Coordinated by Aurelian GIUGĂL

Oppression and Survival in Communist Romania


Ph.D. Candidate, Doctoral School of Political Science, University of Bucharest



Abstract: The paper focuses on how ideas influenced political change in Romania and what effect this had on the people on an individual and collective level. It will briefly look at what people had to embrace in terms of social restructuring as well as how they managed to survive oppression in communist Romania. By diving into a brief history of the regime take over as well as the analysis of the ideas which influenced its inception, the paper will bring to light the context in which the populace lived and strived for as much freedom as they could obtain by means of deception. After having presented the said circumstances, the focus of the paper will shift toward the perspective of the populace and the life of individual citizens, showing how they managed not only survive but also maintain resilience. After the short historical introduction and subsequent analyses, the essay will conclude with observations concerning the period discussed and its consequences.


Keywords: oppression, survival, populace, spiritual, resilience.




History echoes with the ideas of people who have managed to express their observations and experiences in a way that has made those around resonate with their perspective. Whether or not their views stood the test of time in terms of validity, they are still remembered as a part a certain group of people who have managed, simply by putting ink to paper, to transform the course of history, for the better of for the worse.

This was the case with Karl Marx, the German economist, philosopher and journalist who found it necessary to evidence the faults of the capitalist system and tear asunder the very foundation of its existence. In his endeavor to right the wrongs of the world, he wrote. And his writing morphed into ideas which would change the direction of times to come.



Although the communist revolution as Marx saw it was supposed to take place in an industrialized part of the world, a developed and well-rounded example of capitalism such as Germany, as one can recall, the most susceptible to its basic ideas was in fact Imperial Russia, a mostly rural and less technologically developed part of the world.


“By the early twentieth century, the social problems Marx and Engels first addressed a half-century earlier seemed to be coming to fruition in Russia. Lenin, in his “’Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder, called Russia’s first major political revolution in 1905 a ‘dress rehearsal.’ Urbanization and industrial growth, necessities for a truly Marxist working class revolution, marked the years before 1905. Peasants flooded major cities where they found low pay, dangerous working conditions, abysmal housing, and a government unresponsive to their needs.”1

The reasons for revolution were ones with which people could resonate.

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him”2

Marx observed. This is in fact, like many of Marx’s ideas, something that even the modern man can relate to, no doubt.

„ Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the over looker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.”3

Portraying capitalism as the enemy system of the people and the bourgeoisie as the fountain from which sprung all social error and injustice was quite an effective way for Marx to have his voice heard not just by the people of one generation, but of many more to follow. To this day many will sympathize with his worldview.



That is not to say that his observations were wrong or that all his conclusions were invalid. The capitalist system was never perfect. It had and still has its flaws. And the social hierarchy of the bourgeoisie was not always fair to those of inferior social status. The observations have no fault per se. However, to conclude that because of this the entire system is rotten to the core and can never make for a content society and to add on top the idea of a controlled market, wealth distribution, progressive taxation and no private property will lead to the Marxist atheist’s idea of heaven on Earth is perhaps not as inspired as the earlier pure factual observations were. Such a strong belief in the need for an end to capitalism coupled with other unaddressed frustrations of the working man at that time lead to the counterproductive effects of Marxism, which, along with the additional grievances of Vladimir Lenin dominated the 20th century in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.


“While maintaining a Marxist hostility toward religion, Lenin was actually positing a system quite familiar to turn-of-the-century Russian intellectuals and religious philosophers. Lev Tolstoy, Nikolai Fedorov, Vladimir Soloviev, and others all advanced comprehensive religious utopian systems. In these, humans often take on the job of God in the search for perfection in which total unity replaces individual egoism, which is often associated with the West. Unity closely resembled the communality and collective action prominent both in the Populist movement’s principles and in the party structure that Lenin advocated. For all—whether Populist, religious, or Marxist socialist—the quest for the ideal society dominated. Russian cosmism, millenarianism, and apocalyptic thinking merged well with Marx’s vision of an ideal society in communism. All that remained was the union of word and deed that would usher in this new era”4.

