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A Tale of Two Villages

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Chapter 6. The Manipulation of Lifestyles

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1On 19 January 1989 the prestigious fortnightly The New York Review of Books published an open letter by three academics from Princeton University under the gloomy title “Razing Romania.” The three historians, Istvan Deak, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Carl E. Schorske, disclosed the plans of Nicolae Ceauşescu to raze half of Romania’s villages by the year 2000, starting with the smaller settlements with immediate effect. After ten years in which there had been much talk with little action, the program of “systematization” had at last started triumphantly in March 1988. Information had reached the three authors about the pilot sites in the suburbs of Bucharest, the villages located around Otopeni International Airport, whose fate offered a clear prospect of what was in store. So far, systematization had resulted in demolishing the modest peasants’ houses and cramming the displaced residents into improvised collective housing projects. In Bucharest itself, the demolition of the historic downtown, including some heritage-listed churches, was under way. “The ancient Saxon-German, Hungarian, and Romanian churches and cemeteries in the villages are now threatened with destruction beyond resuscitation. [...] Their capricious destruction would diminish the whole of the European cultural heritage. [...] Readers in the United States can write to the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Romania, 1607 23rd Street NW, Washington, DC 20008,” the authors advised.

2By the time the readers of The New York Review of Books would have had a chance to write to the embassy, and long after several West European states and organizations had expressed their concern, in Scorniceşti systematization had already been completed and the project was already being extended to the commune’s other villages. Ceauşescu’s fellow-villagers benefited from the effects of rural modernization before the other Romanian peasants. The real impact of this intervention can only today be assessed.

Enforcing systematization and urbanization

3Systematization was first mentioned at the 10th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party in August 1969. The debate returned in greater detail to the Party’s National Conference in July 1972, and, finally, the Central Committee’s plenum of March 1974 endorsed the draft law on the systematization of the territory and localities of the Socialist Republic of Romania. The Popular Council of Olt county was way ahead: As early as 1973 it had approved plans to systematize the county’s so-called “reconstruction” areas.

4In Scorniceşti, systematization started in 1970, after the commune had already expanded as a result of administrative–territorial reorganization. A new village hall and two or three housing blocks had been added in quick succession in a bid to upgrade the village, but it still did not live up to the new ambitions of its promoters. It could hardly compare with Negreşti, which had now become its subordinate village. The ambitions of the Ceauşescu family, and especially of the local branch, the Bărbulescu husband and wife, led to a largescale redesigning of Scorniceşti, which drew on the party’s general blueprint of a cluster of collective housing projects built around a “civic” center whereby the Culture House replaced the church as the symbolically charged focal point of the community. Initially, it was nothing more than an urban development project: The new civic center, around which the town itself would have later developed, was to be located between the bridge and the European motorway, practically on the edge of the village. The project was awarded to Proiect Bucureşti, the country’s leading architectural institute, previously responsible for the demolition of Bucharest’s historic center to make room for the projected “Avenue of Socialist Victory.” But Ceauşescu rejected the plans, which would have turned the road to Slatina into a nearhighway. He said: “Don’t touch the road I used to take as a kid on my way to school.” Witnesses to this scene claim that these were the only words he said. The people who allegedly had a monopoly on understanding Ceauşescu, the Bărbulescu couple, both now dead, interpreted these words in a way which was to radically affect the fate of the village. Plans to build the community center outside the village perimeter were scrapped, and it was decided instead to build it in the area between the two bridges, exactly on the site of the old village. The road was widened and asphalted, but otherwise it remained untouched. Properties were expropriated by decree, and demolition started, with “villas” and blocks of flats being built to rehouse the residents. The villas were an emblem of local privilege; other places throughout the country had only housing blocks on offer. The so-called villas were in fact houses with two or three storeys and two entrances, which would accommodate two families and allow for a strip of garden, preserving some of the peasants’ lifestyle. In the words of the then mayor:

In Scorniceşti systematization started in the same way as everywhere else in the country. The objectives were set and approved in 1975 and, as Scorniceşti aimed to become a powerful agro-industrial center, a feasibility study was conducted by Proiect Carpaţi and the planning section of Olt county, as well as by specialists from the former council of Olt county.

For the period ’80–’85—the five-year plan—it was forecast that between 6,000 and 8,000 apartments would be built. Under Ceauşescu’s personal supervision, this figure was revised downwards from 5,800 to 1,600–1,800 apartments. Demolition work started around 1975–1976. From 1976 to 1979, when I was elected mayor, only three houses had been demolished. Let me tell you, here in Scorniceşti we had eleven mayors in ten years. It was a difficult time. This was a disaster area: a six-meter-wide road, no pavement, a ditch on both sides. If a car crashed into one of those ditches, there was no way of lifting it out, not even with the help of a tank. The villas had been built in such a way that the village was left on one side, while the town developed in the opposite direction. When Ceauşescu said “Don’t touch the road,” they started moving the town in the opposite direction of the village hall. Soon, people realized that building was heading in this direction and so they would lose their gardens and courtyards. They ended up in apartment blocks. In Scorniceşti it was decided to build three-bedroom apartments and in the end these far outnumbered the others. Why? Because the intention was to have parents and children live together, in the same way they had formerly lived in houses, with the entire family, father, mother, daughter, son-in-law, and so on. In fact, that wasn’t strictly accurate, only the yard had been common; they used to live in separate sheds, otherwise they’d be at each other’s throats all the time! So, when they were reunited in the same apartment, scandals started. Families even avoided moving to villas, because in a block they’d be able to live separately, whereas in villas they’d have to share a courtyard. So, if three families shared the same yard, they were sent to live in three different apartments.

