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 Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.
The memoir we are looking at today is especially interesting to me, as I actually know the author: we worked in the same department at a large company for many years. The book is called “I Tried”, by Romanian immigrant Gyuszi Suto, and assembles many darkly humorous anecdotes about his life growing up in the final decades of Romanian Communism. Unfortunately, he and I were always on different projects, so I never chatted with him about non-work stuff. But his book is an amazing and entertaining read: while we see many themes common in this type of memoir, he really shines a light into many details of Romanian life that might surprise you,
Of course, one dominant theme throughout the book is the scarcity of consumer goods, pretty much universal wherever socialism or Communism has been implemented. I was especially amused by his struggles to obtain a round soccer ball:
We started playing soccer. Frana, the Romanian kid who lived in an old, broken-down house in the neighborhood, got a hold of a rubber ball. It was not exactly round; actually, it had a giant egg shape, but it was good enough. We played on the street for hours, until late in the night. I wasn’t very good at soccer, I was usually chosen as a player in the last round, but I didn’t mind it, as long as I could play.
Cosar—a heavyset kid, slightly older than me, and a good friend of Frana approached us one afternoon. “Have you seen the new ball?” he asked. “What new ball?” “They just got a new ball at the sports store, and it’s made of real leather.” “Really? How much does it cost”—I asked. “Eighty-Two Lei”—Cosar replied. I made a quick mental calculation. That was about five times more than the yearly toy budget my parents spent on me…. No way my parents could pay for a ball.
One day, he thinks he has found the solution when he saw a poster about the local infestation of Carabus bugs. These were a major pest, so the local government put up a bounty to try to encourage public help: anyone who turned in 1kg of Carabus wings would get a free soccer ball! Sadly, after many weeks of insect hunting by Suto and his friends, they only had 100 grams of bugs, and never did get their ball.
More serious than sporting equipment, though, was the food situation.
My father used to tutor students after-hours for as long as I remembered. Our tiny apartment was frequently visited by high school students needing extra attention and tutoring. My father used to teach them for free, for years. But now that food shortages were getting worse, he was tutoring for food.… Whenever I went to a food store, the typical scene was empty shelves, save for the occasional bean cans. When there was food, the lines would wrap around the building, four people wide.
The food stores were in the most dismal state. The typical scene was an overweight woman clerk sitting on a stool, disgruntled, showing no desire to help the underweight comrades visiting her store. In a meat store, shelves would be empty; the refrigerator would be running full power, behind the glass display lay the hooves of a pig and next to it a bare bone. Behind her, on the wall, empty steel hooks. In a milk store, it was equally empty, save for the occasional yogurt bottles. If it was a grocery store, same thing, mostly empty, except a few expired cans of dill pickles and refried beans. When these stores would get occasional food delivery, the news traveled fast around our little town. People would rush to the store with empty bags and form huge lines. They had no idea what food would be available at the store, but anything was better than nothing.
Suto and his friends somehow managed to look on the bright side of things, and keep up their sense of humor despite the lack of material comforts. For example, he discusses the relative freedom he and his childhood friends had to roam about the neighborhood without adult supervision:
One of the few advantages of living in communism was that kidnapping did not exist. We didn’t even have a word for that. How and why would anybody steal a child? How would one feed that child? Where would the kidnapper hide that child? All apartments were tiny, and the walls were thin; neighbors knew everything about everybody. Gossip was rampant. There were no secrets. This came with the freedom of roaming around as a child.
And, of course, there were the jokes, as in this example, where a traveller tried to lift his neighbors’ spirits on a horribly overcrowded bus:
He spoke up with a high pitched voice, almost shouting, that filled the entire bus: “It is two hundred meters long…” Passengers, startled, turned their heads his way but couldn’t see him; he was surrounded by taller folks. “It is three meters wide,” he continued, shouting towards the ceiling of the bus to give his voice the best chance of reaching all corners. “It undulates…” now his voice was booming, folks were listening with surprise. “Though it’s not moving neither forward nor backward…”—by then I could hear in the timber of his mezzo soprano voice that this was going to end up being a joke. “And it is vegetarian! What is it?” he posed the question. “An anaconda?” came a female voice from the front of the bus. “No! A line at the meat store!”
Another issue that Suto often touches upon is the local government’s stewardship of the environment and public resources. Despite the claims of excellence in these areas, the local citizens of Romania observed quite the opposite:
Wow, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to have drinkable, clean water right here in our backyard? So I won’t have to go anymore to stand in line for hours at the bottom of the hill, a fifteen-minute walk there with empty buckets, and a long, tiring walk back with the full buckets, following an hour-long standing in the line at the only potable water source that came down the hill, the last part of the city that was not polluted.
