If you watched Oliver Stone’s provocative “Untold History of the United States” series on Showtime (http://www.sho.com/sho/oliver-stones-untold-history-of-the-united-states/home) you know more about the macro events leading to the advent of the Iron Curtain than I could tell you in this blog.
What I can tell you though is what it meant to live in Transylvania in the years following World War II. Those were the years that saw Romania’s constitutional monarchy replaced by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The 22 years I lived there before escaping to freedom were also the coldest years of the Cold War.
I was born in Cluj, the main city in Transylvania and the second most populous city in Romania. Over the years, the town has been known by several names, depending on who “owned” Transylvania. The present name has its origin in the Latin term clausa, meaning “closed place” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluj-Napoca#Roman_Empire). I much prefer the medieval name of Klausenburg that was in effect in Dracula’s time and which you will see mentioned in the Dracula Chronicles.
During my childhood the population of the town was approximately 100,000 and, naturally, I thought it was a great metropolis. As the Communist regime did not permit ordinary citizens to travel abroad, that false notion persisted with me until I became a political refugee, and was able to see for myself what a real metropolis looked like.
Another notion I had about my hometown, but one that has survived the test of time, was that of a preeminent learning center. What qualified Cluj as such was the renown Babes-Bolyai University, my first alma mater, which had its origin in a 16th century Jesuit college (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babe%C8%99-Bolyai_University#History).
One can never say enough bad things about Communism, but few will dispute the fact they encouraged higher education. Once you stripped away the obligatory indoctrination programs no one believed in, what my university taught was world-class science, medicine, and liberal arts. It still does that today.
I’ve been challenged on occasion to encapsulate the essence of life under Communism in a few words, and never quite managed to do it. What my interlocutors expected, I imagine, was “poverty, fear, and lack of freedom”. I suppose that trifecta of ubiquitous ills could do the job of describing Romania in the 50s and 60s. Yet, if I were true to myself I’d have to admit that I’ve seen more poverty, fear, and lack of freedom in countries that boast of democratic governments. So much for the uniqueness of Communism.
Just so I’m not misunderstood: I have no nostalgia for Communism. As implemented in Romania it was nothing but a form of organized crime, with its protagonists claiming to serve the people, while serving only themselves. But in the forty-three years of being out of the Communists’ clutches I learned that politicians all over the world will say one thing while doing another.
I can’t speak for others, but my poverty in Transylvania, while genuine, never bothered my unduly. No indoor plumbing, no telephone, no TV… those things were common in my neighborhood and I took them as a normal state of affairs until I left the country. Even having a single pair of shoes as a university student appeared normal to me and as long as my girlfriend of the moment didn’t notice the holes in the soles.
Fear was something easy to forestall if you understood the rules of engagement. And if you subscribed to Talleyrand’s creed that God gave man speech so he might hide his thoughts. The government pretended to care for you and you were expected to pretend you cared for the government. That’s a principle the Communists can’t be accused of having invented.
In Cluj there is a carving on a portal lintel dated 1559 that pretty much espouses the same philosophy in Latin: Audi Vide Tace, Sivis Vivere Pace. In loose translation: Hear, see, and be silent; that way you’ll live in peace. The more things change, the more… Well, you know the rest.
Lack of freedom? Certainly, the most iconic manifestations of freedom were entirely absent. Most notably there was no freedom of speech. But the existence of other essential freedoms cannot be denied. I was free to read foreign literature; to see foreign movies; to listen to foreign music. I received free medical care and free education. And I had no fear of crime (other than that perpetrated by the government officials).
But there was one freedom I decided early on I could not live without: the freedom to see the world. That, and that alone, prompted me to defect. I did not much care where I landed, as long as I was able to roam the continents.
I remember the first time I verbalized this “crazy” notion I was about ten years old. While chatting with friends on the theme “When I grow up I will…”, I said, “I will escape abroad”. Luckily those imprudent words did not end my parents in prison. And twelve years later I made good on my childhood promise.
In a future posting I will write about life as a defector.