Waiting for the car that never came

Posted on Updated on

Just as Communist Germany had the Trabant, Yugoslavia had the Yugo, and Communist Russia had the Lada, so did Romania have a national car: the Dacia. The brand and the factory still exist today. In fact, they’re owned by Renault, and are doing pretty well, selling quite decently on the Western markets, since this is a reliable and cheap car.

Dacia
Dacia

But back to the Communist Dacia cars! The early models looked quite boxy, and were also used by the national police forces. The factory licensed Renault technology to produce them.

Militia car
Militia car

The boxy model was only produced for about 1 year, being replaced with the model that became a national symbol: Dacia 1300 (later, Dacia 1310, although they retained their new shape until the 1990s).

Dacia 1300
Dacia 1300

What was the reason for its fame, you may ask? Well, it’s certainly not its technical features: the car had only 54 horse-power, and could reach a speed of about 140 km/h (probably when it was empty, because realistically, it was barely going over 100 km/h). In fact, a famous joke running in Communism made fun of the Dacia engineers:

A group of German, Japanese and Romanian engineers meet to share their knowledge about car manufacturing. The German engineer says:

“Our car doors close very tightly. We test this by placing a living fly inside the car. If the fly manages to get out of the car, we send the car back to the factory, to fix the doors and make them perfectly tight.”

“Interesting!” says the Japanese engineer! “We use the same technique, but we use a flea instead, which is much smaller, to make sure nothing gets through the door. Romanian colleague, what do you use?”

“Oh, we just use a cat! If the cat is still alive after one week, it means the doors are good enough: enough airs gets in, but the cat can’t get out.

What made the Dacia so famous in Communism was that — as with many other material goods — it was very hard to get. When dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided to pay the country’s external debt in record time, most products manufactured by Romania were destined to be exported to other countries. This meant that Romanians were second-class citizens in their own country: they had to wait in line to get their car, even if they could pay all the money upfront. In fact, many of them are still waiting today to get their dream car, or — more realistic — their money back.

The car cost about 70,000 lei in late 80s, the equivalent of US$ 3,900 by some estimates (although the Romanian currency was never convertible to other world currencies during Communism). To be officially on the Communist waiting list for a Dacia, you had to deposit the money in a bank account. When the anti-Communist Revolution put an abrupt end to the regime in December 1989, there were still about 40,000 people on that waiting list. Unfortunately, soon after the fall of Communism, sky-rocketing inflation and economic collapse meant that their car deposit money could barely buy them a lipstick. So they decided to sue the state, asking for the money back, obviously adjusted with an interest rate that would cover for the rampant inflation. 38,000 of them finally won, and managed to get back most of the money in 2008. However, 2,150 of the people waiting for a Dacia were not so lucky. After the Revolution, they were advised to transfer their money from the only Communist bank (CEC) to a new bank (BRD), still owned by the state at that time. Meanwhile, the bank has been privatized, and their situation has been forgotten. Yesterday, they protested in several places in Bucharest, including the Tribunal, asking for justice.

Dacia buyers' protest
Dacia buyers’ protest

Today, old, Communist Dacia can still be spotted on the streets of Bucharest. Many have been sold as scrap metal (the government gave owners a voucher which they could use as down payment for a new car), others have been tuned, while some are simply rotting on the streets.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Enjoyed this article? Listen to more Communist stories and see Bucharest’s landmarks in one of our upcoming walking tours!

Opulence of the Despots: Yanukovych vs. Ceausescu

Posted on Updated on

All the photos and videos depicting the wealth of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych remind me of how Nicolae Ceausescu’s fortune was depicted by the media immediately after the anti-Communist Revolution of 1989. I’m still trying to find the original television footage that was filmed when anti-Communist protesters stormed his palace in Snagov, as well as his villas and other belongings (including a presidential plane, presidential train and a car collection), but this more recent footage should give you an idea:

The documentary above is in Romanian, and it features his palace in Snagov. Apparently, that’s where Michael Jackson also stayed in 1992 when he came to Romania for his concert. Yes, he had expensive oil paintings (by Nicolae Grigorescu, probably the most famous Romanian painter), crystal chandeliers, expensive wood paneling and furniture, marble decorations and what not, but it turns out that the bathroom faucets were not made of massive gold, as initially thought, but merely from gilded brass.