  • 1 The family’s name has been changed to protect the source.

5A total of 178 properties were demolished in central Scorniceşti, and slightly above 300 overall. The former mayor, Neacşu, says that the demolished buildings had mostly been made of timber or half timber and only three of brick, so the loss was not great. However, the layout of a peasant homestead, even a modest one, differed greatly from that of an apartment. A typical peasant house would have two rooms, one in which people stored their good clothes and the women’s dowry chests, and the other which served as a bedroom. Many houses would have a lateral extension too, used for storage. The houses also had terraces and porches, flowerbeds at the front, a courtyard at the side, and a garden at the back. The courtyard accommodated the stables, the chicken pens, the kitchen, and, further back, the lavatory. Among the first to move out with their entire families in order to set an example to the community were the “cadres.” One of them, the director of the Culture House, declared that country life had never suited him anyway. But few others were happy to move. Ioana Mardare and her husband had had a brand-new house built in the early 1970s.1 Lică Bărbulescu had often warned the husband to stop investing in the house, because it was going to be pulled down, but the man was convinced that only the old, dilapidated buildings would be demolished. However, Lică had told him explicitly that it was all going to be done “in due order,” house by house. The Mardare family did indeed duly receive an expropriation order and were allocated an apartment in one of the newly built blocks. The demolition men’s greatest satisfaction was that the first property to be demolished belonged to Nana Iana, practically the only person in old Scorniceşti to have stayed out of the collective. The first building to be condemned—“ disaffected” in the period’s jargon—to make way for the textile factory and the “machine tool and assembly unit enterprise” was that old woman’s house, complete with stables and chicken sheds. The former mayor recalls cautiously: “I was not directly involved, but because she was the first, and a straightforward, brave woman too, she caused a lot of trouble.” The man in charge of systematization at the time, Mr Pătraşcu, is today still the chief urban planner for the council. He recalls how they went about persuading people:

How did people react when you started demolition work? Did you meet with any resistance?

Yes, it was very difficult. Don’t get me started on that! Just to give you one example, the single residents’ hostel, a building not far from here. It was in 1975–1976, just after the first expropriation decree. A number of houses were to be demolished to make way for the textile factory and a workshop, such was the plan, to be followed by a hostel for single residents. We were supposed to help with the demolition, dismantle the fences, this and that.

How many homes were due to be demolished?

Oh, some five or six houses. So, we made a start. This man had a very well-looked-after vineyard and when we told him we had to remove everything, down to the timber posts, he just snapped, grabbed a hatchet; the deputy ran off, I had no clue what to do, but some people managed to take hold of his legs and he fell before he had a chance to hit me. I’ll never forget that. In the end he got a grip on himself, poor chap; he was desperate.

And did you notice any sign of eager anticipation in anyone? After all, they were moving into new, well-equipped homes.

People would have been quite happy to be allowed to stay on in their own homes. After so many years, they’d got used to the way they’d lived in their old homes.

6Aside from the fact that people had to abandon their old parental homes, which they had been improving all their lives, leaving behind their gardens and livestock was a blow to the peasant economy and lifestyle. Nana Iana never gave up her animals, although she did say she had to “slaughter some of the goats.” She built a shed in a sheltered spot not far from the new building to which she was relocated, where the goats’ presence “did not affect the cordial coexistence,” as the communist mayor said in his inimitable style. She did, however, “keep some of the goats under the balcony, from where they would sometimes escape into the future town’s parks, where they’d graze on the flowerbeds,” the mayor complained. When Ceauşescu’s visits were announced, there would be mass mobilizations of people who then had to round up the goats and the geese, remove them from the new boulevard, and keep them concealed at least temporarily. After 1989, the animals too won their freedom, grazing on the flowers adorning the central boulevard, a favorite meeting point for dogs turned stray due to the demolitions.

7People received some financial compensation for their demolished homes to pay for new housing. The land, however, having been expropriated, was lost. Out of their compensation money, people would first pay a thirty per cent deposit on the villa or flat where they were going to live and then pay off the rest in modest installments over fifteen years. However, the new houses were more expensive than their old homes, so they ended up in debt; villas were also more expensive than the apartments. The plots surrounding the villas— around 400 square meters each—had to be paid for separately, a disincentive for potential purchasers. People, therefore, preferred living in the housing blocks, where at least they had running water. Not that they knew how to use it. The mayor remembers the crusade to civilize the villagers: “It was tragic, really tragic. One had to show them how to flush the toilet, and tell them: Look, that’s the water tap, you have to turn it off, otherwise you’ll flood the house. The new trend in those days was to have a little doormat at the entrance to the building, instead of floorboards. Well, they’d take their shoes off as they entered the building, long before getting to their apartment; you’d never believe it! One of them broke his water closet as he was trying to figure out how it worked, and then he shouted: ‘Alright, I’ve got it!’”

  • 2 Spălăţelu, Scorniceşti. Vatră de istorie romanească, 6.

