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Memories of my communist childhood – growing up under the red banner

Posted by E on December 28, 2007



After my last post, in which I wrote about my impressions of Cuba, I received some mixed feedback – exactly half of the commentators were against the Cuban regime, and half advocating earnestly for it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle room for discussion when it comes to communist systems of government, does it? I’m not entirely sure what a middle ground would look like, but like any other battle of sectarian ideologies, this battle-line is drawn down the middle with a clearly-defined marker.

My opinions differ from most people I know, not necessarily in their ideology as much as from the formative experiences that have shaped who I am. I am a product of a so-called utopian society that like most others, found its end in a bloody revolution. There are many who still long for the good old times, simply because nobody ever was taught to think for themselves. For many decades, the people of my homeland were brought up to fear what was above them, the Golden Father of all Children, and when his regime fell so many older people didn’t know how to take care of themselves since they had always relied on the state to provide, to teach, and to think for them.

I was one of Ceausescu’s last batch of communism-raised children. We were an experimental generation of youth raised under the shade of a red star, in the Golden Epoch of our Fatherland. Our homeland, our Patria, was what we swore allegiance to. In grade 2, I received my Red Scarf and became a Pioneer. I remember that day clearly – for weeks I practiced memorizing a poem about our Great Father Nicolae Ceausescu that I later recited flawlessly in front of the Pioneer Assembly. In grade 3 I was stripped of one of my pioneer medals because my mother was a political defector. My father and I were followed by the Securitate for two years while we waited for our departure papers under the Red Cross Family Reunification program. In grade 4 I learned how to shoot a rifle. Officially, I became a child soldier for our homeland.

I loved my country. I truly, deeply appreciate that I had the opportunity to grow up sheltered from violence, from materialism, from being over-sexualized at an early age. I loved my uniform, my internal sense of fairness truly appreciating the equality that this white shirt and pleated navy skirt represented: all children, gypsies, christians, jews, all faiths and social classes brought together under one flag, one song, one classroom.

At the same time, I saw a country brought to its knees under the weight of its foreign exports. All of our rich resources were being exported to pay for Romania’s increasing debtload, a debt incurred as part of Ceausescu’s attempts at civilizing its people from its bourgeois roots: churches and villages were raised to the ground in order to pave roads and build collective farms and factories. People were reduced to a name on a ration card, one kilogram of flour and sugar per month, a litre of oil. Nothing more or less.

I remember standing in those lines: the line for bread, for butter, for meat, for books – any leftover money from people’s salaries was spent in a desperate attempt to buy food. There was never enough food for everybody. You could line up at 5 a.m. and it still didn’t guarantee there would be enough left by the time your turn came to the cashier. People made a habit of lining up: they didn’t know what kind of meat would be available at the butcher’s that day, but they arrived promptly at 5 in the morning, always five in the morning – for bread, for clothing, for various amenities.

And what did those people do in those lines? They laughed, they cried, they cursed “Him” who could not be named, but everybody knew – we were all co-conspirators, well-versed in the language of innuendos, scathing jokes and trepidation. Unlike the socialist red banner we lived in, nobody loved their neighbour. Everybody was jealous of each other – tried to figure out who had more, how they got it, and if we could get it too. People called secret, anonymous phone lines and denunced their neighbours for nothing more than a move to a better apartment or a better job assignment.

Under the red banner, I knew hunger, I knew pain, and what I experienced most of all – was fear. A deep, breath-taking fear that crushed your voice inside your ribs. You didn’t look up, you didn’t ask Why, you just obeyed. I knew people who worked at collective farms who went to jail for holding back a chicken from the monthly counts, just to feed their families a bit more protein. Only those who worked for the Party, the State, the Securitate, would have access to foreign currency and could go to that wondurous place we only heard stories about: the Shop. At the Shop, you could buy toblerone bars and Nescafe coffee, and loads of products we spied foreign tourists being served in fancy restaurants. Unfortunately, I never bought anything at the Shop. It was not for people like us. While Ceausescu was building the second-largest palace in the world after the Taj-Mahal, replete with gold bathroom fixtures, I remained underweight for my age.

