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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Little Oranges and Big Boots: Memories from My Childhood in Communist Romania

Communism failed because comparisons with realistic alternatives were possible.

Image by Anh Nhi Đỗ Lê from Pixabay

Centrally planned and state-owned economies did not collapse in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was finally “torn down.” Actually, the failure of this economic system started in 1961 when the wall was built by the communist regimes to trap their own populations inside the “workers’ paradise.” The failure was already obvious in the eyes of people who endured it—far earlier than was acknowledged by Western academics or public opinion.

Communism failed because comparisons with realistic alternatives were possible.

Communist regimes didn’t collapse solely because of general shortages of basic goods: Mankind has been confronted by that for millennia. People did not rise up against them just because of their oppressive policies: violence and abuse from political power have been the historical norm, and the rule of law is a very recent and rare exception.

Communism failed because comparisons with realistic alternatives were possible. Shortwave radios, satellite dishes, and videotapes were more successful than nuclear weapons. Communist regimes failed because their failure became obvious even to the privileged class.

Eating My First Tangerine

Though I was not a member of that privileged class, I was one of the luckiest members of my generation. As a child, I was able to travel in Western Europe when very few other Romanians were allowed to have a passport. I owe this good fortune to my parents, who worked as high school teachers in Morocco between 1978 and 1982. That was possible thanks to an agreement between the Socialist Republic of Romania (which wanted to show “international solidarity”) and the Kingdom of Morocco (which needed high school teachers following its independence).

There, for the first time, I ate (and saw) “small oranges,” which my sister and I called tangerines. I remember how difficult it was for my grandparents to “procure” on the black market the coupon to change their gas bottle in socialist Romania. As a seven-year-old boy, I was blown away by the number and diversity of cars in a “developing country.” I still remember how respectfully I was treated by Sidi Brahim, the shopkeeper around the corner who always called me “jeune homme” (young man). And I will never forget the long lines and empty shelves in the shops at home. Once, when Sidi Brahim was out of bread, he sent Said, his employee, to buy it for me from his competitor a few blocks away.

I remember how, whenever we needed it, Sidi carried the gas tank to our apartment, changed it, and took the empty one back to the store for a small tip. Even at that young age, I was aware of how difficult it was for my grandparents to “procure” on the black market the coupon that allowed them to change their gas bottle in socialist Romania. Fortunately, they were beekeepers and produced enough honey to act as a substitute for useless currency. It’s worthwhile to note that all this happened in a country with significant reserves of natural gas, according to my geography textbooks and the national television.

It Takes a General to Buy a Particular Pair of Boots

After our return to Romania, the economic situation turned from bad to worse. I remember my parents’ struggle to find shoes for two growing kids. When I was in high school, my mother dared to confess these difficulties to a colleague who was married to the county’s head of Securitate. It worked! The colleague was nice enough to bring her a pair of the highest quality boots a Romanian could have dreamed of at that time: the Clujana yellow boots produced almost exclusively for export.

They were two sizes bigger than what I needed at that time, but I kept them: It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Until the fall of communism, I wore them with pride because my friends were more prone to envy me rather than compare me with Charlie Chaplin.

The Ultimate “Privilege”: Individual Rights

When I say that comparisons with capitalism destroyed communism, I don’t refer to the obvious contrasts with “developed capitalist countries.” Of course, a simple visit to a French hypermarket was, for me, an experience hard to describe in a credible way to my friends back home. But somehow, it wasn’t a real surprise: you expect to find abundance in a rich country.

It was more surprising to see abundance and diversity in a “developing country.” In Morocco, everybody everywhere was selling or buying something, from fresh mint on a Mobylette to dubious no-name or counterfeit watches on a public bus.

These memories immunized me forever against the never-ending propaganda of the regime.

Of course, I also remember the contrasts between the “bidonvilles” (slums) around Casablanca and a huge palace near the seaside, the children of my age who played barefoot with just a hoop and a stick in the street, the shoeshine boys doing their job while their customers were drinking tea on a terrace. In some ways, many Moroccans were poorer than us, but they had something that was missing in the Socialist Republic of Romania: reasons to hope for a better future thanks to their market economy. The most depressing aspect of the ‘80s was not the material deprivation per se but the generalized feeling that the communist regime would never end.

Growing up in a communist country, all these memories became more and more meaningful to me. They immunized me forever against the never-ending propaganda of the regime. They also came back many years later during my student years in France, when I was surprised that so many people could still believe in and try to convince me that communism was a good philosophy that had just been poorly applied. Their implicit idea was that it was our fault that we, Eastern Europeans, ruined the “golden dream of mankind” not only for us but also for the whole world. In one of many debates I had on this topic, a student tried to explain to me that communism could actually work while she was dropping her cigarette ashes on the lobby floor. I just asked her if she did the same in her room or if she used an ashtray.

I still wonder if that was enough to question the realism of a utopia…

  • Radu Nechita is an associate professor who teaches Microeconomics, Globalization and Development, European Economic Integration at Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania (Department of European Studies). His general topics of interest gravitate around the institutional factors of development, with emphasis on regulations, monetary and fiscal policies.

    He promotes economic education in various forms: as a trainer in personal finance or in entrepreneurial education, by publishing dozens of articles in mass-media and by participating at over one hundred TV and radio shows. Since 2003, he organizes the “Friedrich von Hayek Seminar”, an extracurricular weekly series of interactive conferences, open to all students from Cluj-Napoca area.