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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Orient Express to Hell

In 1986 and 1987 I slipped behind the Iron Curtain a few 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 Orient Express began in the 1880s and connected Paris to Constantinople. The menu on the train’s first run included oysters,  turbot with green sauce, chicken “à la chasseur,” fillet of beef with “château” potatoes,  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 could be arrested or denied entry. So late at night, nearing the Romanian border, I studied the documents one more time, drilling into my head the things that I should be looking for. Then I tore everything up and threw it 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 1932 Dracula movie. I didn’t hear wolves howling, but the mountain terrain, low-hanging fog, and military guards with German shepherds circling the train time and again sufficed.

My cabin was searched four times, with each team outdoing its 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 socialist standards) military officer. Perhaps the authorities thought I would confess my perfidy to the opposite sex. Nope: I was just another tourist heading to the “Paris of East Europe,” as Bucharest preened in pre-communist times. Except that there were almost zero tourists in a land renamed “the Ethiopia of Europe.” (I entered the country illegally—relying on an easily acquired tourist visa, instead of enduring the hassles and delays for a journalist visa.)

After the final search, guards bolted my cabin shut from the outside. The pseudo-luxury train had officially been converted into a traveling jail. But at least the intellectual-political virus was quarantined. My American passport had earned me special treatment. I just 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 go roughly 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 city renamed Stalin City in 1950. A dozen years later, as friction rose with Moscow, Brasov regained its old name. Shortly before I passed through, thousands of workers responded to wage cuts by ransacking communist party offices and killing two government militia men.

Romania looked double-damned by government planning and political meddling. 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 nine the next morning, there was a rapping on my cabin door—like someone sending a secret message. I heard someone struggling with the bolted lock. The door popped open, and half a dozen ragtag Romanian workers poured in. They had heard there was a foreigner—perhaps an American—confined on the train. They obviously knew how to overturn the bolt that sealed the door. The workers stared at me like I was E.T., and it probably wasn’t just because of the old canvas hat I was wearing. Two of them leaned over and pawed/stroked my leather boots—eyes wide in amazement. Leather boots had apparently become the same type of luxury there that full-length mink coats were in America. Yet, in the pre-communist era, leather boots were probably routine for factory and farm workers. We communicated with simple gestures since I did not speak Romanian and they spoke no English. They seemed full of goodwill, but vanished after a few minutes—perhaps fearful of being caught talking to a foreigner.

Starved Into Submission

The workers were likely no fans of Nicolae Ceau?escu, the communist dictator who made Romania the most barbaric and repressive regime in Europe. Though Romania had been a breadbasket of Europe before World War I, food had become as rare as honest economic statistics. The communists destroyed hundreds of square miles of prime farmland to erect factories and open-pit mines. 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.

Ceau?escu seemed determined to starve the people into submission. Romanians were forbidden to receive food shipments from foreigners. Visitors were stopped at the Romanian border and denied entry if they attempted to bring in a chocolate cake or bubble gum.

The government put almost all investments into heavy industry—the ultimate source of bragging rights for communist leaders. But roughly half of Romanian factory output was so shoddy it was ready for the junk heap as soon as it left the gate.

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, which had caused a thousand deaths the previous winter.

The Darling of the World Bank

Yet some western experts thought Ceau?escu was the greatest thing since sliced bread. 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 [by] stimulating an increase in birth rates.”

And how did the benevolent ruler do this? By prohibiting distribution of contraceptives and banning abortions. 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 thirtyish woman came up and asked in a gravely three-pack-a-day voice: “Would you like to have some company?”

I said no, and got away from her quick. The Romanian government was famous for using its intelligence agents as prostitutes. The woman had the hotel staked out, hoping to gather information from visitors or to entice them into behavior that could be videotaped and used to betray them.

I checked into my room, which looked like it was custom-designed for surveillance. I flipped on the TV set and saw choruses of peasants and workers in overalls listlessly waving flags and singing the praises of Ceau?escu, the self-proclaimed “Genius of the Carpathians,” as the camera zoomed in for close-ups of the great man’s face.

