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A Tale of Two Villages

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Chapter 5. The Destruction and Replacement of the Elite

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1“It must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence comes!” These words of wisdom from the Gospel of Matthew (18:7) are recurrently invoked by the old former political detainees from Nucşoara, who are deeply religious peasants. One can spend hours listening to the catalogue of woes which struck those by whom offence came: cancer, heart attacks, car crashes, and even lightning. One of those who tortured Verona Jubleanu was actually struck down by lightning as he was opening his door. A godson of Iancu Arnăuţoiu who refused to allow his godfather to return to his own home when released from prison was also struck by lightning, under the open sky. Elisabeta Rizea and Nel Preda, too, had their panoply of the devil’s disciples struck down by divine will.

2In Scorniceşti, too, the former political detainees point proudly to those who pursued the collectivization policy, now all dead and buried. But they are alive, having survived the gulag to reclaim their lands and their tractors after the fall of communism. Outsiders with less faith or even insiders, who lost their faith in prison when, like the former detainee Paşol, they were made to urinate in their own boots for days on end, may be less convinced that justice has been served. To use Paşol’s words: “Well, times have changed, but not for the good, you know: They’re still after us. Look at this woman from the mayor’s office, the secretary; she’s a nasty piece of work, her father was in the Securitate, and she’s now running the village; and there’s the other Securitate fellow, one Ungureanu by name, he’s now a councilor, and it’s them in all the local bodies.” It is hard to disagree with Paşol. As you stand on the terrace of Şerban, the first mayor under communism, who profited from the expropriations of detainees, his land and his family’s fill the horizon, and they used to be the poorest in the village. His son—the man formerly in charge of the coopera- tive delivery quotas—has installed in front of his imposing, brandnew villa an enormous satellite dish. It is quite true, however, that things could have turned out better for Emil Bărbulescu, son of Lina and nephew to Nicolae Ceauşescu. Sulky and unshaven, he brings his troubles to anyone who wants to listen. The electricity company cut him off for unpaid bills; and his ungrateful fellow-villagers forgot that it was his parents, not Ceauşescu, who turned that village into a town. And yet, comrade Neacşu, mayor of Scorniceşti during the systematization and re-elected by the villagers in 1996, when the national presidential elections went to the anti-communists for the first time, appears to be doing quite well. He is in no danger of being hit by lightning as he clumsily sits down in front of his computer and starts up the server—a gift from the European Union—to monitor income tax in his new position as financial director for the mayor of Scorniceşti. It is a job for which he volunteered in the run-up to retirement. But maybe the town is protected from righteous lightning and other such hazards by donations made to the local church by the mayor and his wife, two youngish communist upstarts prior to 1989, successfully converted into capitalist entrepreneurs. They are the latest in a long series of church donors which now includes boyars and Communist Party members alike.

  • 1 Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution, 342.
  • 2 The official figure advanced by the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) is 115,000, but historians (...)

3Three sets of historical factors have been identified as favoring the installation of communist regimes: the party’s own strength, outside military intervention, or a combination of both.1 Romania is generally considered to belong to the second category, given that a genuine Communist Party did not exist there at the end of World War II. Aside from cadres imported from Moscow and agents of direct repression, the new regime needed insiders to work insidiously towards its ultimate objective: social change. These agents of change are the topic of the present chapter. Their character changed with the times, as the Ceauşescu era gradually transited towards a second stage in the communist regime’s control over society. This was much more sophisticated than the previous Stalinist one, based on mere coercion, which ended by 1964. That year, all the surviving political detainees considered non-dangerous were amnestied. (Ion Mihalache himself had died in prison a few months before the amnesty.) In the second stage, control was exercised by persuasion rather than coercion: The state gave to, as well as took from, people, and it presented both options to the peasants as the two extremes of a continuum. In order to benefit from the many rewards, chief among which were the benefits offered by the welfare state, one had to meet a single requirement: belong to the system. This could mean party, cooperative farm, or trade union, depending on individual circumstances. This arrangement was more subtle and less costly and had the advantage of showing to the outside world that this was a society in which communism had acquired legitimacy. Coercion was now used only in moderate doses. Ceauşescu’s Securitate used surveillance and bullying, but penalized less than the political police of the Stalin era. There was no need for punishment any more. Some 1,500 individuals were condemned for political crimes in Ceauşescu’s time compared with 300,000 in the Dej era, a ratio of 1:200.2 Society was communized successfully, and that still showed in the first few years after the official fall of communism in 1989.

Traditional authority

  • 3 Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution, 145.

4Hugh Seton-Watson3 has shown that, in underdeveloped countries the Communist Party recruited its cadres especially from poorer peasants and intellectuals, and in advanced countries from workers and to a lesser extent from the intelligentsia. Once selected, these people became “classless” as they advanced into a special, privileged apparatus category. The sole support of repressive forces is not enough for the agents of change to be able to assume power. Power based on coercion alone can dispense with legitimacy only to the extent that all other sources of legitimate authority are destroyed. Even once its political influence has waned, alternative authority is intolerable to coercive regimes. But in Nucşoara—more plural than Scorniceşti by virtue of the greater autonomy of peasants in mountainous areas— this alternative authority existed. The area had its own social entrepreneurs, its local brokers, who were all the more influential as their authority was recognized by the peasants. These were people like Şuţu in Domneşti, Elisabeta’s uncle, the owner of a sawmill and shops that employed many in the community. He also christened the children of his social inferiors and was a model in everything, including electoral choices. He was so influential and highly respected that his arrest would have been highly problematic. They could find no reason to arrest him, so they had to shoot him, explains the second Paşol, the communist.

