptly replied.

“Replace them with the new ones”, Ceausescu ordered. 

“I don’t understand, Nick. What’s  the difference between this one and the black one I have in my Office?” Elena [Ceausescu] asked,  a little embarrassed. She knows nothing about how the tapes are made that she so avidly listens to in the back room of her office.

.‘The d-dilference is t-that you never have the new one, neither in your office nor at home,” Ceausescu answered,  winking toward us. He also stutters when measurably excited.

“May we do a demonstration? Comrade Supreme Commander?” asked Diaconescu.

“Go ahead,” approved Ceausescu, with a large smile on his face and a glow in his eyes. Being addressed as “Supreme Commander” is even more exciting for him than having sex, or so Diaconescu had told me a few days earlier.

“To this portable monitoring center we have hooked up four phones that are installed in four diiferent, randomly selected apartments. Two are the kind we use now, and two are the new model. The monitoring center is voice-activated, so it will automatically start recording when any one of the phones is in use. It’s recording one conversation right now,” said Diaconescu, pointing to a moving recorder. The conversation could clearly be heard in the exhibit room when he pushed a button. “The recorder stops when the conversation is over, as it just did. That’s all we can record with the old phones. But now let’s listen to the new one.” Diaconescu dialed a number and asked if it was the National Theater. “Wrong number” came from the other end of the line, but the tape recorder did not stop after the telephone had been hung up. A woman’s voice could be heard asking who had called. “Some idiot who put his finger in the wrong hole. Let me finish what I was listening to on Radio Free Europe about the trip the Dictator and his old bag are making to the United States,” the man’s voice replied, before being cut off sharply. Diaconescu’s Hand had flicked Off a Switch. His hand, darting out faster than a snake. He always did have good reflexes. The deadly silence was interrupted when Diaconescu flicked another switch. A fuzzy noise together with heavy breathing and short yelps came suddenly out of the speaker, but Dlaconescu’s quick hand immediately Shut it off. . . . “Turn it back on.” Elena ordered with a biting voice. Her experienced ear was almost as good as Diaconescu’s. “They should be arrested.” she ordered, after listening a few more minutes, “At eleven in the morning, Working people should be out working not making love.”

Ceausescu moved along a few steps. [General] Geartu was holding up a normal-looking telephone outlet, explaining that inside its plastic body there was a concealed mini-microphone, which could not be found without the outlet’s complete destruction. It was to be used in other rooms that did not have the telephone device in them, so that a whole apartment could be covered. The same display contained several other new pieces of equipment designed by the DGTO [General Directorate of Technical Operations] for use in villages where people often had no telephone. Ceausescu’s eye was caught by a television set with a built-in transmitter that could be activated by a remote control matching its code. “We propose introducing this microtransmitter in all television sets that are to be sold in rural areas. One advantage with having it there is that it would have a constant source of power, eliminating the need for batteries. And for another thing, a television set is silent eighty percent of the time.” Romanian television programs are on the air only a few hours a day.

“If we’re going to use this hocus-pocus, we could even shorten the daily program. Some news and a film about the Party is all the people need, isn’t that so, Nick?” asked Elena.

“Approved,” Ceausescu said, moving on to a display showing monitoring equipment for restaurants. The ceramic ashtrays and flower vases caught his attention. Geartu reported that, by the end of the next five-year plan, every restaurant would be equipped with only ceramic ashtrays and vases containing them’, battery-activated micro-transmitters. They could be turned on by any surveillance ofiicer or waitress-agent, who needed only to pull out a needle-like pin.

First invented by the Soviet KGB, ceramic ashtrays and flower……” (End of excerpt)

Later in the conversation Pacepa recalls Diaconescu promising that they will be able to monitor ten million microphones simultaneously.

The secret police (Securitate) in 1985 employed 14,000 agents in a population of 22 million with 486,000 informants.

Romanians today have limited access to their Securitate files and some files have been altered to protect the names of the guilty.

Three Models in Five Colors

These are a few examples of telephones developed by the intelligence service to listen in on room conversations even when the handset was in its cradle. The innocuous looking phone had three wires, as opposed to our two in the U.S. I can only guess that the third wire was a microphone wire? To listen to the actual phone conversations the secret police had large panels of switchboards.

