Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments. Recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.
This week we will be discussing an unusual memoir by a Romanian named Teodor Flonta, in which he discusses his cross-Iron-Curtain romance with an Italian girl in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The memoir, called “Paper Rings”, tells the story of how he met his future wife Ariella while she was visiting on a student trip, and of the many obstacles they faced as their romance developed. As we’ll see, the pervasive effects of living under a broken and corrupt system affected every step of their courtship, though miraculously it all worked out in the end.
At the start of the book, Flonta is a student who works part-time as a propaganda radio announcer for the Romanian government. When he spots a beautiful Italian girl named Ariella at the International Romance Linguistics and Philology conference, it is love at first sight, at least on his side. But he is faced with a problem: how to actually get a chance to speak to her. Luckily, he is one of a small group of students who might have a chance:
Contact between us and foreigners, particularly Westerners, was not allowed, unless expressly authorised. Therefore, I felt privileged and lucky and I was smiling on the inside at the thought that I was one of the dozen students with language skills lent by the Dean to the Organising Committee of the congress to help the participants find their way to lecture rooms and to answer their questions.
Our brief was to avoid talking politics but, if we had to, we were to keep in mind the supremacy of our political system over theirs, by reminding them that there was no exploitation of man over man in our country; that we did not have unemployment as everybody was given a job; and that there was no disruption in our society due to strikes and endless bargaining between workers and factories. Our system was fair to all. We had, therefore, all the freedom we wanted to concentrate on the main task of building a luminous future for everybody, as promised by our leaders so often.
(Kindle loc 261)
Unfortunately, this assignment doesn’t leave much room for small talk or socialization, but Flonta desperately hangs around the conference for the whole week searching for her. In an amazing stroke of luck, a colleague who has been assigned as Ariella’s personal guide has a scheduling problem, and asks him to fill in. He finally gets to meet her for real, and they click immediately— he is more infatuated than ever. Luckily, he has a built-in excuse for lingering at conference events to wait for her:
I was not leaving. I had to stay at my post to see if any of these capitalists left the conference rooms, where they were going, what they were up to, and to alert the authorities into timely action to prevent such foreigners plotting against us. Or… from wanting to befriend us!
(Kindle loc 341)
They get to spend more time together, as he shows her the sights, and have a long conversation about their lives. Flonta has to be careful what he says, and even casual topics like discussing their groups of friends has strangely political connotations in this context. Ariella is surprised, for example, to hear that he doesn’t have too many friends.
My world was so different from hers. Many things were upside down, nothing squared properly. How could it be when in our self-proclaimed materialistic society it was the material things we lacked most. It was evident to everybody that the Western world was materially richer than ours. We were all needy, poor by comparison.
Thus friendship was often limited to an exchange of goods which created a chain of obligations towards each other. We needed each other to survive as the regime cared mostly about what we could not do and could not have. “I have an obligation to do this for him or for her” was what you heard often and that was the cement which bonded people in my world. A life full of obligations and often devoid of sentiment was no fun at all, but it kept us busy. As for exchanging ideas, well, we could take the risk to do that in private, testing the trust of family members and friends.
(Kindle loc 461)
It even occurs to him for a moment that this woman might actually be a Securitate informant, trying to draw out disloyal comments and report them to the secret police— but his feelings for her are so strong that he decides it’s worth the risk. She asks him about some minor details of Romanian student life, whose answers are normal to him but shocking to someone living in the West:
“Are you allowed to express opinions which are not those of your lecturers, let’s say from older books?” she wondered.
“You need a special permission to consult old books published before communism took over.” “That’s unbelievable.” She barely could restrain herself. “I was aware that people could not have Bibles in Russia, but I thought it was because the regime’s professed atheism. This is news to me,” she continued…
Then she told me she had just joined an organisation created by Catholic priests that aimed to educate people about Russian orthodoxy, to inform about the lack of religious freedom and to contribute in whatever way they could to maintaining a Christian presence in Russia. They organised seminaries with exiled Russian writers and artists and printed books and articles reaching them through samizdat, copies written by hand or cyclostyled. I listened to her in awe.