8The sudden, mandatory change turned life in Scorniceşti upside down. Additionally, in the same period, the town was being industrialized and had to import a specialized workforce, which also had to be accommodated. The puzzling thing is why it was necessary to condemn existing houses, when there was so much available space in the surrounding fields. Blocks could have been built solely for the new arrivals, and that would have left enough space for the must-have civic center too. But farmland was legally untouchable, so the legal and administrative red tape led to “building condemnation” instead. But why was there a need to protect farmland, when Romania, if anything, had a surplus? It was due to the renewed stress on increasing agricultural production and ensuring “continual growth,” a concept reflected in the annual plans providing for increasingly greater levels of output. The party daily The Flame of 15 July 1982 reported that from 1950 agricultural output had increased more than threefold. “In their determination to surpass themselves and secure ever better annual results, in 1979 the members of CAP Scorniceşti launched a challenge to all the other agricultural cooperatives in the country. ‘It is not easy to become a front runner,’ Dr Vasile Bărbulescu, the cooperative chairman and a Hero of Socialist Labor, said at the time, ‘but to stay a front runner is even harder.’”2

9Given the strong membership of CAP Scorniceşti, the condemnation of properties was not a foregone conclusion, but making an exception would have required political will. After all, the Communist Party still believed that peasants were essentially, in Lenin’s words, a counterrevolutionary, if inert, force. The processes of modernization were meant to suppress the peasantry and turn it into a more advanced class. Therefore, the annihilation of the peasantry by effecting a radical change in its lifestyle was at least as important an objective as high rates of urbanization and agricultural output. The disappearance of a backward village culture meant the deletion of its collective memory, and a brand-new one could then be constructed from scratch.

The decrees of mass expropriations were issued only for high-concentration areas [the mayor explains], and just one year before construction was due to start, because building was done at a slow pace. After all, one had to be able to offer apartments to all the newcomers. Well, out of the fourteen villages that belonged to the commune of Scorniceşti, only ten had areas apt to be “reconstructed.” So what were “reconstruction areas” and how were they established? There were criteria, such as birth rate, mortality, etc. And it was all about high concentration: you were no longer allowed to build in the traditional way, houses with yards of 1,000 or 3,000 square metres. This was in order to gain land for agriculture. The emphasis was on brick buildings with all the amenities, in areas with their own schools, kindergartens, medical practices, pharmacies, and so on, all within a narrow perimeter.

This was very time consuming. In everyday life, it meant that if a particular village was marked out for gradual condemnation, no new building permits were issued; they would just give you the alternative in the new building area. Or, if the lamppost in front of your house was defective, they wouldn’t repair it, and so gradually people were forced to leave that area. This was one stage in the process. We didn’t have enough money to have an entire village demolished, for there would be 112 households and you’d have to give everyone alternative accommodation. And we had difficulties with the industry too; new people were coming in all the time. Some 1,060 cadres arrived in one year alone. We had to give them all apartments. There would be engineers hired by the Pulsor factory, and by the brewery, and there was a fast-track accommodation scheme for those who came by government appointment. Building started wherever there was a vacant site. In the area next to what was the Ceauşescu memorial house, all the properties were built on vacant sites. In some cases, only half of the house was demolished and the new villa was built right next to it; and so they stayed there, with the villa tucked in against the rest of the house.

Thirty years from now, there’ll still be livestock here in the city center in the green spaces between the blocks.

10The peasants had no means to oppose the demolitions. Opposition to systematization in the 1970s and 1980s was quiet compared with what had happened during collectivization. In the intervening decades, the state had significantly increased its control over society. Many people had become state employees, either in industries or on the mechanized farms, and could be threatened with dismissal. The peasants now had state pensions and, because they no longer had land, depended largely on those pensions. No alterations to properties were allowed without a permit from the council. Pressure on the peasants could, therefore, be exerted in many ways. Their autonomy had received the coup de grace with the disappearance of their gardens, which were supposed to produce the family food. Producing food in one’s own private garden had become a legal requirement in 1981 as a response to the food shortages. Had the dismantling of the private gardens been extended to the entire country, and not limited to Scorniceşti, there would probably have been mass starvation. Special privileges were granted to transfer foodstuffs from Slatina to Scorniceşti. But this did not solve the problem, as people could not be expected to adapt overnight to life in the blocks of flats. They took their earthenware pots and their wooden spoons and moved them into the modern apartments. These were more spacious than the traditional peasant homes and had all the basic mod cons, although they had been built in a rush and had many hidden flaws, which became apparent only later. The new residents continued to keep their livestock in the areas between the blocks. Building was usually done at a mad pace, but only in fits and starts over the years. Once a visit by Ceauşescu was announced, there would be a quick outburst of window-dressing in which facades would be built in two weeks. This was followed by longer periods in which attempts were made to respond to the planning errors of such massive development, which could, however, no longer be altered. Once authorized, neither the planning nor the design of such projects were open for negotiation, and the builders struggled to tackle problems of detail, or carried on regardless.

11A new infrastructure had to be created overnight. It was completed, with many flaws, in ten years. A system conceived for sixty housing blocks had to be adapted to 115. The water and sewage services were particularly problematic. Problems with the current infrastructure sprang directly from the initial faulty planning conceived during systematization. Older plans, for instance, would be used unchanged for larger structures. Or water pipes would be put under the asphalted road, which created problems every time repairs were needed. The water wells were dug very deep, because there was not enough surface water to cater for such a large human settlement. But these required high maintenance: today, out of eighteen wells, only six are still operating; the rest were already clogged up by 1989. There are no funds for unblocking them, because funds are no longer being diverted from other localities to Scorniceşti. Initially, central heating had not been planned for Scorniceşti, and heating was to be provided using local materials such as wood and coal. There are no natural gas resources in the area. Initially, the apartment blocks were to be equipped with firewood stoves. Subsequently, the number of flats was multiplied to achieve a higher density in a smaller space and the new plan envisaged the introduction of central heating and long-distance heating. A large heating station was built in cooperation with the Pulsor engineering firm.