5Iancu Arnăuţoiu, father of Toma, was less wealthy than Şuţu, but nevertheless influential. The son of a priest, this local schoolmaster, well-remembered by his pupils (“The history I still know I learned from him,” says Eugen Popescu), had over time become a small landowner. He brokered many business transactions, he was a real local entrepreneur. Costică Paşol’s assessment is accurate, though full of resentment. “He was a politician, too. He used to have a say in the nomination of mayors, and usually had his own men elected. He had a lot of godsons locally, who, in spite of their poverty, would ply him with gifts in exchange for favor,” he says. Another heavyweight entrepreneur, much sought after for his advice and support, was Nicolae Niţă, Toma’s father-in-law. The fact that so many came to seek his advice led him to believe that he could put together a group of partisans and give its leadership to his son-in-law, a career officer discharged from the army.

6Before the peasant reforms of Prince Cuza, Nucşoara had been one of the estates which belonged to the monastery at Curtea de Argeş. This is why there were no boyars in the area. Paul and Iorgulescu, the holders of the oldest boyar titles in the region, had bought their land, not inherited it, at the same time as many peasants became owners. The old rural landowning families did not profit from Cuza’s secularization of monastery lands: Entrepreneurs with capital did instead. Even if they were wealthier than others, the local landowning elite members did not have absolute control over resources. They brokered business transactions, guaranteed credit, made loans, offered protection, arranged marriages and christenings, and generally posed as patrons, but they had no monopoly of any one resource. They also belonged to different political parties: The region had its peasants, liberals, and Iron Guardists. The situation was the same at Scorniceşti. Leadership alternated. That the market economy worked is illustrated by the gradual downsizing of the oldest “boyar,” Iorgulescu, who was eventually forced to sell land. The peasants could afford to buy: Fifteen families bought the Pojarna mountain from Iorgulescu. The communist Costică Paşol himself was able to purchase land “before the war, with a loan from the boyar. I thought I might be able to live off a small bit of forest, so I bought five acres.” Now, five acres is not exactly a “small bit.” Therefore, in no way could the local elites, priests, schoolteachers, and petty boyars be regarded as gatekeepers, i.e. as elites controlling access to common resources, even though they might have played a considerable role in facilitating access. They were merely social brokers.

7In the semi-literate rural world of 1945, the priests and schoolteachers had another, and possibly more important, role to play. As the only educated, world-savvy men in that milieu, they were the custodians of public morality, the molders of village opinion. They signaled what was right and what was wrong. If words uttered from the pulpit and in the classroom coincided and strengthened each other, it became difficult to give any credence to the party activist, especially when, like Şerban or Paşol, he was a nobody with barely five years’ primary schooling. The activists had little land and even less credibility: they had spent time in Russian prisoners’ camps or in Russian-created army divisions and were, therefore, compromised as Russia’s agents.

8The communist regime had two alternatives in dealing with the village elites. One would have been to win them over, but, as they were patrons of factories and owners of land, that was not an option. The communists bought only people who possessed nothing, usually intellectuals. The second solution would have been to have these elites destroyed, given the fact that they were the support base of real authority, of the traditional parties and the monarchy, the pillars of old-regime Romania. Later, it was this maximal solution which was adopted. In the case of the Orthodox Church, it was applied very thoroughly: In a historic compromise, the Church allowed itself to be plundered of the remains of its former wealth and to be made dependent on the state.

9Nowadays still, good reputation and prestige—difficult-to-replace capital in the countryside—are a headache for the agents of social change. What Costică Paşol finds particularly hard to swallow is Arnăuţoiu’s reputation:

After all, who was this Arnăuţoiu? He was the greatest crook. What did he do? He was a schoolmaster who beat his pupils to a pulp. We had a bank, “Banca Albina,” he bankrupted it and with that money he bought Paul’s estate in Slatina, which he then sold on to the villagers at a profit. Iancu Arnăuţoiu acted as proxy in the sale of lands in Slatina, Brusturi, Ogradă, Lazului, Dumitean. The peasants always lost out, he cheated them. Up to World War I the peasant used to work as a tenant on the boyar’s land; the boyar would give him a small plot, but alongside this he had to work on the boyar’s land, too, otherwise he would lose his tenancy. From his mediation of sales Arnăuţoiu was left with loads of land, sixty acres himself. And another thing: People around here used to have sheep, and Iancu Arnăuţoiu had some forty acres of grazing land near Mount Zănoaga, at Belciu, another mountain not far from Zănoaga. He managed things there so that peasants did not produce more than one kilo of cheese all summer.

10In spite of such efforts to discredit him, Arnăuţoiu remained popular, supported by his broad patronage network, chiefly of priests and schoolteachers, and was widely respected. People respected Toma as well, because he had education and he was an officer. Even when the Arnăuţoiu sons were hiding in the mountains, people would still ask Arnăuţoiu senior to be godfather to their children. They thought that the regime would change and he would return to power. The wife of the man accused of working for the Securitate, Ungureanu, had been baptized by him, and the husband claims this as the reason why the partisans spared him, although he came within their shooting range a few times.

11For many years, as long as there was hope that the “Americans” would come to liberate the country, people oscillated between these traditional sources of authority and those imposed upon them by the new coercive regime. Later, and gradually, it became clear that there was only one source of power, and that far from representing an alternative the partisans in their mountain hideouts were just a group of hunted people. After the failure of the Hungarian Revolution, things became even clearer. The old elites and the people supporting and respecting them had become little more than quarry, and there were considerable rewards for those willing to help hunt them down. Besides being offered rewards, those on the wrong side of the accepted social norms were given the opportunity to redeem themselves. The Arnăuţoiu brothers were sold out by a friend of theirs and a member of the local gentry, whom the Securitate were harassing because he was homosexual.