The practical consequences of Marxism were evidenced by the day to day realities in Soviet Russia and its satellite states. Here the core ideas of this world view were taken a step forward by Vladimir Lenin, the result of whose endeavor lead to the well documented outcomes of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The effects of said philosophy lead to a socially and economically fragile Soviet Union and spread throughout Eastern Europe, ultimately stifling development, technological or otherwise, in the countries it took over, before meeting with an unsurprising end in 1989-1991. E Even today, for instance, the negative impacts of a controlled market are particularly obvious to the observer, especially if one looks at the Chinese market, which currently is in fact embracing more and more liberalization in order to remain competitive on an international level. Other countries such as Cuba and North Korea are simply not faring very well in terms of economic growth or standard of living. Which was in fact the case with most Marxist inspired economies.Such was the situation that Romania went through from 1948 to 1989. Communism took over rule of the country from King Michael I of Romania and began a decades’ long transformation of the nation. This lead to the implementation of communist ideology, based off of Marx’s ideas. The peasants had their lands nationalized. The idea of private property was no longer a valid desideratum. Whatever bourgeoisie the country had would be dismantled and “put in its place “by “the people”. Although it was theoretically still left to function through the Church, religion was scorned and made to look ridiculous, so much so that the Communist Party would attempt to socially stigmatize and, at a certain point, persecute, those who would make reference to divine intervention or worship. One would not be able to climb the ranks of the party if they did not meet the very specific characteristics needed to do so. The most important of these was, of course, obedience. The party was one’s life and scope. It was one’s guide.

When it comes to Romania, the situation was, all in all, perhaps a little different than in most other communist countries.


  1. 4. ROMANIA

Firstly, when it comes to pure dedication and ideological fanaticism, one might be surprised to find that in fact the fervor which helped Marxism and eventually Marxism Leninism to take root was in fact missing in Romania. The psychological profile of the ones who implemented the laws of the communist country seemed to fit better into a category of the opportunistic, theatrical or simply scared rather than the ideologically passionate followers of the core idea of communism. It did not seem as if anyone actually expected the communist utopia to be fulfilled any time soon, or ever for that matter. And that did not seem to bother them at all. For this was now the way of the land and this is what they were thought to do and how they were thought to think. Most would therefore behave in a certain manner at work, on the street or in the company of friends, while at home and by the side of their most trusted confidants, all of it would turn into nothing more than a satirical escape from a ridiculous reality in which they neither believed not did they put their hopes.

So it was that the communist utopia turned into despair, the dominance of the bourgeoisie turned into the dictatorship of the proletariat, the ruling class only changed name and creeds but it did not go away, the economy ran well for a short time, after which it started only running well on paper, people had the freedom only to agree with the party and only to choose the same leader which had already been chosen by the party for them. Everyone who was not part of the new ruling elite was equal in their lack of means. They were equally poor. Unless they were part of the more persecuted lower classes, such as the gypsies, who were even worse off in terms of oppression and general poverty. All in all, there was no real hope of the communist golden dream in Romania. There were no real fervent supporters of the ideology, in the sense of those ready to live and die by the rules of communist thought, although there were some who did believe in a possibility of such a utopia actually occurring, but they did not base this hope on information but rather on conformity. They were so taught and they therefore thusly believed.

Let us then take a closer look at Romanian society in that particular period from a few different angles.



To the collective memory of its citizens Romania had always been a Christian country. Its tradition tells of the time when Saint Andrew the Apostle arrived on Romanian, then Dacian, soil and brought the people the Gospel, thus becoming known as the apostle “of the wolves”(this was a reference to the name Dacian, which meant wolf).

Romanian society was therefore a very traditional one, and, because of its long history of having to survive the rule of many empires, from the Roman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman ones, it also had quite the interesting mixtures of cultural heritage and religious customs. As such the country side was a well-established heartland of traditional values and morals where people worked the land in order to make a living.

This was the scene into which the communists walked. This was the scene they were looking to reform.

And they started out by passing one important law, the effects of which are still felt today5, 26 years after the communist regime fell. I am, of course, referring to the nationalization law of 1948.This law, number 119 of 11 June 1948, and was going to see to it that all the “enterprises taken back from the greedy hands of exploiters” were going to become a “common good of the people”. Private enterprises, banks and transportation companies would now belong to “the Romanian people.” Of course, by the Romanian people what was really meant was the Romanian state. Additionally, the nationalization did not stop at banks and enterprises but continued into the very heart of society, that is to say, the land the peasants used to work. The law’s article 1 started with the statement6:


“The objects of nationalization shall be all the riches of the soil which were not State property at the date of entry into force of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Romania, as well as individual enterprises, societies of all types as well as private industrial, banking, insurance, mining, transport and telecommunications associations which are listed below, following the criteria for every category.”

The new regulations had a devastating effect on the population and much conflict arose from their implementation.


“The measures taken by the authorities in the rural areas- especially the ones of an economic nature caused peasants to protest and even eventually lead to revolts. Between 1949 and 1951 there were numerous revolts which took place in different regions of Romania. They eventually lead even to open confrontations with the Militia and Securitate forces. Many peasants lost their lives as a result of these events (some as a consequence of summary executions), while others were arrested, trialed and sentenced. As well, hundreds of families, adding up to thousands of people (peasants still had many children back then), were deported in regions which were very far away from the place of their origin (usually in Dobrogea or Baragan).”7

Yet no matter how hard the people tried to liberate themselves from the new repressive measures the state was taking against them they seemed to stand no chance against the process of power consolidation through fear.