12Building went on uninterrupted up to 1989. The entire project was still unfinished at the time of the Revolution. The next stage would have involved the construction of administrative offices, a hotel, a community arts center, and a plaza with a small park and a fountain. The only things to be actually built were an avenue lined by two rows of apartment blocks, another cluster of blocks at some distance, and a few villas. However, Lică Bărbulescu achieved his great ambition: the building of the great stadium, which used up most of the funding, so that the civic center was put on hold. So Scorniceşti, which did not acquire civic status until 1989, was left without its civic center.

13After Scorniceşti, it was the turn of the neighboring villages to be reconstructed. In their case, however, the authorities did not have to tiptoe around local sensitivities. Nicolae Popa recalls those times:

Once they’d completed the center there, Mrs Bărbulescu got the idea that they should start demolitions in our village Roşiori as well, by the lakeside near the border of Scorniceşti. [...] Instead of the village, she wanted a vegetable garden, just like that. I was working at the council at the time, so I learned about this plan to have the village Roşiori demolished. I was a councilor for five legislatures, here locally, as well as in Spinei.

What did it mean to be a local councilor at the time?

Don’t you know what it means to be a councilor? I represented the will of the villagers, of those who had elected me. Do you mean you represented their will politically?

Administratively. So I learned about this plan and I said, wait a little, I’m going to write a memo and send it to my superiors, to the president of the local council. So, I wrote down: “I wish to submit the following proposal. I would like you to reconsider the possibility of making changes to the future urban centre of Scorniceşti. The two villages, Roşiori and Teiuş, should be joined into a single village under the name Teiuş, within a reconstruction zone encompassing the areas currently populated. I am making this suggestion because I believe that it would not affect in the slightest the future interests of Scorniceşti, which is an agro-industrial town. There are 726 active persons in the two villages currently, and 224 households, covering large areas of high-quality arable land. Given that there are two reservoirs in the area, the irrigation facilities can considerably help the expansion of farming and animal husbandry. This plan should pose no financial difficulties, because the roads have already been asphalted, and both villages have got power lines as well as a new school, a playgroup, and a shop. Historically, the two villages have existed for hundreds of years as a single commune. This arrangement lasted for a long time. Meanwhile the inhabitants fought in the Independence War and in the two world wars. They were in the frontline promoting the policies of the Romanian Communist Party soon after 23 August 1944. Twenty years ago, they formed a single collective farm which contributed four hectares of arable land per household to endow the new CAP Scorniceşti. Currently, the locals are front runners in all the activities and projects run by the CAP Scorniceşti. Comrade President, I sincerely hope that you will forward this application to the county commission and that this village will duly be included on the map of the new urban centre.”

And were you successful?

I was indeed, and the request was forwarded, and one day there comes this panel from the county and they ask to see me, comrade Popa. And they said: “Could you come and show us around?” It was the president of the commission in person. He surveyed the village and said “Look, you seem to be a reliable chap. You’re totally right, but we can’t do this, because Lică Bărbulescu is opposed.”

So did they want to demolish you there and then, in 1989?

They wanted to destroy us. Oh! Glad you reminded me. Two or three days earlier, these two tractors and bulldozers pulled up in front of my garden, and the drivers said: “There, we’ve come to take out your vines and the trees.” They said they’re going to start demolishing the village.

So you were a kind of example for the rest of the village?

They were afraid that others might rebel. And I said “C’mon, lads, not so fast. Leave us a while yet, ’cos we have stuff here, trees and vine posts. Just give us two days to remove all this and then you can come and do as you please.” Well, they say, “We have orders from papa Turcin.” This is what they called him, papa Turcin. He had only to say one word, and they’d come and pull your house down.

Did Turcin have anything personal against you?

No, he didn’t, but he was in charge of the demolitions.

But why was he in charge? He was the president of the cooperative farm.

Well, because the freed land would have gone to the cooperative afterwards. It was the head of the CAP who supervised the demolitions, here in the countryside, not in the town center. And as luck would have it, I spotted this engineer here by the lake, the guy who came along with the tractors to pull out the trees and the vines and the rest. [...] So I say to him, “Look, Mr Engineer, they’ve come to kick us out. Could you please ask these men to kindly go home and come back after the weekend, on Monday, and give us time to remove some trees and the vine posts, and whatever, and then we’ll go?” And he did send them home and told them to come back Monday morning. And we and the neighbors got down to work, pulling out the trees and everything. In the evening, as we listened to Radio Free Europe…

Were you listening to Radio Free Europe at the time?

Yes, regularly. And so, as we listened, we heard about what had happened in Timişoara, where people rebelled. In great detail, everything, hour by hour as the events unfolded. When I got up next morning, the bulldozers were gone; they took them away at night and we never saw them again.