12The descendants of the old families saw their fortunes decay, and they are no longer living in the villages. In Nucşoara, the repression destroyed two generations of the same family in some cases. The descendants of Coculescu from Constantinesti are now living in Paris, those of the Lînaru family from Scorniceşti in Germany. Gigi Paul, the son of the former landowner from Nucşoara, is now living in Bucharest and has had to struggle to reclaim a manor that his family had owned in Argeş county, at Calinesti. Neither have reclaimed family land, but the mayor’s office in Scorniceşti was worried about an application for a house by mail from Germany. Of Iancu Arnăuţoiu’s grandchildren, Toma’s daughter is now living in Bucharest, while a cousin of hers has returned to the village after winning back his land. However, he keeps himself to himself. Şuţu’s grandson is the only one who entered politics, and, like Ion Berja, the son of the political detainee, he ended up leaving the Peasant Party for a postcommunist party, though, unlike him, he never became mayor. He tried his hand at business too, failed, and is now living like a peasant, proud of his plum brandy home distillery. But at least he went to university. Others, such as the sons of the priest Drăgoi, were barred from university because of the political standing of their families. The party made sure that no-one in the second generation could stand out, not even as mere intellectuals.

13After 1989, the villages which composed Scorniceşti tried to escape the false identity Ceauşescu had provided them with, and found some sources for a genuine identity among the old-regime families. The association in Mogoşeşti called itself the “Dr Voiculescu” Association, and its ill-fated counterpart in Constantineşti took the name of the Coculescu family. However, such legitimizing strategies have nothing to do with law or justice. The prospect of any of the former owners returning is not being encouraged, especially by the agronomists who run the new farming associations, having taken up the old boyar manors and even using their name. Communism had stripped the old elites of everything but their names; transition achieved that.

The hunters and the hunted

14The agents of change—i.e., those destined to become the new regime’s elite—were recruited in several stages. It is worth remembering that the communist regime lacked party cadres in Romania: The mass opposition to the political establishment was provided by the Iron Guard, an Orthodox, populist movement which claimed one million members and was close to the peasantry. Therefore, in the initial stages the communists recruited former prisoners of war from the Eastern front, especially the more vulnerable ones, without much land or education, such as Şerban and Paşol. Paşol recalls the circumstances: “In ’41, I was on the front, we’d crossed the river Prut, and we fought in Russia for quite a long time. In ’45 I came back from the war. I wasn’t into politics, I had no idea what that was. No, sir, to be involved in politics, one needs some education, one must know at least what politics is. After the war, Şerban came along: he’d been a prisoner in Russia, in Siberia, and he returned with the ‘Tudor Vladimirescu’ troops. He became mayor here, and one day he comes and says: ‘Costică, you must join the Communists.’ ‘Alright,’ I said, ‘I’ll join.’ So in ’46 I joined the Communist Party.”

15Gheorghe Şerban too recalls how he, a poor peasant with hardly any schooling, became mayor of Nucşoara: Arnăuţoiu and Drăgoi were both schoolteachers,

Arnăuţoiu was my schoolmaster. Father had a small house built, ’cos he didn’t have a lot of land. The land belonged to boyar Iorgulescu, who owned seven mountains and was deputy for Câmpulung. They [the Russians, author’s note] took me prisoner in Odessa, and I stayed there, I don’t know for how long. A long time. I was detained in seventeen camps, all over Russia.

They’d get you and take you someplace else; I was in Vladivostok, in the Pacific, we used to stack the fish into barrels there. I stayed there for a whole year, then they took me to Siberia. There were 3,000 of us prisoners, and we were kept in an underground camp with guards in the four corners, and the barbed wire was four meters high.

Some time around 1945 I returned to Romania. I arrived in the autumn of 1945 and someone told me to go and join the regiment I was in when I first went to war, the Thirtieth Infantry Regiment in Câmpulung. Then I returned home. A few months later, someone from Câmpulung drove up in a car and called me to the mayor’s office. The accountant was there, too, the cashier, and I didn’t stay long. He said to me: “As of this moment you are the commune’s mayor. You’ll get the nomination from Câmpulung in a few days’ time.” I didn’t know the man and I still don’t know who he was. He was with the Communist Party. How could I know anything when I only did five classes in primary school? The man at the mayor’s office, the accountant, he was a neighbor and he helped me, he made the phone calls on my behalf, made payments, he helped with everything. How was I to know about state administration? I was just a simple man. It took a while before I learned how to use the telephone. [...] Then they made me the head of the local administration in Domneşti for about a year and I had sixteen districts under my management. But a communist? How could I ever be communist? I didn’t even know what the word meant. I didn’t have that kind of understanding.

16Gheorghe Şerban had a long career as a communist civil servant for Muscel county, at district level and in the party apparatus. He is full of contempt for the assortment of people brought to serve in the local administration:

They had been mopped up off the streets. One of them, a cobbler, he was made the chairman. And there was another one, a Gypsy, for this is what he was [...] he was a Gypsy [...] That one became deputy chairman. That provisional committee was formed of five people: chairman, deputy chairman, and three members. And so they installed us there, they had a meeting in Câmpulung, and they elected us to the provisional committee of the Muscel county prefecture. There were five of us and we were given a car, and a driver. We would go round the mayors’ offices in the county. This happened before they started forming the farming associations. They appointed me in Domneşti and gave me a horse-drawn gig and a secretary, and then they appointed me prefect in Câmpulung, where I remained for four years. They sent me to a school for political officers. I did one month’s training and then I was sent back to Câmpulung. After that, I became an employee in Topoloveni, where they started the first collective farm. It wasn’t easy because there were a lot of kulaks there. I went round trying to get people to join the collective. I’ve got thirty-one years’ experience working in state administration.

