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A Tale of Two Villages

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Chapter 3. The Construction and Deconstruction of Rural Property

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Peasant land tenure in historical perspective

  • 1 Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1820–1873), son of a lesser Moldavian nobleman, elected joint ruling prince of (...)
  • 2 The peasant revolt of 1907 started in Moldavia and spread southwards into the Danubian plains, befo (...)

1Rural societies have no memory. Seasons of their life are very much alike, and peasants do not indulge in record-keeping: only the propertied classes do. Consequently, no-one in Nucşoara or in Scorniceşti can look back beyond their grandparents’ generation, and when they do the resulting picture is rather blurred. The oral history of Romanian peasantry thus starts with the aftermath of the agrarian reforms of World War I. These were the most comprehensive reforms of their kind in Europe, due to the need to breach the widest gap on the continent between a small group of big landowners and a huge mass of landless peasants. Some scattered memories do remain of the old 1864 land law instituted by Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza,1 who nationalized the Holy Land monasteries in Romania (which in Wallachia held about a quarter of the entire acreage of the country and in Moldavia almost one-third, and which in the nineteenth century still sent their dues to Sinai, Mt Athos, and Palestine) and distributed their land among the peasants. Those who did not benefit from that reform rioted in 1907.2 In Nucşoara, where the terrain is mountainous, there are a few properties dating back to Cuza’s time, but most peasants received the lands, they still own today, after World War I. Only in the village of Călineşti-Argeş, at the manor of boyar Gheorghe Paul, son of Nucşoara’s chief landowner, do family portraits go back as far as the eighteenth century. In Scorniceşti I could find no-one whose land had been acquired prior to 1917.

  • 3 The Peace of Adrianople (1829) marked the end of a Russo-Turkish warin which the Russian armies def (...)
  • 4 Roberts, Romania, 67; Mitranyi, The Land and the Peasant, 316.

2Community joint land tenure, the most archaic form of landownership in Romania, is not within the living memory of Nucşoara’s inhabitants, and was unknown in Scorniceşti which developed late as a village. Historically, joint land tenure gradually disappeared under pressure from Ottoman domination and Western grain markets, which demanded a more rigorous and systematic type of land management. In Central and Eastern Europe, serfdom survived the demise of its Western counterpart by a few centuries: The enlightened Prince Constantin Mavrocordat formally abolished it in the mid-eighteenth century. However, the freed peasants, whose only capital was labor, remained dependent on the large landowners and the monastery estates until Cuza’s reforms a century later. In contrast to parallel developments in Western Europe, this was not a period of industrialization and urbanization in Romania. In addition, although demographic density increased—without attaining West European levels—farming remained the chief source of surplus, and the vast rural areas were the ones supposed to accommodate everybody. Landholding peasants, amounting to around twenty per cent of the population in each of the Romanian Principalities, had been in possession of their own plots for several hundred years, yet they never became a class of small landowners and continued to live at subsistence levels. One explanation for this was the low level of technological advance in farming. Agriculture was still practised with primitive means and, as the population had been rather sparse historically, there had been no incentives for improving productivity until the Peace of Adrianople in 1829,3 which temporarily turned the Romanian Principalities into one of Europe’s chief suppliers of grain. This applied to the entire region. In Romania, however, an additional factor accounting for the persistence of subsistence farming was the state’s inability to offer an alternative for absorbing the offspring of landowning peasants into the army, the Church, and the cities. The fundamental legal institution which led to the consolidation of a class of petty and middle land - owners in England, for instance, was the right of male primogeniture. This did not exist in Romania, where all descendants continued to exploit or live off the land in common. This model survived to modern times. The positive opportunities offered by both Cuza’s reform and the reforms at the end of World War I were wasted because of the peasants’ practice of dividing lands among heirs. Within the span of a single generation, this practice led to a shortage of land within the family and to the need to perform work-for-hire on large landed estates. Never, in the entire history of land management in Romania, was an increase in productivity popular as a viable solution for the growing need for cultivated land, though government policies in the first half of the twentieth century did try to promote policies encouraging it. The only lands where productivity increased were the boyar estates, but those were mostly liquidated by the post- World-War I reforms, which led to the collapse of Romania’s grain export. In 1913, eighty-three per cent of Romanians worked in agriculture, and per capita income was among the lowest in Europe, on a par with Serbia’s and Bulgaria’s. Productivity in agriculture was constantly below the European average.4

3The interwar period was particularly difficult for the peasantry, although the agrarian reforms first and the waiving of farmers’ loan debts later showed that the political will existed to ameliorate the condition of farmers. In 1930, 71 per cent of the Romanian population lived—badly—off farming, compared with 8 per cent in England, 31 per cent in the Netherlands, 33 per cent in Czechoslovakia, and 51 per cent in Hungary. The contribution of agriculture to national income had fallen from 60 per cent in 1913 to only 53 per cent in 1938, yet it remained high compared with Hungary (36 per cent) and Czechoslovakia (23 per cent), and was comparable only with Bulgaria and Yugoslavia (53 per cent). Even today, the same development gap divides the Central European from the Balkan states.

4Prior to the creation of Greater Romania with the addition of three new provinces in 1919, in the Old Kingdom (Moldavia and Wallachia alone) the large landowners (i.e. 5,385 individuals, amounting to 0.64 per cent of the total number of landholders) held almost half of the total land. The remaining 900,000 individuals owned only 52 per cent. The average area per individual landowner was 70–75 hectares, and per peasant family only 5 hectares. Extensive land redistribution was offered in order to ensure the loyalty of conscripted peasants during World War I, when the Romanian state was almost dismantled after being defeated by Germany. Almost four million hectares were thus allotted to one and a half million peasants, which led to the de facto demise of landowners as a political class and the decline of agricultural production. By 1940, one-fifth of the households owned only one hectare of land each, a plot too small to ensure a family’s subsistence given Romania’s productivity levels. The Enciclopedia României of 1942 itself explained the low productivity as arising from the peasants’ need to employ the labour of all family members, who lacked other opportunities.

  • 5 General Gh. Fl. Petrescu, Monografia judeţului Olt, 60–5.

5This typical arrangement could be found at Scorniceşti, in the Bărăgan Plains, but in the mountainous location of Nucşoara, the situation of landowning peasants was better. As mountain properties comprised herds and pastures, more people could live off one hectare. It was deemed that a smaller family could survive on two hectares in the lower plains regions, and on just one in the mountains. After World War I, what was left of the great landed estates around Scorniceşti was expropriated. Olt county had its fair share of old boyar families: The Brancoveanu, the Callimachi, the Blaremberg, and the Soutzo were among the great Romanian landowners in the region. Overall, 63,450 hectares of land were expropriated in the county, of which 52,000 were distributed to the peasants. The reformers also allocated 8,600 hectares to common pastures and animal husbandry. In Scorniceşti itself, the largest expropriated estate was General Alexandru Linaru’s 178 hectares of land.5

6Rural overpopulation remained a major problem for interwar governments. The peasants continued to work their own lands mainly as unpaid agrarian workers, and subsistence farming remained the rule for most families. Several interwar governments addressed the intractable issue of peasant dependency while also attempting to relaunch Romania’s economy, with limited or controversial results. Even though the majority of peasant households have never become economic success stories and survived chiefly from state handouts and debt cancellations, by 1945 most peasants managed to live off their lands. They did not become prosperous, but neither were they as impoverished as they had been before World War I. The literacy rate improved dramatically between the two world wars.

  • 6 In World War II, under the Antonescu government Romania became Germany’s ally from November 1940. O (...)

7The World War II campaign against the Soviet Union, when Romania joined Germany in the march to Stalingrad, led to huge losses among the male population: the majority of the 350,000 dead on the battlefields, were peasants. Others were taken prisoners and recruited into the “Tudor Vladimirescu” army division to fight alongside Soviet troops on the Western front. War on the Eastern front contributed considerably to the installation of communism in Romania. By the time the army had retreated back from the river Don, the number of the dead, wounded, and disappeared totaled over 600,000, more than wartime dictator General Antonescu’s initial mobilization of half a million men.6 Alarmist rumors aside, the survivors were fully aware of what a country could expect from a Soviet occupation, and they became the core of the irregular army of partisan-peasants who fought against collectivization. Toma Arnăuţoiu’s elder brother, Ionuţ, had fallen on the Eastern front. An entire generation of officers, Romania’s best military staff—recruited mainly from wealthy peasants, for whom joining the officer corps was the handiest road to upward mobility—were discharged from the army because they had fought against the Soviet Union. Arsenescu and Arnăuţoiu were among them. On the other hand, upon liberation poorer peasants taken prisoners by the Soviets became raw material for the agents of communization in the village. Such was the case, for instance, with Gheorghe Şerban, Nucşoara’s first communist mayor, who had spent four years in a Soviet camp.