14The villages of Roşiori and Teiuş were being threatened with “gradual condemnation,” because they each had fewer than 500 residents, a size deemed to be non-economic. The village of Piscani in the same commune was lined up for “rapid condemnation,” which meant total demolition. Nicolae Popa was trying to stop the destruction from within the system. He had not just Lică Bărbulescu’s opposition to fight, but the Communist Party’s entire program. Most of Romania’s 13,000 villages had fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, and many had fewer than 500. But the size deemed ideal for the “rationalization” of public services in the countryside was 3,000. Those villages which fell short of that figure were going to be listed as non-viable. Nearly 3,000 such villages were going to be condemned gradually, the rest were to be brutally demolished and relocated. Piscani and Nucşoara were in the latter category, as they were both very small. Nucşoara was lined up for demolition in 1990, and its residents were to be relocated to Mioveni, a settlement which had evolved around a nuclear plant.

15Because of its privileged status, Scorniceşti had been grouped with the approximately 550 villages due to receive funds from the urbanization program and be turned into agro-industrial towns. But their growth as towns was slower than expected. At the same time, the village demolition program was stepped up starting in 1988, when the number of villages to be destroyed was increased from 3,000 to nearly 8,000. By then, however, the days of the regime were already numbered. Any delay in its demise would have had tragic consequences for many Romanian peasants. Had the Revolution occurred later than December 1989, Roşiori-Scorniceşti and Nucşoara would not exist today.

The everyday life of the agro-industrial town

16Scorniceşti was obviously used as a guinea-pig. It was the object of an experiment which tested the feasibility of the agro-industrial town, with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, designed to provide services to the agrarian areas surrounding it and sustain itself mainly through agriculture. The choice of Scorniceşti was justified officially by reason of its better soil and short distance to the nearest town. But the transformation of this mega-commune into a town was not an isolated act; it was part of a national strategy aiming to reduce migration to the big cities, closed following their flooding by rural migrants during the industrialization of the 1970s. A similar project targeted the commune of Domneşti, not far from Nucşoara. Surrounded by coal mines, this commune was believed to have the potential to become a town. But this ambitious project did not benefit from the level of funding which went to Scorniceşti and, consequently, there were few changes in Domneşti.

17Demolitions and the consequent disappearance of yards and gardens changed the countryside fundamentally, but there were subtler measures with an equally devastating effect. Firstly, cooperative farming promoted a collectivistic organization at the expense of the individual enterprise. Secondly, the coexistence of rural and urban lifestyles in the same area had an impact on attitudes and behaviors. By the 1970s, a large number of households had a mixed structure, in other words at least one adult per household worked in a town and earned a salary. “Then these factories appeared, so people got jobs there, they preferred working there. They were better off, and the employment card gave them some security. They’d no longer go out to work in the field. These were people who were born peasants, yet they’d no longer work their land now that they’d got these jobs in the new industry.” (Focus group graduates, Scorniceşti) The individual plot supplied the necessary food. If you add to this the pensions, salaries, and child benefit—quite generous because of the regime’s pronatalist policies—and it becomes obvious that incentives to work for the cooperative were declining. The regime itself was quite willing to turn a blind eye, because cooperatives did not produce enough to give members their yearly dividends in kind, as their contracts were stipulated. The peasants, in turn, no longer tended the common fields and preferred working on their own plots instead. A survey conducted in the 1980s but never published showed that one-third of the cooperative members had not put in a single day’s work for the farm during the year.

We didn’t get enough produce from the CAP, which is why all those who could were stealing. The Bărbulescus were not as bad as people say. They knew that everybody was at it, but they’d turn a blind eye; they never sent anyone to court, not even when they caught them red-handed. (Peasant woman, Constantineşti)

Everybody was stealing. They’d pass under my office windows at the council, and I’d say to them, “C’mon, man, take the trouble to go round that fence at the back, rather than do it under my nose; they’re going to fire me one of these days.” (Nicolae Popa)

They were all stealing like crazy. The agronomists would steal, the school administrators, staff at various institutions, and of course the peasants, too, when they saw that everybody was at it. (Teacher, Negreni)

18Theft at the cooperative in Scorniceşti became as widespread as wood looting in the forests near Nucşoara. One might wonder why under the cooperative system such misdemeanors were largely tolerated in the eighties, whereas previously people would be sent to the gulag even for imaginary crimes. The reason was that by this stage the regime had already achieved its main objectives: it had consolidated its power while depriving the peasants of their autonomy. The regime was aware that people were unable to make ends meet with their official gains, and it tolerated theft to help its welfare system, and so relieve the growing social discontent. Stalin had wisely warned against idealizing the kolkhoz: “It is only a weapon, it is nothing in itself, it is an instrument, not an ideal.” Theft was tolerated because it, too, was an instrument in the hands of the regime, to the extent that it made everybody conveniently vulnerable.

19It was a surreal system, growing stranger every day. Fertilizer would be pumped into the soil, producing huge crops of 6,000–7,000 tons per hectare, whereas after 1989 a hectare could barely produce 5,000. Experimental plots yielded up to 17,000 tons. Popa was responsible for forwarding the results once they had been centralized. If party documents said that one plot had yielded 17,000 tons, the Party daily The Flame put the figure at nearer 25,000. The agricultural land in Scorniceşti proper, where peasants had been poor, was smaller than in Mogoşeşti, where individual plots above five hectares were frequent before collectivization. In the 1980s, the 200 hectares of Scorniceşti came to be tended by local employees who worked mandatorily, threatened with the loss of their jobs, and by secondary school students during their school days. The latter worked for a month in the autumn and another in the spring, while employees were called out mainly for digging and raking. “But the pupils were paid, so they were more interested. They’d be paid 80 lei. And teaching staff the same; they’d get 120–150 lei, but we worked from morning till night. However, given our modest salaries, 1,500 lei didn’t come amiss.” (Teachers, Scorniceşti) It may not have been much, but the village intellectuals could not refuse. As state employees, they were even more vulnerable than the peasants. As one engineer narrated, comrade Turcin and his staff would come to measure their gardens, as these “subsistence plots” were in fact state, not private property, implying he could confiscate it anytime so as to force people to work for the cooperative. The threat was enough.