I was pulled off a flight in Vienna in 1994 and questioned about the green phone in my checked bag my friend MIrcea in Romania had given me. I said it was a “Ceausescu phone” They understood that it was not a bomb. The airport security also stabbed open my bag of Ovomaltine which was a gift for someone who served Ovaltine sodas at their restaurant. European Ovomaltine has more malt flavor than what is available in the U.S.! They figured out it wasn’t heroin.

The best description and origin story of these phones is contained in a 1987 book called “Red Horizons” by former Romanian Chief of Foreign Intelligence, Ion Mihai Pacepa. He defected to the United States in 1978. Within three years his information to the CIA decimated the Romanian secret police and stopped its major operations. There was a four million dollar bounty on his head and Ceausescu sent two squads to assasinate him, but they never found him.

He is now 91 years old and has been reunited with his family here. There is a 2011 eBook from a March 1990 update of his book which includes the transcript of the trial of the Ceausescus’. It presents a true face of the dictatorship and was used much during the trial.

Tomorrow I will quote Pacepa from his book in his description of these phones in a conversation with the Ceausescus’ -Quite interesting.-In future posts I will quote or use information from Pacepa’s book about the registration of typewriters and the espionage of Citroen and Renault to create the Romanian Dacia automobile. He also writes about how Romania secretively got the rights to color film, which by the late 80s became only available from outside of Romania.

Theater of the Absurd

Fuses

These are resettable fuses that my friend MIrcea in Brasov let me take from his apartment in 1990. One is 6.3 amps and the other is 10 amps. These two fuses would cover the entire apartment. During the eighties these two fuse breakers were of sufficient amperage because everyone in Romania was allowed only black and white TVs, which use a lot less electricity than a color set, one forty watt lightbulb per room and a radio or phonograph. Romania did make color TVs, but only for export. I wonder if these minimally amped fuses were a way for the state to limit how much power is consumed or maybe the wiring was just inadequate? Certainly they could never handle something like air conditioners and the refrigerator alone needs 15-20 amps. In the U.S. we typically have one or two 15 amp fuses per room; more so in the kitchen.

But by 1994, MIrcea had a color TV and a VCR. These fuses not only kept tripping, there was also sparks coming out of them.

One other thing I noticed in his apartment building was the stair lights were on timers and you had to be really fast up the stairs before the lights shut off.

MIrcea, like a lot of Romanians, kept a metal milk crate outside the kitchen window during cold months with food supplies in it, because without electricity the fridge was useless.

In Bucharest in 1990, I had just seen the Palace of the People/Parliament with 10(?) year old Silviu and his mother. We were walking in front of an apartment block when I noticed there was water p o u r I n g down from one apartment. I asked them what was happening and they seemed embarrassed. They told me that water availability was sporadic and people would leave their taps open to alert them when they could wash. In this case the residents had forgotten to close the taps before they left the apartment. Everything being made of impervious concrete meant it didn’t matter much.

CIA: Prospects for 1985

Bread Line. Sometimes you couldn’t get bread, because not only the wheat was exported, but so was the bread.

This entry is shortened from a CIA report dated 3/85 and was declassified in 2010. It goes into good detail about the cause and effect of the exporting of products that were desperately needed by the Romanian people.

These severe shortages were the result of the “vigorous pursuit of debt reduction” and the energy crises. The USSR, the primary source for energy, would only take hard currency. Hard currency was needed to import corn from the U.S., because crops in Romania fell by 2.4 million tons since 1984, the year before.

The reasons for the crop reduction were attributable to the lack of imports of pesticides, fertilizer and the unreliability of energy to run irrigation systems during a particularly dry summer in 1984.

Romania had the smallest crops since 1975. Children in particular were dying en masse of malnutrition in 1984-1985.

Balazs in Oradea told me about being required to work in the fields as an elementary school student. University students were conscripted to work in the coal mines. Absenteeism in workplaces increased as workers were being forced to work double shifts and holidays. Ironically the factories had to shut down, unable to get raw materials or electricity.

Ceausescu declared an energy state of emergency. He instituted “punitive wage reductions for managers failing to meet production goals.”

In 1984-1985 (continuing into 1989) meat exports were increased to the point where little meat was available in Romania. The rationing of chicken meant eating a scrawny bird, since the best meat was exported so the undesirable parts of pigs were ground. Beef was never available.

