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The Food Shortages of the 1980s in Communist Romania

The 80s were arguably the toughest decade for Romanian citizens during the whole Communist regime. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, surrounded by an obedient clique of ill-advisers, embarked on two major projects with devastating consequences for the Romanian economy, and the living standards of the population:

  1. The massive construction of a “civic center” in Bucharest, which included the “People’s House” (today’s Palace of the Parliament), the Romanian Academy, the headquarters of many ministries, the longest and widest boulevard of the nation, and thousands of new, standardized socialist dwellings for the working class.

  2. The repayment of all external debt of the nation, sometimes ahead of schedule, with the goal of making Romania a completely and self-sustaining country.

These decisions were reflected in the everyday lives of Romanian people, who started suffering from food shortages, as well as regular cuts in electricity, heating, warm water or gas. The goal was to reduce internal consumption as much as possible and to export anything that was worth something on the international markets. The citizens of Romania could only enjoy leftovers (literally) that could not be sold for export. Food became rationalized, and food coupons became the norm, with people being allowed to purchase only limited quantities of basic goods, such as eggs, bread, or cooking oil.

Unfortunately, food stamps were not a guarantee that people would actually receive a certain quantity of that good, but merely a restriction on how much a family or a person was allowed to buy.

Queuing in front of grocery stores, in the hopes of finding anything to buy, became the obligatory past-time of many Romanians, especially the young and the old, who didn’t need to work, and thus had more time on their hands. It was almost a social event, as people lingered outside, no matter how cold or hot, for many hours in a row, often chatting about different topics, but never complaining about the situation too openly, as they never knew who could be listening. It was not uncommon to see people bringing their own stools or women knitting sweaters, as they were waiting for the delivery truck to bring meat or milk.

There was a famous joke running at that time:

An old woman stops in front of a store. Seeing her, a passerby immediately queues behind her. Then another one, and another one, until a very long queue is formed in front of the store. At some point, someone gets bored after waiting for so long, and asks the person sitting in front: “Hey, do you know what they’re selling today?” “I have no idea, but let me ask further.” So people start asking one another, and everybody seems clueless, until they finally get to the old lady sitting in front of the queue. “Hey, grandma, what are they selling today?” “I have no idea! I was just tired, so I stopped for a break in front of the store, to catch my breath” she replies

Obviously, the Communist propaganda would cover up this grim reality, and showcase plentiful, richly decorated storefronts instead. However, if you pay close attention to the propaganda imagery, you’ll notice the shops only had 5-6 different products in total, but they were stacked in a way to create an artificial sense of abundance.

Of course, when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would inspect such a market or a store (which he regularly did), he would be given the chance to see only the best of the best, which made many people doubt the fact that he was aware of the food shortages.

For more images of everyday life, shops and merchandize in Communist Romania, visit the “Alimentara” Facebook page (“alimentara” happens to be the name given to any shop selling food in Communist Romania).

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