The main workforce was the pupils, and others only as an addition. Because you could call out over a thousand pupils at any time, but you couldn’t call out a thousand peasants when needed. So state employees would just fill in and do whatever was left to do, working alongside the few cooperative members. It was cost-effective, because the cooperative got a sizeable workforce out to do the work, yet because they were students they didn’t have to pay them that much. Students from the Agricultural College were easier to mobilize and were paid […] and they did not need the yearly dividends in kind that peasants required.” (Teaching staff, Scorniceşti)

We in Călineşti felt offended when they’d call us out to work the fields and we had to work a month. But in Scorniceşti they had to put in two months of work per year. I know cases where they went hungry, because the people supervising them, the college administrators, would steal the food rations. There was no way you could refuse to go. We teachers would lose our jobs if we refused. (Teacher, Negreni)

20Although the village had been officially upgraded to a town, such coercive methods as confiscation of individual garden plots served to keep state employees stuck in their former peasant condition, even when they made efforts to emancipate themselves. The cooperative in Scorniceşti had the best rates of pay in the county to motivate peasants to go out and work the land. However, at this stage money was no longer a sufficient incentive. Younger people had taken up industrial jobs in town, in Slatina, Piteşti, or Bucharest; the middle-aged had found employment locally; and the elderly were happy to potter around in their gardens, and could no longer be bullied to work at the collective farm. The system worked infallibly only when it needed to blackmail the new settlers employed in local industry, for instance. They could be laid off or kicked out of the party, and their families depended on the state for education, insurance, allocations, and mortgages, and had no gardens to live off. But the system was powerless when confronted with someone like Nana Iana. They had already demolished her house and stables. What else could they do to her when she released her goats into what the communist mayor called quaintly the “future town” or refused to work even a single day at the collective farm? Nothing at all.

21The Scorniceşti of the 1980s was a paradoxical place indeed. Last-generation machines were imported for the new textile factory, installed in the stadium ring, but there was still no running water. High-caliber university graduates received mandatory jobs in Scorniceşti through the national job allocation program; some chose the place themselves, thinking that it might be a good career move. And it was not enough for Scorniceşti to have the only agro-industrial college in the region, it also had to have a new hospital with all the specialist departments. Physicians had to be brought over from Bucharest and Slatina. But working as a doctor there was not too bad. Those were times of major shortages, yet supplies of medicine were better than elsewhere in Scorniceşti. The Pulsor factory was built starting from a section relocated with its entire staff from the Dacia car-making factory in Colibaşi. By and large, the young intellectuals who got jobs in Scorniceşti after graduation were quite happy, especially as they were fast-tracked to houses and apartments. On the downside, teachers were forcibly recruited to work in the fields. So were the engineers, though less often. It was at that time that the current mayor— an engineer working in light industry—arrived in the commune. So did the main leader of the opposition and his chief adversary. Both, now nearing forty, are businessmen. Under Ceauşescu they were both Communist Party members: If the party secretary suggested it, an up-and-coming young man had to join, otherwise he was left with a tarnished political record. Many of today’s local industrial managers arrived in Scorniceşti in the same period. Marlene, the woman who runs what is now the largest private textile company—which employs 800 employees in Scorniceşti alone—used to create designs for the state textile factory together with her husband. But she did not find that convenient, and chose to take up work independently within the Socialist Retail Cooperative Network, a niche the communist state allowed to the independent activities of small-scale manufacturers, thereby allowing it to control them at the same time. Today she and the cooperative network’s 600 employees own the company and have orders from many foreign companies, including Marks & Spencer. The 1980s also witnessed the vigorous promotion of Ceauşescu’s pronatalist policies, which made abortion illegal unless a mother had had four children already. Contraceptive methods were primitive both in urban milieus and in the countryside, and abortion had been the general method of birth control prior to this policy. Pushing for more children in times of food and energy shortages was bound to produce more suffering, yet some took advantage of the incentives offered by Ceauşescu’s policies. The local pediatrician recalls:

Gypsies were having babies, because they got state support for every child, so if they had many children they’d be able to get some cash, as they didn’t have jobs. For instance, they’d get baby milk powder, of which I had loads and didn’t know what to do with the surplus. I remember I had to give away milk powder, a kilogram and a half per child per month, but ordinary families wouldn’t have it, they preferred imported infant milk. I had to somehow get rid of it, so I’d give away milk powder so it could be used for puppies and piglets. No, honestly, I had to get rid of it, because I’d get criticized if I had stocks of it. So I was in a situation where I had plenty of milk powder boxes left and nobody to give it to. I gave it as supplementary allocations, I committed all sorts of irregularities, I changed the names of the recipients, I had to find ways. It ended up with the Gypsies, because they alone had a use for it. It even discouraged them from seeking jobs, as they could make a good living just by selling it on.

22Running water was lacking, but people could have bathed in huge lakes created from the infant milk powder. As for the other kind of powder, the dust that rose in clouds from the demolition and building sites, there was no shortage of that either. Indeed, there is still plenty of it today in Scorniceşti.

