Twelfth in a series
August 25, sailing — While the ship’s crew worked on clearing customs in Bulgaria (a lengthy process), three members of the crew did a talk on what it was like to grow up under Communism. We had learned earlier that Jenner, from Romania, was the first citizen of Central Europe to be employed by Tauck as a tour guide. On this trip, three out of the four were from the region, and thus had first-hand insights into Communism.
Emil, from Bulgaria, kicked off the discussion. Even before Communism, Central Europe had less experience with institutions than Communist countries like Poland. After 500 years of Turkish control, Bulgarians had no working justice system and no middle class. The transition to Communist control, with its organized systems, thus felt less like a loss than it might have. There was no uprising against Communism as there was in some of the other bloc countries. “People were pretty much happy,” even after the state seized all property.
And they were kept happily in the dark. Signals from free countries were blocked. Everyone was entitled to and received a job and a place to live. The elderly were secure. Women had equal opportunity and equal pay. “They delivered on the basic things,” Emil said.
Foregrounding our arrival in Ruse, Bulgaria, he told the audience to expect to see “Lego-type” blocks of flats, identical, configured in squares that could house up to 10,000 people. Think tilt-up concrete on an enormous scale, without insulation, air conditioning, or a means to adjust steam-based heat. “There was no privacy,” Emil said. “Sound doesn’t travel in a linear fashion; it travels from everywhere.” So if someone was having a fight, or a party, you immediately knew.
Certain aspects were convenient: a school and market were located in the center of the complex. Kids could walk home from school while their parents were working, without concern for crime. People owned the homes (apartments) that they were issued by the state.
But the downside — as later became obvious in Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania — was that people didn’t take the initiative to fix properties. That was the state’s responsibility. While still under Communism, the residents of Emil’s six-floor building were told that it was too difficult to fix their elevator. Twenty-two years later, after Communism fell, a new resident with mechanical abilities determined that the problem could be repaired with a simple part.
Entertainment options were also limited. Gypsies trained bears to do tricks; they carted them around in the trunks of cars. After Communism fell, the practice was outlawed and the bears were retired to protective sanctuaries since they could not be returned to the wild.
Because people were used to lining up for everything, they would line up even if they didn’t know what was being sold. Thus, social distance shrank and even today, people from the region will stand uncomfortably close from an American’s perspective.
What was important was being treated fairly, even identically, which meant prescribed choices. Boys wore collared dresses just like the girls. When it came time for potty training his son, Emil remembers how the children were lined up on potty chairs and all sat down at the same time. The children were trained within a week.
You needed permission to move, and had to carry an ID card stating where you lived, who you were married to, and how many children you had. Because the economy was planned, educational choices were limited and highly competitive. It took Emil’s wife three years to get into a university; girls were ranked separately from boys, and because girls tended to perform better, it was tougher for them to secure a place at college.
At this point, Karel, from Czechoslovakia, jumped in to describe his experience participating in the “Spartakinder” as a ten-year-old. Every five years, the state organized a performance of spectacular dimensions to be performed by mothers, children and soldiers. Only the best were selected to participate. “My parents were not very happy about being there (at the event),” Karel said. “I didn’t see the political purpose behind it. For me, it was just the opportunity to be somewhere.” The performance was attended by 220,000 people.
Emil concurred that everything was aimed toward indoctrination. No one was forced to be a member of the Communist party; it was considered a privilege that was offered only to those who were zealots or well connected.
Army service was obligatory for boys, but everyone was taught to shoot in tenth grade. Student brigades had a positive side, however: for one or two months, kids were sent to the countryside to help bring in the harvest. Emil remembered it as a fun time, when boys and girls could mix without the watchful eyes of their parents.
Emil pointed out that Bulgarian language schools always had foreigners teach languages, some of whom were Fulbright professors. Healthcare was accessible and free, but technology was limited; dentistry was painful because of a lack of anesthesia.
Lowest in priority was the provision of consumer goods. People waited up to ten years for a car, and then what they got was a 2-cycle Trabant made out of resin. And so the old joke went:
A man goes to apply for a car.
The bureaucrat says, “Okay, you can get a car in ten years.”
The man asks, “What month?”
The man asks, “What day?”
“Okay, what time?”
“11 a.m., but tell me, why do you need to know so specifically?”
“At 2 p.m. I have the plumber coming.”
When Communism fell, the initial response was excitement. Hope flared. There was no expectation that the transition would be painful. But older people worried. How would they survive?
Jenner continued the presentation by describing the fall of Communism in Romania, which, he said, had the bloodiest revolution. Like polenta, which boils and boils, people survived under Ceaușescu. But then “the polenta exploded.” Over a period of three days in 1989, 1,500 people were killed.
Ceaușescu had kept things on simmer in the 1960s by making modest improvements, like eliminating the feared secret service. In the 70s, he became narcissistic and sought to remake Bucharest over in his image. Later, we learned, he demolished one-fifth of the city’s buildings so that he could build apartments and institutional monoliths in the 19th century French style.
Unfortunately, the leadership that followed Communism squandered the huge opportunity the country had in 1989. State owned businesses and utilities were sliced up through privatization. The present state of things is Wild West capitalism.
“The ones who are on top now are the football players, the pop singers and the nouveau riche people,” Jenner said. “It’s upside down.”