8Interwar policies failed to solve the problem of rural overpopulation. The war proved once again that the only real surplus in an underdeveloped and non-democratic country was human life, but even war failed to solve the problem in its entirety. However, overpopulation quickly became a secondary issue. In spite of everything, peasant life improved considerably between 1917 and 1945. As a result of the most recent agrarian reforms, the peasantry now had more advantages to defend than to gain. The transient industrial boom of the prewar years, when protectionism and state investment had pushed Romanian industrial output to previously unattained levels, also affected lifestyles in the countryside. The wireless radio appeared—at least one in every village—and home-made or locally produced goods were being replaced by industrial goods, now cheaper and more easily accessible. As a result, by 1945 the revolutionary potential of Romania’s peasantry was at an all-time low.

Legal terror and state violence

  • 7 Iancu et al., Colectivizarea agriculturii în România.

9Aware of all this, the Romanian communists—brought to power by the Red Army—initiated policies aimed at placing the peasant class in a state of dependency. Their strategy involved a land reform whereby the large landed estates which had survived the interwar reforms would be reduced to fifty hectares each. Agitation against major landlords started prior to 1944, through manifestos which encouraged the peasants to occupy the large estates. These included assurances that the lands were not to be collectivized either then or later, but placed directly “under the individual ownership of endowed peasants.”7 The peasants were in a state of agitation and were unanimously opposed to the rumored imposition of the Soviet model. An overwhelming majority of the peasantry were in favor of the solutions advocated by the “bourgeois” Peasant Party as they feared that, if deprived of their lands, they would end up queuing at soup kitchens. Although their so-called political autonomy in the interwar period is questionable given that rural votes were always being manipulated by agents of influence, their economic autonomy had increased considerably in the last decades. Even in the realm of politics, patronage in the countryside did not amount to a total annihilation of freedom, which was the case in the Soviet Union under the communists, and the peasants were fully aware of this. Peasants voted according to their patrons’ suggestions not because they did not have the freedom to vote otherwise, but because they exchanged votes for favors.

10The 1945 reforms cut the maximum permitted area of rural properties to fifty hectares. It did not affect the wealthier peasants, only the larger landowners. In Nucşoara, the worst hit were the Paul family, and in Scorniceşti the Linaru and Ledelea families. The main beneficiaries were landless peasants or those with lands under five hectares. In Nucşoara, this category included several World War II veterans, who were endowed with land from the estates of Pavel Paul in Slatina, one of the commune’s component villages and later the site of a state farm. Given the fragmentation of mountainous plots, the former boyar’s estate was the only one which lent itself to such an experiment.

11Any illusions the peasants might have held were soon dispelled. The following year, 1946, saw a terrible drought, and new legislation (passed on 16 February) imposed new taxes on peasants and obliged them to sell their products to the state at fixed prices. The local cooperatives and even the army were entrusted with the collection. Industrial goods would be supplied to the countryside only if villages managed to meet the targets set for such mandatory sales. Subsequent legislation further restricted peasant control over their own produce. Thus, in Law 251 of 1947—which governed the circulation of agricultural produce—the Ministry of Trade established the type, quantity, price, time, and place of delivery to the state (informally known as “quotas”). Subsequently, Decree 112 of 1948 created a State Commission which oversaw the collection of grain harvests. In 1949, Decree 183 regulated penalties for economic crimes. The destruction, stockpiling, and adulteration of goods, for instance, led to sentences of up to fifteen years’ hard labor. Those who failed to implement the state plan were liable to prison sentences of between one and twelve years. The system thus established a legal framework whereby the peasants no longer owned their own produce and, in addition, were liable to severe penalties if they attempted to manage their lands independently. At the same time, there was large-scale requisitioning of agricultural equipment and livestock. For Marinică Popescu, a middling peasant from Scorniceşti, it all started to go downhill the moment he lost all his farming tools, seized by the state farm (GAC) created in the vicinity. Subsequently, he was told that he was not allowed to farm his land unless he joined the state farm. Because at that time he was working as a clerk in a savings bank, he was told that he was going to lose his job unless he brought his land into communal ownership. This was a loose type of collectivization, designed to get the peasants used to the new system without, however, scaring them completely with the specter of collectivized production. So, he joined. He was later summoned to bring his cattle. He kept a horse, which he later sold at the market to get cash to repair his house. Nevertheless, the state farm claimed the horse and withheld 1,500 lei from his salary, a huge sum for the time, which he had to pay in several installments.

12Once the penalties were in place and the agents of communization in the villages had thus acquired a handy leverage system, the state started changing the rules of the game as it went along, increasing the obligatory quotas for instance. In addition, these quotas were progressive and aimed in the first instance at ruining the large land - owners. This system was extended from grain production to other produce, and eventually managed to bankrupt individual households. People who owned over five hectares and two cows were required to supply over 220 liters of milk, and those who had over eight hectares had to supply milk in direct proportion to the number of hectares they held (up to seventy-five liters per hectare) even if they did not have enough cattle. Gheorghe Popescu from Secături-Nucşoara was thus forced to keep four cows, although he did not have sufficient pasture-land, and had to take loans to buy milk in order to deliver his quotas. Taxes increased, and in 1951 people were required to pay them in advance. Kulak households and farms which had not joined the state had the doubtful privilege of paying taxes of 100 per cent and above on the sale of their produce. Similar to Russia, the state introduced a ban on the production of plum brandy, one of the most popular enterprises among peasants. In the mountains and the plains alike, the peasants used to make plum brandy for their own use, not for sale. Popescu, and many others, carried his distillation tank and hid it in some ravine, up the “devil’s stream,” as it was known locally. The brandy barrels and casks were then buried, away from the prying eyes and hands of the “quota agents.”

  • 8 The Romanian gulag. The Danube-Black Sea Canal was a seventy-kilometer-long waterway set in an area (...)

13Apart from the erosion of their rights to dispose freely of produce from their own lands, the peasants also suffered from gradual restrictions on the sale of land itself, which by 1947 practically destroyed the land market. The communist regime then proceeded to the de facto abolition of private property. On 2 March 1949 the state expropriated all agricultural enterprises and model farms, which were lumped together on the same list as the large properties. The pools of machinery and the buildings which had not been confiscated already were seized along with the land on which they stood. If the owners protested, they were penalized in accordance with Decree 183 and were given sentences of up to fifteen years’ hard labor. Landlords who had not taken the precaution of hiding in their houses in the city or with family and friends were often arrested at night and deported. Others, such as the astronomer Nicolae Coculescu from Scorniceşti, whom the peasants liked because he warned them of bad weather by sounding his horn on the balcony of his manor, had prudently sought to anticipate the confiscation of his estate by an act of donation to the state. The Coculescu family possessed an eighteenth-century manor in Constantineşti, which they donated in 1948. It became the head office of the kolkhoz. Another wealthy landowner from Scorniceşti was not so lucky and was arrested, “taken away”—a peasant euphemism for being sent to the gulag. “Being away” quickly became in peasant parlance “away at the Canal”8 or in some similar place. Ion Gavrilă, the chief of the partisans in Făgăraş, was to learn the meaning of the new phrase from a peasant woman he met on the road. As he had been hiding in the mountains, he had not been involved in the creation of this new vocabulary. The Paul family from Nucşoara ini- tially survived, although their house in Brădet was confiscated and later converted into the village dispensary. They were a popular family, who had made their fortune after Cuza’s reforms and had given a lot of support to middling independent peasants in the region. Today still, the villagers remember Pavel Paul as a model farmer, who would inspect the estate on horseback and help peasants with loans of hay for indeterminate terms or with whatever else they needed to survive. The communists had to fabricate some slander regarding his alleged complicity with the partisans in order to have him arrested and confiscate the remains of his estate, while all around the region small properties survived.