Sometimes I wonder if anybody who glorifies a system like that of Romania, the Eastern Bloc, like Cuba and China’s, has ever lived inside this world. I don’t wonder this very often since I already know the answer: they have not. Nobody who has lived inside this world of sensory and emotional deprivation would wish for it again. Sure, nowadays Romanians will grumble that: “Before we had money but no food, now we have lots of food but no money to buy it.” But if questioned again about their past, their eyes glaze over and deep sighs can be heard. The emotional blackness of those days will always scar the lining of our souls.

Ceausescu meant well. So did Marx, and Che, and even Adolf (yes, I am mixing political affiliations!). Nobody starts out with the desire to massacre the spirit of their nation. But through deeds that are meant to be “for the good of others”, the result remains the same. Atrocity and sadness remains the legacy of so many regimes where scores of nameless people perish in the name of a warped ideology. Even after the 1989 Revolution, the scars remain, and they will remain there, imprinted on my heart, for the rest of my life.

I miss my childhood, the people I will never see again, the friends and neighbours who we have lost touch with, who all fled in the night to Australia, America, and Europe. One day you had lunch with somebody, the next day they were gone – and you didn’t know whether they had been arrested or paid someone to smuggle them over the border. As for myself, I never wanted to leave my homeland – I was dragged, kicking and screaming, away from it at age 10. In retrospect, it was already too late – I inherited my country’s history in my genes; its pulse beat in my veins like a tumultuous river. Even when citizenship was forcibly stripped from me as a defector, I remained Romanian. It was a thing they could never take away.

Nowadays, when I meet other Romanians I search for the legacy of the terror in their eyes: there is a darkness there, always, a haunted look that lies behind their smiles, their happy countenance. I see other survivors of my generation, other experimental byproducts of a world where walls cound talk, and where a whisper could mean exile. We walk like aliens among Canadians in this country, like wolves in sheep’s clothing – we are not of your world, this world of smiles and polite conversations. We are survivors of something that cannot be fathomed by those who are fortunate enough to have been born here.

I came from a world where being a lesbian would have meant a mandatory five-year jail sentence with hard labour. A world where my writing would be censored and condemned. Where my poetry would have to be dedicated to the Party. Where my life would forever remain not a burning flame, but a sigh.

I have realized that those people who continue the lovely fairytale of a communist utopia surely must not have experienced it. To be perfectly honest, I would absolutely love it if a true socialist state could exist in this world – a state of egalitarianism where all are cared for and provided by a loving government. But that will never happen, since it is not within the boundaries of human nature – it is by default that we strive to compete with each other, to outdo each other’s accomplishments, to work harder and seek greater peaks than those of our neighbours’. By default, true socialism cannot work. I have met leftists who said to me “Oh, but Elisa dear, what you experienced wasn’t truly communism, but state capitalism.” Because of course, they considered themselves experts of socialist systems, and every time one failed, it was attributed to the fact that “Well, that wasn’t REALLY socialism anyway, or a failed attempt at communism.” This came from well-meaning but confused activists, naive individuals who refused to acknowledge that every failure of communism over the last hundred years has been a sign of its instability and profound inability to ever be implemented.

Because as tough and hard-core a leftist as you can be, when you are inside oppression and you suffer in silence, you have but one of two choices: become the enemy, or be broken. On the tree-lined boulevards of Bucharest, in Moscow’s squares, on Beijing’s winding streets, and in the slums of Havana, people survived the only way they know how: a breath at a time.

To all deniers of oppression worldwide – shame on you. What is so quickly forgotten is destined to be repeated.

17 Responses to “Memories of my communist childhood – growing up under the red banner”

  1. Incredible post. I love the Marxists who claim that their theories have not been implemented in the proper manner. It is a corrupt political system that defies human psychology and rational self-interest.

  2. Elisa said

    Thanks for your comment. Isn’t it funny that you don’t see Marxists fleeing in droves to Cuba for political asylum, do you? They are content enough to remain in these capitalist, bourgeois nations where they can enjoy the freedom to bash the system as much as they please. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit I have issues with how things are run and I am by no means a supporter of the status quo, but hell, what’s the alternative?…so often these days, I realize that we are basically forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. I will always choose the side where I can be free to live and think with integrity, rather than be silenced by Orwellian, repressive dogma/propaganda.

