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A Tale of Two Villages

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Chapter 2. Two Villages

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Countryside landscape

  • 1 The Gypsies (also known as Bohemians or Tsiganes, and, more recently, Rroma) were slaves in the bo (...)
  • 2 Tudor Vladimirescu (1780–1821) was the leader of a popular short-lived uprising directed against t (...)
  • 3 During World War I, Romania remained neutral until August 1916. After a promising start alongside (...)

1Scorniceşti is a village dispersed across the plains between the provinces of Oltenia and Muntenia. The nearest European motorway, joining Piteşti and Craiova, is only fifteen minutes away, but it circles the village from afar; there is no railway station. As the local authorities are keen to point out, the advantage is that Gypsies1 can reach the village only by horse-drawn carts, and then they are likely to be intercepted by the police and turned away. But there is a downside too: The village is cut off from the wider world. Turkish armies came near on a punitive raid following the 1821 uprising led by Tudor Vladimirescu.2 They set fire to a handsome church in Constantineşti, the ruins of which still stand defiantly. General Mackensen occupied Oltenia for almost a year in 1917–1918,3 and was appalled by the poverty of the inhabitants. The sympathetic German general ordered the conquered barbarian territory to be civilized and, to this end, had public lavatories erected throughout the region. Made of metal sheeting cut to identical size, they were meant to stop the locals from relieving themselves in ditches and on public roads. Twenty-four hours after the withdrawal of the German army, these structures were torn apart, and locals each took a piece to proudly patch their rooftops.

2Scorniceşti is a fiction: Nothing stands scrutiny there, not even the name. The old village, entirely demolished during the “systematization” of the 1970s and 1980s, used to be called Tătărăi. During the administrative reorganization, Ceauşescu, who was born there, ordered it to be turned into a mega-commune by merging four adjacent ones and making “Scorniceşti” the capital: It got a brand-new community centre to mark the occasion. Scorniceşti was thus created out of a merger of the communes Negreni, Mărgineni, Mogoşeşti, and Scorniceşti. In 1989, during the final countdown of the communist regime and of Ceauşescu, a son of the village, it was proclaimed a town. Today, it has 12,787 inhabitants, 4,798 of whom live in the centre—in Scorniceşti proper—and the rest in the adjoining villages. It is Romania’s most dispersed village, with a surface area of 139 square kilometers, and encompasses fourteen villages. Of these, Negreni is the oldest commune and is highly self-conscious: When they were allocated to Scorniceşti, the locals felt downgraded. Rightly so: Whereas the secondary communes declined for lack of investment, Scorniceşti itself prospered and became a small town. The price was high: People lost their homes and their gardens and were relocated into apartment blocks. However, today the town is still productive, whereas the adjoining villages, living solely off agriculture, are declining. Mindful of the independence-seeking ambitions of the inhabitants of Negreni, the mayor of Scorniceşti set them up with a local referendum, in which over ninety per cent voted for separation. However, as today villages profit from funds redistributed from the town, once they got their dreamt-of emancipation they were destitute. As the mayor of Scorniceşti points out though, winning or losing from this separation is irrelevant. It was simply the time for those people to master their own lives. The temporary union with Scorniceşti dating from socialist times was to cease, and it was every man for himself in the new capitalist order.

  • 4 After the installation of the communist regime in 1947, pockets of armed resistance were created a (...)

3The commune of Nucşoara lies to the north of the county of Argeş, seventy kilometers away from the county town and forty kilometers from Curtea de Argeş. With a surface area of 43,709 hectares, it comprises the villages of Nucşoara—as its chief commune—Gruiu, Sboghiţeşti, and Slatina, with a total of 1,800 inhabitants. Nucşoara is an ancient village, or at least its inhabitants think so. They claim that the village was mentioned in a document issued by the prince of Wallachia on 25 June 1547 to endorse the title deeds of a property. It is not clear whether the document refers to this particular Nucşoara, or to another one in a county further east, as inhabitants there could also swear that the document refers to them. It is true that both regions, Argeşul de Sus (Upper Argeş) and Haţeg county, are recorded as having been inhabited from an earlier date than other areas, but today Nucşoara-Argeş is famous for more recent events. It was the last bastion to fall to communism: A handful of anti-communist partisans resisted, with the passive support of villagers, for over ten years in the adjoining mountains.4 No signs of earlier times are to be found in the present village. However, not far from there, at Brădet, beyond the hill which the partisan commanders, Toma Arnăuţoiu and Gheorghe Arsenescu, chose as their hiding place, there is a fifteenth-century monastery dating from the times of Voivod Mircea the Old. At Curtea de Argeş, the nearest town to the south, stands another of Wallachia’s oldest churches, St Nicholas. On its walls someone inscribed in 1352 the death of the state-founding prince, Basarab.

4The region lies on the southern slope of the Carpathians, where hills descend slowly from the Făgăraş mountains. The river Doamnei runs through it. The land is beautiful, though savage. Few people come to admire it: Access is possible only along regional roads of abysmally poor quality. In 1997, the first anti-communist government after the 1989 Revolution decided to honor the martyred village and the Ministry of Public Works asphalted the three kilometers of the road going uphill to Nucşoara, from Sboghiţeşti to the village hall. Further away, towards Brădet, the native village of Emil Constantinescu— Romania’s president in 1997—the road breaks down completely, while the journey from Domneşti to Sboghiţeşti, some fifteen kilometers, is possible only by tractor. In spite of its bright patch of asphalt, Nucşoara remains isolated, as it has always been. The Curtea de Argeş-Campulung motorway which passes through Domneşti is the nearest link to civilization.

  • 5 Blaga, ”Permanenţa preistorică.”

5Landscape matters. The Romanian poet and philosopher Lucian Blaga constructed a theory that a people’s psychological profile derives from the geographical landscape it lives in. Gradually, he argued, that landscape will exert its enduring influence upon people’s “nature,” another concept which features prominently in Romanian self-reflective literature, the best represented written genre in the country’s history. This characteristic landscape is allegedly composed of a smooth succession of hills and valleys, a gentle, balanced landscape which encourages a “culture of survival,” the name given by Blaga to the Little Tradition, which he considered more resilient than the Great Tradition sub specie aeternitatis. In Blaga’s own words: “A minor culture, born of improvisation and spontaneity, and endowed with little taste for eternity, stands a better chance, in its stillness, of lasting for thousands of years […] whereas a major culture, stemming from an ambition to conquer space and time is, precisely because of its dynamism, far more prone to disasters and decline.”5

  • 6 The dreaded communist secret police.