“…they built the pig farm upstream at Bonchida, and that ruined everything. The river got full of pig poop and carcasses. We could no longer drink the water from the river. Then the factories came at Apahida, and Someseni and Cluj. Now the whole waterbed is poisoned”. True, our tap water—that came from the Szamos River, it looked like urine, tasted of pig [poop] combined with phosphorus, nitrates, and heavy metal. We could only use it for washing and bathing.
The Romanian train cars emptied their toilets directly down onto the tracks. There was a sign in the bathrooms asking comrades not to use the toilets while the train was stopped in stations, but nobody paid attention. When a comrade had to go, the comrade went. As a result, the railroad tracks had the highest concentration of human manure in the whole desert—a straight line of putrid fertility cutting across the barren landscape.
Weird plants would pop up from the middle of the tracks, enjoying the unusually high level of fertilizers engulfing the crushed rocks of the ballast. Some weeds would grow a foot a day, much to the station chiefs’ dismay, who were supposed to keep their little kingdom clean and tidy. Since power tools for gardening did not exist, they would send out a poor guy to walk along the [poopy] tracks and try to whack down the thick weeds with a hoe.
I was thinking that if they’d build railroad tracks crisscrossing the Sahara desert and give free rides to the Romanian comrades—eating the same crappy food that we, the Camp workers got—pretty soon, they would revegetate the desert.
Maybe even animals would reappear. Never underestimate the climate changing potential of twenty million proletarians with diarrhea.
One of the scarier parts of the book, at least to a Western reader, is Suto’s discussion of the time he and his friends were “volunteered” to spend a summer effectively as slaves in a labor camp, helping to dig a canal desired by the local government.
The principal looked like a wild boar. He had a big face, heavy, drooping eyelids, a thick neck, and a sizeable belly. Those who had big guts were either a leader of the communist party or worked at a gas station or at a factory that had to do something with food. They could get access to food. The rest of us were all thin. “Pupils,” he started his speech. “We got an order from Bucharest. All of you will be sent to the Danube Canal for three months to do volunteering work.” There was a murmur in the ranks. “In line with our communist values, we all need to contribute to the construction of our bright future,” he carried on. “You’ll be helping to connect the Danube to the Black Sea.
“It is your duty as a communist youth,”—he continued sternly—“ to help build our bright future. The country needs your help, so you must go.”
If we ignored the fact that we had hardly any food, we had no freedom to travel, no freedom of speech, no access to imported foods or books or magazines, and that we were about to leave on a treacherous, three months long forced labor camp in the desert, life was not that bad after all. Our workweek—and school week—was six days long. You can’t build utopian communism with just five days of work a week.
But on the seventh day, we couldn’t rest. We had to go stand in line for food and fetch drinking water from the nearby hill.
Naturally, the officials in Bucharest did not select high school students from their district because that must’ve meant that some of their own sons had to come and bust the rocks in the hot sun. Instead, they picked the most under-represented areas and schools in the country.
Breakfast was at 6 AM. We were given some brown goo, made with a combination of potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and some pork cartilage, boiled into a semi-homogeneous paste. It was very bad. Occasionally we’d find rock pieces in it that chipped our teeth. When we found one, we’d smack it into the only window of the cafeteria. The thought was that if the rock is big enough to break the window, we could then argue with the camp captain that if they only had smaller pebbles in our food, the windowpane would’ve not shattered.
Suto also discusses several run-ins with the celebrated free health care system that Communist governments generally provide. In one case, his sister has a wart on her eyelid that needs to be removed:
My parents were worried and took her to the doctor, who offered to remove it by surgery. … My father, though, smelled alcohol in the breath of the surgeon during their consultation. He was worried that the surgeon would botch the procedure, and permanently damage my sisters’ eye. My father tossed and turned in his bed, then got up at 3 am, took out a brand new razor blade, then disinfected it in boiling water. Then he sat on the edge of my sister’s bed, pinched her eyelid with his left hand, turned it inside out, then, with one precise motion, sliced off the wart. The wound healed perfectly.
Another unpleasant incident occurs when Suto goes for urgent dental care during his summer at the labor camp, after he has finally managed to convince his supervisors to give him an afternoon to get treated:
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“Good day, comrade,” I greeted her. “I have a big pain in my tooth,” I said, pointing at my lower left jaw. “What are you? A student?” “Yes,” I replied, “I am from the Camp.” “I don’t work with students or soldiers,” she replied and turned away. “They have no money.” I stood there for a while, then exited the office. I had nowhere else to go. I slumped down on the pavement.
Medical care was officially free in Romania. Theoretically, you could’ve walked into any medical office anywhere in the country and requested treatment for no money.