I stayed in Câmpulung at the prefecture for three years and in that time a lot of collective farms were set up. Then they sent me to Topoloveni where they made me head of social services. After that, they sent me to Curtea de Argeş, where I was head of the Section for Communal Farms and Local Industry for Argeş county. Then I was promoted to head of the Trade and Business Division; I was in charge of commerce throughout the county. I had a car, and the Communist Party secretary used to call us round to make presentations and give reports.

I was in that post for a few years and they called me back to be mayor in the commune for a second time. I remained mayor for several years, I don’t know, thirteen-fourteen; it’s all recorded on my employment card. […] It was the fault of the prewar parties. Father Drăgoi and the schoolteachers got together and got organized. They [the partisans, author’s note] got organized in the mountains; they would go hunting and would take sheep from the shepherds, but would give receipts for them because they planned to pay them back once they came to power. They shot an informant who turned in the mother of one of the partisans. The woman went one evening to a relative to ask for food. And the relative, Băncescu by name, had her sleep in his house, and as she lay sleeping he went to report her to the militia: “Listen, I’ve got the mother of one of the folks in the forest with me; I gave her food and a place to sleep.” The militia came with reinforcements and caught her. Then they [the partisans, author’s note] shot the man, but he survived, he didn’t die.

[…] The Securitate tactics were not great, but in the end they caught up with them. They brought in the army and they were all over the mountains. When they saw so many military in the mountains, they went over to Corbi and built a sleeping shed in the ravine at Poinărei. From there they had a view over the main road, to the bridge over the river Doamnei, that’s why they chose the place. Almost four years they stayed there, but the army and the people smelled a rat and found them out in the ravine. And they caught them in the forest and the Communist Party’s Securitate got them all. Two were caught in the middle of the village, then the rest too were all caught by the Securitate and were taken away. They didn’t shoot them, they needed information on the others.

[…] I didn’t get involved. I was mayor twice. I was a simple man but I had brains. No, the Securitate would arrive and the party activist would tell them where they all were, go there, and there […] When they got the folks in the mountains, the Securitate came to me and asked for the farm labor register. They asked where the register was and they took the labor register over to Piteşti and kept it there until they identified all of them. There was one who hadn’t been with the others in the mountains, but he had collaborated with them and they confiscated his wealth. And then, once they identified them all, they only took the men’s land, not the women’s.

[…] When they tried these folk from the forest they didn’t call for me. I asked a Securitate man why didn’t they call me as a witness at the trial, and he said that I hadn’t had anything to do with them, but he also said that they said at the trial that they could’ve shot me when they ran into me.

17The village marginals thus recruited received a smattering of education. Costică Paşol did a month’s worth of party training and he still regrets today that he did not go to university. But he made good use of his training and spends his retirement reading Marx’s Selected Works—“a great book, Marx’s father was a big industrialist, you know, and he spoke about ‘surplus value’ there.”

18That was the first generation. Later, the party started educating its cadres, as they had a desperate need to replace the old-regime political enemies. The first generation of new village intellectuals was rushed through schools, and many were admitted to higher education on the basis of their “sound” social background. Most often, they would be people who already worked and who had completed “open studies” degrees to fill posts in the local councils and schools left vacant after the elimination of the old-regime civil servants and intellectuals. Many saw in this an opportunity for rapid upward mobility and took full advantage of it. The present elite are the direct descendants of that generation.

Resp. 2: You see, my father was a party member, I was a member, and I still stand by it. I think my father, too, joined the party for our sakes, to make our life better.

Q: And what did your father do in the party?

Resp. 2: Not much, he just went along to meetings. He worked as an accountant at the Retail Cooperative in Brăduleţ. He started as a cleaner at the age of fifteen, then was an employee at the mayor’s office, then secretary. He went on to do “open studies” college and then he became an accountant. I studied medicine in Timişoara.” (Focus group graduates, Nucşoara)

19On the list of confiscated plots, the right-hand column under “recipients” includes almost the entire new village elite. In the left-hand column are those from whom land was taken, all the old-regime priests and schoolteachers. The mayor’s son took land from Father Drăgoi, his neighbor, and it was on that plot that he built his villa and installed a satellite dish. Many had houses built on the confiscated plots, in order to mark their territories. The wife of Şerban Jr. is a secretary at the mayor’s office and has held this post, with minor interruptions, for longer than twenty-five years. She is the one who keeps under key the Land Register, which contains all the title deeds. Other village intellectuals—who, like her, took part in my group interview on the subjects of communism and of Elisabeta Rizea—are all members of the local council, Nucşoara’s mini-parliament. They, naturally, represent the postcommunist Social Democratic Party, which won all the council seats in the village in the local elections. “All the intellectuals in our commune come from neighboring villages, they married some rich girl from the area ’cos they were poor, and then they all filled the good teachers’ jobs and the Communist Party. The Securitate and the communists—even today—they form the nucleus of the main Social Democratic Party here.” (Nel Preda) In the circumstances, the former detainees had to fight long and hard to get their lands back, even when the law was on their side after 1989. These people, branded as “enemies of the people” under the communist regime, were still considered as such by the militiamen repackaged as policemen in postcommunist times:

The newspapers said that, on the basis of a 1990 Parliament decision, the former political detainees were going to get their lands back. We didn’t sue anybody for our lands, the state did it on our behalf; the final outcome was announced a year and a half later. Vasile Chelu owned my former land and had fenced it, so I went and asked him politely to remove the fence and hand the land over. But before he could remove the fence, this policeman, Dascălu, comes along and I ask him: “What’s the problem? I’ve got a court order.” The next day, his deputy, one Şova by name, came and took me to the prosecutor’s office, and placed me under arrest. He took me before Prosecutor Pelinescu. And the prosecutor says: “Well, what are you doing? What’s this, vigilante justice? Can’t you wait until you’re given legal possession?” And I say: “So who’s going to give me legal possession? I’ve got a court order, but the council are dragging their feet over it.” I took out the court order, the prosecutor wrote something on a piece of paper which he then put in an envelope and gave to the cop: “You go to the mayor and you give him this; tomorrow he’ll go there and grant this man possession of the land.” Now he’s deputy head at the station in Domneşti, this cop. (Vică Berevoianu)