  • 9 See Deletant, “Studiu Introductiv,” 32, in Oprea, Banalitatea răului.
  • 10 Werth, “Introduction, Le pouvoir politique,” 51.
  • 11 ANIC, fonds C.C. al P.C.R. (Central Committee of the Romanian Communist
  • 12 Decree no. 115-1958, published in Buletinul Oficial, vol. VIII, 19–30

14Collectivization progressed gradually, very slowly to begin with, as shown in the transcripts of the agonizingly long debates of the party hierarchy, and with occasional respites. However, under the guidance of Soviet advisers and with the cooperation of the communist militias, the process progressed inexorably, helped along by incentives such as tax exemptions for those who joined the kolkhoz, and by expert combinations of penalties, quota systems, taxes, and bullying. In theory, joining remained “voluntary,” as shown in the party records and the statutes of the state farms, but the figures suggest the scale of the mounting repression. Thus, in 1961 a report to the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers’ Party (PMR) — written by its First Secretary, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej—shows that 30,000 out of 80,000 arrested peasants were subjected to public trials for failing to fulfill state obligations.9 That figure was out of all proportion to Romania’s population at the time. For comparison, in the Soviet Union in 1929, the year when repression and preventive arrests peaked, there were 100,000 arrests among a peasant population ten times the size of Romania’s.10 The repressive methods used included “arrests, beatings, torture, threats at gunpoint, ideological pressurizing during night-time summons in front of the Provisional Committee, forbidding children access to school, and scaremongering among middling peasants, who feared being placed on kulak lists.”11 In the early days of collectivization, the start-up land rarely came from members’ properties, because the latter were recruited mostly from among impoverished, marginal peasants. The land, therefore, had to be expropriated from someone else. Expropriations were usually ordered under the pretext of economic sabotage allegedly committed by landowners. If peasants rebelled, which happened in dozens of villages, they were executed on the spot, which was the case during uprisings in Bihor county in 1949. The milder alternative was deportation to the wastelands of the Bărăgan, which was the fate of many in the villages of Transylvania and the Banat. Repression was accompanied by drastic economic sanctions, such as imposing low prices for grain and livestock, so driving producers into bankruptcy. Decree 115 stipulated the “abolition” of the last surviving “forms of man’s exploitation by man.” “As a result of the achievements so far in the construction of socialism in the countryside and of growth in the socialist agricultural sector, the abolition of the last remaining forms of individual farming, strip farming and tenant farming, and of all forms of man’s exploitation by man in agriculture has become an objective necessity” (emphasis added), the decree announced. Article 10 stipulated that land farmed communally would be transferred to state farms “without compensation,” and Article 11 stipulated that those who opposed this measure would lose all their land, even the land farmed individually.12 Households were thus pushed to the limit of subsistence. The year 1959 marked the final assault on rural property, when voluntary collective tenures were transformed into kolkhozes.

Table 1. The progress of collectivization

Table 1. The progress of collectivization

Source: Iancu et al., Colectivizarea agriculturii în România

  • 13 The marginalization of Ana Pauker (1893–1960) and her group was effected in 1952 by the victorious (...)
  • 14 Gh. Gheorghiu-Dej, meeting of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the PMR in 1950. In Ca˘ta (...)

15Fourteen years into the collectivization campaign, in 1962, the Communist Party’s First Secretary Gheorghiu-Dej was able to announce triumphantly that 3.5 million families of private owners had become members of collective farms. In the process, they had lost not only their land, but also their tools and livestock. The extreme violence unleashed in the campaign by promoters of the program was ultimately blamed on the “right-wing deviationists” in the party, more specifically on the Teohari Georgescu-Ana Pauker group, locked for a long time in a power struggle with Dej.13 They were also blamed for the fact that the annual quota of requisitions was not met and the rhythm of collectivization was too slow. Nobody seemed to notice the glaring contradiction between these two statements. The minutes of top-level meetings of the Romanian Workers’ Party (PMR) show, however, that it was not Ana Pauker but a much larger group which continuously promoted policies of violent repression against the peasants. This group notably included Nicolae Ceauşescu who was involved from the start in the activities of the first commission for collectivization. Dej commented with hypocritical disapproval on the methods used by the group: “And what were the methods employed? Torture, guns, etc. And whence come such methods? Were they not suggested by yourselves? Were they mentioned in the documentation? I personally have seen no document which says: ‘Catch them, put them on trial, take their lands, “dekulakize” them, etc.’ Such pressures may differ from one region to another. The documentation shows that such pressures were exercised in all counties, which means that this method must have originated somewhere. And if it did not start from us, from the center, it must have started from another centre.”14

  • 15 Ibid., 187.
  • 16 Ibid., 194.

16The mysterious “other center”—as in the famous SF novel by Isaac Asimov, The Second Foundation—was in fact none other than the first. The same report on collectivization so severely criticized by Dej admitted to the mass scale of show trials. It was only once they acquired “mass proportions that the Commission asked for such trials to be no longer admitted and that the Ministry of Justice decided to have the evidence examined. For instance, there was one case of someone being sentenced because he did not contribute his share of quotas deliveries, but these had not yet been enacted at the time.”15 Soviet advisers, such as “Comrade Veretennikov,” were often placed in a position where they had to moderate the zeal of the Romanian communists, who tended to copy the Soviet model indiscriminately, including its obvious errors, such as compelling peasants to sell their stocks of seeds in order to pay taxes, and thereby reducing them to starvation. Accused by Dej of harming the party’s image by employing unduly harsh methods such as “torture and guns” against the peasants, the First Secretary D. Nagy blamed the Securitate, the political police, which, he said, acted separately and followed only its own orders.16 He admitted, however, that both the Militia and the Securitate were in fact under his orders, and that he had failed to double-check their “work.” That the repression was in fact carefully coordinated is suggested by the large-scale use of the Militia, whose troops were theoretically supposed to protect civilians from crime and abuses. To an even greater extent than the Securitate, the Militia troops harassed the partisans, arresting those who opposed collectivization, and created a state of terror by using torture to force villagers to denounce absconders. The torture and beatings which First Secretary Dej openly admitted took place routinely in the offices of the local council, at the village hall. The mayors, including Gh. Şerban in Nucşoara and Florea Carstea in Scorniceşti, kindly loaned the premises before making a discreet exit, and keeping out of it. Yet, it was the mayor’s office which drew up lists of “rebels” and it was the mayor’s agents—such as Gh. Şerban’s own son in Nucşoara—who fixed the state delivery quotas, the main instrument of repression. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom in this, and the consequent arbitrariness and individual abuses made the already legalized terror even worse.

17The main outcome of the repression was the gradual erosion of the peasants’ autonomy to use the produce of their own land in the first place, and secondly to sell it or farm it out. Once all freedom in the use of their land had been taken away, with the massive support of the organs of repression, collectivization was practically achieved. The repression of the peasantry succeeded once they had been left with no practical means of survival apart from joining the collective farms. “In 1946–1947, twenty liters of grain sold for one million and people were doing better, then the taxes went up, and the quotas went up, too, so people would leave the field only with their rakes on their back, and not a single ounce of grain.” (Marinică Popescu, Scorniceşti)

18The repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 signaled to the peasants that the West was not going to intervene to alleviate their plight. The demonstrations of solidarity in Romania created thousands of new political prisoners. In Timişoara an entire ad hoc internment camp had to be created to accommodate the mass of arrested students. Officially, there were no decrees legally enforcing collectivization, because the propaganda campaign at the time required it to be voluntary. Therefore, legally speaking, the peasants’ lands, unlike the large estates, were not nationalized, but transferred “voluntarily” by means of contracts. In fact, however, the best land was confiscated and amalgamated in order to ensure the success of the kolkhoz (GAC). In exchange for the lands taken, rebellious landholders were given plots elsewhere. This contributed considerably to the subsequent post-1989 chaos, when properties had to be accounted for. The peasants also contributed to the confusion by declaring less land than they actually had in order to evade taxes. These declarations, recorded in the Land Register, formed the basis for establishing ownership rights after 1990.

The strategies of subjection

19Legal terror and violent repression were the extreme forms of a complex process which resulted in depriving the peasants of all autonomy. The Romanian Workers’ Party’s policies vis-a-vis the peasants would not have succeeded had such policies not denied people control over the most mundane acts of their everyday life. Successful repressive policies are not necessarily guided by reason, and arbitrariness may in fact be more productive because an arbitrary policy is not predictable. Everyone should be made to feel that they can be hit any time. That was why, drawing on the Soviet model, the party encouraged denunciation and surveillance, although it was to be expected that people would use this system to settle personal scores by denouncing enemies, for instance, or those with whom they were engaged in litigation. The party was fully aware of this, but ultimately it did not matter whether those thus denounced were enemies of the regime and the denouncers its pillars: What mattered was the progress of the destruction of the bases for mutual trust and spontaneous collective action. The very efficient village support networks of the partisans were particularly targeted. As peasants had shared interests opposing them to the new regime, in places such as Nucşoara the party had to bring in outsiders and install them undercover in locals’ houses in order to obtain any information. Things were easier in places with enough marginals likely to be recruited against the rest of the village.