6Although not exactly conveying a sense of “taste for eternity,” in Nucşoara and Scorniceşti alike the landscape is indeed peaceful and serene. And although one village lies at the foot of the Făgăraş, the highest peak in the Carpathians, and the other in the lowlands of the river Olt, there are times in the day when the two become very much alike. From the top-of-the-hill cemetery where all members of the Ceauşescu family are buried—excepting the dictator Nicolae and his wife Elena, who were rushed off to a military cemetery after their execution—the tall blocks built under communism on the site of the old Scorniceşti cannot be seen, hidden as they are behind tall acacias and hillocks. The only visible bits of scenery are the smooth slopes merging into the lush lowland below. Beyond the edges of the village, the roads are lined by scattered acacias: as far as one can see, the area has been deforested. Leaving Scorniceşti to search for firewood is a real adventure. By comparison, in Nucşoara, the forests which for ten years sheltered partisans hiding from the communist regime still extend as far as the common pastures. These are still communally owned in the same way they were in England before the eighteenth century, and encircle the villages like oases of grazing land bordered by forest. It was enough for Verona Jubleanu to step into her garden and look up to spot her brother stepping out of the forest shadow. This was when he needed to signal that provisions had run out. She would then go up the pathway to take fresh supplies for him. Similarly, Vică Berevoianu would look up from his garden and, if there was movement on the edge of the forest, he knew that the “boys”— the term of endearment for the partisans—had run out of cartridges. He would then look for a new supply in the earthenware pot where his mother collected the ashes for leach-making and he took them uphill. This pasture was also the way for Marinica Chircă, a woman who liaised with the partisans, whom the Securitate6 called “bandits.” She would shuffle quietly after sunset past the garden wall of a man who was later sentenced to long years in prison simply for the crime of failing to notice and denounce her. The communists installed a weather station above the common from which they were able to survey everything that moved, but the villagers themselves soon learned how to monitor every movement of the intruders. The land- scape, hazardous and covered by forest, proved, for more than nine years, the ideal shelter for those on the run.

7The rivers and cemeteries may look like an ante-historic pastoral space, but only from selected angles. Wild lilies grow randomly on the graves of those executed by the communist regime in Nucşoara as well as on those of Ceauşescu’s close relatives in Scorniceşti, who had for thirty years ruled over the village with an iron fist. From the top of both cemeteries, as far as one can see, there are only valleys and hills, and even the difference in temperature between the village of the cooler mountain area and that of the warmer plains is blurred there. But history has left a visible legacy: The inscriptions on the graves of the Arnăuţoiu brothers, the chiefs of the “bandits” of Nucşoara, are new. It is quite obvious why they could only be added after 1990, although the brothers were shot dead in 1959. Nicolae Ceauşescu’s sister, Elena Bărbulescu, died in 2001, while I was conducting research in the village. She had practically run the commune, in fact the entire region, jointly with her brothers, husband, and lover. The fresh grave was covered in funeral wreaths ordered from the town Slatina, and from even more distant towns. Eleven years after the fall of communism, one of the ribbons carried an enigmatic tribute from the “Kolkhoz Scorniceşti.”

8Should one gaze over the lakes at the break of day in mid-July, for instance, when in Nucşoara it is still very fresh, while in Scorniceşti it starts to feel like scorching summer, the landscape feels equally peaceful, in spite of its variety from one village to another. In Nucşoara, the lake is surrounded by widely spaced houses and gardens, and the landscape is terraced: From a hill, the renovated house of a villager, with its balconies overlooking the lake, might as well be somewhere in Switzerland. Tall reeds hide the fact that nobody bothers to clean the lake, and flocks of wildfowl swarm there undisturbed. In the other village, in Scorniceşti, the landscape is arid, the water is clearer and sparkles in the sun, and the golden pond lies enclosed within margins carefully trimmed by man’s hand, like an oyster within its shell. Here there are birds, too, including seagulls, although the sea is far away, 600 kilometers. The place is dotted with frail-looking saplings, planted by an unskilled landscape gardener. All traces of the ancient forest, cut down in communist times to free land for farming, have disappeared. From the edge of the lake, in any direction one looks—apart from Scorniceşti itself, hidden behind a hill—there are no trees, only acacias and lilac bushes growing close to garden hedges. However, though difficult to compare, both lakes bear the marked traces of human intervention under communism. In Nucşoara, the fences of individual properties are cut across by a circular fence, creating a path along the edge of the lake, with moorings for the fishermen. The local socialist councilors had to return lands around the lake in the property redistribution program which started after 1990, but they decided to expropriate a band of land for communal use, so that fishermen should not have to ask for the owners’ permission every time they wanted to fish. One owner of land on the lake shore, Nel Preda, a former political prisoner, tried to fight the decision in court for as long as he could, rather than give the former communists this final satisfaction. But he died of a heart condition in the winter of 2002 and now harmless fishermen, with no idea of local history, sit on his garden fence and try their luck. But there is very little fish, in either village. In Scorniceşti, the lake’s patron keeps replenishing the fish stock, but it literally cooks in the water on hot summer days when temperatures rise above 42°C. In addition, the peasants, who disapprove of strangers coming and buying land in the area, keep throwing insecticide and other chemicals into his lake whenever they have a chance. Not very often: Nicu, the patron, now pays bodyguards, endowed with mobile phones, electric stun batons, and all sorts of safety equipment to keep people from throwing rubbish into the lake and killing the fish. But it is virtually impossible to eat fish from either lake. In Nucşoara, if you insist, you might get some trout caught upstream in the river Doamnei. Around Scorniceşti, the nearest rivers, such as the Olt, are seriously polluted, so the only fish available is frozen tuna supplied from Slatina in refrigerator trucks. On Nicu’s terrace, meant to become a big international restaurant when the fame of Scorniceşti will finally reach the world, one can safely eat only American chicken thighs, from international aid and resold in Romanian shops. At daybreak, the peace of the place is shaken by shooting parties. On organized hunting trips Italians shoot the game under the contemptuous gaze of the waiters, for they are extremely bad shots. Armed with a special permit, the tourists go shooting wild boar, chased by beaters straight within their shooting range. But the Italians do not really come here for the hunt. The real trophies are the girls, clumsy waitresses in the daytime, gauche escorts at night. But they are young and fresh. The boss does not want them to appear on the publicity brochure for the inn, a draft of which is being created on one of the terrace tables, with my unwitting participation. The cover will feature the “Brooklyn Bridge,” my nickname for the absurd Ceauşescu period chain suspension bridge which links two corners of the lake, from Nicu’s terrace to the former hostel of the kolkhoz, now under refurbishment. The bridge sparkles with lights at night. Nicu does not want the girls to be on display: This would arouse suspicion, especially in Italy, and the visitors would not want people to know that their package holiday included a lake without fish, half-tame farm game, and amateur prostitutes. Particularly since his tourists have families back home.

9The landscape bears the marks of the regimes of yesterday and that of today. In Nucşoara, by the bank of the lake, in a reserved area on the motorway, stands a monument built by those who paved the road. A plaque awkwardly tied to a pile of boulders claims (in huge letters) that the monument was erected in 1998 by the Ministry of Labor and Territorial Administration to honor (in lower case) the heroic resistance of Nucşoara’s villagers against communism. The locals are grateful for the new asphalt and many regret that they did not take further advantage of the anti-communist regime which lasted from 1996 to 2000. But they look puzzled when queried about their fight against communism. “Well, they found me guilty in a communist court, but to say I was anti-communist, that’s an altogether different matter,” says Vasile, the father of Nucşoara’s mayor, who, as a young boy, was minding the sheep when the partisans came to get cheese from the shepherds. They thought communism had only months to live—as Radio London and Radio Paris kept announcing at the time—so they scrupulously kept lists of everything they took, which they regarded as temporary loans, to be returned after the fall of the regime. When they were caught, all their registers were found by the Securitate and this is how the boy Vasile, who could barely sign his own name, became an anti-communist militant. He looks back stoically: He was not the only one in this situation. The prescribed prison term for political offences, he explains hilariously, could be summed up anecdotally as “Five cigarettes, ten years.” This was the sentence passed on a villager who chanced on the Arnăuţoiu brothers in the mountains and gave them five cigarettes. Those cigarettes sent him to the gulag. Today, Vasile is upset mainly because the other former political prisoners are accusing his son of betraying the historic National Peasant Party (NPP) and joining the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the successor party to the communists. His accusers claim that this was the price of his mayoral position. Vasile, however, says that, like many others who served prison terms, he was no more of an anticommunist than his son is a communist now. He is simply a man who wants to put things right in the village, and the rest know that you cannot be a mayor unless the former communists agree. Peasants seek only their own advantage and listen to no-one and have lost all good old-fashioned decency, Vasile says ruefully. The ditches alongside the new road are blocked with leaves. When the mayor calls upon the people to come out and clean them up, they shout back that he is a communist and why doesn’t he just go away. The mayor’s office does not have a budget to hire workers, and why should it do it? Every man should be able to clean up the front of their gate, Vasile says crossly. They’ve got plenty of time on their hands, they spend their days fishing. The villagers merely shrug their shoulders. Many think the mayor is a man of limited abilities, others say that this was precisely why they voted for him: The peasant wants a leader he can easily manipulate. However, everyone agrees philosophically that it is not the mayor’s fault. It is the “people’s.”