20Nel Preda adds:

These people were planted here. In our commune they were placed in key posts. I served a twenty-five-year sentence and had two houses confiscated; they even took the bricks, and all the land that I had. They confiscated my five stables. And now these communists want to take the land I own by the lake. The mayor of Nucşoara had my storage room demolished; he was a cobbler, like Ceauşescu; Chelu was his name. I had to pay rent when I came back home. I lived in Sboghiţeşti; the mayor there was Şerban, the man who goes around wearing tight peasant-style trousers. After 1990, it was our turn for power, but no, it was still them that got all the offices. All these people are from the commune, and they all made money; one of them who did well out of stealing bits and odds from the cooperative farm was and still is with the communists, and did well out of them. They don’t realize that all their thieving and all their scams were at our expense, mine and other citizens’.

[…] They wouldn’t give us our land back. I had to do the rounds of tribunals for four years. They referred the case to a higher court at Curtea de Argeş and I won there, then they appealed and the case was heard in Piteşti, and I won there too, and then they gave me the land back.

[…] The secretary, the Şerban woman, she’s secretary and farming agent. A few years ago this woman lawyer with full training was hired at the town hall, but she could not straighten things out; the others wouldn’t let her do her work properly. The councilors were all forewarned and they sided with the Şerban woman. She gave land to all of them and now they’re all supporting her. I had an argument with her. That was when my title deed first arrived from the prefect’s office. I tell her to place me on the list of land entitlements for I had won the land back legally. And she says: “Listen, comrade, this is a forgery.” Now, how could a document signed by the prefect be forged? I served my sentence in the same prison with some important people, and I am not impressed by an impertinent village clerk. This happened a few years ago. This is what happened: my land was given to a school director from the area. He then made a swap with some kinspeople of the secretary’s. She told them to stay put on the land as there was nothing I could do against them. I petitioned Parliament saying that Mrs Şerban is stopping me from reclaiming my land. Parliament responded, but the letter was also sent to her at the mayor’s office.

21The battle is still on, it would appear. One group, the persecuted, has the law on its side. The others, the profiteers, have the state. Vică Berevoianu was arrested by the police, for whom he is still the source of trouble, as he was under the previous regime. The daughter-in-law of Mayor Şerban de facto runs the mayor’s office irrespective of the political regime, and any responses to petitions sent to Parliament against her end up at her office. She is also the local farming agent, responsible for the land restitution law. As long as this elite has captured the local state, they will continue to dominate the rest of the village. And it is not difficult to see that the state still identifies with them. In one simple exercise, when people are asked “Who represents the state here in Nucşoara?,” the name of Mrs Şerban, the secretary, is the first to come up. The second is the name of Petre Ungureanu, widely considered to be the village chief informant (securist), the man who discovered Marinica Chircă in the attic where she had been hiding for five years and delivered her to the Securitate. But Ungureanu is no ordinary securist. He arranged for his son to become a policeman, rather than sending him to university, a choice which suggests that he knows exactly where power lies. And being, unlike Mrs Şerban, an enlightened individual, he returned the land he had acquired from a detainee to its rightful owner in an out-of-court settlement. His nephew is a deputy and prefect on behalf of the more enlightened of the two postcommunist parties, the PD.

How Petre Ungureanu was recruited here in Nucsoara is close to the story of the kulak from Scorniceşti, who ended up being the first to join the collective farm. He was in a group identified as scandal- mongers during the elections hijacked by the communists in 1946. Later, as a forester, he shot a stag without proper authorization and was found out. They started pressurizing him and he had to become an informant. Securitate people afterwards became his friends, his allies, his kin. Today, he is widely regarded as the most influential man in the commune. He did not become mayor, but he did not have to, with his nephew having the higher office of prefect. He is content with being a councilor and mayor-maker. For many years, he oversaw the wood and timber resources in the area. Forest land confiscated from boyars and peasants alike became state property and access to it was obtained only through the good offices of the foresters. “Ungureanu had the full use of the woodland, and he chopped wood everywhere,” Nel Preda says. “He helped everybody with wood. Poor people worked for him in shifts: some in the morning, some in the evening, and it was “Mr Tică this, Mr Tică that. They’re still afraid of him.” The old communist Paşol is also fuming: “I know injustice when I see it, and I couldn’t stand even our own old communists; they were scoundrels, they stole from the forest and caused all sorts of trouble. They’d steal and sell the wood. Ungureanu had the entire communal forest land stolen, and they couldn’t do anything against him, ’cos he was the Securitate’s man. I’d denounce him in party meetings, and he tried to have me arrested, but couldn’t.

22But things tend to be a little more complicated with people who, like Ungureanu, were recruited from the “other camp.” His wife’s father, suspected of links with the partisans, was beaten up so brutally that he died shortly after returning home. Ungureanu himself was standing next to the cars the night Berevoianu and Preda were both taken away, but he says it was not he who denounced them. In fact, he says, they remained in hiding for many years without anyone denouncing them, but in the end the Securitate and the army infiltrated the place; they were everywhere. He joined the Communist Party upon being discharged from the army, otherwise his children would not have been allowed to go to school. It was in this way that his daughters could train to become teachers. This is how he explains the influence he enjoyed in the commune:

I’ve always been an honest man, and while I was in employment, if anyone came to me I’d help them without asking for anything in return, and people remembered me. I did favours to people in a disinterested way: a cartful of wood, an armful of branches in winter, I would charge them less than the normal price. I did have another advantage, though, from the communist period. I made friends with that securist, Ploscaru; he was only a lieutenant when he first arrived in the village some time in ’51–’52. Later he built quite a career; we were close and whenever he came to arrest someone I would intervene on that poor man’s behalf, for people had suffered enough.