20Tales from Scorniceşti suggest the arbitrariness of communist power, which targeted even individuals who tried to find an accommodation with the regime. Unlike areas in Argeşul de Sus, in Scorniceşti there were no border guards, weapons, and conveniently located forests, and resistance to the new regime was therefore limited. But the terror was as arbitrary and comprehensive as everywhere else. “Father had his own house, and I lived separately. He had two bulls and a plough and, before he joined the collective, he said: ‘I’m old now, I need a cow for milking. I’m going to sell this bull and buy a cow instead. One of his bulls was seized the next day, and he sold the remaining one and bought a cow. He also had a wooden shed for the grain; it was rather small, but they were after him, so they told him they needed that shed. When he heard this, father had a heart attack and died the next day.” (M. Popescu)

21The party’s policies aimed at subjecting the peasantry as an entire class, irrespective of differences between individual peasants. Official documents attacked chiefly the kulaki, who could afford to hire labor to farm their lands, but this was only a stratagem. In practice, poorer peasants were equally harassed and hit, especially if they were hardworking and thrifty and so had a higher potential for autonomous action. As recognized even in top-level party debates, survival strategies often had unlikely effects. Many party members from villages, some of whom were called up for the army, and others who had menial state jobs, were as reluctant as other peasants to join the collectives. They were the people who, during a temporary liberalization of the regime in the mid-1950s, were among the first to leave the voluntary associations. Conversely, some of the kulaki, fearing arrest, themselves became agents of collectivization. The Carstea family from Scorniceşti was a case in point. With survival skills built up during periods of hardship, they were shrewd enough to beat the communists at their own game.

When the collective farm was being set up, Carstea, appointed by the communists, had been mayor, since 1947. But the Securitate caught him with his brother as they were putting up posters for the agrarian party. They caught them and took them “away.” Even before they got “there,” however, they had become communists. Elena, their sister, was the first to join the collective. She and her family, and his brother. And we all had to do whatever they said, otherwise they reported us. The woman is out of her mind, even now [in 1990, author’s note]. When the new joint farm was created, she took the chairman to court. She beat him up, she went for his throat. We told her the old kolkhoz was finished, we are taking our land back. But she went on about it, how they had worked so hard. Yeah, they were not guilty and had done nothing! They stole in broad daylight, that’s what they did! The other people worked.

But tell me, how did the collectivization start? Did the Cârstea family bring land into the collective farm?

No, they didn’t bring anything.

So what did they do to join the collective farm?

Nothing, they just blagged their way in! They left their lands with the parents. And the others, who joined, being no better, had the other brother, Marin, as an accountant at the collective. He was Bărbulescu’s trusted man.

And what happened to their parents’ land? Did they continue to farm it?

Yes, they did, until 1958, when we all had to join the collective farm; there was no escape. We went in, with everything we had, all our assets.

And why did they have Florea as a mayor? Was he a capable man?

Ha, capable! They had nobody else, ’cos nobody wanted the job.

Had he been a Communist Party member for some time?

Nah! I’ve just told you how they joined the party! They were caught, and first they joined the party, then they joined the collective farm and then they made him mayor.

So, in 1946 Cârstea—Florea, that is—became mayor. So who started the collectivization? Florea, with Marin, and Elena Cârstea’s husband?

They were a small group, who started some small-scale collectivization in the beginning, as an example to the people.

So what did this small-scale collectivization consist of?

Well, just a group of people, and some of the elderly, who joined with their land, because they couldn’t work it anymore. Others were forced. They worked on the collective farm for eight years without the rest of us. And they had a very hostile policy towards us.

You mean, they put pressure on you?

Sure enough! My wife, on Palm Sunday, sees this group in our courtyard. “Where are you from?” “From district branch. You must join the collective.” “Go away, mister, out of my courtyard! My husband is away, we don’t have land, and I’ll join when I think fit!” We had only been married one year, since March 1948. This happened in March 1949. And they started measuring the place up with a measuring chain, left and right. And my wife seized the chain, so they cut her hand off using the chain, and dragged it around the yard. Finally we had to go and see Dej!

So you went to see Dej. And what happened at the meeting? I never thought I’d ever get to meet Dej! But a relative of mine worked for the Securitate, as a lieutenant, here in Slatina. And he said to me: “So, what are you going to do? They did you a lot of harm, these guys; you are now on file, they could have you arrested. They wrote in your file that you are against them.” And after a while, indeed, they threw me out of the party. They called me to a party meeting, they asked for my card; this was in 1953. And there was one, Manoilă by name, he is no longer with us, and he tells me I’m excluded from the party. Others, also party members, spoke up and asked what I had done, for they were afraid that sooner or later it would be their turn. There had been the deviationism of Vasile Luca and Ana Pauker […] well, the purges within the party […] And they excluded me, too. I met with my relative, who advised me to write a memorandum to Dej. I wrote it up in Slatina, in a restaurant. I didn’t think it would get there, but it was forwarded by one Chilea, an activist at the secret documents section at Olt district branch. He sent it at the same time as the secret documents, and it arrived at its destination.

After two weeks, a car from Bucharest draws up, and this Olaru, the chairman of the party collegiums, steps out. He came in, asked what’s up, why had I been excluded? I told him I had no idea why I had been excluded. He had my file, but didn’t tell me. He called me for an audience with Dej. I was afraid they might arrest me. I told him I had no money to travel, but he took his wallet out and gave me the money. An appointment had already been made. I went over, I went in. Dej asked me if I smoked, offered me a cigarette from his own cigarette case. He asked me: “How are things in Scorniceşti?” I said “well.” “Does Ceauşescu ever come?” “Yes,” I said, “he comes sometimes.” He asked what happened to me and I told him I had been excluded from the party. Why? “That’s what I’d like to know too […] fellow-members protested, yet I’ve been thrown out.” And then he goes on: “I’ll tell you why you were thrown out. Look, I’ve got your file here. You were married to the daughter of a kulak, one Vasile Campeanu.” And I say: “Comrade Secretary-General, I’ll be shot dead if I have a father-in-law, my father-in-law is dead. Vasile Campeanu is indeed a kulak in the village, but he’s not my father-in-law. They made this up, to have something against me.” A neighbor of mine had apparently made a statement. My mother and he had never seen eye to eye, and so he had made a statement. I explained to Dej why I had not joined the collective farm. I had no land and couldn’t walk the seven kilometers to where the collective farm was in order to work. And, I said, “I’ll join when the others in my village join too.” And he said I’d done the right thing, conditions were not yet optimal and us folks should join when we thought fit. And he said we should be brave, ’cos these people lash out even against party members. He told me to go back home and carry on working, and that I shouldn’t fear anything.

22Nicolae Popa was among the lucky few. As a poor peasant, he found a job as a statistician at the village hall, and was among the first to join the Communist Party. He knew the Ceauşescu family very well. He shared a bed in the school dormitory with the brother of Nicolae Ceauşescu, also named Nicolae—because they had the same godfather— but who was commonly known as Nicu. Popa had a cousin in the Securitate, who facilitated the dispatch of his memorandum at the same time as the official party papers, so it was duly for - warded. Thousands of peasants in the same circumstances, people like C. Stancia’s family in Constantineşti for instance, risked prison. This is what happened to them, as recounted by Stancia and his wife:

In 1947—we were young lads at the time, aged fourteen, fifteen, sixteen— we decided to form an association to destroy the communist posters and stop people from joining the collective farm. In 1951, some twenty families joined, and then nobody else; they didn’t want to join. Those who went in were the folks with little land. They were poorer, and could keep the remaining land. I don’t think it went very well, but they said it did, and why aren’t others joining. But we didn’t want to join, and had formed our own association. We had hardly started anything when they arrested us. They took me to the Securitate in Piteşti. They came by night and took two of us each time. (The husband)

One evening, a whole regiment of military showed up in front of the house; they were militiamen. And I say to my husband: “Cornel, wake up, the courtyard is full of strangers.” They came in and started to search the house. “What are you after, mister?” I say. “Weapons.” “Why, we don’t have weapons.” “Shut up and get some food ready and a change of clothes, for he’s coming with us.” “For how long?” I ask. “Well, one or two days, no more,” the man says. And they took him away and he was gone for the best part of one year. (The wife) They arrested me in 1959, for political reasons. I was twenty-eight at the time. And we had this three-year-old daughter. They accused us of running a subversive organization, “River Olt Speaks.”

  • 17 A right-wing Christian nationalist interwar organization. The Iron Guard was a grassroots movement, (...)