Furthermore the 1985 CIA report states,

-Output of steel plummeted

-Hydropower decreased

-Increase of ,already limited, petroleum exports

-Energy and raw material shortages

-Decrease in domestic energy output

-Meat and milk have been nearly unobtainable

-Usual seasonal improvements in vegetable and fruit supplies did not occur.

-Exports of meat and wheat increased to USSR.

-Amount of rations decreased

-Rural populations were redistributed (small farms destroyed, and people relocated to urban apartment blocks)

-10% Power reduction (leaving Romanians with even less heat, electricity and water)

In an article in theduran.com by Serban V.C. Enache titled “The CIA on Romania’s situation ‘82-90” dated 12/27/19 he writes,

“During the 1980s, Ceausescu and his toxic wife [Elena]”…”were heavily off in fantasy land, living comfortably in a bubble like the aristos [aristocrats] of old, believing they had the love of the people and no rival. Meanwhile large sections of Romania’s working classes were suffering shortages of food, basic materials, and deteriorating public services.”

Fruit on Holidays

Matache Market Bucharest 1996. Photo by Brian Smith

Here is a memory shared with me by Codrut from Bucharest, He was 11 years old in 1989.


We (me and my family) were not usually eating three meals a day, but most often only one. My mother was a chemistry teacher and she was giving private lessons, during the late 80’s, in exchange for food (cheese, eggs, ham, olives…). My father was staying in lines for hours, after work, in order to buy a couple of boxes of milk powder for my younger brother (which is born in 1987). I remember that I was sometimes eating mustard on a slice of bread because we didn’t had anything else in the fridge. As for drinking, we were all drinking tap water, or soda. There was no bottled still water at that time.

One of my grandmothers was living in the countryside and she was raising some poultry and growing some vegetables; she came to us once or twice a month, by train, to bring us supplies.

The first time I saw bananas and oranges I didn’t knew how to eat them so I ate them without removing the peel :)) Oranges and bananas were supplied in General Stores, in very limited quantities, only during Christmas.

As far as I remember, the restaurants were usually serving grilled chicken or pork, and draft beer. We were eating at the restaurant only during holidays, because we were receiving some food tickets that we needed to spend… And the holidays were almost the same every year: one week at the beach, during summer, and another week at some mountain resort, during winter holidays.

There are many things to tell about that period and many of the older people and pensioners regret these times because, at least everybody had a job and a home to live in…

The following story is from my visit to Bucharest in 1990,

I was fortunate enough to meet someone associated with the National Theater named Anca and her friend. We got a bite after seeing a play about life under Ceausescu. Anca got very emotional while telling me that in her whole life, she had never tasted a banana. I was really taken aback and surprised by her emotion. It is something I have remembered often, because it had so much meaning to her. It had been two months since the Revolution and I was told about many hardships, but this is the one that really stuck with me. It was punctuated that night when I returned to the Intercontinental Hotel and was walking in the hallway and looked through a glass door of a closed shop where I saw a huge pile of rotting bananas. You would never have heard any story from a Romanian if you were a tourist in the 1980s because the Securitate would interrogate any Romanian speaking to a western tourist and only group tours with a minder were allowed. Very few Americans travelled to Romania anyway.

Tomorrow I will write about a recently declassified CIA report that details other hardships in 1985 caused by Ceausescu’s rape of the country to get hard currency.

Icy Old Man

Mos Gerila, (Icy Old Man) , the Romanian Communist Party replacement for Mos Craciun (Father Christmas)

New Years Day during Communist Party times was the only day during the holiday season that workers had off. While the workers were at their jobs December 24th and 25th, the kids and the elderly could attend church, but no official celebrations of Christmas were held. It wasn’t until December 31st that Mos Gerila brought gifts to good children. Officially the New Years celebration began on December 30th, the Day of the Republic, which commemorates the day King Michael abdicated in favor of the Communists in 1947.

However in the late 80s the holiday became more of a tribute to Ceausescu.

The Communists aimed to take away the religious aspect of the holiday and the family celebration. The blue coated Mos Gerila would appear at the factory or institution or he would arrive at the House of Culture. A family might go to one of many amusement parks to celebrate the season, yet families did celebrate Christmas at home anyway. The Communists did recognize that citizens were attached to these symbols and were not fully subservient to ideology. It was still requisite that all families participate in the Communist celebrations.

