The casual observer would, ehm… observe that late stage communism in Romania was not exactly Utopia. A good percent of the urban population lived in cramped concrete apartment blocks that were not quite heated in winter, water – especially of the hot variety – and electricity were not guaranteed, the lines were enormous for all basic goods, and shortage was the order of the day. Of course the leaders of the proletariat did not live in such conditions. They took over the villas of the pre-communism wealthy or middle class, and built a few more. It is quite understandable. After all, it is hard work, building equality; they deserved a better living standard then the hoi-polloi. Some animals more equal than others, you see.
Shortage was the norm and queuing for hours was part of the social fabric. Good stuff, a friendly lefty will tell you. Got out of the house (the house was depressing anyway) socialized, met interesting people. And by interesting I mean hungry and bored. Obesity was less of a problem, the old commie diet works wonders. People had complex social rules for queuing. If you were lucky you found out in advance which store was about to get something. If you noticed a line, you sometimes joined it without actually knowing what it is for; there must be something to buy there. After standing in line you would ask the person in front what they had. In all lines you hoped that whatever was sold would not be finished before your turn. There was a standard shout of “Don’t give too much to one person so there is enough for all”. Anecdotally, in University we would shout that when going by the door of a room where a professor was grading exams.
If you wanted gas for your car, you had to stay at least overnight in line. Someone had to sleep in the car, otherwise you would lose your spot. Well this meant that least you had a car, which was not easy, so you were in your own fashion a petty bourgeois. If you happen to be caught with more than a few liters of cooking oil or a few kilos of flour, you would be shamed on public TV for the goddamn hoarder and wrecker you were. There is plenty they would say, if not for the hoarders, the greedy ones who do not care for their fellow man.
The stories are literally endless. Well not literally literally, but as close to it as possible. Also the jokes, though I feel a lot of them are repeated through European communist nations, so I won’t put any here. I was always fascinated as a kid by how the bread you could buy in stores was never fresh, always a day old. Maybe this way people ate less of it. This carried over after communism in a way. I was fairly young back then, but after bread shortage was no longer a thing, I noticed my parent always overbought bread and would usually throw away quite a bit, because there was some residual fear of running out of bread. Buy 3 just in case, we don’t want to run out of bread.
There was secret police and the fear of nightmarish jail for any dissent. People rarely trusted neighbors, even family, due to fear of them actually being an informant. This fear was not unfounded, after communism it was found that many were in fact informers and many ratted on their brothers and cousins and parents. This created a general atmosphere of distrust among people that I think still persists.
With all of that, you may wonder, how the hell there is still nostalgia about those times? How are there people who say it was better back then? Well it is not a simple thing. These things rarely are.
One of the ones that usually accounts for some nostalgia was youth. Back then people were young and healthy and now they are old and sometimes sick. Discomfort was easier on a young body. Hell when I was a university student I would holiday in accommodations I quite turn my nose at now. We were a bunch of young people, had some food to eat and cheap booze to drink, it was all needed. Back in the communist days, there was not much food and crap vodka and wine, but a young couple lets say would need little more. The apartment was cold but they warmed each other, wink wink. Life seemed good enough.
Another reason would be that radical change is hard on some. Communist life, as it was, was what people grew up with and were used to. The change was maybe too much for some. Further more, human memory is a fickle creature. People may selectively remember the better times, and selectively compare to the worst things the get now.
Of course, among the stronger reasons it is quite simple. Envy. Basic human envy sprinkled with some resentment here and there. Many did not have it worse back than in absolute terms, but had it the same or better in relative terms to others. Everyone was poor, many poorer than you.
This especially applies to the less than competent who do not do as well in a society were some level of competence matter. Why should they have less money just because they are less productive? They will say back than everyone had a job. Yes, they did. And most didn’t do much at it. Communism lasted as long as it did because of the few people who did their best out of principal. My father was one of such. But it was disastrous because these people were a minority.
A good number of the ones who did the jobs did reasonably well after communism. The others not so much and were nostalgic, it was better back then. They had the same pay for little work as the guy who did all the work. Sometimes more because he spent the time not working mingling, making connections, joining the Party, ratting out colleagues to the secret police, that sort of thing. My father always refused to join the Communist Party which cost him quite a bit back then. I have to admit, as a kindergartner I was a Falcon of the Fatherland, but never got the chance to be a Pioneer and join the party on account of my age.
My father is an electronic engineer and worked in a factory that designed and produced industrial automation devices. Back then the workers got better pay than the engineers, more access to holiday accommodations, better apartments and extra rations. So they felt good. After communism when engineer pay rose above worker pay, they had, led by the union, a strike before the factory, screaming we do all the work, we don’t need engineers, fire all the engineers. The competent engineers left the still government owned factory by themselves in time, and it closed down. Before my father left a group of assembly workers asked him respectfully about maybe staying to keep the factory going. He reminded them of their strikes, and they realized their mistake. But it was a bit late for that. Others did not, and took small anticipated pensions and are now fairly poor, bitter and talking about how it was better back then. Even with their current poverty they probably have the same amount of goods, but now there are so many things in stores they cannot afford. Empty stores of communism did not have this effect.
Off course, a lot of people are much poorer then they would be if an actual free market reform took place instead of the government dominated crony capitalism system we have in this country. Started by Mister Iliescu, may he rot in Hell, who wanted to replace the old system with something called socialism with a human face. Which meant the right people get all the wealth and power, mostly the ones who had it before. Still, the new system did lead to development and allowed some actually get a better life. But it did take some effort.
I feel sorry in a way for a lot of Romanians, because they were educated in communism and kept that kind of thinking. Many were kept poorer by the system and the government, it was not fully their fault. It never is. Humans do adapt to circumstances. But then again, they voted for the system in great numbers- no vote rigging needed – and expected things to happen by themselves. On the other hand there were plenty of people who did not believe all the communist indoctrination and did change their thinking after ’89. And a lot of them willfully did not and became hateful instead. While in communism they took only the “to each according to his need” part, skipped the work part, and spend time trying to climb the hierarchy while being snitches. So my sorry feelings are ambivalent to say the least. Heartless libertarian such as I am.