Is Communism dead in Eastern Europe?


HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Can Romania's communist dictatorship, which once encouraged 14-year-old girls to get pregnant, be successfully replaced by a democratic government and a free-market economy?

Perhaps - and only perhaps, says Dr. James McCollum, a professor emeritus of management at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and a Fullbright scholar who has spent much of the past seven years studying and teaching in Romania.

In his new book, "Is Communism Dead Forever?" McCollum looks at the psychological, economic and spiritual scars left on the newly independent states, especially Romania, where almost 45 years of communist rule included 24 years of frequently irrational oppression by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The old habits and mentality established under the communist system have impeded the movement toward democracy and free markets much more than we thought possible," says McCollum, who is spending this year teaching in Germany. "This has been the situation in all of the former communist countries. We found it difficult to understand that many people who have lived under communism do not think as we think, and do not react as we react in both political and economic situations ...

"The democracies of the world won the 'Cold War' in 1989. But was it a complete victory?" he asks. "Is (European) communism dead, or is it merely in hiding?"

Since November 1996, the Romania government has been led by a new president and prime minister from the Democratic Convention party, which has a majority in a coalition government. After seven years of 'freedom,' it is the first democratic government (in Romania) since the communists took over in the 1940's, and it is having many difficulties in reshaping the country.

"I felt I had a duty to tell the democratic world of the continuing effects of communism, even though the system has been discredited," said McCollum. "We need to examine the phenomenon in all of its aspects and learn from this unfortunate experience to better appreciate our own system and to renew our determination to prevent such a system as communism from ever spreading in the future."

Following are excerpts from his new book, "Is Communism Dead Forever?" Published by University Press of America, Inc., it is scheduled for release in November.


Changing a Mindset

Many older citizens who spent their lives under the communist system feel that their reward for being good communists has been snatched away by this upstart democratic, free market movement that has turned their world upside down. What can these unhappy citizens do about their dislike of the new order?

A lot!

Their minions, who still hold high office in the new governments, are able to stall progress toward the privatization of state-owned enterprises, to restrict restructuring which allows them to become more profitable, and to seriously harass entrepreneurs who try to take advantage of what opportunities do exist.

Also, 'nostalgic' communists can continue the spy networks that existed under the communist governments and act as a 'power behind the government' to continue to force favorable treatment for their own cliques.

In Belarus, activities by private lawyers have been banned, and special "legislation" has been enacted that gives the communist dictator's "special forces" the right to enter private homes without cause and to punish people for using their telephones in conversations that are "against the interests of the state".

"These restrictions could be imposed in other former communist countries where leaders - even democratically elected leaders - feel threatened because they cannot control events and still have the proclivity to stifle opposition."


Then and Now

In the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, "while the communist leaders told you that you lived in a worker's paradise, you had to stand in line for food items such as meat, milk, eggs and bread, and in lines for consumer goods such as soap, detergents and toilet paper."

"Though your medical treatment was at no "official" cost, its value was not worthwhile unless you brought valuable presents to the doctors and nurses."

"Now, nine years after the end of formal communist control there is ample food in the stores, consumer goods on the shelves, gasoline in gas stations. You can interact with foreigners, openly receive news from all over the world, and travel anywhere in the world. Life is now wonderful?

"No, not quite."

Almost everyone lives in small block apartments. Utility services are still turned off from time to time. You work in an outmoded, state-owned factory, producing heavy equipment which often stays in the finished products inventory for a long time. Your wages amount to about the equivalent of $80 per month, and prices in the markets are nearly the same as those paid by westerners.

While it is true that your electricity, water, rent and telephone charges are much less than those in the west, you still have trouble paying the bills.

"Some citizens of your nation say their lives were better under communism. The government of Belarus has already reverted to a communist-style dictatorship. Poles, Hungarians and Bulgarians have elected former communists to run their governments after having non-communists in charge."

Why would anyone who survived the communist environment wish to return to the "bad old days" of communist repression and control? Will communism have a rebirth in the former Soviet empire, or could it emerge in "free world" countries?

"Those who lived under totalitarianism in the recent past, or (who) still live under dictatorship today, need to be awakened and to be taught that life under democratic, free-market conditions is superior to that under any dictatorship."