In practice, though, things were different. There was no appointment system; you just showed up at the hospital or clinic, just to join a crowd of people waiting there for hours. If you had money, you could discreetly hand an envelope to a nurse, that would allow you to be seen ahead of the rest of the comrades. And, once the doctor saw and treated you, you were supposed to hand them yet another gift: either cash, American cigarettes, or coffee. Poor farmers, with no access to any of the three items mentioned, would show up with a live chicken, a live piglet in a burlap bag, or a dozen eggs individually wrapped in the daily newspaper.
I had nothing to offer to the lady dentist. And she knew it. Neither the students nor the soldiers were paid any money; we were expected to build our country out of youthful enthusiasm and the belief in a utopian future that our president kept promising us. I knocked on the door and stepped inside. I was moaning from pain, holding my jaw. Again, she waved me out of the office.
I went outside and slumped on the pavement. Years of standing in line taught me to survive the heat and cold and endless hours of doing nothing. Just like most Romanians, who could easily endure ten hours of standing in line, with no food, no drink, no bathroom breaks, no talk. Just standing and hoping that at the end, they’ll get something. Potatoes, or eggs, or maybe frozen chicken wings.
Eventually, after finishing with all her paying (or should we say bribing) clients, the dentist takes pity on Suto and fills his tooth after all. But she may not have put her full effort into it.
Years later, I had an X-ray done, and the radiologist told me that he could see a piece of broken drill bit buried deep inside the root of the molar. I guess this is my version of body piercing.
One of the most surprising aspects of Suto’s memoir is his ambition to work as a ski instructor. He went to school for computer engineering, which you would think should be a well-paid and prestigious job— but in such a closed society, the most desirable jobs were ones that would give you access to foreign people and their consumer goods. In addition, as Suto describes it, the remoteness of the mountaintops also allowed a pleasant escape from the usual politics of life in Romania, to some degree.
What happened up in the mountains was strictly merit-based. You could not even attempt to bribe any of the senior ski instructors in charge of training and selecting the new instructors. We had to be at the top of our game to make the cut. What happened down in the city, was a totally different thing.
I had to bribe a series of officials at the factory I worked at so they would let me leave my job as a computer scientist for three and a half months. They had no official way of doing that, but they somehow got creative once they saw the bagful Western goods I would gift to their wives. Being a ski instructor at that time and that place was the best thing that happened to me in Romania. I could finally utilize my skills as a skier, a teacher, a guide, and—in the process—learn languages, make new friends, learn about life in the west.
If they asked whether we’re happy, we had to say, of course, we’re happy. If they asked us how communism is working out for us, we were supposed to say, great! Of course, everybody knew what the reality was, but we tried to avoid these topics, especially in a setting with others around. Secret police informants were everywhere, especially where westerners were present. When I was with my team in the deep forest, pristine snow all around, out of hearing distance from anybody else, I would tell them the truth. But only to those that I trusted.
Due to the state of life in Romania, even minor items obtained from foreigners would be treated as valuable treasures.
He said he gathered all the used toothpaste tubes from the team, just as I requested. Toothpaste—even if it came in used tubes—was a strong currency I could use down in the city. The communist teeth were decaying rapidly; everybody was eager to get a hold of British or German toothpaste tubes.
Suto lost his coveted position as a ski instructor, though, when the Romanian secret police contacted him and demanded that he start acting as an informant and writing reports. He refused, and they were furious— they immediately arranged to take away his ski privileges, and were likely to create further difficulties in his life. Luckily, immediately afterwards, the revolution began that took down Ceausescu, so Suto and his family were spared any further consequences.
Suto nicely summarizes the situation of his nation under Communism:
We were all miserable, hated the government, the lies, the censorship, the cult of personality, the lack of decency, the lack of empathy, the decades’ long shortages, the apathy and pessimism that all of this infused into our country. A country with a beautiful geography, beautiful people, mountains, rivers, fertile lands, forests, the Danube, the Black Sea.
If God would design an optimal country, it would be Romania. Smack in the main path of East-West trade routes, with good climate, no natural disasters, no plagues, a literate and quite educated population. With hard-working people. Life could’ve been good; people could’ve been happy, different nationalities could’ve peacefully coexisted, as they did for centuries. But it was not so. The most corrupt and dictatorial government shrouded Romania, and sucked the life out of it.
Fortunately, the book has a happy ending, as Suto finishes with a discussion of the revolution that ended Communist rule, and his eventual emigration to the United States.
[Closing conversation with Manuel]
If you want to read more of Suto’s amazing, eye-opening, and occasionally hilarious stories about his early life in Romania, be sure to check out his book “I Tried”, available at your favorite online bookseller and linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .
And this has been your Story of Communism for today.