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.

Collectibles 2

Cris from Cluj-Napoca, who runs the Etsy store of artisan goods called BohemianesqueDesigns, has written me several times about her insight into collecting in the 1980s and some other things you will find interesting. Here are some quotes from her personal communication:

Oh, the porcelain figurines! 😊 There were ones that nearly everyone had! The drunken man, the ballerinas, the chinese woman… Most were made in the Romanian factories. Some were from China. Our family was not too crazy about them, and little by little got rid of them in the 90s. But many ppl were left with the habit of collecting items so some replaced those with crystal sets, crystal vases, but lots of them! I never liked them, so whenever I buy something I like to make sure that it is unique or part of a limited series. I rarely get something made in large numbers, and then I must really appreciate the practical or esthetic value of it. Hence my love for vintage, handmade, handcarved, handwoven items. Those are soulful, unique, not mass produced items with no heart.

Crystal Apple from Romania


Romanians collected many things that American teenagers wouldn’t have thought worth collecting or were collected more by previous generations here. One thing I haven’t come across is soccer or other sports cards. Instead people collected the tickets. Not much LEGO, very few Walkmans (tapes weren’t sold in stores) no Gameboys or Nintendo (no batteries in stores and TVs were black and white with color tv only for export) Some did have VCRs and Western movies. So what did people collect?

Balazs in Oradea writes, “I was a stamp collector when I was a kid; here in my town were a club for stamps collector where has a meeting every Sunday. There we find a lot of stamps, even Americans, but there were some old guys who sale the mostly the very nice designed Arab stamps, and the kids like me bought many of them. For a Christmas I got from my parents 2 albums full of stamps that made me very happy at the time. In Oradea also were an official philatelic shop where you can buy new apparels or envelopes with many stamps and surprises.”

Balazs continues, “Other stuff we collected: choco wrappers [chocolate bar wrappers], napkins. Matchboxes (the toy cars; very rare in Romania) [Rock] bands on buttons and other artists, audio tapes (original ones had big value to us) and posters and articles with our favorites”

Codrut from Bucharest writes, “One of my grandfathers was a stamp collector, so I collected stamps. Other things I collected were bottle caps, chewing gum inserts and matchboxes.”

Codrut says. “Other people collected empty cigarette packs, drink labels, post cards, coins and banknotes.”

I will dedicate two more entries to the collection of books and recipes.

Here are some more things Romanians collected during Communist days:

Romanian made glass Christmas ornaments, folk art, records, maps and postcards-to travel vicariously (the state held passports and limited travel) magazines, enamel commemorative pins and badges, comics and stickers, and bottles (seltzer, beer and mineral water) and especially crystal and porcelain figurines.

Book Censorship

Here is my collection of books of dissident authors, poets, playwrights and journalists. Some are banned writers publishing outside of Romania or emigres living in such places as Hungary, Germany, France, Spain and the U.S.

In Romania from the late forty’s until 1989, intellectuals and writers were imprisoned, sentenced to hard labor, had their works suppressed, and some were killed for their critiques of the communist rule.

The philosopher, poet and essayist Constantin Noica (1909-1987) was harassed and jailed for six years. Author Marin Preda (1922-1980) detailed writers sentenced to forced labor camps in a lead mine and the conscription building the Danube-Black Sea Canal. Author Paul Goma (1935-) survived an attempted poisoning by the Securitate and beatings in 1982 while living in France.

However works before the communist takeover that were previously considered bourgeois and decadent were reinstituted to promote nationalism as a counterpoint to the spreading Soviet influence in Romanian institutions and affairs. Communism could not be realized without the help of national writers and propaganda books.

Author, poet and historian Ion Negoitescu (1921-1993) stated, “The writers who enjoyed social and material advantages because they supported the regime have been punished by aesthetic faults which undermine their words.” He goes on to say, “One could publish without compromising, if one accepted that one would be pushed to the margins of society and fight censorship if one took risks for the sake of culture.”

These “risks” meant less radical, more indirect criticism of the existing order in a country where foreign movies, western TV and music and literature were banned. (Not including the show “Dallas” which portrays the decadent and corrupt aspects of American life)

Some less critical writers negotiated with the censors or self-published books. Others had connections within the Party. Editors were fired at times and books were withdrawn from stores when the true meanings were discovered.

A 1971 law in Romania prohibited publication of books abroad that were against the interests of the state and forbade Romanians from having contact with foreign radio or newspapers.

After 1981, national conferences of the writer’s union and the giving of literary prizes were disallowed. Books had to go through three levels of editing. Fear induced compliance by authors.

“You are assigned a school, you are assigned a job and you are given a place to live. Conformity is a rule, your expectations are limited and you do not step out of line,” writes Dennis Deletant in his book, “Ceausescu and the Securitate.” 2008.

But still there were authors and poets who defied the Communist order, like Dorin Tudoran and Vladimir Tismaneanu, whom I met in Philadelphia at a law firm talk in the early 1990s. (Tismaneanu headed a criminal inquiry against Communists in Romania after the Revolution.)Author and philosopher, Constantin Noica formed an intellectual community in the mountains of Romania and a disciple published a subversive book called “The Paltinis Diary”, that was nevertheless removed from shops. Censorship of plays became more subtle after a popular play by Gogol was banned and people spoke up. Books were smuggled across the border and authors within Romania bypassed the Council of Culture censorship body by self publishing and using a nom de plume. They were the defense weapon against the “enemies from the outside and the enemies from the inside.” Jon Dumitru, “A Servirea” (To Serve) 1983

But it was also the writer community in exile that maintained that freedom was indispensable to record the interpretation and knowledge of facts and events that determine Romania’s national destiny.

Subversive Jokes

My friend MIrcea from Brasov told me the following jokes in 1990. There must have been a high degree of risk in telling jokes like these.

In the morning the sun greets Mr. Ceausescu with “Good Morning Mr. Ceausescu, you look wonderful.

In the afternoon, while eating lunch, the sun greets Mr. Ceausescu with “Good to see you.”

In the late afternoon, while eating dinner, the sun says to Mr. Ceausescu, “Go to hell you bastard!”

Why? Because the sun is now in the West.

The radio announcer says Mr. Ceausescu is waking up. Now you may wake up.

Then the radio announcer says Mr. Ceausescu is brushing his teeth. Now you may brush your teeth.

Mr. Ceausescu is now dressing. Now you may dress.

Mr. Ceausescu is now eating his breakfast. You may go to work.

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


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.