Fascinating stuff, but the plot line was a bit flat, so I sought entertainment elsewhere.

When I visit a new city I love to spend hours walking around—getting a feel for the turf. I stopped at the concierge desk at the Hilton and asked for a street map of downtown Bucharest. I figured it might have a walking guide to the Greatest Triumphs of Ceau?escu-ism within an eight-block radius of Communist Party headquarters.

The guy grimaced and eyed me like I had asked for a detonator for a bomb strapped underneath my overcoat.

“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 razed to make room for the ugliest “socialist realism” monoliths outside of North Korea.

The concierge scowled and muttered something—perhaps the 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 might cause leprosy. I had heard that it was a crime for Romanians to talk to strangers. But a few people summoned up a hodgepodge of broken English, pleading for a pack of Kent cigarettes to bribe doctors to treat their sick children. The Romanian currency was practically worthless. The only things with value were western goods, like those Kents, which circulated as a black-market currency.

I stepped into the largest department store in Bucharest; it was dark, dank, and miserable. Sales clerks lounged on piles of new clothing heaped on the floor. One of the main attractions in the store: 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 naked amidst construction projects that had razed its surroundings. Many Romanians fretfully crossed themselves as they passed the church.

The U.S. embassy was surrounded by Romanian troops with machine guns to prevent Romanians from entering and asking for asylum.

Like other communist regimes, Romania was an economic theocracy. The government used its iron fist to make sure everything happened according to the Plan. For instance, the 1986-90 five-year plan decreed that Romanian scientists would make 4,015 discoveries, of which 2,423 would result in new products by Romanian businesses. It’s not surprising that the regime “planned” creativity, since it considered itself omniscient.

Romania was one of the World Bank’s favorite regimes, receiving more than $2 billion between 1974 and 1982. It 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 it gives a country, the easier it becomes to portray the nation as a success story. Then-World Bank president Robert McNamara cited Romania to tout his own “faith in the financial morality of socialist countries.”

Human Resources

The World Bank also praised the Romanian regime for its ability to “mobilize the resources” required to boost economic growth. In reality this merely meant that the government could brutalize its subjects to squeeze out “surpluses” to lavish funds on World Bank-approved industrial enterprises. Ceau?escu was doing the same thing Stalin did in the 1930s, when he starved up to ten million peasants to squeeze farmers to generate surpluses to build new factories.

The Romanian regime also “mobilized resources” by pawning its ethnic German and Jewish inhabitants. (West Germany would pay money for each ethnic German released from Romania). International agreements banned slave trading in the nineteenth century, but selling human beings in the twentieth century was okay if the receipts went for progressive purposes.

The World Bank never cut Ceau?escu off; instead, he ceased borrowing after he became convinced that western debt was a curse on his country.

As I knocked around Bucharest I assumed I was being followed. Roughly one in 15 Romanians was working as a government informant.

From my experience elsewhere in the East Bloc, I knew that pulling out a notebook set off the alarm bells. Instead, I jotted down notes on the palm of my hand. Such behavior was likely to be seen as merely weird not menacing. Single words served me as pegs to later pull up a strand of facts and thoughts.

Late the next afternoon I arrived at Bucharest’s main airport to fly to Frankfurt. I noticed that most of the businessmen ahead of me were openly giving a pack of Kents to each guard or other dreg at the four different security checkpoints.

I had bought a couple cartons of Kents before going to Romania, and I was soon passing out cigarette packs to airport guards like an old widow tossing candy to kids on Halloween.

I saw one or two German businessmen yanked aside for more invasive searches. As I passed the last checkpoint, I thanked my lucky stars 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 graying soldier standing about 20 yards from the plane. I held up my passport, and he waved me on.

I had almost reached the gangway when I heard: HALT!

I turned and saw the guard running toward 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:


I looked at my hand, then I looked at the guard.

“It’s ink.”

He paused, squinted, nodded his head knowingly, and then waved me on to the plane.

Two years later, 5,000 Romanians were killed during an uprising that overthrew the government. When Ceau?escu and his wife were summarily executed on December 25, 1989, it was probably the best Christmas present Romanians ever received.

  • James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.