10Ceauşescu does not have a monument in Scorniceşti, although many think he would deserve one. But the town today is run by pragmatic people who would do anything to efface all traces of the times when this place was an object of fear and envy. They do not think that just because Ceauşescu happened to be born here they are any more to blame than the rest of the Romanians. “Those who blame us have calloused hands from so much applauding at party meetings,” says the mayor Tiberiu Mateescu, and he is probably right. However, some of his associates defend enthusiastically the memory of the late dictator, even though they have aligned themselves to the new times. One of them is the local cultural animator, Mr Luţu, the director of the local Culture House both under the old regime and today. He believes that Ceauşescu has earned his place in Romanian history. “Ceauşescu’s time cannot be erased from history, just as you cannot erase Scorniceşti’s history,” he says with some grandeur. “Good or bad, Ceauşescu’s time is worth recalling,” he says. It is the historians’ task, he believes, to write both the history of Scorniceşti—with himself, Mr Luţu, alias Nelă, as the local worthy—and the history of Romania, by giving Ceauşescu his due. The old house of Ceauşescu’s parents, refurbished in the 1980s as an example of Oltenian folk culture, now stands empty and locked, with only a few black-andwhite photographs pinned to the walls. In the pictures, the Ceauşescus are surrounded by people who today would not dare admit that they had ever known them. The nephew Emil, the son of Elena (Lina) Bărbulescu, has no money left to maintain the property, so the electricity company cut the house off. Occasionally, though not too often, foreign cars stop under the acacias and tourists take pictures of the house over the fence. People were afraid of Lina up to the last day of her life. Today, they are much more relaxed, having seen her off to the cemetery up the hill and having spent more than their quarterly electricity bill on funeral wreaths for her. All public institutions sent wreaths, starting with the high school—her creation—the only agroindustrial vocational high school in the area. Everybody was relieved, but they sent her off with great pomp.

11Is the village world as isolated and reserved vis-a-vis strangers as is generally believed? Nowadays, villagers, even in Eastern Europe, have television and radio. Politicians canvas in villages during electoral campaigns. People in Nucşoara are very proud that both King Michael and President Emil Constantinescu came to see Elisabeta Rizea, one surviving heroine of the resistance, although the villagers do not like her. In Scorniceşti they were pleased that the head of the Liberal Party campaigned there, although nobody voted for him. Otherwise, however, in terms of perceptions, distances are considerable, especially in the mountains. If you enquire about somebody in Nucşoara, for instance, you may be told that they are not locals, that they are from Sboghiţeşti, but the village of Sboghiţeşti is only two kilometers downhill, and is part of the same commune. Many villagers have come to own cars, national Dacias, but there are still no regular bus services to the nearest towns, Campulung, which is close to Nucşoara, and Slatina, close to Scorniceşti.

12All peasants, in Scorniceşti as well as in Nucşoara, complain, saying that life was much better in Ceauşescu’s time. As a mountain village, Nucşoara was never collectivized: There was an attempt at a joint farming venture, but the associates did not do well and had to sell the sheep. All around them, even in Domneşti, the larger commune down the valley, cooperatives were set up, so people lost their cattle and ended up depending on the people of Nucşoara for food. The inhabitants of Nucşoara did very well out of this, as traders from as far as Curtea de Argeş would come to buy cheese from them. The same economic policies which had starved towns in the 1980s led to prosperity in this uncollectivized region. In Scorniceşti supplies were exceptionally good because of the village’s privileged status. Bread was rationed in Constantineşti, explains mother Stancia, but in Scorniceşti bakers had plenty of bread rolls to sell. “We used to go there and get bread rolls, and they kept coming,” she says with a shrewd smile. “We lived nearby, so why not take advantage? I always had something to take with me to Bucharest when I went to the doctor’s for my rheumatism. Nurses there kept moaning that there was no food to buy and everything was so expensive. Here, we had everything: chicken, innards. We could manage.” Mother Stancia is the wife of one of the few political prisoners from Scorniceşti, who served time because he opposed collectivization. There were not many of them, just a few reckless youths who planned to set up an organization called the “Olt River Voice” to campaign against collectivization, and some landowners who were later arrested simply because they owned land. Each member of the projected organization had to enlist four others, and each of those a further four, and so on. They had barely reached five members when the voice of the river spoke up prematurely and they got busted. They received a year each, at the end of which their sentence was commuted. After this, the villagers joined the kolkhoz en bloc. The communists wanted mother Stancia, as a “bandit’s wife,” to join first, to set a good example for the rest. She had begged them to let her stay out. But in the end the Stancia husband and wife were reconciled to their fate: He became a mechanic at the cooperative, did well for himself and worked for Lică Bărbulescu, Lina’s husband. Today, their daughter is married to the owner of a distillery. The young couple managed to have a large portion of land returned to them after 1989 and bought a tractor, all of which makes them the object of envy in the village. They had another storey added to the house, and bought expensive sofas in town, which are still wrapped in the plastic sheets in which they were delivered, and so they will remain. The peasants, in any case, will not sit for fear of soiling them. In many villages, people still used to have their “quality” house kept as an annex, with a large and well-furnished room ready for guests, while the owners slept above the barn in the yard. Nowadays, they have evolved: They build new houses with attic bedrooms and terraces, and they buy imitation leather sofas. But still they do not dare sit on them.

13Both villages were electrified in the 1970s, but today they are declining fast. Only the urban centre of Scorniceşti is still a focal point for the locals, but most teenagers dream of going to university and escaping their peasant condition. They all want to leave, but it remains rather a dream. However, the surrounding villages, both here and in Nucşoara, have been gradually emptied of people, an irreversible process which could not be stopped even by the inverse migration caused by the industrial recession of the 1990s. In the vicinity of Nucşoara there is no high school, and the children who attend school in town get a taste of the good life and do not return. The population is ageing. There are only seven or eight weddings annually in Nucşoara. The village priest complains that his flock is diminishing daily. “I’ve got 554 souls all in all, 419 souls in Nucşoara and 135 in Gruiu. There are 175 families, and 75 widowed people in Nucşoara, and 31 families and 31 widowed individuals in Gruiu. The parish is declining at an alarming rate. Because they are mostly impoverished people, we no longer charge funeral taxes.” The young are fleeing poverty and the rural lifestyle. In the communes adjoining Scorniceşti, one in three houses is boarded up. The Spinei area and the northern parts of the county are particularly impoverished. All the young people have left. Some of the elderly are helpless: They have children in Bucharest who visit them only once every three months.

