Sunday, May 23, 2010

Communist confiscation of property

By definition communism implies that everything is "shared," from the Latin term "communis," meaning "shared." This could not be further from the truth since nobody really shared anything. The government controlled all the means of production, land, and property, and decided how much each profession, each service, was worth in terms of monthly pay. If I wanted to go and claim my share of the property, I would have been put in jail.

Everything was deliberately low and subsidized or on welfare in order to keep people beholden to the government. They had to beg for their very existence and sustenance. There was no incentive to do better, work harder, create more, achieve excellence because everyone was considered equal. In spite of this, some were more equal than others, namely the ruling elite and their families. There were no taxes withheld from pay, only forced union dues called "sindicat."

Communism was supposed to be class free but in reality there were two classes, the proletariat and the ruling elite or oligarchy, composed of communist party upper echelon. It was bourgeois, we were told, to own anything more than your next door neighbor would own. It was also your duty to report to the Financial Police anyone who had better food, better clothes, better entertainment, a better car, or seemed to be more prosperous economically. The ruling elite exempted themselves from such intrusion into their lives. It was fine to control every aspect of the rest of the country, but taboo to question anything the ruling elite did. If you were foolish enough to question the oligarchy, you had a one way ticket to a labor/re-education camp.

Confiscation of property under the guise of investigation or safe-keeping was quite common. The easiest pray were the gypsies because they lived such nomadic lives and did not have a permanent residence. It was a matter of choice for them, they pariahed themselves through their distinct life style and separate language. Most gypsies called themselves Rroma. Their ancestors migrated from a northern India warrior cast and spread across Europe, keeping their language intact. They were called erroneously gypsies because they were thought to have originated in Egypt and the name stuck.

Their legendary mobility is best exemplified by the joke told when gypsies applied for passports and visas to go to their annual festival in Spain. Such applications took months and years to process under communism, and the answer was usually no, sorry, you cannot go. Finally the bulibasha, the gypsy king, received his answer of no, to which he replied, "that's o.k., we already went and did not have a good time." Gypsies were able to go under the radar anywhere they wanted because people feared them, including crossing borders guards. Anybody else trying to cross the border under communists would have been shot on the spot and left there to die.

Gypsies carried their wealth with them in the form of wagons, horses, chandeliers, silverware, coins, and jewelry, all made of solid gold and silver. Many had their gold and silver confiscated by communists under the pretense of safekeeping and were given bogus receipts by the police. After the fall of communism, many Rroma tried in vain to reclaim their stolen property from "safekeeping". These receipts had little weight in court as they were handwritten, with no seal, or official identification. The police got away with the crime because gypsies were generally illiterate. Their children were never sent to school and the government did not really care, they were the unwanted citizens.

People's homes and land were confiscated under the guise of collectivization, accusations of being bourgeois, capitalist pigs, too much space for such a small family, and sharing the wealth with the poor. It was not the poor who received occupancy of beautiful villas and ownership of prized land, it was the communist party elite. The owners who resisted signing their homes and land over were picked up in the middle of the night, driven around in windowless cars or vans, told they were on their way to a gulag and, if they did not sign over their property, death was soon to follow. People were so frightened, they signed anything to escape with their lives.

My grandfather had buried his tractor in the garden, piece by piece, he thought himself so clever, but they came and dug it up - a chatty neighbor told the police what he did. They even stole the clock on the mantel piece, some policeman walked out with the chain hanging around his neck. Nothing was off limits to government confiscators: guns, jewelry, family heirlooms, carpets, furniture, paintings, clothes, art, sculpture, toys, crystal ware, dinner plates, porcelain statues, silverware, nothing was spared. The biggest confiscatory piece was the former king's castle at Sinaia, a ski resort about 40 miles north of my hometown. The communists even melted gold artifacts from the patrimony of the country for personal gain! To this day, some invaluable pieces are still missing. People spent years in court trying to recoup some of their former belongings, land, and ancestral homes. Some citizens were lucky and received a token reimbursement for their wealth, some got their homes back, and some received less valuable land as a quid-pro-quo. This happened during the period when Romania was trying to join the European Union and non-compliance with the rule of law was seen as a reason to deny its entrance into the EU. Romanian officials made feeble attempts and efforts to return some of the stolen wealth. There are many such as my family who are yet to receive any compensation or anything returned. My grandparents' homes and lands are still embroiled in battle in court as I speak.

Everybody wondered how the very same communist elites became billionaires overnight when communism fell while the majority of the population still lived in abject poverty, wondering where the next meal or euro to pay the rent will come from. Many children of former party leaders inherited the Swiss bank accounts with the stolen money of ordinary Romanian citizens who had done nothing wrong other than work hard and save the fruits of their labor.

Right after the fall of the dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena, a substantial amount of money, several billions, coming from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a development loan for Romania had disappeared overnight and there was no accounting of its whereabouts. There was no investigation, nobody went to jail, and the money was never found. But several central committee party members became billionaires overnight. Factories that belonged to the Romanian people were closed and sold off to the highest bidder by the general manager or the minister of that industry or were dismantled and sold off piece by piece, without any authority or legal right. Judges were paid off and everybody closed their eyes to the rape and pillage of the nation.

Well- being still eluded many Romanians although the economic system was slowly changing to capitalism. The corruption that was so strongly embedded during communism was very difficult to eradicate. The government machine complex was too powerful to destroy although communism no longer had total power by 1990.

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