  3. thenightblog said

    I’m a high school student and I had to write a paper on communism and why it didn’t work as it would, ideally. I had no clue what to put because you hear about these leaders who twist it to their own purposes, and that’s not communism at all. At least, it isn’t what it’s supposed to be. So why wouldn’t communism work, if people could somehow get over having the same as everyone else, and no leader took control? I see that it wouldn’t. I didn’t know before the obstacles to a perfect communist society, beyond the need for more. This helped quite a bit with my research. Thanks!

  4. Elisa said

    Hey there,
    I am glad that you stumbled upon my blog and better yet, that you found it helpful. I would love to hear more about what you have found out on your own about the flaws of implementing communism, and what ended up being the feedback you got from your paper.

    Communism is a beautiful utopian dream, nobody can deny it. It is unfortunate that so many activists deny the reality that it cannot survive without oppressive measures, which by definition take people’s rights away. There is so much more that I could have written, but you are definitely on the right path in terms of grasping the essence of its failure.

    Good for you to make yourself informed. Information is the key to freedom of thought, something that is often seen as threatning within a totalitarian regime (which can be communist or national socialist/fascist).

  5. thenightblog said

    Hi again! I was wondering if you could tell me about the infrastructure within the communist society where you lived…I searched the Net but it seems like the answers are hidden in places I can’t find. It’d be great to have someone who knows firsthand to help me out. I’ve already handed in my paper but I want to know more. 🙂 I love working out the kinks in theories and ideals; seeing what works and what doesn’t.
    Thank you!
    By the way, the feedback was mostly curious…a few of my fellow students were having problems as well so I was happy to help. My biggest point was humanity’s basic need for more, and how making everything equal would not only result in mutinies, but would injure what makes people, people. It wasn’t very organized, but perhaps I had something and perhaps I didn’t.

  6. Elisa said

    hey you,

    sorry I didn’t reply sooner…I’m out of town at the moment, in a place off the map where I have to steal wireless…and so can’t write too much in case I lose the whole thing.
    But you ask about infrastructure – I’m not exactly sure of how to answer this. Perhaps if you were more specific, I might be better able to come up with a description. Remember also that I was a kid there, and wasn’t as much familiar with the hierarchical branches of the political system there, as much as with how it FELT to be there.
    I’m sure there are tons of wiki references about how communist systems work. What you have to remember is that they are not so different from fascist or other dictatorial systems. Every extreme regime has so many similarities – especially regimes that came out of violence.
    They tend to go from one revolution to another – first they overthrow the imperialists, then the communists take over for a few decades, then another bloody revolution and a new system that is very right-wing. It’s like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to another.

    People who only know subjugation tend to become the same way. They are not used to freedom, and like to play by the same rules they grew up under. Otherwise, they revert to their “old” ways – i.e. turn very religious and intolerant. You see that in all of Eastern Europe now, like Russia, Romania, etc – they are so religious and intolerant, and they can’t see a way to allow others to just live their own lives in peace. This mentality is of course a by-product of growing up under a system where somebody ELSE taught you how to think.

    I suppose it’s all relative…mass media tends to program people here in how to think, what to like, what to buy, etc, doesn’t it? lol .. at least they don’t arrest you or send you to Siberia if you disagree with them.

  7. thenightblog said

    Thank you for the replies…and I think it’s rather ironic that there’s such a connection between here, where free thought it emphasized, and communist country where it’s supposedly the exact opposite. At least, I guess, there’s that chance to be different, eh? Well, thanks for your time!

  8. Veronica said

    Hello Elisa! First I want to say congratulations on your writing style. It says indeed the true story. I, too, felt the need to share thoughts and pictures from my Communist childhood which was pretty much like yours…we’re talking about Communism, right? How else? So, I am writing in letters about how our lives were while growing up under communism. I, too, loved and still love my country. That is why I feel like I need to talk about it and let the world be aware of what is/was going on. Just like apartheid, segregation and other movements, communism tends to find itself supporters. I am wondering, how many of these supporters knew how it was like? How many of them have experienced Communism? It is easy to read books and fantasize about a perfect world where everything is shared where there is no power distribution. It’s something else to live it…

  9. Elisa said

    Hi Veronica,
    I’m really glad you came across my site. I didn’t see any other Romanians writing about that time, so it’s great to add your blog to my list. How long have you been away from Romania now? When did you leave? You probably miss it, as I do when I write about it.
    I think we both know that no, none of the western-country supporters of such a system have ever experienced it. They have no idea that insurgent revolutionary ideas, thoughts that they believe would be welcomed with open arms in a communist society, would probably make them go to the firing wall, or at the very least a “reeducation camp” during Ceausescu’s time.

