5 Things You Only Know If You Grew Up in a Communist Regime
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
We Had Very Little Concept of the Outside World
Thanks to Ceausescu's near-complete blackout of all things not communism, there's a ton of information about the world outside that just passed us by. Day after day, year after year, our local papers were pretty much the same: some pro-commie propaganda, maybe some good news about the crop-harvesting quota being reached before the deadline (or "good news" about those who failed to meet quota no longer being a burden on the proletariat).
Thanks to these government-issue deburdeners.
Meanwhile, the amazing feats of the outside world merited barely a passing mention. In 1969, when America landed men on the moon for the first time, the Romanian national newspaper briefly mentioned "a great success of scientific thought -- men on the moon!" along with a couple of lines from Nixon's telegram. That was it: about half the space you'd expect a tabloid to devote to Beyonce's new haircut. That's how much the friggin' moon landing merited. What could possibly have been a bigger headline that week? Why, Ceausescu driving a Dacia 1100, of course!
It's like a Cadillac pooped out a Datsun.
Yes, it was the debut of the brand-new Dacia 1100 model car, and Ceausescu himself was at the factory inspecting the very first one. The whole moon thing got about as much lip service as a small fire at a local porn store would get in a modern-day American paper, and otherwise that week's news completely ignored mankind setting foot on extraterrestrial ground for the first time in favor of a man pretending to drive a car that would probably burst into flame if he actually started it.
There Were Communist "Store Brand" Ripoffs of Everything
It wasn't just foreign entertainment that Ceausescu banned -- it was foreign everything. If it wasn't made by commie hands, we couldn't have it. No bananas, no Marlboro cigarettes, no condoms, no nothing (although we did have oranges, also known as "the Dallas of the fruit kingdom," for reasons that were never fully explained).
But hey, childhood doesn't make much sense for anyone.
Everything was not only banned, but replaced with Z-grade commie knockoffs. Coffee, for example, was deemed too much of a luxury for us peasants. We drank Nechezol, a non-caffeinated swill that was one part coffee and 20 parts congealed gutter slime. We cooked with fake oil made out of unrefined soy, ate fake cheese artificially fluffed up with (likely fake) flour, and drank what I suspect was homeopathically diluted demon-urine they called Cil-Cola. Meat? Forget about it. If we got it at all, we got the dregs, like chicken claws, legs that were nothing but skin and bones, and salami made out of bone meal. Mmm, you can really taste the bones! And feel them. Shattering your teeth.
Fortunately, the bone meal makes pretty good creamer for your Liecoffee.
Santa Claus was banned, too. Fat, happy guy that brings opulent presents to the good children? Sounds like a capitalist crony to me! But to the government's credit, they didn't just outright refuse to let us poor children celebrate. No, we still had Presents Day, brought to us by a stern man in slacks and a bathrobe:
That's Mos Gerila. He was slim, sad, and stern, and he came on December 30. So four days later than Santa, but at least his presents were much, much worse.
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