I remember how shocked and indignant the protesters were when they realized the discrepancy between how the famous Communist dictator lived and how the majority of the population lived. In retrospect, he didn’t seem that wealthy, and many of the amenities featured in those early documentaries are now common in every 5-star hotel. In fact, many of his “protocol villas” have fallen in disrepair since the collapse of Communism, as is the case with this property, which looks quite modest by today’s standards:

The most controversial claim regarding Ceausescu’s wealth was that he owned 1 billion US dollars (yes, that’s one billion!) stashed as deposits in Swiss banks. Nevertheless, this has never been proven to date, and a formal report signed by a Romanian parliamentary commission in 2008 concluded that these funds never existed.

Ironically, both presidents (Yanukovych and Ceausescu) fled from the raging crowds using a helicopter. Here is an amateur’s footage of the event filmed in December 1989:

(here is footage of Yanukovych’s escape attempt, if you’re looking for comparisons)

I guess only history will tell if Yanukovych will share the destiny fate as the Ceausescu couple.

Enjoyed this article? Listen to more Communist stories and see Bucharest’s landmarks in one of our upcoming walking tours!

Is Communism still a taboo topic in Romania?

Posted on Updated on

Part of the promotion activities for the Tour of Communism involves partnering with hotels and souvenir shops to help spread the word to tourists visiting the country. Usually, all they have to do is to allow a few flyers about the tour to be placed in the lobby or by the counter. However, when I mention what the tour is about, many employees (all of them Romanian) have a visible knee-jerk reaction. Their faces turn white and they seem in shock, as if I’m trying to place a bomb in the hotel lobby. They ask me in complete disbelief: “What do you mean about Communism?” or they try to find an excuse along the lines of “My manager does not allow me” or “We only have a business clientele! They’re not interested in tours”. If I explain that the tour talks about the People’s House (among many other things), they heave a sigh of relief.

However, if I change strategy completely, and just mention that I’d like to promote some tours (without mentioning what kind of tours), the staff is cooperative and shows no opposition to the idea. I find this behavior to be at least strange, given that almost 25 years passed since the fall of communism. However, this kind of attitude is not isolated to the tours I’m promoting. Unfortunately, many Romanians refuse to talk openly and objectively about our Communist history. For many of my Romanian friends, it is unbelievable that someone (especially foreigners!) could ever be interested in such a topic, let alone pay money to learn about Romania’s Communist past.

For a while, I also contemplated doing a version of the tour for Romanians. However, from what I can tell, many Romanians have a pre-conceived opinion about Communism, having only a superficial knowledge of the actual facts and characters (which usually doesn’t go beyond the last 1-2 decades of the regime), despite many of them having the first-hand experience of living during the regime. Or maybe that’s exactly the reason for this attitude (“I lived through those days, so don’t tell me about them!” attitude). Maybe it’s too early to discuss this openly, as the scars are still fresh in people’s minds, souls (and sometimes bodies), but I believe the younger generations will eventually need to learn an objective, non-sugar-coated, ego-free version of our Communist history, if we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes again.

Enjoyed this article? Listen to more Communist stories and see Bucharest’s landmarks in one of our upcoming walking tours!

Chuck Norris vs Communism: How VHS tapes provided an escape from official propaganda for thousands of Romanians

Posted on Updated on

A short documentary about what television and entertainment meant in Communist Romania, and how illegal VHS tapes were being watched by thousands of Romanians (via New York Times). Enjoy!

VHS vs. Communism

Tour of Communism Reservations

Posted on Updated on

Reserve a fascinating walking tour through Bucharest’s Communist history and landmarks, with a knowledgeable, English-speaking guide.

12512821_10153847645894414_6805131605223347006_n

About the tour

In this 3-hour walking tour of Bucharest, you learn about:

  • violent beginnings of Communism
  • forced nationalization and demolitions
  • second largest administrative building in the world
  • the unfinished academy for the illiterate
  • hidden churches
  • places of Communist torture and investigation
  • the fall of Communism in Revolution Square

What others think about the tour

certificate_of_excellence

Check out our TripAdvisor page for more reviews.

If you’ve been to the tour already, we would appreciate your honest feedback.