[…] I talk to people, like this, among family and friends. I sometimes help folk in trouble […] that’s why people listen to me.

[…] I entered the National Salvation Front in 1990, I was chairman in the commune and in ’92 when leaders Iliescu and Roman split up I sided with Petre Roman, because a nephew of mine, Cârstoiu, entered politics as a member of the PD. He was a prefect and a PD deputy.

23Deep in the mountains where Nucsoara lies, the foresters are the major gatekeepers: They control access to the most important public resource, wood. As one local says: “We’ve only got two things here, wood and wildlife, and for both you need authorization from the forester.” People are authorized to cut a certain amount, but in practice they will cut twice that amount. The mountain-dwellers fear that one day the forest will be gone, yet nobody seems willing to stop the cutting. It all started with the massive forest cutting program which was supposed to help Romania pay its war debt to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In areas around Nucşoara, the local Forestry Service had an annual forest growth capacity of 20,000 cubic meters, but people would cut around 50,000–60,000 cubic meters, three times the annual growth rate. Large surfaces of forest land started disappearing. Today, the Forestry Service opposes the return of forest land to private owners fearing that people would start cutting wood indiscriminately. Nevertheless, for the time being it is state employees, i.e. the foresters, who have a monopoly of forest cutting. They seem to have a say in social policies too. Chelu, the former mayor, had a word with the chief forester to allow the Gypsy woodcarving artisans to “collect a few bits of wood here and there, ’cos they’re starving.” During elections, the local social democrat chief, “Mr Cornel,” a forester himself, drives the Gypsies to the ballot in his own car, pressurizing them by threatening to rescind their wood-cutting allowance. The villagers asked for the Pojarna mountain to be returned to them, but this has not happened yet. In the meantime, the Forestry Service permits forest-cutting solely in the villagers’ section of the forest, which means that by the time they have a chance of getting it back, there will not be much left.

24Forest is an essential resource, controlled by the state’s representatives. Equally essential are farming subsidies, and all the related paperwork and certificates. For all these, it is very important to have support from the mayor’s office. Sică Dumitrescu, who was appointed mayor by the locals after the Revolution of 1989 and worked pro bono for a few months before withdrawing, sums up the situation in simple terms: “Everything is run from the mayor’s office. Whether it’s to do with wood allocations, or the creation of small local businesses, or taxes, anything, one needs the mayor’s stamp of approval. Everybody needs the mayor and his secretary.” This is also true of Scorniceşti, and everywhere else. Mayors come and go, but Mrs Şerban, the daughter-in-law of the old mayor, is there to stay, and everybody knows that she is running the show. Elisabeta Rizea recounts how in the past Mrs Şerban would have a neighbor spy on her as she went out to mow the hay, to see whether she might be carrying letters or food to those in the mountains. Elisabeta says she is still afraid of her. She needed authorization for something, so she went to see her with a box of chocolates, “but my hands were trembling, just like this, I was so afraid of her.” Mrs Şerban blames the situation on regime change: It was not people’s fault—not her father-in-law’s, nor her husband’s—that they had to take possession of other people’s plots. “Well, why, a law was passed which means that everything done then was legal. Times have changed, and now there is a new law, saying differently; it’s as simple as that.”

25All the schoolmasters and teachers in Scorniceşti and the surrounding villages have been members of the Communist Party. So has the new Nucsoara priest, who replaced those who were executed. As a young man, he graduated from the seminary a long time after an accord between Party and Church had turned Orthodox priests into employees of the communist state. The collapse of communism was a blow to his own interests and to those of priests in general, as he himself admits:

I made a better living as a priest under Ceauşescu, I did well both financially and spiritually. At the time I was paid 790 lei monthly and the rest was my own private income, out of which I built my home. After ’90 I no longer had an income from private sources, only my state salary, paid according to qualifications and seniority in work; out of that I would pay the church singer and I’d be left with a surplus. After 1991, as there was a radical change in circumstances, I no longer claimed a private income, and I received a salary from the state of fifty euros before tax, that is about thirty euros net each month. I’ve got land, too, I’ve got four hectares now, and at my mother’s death I’m going to inherit one acre more. I have a cow, and I produce my own food, I don’t have to buy anything for the household. I sell fruit at harvest time, that’s all. And I make home-made plum brandy.

Q: And from a spiritual point of view, why do you think it’s worse now than in Ceauşescu’s time?

A: Church attendance has declined for lack of money. I was paid per service by parishioners. Some would buy candles in church, another source of income. Now they don’t have the money and are too embarrassed to come. Before, I had a salary, and I paid the singer myself. Now there aren’t enough christenings and weddings. I’ve got seven or eight weddings annually at most for the entire commune of Nucşoara. And because people are impoverished we no longer charge a burial fee.

[…] I’m teaching now, I teach at the seminary in Curtea de Argeş. Eighty per cent of priests in the Patriarchate are in this situation. I spoke up at a conference and asked: What’s to be done? If the state doesn’t take a decision about the priests, it’ll be a disaster. There’s been a proposal submitted to the government by the Patriarchate and the Ministry for Religious Affairs whereby one per cent of GDP could be allocated to the Church. The priests could be placed on a state salary of 100 euros and there wouldn’t be any charge for the church service itself. A priest shouldn’t be, as he has been and still is, a beggar, a black sheep. Let us, priests, join the ranks of intellectuals and be on state payroll.