(Kindle loc 513)
They agree to start writing to each other, which is permitted, though they have to be on constant alert that government censors will read their letters, and look suspiciously on any foreign contact. He loves hearing from her, though their correspondence also serves as a constant, bitter reminder of the fundamental differences between their lives. He is mystified why she chooses to continue visiting Communist countries, when she can spend all her time in the luxurious West:
Her freedom to go anywhere she liked made me think. It was the first time that I had talked to a person who told me about things which for us belonged to dreams; they were things that seemed unreal and it was hard for me to imagine what I would have done with all that freedom myself. And then I asked myself why a person would go to Russia, of all places, when there was Paris, Rome, Vienna, London, New York or Sydney to visit…
Although I liked her description of Novgorod, I still hated everything the Soviet Union stood for. I knew she looked at those things she had seen with the eye of a tourist while I was looking at Russia with the eye of a victim. In 1946 the communists had fixed the elections and won by a large majority… any politicians who opposed the elections were arrested and ordinary people who voiced dissent were labelled enemies of the state. I realised I could not blame Ariella for her feelings. She could not have had the experience that I’d had, nor the experience my father had, of being arrested and tortured in the communist jails just for not agreeing with the regime.
(Kindle loc 944,1015)
She visits a few more times, and after Flonta foolishly blurts out that he’s hoping to marry her someday, it becomes clear that this has moved from a friendship to a romance. She tries to get him to come visit her in Italy, but this is very challenging: his father has been labeled a public enemy due to past opposition to the regime, and thus it is almost impossible for him to get an exit visa. He is also suffers from a constant fear that his romance will be somehow labelled as a subversive foreign contact by the government, and get him arrested. Luckily, the period of this romance largely coincides with a period of detente between Romania and the West, when the dictator Ceauşescu is trying to show independence from the USSR.
Throughout the memoir, we also catch many glimpses into the day-to-day material deprivation in the life of the typical Romanian under Communism. As we have heard in other episodes, small things we take for granted, like packaging and bags available at stores, are unheard-of luxuries to Flonta and his friends:
Like soldiers in combat with their inseparable rifle, we were an army of civilians carrying in our pocket our daily battle implement – the nylon bag – which would spring into action like a bullet whenever a food item was spotted. The dear nylon bag became our most cherished possession, and it became a symbol of our misery in our struggle for daily survival.
(Kindle loc 176)
He also comments ironically on Ariella’s concerns with helping international charities to aid the poor. This seems like something that should be fully in line with Communist philosophy, but is unthinkable to the average Romanian:
How could we, at a personal level, help the hungry people of the world when we, city people, had to get up before dawn and queue for a ration of meat and bones to feed ourselves? Sometimes you had to queue three times. First you had to queue to get to the butcher counter. After he cut the meat, with bones and all, for you, you would have to queue at the cashier and after that, armed with the cashier’s docket, you had to queue at the collection point for your packet of meat and bones. We were kept busy procuring food every day. We could not plan a menu in advance but had to make do with what was available that day and with what we could grab from that short supply.
(Kindle loc 1081)
The vast differences between their social statuses naturally leads to many suspicious among Ariella’s family and friends that they can’t fully trust Flonta, and they urge her to break off the unorthodox romance .
On the phone, she told me that her family thought that a person like me, born in communist Romania, could not be trusted. They blamed not only our system but also us, the common people within it, without discrimination. Ariella’s friends, believing that they were born in a better social system, could not accept that my sentiments equalled theirs. So, here I was, in the unenviable position of being cornered both by my official world and by Ariella’s family and friends.
(kindle loc 2546)
But Ariella is not deterred. After a few years, Teodor and Ariella are ready to get married. Unfortunately, they discover that a marriage between a Romanian and a foreigner requires direct permission from the State Council, the Communist leadership. At best, they could hope for a possible response in 6 months after applying.
The news about the State Council’s involvement in our marriage had opposite effects on Ariella and me. It gave her new vigour as it clarified things, but it showed me the dreary days ahead, as the State Council was headed by Ceauşescu himself. I wondered if anything could be more difficult than dealing with the top echelon of any institution, in our case the leader of the country…
They had the power to deny us and if that happened we would have no other legal avenues left. Aware of that, we thought of a plan B. I should apply for a passport to go to Italy and, once there, I would ask for political asylum and get married. This option looked straightforward, but it was difficult to obtain a passport even if I had an official invitation with all expenses and insurance paid. We thought that we were already under the Securitate’s scrutiny so they would not give me the passport anyway. Furthermore, my unhealthy social origin would certainly add to the difficulty.
(Kindle loc 2052, 2163)
Eventually, they decide to have a secret religious marriage, and manage to find a priest willing to defy the Communist Party and carry out a small ceremony for their family and closest friends. While this helps cement their true commitment to carrying out this process to the end, they still need the official government approval if Flonta wants any hope of moving to Italy to live permanently with his new wife. So they continue with the marriage application process, battling the bureaucracy over various forms before they even have a chance at official approval.