14The only ones to stay, because they cannot find work elsewhere, are the so-called rudar Gypsies from Nucşoara. The descendants of the boyars’ Gypsy slaves from Argeşul de Sus (Upper Argeş), they received very small allotments at the end of the war, supplemented by bits of land confiscated from former political prisoners, and today live mostly off “foraging.” The name rudari, they explain, denotes people who do woodwork, making things such as sheds, gateposts, and utensil handles. These carpenter Gypsies claim to be descended from “the Dacians or something like that, ’cause we speak the same language. Only in pronunciation we have an accent. We don’t think of ourselves as Gypsies, because we don’t speak the Gypsy language, but there’s a lot of racial hatred around.” It is enough, however, that others think of them as Gypsies. When they go on business to the village hall, the secretary barely looks at them. They live in Sboghiţeşti and Slatina, where they huddle in miserable, derelict houses along the motorway. Their women pick wild mushrooms for the national Forestry Authority, which usually pays them less than half a euro for a whole day’s pickings.

  • 7 The main European Union aid programme for associated countries.

15The mayors of both villages nurture ambitions as sponsors of the local tourist industry. Nicu’s commercial enterprise is supported by the mayor, who wants to add a radio station on the site. On Saturday evenings, many people from outside Scorniceşti come here to dance in a natural cauldron-shaped spot by the lake, under the sparkling bridge, where Ceauşescu himself planned the building of a lido many years ago. The mayor’s office already has EU PHARE-sponsored programs7 under way, and they will undoubtedly find ways of attracting tourists, as they have attracted the Italian hunters, for instance. But they do not intend to use Ceauşescu’s image for the publicity, in the way that the Ministry of Tourism uses Dracula: It would be undignified, they say.

16The mayor’s office in Nucşoara does not have a PHARE program in place, and nobody seems competent enough to fill in one of those complex application forms with many rubrics, seemingly designed to exclude the semi-literate farmers of the underdeveloped, rural areas for which those programs were in fact intended. The land itself costs almost nothing—an acre on the banks of the lake is 200 euros. People have heard of the availability of European funds for local tourism and of programs which encourage peasants to turn their homes into B&Bs, but they are skeptical, largely because of the poor condition of the road. In Argeşul de Sus many people from Bucharest bought land and had villas built. Even around Nucşoara, one can see the occasional amateur fisherman with a Bucharest license plate: They come for the weekend and are stunned by the beauty of the place. When I was there, a cable TV company from Curtea de Argeş sent some adventurous technicians up the mountain path in a van, and these forerunners of civilization brought cable to many households. Now that they no longer pay funeral taxes, people can afford to pay three euros per month, the cost of cable subscription. After all, as Nel Preda told us shortly before he died, on the evening when—to his and his wife’s great joy—I helped him select his cable TV channels: It was not so much for the villagers as for their children. If the parents did not have cable TV, the chances of the young generation ever returning for a visit from town would diminish dramatically. Now, with Eurosport, MTV, commercial breaks, and football matches, the differences between countryside and city have become blurred. The priest himself had had an enormous satellite dish installed in his garden. The numerous channels were intended, he said meekly, “for the boy, to help him learn a foreign language.”

  • 8 CURS poll, 1999, as reported in Mungiu-Pippidi et al., “In the Shadows.”

17The behavior of these impoverished peasants, whose expenditure on toiletries and personal hygiene is at third-world levels, is not exceptional. All over Romania, television replaces hot running water, the job, and any forms of entertainment. A national poll indicates that sixty per cent of the unemployed have a cable television subscription, a figure which does not include those who have simply adapted their TV sets to capture their neighbors’ subscribed channels.8 Cable coverage in urban areas stands at over eighty per cent, and rural areas have started to catch up in recent years. Most channels do not have TV shows targeted specifically at the rural population. Only state television airs a couple of folklore music shows and a debate on farming entitled Country Life, which was inherited from the communist period with little change of format. But peasants go to bed early in any case, so they mostly watch the evening news and the soaps, from Latin American series to Sunset Boulevard. Advertising agencies are not concerned with absolute audience numbers, and consider only audiences with higher purchasing power anyway. For manufacturers of detergents, feminine hygiene products, or expensive drinks, not to mention cars and electrical household appliances, the purchasing power of rural populations is zero. From their viewpoint, a TV program watched solely by peasants is, in fact, a program that nobody watches.

The plague years

18The inhabitants of Nucşoara and Scorniceşti have got quite a lot in common. In the first place, in both communes elections have been consistently won by the successor of the Communist Party. The pre- war historic parties, the ones that everybody used to vote for in the two villages after 1946, won one round in the 1996 national elections, but gained no significant support in either village or in rural areas more generally. Most people in both villages claim that life was better under Ceauşescu. While in Scorniceşti the grave of Elena Bărbulescu was covered in wreaths, in Nucşoara an attempt by former political prisoners to place a cross in the cemetery in memory of anti-communist partisans fallen in the mountains met with determined opposition from most of the village. They had to retrace their steps, carrying the cross on their backs, and place it in a forest clearing just outside the village. The priest himself—the man with the satellite aerial—opposed the placing of the cross in the cemetery on the reasonable grounds that it would divide the community. Nowhere are such fears more justified than in Nucşoara, where the assets of those sent to prison were redistributed among the other inhabitants during the Stalinist years. The quasi-universal opinion, especially among those who were lucky enough not to have family members sent to the gulag, is that attempts by the victims to take justice into their own hands will divide the community. The law might have been on the victims’ side, and, after ten years of court battles after 1989, newspapers in Bucharest might have been glorifying them or commiserating with them, but the village was against having the cross in the graveyard. This includes many families who, while not benefiting directly from the redistribution of the political prisoners’ assets, nevertheless disapproved of the exceptional opposition of these people to communism, as the entire village suffered from the repression. The Securitate would indiscriminately load villagers from Nucşoara up in trucks, knowing that these people in fact had no information whatsoever on the partisans’ hiding places in the surrounding mountains. Securitate officers would violently beat them before releasing them, thus ensuring preemptively that they would denounce the partisans should any information come their way. The partisans themselves would in turn threaten or even shoot at suspected police informants. The political detainees were amnestied in 1964 and, although the Securitate continued to watch them closely until 1989, there were never any problems in Nucşoara. And for good reason: After twelve executions, no-one would have risked it. Nearly forty years after the amnesty, justice was a secondary consideration at best and a liability at worst. All that people wanted was peace and quiet: Conflict was to be avoided, even at the cost of having past injustices revisited in the present.

  • 9 See Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution, 345.

19How was life before communism? In Scorniceşti people were poor; in Nucşoara they had just enough land to make a decent living. They never had enough land to be comfortable and were obliged, especially in Scorniceşti, to do work for hire on the lands of the “boyars,” people with fairly recent property titles, whose wealth had been considerably reduced by successive agrarian reforms. After the war, in its bid to attract and then subject the peasantry, the Romanian Communist Party employed strategies used similarly in other predominantly agrarian countries. In a first stage, via a new agrarian reform, the communists reallocated land to less prosperous peasants, whose gratitude they earned in this way. In Nucşoara, for instance, land expropriated from boyar Pavel Paul was allocated mainly but not exclusively to poor peasants returning from military service. In a second stage, the party gradually increased taxes and produce quotas, following up with a policy of requisitioning which was understandably unpopular.9 This was a policy pursued in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, in Eastern Europe after 1945, and in China in the early 1950s. It was practised in similar ways in all the villages and communes of Romania. There is, however, a basic difference between Nucşoara and Scorniceşti. In Nucşoara collectivization failed and people retained their land during communism, thus remaining in what shepherds used to call jokingly “free Romania” in the 1970s, under communism, when they had somewhat recovered their sense of humor. “Free Romania” meant the areas of unproductive mountain terrain which amounted to less than seven per cent of the country’s surface area. Conversely, in Scorniceşti collectivization went virtually unopposed and was fully implemented. Those who resisted, and they were very few in number, were arrested and beaten, a story repeated in the remaining ninety-three per cent of rural areas. Each village thus typifies one of the two aforementioned categories, while retaining its specificity.

