Ceausescu’s Romania



Ceausescu’s Romania


Tyler, Geoffrey




I first went on a mission to Romania in 1973. In most respects, it was similar to previous missions. A modern hotel, designed and operated by an international group, was relatively newly opened. Clearly, the standard of living of the local population was much lower than in western Europe or Yugoslavia but for a visitor to the Intercontinental Hotel, life was comfortable enough, although foreign newspapers were not so easy to come by. One had to depend on radio news broadcasts by short wave from the West. Shops were ill-stocked and most restaurants outside the hotel were simple. However, underneath this surface of normality, the reality of Romanian life was very different.

During World War 2, Romania started as an ally of Germany following that country’s occupation of it early in the war. Romania was an important conquest of Nazi Germany, since it had oil fields at Ploesti. Late in the war, Romania became an ally of Germany’s opponents but it was the Soviet Union that physically ‘liberated’ Romania and it soon found itself with a Communist government ruled by the Soviet Union, separated by the Iron Curtain from the West, and forced to pay very high reparations to the Soviet Union.

For the population, this meant imprisonment for many, an extremely low standard of living, private properties mostly taken over by the government, complete lack of freedom to travel and all the other well-known conditions of a sovietised society. The Romanian version of the soviet-style of government included a highly-centralised regime led by an effective dictator, who in the 1970s was Nicolae Ceausescu. Romania at the time was more like the Soviet Union of Stalin than of Gorbachev.

Most of the middle class lived in very small government-owned apartments, working at jobs allocated to them by the state. There was food enough to keep one from hunger, but the best food was exported, and imported food was scarce. For example, coffee, which is the Romanian preferred hot beverage, was always in short supply. Most protein came from poor quality frozen chickens and fish and was also in short supply. Queues were endemic for all quality items. Romania has always made good clothing, including leather goods, but these were mostly exported and were available in Romania to the few citizens who had friends or family in the West who would send them foreign exchange. Queues existed the moment it became known that a scarce item was available.

As an example, Romanian bread was good and I often ate it by itself for pleasure in my room, where I could combine eating with work. In style it was like French bread. But like the latter, when not fresh from the bakery, it deteriorated rapidly and the next day it was not a patch on the fresh. There were no private bakeries. Bread was made in central bakeries and delivered to the state-owned bread shops. Through most of the day these were empty of customers. However, delivery time for the day’s fresh bread was well-known and for half an hour before that time queues formed outside on the street, waiting for fresh bread. When the delivery truck came the shop filled, both with the lovely smell of warm fresh bread and the throng of customers, each going first to the counter to order the bread, then to the cash register to pay for it and back again to the first counter to collect the bread with the cash receipt. Fifteen minutes before, I may have been discussing the money supply with the Governor of the Central Bank of Romania, but for ten minutes on my way back to the elite hotel, I was a Romanian buying bread and enjoying it in my room without butter or jam.

Around the city there were simple outdoor markets for farmers, one of the few reminders of what life was like in western European cities. Here peasants could sell their produce, although prices appeared to be fairly well controlled. But at some times of the year one could buy fresh fruits that were not available in the State stores. Some fresh vegetables like small new potatoes made me wish my hotel room had a kitchen where I could cook them.

Few consumer goods were available to the people. Apartments would have a small refrigerator but no washing machine. A locally-made small car of French design was manufactured in Romania but few were allowed for domestic sales. Gasoline was often in short supply. Public transport was extensive geographically but trams and buses were packed, relatively infrequent, and uncomfortable. Fares were, however, low. Taxis existed but they were difficult to come by on the streets.

In short, life in Bucharest was simple, but hard by Western standards.

Foreign travel was strictly supervised. Travel to the other Eastern Bloc communist countries was permitted but not very attractive. Travel to the West was extremely difficult. First one had to have foreign exchange to finance the trip. This could only be obtained by those with friends or family in the West and part of any foreign exchange sent as gifts was taken by the State. Furthermore, if the foreign exchange hurdle could be overcome, all the family could not travel together. If there were children, the parents could travel but the children had to remain in Romania. For a married couple without children, only one spouse could travel at a time to the West. The combination of the foreign exchange problem and the ‘hostage’ system made travel to the West extremely difficult.


Tyler, Geoffrey, “Ceausescu’s Romania,” Tyler Collection of Romanian and Modern Art: University of Tasmania, accessed June 25, 2021, https://tylercollection.omeka.net/items/show/2084.