26The peasants’ dependency and the destruction of the rural middle classes—traditionally, the natural patrons of the Church—has led to a situation where the priest depends on the state entirely and dreams of being on the state payroll rather than being paid on a fee-for-service basis. Like the village schoolteachers, the priests no longer represent the community and have joined the many categories aspiring to live off the state. The priest I talked to is also a local councilor, like Ungureanu and like all the other representatives of the new elite. He explains innocently that he ran as a candidate on the first list suggested to him, which happened to be the list of the former Communist Party. There is no evidence that the council members are providing any useful service to the community, unless you believe that requisitioning— for a second time—Nel Preda’s lakeside land for communal fishing can count as a public-spirited project. The peasants here have no spare cash. Poverty and exemption from land tax, defended by all postcommunist governments, have therefore emptied the coffers of Nucşoara’s local council. The village is paid from the state budget almost double the amount it collects in revenue. In 2000, for instance, it collected 300 million lei in tax and received 500 million from the budget. Thus they had a total budget of less than 30,000 euros, including the salaries of Mrs Şerban and of the mayor. The only public project completed in the commune was not the outcome of the councillors’ efforts, but of those of Elisabeta Rizea, who persuaded the authorities in Bucharest to asphalt the road between Sboghiţeşti and Nucşoara. The councillors now regret that they did not seek to use her celebrity status to greater advantage, but they do not show any gratitude to Nicolae Noica, the minister who authorized the roadworks. Nor do they show any gratitude to Elisabeta Rizea herself.

Predatory elites

  • 4 Barrington Moore, Jr., Injustice, 445–6.

27According to Barrington Moore Jr. there are three ways in which people can secure the goods and services they need. “First of all, people can make what goods they want themselves either individually or collectively. Of course people cannot ‘make’ admiration or distinction themselves. Other people have to grant it. But this is possible on rational rounds in a variety of collective undertakings. The other two ways for people to get what they want is to steal it, or else force other people to make it for them. […] By definition, stealing is not legitimate and without legitimacy there is no authority. There is merely domination. […] a truly predatory elite is one that renders very few services to the underlying population and extracts for its own purposes a surplus big enough to create poverty on a massive scale that would not exist if the subordinate population were left to its own devices.”4

28Although it forms part of the lower-level local, rather than topechelon nomenklatura, the group described in the present study nevertheless has all the characteristics of a predatory elite. A village such as Scorniceşti has always been poor. In contrast, mountain villages have always been self-sufficient, and even though people have never been wealthy there, nor have they been starving. However, this changed dramatically under communism. “I’ve been thinking, in my own slow way, how come there was poverty in Ceauşescu’s time? In ten years, they haven’t found the truth about the Revolution; in my thinking, they’ve been really clever, ’cos it’s still the Communist Party at the top,” the veteran communist Gh. Şerban comments wisely. “I’ve been close to starvation in our beloved Romanian land,” Nel Preda recalls. “I’d do swaps with the folks from the plains; they’d bring maize, I’d give them firewood. Then we were prevented from driving away from the village in our carts, and so we got to the point where we had only two kilograms of foodstuffs per quarter. In the meantime, the local party folk had a storeroom full of everything, milk, honey, caviar. And we peasants had to live on boiled nettles.” In the 1980s, the entire country suffered from food shortages of catastrophic proportions: Basic items such as oil, sugar, and bread were rationed. In the circumstances, Nucşoara was comparatively well-off because people there had livestock and, although delivery quotas were reintroduced and gradually increased in the 1980s and 1990s, they never reached the draconian levels of the Stalinist era, so people could live. Some of the peasants measure their lives in terms of the number of calves they delivered in quotas for the past thirty years, and the conclusion seems to be that the area has always been prosperous and output high. Prior to 1989 peasants could no longer find bread in their village, regardless of whether they lived in the mountains or in a plain-village, growing wheat themselves. They had to apply to the nearby town, where bakers were forbidden to sell to anyone who could not present a local ID. Nowadays, they get their freshly baked bread delivered daily by an enterprising man. During those years, all the mills, such as the one owned by Niţu, Toma’s father-in-law, had been closed down and destroyed and the processing of wheat was done industrially. The peasants’ access to the most important result of their work was thus politically controlled, and it produced famine. “Only the workshy who’d gotten used to doing nothing can say that communism was better,” Ungureanu concludes.

29Foresters and gamekeepers enjoy patronage at the highest level, given that for Romanian macho politicians hunting is a favorite entertainment. Ceauşescu himself used to hunt in the surroundings of Nucşoara, and is remembered by local gamekeepers: “He was a good shot, and a good man; once he shot a deer calf by mistake. We rushed the quarry in his direction, and he was sorry,” misty-eyed gamekeeper Ion remembers. Nowadays, Ion hunts with the former political detainees, whom he addresses respectfully as “boyars.” They are now allowed to carry a gun again, and Ion is not too particular about his choice of hunting partner. Neither was Ungureanu in the past, when he switched easily from Titu Jubleanu and his peers to the Securitate officers from Piteşti. Times may change, but every generation of the elite goes hunting. Today, still, the Forestry Service in Domneşti play host to important people who descend upon the forest clearing in their private helicopters, have a quick go at the game rushed within their range by the gamekeepers, and leave. One can easily squeeze it in during the lunch break: It takes only twenty minutes to travel by helicopter from Bucharest to Nucşoara. And who comes? “Our men,” says Ungureanu, “Petre Roman, the former PM, Ion Ţiriac.” The guests spend the night in exclusive hunting lodges, and the cars are all brand-new, glossy Western imports. Some of these lodges date back to the time of King Ferdinand of Hohenzollern and are reached at the end of alleys lined with the same old fir trees. The accommodation has been refurbished to meet new standards, as well as to disguise the devastation caused by the Securitate troops during the ten years of partisan-hunting when they were quartered there. The national head of the Hunting Association was another Social Democrat Prime Minister, Adrian Năstase. Nicu, the man who organizes hunting parties for the Italians in Scorniceşti, gets as misty-eyed about Năstase as gamekeeper Ion when he reminisces about Ceauşescu. It surely helps to have a hunting prime minister and be able to talk to him hunter to hunter. Nicu is active in the Association, casts his vote dutifully at meetings, and knows what it takes to fight those who intend to limit the rights of hunters.