20Indeed, owing to specific circumstances, from 1949 to 1959 Nucşoara was an exceptional village. So was Scorniceşti from 1969, the year of its new administrative and territorial reconfiguration, and up to 1989, when President Ceauşescu and his wife were executed. The consequences of this exceptionalism are still noticeable today. It was not so much the nature of the events as their particular intensity which set these two villages apart from other villages in Romania. Extreme communist practices in the two villages have left their imprint, and their outcomes are well worth studying.

21Nucşoara was not the only village to serve as a base for partisan operations. The situation was quite common in mountain villages, but Nucşoara was the only village in which members of the resistance network were recruited from the highest-status group in the village, which ensured that partisans could survive for ten years in the area, despite being hunted down by the communists. This situation led to repression and punishment on an unusual scale. Likewise, in Scorniceşti, Ceauşescu’s ambition to turn the village into a town led to successful systematization on an incomparable scale, the longtime effects of which can still be seen today. Before embarking on an analysis of the processes involved, it might be helpful to look at the local historical background.

22Local history is mostly made of violence. At Slatina, Nicolae Ceauşescu, “a fearless young man”—to use the words of an admiring fellow-villager who wrote a panegyric of the communist leader in the 1970s—shot dead the director of a bank who refused to contribute to the communists’ electoral campaign in 1946. He also shot into the air to intimidate the inhabitants of Tătuleşti, who were voting with the Peasant Party, amidst claims that the elections were being rigged. Those who did not vote with the communists were brutally beaten. The old school, where the polling station had been set up, was burnt down during the incidents.

  • 10 Video-taped interview by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, June 2001.
  • 11 See Voicu-Arnăuţoiu, Luptătorii din munţi, 48.
  • 12 Nicolae Iorga (1871–1940), Romanian writer and politician. He was a prolific historian, poet, jour (...)

23In the other village, in the mountains, the area’s most influential man, Gheorghe Şuţu from Domneşti, an entrepreneur and the uncle of the future partisan Elisabeta Rizea, was shot dead in his own shop and defenestrated. At Vilsăneşti, a village neighbouring Nucşoara, a priest was assassinated. During the 1946 elections, the young Petre Ungureanu and his associates set fire to the ballot boxes, after which they had to go into hiding. And although the entire region had voted with the Peasant Party and the liberals, the communists were nevertheless declared victorious. Ungureanu claimed that, after this episode, he was captured by the Securitate and was in no position to refuse when they asked to be led to the partisans’ hiding places in the mountains.10 As the army purges started in 1946, career officers were eliminated and replaced with under-officers promoted overnight or with former prisoners in Soviet camps, recruited from the “Tudor Vladimirescu” Division. This spelled the end of their career for Colonel Gh. Arsenescu and Lieutenant Toma Arnăuţoiu, who had both fought on the Eastern Front. The following year, 1947, brought the arrest and conviction of the leaders of the historic parties, and 1948 saw the nationalization of all farms, shops, mills, and rural businesses. Colonel Arsenescu, who had already organized two groups of partisans, was approached by a number of locals from Argeşul de Sus (Upper Argeş) areas who asked him to form and lead another such group in Nucşoara. They were all individuals pursued by the communist Securitate for “economic criminal activities and sabotage.”11 The members of the local economic elites felt trapped, as their life savings and assets were being threatened. They were people who had acquired wealth and had thereby “arrived,” as the saying went about small fortunes accumulated no earlier than World War I. Iancu Arnăuţoiu, father of Toma—the young officer who became the leader of a partisan group— was a schoolteacher primarily, but also an entrepreneur who bought land, real estate, and cattle. He had acquired local boyar Iorgulescu’s house by purchasing the latter’s mortgage from a moneylender. Toma’s father-in-law, Nicolae Niţă, was a mill-owner. Thus, the first people whom the Arsenescu-Arnăuţoiu group attempted to recruit were individuals from the rural middle class, the very social class which Ion Mihalache and Nicolae Iorga12 had attempted to support and develop. Such people became the natural sponsors of the political refugees, as they sensed the net tightening around them and realized that they needed to build a self-defense base. The better-off farmers who had survived the 1945 reforms with fifty hectares of land represented a real problem for the communist regime, which lacked incentives to lure them into state cooperatives. Therefore, the regime requisitioned all their tools and equipment and gradually increased their taxes and their mandatory produce quotas. Even when broken by taxes—which went towards the repayment of Romania’s war debt to the Soviet Union—the peasants were able to get their tools back from the state on loan and continued to farm and resist. Farm buildings in their turn were confiscated and later, once the “legal framework” for the requisitioning of fifty-hectare lands was finally in place, farmers were snatched from their beds at night and arrested. Arsenescu himself lost his farm, while one of the landowning boyars in Scorniceşti vanished one night never to be heard of again. He had been a rather decent man, and people remember their mothers crying as they told the story of how his family had built the old chapel, which was later demolished. Boyar Pavel Paul from Nucşoara was also arrested and tried alongside the partisans, with whom he had no links, simply because the communists wanted to confiscate whatever was left of his lands. In the mountains, there were additional reasons for tensions between locals and the regime. The mountain-dwellers had weapons, and hunting was an important occupation. Petre Ungureanu, the most influential man in Nucşoara, a former gamekeeper turned Securitate guide to help search for hiding partisans, had learned his hunting skills from Titu Jubleanu, one of the partisans. Jubleanu had gone into hiding because he had failed to give up his weapon before the prescribed deadline. Today, Ungureanu, a man who betrayed no emotion as he led the Securitate to the hiding place of two women partisans, still sheds tears over Jubleanu’s Italian-made short-barrelled gun. His own arsenal, his pride and joy, which he allowed me to film with evident pleasure, was quite impressive too. During communism, those caught with undeclared arms were sentenced to between six and twelve months. Titu Jubleanu, an elderly man, together with his wife and son, were all killed. It was not simply their pride as hunters which prevented people from giving up their weapons, but also fear of reprisals and their instinctive independence as mountaineers. The state had seldom intervened in their affairs before. Peasants have been known to naturally resist any requests to give up valuables without compensation. A local peasant, brutally beaten up by the Securitate and asked to deliver his weapons, had replied: “But I don’t have weapons, only a tank.” Thinking that they were being mocked, the Securitate officers continued to beat him even more fiercely, until they understood: as the German army withdrew, it had left a small broken-down tankette in his orchard, which the man had kept hidden under hay. Under severe torture, he tried in vain to convince his captors that he had no intention of starting an insurrection with his tank, but only to use the engine to power his mill once the war and communism were over. He later shared his prison cell with others from the Nucşoara lot, even though he had never had any connections with the partisans.

  • 13 This case has been documented by Marius Oprea of the Romanian Institute for Recent History (Instit (...)

