After the Revolution

Owen Bennett-Jones

The thrice-weekly flights of Romania’s national airline Tarom from Bucharest to London have an atmosphere all their own. In the bleak waiting-room, most of the passengers stand and settle in for the inevitable delay. The room contains a few Romanians excited to be on their way to Western Europe and many more West Europeans delighted to be on their way back to civilisation as they know it. Most of the West Europeans came to Romania filled with good intentions. Aid workers, nurses, theatre groups, sports teams arrived keen to discover more about a country that has been effectively off limits for the past two decades. But by the time they leave much of the good will has been worn out and many feel angry, depressed and insulted.

As the flight is postponed for another two hours the would-be passengers begin to swop stories about their experiences in Romania. Those who have been in the country the longest deliver the most vigorous harangues. They describe the old people’s home where, instead of taking a bath, the inmates are once a week lined up naked against a wall and hosed down by the staff; the orphanage where the nurses refuse to touch the children, preferring to throw food at them. Small wonder that the two-year-olds, after a lifetime in their cots, grab the bars and slowly rock back and forth with the intensity of people driven insane.

Of course, there are experiences to offset the horror stories. I recently came across a Romanian I knew in one of Bucharest’s ubiquitous queues. He had been waiting three hours for cooking oil but as we chatted the girl who had been sullenly – and infuriatingly slowly – handing out the half-litre bottles, clocked off for lunch. We were caught up in a huge surge, the glass bottles went flying and an oil slick seeped over the supermarket floor. By the time we were propelled to the pick-up point there were only cracked, empty bottles left. As my friend walked away disconsolately, a woman armed with at least a dozen bottles offered him a couple.

The shortages are on the face of it insuperable, but they have not affected the Romanians’ sense of hospitality. Ask any Romanian and they will tell you that there is no cheese, no flour, no sugar, no eggs. But set foot in a Romanian home and you will immediately be offered cake and a brandy; stay for lunch and you’ll be given a feast. There is food in Bucharest, but getting it requires patience, ingenuity and connections. I mentioned to a Romanian friend that I was going to the diplomat’s shop where many scarce items are available. He begged to come with me. At the door he was immediately spotted and aggressively turned away. I tried to persuade the doorman to let him in. ‘Can’t you read?’ the doorman screamed at Mihail: ‘No Romanians allowed.’ Mihail turned away, uncomplaining, and waited for two hours in the early-morning frost while I queued to buy food. But then, all the people I was in line with were Romanians – Romanians with the right connections.

It’s not only in the special shops that you can procure food. The markets this summer have been piled high with vegetables: peasants brought bootloads of potatoes, leeks, carrots, cabbages and apples to Bucharest each day. But for this they are reviled: their goods are too expensive. The peasants appear to enjoy a better life-style than many of their city counterparts. They are the only section of the population who have overcome the nation’s ennui, the legacy of four decades of stultifying centralised control: encouraged by the better prices they are now allowed to charge, they have increased production and are once more cultivating the land.

It’s a very different story in the factories. I recently visited one of Bucharest’s massive cigarette enterprises. I arrived at about three o’clock and the workers were already sloping off. Most Romanian workers leave their factories in the early afternoon so as to have time to do a bit of queuing before they return home. As they left the premises, a guard searched the workers’ bags for stolen cigarettes. And with a deftness that suggested years of practice the workers surreptitiously slipped him a few coins: one by one he waved them on. The cigarettes were destined for the black market – a welcome supplement to the workers’ abysmal wages. Inside the plant I met the deputy director, a classic product of Ceausescu’s ‘golden era’. ‘The workers love this factory,’ he announced with a satisfied grin all over his face. And then, with not a trace of irony in his voice, he assured me that the abolition of enforced weekend working since the revolution meant that the Romanian work-force enjoyed better working conditions than its British counterpart. ‘After all,’ he explained, ‘our workers leave early every day and normally don’t bother to turn up on Friday.’ A fair point, I suppose, but then most of the people working at the cigarette factory earn between five and six pounds a week.

My encounter with the deputy director also revealed the Romanians’ distrust of foreigners. At first he merely parried my questions about the Government’s economic reform programme with typically fulsome and vacuous replies couched in terms familiar to students of Communist verbiage. Then he went onto the offensive. ‘Look, if I am giving you all this information,’ he beamed, ‘you must reciprocate. What do you know about the British tobacco industry?’ Tough one, but I thought I might as well make a stab at it. ‘It is run by a few multinational companies and a packet of Rothman’s costs about £1.50.’ Not good enough. ‘You can’t tell me that the people who sent you here, the BBC or whoever’ – he lingered meaningfully on this last phrase – ‘you can’t tell me that they didn’t brief you on the British tobacco industry.’ Of course, that’s just what I did tell him, but to no effect. I don’t think I ever really convinced him that I wasn’t a spy.