A New 'Marshall Plan'?

"The Romanians often told me that they need a "Marshall Plan" of recovery assistance. I knew the efforts being made were not providing the same level of economic assistance given to western European countries under the Marshall Plan. However, the situation was different."

Romania and other eastern European countries are not recovering from a shooting war, with its toll of mass destruction, but rather from an ideological war that has changed the people's ways of thinking and their ways of doing things.

"Restructuring the economies in these former communist countries means more than simply reorganizing and privatizing the state-owned busineeses. It means showing managers how to market their products and services, changing the mentality of the work force, and even proving to the older members of the population that doing business to make a profit is not immoral."


Spying on Themselves

One of the programs McCollum established brought Romanian managers to Huntsville, where they were placed in internships with local businesses and industries. Initially, McCollum believed the interns had earned their places in the training program.

"Later, with small groups of the former interns, I started having doubts. Some had suspected that a few of their fellow interns were working for the security apparatus of the Romanian government."

"After analyzing the behavior and speech of particular individuals, I began to accept the possibility that my dinner partners may have been right. Some of the interns probably were informers."

"Several Romanian academicians contend that for every ten Romanians, another was - and probably still is - an informer for the "political police" that rules the country from the shadows. This is a direct legacy of the old communist system.

"Why should people spy on each other? Such activities are a great waste of time and the complete antithesis of democracy. But the old habits of communism are hard to kill."


Nicolae Ceausescu

Nicolae Ceausescu emerged as the new president of Romania a few days after the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965 Pavel Campeanu, who had been a fellow prisoner with Ceausescu, first in the Jilava military prison in 1941 and later in the Carasebes Special Penitentiary in 1942, said of Ceausescu that his most striking feature was his deep hatred for his fellow inmates.

In 1968, Ceausescu refused to send Romanian troops to suppress Alexander Dubzec's attempt to open Czechoslovakia to outside ideas. This act gave Ceausescu much acceptance in the west. (He) was visted by President Richard Nixon in 1969 was knighted by the queen of England, and was invited to the White House in Washington. Had he died in 1971, he would probably be revered by the Romanian people.

Ceausescu could not accept any criticism. He was especially incensed toward Radio Free Europe and its commentators. He wanted his spies to find ways to blow up the station and kill the personnel.

At one point his censors intercepted some anonymous letters addressed to Radio Free Europe, criticizing the Ceausescus' "personality cult". In a fit of rage, Ceausescu ordered his security chiefs to get samples of the handwriting of every school child and adult Romanian, so that their handwriting experts could identify who had written the letters.

Additionally, he wanted every typewriter owned by the state registered with the Securitate, along with a sample of its type. A new decree forbade the renting or lending of typewriters, and the ownership of a typewriter required special authorization ...

The economy became very poor and (Ceausescu) paid off the external debts with food products, the only merchandise that was accepted by foreign markets. Since the meat, the cereals, the cheese and the butter were going to Russia, and fruit and vegetables to Germany and the former Yugoslavia, there was no more food for the population. People in the cities could survive only by getting help from relatives in the countryside.

The announced reason for rationing was that there was a food shortage, but at the same time, Romania was exporting meats and grains to earn hard currency for Ceausescu's building projects ...

Ceausescu came to believe that it was "scientific government" to be able to know what the people were saying when they believed they were having private conversations.

During a visit to an exhibit of surveillance devices, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu asked how many people could be monitored at the end of the next five-year plan (1984). They were told that ten million could be monitored simultaneously if the organization's proposals were approved.

Ceausescu ended the meeting with a pep talk "In a very short time we will be the only country on Earth able to know what every single one of its citizens is thinking."


A Growing Population

By 1978, "girls were being encouraged to have intimate relations as soon as they were able to give birth to a child. Ceausescu wanted more and more children to be born every year, so he decided (to change) the rules under which a student was expelled if she was involved in a scandalous relationship that resulted in pregnancy before she graduated from the 12th grade. From that point on, pregnant students would receive congratulations.