24Crucially, the local anti-communist resistance was encouraged by the illusion of forthcoming Western support. The partisans believed that they were going to withstand the abuses of the new communist regime for a few months, and then the West would intervene and things would return to normal. Radio Paris and Radio London—followed by radio stations such as Radio Free Europe, specially created for propaganda purposes during the Cold War—were the first to feed such illusions. Staff at Western embassies in Bucharest, too, encouraged such expectations, while inadequately trained agents were being parachuted into Romania by Western secret services to bolster the partisans’ morale. King Michael of Romania once recounted how he personally tried without success to stop the parachuting of agents whom he knew were going to be executed on the spot by the Securitate. Western secret services tried to fulfill their quotas of secret agents by training former Iron Guard members or war prisoners. One of those thus parachuted, a peasant trained in Austria, was told by his family to forget about guerrilla resistance immediately and return to help with running the house. He was caught only because he foolishly went to the Militia station in the village to apply for ID papers.13

25Colonel Arsenescu, a former staff officer, was not as naive. He had stockpiled arms on his estate land near Campulung, as he had become convinced that Bucharest was no longer an appropriate hiding place and that Western embassies were no longer able to provide protection. He started distributing weapons, and also allocated pseudonyms, provided combat training and gave instruction on survival tactics. He was among those who realized quite early on that the arrival of Western cavalries was going to be delayed indefinitely and that, quite possibly, they might never come. As soon as his group started to be harassed by the Securitate, he found refuge with one of his former servants in Campulung. He lived in hiding there for years, before being spotted by a neighbor as he went to take some fresh air in the garden at night. He was denounced, arrested, and executed, sharing the same fate as the Arnăuţoiu brothers.

26The villages thus provided the framework for the resistance networks, recruited on a daily basis from sympathetic groups of relatives, acquaintances, and in-laws. They were the eyes and ears of those in the mountains, as well as their chief suppliers of food. Toma Arnăuţoiu’s mother sent the family’s maid-servant into the mountains to look after her son, wash his laundry, and cook for him. The woman— Maria Plop by name—remained there to the end, had a child by Toma, and died in the gulag after they were caught.

  • 14 Spiru Haret (1851–1912), Romanian mathematician and politician. As Minister for Education between (...)

27The social gap between peasants with more land and better education and the rest continued to apply in the mountain hide-outs. The well-to-do were addressed as “boyar” and “Sir,” although in Nucşoara there had been only two actual boyars, Iorgulescu and Pavel Paul. The differences among the other villagers had more to do with status than class. Status, as opposed to class, refers to a shared lifestyle rather than a common economic interest. Higher-status villagers, the village intellectuals, and the wealthy in their turn showed respect for the two genuine boyars, whose families had built their wealth comparatively earlier. Traditional authority and prestige-based hierarchies actively functioned in the Romanian village. On the lowest rung of the social ladder, servants were still recruited from the former Gypsy slaves, who had retained a sense of loyalty to their former masters. Two of the most active supporters of the partisan groups, Marina Chircă and her sister—who was already on the Securitate’s radars— managed to hide for five years in the flea-infested loft of one Gypsy artisan, although the risk was high; the Gypsy man’s wife, who had previously been in the service of the two women’s families, had threatened to leave home if the husband did not offer them protection. All the intellectuals, that is all the priests and schoolteachers in the villages around Nucşoara, had been enlisted in partisan support networks. Village intellectuals had benefited on and off from prewar special policies aiming to create a rural professional middle-class capable in its turn of improving the peasants’ education. Schoolteachers, for instance, had been the beneficiaries of special land allocations in the post-World-War-I agrarian reform. Iancu Arnăuţoiu himself and other rural entrepreneurs had prospered as a result of such measures. These special programs drew on a conception of social mobility shared by most Romanian populists, including Spiru Haret,14 Nicolae Iorga, and Ion Mihalache. They believed that village intellectuals had to be examples of entrepreneurialism and civic virtue beyond their call of duty, as educators and civil servants. As such, they had to contribute to a process of moral and civic “eleva- tion” of the peasant masses. These intellectuals, therefore, had been the natural support base of Peasant Party prewar governments, as representatives of an upwardly mobile peasantry and of the paternalism of a regime which would never allow itself to be duped by the communist rhetoric of “peasant exploitation.” As they were comparatively well-to-do, they were subsequently lumped together with the “rich peasant” class (chiaburi in Romanian, or kulak in Russian, as they were frequently called by the party), and thus became doubly the enemies of the communist regime. Nine years into the Securitate’s campaign against the absconding partisans, the agency streamlined its operation and started using undercover agents instead of mere recruits. Its newly found efficiency meant that the partisans were soon caught. All the intellectuals in the support network of the Arnăuţoiu group—the commune’s teachers and priests, who had contributed food supplies and intelligence—were also arrested and executed alongside those whom they had tried to help. Among the first twelve members of the Arnăuţoiu group to be executed were three priests and two teachers. Other members and supporters of the group, however, had neither wealth nor education and were listed as shepherds or as poor and middle peasants in the court records of the communist so-called “people’s” tribunals. Only the leaders of the group were registered as sons of well-to-do peasants. A middle peasant in Nucşoara today has around six acres (three hectares) of land, chiefly as a result of the perpetual fragmentation of the family plots through inheritance. The earliest recruits of the communist regime, people like Gheorghe Şerban, for instance, who came from a family with numerous children—a guarantee of poverty—had even less. Constantin Paşol, the other local communist, resentfully recalls that his family had only two acres of land and, as one of four children, he had to take up work for the boyars.

28Nucşoara’s partisans were never in a position to pose a threat to the regime, but in every direct confrontation they were speedier and better organized than the Securitate recruits sent to capture them. The only member of the partisan group with a pronounced inclination for violence, the medical student Ion Marinescu, shot dead two communist collaborators (Darie and Băncescu), new “cadres” actively working towards the communization of the village. These two had actually caused difficulties for the partisans’ families. Other commu- nists, such as Gheorghe, the mayor of Nucşoara, and Constantin Paşol, the first secretary of the local party branch, could have easily been attacked by partisans as they made their way to their isolated homes at night. This never happened, however, although later the Securitate attempted to frame those arrested by accusing them of involvement in an assassination attempt against Şerban. Like many others, the two communist notables sometimes ran across the partisans accidentally. Today still, Constantin Paşol calls the partisans “bandits,” but admits that they were harmless. He himself had met Arnăuţoiu once and advised him to return to the village and join the communists. Such random encounters should not surprise. Before the Securitate started training undercover agents—whom it sometimes placed as lodgers in houses under surveillance—the refugees used to come down from the mountains into the villages around Nucşoara quite often. The group never had more than ten members hiding in the mountains, even at the time when Arsenescu and Arnăuţoiu were together, although the support network was much wider. Arsenescu was the only member of the group to have a well-defined sabotage plan against the regime and links with other groups, but he withdrew as a result of denunciations in late 1949 and lived in hiding until 1960.

29The partisans had to split several times after Arnăuţoiu and Arsenescu each went their own way in 1949. The most enduring group was practically made up of two families: the two Arnăuţoiu brothers and Maria Plop on the one hand, and the Jubleanu family—father, mother, and son—on the other. In their last years in hiding, when it became obvious that they were no longer but a group of isolated, beleaguered people, their friends in the support network desperately sought ways of smuggling them abroad. The Jubleanu couple were caught as a result of an aerial reconnoitering mission. He gave in to her request to help the two “boys”—their own son and the young Marinescu—escape. As they were being chased, she did not stop when summoned and was shot dead on the spot. Her husband had to dig her grave there and then with his bare hands. Subsequently tortured, he gave up the locations of all of the group’s reserves of food, which led to increased suffering among those left to face a harsh winter in the mountains.