Thus the farmer lost his land, the business man ownership of his work and the law its credibility. For how can one claim that a good is a common one and beneficial to the many, when the individuals have to bear the heavy burdens of losing their livelihoods and surrendering everything to the State? Do not the individuals make up the entity known as “the people”? And if most are suffering losses, how can the majority fare well?

The communist rule began with the implementation of the Stalinist8 model, where the above mentioned nationalization took place as well as the supervision of institutions, the addressing of societal issues according to the dictates of class struggle and an attempt at Russification which meant familiarizing and trying to instill love and support for the Russian culture and language among Romanians. Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej was the leader who made sure that this important step in terms of reform was carried out in the most effective way. Of course, as Hannah Arendt noted, in the Origins of Totalitarianism, “nothing is more characteristic for totalitarian movements in general and for the fame their leaders enjoy, in particular, than the amazing speed with which they are forgotten and the surprising ease with which they can be replaced”.9 And while to this day, the totalitarian regime in Romania has not been forgotten, nor do I think it ever will be, the replacement of leaders of the party and, eventually the system itself had a hint of, if not ease, then at least historical swiftness to it. Perhaps power was not as consolidated as many would have liked it to be, or perhaps it was never really in the hands of the ones thought to be in charge. The case of Romania’s last dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, certainly changed many perspectives in this sense.

The submission10 to the Soviet Union was indeed quite obvious during this time. There were soviet counselors in all the ministries, the Red allied army had troops in the country until 1958 and there were mixed, Romanian-Soviet communities. As well, the regime tried to secure its power by adding among its institutions the “Securitate” (political/secret police) and the militia, which took the place of the police. While all the measures taken to ensure the regime’s success did prove effective, the direction of its politics and policies would soon change from Soviet Russian influence to a more nationalistic view. This gave the people more hope in terms of freedom and it did come with several years of relative prosperity. Even so, the regime was careful not to lose control of its population and made great efforts to involve itself in all aspects of citizens’ lives.


“In 1989, the directorates of the Securitate were the largest component of the Ministry of Interior. They also comprised Eastern Europe’s largest secret police establishment in proportion to total population. The Directorate for Investigations had agents and informants placed in virtually every echelon of the party and government, as well as among the public, to report on the antiregime activities and opinions of ordinary citizens. It perpetrated illegal entries into public offices and private homes and interrogated and arrested people opposed to Ceausescu’s rule. Its agents frequently used force to make dissidents provide information on their compatriots and their activities. According to some prominent dissidents, because of the directorate’s influence over judges and prosecutors, no dissident arrested by it had ever been acquitted in court. It worked closely with the Directorate for Surveillance and the Directorate for Mail Censorship. The latter monitored the correspondence of dissidents and ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania. Toward this end, it collected handwriting samples from the population and supervised the official registration of all typewriters and copying machines by the police.”11

Other directorates of the Securitate included General Directorate for Technical Operations (Directia Generala de Tehnica Operativa—DGTO), The Directorate for Counterespionage, Directorate V and the Directorate for Internal Security.

Another very significant form of deprivation which Romanians suffered during this time took the form of forbiddance to observe religious traditions. Both the lay person and the cleric had to be extremely careful when it came to religious practices. The communists tried to banish religious observation from public life “as a consequence of applying the soviet model, which was most importantly represented by the Education Law and the Law of Cults passed in 1948”12. “The Church was virtually cast out from the public space, from schools, hospitals, charitable institutions, army and penitentiaries, and religious feeling was systematically repressed by a regime who declared itself atheist.”13

Observers from any part of the world could look at Romania and see the increasing power of the state bare heavier on its people by the day. They would call such actions against human rights, they would blame Ceausescu’s megalomania for the ultimate push into despair that his people got right before the 1989 revolution. Nothing was done about it, however, for it was solely up to Romania to break out of this, yet another prison into which it had been unlucky enough to have fallen, much like it had been before, under the rule of Rome or the Ottoman Empire. It seemed that the state was to break down the individual, dismantle and attempt to reassemble him into a collective unitary organism who would much sooner risk cutting of a limb than harming the greater organism’s well-being.