The communist party decided to send a gynechologist every month to every factory to check every woman between the ages of 16 and 41 to see if they were pregnant and, more specifically, to register them so they wouldn't dare to get an illegal abortion.

Every month the women were forced to come to the doctor like slaves or like cows to spread their legs on the table to be checked. This was extremely offensive to everyone. Women felt they were no longer entitled to have intimacy or privacy.

Meanwhile, just in sector 6 (Bucharest was divided into six administrative sectors) at least one woman would die every month while desperately trying to get rid of her pregnancy. A veil of tragedy was covering the country.

But Ceausescu wanted more and more children. What for? To keep them in freezing apartments with no heat during the winter, no food and no decent living conditions?

"No one ever found out the reasons, except for a megalomaniacal desire to be president of a growing country."


A Dictator's Final Days

In the late 1980's in Bucharest and the other large cities:

  • The electricity was turned off at least four hours each day, with at least two of those hours in the evenings. This was true in the hospitals as well as in the apartments.
  • There was hot running water only two hours each day.
  • There was television only two hours a day, with only one channel, generally showing what Comrades Nicolae and Elena had done for the Romania people that day.

When the citizens of Timisoara protested the banishment of an Evangelical clergyman and took to the streets in an uprising that brought rifle fire from Ceausescu's security forces, factory workers in Bucharest were ordered to a rally in Independence Square to hear Ceausescu denounce the "hooligans".

Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America had told of women and children shot down in Timisoara. The mood of the crowd was angry. The people had suffered enough...

Confused and frightened, Ceausescu tried to recapture the crowd by promising pay raises. This only brought more cat calls and denunciations, which the Securitate men in the crowd ignored. The crowd, which became a screaming mob, surged toward the Central Party Headquarters where Ceausescu stood. Ceausescu faded back into the building, never to be seen in public again.

The people took over Bucharest.

"While trying to flee from Bucharest on Dec. 22, 1989, Ceausescu and his wife were arrested near Tirgoviste and tried before a military tribunal, then rapidly executed by the Securitate. That was because the Ceausescus knew too much about those assuming governmental control under a democratic mask."


Can Nascent Democracy Survive?

In the early years after the revolution, outsiders took an optimistic view of Romania's ability to transition itself into a democratic government and a free-market economy. Many Romanians were saying it would take more than a generation to undo the damage that had been done by the communist regime. Westerners generally passed off those projections as typical Romanian pessimism.

We also considered the Romanians' plea that they needed a "Marshall Plan" to rebuild their country as unnecessary. Assistance efforts had been set up by governments in addition to private organizations to help the newly independent states. We thought they would bring democracy and prosperity in a few years to all of Eastern Europe.

Our initial assessments proved to be incorrect. The transition to democracy and free markets in Romania and all of the other eastern European countries proved to be much more difficult than we had expected. While we were giving good advice to the governments of the former communist countries, they were applying the new ideas within a frame of reference that had been created over the last 45 years.

The mentality of the recipients was often not able to accept our "new" ideas.

More than 50 percent of the population considers the communist era as a "plague" which affected the country and reversed the development by 100 years. Unfortunately, there is still about 30 percent of the populations which thinks that communism was a good system that provided good housing, job security, and free education and health services.

Is communism dead forever in the newly independent states? We have to say, 'No,' because we know it has fostered a mafia-like group that is trying to retain the economic power formerly held by the communists, and because the communist system is still preferred by many older people who lived most of their lives under it and fear that they will lose the security that it gave them.

There are many opportunists in the world, particularly in the newly independent states, who are biding their time, waiting for economic hard times or ethnic conflects to emerge which can give them a basis for coming forth to lead their people out of the problem.

Is communism being replaced gradually by a democratic system in Romania and other former communist countries, or are some of its tentacles still writhing around and stifling normal actions? Currently pluralism does not exist in Romania and other newly independent states. There is still suppression of dissidence. All voices are not yet heard. Until such a condition exists, we must fear for the survival of the nascent democracies.

Dr. McCollum was teaching in Europe tin 1999. From November through mid-December he was at University of Maryland University College, European Division, campuses in Germany. He can be reached via e-mail at or you can leave a message for him at 001-49-69-699-7434.


Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama in Huntsville