30In Scorniceşti things are less clear-cut, for two reasons. Firstly, the Ceauşescu family formed an important section of the predatory elite both locally, in the town itself, and in the rest of Romania. Ultimately, the Ceauşescu family had to pay for the wrongs of the communist regime as a whole, although as far as Scorniceşti is concerned their impact there was not entirely negative. Secondly, in the transition period Scorniceşti was able to redeem itself as a town rather than as a village, although it has only existed as a town since 1989 and there is still room for improvement. Towns create expanded opportunities for economic growth and social mobility, independently of the predatory elite and its degree of exclusiveness. In this particular case, opportunities were created in the textile industry, where the state no longer has control. Conversely, in areas where state control is still firm, for instance in farming or in public works, the situation has remained unchanged. The predatory elite has managed to adapt. Comrade Margine, who had imposed collectivization in one of the villages, encouraging the beatings and abuse of opponents, including his own kin, also supervised the dismantling of the collectives. In the words of one of his godsons: “How shall I put it, my godfather made and unmade the collective farm. Those were the times.” In other words, the best that people can do is adapt to circumstances and go with the flow.

31Likewise, comrade Turcin, Lina Bărbulescu’s trusted man, became the patron of the largest farm association which sprang out of the cooperative, right down to its demise. One might wonder: Why did people elect him, after everything that he had done to them? The question is easily answered. The association has hundreds of members but, when elections are due, only the ones in the know turn up and elect the proposed candidate. “Turcin would come round to size up the courtyard and would say: ‘You must be aware that the house isn’t yours.’ Then they’d come to measure the garden, our only resource then, those thirty units of land, called ‘subsistence land’. But although it was supposed to support us, it belonged to the state nevertheless, and if Mr Turcin or someone else thought fit, they’d come and measure up ten times a year if needed, if that was what it took to force me to work for the collective farm, although I was a qualified engineer. Today he sits in the local council.” (Intellectual, Scorniceşti)

32Mayor Neacşu, although freely elected by the villagers in 1996, thought it was far better to withdraw behind the throne and work in the Finance Department, leaving the mayoral seat to an enterprising younger man. The latter was recruited by Neacşu’s party—the social democrats, naturally—shortly before the elections of June 2000. Mayors come and go, but the clients of the mayor’s office remain the same. The entrepreneur who built the apartment blocks during systematization— and made a hash of it—is still in charge of public works. How does he get the commissions? “He wins the bids. If he’s the only one working in the area! But contracts are always fixed beforehand. If he takes part in an auction against those in Slatina, for instance, he’s going to win, because he’s got his own people over here, in another place the job will be given to someone who’s got people there. […] This is how it works: they arrange it among themselves, you come and counter-bid against me, and I’m going to win, next time I come and counter-bid against you, and so everyone keeps their own territories.” (Focus group intellectuals, Scorniceşti) Naturally, it is all done with the connivance of the mayor’s office.

33One can often see members of Scorniceşti’s local elite having a pint on Nicu’s restaurant terrace. Often they pick him up in the car and they all go clay-target shooting in Slatina with the county notables. These are mostly the local bankers who hand out business loans, the young new mayor, and the chief of police. People think that even the restaurant business is not Nicu’s and that it is merely a front. Otherwise, who could have known in Bucharest that the farming association which succeeded the Scorniceşti cooperative was bankrupt, or that the bank wanted to get rid of the hillside camping site and the adjacent “Brooklyn Bridge”? Only the local bigwigs had this information. Enter the young investor from Bucharest. He bought the camping site straight from the Bank of Religions (which in the meantime had collapsed after a scandal involving preferential loans), got a 100-year concession for water services from the council, and got the business started. The local bankers are former managers of the communist state industry. The new elite is the old elite, minus the Ceauşescu family, but plus the individuals who came to the fore with the arrival of the younger generations, people such as the mayor and Nicu himself.

34These resources could be material resources such as land—as illustrated in the present study—or abstract, such as various authorizations and certificates applied for at the mayor’s office, an inheritance of the overregulated communist system. The change of regime in 1989 left intact a large number of the institutional mechanisms of dependency created in fifty years of communism. This rendered the land restitution virtually redundant. The predatory elite survived the postcommunist land reforms, as they had key strategic positions for its implementation and managed to enshrine several practices controlling people’s lives. Moreover, institutional change was not initiated in the countryside, but in Bucharest, where President Ion Iliescu’s legislation in 1990 and 1991 encouraged the creation of farming associations and restricted the restitution of forests to private property. It was not entirely top-down though. The local predatory elites and those corporate groups that represent their interests—the communist bureaucracy, or bodies such as the Forestry Authority—sent a clear message to the center, signaling that they did not really want things to change. They became important stakeholders in the management of change. It was an insidious battle for social control, which could result in a clear victory for only one camp, as the other had been practically exterminated by then.


1 Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution, 342.

2 The official figure advanced by the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) is 115,000, but historians believe the real figure to be almost three times as high, because many of the political offences were officially registered under other categories. See Presidential Commission for the Analysis of Communist Dictatorship in Romania, Final Report.

3 Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution, 145.

4 Barrington Moore, Jr., Injustice, 445–6.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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