    And the ones who HAVE lived it, who remember and miss the old days, are only fond of it because it was a time of intense regulation – there were no drugs, no prostitution, no crime out in public. It was a clean, safe place, where no mafiosos ran drugs and sex smuggling rings. So they miss it – the cleanliness of the streets, the nostalgia of their youth.

    But what everybody forgets first is there was no freedom and no food either, and the bad things are easier to forget. (You know Romanians are chronic complainers, as are every Hungarian, Ukrainian and Pole I’ve ever met. It’s in our genes. 🙂 )

    I’d love to know more about your thoughts. I’ll check out your blog. Sper sa ma mai vizitezi.

  10. Veronica said

    Hi again! It’s been 6 years since I left Romania and in the meantime I have visited only once and that was this year. How changed Romania was! Buildings and bridges being built everywhere, flowers, colorful people, amazing! so happy to see that and so sad too these days to hear so many of my fellow Americans talking so highly of Socialism….if they only knew. Oh well, we’ll leave politics for some other time… However, this Halloween made me think of home, and I put a short post of my blog regarding that. Remember the candy? Remember how there was almost none? And now, now I don’t know how to get rid of it! amazing how things changed.

    Last night I was trying to explain to a few people from school what socialism means…so sad to see them fired up about the idea. So sad to hear them saying that just because I lived in a socialist country it does not mean I know what I am talking about. I guess the future will have to prove it for them all.

    Talk soon! Pe curand!

  11. Irene said

    Hello Elisa
    I was very happy to find your writing about your life in Romania.I am a danish woman and me and my husband have been travelling in Romania every year the last ten years, i am learning romanian and i have a best friend living nearby who is from Romania. I just love your country and as a lot of danes do not know about Romania i am now working on a book about Romania in danish. The book will content Romanian history, travel stories,Romania and Romanians today, food history and recepies. The most difficult work is to have somebody to tell about their life under Ceausescu, and my friend has so deep feelings about the time that she cant tell about it, and i dont ask her because i know. Anyway i have some other contacts i can work with and maybe you can be helpfull if you agree. My best regards Irene

  12. Elisa said

    Hi Irene,

    as you know, I am a writer as well and actually working on a book about that time, much of it expanding upon this article I wrote last year. If you’d like to discuss more about your book plan and can tell me more about what you envision as my contribution, please email me directly – elisa or you can go to my site and click on the Contact Me button.
    I look forward to hearing from you again.

  13. corie said

    So true and wonderful,it brings back good memories.What a simple life,but real!!!Thanks!!I am a romanian too.

  14. If you need anymore confirmation that this piece is accurate in describing the Romania “during Ceausescu”, I can confirm any single word because I am a Romanian too. I left Romania two years before the Dictator got what he deserved.
    There is so much to add, about the crazed cult of personality about the constant fear that one of your friends or colleagues might be a Security informant or might turn into one because he wanted you arrested and your job. One anonymous letter was enough.
    I remember the long lines at 5 AM in a freezing -10 C just to get for my child some white water they call it milk. I remember how for a packet of KENT my mother was able to procure things that didn’t even make it to the shelf of the grocery.
    All of this while the “comrades”, members of the party had their special store with food and wines brought from their Party’s farms.
    Romania is still scarred by those years and i guess so am I. That’s why when I hear of “redistribution of wealth” my blood starts boiling!!

  15. […] Memories of my Communist Childhood – Growing Up Under the Red Banner is one of my most emotional pieces. It has been quoted in various online journals and is about growing up as a pioneer in the Romanian communist utopia of Nicolae Ceausescu, during the Golden Epoch of our Fatherland. […]

  16. Agata said

    Amazing story I am so inspired, your story help me to prepare my icebreaker speech at the toastmaster’s, relating to my own upbringing in Poland. Ikeep coming back to this we site and reading the blog. Thank you!

    • E said

      I’m very glad my story helped to inspire you to share your own story to the world. It’s a very important time in history that must be recorded and remembered. Also, I hope your toastmasters speech went well 🙂

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