30As hope receded, the few partisans left fell prey to growing mistrust, and a fierce competition for the few remaining resources followed, which occasionally led to fratricidal murder. As the Securitate terrorized the families of those hiding in the mountains and those who might have had contacts with them, and as the net closed around them, members of the group had to restrict their activities to hunting for food, clothing, and other basic supplies. Survival, rather than fighting the regime, became the rule of the game. Maria Plop had a miscarriage, and then gave birth to a second baby with only the Arnăuţoiu brothers assisting the birth. When she was captured, she was suffering from tuberculosis. When the Arnăuţoiu family were finally arrested, all those previously convicted—i.e. practically all those arrested beginning with 1949—were given a retrial under more serious accusations.

31Partisans from other regions such as Bukovina, who escaped execution, recall the terrible deprivations of those years in hiding. They could bathe only in the summer, and they avoided using the washing facilities in their hosts’ homes for fear of being surprised and captured. For the same reason, they would always sleep with their shoes on. They had no medicines, and a mere pneumonia could kill them. Their capture—although followed by further interrogations and arrests—was met with a collective sigh of relief. Because they had scrupulously written down every item which they had borrowed or requisitioned from the villagers, from cheese to maize and cigarettes, these lists led to over sixty convictions and over forty confiscations of assets, which benefited other villagers. People in the neighboring villages were relieved. The situation had become desperate. Some went to the Militia—which had its headquarters in the former Arnăuţoiu parental home, purchased from boyar Iorgulescu—to report accidental meetings with partisan group members as they went to check on their sheep or to gather wood. Such people were beaten up brutally either in order to be “encouraged” to report on further such encounters, or to make sure that they remembered every detail of them. But above all, they were beaten to serve as an example to the entire village community and to create a state of total terror.

32Those who survived interrogations and prison were liberated in the general amnesty for political prisoners in 1964 and were sent by the communists to work as foresters or as gamekeepers. Their workmates were supposed to keep them under observation, and many of them did, up until the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Former detainees, too, had been instructed to keep each other under surveillance, but they had forewarned each other and were cautious. Until they were able to have new houses built, many lived as lodgers in their former ones, now belonging to others. Vică Berevoianu from Nucşoara recalls even today how one night, helped by relatives, his wife moved all the building materials destined for their new house over onto her own land to avoid confiscation. He explains that the lands of wives who did not have to go to prison (although many followed their husbands there) were not confiscated. Berevoianu’s wife earned his forgiveness for having divorced him while he was in prison as she was able to prove she was acting in their best joint interests. Although they lived together again after he was amnestied, they remarried only after 1989, when they were both over eighty.

33The fate of the children of the two protagonist couples was even more tragic. The child of Maria Plop and Toma Arnăuţoiu, aged two when they were captured, was put up for adoption through the kind services of a doctor from Domneşti, and lived under a different surname and even a different name. Colonel Arsenescu’s wife was arrested, and his son, too, changed his name. When the Arnăuţoiu brothers were captured, the People’s Tribunal held a retrial for all those captured after 1949, when the Arsenescu group had been caught. In the light of new evidence, they were all executed, including an undercover Securitate agent, Benone Milea, who could not be saved even by his police liaison officer’s testimony. The court heard that Milea had used his bayonet to finish off a fellow Securitate agent fatally wounded in an ambush, probably in order to earn the trust of a suspicious Arsenescu. The tribunal did not believe the Securitate’s claims that Milea was an undercover agent and, as he had not sent many written reports, it was believed, possibly accurately, that he had joined the partisans for good. He was executed after many years in custody pending an appeal which he lost.

The invention of the new countryside

34The special story of Scorniceşti and its people started in the 1970s. By then, Nucşoara’s political prisoners were either dead or had returned from the gulag to a village which in the meantime had become a hostile environment. Up to that point, the history of Scorniceşti—the poorer village—had been no different from those of other collectivized villages of the Romanian plains, although its famous son, Ceauşescu, Minister for Agriculture and the most active champion of collectivization, had managed to drag it prematurely along the path of communization. A paradoxical project with no equivalent elsewhere in Romania aimed at modernizing Scorniceşti by turning it into a town through radical “systematization” on the one hand, while still upholding it as an example of rural tradition and culture on the other. While all the houses in the village, starting with those owned by people who had resisted collectivization, were being demolished and replaced with high-rise apartment blocks, Ceauşescu’s parental home and the village cemetery were given an “authentic” makeover with “artistic” touch-ups. A new museum and cultural center were built to house the work of popular artists from all over the country, including Bucharest.

35Tătărăi appears to have been an exceptionally poor village: People’s testimonies, older monographs, as well as literature produced under communism all seem to agree on this point. The village had no artists, not even the usual potters or the artisan carpenters who insisted on embellishing the utilitarian objects they produced. The area boasted a colorful traditional dance called “Căluş,” but nobody in the village itself actually practised it. “The traditional Căluş was an import. It was [the tradition] in Pădureţ, Poloneţ and Mogoşeşti, but not here in Scorniceşti. The dancing went on from one end of the village to the other for a whole week at Whitsuntide. Groups from various villages took part in what became a Căluş competition. But Scorniceşti was not part of this tradition.” (Scorniceşti graduates focus group)

36Scorniceşti was constructed from scratch as a model village of hard-working, artistic folk people. The massive gates of the cemetery, carved by a regional artisan in the traditional style of sub-Carpathian Oltenia, are a testimony of those times. Nowadays, there are no carpenters left either in the small town or in the adjoining villages. Even a modest, ready-made wooden cross of the kind placed on a fresh grave before a permanent stone memorial can be commissioned and has to be purchased in the nearby city of Slatina. In the past, the museum had artists-in-residence who gave demonstrations of pottery- making and embroidery. But these artisans were not locals, and today both they and their artefacts have disappeared without trace. The museum, which housed more Ceauşescu family memorabilia than ethnic artefacts, was vandalized during the 1989 Revolution. All that is left are a few skeletal display boards covered in red velvet, now bereft of the old communist symbols and slogans. The entire collection of invented artisan craft has otherwise vanished.

37Today the building, which also survived a fire, hosts the public library and a couple of classrooms. The library now holds only some twenty volumes of Ceauşescus’ works, which used to comprise hundreds of volumes. The remaining copies are mostly brochures spared by the devastation. Otherwise, it is a typical rural library, with titles ranging from the constructed histories of Romania written under the patronage of nationalist communism—but still used by history teachers—to translations of world classics into Romanian commissioned under the communist regime. Cash-starved public libraries today can hardly afford to buy new books. As translators during communism were frequently intellectuals of the old regime elites marginalized by the communists, they had to publish under a pseudonym, and the translations—ranging from Dostoevsky to Gide—were of much higher quality than translations produced later. However, the library’s records show that the students of the agro-industrial college are not exactly voracious readers: A best, they read the titles on their college-recommended reading lists. After all, they do not need reading: the more advanced Scorniceşti acquired cable television ahead of Nucşoara, and shortly afterwards an Internet dealer too. The folk dance group “Căluşul” was the only such group to survive the 1989 Revolution, although the dancers requisitioned from Bucharest have since left the ensemble. Nelă, the cultural entrepreneur, still gets annual funding for his company from the local budget. Under Ceauşescu, they used to tour the world as representatives of Romania’s national arts. Nelă watches over his dancers’ diet and makes sure they are fit enough to jig. When the stars left, he started recruiting from among the local talent. The slightest allusion to the particular circumstances which ensured the group’s success makes him jump:

We represented our local community and Romania on three continents: Asia, Europe, and America. We won awards everywhere. We were the best by far, the only serious competition came from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and the Russians. [...] We were invited to highlevel festivals by presidents and state leaders, Elizabeth II, Queen of England, King Hussein, not just me, but the whole group, we were well-received, we gave gala performances, and not because of Ceauşescu, but because of us, because we had this gift from God.

