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From the archives: Ceausescu's Rule Invaded Minds, Dreams, Intimacy

BUCHAREST, Romania -- The young woman, her dark hair tied back in a long braid, sat in the chair by the fire, her face pulled tight by the unsuccessful effort to hold back tears.

"I am sorry," Dmitra said, "I do not mean to offend, but the rest of the world--journalists, everyone--watches this like some kind of movie, something not real.

"For us," she said, "it is real. We have a different kind of psyche now. It is something manufactured by Ceausescu."

In his 24-year reign over Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu had his political prisoners, with house arrest for those well known in the West, hellish prisons and sudden disappearances for others.

But for the vast majority of Romania's 23 million citizens, people who only now are beginning to speak freely about their lives, the horror of Ceausescu's totalitarian rule was something less dramatic but more insidious. Totalitarian rule bruised minds and warped relationships. Romania under Ceausescu was a land of privation, fear and constant intervention in the intimate decisions of daily life. It was a land that killed dreams.

For Petre--like all others in this article, this is not his real name--the dream was to pursue his chosen field of study, mathematics.

A talented university student, Petre was among the top members of his class. But upon graduation, he and his classmates were told they would not be allowed to continue their studies or teach at the university level. They would have to leave Bucharest and take jobs teaching grade-school arithmetic in the countryside.

"I tried to do research as a hobby," Petre said. He would travel hundreds of miles on weekends to the few libraries sporadically allowed to receive Western scientific literature. There, he would copy papers by hand to get around Ceausescu's ban on the private use of copying machines.

"These are my best years to do research and work. It's a loss," he said.

"I wanted to get a scholarship to attend a school abroad and get my Ph.D.," he said. "But I was very good, and they were afraid I would not come back, so I could not."

In the 25 years of his life, Petre has been allowed to leave his country only once--to travel several years ago to a mathematics conference in East Germany, where, he said, "People looked freer to act. They were able to speak. They were able to have contacts. They were able to work."

East Germany, he concluded, "was a real paradise."

Dmitra and her husband, Ioan, had a more domestic dream.

"I wanted a child--not one child, I wanted six children," Dmitra said with a short and bitter laugh. "Do you remember?" she asked her husband. "We got married in 1977; I was 21."

The two are quick to say they led comparatively privileged lives. Sophisticated and intelligent, both are well-educated professionals. Ioan's job has allowed him occasional travel in the West and access to goods--coffee, perfume, clothing, American cigarettes--that could be resold, providing money that cushioned the grim life in Ceausescu's "model state."

"I consoled myself with these," said Dmitra, pointing to the color television and video recorder in the small sitting room of their house.

But consumer goods could not block out the reality of daily life. In the mid-1970s, Ceausescu, who assumed power in 1965, had only recently begun to fully impose his grotesque plans on the nation. Seeing what was happening, the young couple put aside thoughts of a family.

"What could we offer this child?" Dmitra explained. "What life?"

A treasured uncle had a son who fled to the West. Ioan and Dmitra felt they had no choice but to cut off all communications. The uncle was now a watched man, and even a simple telephone conversation might cost Ioan his passport or his job.

Dmitra talked about food:

In Eastern Europe's richest agricultural region, "women--young, old--were struggling at the shop when they brought pig's feet, and without meat, only bones and gristle." Chickens were "like crows. No, a crow was too big--eight chickens, one kilo" (2.2 pounds).

Last month, Ioan's father "had to stay four days in line, from 5 in the morning until dark, to buy 2 kilos of meat."

Dmitra, who as a child had dreamed of travel "to see other places, other people," had to abandon the idea.

Because Ioan already had a passport, "I couldn't even dream" of taking her outside the country, he said. "It would have meant becoming an informer. That was what the price was.

"I wasn't even able to cross the Friendship Bridge to Bulgaria," Dmitra said.

Broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and videotapes of Western movies, eagerly passed from hand to hand, brought evidence of the deprivations Romanians faced. The program guide to Bulgarian television became one of Bucharest's most hotly sought underground publications as Romanians sought any kind of diversion from their own television's constant repetition of Ceausescu's speeches, Ceausescu's appearances, Ceausescu's decrees.

Ceausescu seemed as invincible as he was omnipresent. Even in recent weeks, watching events elsewhere in the region on Bulgarian television, "I was sure it would never happen here," said Dmitra. "It couldn't. It was impossible. Ceausescu was like a god--not a good god, an evil god. No one could conquer him."

Dmitra and Ioan's decision not to have children bordered on subversion. The Leader, as Ceausescu liked to be called, had set as a national priority the increase of Romania's population to 30 million--from about 23 million now-- by the end of the century.

Until Tuesday, when the new government began repealing Ceausescu's decrees, all Romanian women were required to have periodic state-administered gynecological examinations. Doctors were required to report all pregnancies to the police. All forms of contraception were banned. The single and the childless were subject to a tax of up to 12% of their salaries.

Discovering she was pregnant, Dmitra obtained an illegal abortion. Two months later, she learned the doctor had been arrested and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

Twice more over the next six years, Dmitra became pregnant. She induced abortions herself. The second time, in 1983, massive infection set in. Fearing detection but suffering a 104-degree fever, Dmitra went to the hospital, hoping to find a doctor she could trust not to report her.

"I was seeing death with my eyes," she said. In the overcrowded ward, three women died that week. "No one was watching me. No one from my family knew where I had been taken."

In the end, "I was lucky," she said. "I survived." From then on, said Ioan, except on the rare times when he could smuggle contraceptives into the country, "we just had to restrain ourselves."

Four years ago, fearing they were growing old, the couple put aside their fears and had a child. Today, Dmitra and Ioan hope the shy, blond-haired girl will grow up innocent of the horrors her parents endured.

Petre once more dares to hope that he will be able to resume his mathematical studies, perhaps even go abroad and obtain his doctorate. Dmitra has resumed her hopes of seeing distant lands.

But, she said, "I cannot leave behind the feeling of uncertainty and fear and suspicion. I think a lot of people in this country will have those feelings for a long, long time. It's a second nature."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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