They confiscated everything, we were left with nothing at home. And yet people did not join the collective farm. And so they looked for ways to make people join up. They would turn up at night, and would take two or three of us each time and bully us. They took away the village priest, a decent, peaceful man, and a few others who had been members of the Iron Guard.17 We had nothing to do with them, there were just about six of us fellows in the organization: I was one, Nicolescu Ştefan, Marinescu, and a few others. We had set up this association after the communists came to power. They sentenced me to eighteen years’ hard labor. But first they beat me up brutally. I was kept for six months at the Securitate. We told them what they wanted us to say. We said just write down whatever you want, mister, we’re going to sign. I was given eighteen years for belonging to a subversive organization which undermined the socialist regime. My lawyer was unable to help. Later, after Piteşti, there was another trial in Bucharest, and I tried to explain that I hadn’t done anything, that I confessed because they had beaten me up, but the sentence was upheld. I served it in the Piteşti prison. From 1959 to 1960, for they freed us after one year. So six months in Piteşti and seven in prison. Nicolescu was there, too, and Marcu Marcel, also sentenced. In prison they beat me up once more. There was this large room with bunk beds on top of each other, there were many of us. There was Marcu Marcel, Liţă Marin, Dumitru [...] (The husband) I appealed, I went around all the neighboring villages saying they were good lads, they hadn’t done anything wrong, and I tried to have them pardoned. Then I joined the collective farm, but they wouldn’t have my land, ’cos they said we were enemies of the people. I had to beg them. After that, the entire village was collectivized. Three days after the lads were taken, the whole village was collectivized, they queued up to join they were so afraid. We were first told that they would take our land and give us another plot to work, just outside the collective. But then we were allowed to join too. (The wife)

A year later, our sentence was lifted. For all of us. First they set us free, then there was another trial ten years later, for our “rehabilitation.” In 1969, we were taken to Bucharest again and we were tried and arrested without evidence. The entire village had joined the collective in the meantime; everybody was in. (The husband)

23From the opposite camp, the party activist Gheorghe Şerban from Nucşoara tells the story of collectivization from the perspective of the party cadres who supervised it. Not in Nucşoara, however, where “officially there had been no attempt at an association; something was tried in ’54–’55, but the land was not suitable for farming. We set up a collective farm in Slatina instead, but it didn’t work because the land was no good.” The eighty hectares confiscated from the political prisoners had been swapped for lands in Slatina, which were then supposed to be “combined” as a start-up for the collective farm. Collectivization was completed, however, in Domneşti and in the lower areas of Argeş country. Constantin Paşol, the secretary of the local party branch in Nucşoara, was there, but he openly admits that it did not work. Although even today he is proud to be a communist, he believes that it was the communists’ worst mistake to coerce peasants into the collectives. Gheorghe Şerban, too, admits that collectivization was “slow.” Although he declined to go into detail, he is proud to remember that he and a few other cadres had been responsible for setting up the first communal farm in a village not far from the birthplace of the great reformer and promoter of the peasants’ cause, Ion Mihalache, founder of the Peasants’ Party, who himself died in the gulag.

Then they gave me a job in Topoloveni and it was there that we formed the first collective farm. We went around looking for volunteers to join the collective. It wasn’t easy because there were many kulaki there. We went around talking to people, but there were boyars, especially one named Păun. So we went around and said “look we’re setting up a collective farm,” and the party adviser was with us. It took me about a month at the rate of two or three applications per day to set up the first collective farm. There were ten kulaki there who had influence over the peasants. In the evening, it appears that the kulaki would call the peasants around and ask them: “What did the communists tell you?” people reported to us. And we told them “let’s make an application and have a collective farm here.” And it took us two months to gather the necessary land, and we had party cadres with us, who knew how to go about things, ’cos they had been to party school. We would talk to people, and they were not bad folks, not unfriendly; they wouldn’t jump on us in the street at night to threaten us. We also went round to Mihalache’s house, and so we made the first collective farm in Muscel county. Then it all spread out and others were set up, too, by experienced people sent by the Central Committee. Later I worked at the prefecture in Campulung for about three years, and we set up many collective farms there.

24The voluntary association in Nucşoara failed not just for lack of adequate land—the plots were widely scattered—but also for lack of participation. The activists who joined up, such as Şerban Gheorghe and Constantin Paşol, and people such as the Carstea family from Nucşoara, being rather conservative, did not place their land in the collective farm, opting instead to farm it themselves. “However, they placed the sheep in joint ownership. They put the sheep together and paid out their quotas out of the joint produce. Those who were not members had to pay hefty quotas instead. They had to deliver two lambs, two sheep each.” The first voluntary associations, therefore, were seen as a means to evade the heavy delivery quotas burdening the other peasants, because such schemes as well as the kolkhoz benefited from considerable discounts. But who was in a position to put such strategies into practice? Only those who were above the law, the communists and the collaborators of the Securitate, the very people who preached the virtues of collectivization.

25The Slatina “state agricultural enterprise” (IAS) was one of many such abortive projects, although at the time a lot of money was invested in it and the farm was placed on the “protocol circuit” and visited by ambassadors and the like, as one former director fondly reminisces. Conversely, the Scorniceşti “agricultural production cooperative” (CAP) was a great success, and the only person who refused to join, Nana Iana, was the first to have her house demolished when systematization was launched. In 1989, the cooperative “had liquidity worth 300 million lei, produced 5,000 tons of poultry meat, 17,000 hectoliters of milk, 160 tons of beef, 160 tons of pork, and had a 16-hectare hothouse the produce of which was exported to Western Europe. It also had 3,000 hectares of arable land. It was the largest in the country, both economically and in terms of assets,” says Ion Neacşu, former mayor. However, large exports did not score very highly in the households of the Scorniceşti locals, although, comparatively, cooperative members there were privileged. “The collective with the highest dividends paid to members in Romania was here in Scorniceşti. They used fertilizers, so production went well. It produced enough for the state and for the people. But they received just enough to make a living, two or three kilograms of grain per working day. Perhaps in some families only one member was active, and there might be six mouths to feed,” Marinică Popa explains. “Mother” Stancia is even more emphatic in her condemnation of the cooperative: “It wasn’t good in the beginning. They’d give us between two and a half and three kilos of grain per day; it wasn’t enough to live on. For when we went we’d score seventy to eighty points per day, and when we could we’d go for a whole day, especially when harvesting, but one could rarely score 100, and one wasn’t able to live on less. Women had to do 150 days per year, and men 200. We couldn’t do so many days, especially us women; we had children, pigs, and poultry to look after; I couldn’t go daily. They’d pay us two or three lei per working day. What was one to do with two or three lei and two kilos of grain?”

26If the peasants survived at all, it was by taking up alternative jobs in the city, by joining the large-scale exodus from the countryside, and by using the produce from the gardens they had been able to keep contractually upon joining the state farms. The confiscation of these gardens at the end of the Ceauşescu regime was a disaster for the peasants, but also one for the regime, which at that stage, quite clearly, lacked the means to enforce the large-scale implementation of such an absurd and unpopular decision.

In 1987 the persecution of the collective farm members, members resumed. They decided that we should no longer have plots for our personal use. When we joined the collective, we made a contract—I turn so much land over to the collective and keep the rest, let’s say thirty acres. And then suddenly they got this idea in Bucharest, and put it into Ceauşescu’s head, and he signed, to the effect that we were no longer entitled to even one single yard. “We wish to inform you that, dated 21 March 1987—to the attention of Mr Popa Nicolae— we wish to inform you that as of 1987 you are no longer entitled to work the 0.36 hectare plot, representing arable land, which is going to be incorporated into our unit. We wish to draw your attention to the fact that unlawful activity on this land will be prosecuted.” Signed by the then president. I don’t remember, I think the name was Turcin. And so they came and they […] I had only the house left […] they came and they sowed barley and corn […] they said this was going to increase the output, so we’ll pay Romania’s external debt […] from our gardens.

27This move destroyed what was left of the regime’s popular appeal, even in Scorniceşti, the place with the best food supplies in the country, which was declared a town in 1989. The peasants had enough of Lina Bărbulescu and of Turcin, the collective’s chairman. Lică Bărbulescu enjoyed some popularity, but no longer. There was even a satirical song which went the round of villages:

Lică surely it’s a sin
What you’re doing with Turcin
You’ve laid waste our lives and lands
You take the bread from our hands.
You uproot our vines and trees
And bring us to our knees
Let crows and worms pick at your eyes
And your bones turn to dust as they rise
To be scattered on winds for the blame
Which attend your cursed names.
And let Vlad the Impaler strike
And hoist your skulls on a spike.

28They were not to know that in just a few months they would be looking back with nostalgia upon those times. CAP Scorniceşti, the largest collective farm in Romania, collapsed on 22 December 1989, alongside the communist regime, leaving the export orders for the produce of the huge greenhouse unfulfilled. People have mixed feelings regarding this event, but the large-scale plunder which followed left everybody in a state of shock. For some, it was like the sinking of the Titanic.