38The history of Scorniceşti was the subject of a monograph by one of its natives, Ion Spălăţelu, who became a teacher of history in the capital, Bucharest. His focus was on the role of the Ceauşescu family, and he emphasized the national character of folk art—an emphasis which coincided with a general ideological shift in Romania in the 1970s and 1980s. At that point, Ceauşescu’s speeches started to refer to prewar historians, and national history was being rewritten not only from the angle of class struggle, but also from a nationalist perspective. At the Romanian Communist Party’s Museum in Bucharest the statues of Marx and Engels guarding the entrance on both sides were relocated to make way for the Roman Emperor Trajan and the Dacian King Decebal, the official founding fathers of the Romanian people, in whose direct lineage Nicolae Ceauşescu placed himself. In the 1980s, investment in folk culture served the regime’s plans for mass mobilization. Its outcomes were the mass cultural event “Cintarea Romaniei” [Song to Romania] and the creation of the Front of Socialist Democracy, an organization designed to include all the politically non-affiliated, pensioners, trade union members, and people who were not members of the Communist Party. While the bulldozers were ploughing their way through the historic center of Scorniceşti and other villages, the activists in charge of the “Song to Romania” claimed that they were preserving the heritage of traditional folk art. They did indeed manage to mobilize people in their hundreds of thousands. State television produced county-by-county series of the festival’s history, and the cultural activists mobilized everyone, from artisan potters and seamstresses to students and teachers.

39It was not solely the relocation of its inhabitants into apartment blocks that turned Scorniceşti into a town. The commune was also endowed with a factory of fine mechanics, a textile factory, a brewery, a slaughterhouse, and gigantic solaria. Intellectuals and professionals who wanted to relocate there were fast-tracked to obtain accommodation in the new blocks which, in the beginning, had both hot and cold running water. A huge hospital was built and staffed with medical personnel from Slatina. A mega-cooperative farm was also built, the largest in the country, complete with an extensive animal farm. Ion Neacşu, the village’s communist mayor at the time, was immensely proud: “We have built stables and filled them with cattle,” he declared. Perfection was attained when, apparently without consulting with Ceauşescu, his brother-in-law, Lică Bărbulescu, a football fan, had a huge stadium built on the model of the Roman arena in Verona. It had a capacity of 20,000 seats, way above the commune’s total population, newborns included. The rim of this ring-shaped structure is formed of covered spaces, initially conceived as manufacturing and commercial units to justify the absurd building cost. The local football team, formerly a fixture of the county league, was transformed overnight into a premier league football club, F.C. Olt, with players recruited nationally. Referees were notoriously reluctant to penalize a team which symbolized the Ceauşescu family, and playing against F.C. Olt was a nightmare for other teams. Naturally, the club fell apart at the collapse of the communist regime and now the stadium stands empty. However, the enterprising mayor rented the circular space to textile manufacturers, which organized sweatshops based on importing fabrics and designs and on paying minimal wages. Staff are paid rates below the minimum national income. The women and youngsters who work here make around fifty euros per month, but at least they are employed. All around them, state manufacturing industries are in free-fall. The small town is, therefore, happy with its sweatshops, which employ practically the entire local female population. Lorries displaying the labels of big German and British clothing industry firms come to collect the finished goods. They lumber along the village “high street”—built when the place was “systematized”—giving priority to rows of fretful geese, women carrying sackfuls of produce on their heads, and men walking along the pot-holed sidewalks with scythes on their back. Countless stray dogs, left homeless after successive demolitions, trot along the same busy main street, now half colonized by the textile firms. Teenagers—those whom Nelă failed to recruit into his dance company— keep fit by dancing to rap music on the terrace of a tavern. The name Ceauşescu is meaningless to them. They are being watched by girls with baseball caps worn back-to-front in Beverly Hills 2001 style and by boys who look like MTV clones. Courtesy of the firms which employ their mothers, the youngsters of Scorniceşti can afford to dress like their Western counterparts. History, whether distant or recent, is no concern of theirs, while folklore is just a reminder of the unfinished emancipation of their parents from their peasant status— something they are not keen to recall, eager as they are themselves to outgrow it.


1 The Gypsies (also known as Bohemians or Tsiganes, and, more recently, Rroma) were slaves in the boyar households of Wallachia and Moldavia. Gypsy slavery was phased out gradually from 1837 to 1856. Estimates of their total number today in Romania vary from around 600,000 to 2,000,000.

2 Tudor Vladimirescu (1780–1821) was the leader of a popular short-lived uprising directed against the Sultan-appointed Phanariot rulers of Wallachia, one of the constituent principalities of Romania.

3 During World War I, Romania remained neutral until August 1916. After a promising start alongside the Entente forces, the ultimately isolated Romanian army was defeated and half of Romania’s territory was occupied by the Germans. The Allied victory reversed the situation and placed Romania on the victors’ side, which allowed for the political unification of the historic provinces: Transylvania, Bukovina, and the Banat, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then joined the Old Kingdom of Romania, formed out of the union of Wallachia and Moldavia in 1859.

4 After the installation of the communist regime in 1947, pockets of armed resistance were created all along the arch of the Carpathian mountains. They were mainly groups formed at the initiative of former army officers and former members of the legionnaire movement. These groups, isolated from each other, and comprising around ten members each, operated on the basis of regional networks built around links between their mountain hide-outs and the surrounding villages. There were around fifteen such armed, but uncoordinated, groups which were finally defeated by the Securitate and the army. Their repression ended in the 1950s when members of the groups were either killed or sentenced by military tribunals and executed. The anti-communist resistance movement in Nucşoara is the most famous, owing to the two volumes of documentary evidence collected by Ioana Arnăuţoiu, daughter of one of the movement’s leaders, and by the Romanian Centre for the Study of the Securitate Archives, as well as to large amounts of oral testimonies.

5 Blaga, ”Permanenţa preistorică.”

6 The dreaded communist secret police.

7 The main European Union aid programme for associated countries.

8 CURS poll, 1999, as reported in Mungiu-Pippidi et al., “In the Shadows.”

9 See Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution, 345.

10 Video-taped interview by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, June 2001.

11 See Voicu-Arnăuţoiu, Luptătorii din munţi, 48.

12 Nicolae Iorga (1871–1940), Romanian writer and politician. He was a prolific historian, poet, journalist, and dramatist who promoted national-44 A Tale of Two Villages ist and rural themes in Romanian literature. As Prime Minister between 1931 and 1932, he was assassinated by members of the Iron Guard.

13 This case has been documented by Marius Oprea of the Romanian Institute for Recent History (Institutul Roman de Istorie Recentă).

14 Spiru Haret (1851–1912), Romanian mathematician and politician. As Minister for Education between 1897 and 1910, he created a national education system and encouraged the expansion of education in rural areas.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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