After Ceausescu’s death, Romanians were quick to celebrate the western style “consumerist”Christmas with Father Christmas (Mos Craciun) reinstated. In parts of “Romania Mos Gerila is still revered, simply because this is the only tradition they’ve ever known.

Happy New Year 1983

Hotel Ambasador

Ambassador Hotel Bucharest New Years Menu Dorobanti Restaurant 1983

Here is the translation:

Tarts with Fish Eggs

Biskaia Tarts – I don’t know what it means…

Crab Cocktail – I don’t know what it means either

Terina (paste) made from Hunting Meat

Liver paste in aspic

Poultry gelatin

Consommé with meringue

Beluga a la russe, in aspic

Turkey roll

Lamb roll and garnish

Salad

Buns

Cheese and schweitzer

Fruits

Cake with Ness cream

Fruit parfait

Coffee

Dorobanti cocktail

White wine

Red wine

Mineral water

Champagne

In 1983 the situation was not that bad, people were not starving. The bigger problems related to food started in 1985-1986.

All the restaurant had menus but they were usually serving grilled meat, “mici” (grilled meat rolls) and french fries

Thanks to Codrut in Bucharest for the translation!

The following article is about restoration of land and building rights, confiscated (Nationalized) when the Communists took power. The article concerns ownership of the Ambasador Hotel in Bucharest and the bizarre way the court resolved the dispute.


After ten years of law suits, half of Hotel Ambasador in Bucharest returns to original owners

The heirs of Romanian architect Arghir Culina recently won in court a wing of the hotel Ambasador and its land plot on Magheru boulevard downtown in Romanian capital Bucharest. The building, erected between 1937 and 1939, had been nationalized during the communist period, and is one of the assets which were given back to owners in kind

It took ten years of law suits for the heirs to get back their wing towards the Ciclop garage, consisting in a 520 sqm land plot and the 13- floored hotel. Lawyers from Zamfirescu Racoți & Partners represented the winning side. On the other side were the representatives of the SC Ambasador SA, the Authority for State Assets AVAS and the Public Finance Ministry.

The other half of the hotel which remained in the possession of the firm Ambasador Turism will again become functional at half of its capacity, after renovation and reclassification at four stars, instead of the previous three stars

The case had received a positive court decision back in 2003, but it went through further appeals. “The restitution saga and the various baffles we had to face unfortunately caused many of those who appeared as heirs in this case not to survive to see the happy ending,” said Călin-Andrei Zamfirescu, who coordinated the project team.

Arghir Culin was a famous architect in the first half of the 20th century, having designed several buildings in Bucharest in the art deco style, such as the Palace Hotel, presently Cismigiu Hotel, the Union Center, the building at 48 Splaiul Independentei – dormitories for Medicine students, Hotel Capitol (Louvre) on Calea Victoriei, and the Mincu Villa. For himself he designed the 200-roomed Ambasador hotel, which he owned jointly with Constantin S. Mihăescu, the owner of the adjoining Ciclop garage.

Romania-Insider.com 5/27/2013

Not What I Thought

House of the Free Press. How did I think this was Ceausescu’s Palace?

I had two major goals in Romania; one, to see Dracula’s Castle in Bran, Romania and the other, to see Ceausescu’s Palace in Bucharest. The latter did not go to plan.

I arrived by train on March 11, 1990 in Bucharest from Brasov, Romania having seen Dracula’s Castle.. My friends in Budapest urged me not to go to Romania. At the time it was believed that 80,000 people had died in the Romanian Revolution. There was no reliable information coming over the border, just rumors, and the final tally of the dead, realized in the 1990s was actually 1,290. So I was pretty scared at that time traveling mostly alone and unprepared. Fortunately Romanians are very friendly and bought me lots of drinks and that put me at ease. But I at least had a map of Bucharest and a list of hotels, that I brought from the U.S.

When I got to Bucharest I found a hotel near the main train station, but left there when I saw my room had a broken window, no lock on the door, and sheets with a lot of hair on it, and I saw a huge rat that ran down the hall. I thought I was being set up.

I checked into the best (it was substandard, and dated though) hotel in Bucharest, The Intercontinental. Many multinational businesses had their names taped on the hotel room doors, as offices. It was the tallest building in Bucharest.

