My name is Partice Beconne. I grew up in communist Romania under the watchful eye of despotic president Nicolae Ceausescu. I watched my country torn to tatters, and it still hasn't even halfway recovered. You can probably picture the more obvious elements of a corrupt communist society -- the relentless gray blocks that fail to pass for architecture, the perpetual lines for even the most basic of goods, the subversive yet relatable humor of Yakov Smirnoff -- but there was a much weirder side to our particular brand of communist society that nobody mentions. For example ...
#5. It Was Dallas' J.R. Ewing Who First Introduced Us to Freedom
Although Romanians officially put communism in a box to the left back in late 1989, we yearned for a better life way before that. Why did we wish for what we could not have? Who knows? Perhaps the human spirit knows that it is meant to be free; perhaps the people were aware that this system was rigged against us; or perhaps one of the higher-ups screwed up and accidentally showed us something from American TV one time.
It's mostly the latter.
If this show had existed in 1787, our Constitution would look ... pretty much the same, actually.
Ceausescu didn't allow foreign anything into our country, with a couple of very rare exceptions. One of them was the TV show Dallas, which he greenlit for pure propaganda. The main character, J.R. Ewing, was a relentless and sociopathic oil tycoon, not above destroying his friends and family if it meant making a dollar. He exploited politicians, tormented his peers, cheated on his wife, and generally looked like a shriveled hot dog in a cowboy hat. Overall, he represented capitalism at its worst. What better way to turn us against its evils than to show us the living embodiment of the Evil Capitalist Pig-Dog?
Every time you see his face, an angel puts $350 million into an off-shore bank account.
Ceausescu was so serious about using Dallas to portray the evils of capitalism that he even paid Larry Hagman, the actor who portrayed J.R., for the right to plaster his grinning mug on a giant propaganda portrait splayed across the side of a central apartment building in Bucharest. That way, all the people would see the ugly American at his ugliest, every single day.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ewing remained so popular that they used him to hawk Russian oil. In 1999.
That was the theory, anyway. In reality, we watched Dallas and fell in love with everything it showed us. Instead of recoiling in disgust over proof of American greed, we marveled at all the cool stuff Americans had -- even the peripheral characters that were supposedly "poor" or "exploited." And the mere idea that people could come from nothing and actually become rich? That blew our minds completely. Most of us didn't even consider wealth a thing that was possible before a misguided dictator came in and went "See? There are downsides to being magnificently rich!" After several seasons of witnessing the good life, we all collectively asked ourselves, "Why not us, too?" A few flying logical leaps later, we had ourselves a bloody and violent uprising.
Sure, the Romanian revolution and the fall of the Soviet empire were vast and complicated affairs -- but still, in some very small and petty way, it is accurate to say that J.R. Ewing helped overthrow communism.
J.R. Ewing and that one dude's cake.
#4. One Random Woman Was Responsible for Almost All of Our Entertainment
Ceausescu banned all non-Texan soap opera TV shows, as well as other movies, video games, music, and really anything else that resembled fun if you squinted your eyes and looked at it funny. Most of us couldn't afford a VCR, although it's not like Romanian TV had much we wanted to record anyway. There are only so many times you can watch a man chase a goat in grainy black and white before you switch back to Dallas reruns. Luckily, us Romanians had thousands of illegal films to choose from, thanks almost entirely to one woman.
And countless courageous smugglers.
In 1986, Irina Nistor, then an official translator for state-run TV, was tapped by underground pirates to translate Hollywood films that other people had smuggled into the country. But she didn't translate scripts and then hand them over to a varied cast of skilled voice actors -- what was this, Rollywood? Who had that kind of time or money? Certainly not Irina, so she just dubbed herself over every single English-speaking voice in every single movie. She was quite literally the voice of Romanian media. By the time communism fell and sitting down to enjoy The Breakfast Club wasn't punishable by death, she had translated and dubbed over 3,000 movies, all by her lonesome.
Pictured here: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Lon Cheney, John Wayne ...
And she did much of this work blindly. She had never seen the banned movies before and was obviously far too busy to sit down and watch thousands and thousands of hours of film before also recording their thousands and thousands of hours of voice-overs. There wasn't a lot of room for pacing, or informed nuance, or intricate impressions for each character -- there was just a middle-aged Romanian woman speaking in her own voice, in her own cadence, filling in for every single role in every single film that came our way. She was Bruce Lee. She was Chuck Norris. She was everything: All of our heroes, our villains, our sultry seductresses, and our Sylvester Stallones were Irina Nistor.
Yes, even our Tony Montanas.
#3. Unpaid Labor Was the Law of the Land
In 1980s Romania, all of the soldiers, teachers, and students were required to participate in something called practica agricola.
All the backbreaking labor of farming with none of that pesky "land ownership."
There's a reason those kids above don't look all that happy (even beyond the default scowl that passes for a "communist smile"). Practica agricola wasn't the typical communist "share the burden equally" stuff -- it was closer to straight-up slave labor. There is a very fine line separating the two at all times, and practica agricola dug up that line with a makeshift hoe and buried its hopes and dreams under it. Everybody was forced to take one of these regular "field trips" to special farms. Once there, they harvested crops all day, regardless of the weather or their own personal health. Nothing got in the way -- not school, not education, not military training, not career. My parents both have engineering degrees, which only meant they had to pick peaches and apples in the most efficiently engineered way possible.
Which turns out to be just grabbing them like normal and then choking back tears.
There were strict quotas to meet, the pay was nonexistent, they would've had to issue gruel for the conditions to even pass for grueling, and participation was completely mandatory for all. If you refused to work, the punishment ranged from loss of credits to loss of job to loss of you. Just ... all of you.