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Communism: what starts in violence, ends in violence

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

Founded in 1921, the Romanian Communist Party was insignificant before its coming to power. Outlawed in 1921, the party members were only around 1,000 in 1944. In fact, the leftist movement was never vigorous in a country which lacked a significant working class and was still predominantly agricultural. Even among the workers, sympathies leaned rather towards the radical right, particularly towards the “Iron Guard” movement. However, with the support of the Red Army, stationed on Romanian territory after August 1944, and of the Soviet authorities, the Communists took power on the 6th of March 1945. To lend legitimacy to their regime, they falsified the results of the legislative elections in November 1946. The coalition of political parties headed by the Communists got the majority of votes as a consequence of backstage arrangements.

Soviet Army entering Bucharest in August 1944

In Romania, the communists were generally despised by the population due to their opposition, dictated by the Komintern, to the union of 1918 and to the formation of “Greater” Romania, the dream of local elites since the emergence of a modern national conscience. Furthermore, the Romanian communists, obeying orders from Moscow, denounced the new state, accusing Romania of imperialism and claiming that the inhabitants of Bessarabia were not Romanians, but Moldavians. They preached – true to the spirit of the Third Communist International, founded in 1919 by their patron, the future USSR – the dissolution of „Greater” Romania.

The communists’ arrival to power meant a rule of terror, instated through unprecedented social, political, and cultural upheavals. The Government, the Army, the police, the secret services, the educational system, all institutions were purged of their previous ruling elites; factories, businesses, properties were nationalized. What followed was an extreme, forced modernization, which changed the face of the country and the structure of its population: peasants were uprooted from their village homes, and pushed towards towns, which were undergoing “planned” industrialization, while the middle class and the intellectuals were forced to join the new state structures, or thrown into prison. Ancestral traditions were abandoned; a new society had to be born on the ashes of the old one.

Uncovering mass graves of political prisoners from one of Romania's many forced labor camps

On December 30th 1947, even the form of government changed. King Michael I was forced to abdicate and go into exile. Once this last obstacle was removed, the communists became the absolute masters of Romania. „Class enemies”, as well as the communists’ former, but more moderate allies, had to be crushed or eliminated.

King Michael I (right), standing next to communist leader Petru Groza

The Communists were helped in their repressive mission on the one hand by the international context, which turned anti-fascism into an ideology, and on the other hand by the Soviet Army, well entrenched in the country, which it would only leave in July 1958. The Nazi-purging campaign gave communists a pretext to imprison, torture, and kill their enemies. Soviet Russians, in turn, delivered themselves to all kinds of abuse, establishing a rule of terror in the country: peasants robbed, girls and women raped, people killed in the streets for random reasons, without trial.

The exploitation of Romania’s economic resources in the name of the war debt imposed by the Soviet Union only added to the crimes of the Red Army. The authorities in Moscow interfered directly in the country’s home affairs. All ministries, larger enterprises or important institutions were infiltrated by Soviet counselors and agents of the infamous KGB.

Romanian communism went through several stages of terror, followed by relative liberalization, but it never lost its repressive aspect. The first and harshest period of repression took place between 1946 and 1953, followed by a first wave of pardons for political prisoners, in 1955. Between 1956 and 1961, the repression returned, as a consequence of the anti-communist revolution in neighboring Hungary (1956), and the withdrawal of the Soviet Army (July 1958). The liberalization of the system, which occurred after 1962, led to the release of all political prisoners in 1964. After this date, the undesirables of the regime were forcefully admitted into psychiatric hospitals, deported, forced to go into exile, often beaten in the middle of the street, killed in secret, made to vanish forever. Only few of them were jailed for political reasons.

Political prisoners working on the Danube-Black Sea Canal.

The two decades of terror yielded results, and fear became deeply seated in people’s conscience. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s coming to power in 1965 marked a moment of hope. He continued the process of pseudo-liberalization of the system, of opening towards the West and of manifesting a so-called independence from Moscow. His condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the armies of the Warsaw Pact earned him the population’s support and the sympathy of the West, which had every interest to encourage a breach in the Iron Curtain.

In the late 1960's, the communist regime entered its nationalist phase, which would last until its fall, in December 1989. Starting from 1971, Ceaușescu returned to repressive methods, adapted, however, to the new context. Opponents were thrown in prison for “economic crimes”, declared insane and hospitalized in asylums. The most famous dissidents were forced to go into exile.

Forced demolition of central Bucharest during Ceausescu's regime

The effects of the great earthquake of 1977, together with Ceaușescu’s preposterous idea of paying back Romania’s foreign debt in a very short time span, pushed the regime into the realm of the absurd. Towns, cities, and the capital were transformed to fit the dictator’s megalomaniac ideas. Drastic austerity was enforced in all fields. Consumption was controlled and rationalized by the State Party. In April 1989, the country’s foreign debt was finally paid back, but Romanians barely had any food to put on the table.

Empty shelves in a Romanian grocery store ("alimentara") during the 1980's austerity regime.

In the late 80’s, most of the Romanian population underwent all sorts of deprivation: “food rationalization”, saving energy through frequent power outages or heating cost cuts in apartments, “village systematization”, through which certain villages were destroyed, while others were turned into towns etc. People were living in survival mode. Ancestral habits of “making do”, and an informal black economy allowed Romanians to survive until December 21, 1989.

On this very day, a rally of discontented people gathered in front of the Communist Party Central Committee in Bucharest forced Ceaușescu and his wife to relinquish power. They left the capital in a hurry, but they were eventually arrested a few hours later. Judged and sentenced to death, they were executed on the 25th of December 1989. Romanian communism disappeared from history just as quickly and violently as it had entered it. For a full story, join our Communist walking tour.


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