I decided to try my luck and went with the pile of papers to the basement of the Palace Hall where the only lady at the counter behind a grate looked at them, checked them one by one and accepted them without hesitation. I was walking on clouds. For once I could maintain a promise that I had made to Ariella to be quick with the documents.
I felt like Caesar must have felt when he crossed the Rubicon. Whenever you dealt with officials there was always some paper missing, you had to go through interminable queues, lose your temper and swear under your breath and feel that everything was against you. We still had to wait for an answer to come back from the State Council, but if one didn’t come we would ask for an audience to try and speed up the process.
(Kindle loc 3023)
When the paperwork is processed, though, he has to face one final, unexpected obstacle: government officials who want to condition his approval on agreement to act as a spy for Romania in Italy.
“There should be no obstacles for people in love,” I dared to say. “Besides, I don’t see any reason we should be denied this right. We are not harming anyone by marrying.”
He smiled and looked me straight in the eyes. “Of course, of course, but in a society like ours the individual cannot put his personal interests above those of the State. You know this, don’t you?…
“It’s very simple. There is no big effort on your part. When you are in Italy, if everything goes well, keep an eye open and let us know what we need to know.” “You mean… spying.” “I wouldn’t put it that way.” “How would you put it?” “Observing is the better word.” “And if I don’t agree?” “Then you are on your own, and we cannot help you.”..
How could I say yes to a regime which had arrested my father, tortured him and deprived me and my mother of his presence for years on end? … I could not forgive them for that. And I could not forget all the humiliations I was subjected to for being a son of a man labelled enemy of the people. The regime made the laws, but the way in which they behaved was as lawless criminals. I could not become an accomplice to their crimes…
“I leave you to think about it,” Comrade Captain said. “I will contact you in a week. In the meantime, please prepare a written, detailed profile of your future bride and her family: members, ages, professions, earnings, political persuasion – you know, everything. It is a formality, a simple formality.”
(Kindle loc 3111)
He refuses to help the Securitate captain, but several other inquiries and requests from various officials follow. Meanwhile, he tries to use contacts of his friends and family to encourage the approval of his request through alternate channels. Somehow, the approval for the marriage eventually does appear in Flonta’s mailbox, though he can never be quite sure who finally approved it or why.
But his joy is somewhat dampened by the need to apply separately for his exit passport, another huge bureaucratic delay. To add insult to injury, Flonta’s new father-in-law in Italy is dying, and he needs to leave quickly if he wishes to meet him. A family friend suggests a way to speed up the process:
He advised me that I should put something on paper, promising the Securitate that I would help them in some way, and that might speed up the issue of my passport. I told him that I couldn’t do that. My father suffered at the hands of those people.
“That’s the point,” he said. “Why should you suffer, too?”… “You just put some words together, words that sound nice to their ears. I’ll help you,” he said…. “You don’t have to follow up on any of them. Once you are in Italy, you are in Italy.”
(Kindle loc 4233)
In the end, he gives in:
I was very uncomfortable with writing something “for them”, but I thought it was better than sitting at the table with some Securitate officer to sign a contract as I had heard some people had done….
I was going to pursue cultural, artistic, economic activities favourable to Romania. I would work within the Romanian community and try to instill in its members love for Romania, … I would promote tourism, make translations of various kinds, organise art galleries, the more the better. … The more things I could promise, the less likely it was that I would pursue any of them. I gave them words, not commitment. That made me less guilty.
(Kindle loc 4273)
He finally gets his passport approved, but not in time to visit Ariella’s father, sadly. But ultimately he leaves to join Ariella for their new life in Italy. In the end, he reflects on the toughest obstacles that had stood in the way of their relationship:
In my young life I’d been humiliated many times, mostly for being the son of my parents, but I’d never felt so humiliated as I was when I tried unsuccessfully to get little things done in the presence of Ariella. I longed so much to show her that I was a man she could count on. I wanted to be free to go and visit her as she had visited me, to show her that I was capable of making a sacrifice for her. I just wanted to share her burden, to show her that I was a decent man, a caring human being. I was not allowed to do that by my country, obsessed with controlling my movements, my contacts, my love. A country which forbids love cannot be loved. Countries like that should never exist. Ever, on the face of the earth.
(Kindle loc 4425)
<closing conversation with Manuel>
As always, there’s a lot more to this story than the short excerpts we’ve read today. Be sure to check out Teodor Flonta’s memoir, titled “Paper Rings”, which you can find linked in the show notes.
And this has been your story of Communism for today.