Scorniceşti produced all that was needed; tinned food, meats, soft drinks—Pepsi was made and bottled here. And the greenhouses went full blast, I can tell you! People would work there full-time; they no longer bothered with farming, they were employed full-time in small manufacturing. They didn’t need grain to work, and of the gardens almost nothing was left; people barely had a thousand square metres each. If they needed anything, they would go out and steal, that’s the truth. For harvesting, they had the schoolchildren who were doing mandatory work, and whatever was left when they finished in the fields people would just take to “top up” their supplies. Effectively, when they had Ceauşescu killed in 1989, I warned: “Well, sir, if the Scorniceşti collective farm goes bankrupt, our whole economy will collapse.” And this is exactly what happened. (Focus group intellectuals, Scorniceşti)

29Twelve years later, the assets of CAP Scorniceşti had still not been disposed of. But by then, that heritage was worthless: The fortune which the Ceauşescus had tried to amass for their clan, like all the projects of the socialist regime, had come to nothing.

Landscape after battle

30Anyone walking down the high street of Scorniceşti—formerly the village’s main road—on the morning of the last Monday of June 2001 would have been treated to quite a sight. A few men armed with metal bars were hitting desultorily at some unfinished concrete walls, dislodging a fragment now and then. They tried to dodge a few bystanders, an older man, a younger man, and a woman with an apron, who were all shouting something. A neighbor in a denim shirt and an old woman called Nana Veta, who knows everything that happens in the village but is invariably told to shut up whenever she tries to speak, stood staring at the mess. An ageing man in a white shirt and spectacles, looking like someone from the city, was standing in the middle shouting encouragement to the demolition agents. He was a former biographer of Ceauşescu, and that was his father’s land, legally reacquired after eight court cases. He was paying the demolition team from his own pocket. The unfinished building being demolished was supposed to be the stables which the neighbors who lost the lawsuit were attempting to build. Made from reinforced concrete, the structure was typical of postcommunist rural architecture. The structure shook and twisted as the metal bars knocked the concrete flesh off its iron skeleton. A man in a bright red shirt was reigning over this chaos. He climbs up onto the ruins holding a measuring tape, and stands among the frightened, howling stray dogs, shouting above the bedlam. His words are reasonable: “You don’t have the authority. Sir, please, if you don’t mind, you don’t have the authority. I am fully authorized.” And he is right. This man is the legal owner.

31Twelve years after the fall of communism such scenes became typical. Difficult as it had been to amalgamate the land, it was even more difficult to subsequently subdivide it. The two opposing parties were both in the right. The owners of the stables were right because the Land Register listed the plot on which they were building not as the biographer’s property, but as the property of Nana Veta, their aunt, who had sold it to them. They had a document from the Prosecutor’s office showing that the 1954 Land Register had been tampered with after 1990. But the authorities had not identified the forger, and the biographer insisted that he was not responsible for the tampering. He, too, was in the right, especially as his claim in court had not been countered, and the court had found in his favor. His opponents, being people with little education and little money, had failed to produce witnesses—i.e., Nana Veta and the man in the denim shirt—at the Bucharest tribunals. The local authorities were on their side, especially as they feared this could open up a Pandora’s box. The house of the stable owners stood on the biographer’s family land, even though nobody could tell for sure if it had belonged to his father or to his aunt. However, like everyone else in town, the stable owners had had their land expropriated during systematization. The new residents in the housing blocks and villas were given homes, but not the land they stood on, which had remained in public ownership. When the first land restitution law came into force in 1991, almost no-one in Scorniceşti thought of applying for ownership of the land under their home. The next law (2000), more comprehensively anti-communist in its thrust, attempted a return to the situation of 1945, just after the agrarian reforms. This time, the local authorities rose to the challenge and told the new owners to reclaim their lands. But in a few cases it was too late: The plots had already been claimed by the older owners, whose lands had been abusively expropriated by the communists. The court cases were dragging on, however, because in Romania such litigation takes four to five years on average. In one case, the tribunal found in favor of the former owner. He won the land under the home of someone who had lost their own home and land during systematization. This created an intractable situation, in which both sides were in the right, but both were victims.

32There are tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of similar cases. Over one million Romanians are still struggling in the courts because of the legal chaos created over the restitution of land. A decree in 1990 by the then acting president, Ion Iliescu—who was subsequently elected for two terms, largely on the back of rural votes—returned small private plots to their peasant owners. These were the gardens expropriated by the communist regime just before its demise. It was a gesture which earned the new regime considerable support from the elderly population, who depended on these gardens to feed their poultry and livestock. New laws passed in 1991 were more ambitious. The aim was to reconstruct rural property and to take the first step towards creating a land market. Law 18 of 19 February 1991 aimed explicitly at the “reconstitution or construction of property.” It was not, therefore, simply a law covering the return of property, but also its privatization. This was new territory: the term “construction of property” was a legal and linguistic novelty, which appeared more at home in the discourse of communist social engineering than in the customary vocabulary of liberal democracy. Privatization normally refers to the transformation of state property into private property, but the lands of the collective farms were not state property, they were the peasants’ private property. Law 18 in fact allocated lands to people who were not their rightful owners. Article 8 stipulated that: “The present law benefits members of collective farms who either voluntarily contributed lands or whose lands were taken over by the collective, as well as, under civil law, their heirs, cooperative members who contributed no land, and other specifically nominated persons. Title deeds can be issued on demand to incumbents who wish to have their ownership rights guaranteed, as per the present law, over surfaces of at least 0.5 hectares per person and not exceeding ten hectares per family, in arable equivalent.”

  • 18 Ion Iliescu, elected provisional president on 22 December 1989, was subsequently re-elected in 1990 (...)

33Law 18 was the most eloquent expression of the ambiguity of Romania’s postcommunist regime. President Ion Iliescu was a former Communist Party First Secretary: Given the particular circumstances in Romania, the Soviet Bloc’s most communized country, in May 1990 Iliescu was elected with eighty-three per cent of the vote in the country’s first free elections. His regime had a strong support base in the army and the Securitate, whose contribution had been essential to Ceauşescu’s downfall.18 Caught between the requirement to follow the same path as the other countries of the former Soviet Bloc towards democracy and a market economy on the one hand, and the demands of the particular circumstances that characterized Romania on the other, Ion Iliescu’s regime chose to do things differently compared with the new regimes installed in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest. The regime’s most defining moment was Law 18, which attempted to please everybody. Those who had been coerced into joining the collectives received a few hectares, a maximum of ten on a first-come-first-served basis, and not necessarily their own former plot, but its “arable equivalent.” But Law 18 also returned land to cooperative members who had not actually owned land and who, therefore, had not received anything in the 1945 reforms. These were mostly people who had been resettled in the countryside to support and speed up collectivization—activists such as Gheorghe Şerban’s comrades. Lastly, the reference to “other specifically nominated persons” in Law 18 seemed designed to open up the floodgates of arbitrary claims. Thus formulated, the law gave the commissions which applied it locally, and which comprised the mayor and his associates, total freedom in nominating recipients. In all regions, the last two categories of recipient obligatorily included the intellectuals resettled in the countryside by the communist regime as a replacement for the village schoolteachers and priests who had perished in the political prisons. These people were not locals. Some, but not all, had become landless members of the collectives, and had not contributed land to the communal holding. However, the postcommunist state deemed it unfair to leave them without property.

34The manner in which the land redistribution commissions applied the law fully exploited its potential for disaster. This is how the mayor of Scorniceşti, elected no earlier than 2000, innocently put it: “Ultimately, it was up to the mayor, for the land stayed the same, it was not wider, and it was not smaller.” In effect, the land extended or shrank according to the will of the mayors and the commissions. After all, the mayors who applied the law had not been elected. They were directly appointed by the Iliescu regime. Some had grabbed the job in the scramble following the collapse of Ceauşescu’s regime in December 1989, but by February 1991 the only mayors left in place were those confirmed by the new regime. There was still one year to go until the first local elections. People such as Ceauşescu’s biographer had been members of the Land Commission, with full access to the Land Register, and they would have had plenty of opportunities to tamper with the records.

35The Commission distributed the land starting from a few basic rules, some of which took the form of political signals from the very top, i.e. from President Iliescu himself, while others derived from the petty interests of commission members. The president made public his dislike of excessive land fragmentation, which historically had been the major problem affecting Romanian farming. He spoke about the positive heritage of communism, such as the pools of farming machinery and the irrigation systems. Ideally, he believed, the newly endowed peasants should have registered their lands with free farming associations on the French model—which he specifically cited— or the Danish model, the old template of the Peasant Party. At the time, however, the reinvented Peasant Party, harking back to the realities of 1945 and believing that the peasants were all wanting their lands returned, was totally opposed to the collective farms. But the peasants had stopped farming the lands years before, and they were not keen to embrace legislation which might have entailed an obligation to actually work the land. “Who’s going to work the land? We’re old; the children have all gone to town.” Selling land was almost out of the question. Foreigners and Romanians residing abroad were banned from buying it. If inheriting land, the latter were required by law to sell it within one year. As far as the sale of unincorporated lands was concerned, there were several categories of claimant who had preemptive rights: joint owners, if such existed, followed by any neighbors who might have wished to supplement their own land, and, lastly, the Agency for Rural Development (Agenţia pentru Dezvoltare şi Amenajare Rurală), a short-lived state institution. If none of these expressed an interest, and if the Agency did not offer to buy it on behalf of the state, “the land was to be sold on the open market” (Article 48). In the circumstances, no land market was ever created. Owners who had had their land confiscated by state farms received shares in the state farm (IAS).