Robert Kaplan, in his new book, “In Europe’s Shadow- Two cold wars and a Thirty Year Journey through Romania and beyond” quotes Romanian philosopher Patapievici as saying that “all post- communist societies are uprooted ones because Communism uprooted traditions so noting fits with anything else14

There were, however, certain phenomena taking place within Marxist Leninist influenced Romania that perhaps certain onlookers such as Patapievici, native to the country though they may have been, might have missed in their observations.

The communist party pushed people together and forced them to become a homogenous mass of workers who would not be able to think for themselves, or at least, would not think of anything they were not allowed to and who would ultimately sink into the abyssal oblivion of submission. They would be robed of traditions, religion, personal ambition, property, personality and anything else which might give them hope for an independent future. They thusly thought that their spirits would break and they would never feel the need to look outside of party walls for anything resembling a brighter future. Was this in fact what happened though?



The real life of the Romanian citizen turned out to be quite different than what some may have expected. They not only still kept religious traditions but built their lives around them as they proved the only respite they managed to get from the day to day atheistic persona they had to embody. That is not to say that there weren’t any people who believed the communist ideals and the hope for a communist utopia. But even those people, who were far from a majority, were not passionate and informed observers of either the Russian Marxist Leninist ideology or the promises of its “golden” future. And, as tradition and religion were intrinsically linked, it was close to impossible to observe rituals of old without some sort of religious element added to them. As such, Romanians might not have been allowed to celebrate Christmas, but they did it anyway. They might not have been encouraged or permitted to have religious ceremonies performed for their weddings and yet that never stopped them. They kept baptizing their children, they kept going to church, they kept in touch with their priests and they lived life according to their beliefs.

It all came down to living double lives. They were one person at home and quite another at work or in public. They chanted “Cea-u-ses-cu!” when they had to and sang the party songs. They were careful that their neighbors did not have reason to doubt their loyalty to the Party, lest they be reported to the secret police. In the meantime though, they also bought goods on the black market, which were manufactured or imported from other countries. Needless to say such practices were not encouraged by the party. They would pirate movies and music and share it with their friends. They would keep traditions alive and act as if they had forgotten them.




All of these behaviors have left their mark on nowadays Romania. Psychologically it has proven quite hard to let go of these types of deceitful character traits. At the same time though, it has also brought to light the resilience of the human mind and spirit, as, religion and traditions have sprung back to life and have been flourishing ever since the communist regime fell in 1989.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”15


Moreover, “research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”16

Romanians during the communist regime are a case of individual and collective strength during adverse times and can serve as a good case study for the concept of resilience. They found coping mechanisms which worked for them and kept themselves in a relative state of balance and the moment they were once again allowed to speak out and live by their own beliefs and rules, they managed to find their way on a trajectory which lead passed survival and into the realm of prosperity.

Yet the past has no doubt shaped Romanians’ characters, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. In his book, In Europe’s Shadow, Kaplan quotes yet another well-known Romanian figure, Serban Cantacuzino in his description of the Romanian people and their experiences. He notes:


“National traits are determined by race, climate and topography. Frequent raids and invasions have made Romanians tough, brave and resilient. Political instability, the uncertainty of what the future holds, has made them intensely resourceful and practical but also wily and corruptible. Romanians are neither mystical nor dreamers by nature […].”17

This short description goes back to the core of both the problems faced by Romanians after the fall of communism and the reason for their spiritual and intellectual revival. They have become “wily and corruptible” but are also “brave and resilient”.



Survival of peoples and nations will create long lasting psychosocial traits within the groups which time might either help fade away or actually accentuate. This was perhaps the most striking difference between Eastern and Western Europe. The Occident found a form of stability within its territory, and, by conquest and combat abroad, the home land was kept safe. Eastern Europe was a bit different in that regard, and, Romania in particular, a country which did not build its history on conquest, was in fact, throughout time, forced to defend itself and adapt to foreign rule many times over. Such was already the case when the communist regime took hold, and so, the psychological traits built in such circumstances, which kept Romanians alive as a people, had to once again take the lead. This, of course, settled these behaviors into people’s characters making them more enduring. During this regime, some have argued, survival of individual and collective identity might actually be equated with a form of resistance. For one cannot keep alive a sense of personal and national identity when they are being either forced to merge with a system made international by the aggressiveness of another country, such as soviet style communism, or when they are given a Messianic figure to worship even though they might not agree with certain methods employed by him, such as was the case during Ceausescu’s regime.

One might therefore “find this distinction between survival and resistance superfluous. As long as the system had programmatically decided to destroy individuality, any form of survival of the individuality would entail, at the end of the day, a resistance against the regime. The question is at what point we should effectively detach a gesture expressly manifested at a social level - resistance - from a private, individual act of survival.”18

Perhaps equating the two notions is not the way to go about the analysis though, seeing as how resistance may in fact have as a goal social change, whereas pure survival has more to do with adapting to changes rather than striving to bring about the change oneself.