On one day, between 3/11 and 3/13, I set out to see the “Palace”. I believe there was a picture of it on my map. I walked along embassy row and the TV station where many battles had taken place and many grand manors were now burned out shells. In a park near Ceausescu’s Spring Palace (really a large modern home) I saw the huge Stalinist building from far away, which I took a photo of above. The statue of Lenin in front of it had been toppled March 2. So when I got there I saw just the pedestal defaced with paint. It was getting dark ,but I managed some poor photos of the huge edifice and walked around it. I thought at last I saw Ceausescu’s Palace.

On the fourteenth I boarded a Tarom flight to East Berlin. Some seats were completely broken. Sitting next to me was a member of Romania’s orchestra. I mentioned I had seen Ceausescu’s Palace and showed her my map. She made a large circle with a pen in the city’s old center and said, “All of this is gone.” Thousands of historic buildings were destroyed and 50,000 residents displaced to make way for Ceausescu’s new city. She pointed to a soccer stadium on the map and said that is where the Palace is. I was pretty disappointed. I wanted so much to go back and see it.

After the two hour Tarom flight on March 14th, I landed at Schonefeld Air Field in East Berlin, I took a one hour bus ride to West Berlin, went to a travel agent and booked (on Interflug Airlines)my return ticket to Bucharest arriving the following morning. (3/15/90). I also bought film because there was none in Romania. I stayed at the Hotel Funkturm, near the tower of the Funkturm tower in West Berlin. The hotel wouldn’t let me leave my duffel bag there overnight so I walked over to a modern building to ask about lockers in what I thought was a big train station nearby the hotel. But the receptionist there, an American woman, Vera Lyn, said it was a convention center, but she said I could leave my bag at her place. Her husband, Nigel was not pleased, but I ended up staying with them on my later return and saw him and his band 3Mustapha3 in Philadelphia.

West Berlin
The Funkturm Tower
and the Convention Center I thought was a train station.

So when I landed back at Otopeni airport in Bucharest I got a ride from IKEA Romania’s new CEO to the Intercontinental Hotel. From the balcony of my room I saw the actual Ceausescu Palace and took the above photo, (on the right.) I went through the $3.4 billion dollar marble monstrosity with two Romanians I met there. I will detail its unparalleled statistics in a future post.

The next day (3/16/90) I flew back to Berlin in time for unified Germany’s first Democratic elections, which understandably I slept through.

Hotel Intercontinental. Guests and Press Witnessed the Revolution from its Balconies
The Hotel was Attacked, because the Top Floor was Occupied by the Securitate Secret Police “Terrorists”
Built in 1967.
Palace of the Parliament
Ceausescus Palace
House of the People
It is the second largest government building in the world after the Pentagon and extends some 300 feet below ground.
Both this building and Ceausescu’s Spring Palace are open to the public in Bucharest.

31,214 Light Bulbs

This Chandelier in Ceausescu’s Palace (now Palace of the Parliament) alone has 7000 bulbs and weighs 11,000 pounds in the “Small Hall”

31,214 bulbs are how many bulbs that have been replaced in a recent conservation effort in the Palace of the Parliament. The Palace has 2,800 chandeliers consisting of 7.7 million cubic feet of glass and crystal.

When I visited the then named, “Palace of the People” in March 1990, the Palace had been open about a week and then closed shortly after because of theft.

I met Silviu there, who was about ten years old and his mother while standing in line to go into the Palace. We wandered about, aghast at the beautiful chandeliers and rugs, all made in Romania. There was little furniture in these humongous spaces and the work on the Palace had not been completed. The heating and electric bill was six million dollars per year.

Afterward I was invited to Silviu’s Mother’s apartment, a short walk away. I noticed the small chandelier in their apartment. It had one bulb in it with several empty sockets. I knew that during the austerity period, Romanians were permitted one forty watt lightbulb per room. The idea was to save electricity that was limited and to pay off the foreign debt with the savings gained through rationing of utilities and food, plus through the exportation of the decent quality products, denied to Romanians.

When I returned to Romania in 1994, I visited Selum, a light bulb factory in Pucioasa. During Ceausescu times they exported 80% of its production to 60 countries on five continents.

I bought a number of bulbs and saw that they now produced Christmas, religious, painted dancing folk and Disney themed bulbs that would have been banned during Communism.

Christmas Bulbs