36The Land Commission became the chief actor. The 1991 land law, which seemed to draw its inspiration from party documents from 1948–1958, suggested that morally only individuals willing to work their entire land were entitled to it. This favored the creation of another round of voluntary associations and went against the principle of returning lands on the original sites. Whoever wished to withdraw from the association would receive a plot “on the margin.” In Scorniceşti, this became the typical pattern. The tools inventory was not returned to owners, but in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1989 everybody had grabbed what they could, except the machinery. The specifically nominated persons turned out in practice to be the mayor and his clients, especially his family. This was nothing new. In Nucşoara, an uncollectivized area, Church and school properties had been expropriated by decree in the same way as in the collectivized regions. But as lands could not be left untended, the properties were taken over by the mayor, his acquaintances, and his Communist Party comrades, those arch-enemies of private property. Gheorghe Şerban, who before the war had had less than three acres, saw his assets increase fourfold after these confiscations, so much so that he could endow his children too. The great land restitution of 1991 had already had a dress rehearsal in Nucşoara a long time before, and had seen Communist Party apparatchiks turn surreptitiously into landowners.

37In fact, the great land restitution turned out to be only a sideshow. Aside from the mayor’s clientele, there was no rush to issue title deeds to anyone. Consequently, there were no sales of land to speak of, even when the famous rights of pre-emption had been observed. By 1995 not even a quarter of title deeds had been issued. By 1996 some 600,000 lawsuits were pending, because the new owners received land on the property of other people who had not been allocated the ten hectares that were due to them. With the conflicts over partition and inheritance, forgeries and imprecisions in the Land Register, the reluctance of state archives to issue the original title deeds, the picture became very complex indeed. In the circumstances, the peasants relied on the local authorities, much the same as before. Whether or not they became landowners depended on the benevolent attitude of the Land Registry man, the archivist, the Land Commission, the mayor and, ultimately, the county prefecture which issued the title deeds. By 2002, optimistic estimates placed the percentage of returned title deeds at around sixty—although in many instances the land itself had been returned—and the duration of court cases at six years. But informal sales, without the paperwork, were a common occurrence, and building on sites of uncertain legal status was the rule rather than the exception.

38In 1996, the former communists lost the elections. The new winning coalition represented a wide spectrum of interests. The largest party in the coalition was the National Peasants’ Party, founded by Ion Mihalache and Iuliu Maniu. A new law was passed in 1997 which was intended to correct Law 18. Law 169 of 1997, known as the “Lupu Law,” after the name of its main proponent, the Peasant deputy Vasile Lupu, allowed for the return of plots in excess of ten hectares within the limits of the available land, and for the restitution of lands from state farms. The state farms had been protected by the former communists, represented in the coalition of 1996–2000 by the Democratic MP Triţă Făniţă. His opposition to the privatization of the farms, which had made headlines in Business Central Europe in 1997, was effective enough to obstruct the application of the Lupu Law. It took around four years for a law to be passed on the privatization of state farms. Wherever there were no state farms, the law was applied by the same mayoral offices, which led to new waves of lawsuits.

39Ten years after Ceauşescu’s downfall, the allocation of plots in the countryside on the basis of temporary ownership certificates— pending the issuing of permanent title deeds—showed considerable success in recreating small properties under 5 hectares. Having increased from 75 per cent in 1918 to 76 per cent in 1949, small properties accounted for 81.6 per cent of total arable land in 1999. Plots between 5 and 20 hectares, of which there were never many, dropped from 23 per cent to around 18 per cent, while bigger plots— i.e. farms proper—were practically non-existent. The fragmentation was initially offset by the association schemes recommended by President Iliescu, but by the end of the 1990s most of them went bankrupt.

Table 2. The size of rural properties

Table 2. The size of rural properties

Source: National Statistics Office (INS)

40In Scorniceşti, the assets of the large cooperative were initially divided into three associations. The largest of them, Comagri, came quickly under the control of former comrade Turcin and his people. It had the largest membership and, with 2,000 hectares, it was also the most extensive. In the neighboring villages, which had been coerced into large-scale “agricultural production cooperatives” (CAPs), small-scale local associations branched out one by one. They took with them only the land, while the other assets of the former CAP remained within Comagri. Only once the amicable partitions failed, a few years later, did claimants resort to the legal system. But what was there left to claim? Like everybody in the country in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Revolution, the peasants of Scorniceşti had behaved like their literary counterparts in the stories by Ilf and Petrov written after the Bolshevik Revolution. Everyone grabbed and took home what they could. The irrigation system was dismantled and pieces of pipe were used as drains in gardens. Whatever was found in the head offices of the cooperatives—the former boyars’ manors—was stolen. Livestock was stolen too. The large stables in Constantineşti are now empty; rain pours through holes in the roof. The slaughter-house is empty too: above the entrance a couple of forlorn animals’ horns are a sinister reminder of the building’s past. The greenhouse which used to set export records was literally smashed. “Scorniceşti is like Hiroshima,” says one of the boys showing us around. Fish swim in basins in the flooded hothouse, now without its glass panels. One wonders where they came from. Stray dogs sleep in the greenhouse, and a homeless man sleeps in the slaughter-house. For most of the transition period, large sections of land were left unworked and are now swamped by weeds. People blame each other. At least the greenhouse was the object of a police investigation. It was dismantled and sold off piece by piece. The culprits were never found. The more enterprising individuals with more land formed small-scale family associations and fought to have their ownership of the land recognized. They are doing well: Marinică Popescu’s son, as well as the Stancia family, can now sell their surplus in the town market, and both of them have been able to buy a tractor. They were lucky to live in villages away from the commune centre: In Scorniceşti itself they would have been allocated plots on the margins.

41Larger associations had a more uncertain fate. When we visited Comagri in 2002, it was under investigation. The villagers hired the services of a son of the village, who, being privileged enough to be born in Scorniceşti, was able to build a career in the Finance Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This old Securitate employee wrestled with mountains of paperwork left behind by Comagri’s management. The bankruptcy was so comprehensive that the land had to be farmed out to a Bucharest firm with good political connections. The same party, which also owned a farming association, managed to have a few local councilors elected. It was a self-declared party “of the workers,” positioned to the left of the postcommunist Social Democrats, the true heirs of Ceauşescu. The Constantineşti branch went into bankruptcy, and the picturesque manor of the Coculescu family, the farm’s head office, had its electricity supply cut off because of arrears in paying the bills. The management of Comagri was a disaster, and the peasants received no dividends from the association which had incorporated their lands. They were even asked to pay money to cover the association’s outstanding debts, and the slaughterhouse was seized by debtors for the same purpose. When people complained that it had been undersold, they were asked to settle the loans and the debts out of their own pocket.

42The association formed in Mogoşeşti, on a site of the former land - owner Dr Voiculescu and run by the son of the doctor’s former butler, was doing much better. Members called it the “Dr Voiculescu” Association, for luck. In his old age, the former butler became an alcoholic, but his son, an engineer, was among a handful of communist- trained agronomists with confirmed managerial talent who had not dipped into the association’s cash pot and had not bankrupted it. In 1992 the association had only two Romanian-made harvesting machines, costing less than 5,000 euros. Its yield in wheat that summer amounted to double that in the inflated national currency. That was a good year, and they were able to take out a loan from the World Bank. They had difficulty paying it back, as the value of the national currency dropped, but with the loan of two million Deutsch - marks they bought new machinery, leading to a substantial increase in the firm’s output, and so they coped.

43Furnica, the smaller of Scorniceşti’s three farm associations, had more problems, but they were on their feet too. The engineers in management looked back nostalgically to the heyday of the former cooperative, CAP Scorniceşti, and tried to find some international conspiracy to blame for its demise. They needed the association to survive because they themselves had brought no land into the collective. Being graduates of agricultural colleges created during communism, they had been among the “other specifically nominated persons” brought in late by the regime, but not all of them had been given land under Law 18, so they needed the association to make a living. The story of the Furnica Association deserves to be told:

Please tell me, how privatization was done after 1989 and how your own association was formed?