Modernization and demodernization of the village

23In the 1980s, Scorniceşti enjoyed better treatment than the rest of the country during the severe food rationing, but suffered as a consequence of the coerced modernization plans. The change heralded by the Revolution of December 1989 came just a few months after the village was declared a town. That was the moment of truth for Scorniceşti. Its unsustainable institutions, such as the football club, vanished overnight. The slaughterhouse and greenhouse disappeared following more complex problems: the lack of market, the corruption of would-be managers who sold them off piece by piece, and the accumulated debt. Pulsor, the tools factory, managed to survive a few years, due to its monopoly of the production of pumps which they made for Dacia. But Dacia was bought by Renault and the French firm no longer ordered its pumps from Scorniceşti. Pulsor found it difficult to find other markets. Out of the 1,330 employees the factory had in 1989, fewer than 200 found jobs elsewhere, retired, or left through natural wastage. Some 170 chose voluntary redundancy. By 2002 676 employees had become shareholders by the time the factory was privatized in a management and employee buyout (MEBO). Consequently, its chief managerial objective was to secure the personnel it had. In 1997, as part of a macroeconomic stabilization package, public sector employees in non-viable industries were given generous severance payments to encourage them to quit voluntarily. “When they were made redundant they were paid salaries for one year, went away, bought a cow or a goat and started farming. Some started up businesses,” one engineer recalls. However, many later tried to return to Pulsor, but failed to get rehired.

24The privatization of a company’s own employees, a method known as MEBO, was also used at the textile factory. There, it was even less successful. The workers, used to equal pay, concluded that management were earning too much. There was a revolt and the manager— today the mayor—was forced to go. He immediately set up a private company and took away many of his former clients from the state-owned firm. The prolonged strikes drove away investors and customers alike from the state factory. During the strikes, the manager had sent orders out to small workshops, rather than leave them unfulfilled. Those small improvised workshops later became fully fledged factories. Marlene herself started off with a client who saw two of his supply vehicles sequestered during the strikes. Once he had managed to retrieve them, he never returned to the state factory. Today, the former state factory is on the brink of bankruptcy, while the smaller textile factories are thriving: There are now fourteen of them, and they offer employment to large sections of the town’s female population and to the young. The brewery was privatized under a different scheme and it too is thriving: there will always be a demand for beer. The former tractor station (SMT), a company which used to provide farming machinery, was also privatized under a MEBO scheme. It also tried to form its own farming association, helped by its monopoly of the farming machines in the early days after the 1989 Revolution, but failed. Today, there is not a single window-pane in the huge garage which used to accommodate Scorniceşti’s once-proud tractor fleet which has not been smashed.

25You do not need statistics to see that state industries based in Scorniceşti were ruined by collectivism. With employees also being shareholders, managers’ lives are complicated. “It’s difficult, very difficult,” the director of Pulsor complains. “The annual general meeting is a nightmare. The main problem is insecurity over what tomorrow may bring, fears over job security and pay; everything that happens in the country, the recession and everything, makes people nervous wrecks. And even people who’ve had good, secure salaries, can now sense, like those animals released back into the jungle after being in captivity all their lives, that there’s a storm ahead and things are going to get tough and they are not fit. And no matter how good a leader and a manager you may be, in a general meeting you can suddenly find yourself out of a job; everybody wants salaries of over 100 euros. Now, how can I give them that when the whole economy keeps shrinking?”

26However, the investment in well-trained, adaptable, inventive personnel has paid off and when growth resumed after 2000 Scorniceşti had some companies doing well. The new entrepreneurs of capitalism saved the communist town and prevented its decay back into the status of a village. But is “saved” the right word? There is a lack of money to improve public utilities, water, sewage, and heating, although the mayor is hopeful. Textile employees earn between sixty and eighty euros a month, less than the national average. Everybody works under the “Lohn system,” a form of international outsourcing in which design and raw materials come from a foreign supplier who then imports the finished goods. The local factory has no air-conditioning, so during the hot summers in the plains working conditions are really oppressive. But if workers complain, they are out of a job. They are blissfully unaware that workshops such as theirs are called “sweatshops” and that Western students organize protests to have similar outfits in Asia closed down. A draft law was introduced in Romania to ban the Lohn system. But that would mean ruin for the town. At the same time, workers in the private and public sectors are not necessarily on the same wavelength: State employees look down on their counterparts in the private sector and call them “slaves.” Those in the private sector counter-attack, saying that they are happy with their lot and state industries are doomed anyway.

27After 1989, many banks opened branches nationwide. Some, such as BankCoop, went bankrupt. Others, such as the Romanian Bank for Development (BRD) and the Romanian Commercial Bank (BCR) are thriving, counting both firms and private investors among their clients. Over 1,600 locals from Scorniceşti opened accounts with the BCR, which has since been bought by the Austrian Erste Bank. The 216 private companies and 199 family associations and independent manufacturers are also with the BCR. The private sector is responsible for sending some two million dollars rolling through the banks every month. Of the 8,000 active individuals in Scorniceşti, only 268 are claiming jobseekers’ allowance, which is only 3 per cent against a national average of 10 per cent (Bucharest itself has a 4.5 per cent rate of unemployment). The textile industry employs 2,700 people.