In a society still riddled with spies, it isn’t surprising that people immediately assume that someone they meet for the first time is not to be trusted. Notwithstanding the revolution, most Romanians believe that the Securitate is still going about its business. Even the Foreign Minister conceded that he was suspicious when his phone went out of order on the day he was appointed to his new job. He assumed that a tap was being installed. In fact, repair work explained the fault. But even if the Foreign Minister is spared, it is clear that bugging still goes on. There are the occasions when I ring my own home and a Romanian speaking excellent English picks up the phone. ‘Who is this?’ I demand with as much self-righteousness as I can muster. ‘Oh, do excuse me, this is a foreign trade company. You must have the wrong number.’And then there is the notorious Intercontinental Hotel, which has been described by one former Romanian intelligence chief as less a hotel than an intelligence-gathering factory. One of my colleagues who was staying there asked some guests of his if they would like some coffee. Yes, they would. ‘Three coffees then,’ he said, and sure enough three coffees were delivered to the door. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that, caught up in conversation, he had never actually ordered the coffees. They just arrived.

The most amazing thing about this story is that someone managed to get served in a hotel without having to bribe one of the staff. Bribing is endemic. The British are particularly bad at it. First, there is the problem of recognising the request for a bribe: ‘Have you come fully prepared?’ Or ‘Of course you may have such and such a form but it will take a few days.’ And then there is the problem of overcoming one’s embarrassment at the unambiguous dishonesty of the exchange. In the first few months after the revolution, when planeloads of journalists were still arriving regularly, an interview with the Prime Minister cost a bottle of Scotch for the government press chief. That’s the free market for you. As it turned out, the said official must have been considered to have overstepped the mark. A few months ago I dropped by his office to ask for a government statement on the latest turn of events. The office was full of unfamiliar faces and one of the newcomers asked me what I wanted. I explained my mission and was baffled to be told that the man who had been providing statements for some six months had no authority to do so. ‘But he is the government spokesman,’ I protested. ‘Look,’ said the new official, ‘I am the President – do you believe me?’ No, I didn’t. ‘Then why do you believe him when he says he is the spokesman?’ ‘But he has been quoted by name in Western newspapers for the last six months – surely you know that.’ ‘Look,’ he parried, ‘have you ever sent us copies of the newspapers in which he was quoted?’ Thankfully this surreal conversation was cut short by a voice emerging from the adjoining room. It was the would-be spokesman himself. ‘I am the government spokesman!’ he fulminated. ‘This man is just a functionary.’ Maybe, but the next day the spokesman had gone and at his desk sat the functionary.

I met the ex-would-be-spokesman a few days later. He had plans to open a radio station and no, he wasn’t at all sorry that the functionary had taken over. ‘When events were really moving, that’s when you needed someone like me in the job. Now that the political situation is calmer any clerk could do it.’ The one thing that Ceausescu couldn’t expunge – maybe he encouraged it – is the Romanian’s pride. As a Latin race surrounded by Slavs, they repeatedly assert their perceived right to sit at the top table of European culture and politics. This can reach absurd levels. When the United States started speaking out about abuses of human rights in post-revolutionary Romania, the new Foreign Minister decided he’d better put things into perspective. ‘If the United States continues to adopt this stance,’ he opined, ‘it will isolate itself from the rest of the world.’ It is difficult to explain to Romanians that even if a map of Europe were put in front of them, most Westerners wouldn’t be able to locate the country.

A British theatre group recently came to Bucharest’s National Theatre, where they performed Caryl Churchill’s play about the Romanian revolution, Mad Forest. The play suggested, quite accurately (and quite understandably), that most Romanians, far from manning the barricades, had kept a low profile in the first hours of the revolution, being too afraid to leave their homes. At the end of the performance the audience stayed on to discuss the play with the director and some of the actors. All non-Romanians present assumed that we were in for a prolonged and passionate debate about the question on everyone’s minds at the time. Who were the real revolutionaries? Was their achievement highjacked by the current government? We were wrong. For over two hours the Romanians showed interest in only one point: they could not accept a scene set in the pre-revolutionary period in which a woman was depicted scraping up a broken egg from the floor rather than let it go to waste. ‘How low do you think we are?’ they said. ‘No Romanian would ever have done that.’ The scene hadn’t struck any of the foreigners as demeaning. After all, food was very difficult to obtain and surely not to be wasted. But as far as the Romanians were concerned, the incident only fuelled their suspicion that the West treats Romania like a zoo. A place to watch the weird animals as they prowl around the cage that Ceausescu built for them.

Repression in Romania exceeded that in other Eastern European countries. Towards the end of their reign, the Ceausescus’ love of power and disregard for the needs of the people knew few, if any bounds. The peculiarly pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the Romanian Communist experience was well expressed by a pensioner I met recently. Born in Russia, he decided at the age of 17 that he had had enough of Communism. The war gave him his chance to break free. At the time, Romania, where he served as a Soviet soldier, looked like a land of plenty. In the Black Sea port of Constanta, waiting with his comrades for a boat to take him home, he realised the moment had come. He slipped away, made up a story about being an orphan and within a few months had procured Romanian identity papers. Forty-five years later, as he struggles to feed his family of eight on a pension of £10 a month, he can only say: ‘I left the devil, it’s true, but my misfortune was to find his father.’