After 1989, three enterprises were formed out of the former cooperative farm (CAP): Comagri, Furnica, and Frăţia. To start with, we had some ninety hectares, and by 1992 there were about 450 members. Subsequently, some people opted out, leased their land to someone else, and there were about 385 people left.

What did you have at that stage in your patrimony?

Just land.

And how did you go about acquiring equipment?

Equipment? We bought a few tractors and a harvesting machine and later we had to go to court over the former farm patrimony belonging to our members. After the case, four years later, we managed to get something, far less than would have been due seeing what they had brought into the collective farm fifty years ago or what their due share from the Scorniceşti Farm was.

And when the former cooperative farm (CAP) was dismantled, what was people’s reaction? Were they pleased?

They were, of course. They went “right, we’re rid of serfdom, let’s privatize,” and then they all started to steal.

They hadn’t been stealing before?

Of course they had!

What about the police, was there no police?

Well, there was, but you know the people in Oltenia: If the mayor steals, and the party secretary steals, then they all steal.

And are they still stealing today?

Well, they would, if they could.

How’s that?

Today it’s the law of the jungle; it’s the end of the road. Then [under communism, author’s note], if you slapped someone, they would take you to court; but now it’s every man’s private land and they will defend it. If they catch you stealing, they take you down to the police station, and they treat you much worse there nowadays, or they beat you up to a pulp, ’cos it’s less of a hassle.

Is it true that you had a very large output under communism? Oh, yes, it’s very true. So what has changed in the meantime?

Here in Scorniceşti they would do crop rotations every two years, rather than every four years. Today we don’t have enough fertilizer. We experimented with a field of sunflowers, where we used chicken pooh; you should’ve seen the difference! We really used to have the technology here! The soil is now depleted, and what are we doing about it? Nothing! There’s not enough capital.

In my understanding, some considerable revenue from the sale of the cooperative was squandered.

The money was given to the people. Everyone received something. All proceeds were divided then, after the sale.

But why did you have to go to court to divide the assets?

Because we couldn’t agree among ourselves, we had to resort to the law. Everybody wanted to split, but when we got down to it, nobody wanted to share: You can’t have this, you can’t have that. So I said, here’s our group, and there’s yours, your people. We could’ve had a holding here and keep it as a farm. There was this bit of real countryside left, and they had to destroy it.

How many members have you got now?

Some 120 families.

And how is labor organized?

We all work the land and each family gets a quota of the produce. Last year we gave them 250 kilograms per hectare. This year, we’re hoping to reach 500 kilograms per hectare.

I understand that here in Scorniceşti you have family associations as well. Why might some people prefer this form of association rather than a company such as the one you’re in?

Well, this is up to individual people. There were other things too; those family companies didn’t really pay taxes immediately after the Revolution, while we in the bigger companies had to pay state taxes, fees, this and that.

Now it’s no longer the case, because everyone wants subsidies, and when you apply for them they ask you for proof you paid.

44Next to Nucşoara, in Domneşti, the largest commune in the area and the birthplace of Elisabeta Rizea, the cooperative farm disappeared in a similar way, overnight. People simply took their orchards and their livestock back. Today, the motorway meanders through neatly partitioned plots, mown and harvested on time, where haystacks dry peacefully in the sun. Here, the cost of the farm’s breakup was mini - mal and the peasants could resume their lives as though the fifty years of communism had been just a bad dream. In spite of the conflicts and the court cases, even the breakup of the farm itself was less traumatic than in Scorniceşti. The farm could not be saved. A special law was passed allowing the former political prisoners (peasants deported to the gulag) to take back their lands. Under the communist regime, these lands had been allocated to other villagers. Tha latter had had their own lands confiscated in 1945 and joined to Pavel Paul’s estate to create the first state farm. When they lost their land in favor of the former political detainees, the peasants walked onto the lands of the state farm, carved them up, and helped themselves to new plots. The public farm management sued them over this, and they in turn sued the farm management, claiming their former right to that land. They also had legal disputes with the former prisoners, who, they claimed, should have been the ones to get land from the farm rather than getting their former lands back. Caught between all these entitled claims, the state farm quickly collapsed.

  • 19 Ogoranu, Brazii se frîng, 329.

45But this was a state farm in a mountainous area, which had done little beyond centralizing sheepherding, which until then had functioned independently in the mountains around Nucşoara. As herding had survived independently outside the state farm, the independent shepherds took over things smoothly when the farm collapsed. The situation of state farms in the plains was different however. Their labor force was the agrarian proletariat, recruited from the social rejects of communism. Ioan Gavrilă, a former partisan from the Făgăraş area, had been amnestied by the Securitate and sent to work on such a farm until his retirement in 1989. He was concerned for the fate of these day laborers in the event of the state farm being dismantled. They were people who had nothing in the whole world, “people without families, men who went into hiding because they were unable to pay alimony, single mothers, former and, most certainly, future offenders, Romanians, Magyars, Gypsies.”19 Communism left a legacy of an agrarian proletariat, of this dispossessed mass, after inheriting a country in which every peasant had owned a strip of land, even if it was scarcely large enough to allow the peasant to survive.


1 Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1820–1873), son of a lesser Moldavian nobleman, elected joint ruling prince of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859, an election which led to their union. In a series of reforms, he expropriated lands owned by the so-called dedicated monasteries, whose revenues were used to support Greek Orthodox monasteries in the Ottoman-controlled Holy Places. In his land reform of 1864, two million hectares of land were distributed to 500,000 peasant families. He was ousted in 1866 in a coup d’État and died in exile in Heidelberg.

2 The peasant revolt of 1907 started in Moldavia and spread southwards into the Danubian plains, before being brutally suppressed by the army. At the heart of the conflict was the system of farm tenancy: Absentee land -lords leased farmland to tenant farmers who, in turn, farmed out plots to the peasants, imposing increasingly harsh contracts.

3 The Peace of Adrianople (1829) marked the end of a Russo-Turkish warin which the Russian armies defeated the Ottomans. It eliminated the Ottoman Empire’s monopoly over agriculture in the Ottoman-controlled Romanian Principalities and opened up the export of grain to Western Europe.

4 Roberts, Romania, 67; Mitranyi, The Land and the Peasant, 316.

5 General Gh. Fl. Petrescu, Monografia judeţului Olt, 60–5.

6 In World War II, under the Antonescu government Romania became Germany’s ally from November 1940. On 23 August 1944, King Michael secured the support of the political parties, including the communists, arrested Antonescu, and, as a result, the Romanian army changed sides. Subsequently, the Romanian army actively participated in the expulsion of German soldiers from the country’s northern regions and advanced with the Allied armies as far as Budapest and Prague.

7 Iancu et al., Colectivizarea agriculturii în România.

8 The Romanian gulag. The Danube-Black Sea Canal was a seventy-kilometer-long waterway set in an area of marshland and rocks. It became a concentration camp for some 50,000 prisoners before being dismantled in 1954.

9 See Deletant, “Studiu Introductiv,” 32, in Oprea, Banalitatea răului.

10 Werth, “Introduction, Le pouvoir politique,” 51.

11 ANIC, fonds C.C. al P.C.R. (Central Committee of the Romanian Communist

Party); Cancelarie, file 59-1950, 65–82.

12 Decree no. 115-1958, published in Buletinul Oficial, vol. VIII, 19–30

March 1959.

13 The marginalization of Ana Pauker (1893–1960) and her group was effected in 1952 by the victorious faction of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (1901–1965). The conflict reflected the divide between the communist leaders, such as Dej himself, who had spent years in prison, and those who, as refugees in the Soviet Union, had returned to Romania with the Red Army. In the 1930s, Ana Pauker was an important agent of the International and was active in France in circles around Maurice Thorez.

14 Gh. Gheorghiu-Dej, meeting of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the PMR in 1950. In Ca˘ta˘nus¸ and Roske, Colectivizarea agriculturii, 184.

15 Ibid., 187.

16 Ibid., 194.

17 A right-wing Christian nationalist interwar organization. The Iron Guard was a grassroots movement, banned in 1941 by Antonescu after attempting a coup during which numerous people, mostly Jews, were assassinated.

18 Ion Iliescu, elected provisional president on 22 December 1989, was subsequently re-elected in 1990, 1992, and 2000. (He lost the 1996 elections.) He successively organized and reorganized the successor to the Communist Party, first as the National Salvation Front (FSN) in 1990 and lastly as the Social Democratic Party (PSD) after 2000.

19 Ogoranu, Brazii se frîng, 329.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. The progress of collectivization
Crédits Source: Iancu et al., Colectivizarea agriculturii în România
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Titre Table 2. The size of rural properties
Crédits Source: National Statistics Office (INS)
Fichier image/jpeg, 79k

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