28Public services have been deteriorating due to design flaws and inadequate maintenance. The deep-level water wells are equipped with electric engines which break down frequently or stop working because the electricity company cuts off the power for non-payment of debts. The sewage system was built far too close to the domestic water supply network. Consequently, it flooded over, infesting the drinking water; basements are literally full of shit. Scorniceşti’s urban infrastructure collapsed as soon as the postcommunist state stopped subsidizing the domestic energy supply and prices were deregulated. People could no longer afford the far too expensive energy, and Pulsor could no longer cover domestic bills too, having its own difficulties. The central energy supply station had to be dismantled, and smaller units sold off. The residents “plugged off,” the new expression used in the transition period to mean that apartments voluntarily switched off the common energy supply. Like all other residents, Ioana Mardare had a wood-stove installed with a chimney pot through the apartment window. The main difficulty is storing the firewood: Where does one keep it without a yard? So firewood has to be carried home daily in small amounts. In winter, in Scorniceşti one sees people carrying firewood to their flats in shopping plastic bags, from quite afar because the forest has also been cleared to free land for farming. A few hundred comparatively prosperous people have been able to put in central heating for individual apartments.

29In 1989, the birth rate in Scorniceşti was thirteen births per thousand inhabitants; today it is just eight. General mortality has increased, and the town is in third place for TB in a country which has the highest number of TB cases in Europe. The hospital had better days in the distant past. Many specialists left as soon as they could after 1989. Those who stayed have to cope with poverty, long commuting, lack of education among the local population, and alcoholism. In the summer there are outbreaks of enterocolitis due to the infested water. Chronic diseases are on the increase. Peasants from the commune’s more marginal villages do not come to the hospital because they cannot afford the bus fare. A few doctors decided to open their own practices in the villages themselves, but they are afraid they will not have enough money to keep them going. The hospital director commutes from Slatina. Funding and staff shortages meant that some units, such as the intensive care unit, had to close. Yet the hospital is clean, has its own water and energy supply, and there is a sense that some residual discipline from communist times has survived here.

30The museum was closed down and some of its spaces were allocated for use by the school. In the dimly lit Culture House, a new generation of dancers, recruited by Nelă, strut about on stage, while the medals won by their predecessors shine on the walls. A little further away, youngsters go clubbing for the evening. In the morning they can be seen working in the fields. The college students still go to work hoeing as in communist times: After all, they study agriculture; for them it is a choice they made themselves. They march along the village road with spades and shovels on their shoulder. Talk to them, and they will complain of the poor-quality water and the dodgy housing blocks. But they would not want a return to the old country ways; they would rather move on to a real town. They are most emphatic in describing the older locals as still being “peasants.” Scorniceşti is no town, “’cos you don’t have peasants in a town, do you,” one of them says, in simple, straightforward words. Yet people are no longer as boorish as their children—who watch The Bundy Family and Ally McBeal on TV—see them. For instance, the residents of the apartment blocks would no longer want to have to traipse to the backyard to use the toilet. Nor would they want to have to get up in the middle of the night to feed the poultry. In Scorniceşti today, around half of the residents who live in blocks also own land. The average is thirteen hectares per family. The majority own a cow or a plot of land, either themselves or with their parents, so food reserves are secure. This is why they do not complain about their low factory wages. Whoever does not have land, will keep a cow with a neighbor who does. The reclaimed subsistence plots allow families to produce a fair amount of food for their own needs, but few make any money out of it. Yet there is a lot of nostalgia for the old times, as the director of Pulsor says:

It all peaked between 1985 and ’87, production levels were good then, we worked Saturdays and Sundays, and in two shifts, as well as putting in extra hours. After that time, it went down and it keeps going down. ARO, the local car manufacturers, are importing only foreign-made engines, Toyota, Cherokee. We think they could’ve kept using Romanian-made engines, they were much better. The state does not intervene, taxes are killing us. What they’re doing is they’re ruining the country’s car- and tractor-manufacturing industry and all the related industries servicing it. I’ve got to tell you, we used to make very good engines. Our engines now operating in Iran on difficult terrains are very good and extremely cost-effective. I’m not saying that the others, abroad, are not making extraordinary engines, ’cos they do, but they cost 80,000 dollars. Ours cost 12,000 and function equally well. But, there you are, there was a will—and it’s not surprising— there was a will to practically destroy the national industry in this transition. I don’t know what plans they have with commerce, because in order to have commerce the population has to have purchasing power, and they don’t. Somebody wanted to make an import market out of Romania, to ruin the country. And it’s been a success. I don’t know what’s going to happen in two or three years’ time. Where will these people be working? If there’s no industry, no agriculture, what are we going to do? Even tourism will go the same way.

31Most towns the size of Scorniceşti have been pushed backward by transition into the most appalling underdevelopment. Occurring after coerced modernization, demodernization has been rapid and frightening. The whole process looks very much like the dismantling of the Scorniceşti greenhouse, an installation worth millions of dollars which fetched less than 5,000 when dismantled and sold for recycling. People have lost their faith in collectivism, whether planned or spontaneous. Individualism and anti-social behavior are on the increase. It is enough to look at the destruction of the irrigation system by peasants who looted the pipes. When asked who was responsible, they say: “people.” In a neighboring village, someone took away a piece of the rail track to use it as a ceiling beam, thereby stopping for two days the only daily train service linking the village with the outside world. People can tell the difference between what is theirs and what belongs to other people in Scorniceşti; but they do not distinguish between their own and the public interest. It would appear that the public has been the main casualty of the processes of collectivization and decollectivization.


1 The family’s name has been changed to protect the source.

2 Spălăţelu, Scorniceşti. Vatră de istorie romanească, 6.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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