Survival may not be about changing the world around but rather to change one’s self in order to fit the changes in the world with the ultimate goal of personal conservation in mind. And this was indeed what Romanians did during the communist regime.

“Omnipresent and omnipotent, ideology was the symbolic pendant of terror. Within this regime, ideology was not a discourse about power, but rather it was itself the absolute expression of power. First in the delirious form of Stalinist postulates regarding the strengthening of revolutionary vigilance and the continuous sharpening of class battle, then in the form of the discourse about the building of the multilaterally developed socialist society, ideology was the force which allowed for the symbolic reproduction of the regime. It did not matter if the subjects of the system (first of all RCP members, but especially the ones of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state and Securitate) believed in these mummified dogmas. The simple mechanical repetition of them allowed the system to survive, lifeless and yet still managing to suffocate any form of creative spontaneity.”19


The authoritarian regime was one which left many societies, especially the Romanian one, with scars visible to this day and for many generations to come no doubt. Yet, as historic Alain Besancon observed, there doesn’t seem to be a collective awareness of the dangers of such a regime, at least, not in the same way society is aware, or even hyperaware of the horrors of the Nazi regime.


„Although Nazism completely disappeared more than half a century ago, our abhorrence of it is not at all weakened by time, and rightly so. Our horrified reflection on Nazism seems to even gain in breadth and depth each year. Communism, on the other hand, although still fresh and just recently fallen, benefits from an amnesia and an amnesty which receive the almost unanimous consent, not only of its supporters—because they still exist—but of its most determined enemies, and even its victims. Neither side judges it fitting to bring it back from oblivion. Sometimes Dracula’s coffin opens halfway. This is what happened at the end of 1997, when a book (The Black Book of Communism) dared to tally the deaths that could be attributed to it. The book suggested a range of 85 to 100 million. The scandal was short-lived and the coffin is closing again already, without, however, anyone seriously contesting these figures.”20

Therefore, while we may observe that religion and tradition survived the authoritarian rule of communism and managed to thrive after the system collapsed, identity of the people was kept and scars are now slowly healing, it is important to remember also that when the reality of the dystopia revealed itself there was only suffering left in its wake. And, should memory of the past be cast into oblivion so then shall be the hopes of such suffering never being repeated.



ARENDT, Hannah, Originile totalitarismului, Humanitas, Bucuresti, 2014.

BESANÇON Alain, A Century of Horrors on Communism, Nazism and the Uniqueness of the Shoah, B.A. Brigham Young University, 2002 M.A. The Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2005.

CESEREANU, Ruxandra, Comunism si represiune in Romania – Istoria tematica a unui fratricid national, Polirom, Iasi, 2006.

KAPLAN, Robert, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 2016.

QUALLS, Karl D., “The Russian Revolutions: The Impact and Limitations of Western Influence”, Dickinson College Faculty Publications. Paper 8, 2003,

PREDA, Ioana, Resisting through Culture in Communist Romania: Taking the Public’s Perspective, The University of Warwick, Center for Cultural Policy Studies, 2012-2013.


Online resources

MARX, Karl, The Communist Manifesto

The Tismaneanu Report,


1 Karl D. QUALLS, “The Russian Revolutions: The Impact and Limitations of Western Influence”, Dickinson College Faculty Publications. Paper 8, 2003,

2 Karl MARX, The Communist Manifesto,

3 Ibidem.

4 Karl D. QUALLS, “The Russian Revolutions…cit.”, p. 12.



7 Ruxandra CESEREANU, Comunism si represiune in Romania – Istoria tematica a unui fratricid national, Polirom, Iasi, 2006, p. 117.


9 Hannah ARENDT, Originile totalitarismului, Humanitas, Bucuresti, 2014, p. 381.



12 Ruxandra CESEREANU, Comunism si represiune…cit., p. 187.

13 Ibidem, p. 187.

14 Robert KAPLAN, In Europe’s Shadow: Two cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 2016.



17 Robert KAPLAN, In Europe’s Shadow…cit., p. 54.

18 Ovidiu MIRCEAN as quoted in Ioana PREDA, Resisting through Culture in Communist Romania: Taking the Public’s Perspective, The University of Warwick, Center for Cultural Policy Studies, 2012-2013, p. 12.

19 The Tismaneanu Report, p. 13,

20 Alain BESANÇON, A Century of Horrors on Communism, Nazism and the Uniqueness of the Shoah, B.A. Brigham Young University, 2002 M.A. The Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2005, p. 15.