Press reviews

BBC (English)   |   La Presse (French)   |   Bazavan (Romanian)

Have questions?

Check out our FAQ page.

Prominent Figures of Romanian Communism: Ștefan Voitec

Posted on Updated on

Ștefan Voitec (b. 1900 – d.1984) was one of the key contributors to the Communist Party’s ascension to power in the wake of World War 2. He was initially a member of the Socialist Party, which later became the Social-Democratic Party, and is considered today one of the three historic parties of Romania. Clearly a leftist party, the Social-Democratic Party was not extremist. However, through Ștefan Voitec’s efforts, the Socialist Party decided to participate together with the Communist Party as part of a larger alliance in the elections of 1946. As a consequence of this alliance, the Social-Democratic Party broke up, since many of its members and key leaders were vocally against any collaboration with the Communist Party, considering it an extremist organization. In 1948, the pro-Communist faction of the Social-Democratic Party officially merged with the Communist Party; thus, a new political organization was born: the Romanian Workers’ Party (Romanian acronym: PMR). Ștefan Voitec maintained a leadership position in the newly formed organization. The year 1948 also marked the official abolition of monarchy in Romania. This cleared the path for more political power and key positions in the new ruling structure for Ștefan Voitec. He became a member of the Presidium of the Great National Assembly (the equivalent of a Parliament), then its president between 1961-1974. He was also Vice-Prime Minister under three post-war governments, and a member of the Romanian Academy. Ștefan Voitec officially handed the sceptre of power to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu when the later became the President of Romania. You can see Voitec in several photos below (he is the one with a goatie).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Source: “Cealaltă față a comuniștilor” – Oana Ilie, Cornel Constantin Ilie

Romanian Communist Propaganda. Part 3: Stahanovism

Posted on Updated on

Stahanovism basically means engaging in very hard, but highly efficient physical labor, with the goal of exceeding planned production levels in a factory during the Communist regime. The term stems from the name of a Russian miner — Alexei Grigorievici Stahanov — who managed to extract 102 tonnes of coal in a single night (August 30, 1935)t, thus reaching seven times the the normal production quota. The Communist Parties across the Eastern Bloc needed such prototypical working class heroes not only to stimulate internal production (which was always planned and had very ambitious targets), but also to prove to the Capitalist West that Communist economies were flourishing, and this was only because the working class was cherished across society.

Following the lead of its bigger brother (pun intended!) Russia, in 1951 Romania adopted a decision to encourage Stahanovism. The most common practice to implement this was to identify prominent workers from state-owned factories, and reward them with medals or honorary diplomas. The Party’s official newspaper, “Scânteia” (literally, the Spark), would regularly provide extensive coverage of such socialist accomplishments, often pointing out how various industries managed to exceed their planned production quotas, owing to the hard work and dedication of the laborers (Notice that “profit” was never used and was never a goal by itself, since the term was considered tinted by capitalism, almost evil! What really mattered was to produce as much as possible, in full disregard for demand, and often quality).

Here are three examples of “honorary diplomas” awarded by various party institutions to comrade Almadi Gheorghe (we’re not sure what he did to deserve these, but he probably contributed somehow to exceeding the production quotas).

Stahanovism

The text above reads:

  • “Working men of all classes, unite!” (top-right corner)
  • “Under the flag of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and under the leadership of the Romanian Workers’ Party, onward with the construction of socialism in our country!” (top-center)
  • Honorary Diploma (title)
  • “Comrade Alamdi Gheorghe, champion of production at the factory IMB Timisoara, is awarded this honorary diploma by the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry and Machinery Construction and the Central Committee of the Labor Union of Workers in the Metallurgical Industry”. (main text)

The diploma was awarded on April 18, 1956 (interestingly, after Stalin’s death, which ushered an anti-Stalinist orientation in all Communist regimes).

Stahanovism
Stahanovism

The second diploma translates: “Honorary Diploma for special merits in the socialist competition. Comrade Almadi Gheorghe, champion of production, is awarded this honorary diploma by the IMB Factory”. The diploma was awarded on April 1st, 1955. (ironically, this is also Fool’s Day in Romania)

Honorary diploma
Honorary diploma

Finally, the third one uses pretty much the same language as the other two, and was granted on December 28th, 1955.