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.