Alexandru Câmpeanu

Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

acampeanu2003@yahoo.com

 

Soviet Style Modernization of the Romanian Villages (1948–1962)

 

Abstract: This paper is intended as a comprehensive insight into the communist process of “collectivization” in Romania. Given that history is a field of study with a most disputed scientific character, as governments have employed it for propaganda purposes almost since time immemorial, I deem it necessary not to lay great emphasis on key events and personalities. Rather, this is an enquiry, based on personal ideas and opinions of generally known facts and oral history interviews. The article proposes therefore an overview of the communist modernizing strategies of the rural world, the violent ways the apparatus imposed them and the outcomes, both behavioral and mental, those policies had on their human subjects.
Keywords: Romania; Communist Regime; Rural Life; Agrarian Reform; ”Collectivization”.

Rezumat: Această lucrare se doreşte a fi o pătrundere comprehensivă în procesul comunist de „colectivizare” din România. Având în vedere faptul că istoria este un domeniu de studiu cu cel mai disputat caracter ştiinţific, deoarece guvernele l-au utilizat drept propagandă aproape din vremurile străvechi, conider necesar să nu se pună accent deosebit pe evenimentele-cheie şi pe personalităţi. Mai degrabă, aceasta este o anchetă investigaţie bazată pe idei personale şi pe aprecierile privind fapte general cunoscute şi pe relatările istoriei orale. Articolul propune, prin urmare, o prezentare generală a strategiilor comuniste de modernizare a lumii rurale, căile violente prin care sistemul le-a impus şi rezultatele, atât comportamentale, cât şi mentale, pe care aceste politici le-au avut asupra subiecţilor umani.
Cuvinte-cheie: România; regimul comunist; viață rurală; reformă agrară; „colectivizare”.  

If we really wish to understand the various answers of the villagers towards the communist system, imposed after World War II in Romania, we have to highlight the principles that stood at the core of real socialism and the behavior that this ideology implies. In fact, the Marxist egalitarian utopia has nothing in common with what scientists and the media call “real socialism”. Even if the communist systems varied widely, especially in the area of social experiments, analysts tend to focus on the all-inclusive state that accumulates all production, resources and power as the essential trait of east European communism. One can notice that the degree of centralization in every one of these states depended on their particular historic past. Placing the needs of the state above those of the individual is still a common habit in today’s Romanian politics and preceded socialism. Even economic self-sufficiency, an obsession of the Ceausescu years, is as old as the national independence and the birth of the first political parties. The nineteenth-century liberal ideology based on the principle “by ourselves” is not too far away.

As a Leninist party in a rural society, dominated by vast social inequalities, the Romanian communist party[1], encouraged the appearance of social conflict. In a Justice Ministry document from 1956, the feature appears clearly emphasized: “Poor peasants are the main support of the working class [...] we will back the poor peasantry, will strengthen the alliance with the middle peasants and organize the unceasing fight against the kulaks”[2]. The long road from theory to practice began. Since very few rich peasants existed, the wealthier they were, the better integrated they would be in the communities that considered them as godfathers. With that in sight, the party focused on weakening the links between different rural groups. The first step was to separate rich people from the rest. Their land was confiscated, the party accused them of being exploiters of the poor, sabotaged their production, and they were beaten, deported or incarcerated. The authorities aimed at destroying their symbolic position inside the communities through stigmatization. Therefore, the kulaks suffered much worse taxing than the rest of the society as the quotas replaced former land taxes during 1948 until 1956[3]. Those quotas were based on the amount of land owned and developed into a primitive taxing system that oppressed the rich to make accumulation useless and poverty acceptable. The kulaks owned roughly 8% of the arable land in 1952 but gave 13% of their grain through quotas[4]. While the anti-kulak campaign mounted in intensity, many poor peasants became party members attracted by the promised economic assistance and low interest credits.

The agrarian reform of 1945 was another party tactic in the general strategy to gain the support of the poor before the general elections of 1946. Almost 10% of the Romanian farming land belonged to what remained of the big landowners and some Nazi supporters and given to peasants without property. The amount of land left to allot was small because of the big land reform of the twenties, so it was not possible to improve life conditions in the rural areas only by it. Still the market-oriented small property was opposed to party ideology, so as soon as they gained total control of the state they began collectivizing farmland[5]. The party also tried to restrict the power resources of the rural communities. Thus appeared the centre-controlled regions, replacing the counties governed by the local elites. The state imposed its control on religion, aiming to destroy independent elites. The Greek-Catholic church, believed to be a Vatican instrument, was absorbed by the more obedient and national Orthodox Church. In addition, the protestant groups from radical reformation churches lost their legal status. The new Orthodox patriarch, Justinian Marina, former country priest having connections with the party leader: Gheorghiu-Dej, was also an expression of the movement towards total social control, as the party left nothing outside its authority.

As it happened with the big brother, USSR, the guiding light in all matters, every imagined or perceived enemy of the new system became a kulak or an exploiter. Problems began when the administration observed the peasants’ tendency to envy and emulate the rich and noticed that the proletarian peasants became party members in order to take the dominant position from the kulaks rather than because they were inspired by ideological ideals. The rich were powerful through their social network of relatives and friends and not because of real wealth in money or land. Properties over 10 hectares were rare and most peasants had around 3-5 hectares depending on the geographic position in the plains or highlands. In addition, we have no proof of any class conscience or class conflict in such uniform societies. All had virtually the same lifestyle and the only difference was that the richer you were, the more probable it would be to send your children to school to escape this world of poverty and build a career in a town. It is certain that the structure of the kulak fortunes was highly influenced by the ability of many consequent generations to work towards the same goal. Wealth changed during time due to the diligence or economic ability some had. Too many children, a few poor harvests and the so-called rich returned to poverty caused by lack of capital and modern farming technology. It is also sure that nobody knew what ‘exploiter’ had meant before communism and that all able men worked hard to gain small benefits, with the peril of famine always above their heads.

The initial tactic aimed to destroy the kulak went bankrupt when quotas eroded virtually all the differences between villagers. In the end, the state gave a battle not against some weak communities that were not used to opposing central decisions but against the basic human need for property. Since time immemorial, peasants had wanted land and we can understand their desperate resistance when the communists tried to take it away from them. Hence, the party was faced with rebellious communities – as it was the case in the USSR – that did not work according to the Marxist ideology of class antagonism but tended to be sympathetic to their formal or informal leaders. Finally, the strategy to divide the peasantry based on false presumptions and ignoring human natural interest in having possession, failed. When there was still land left to be shared, the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy worked. “Trying to start a social conflict is possible only as long the insufficient resources are offered as a reward to some to the detriment of others [...] Communism was a prosaic tyranny based on an excessively ambitious ideology. Following the class struggle, all classes disappeared and a new unscrupulous, selfish new man appeared.”[6] 

Collectivizing farmland was the main tactic in the communist efforts to destroy old rural social life. After the Central Committee approved the legal framework in March 1949, the party sent commissars to the local level to explain its benefits and to enroll peasants in the new organizations. Close to 1000 farms with 70000 families existed in 1950 but the next year resistance stiffened and propaganda could celebrate only 62 new collectives[7]. At first, the party blamed the slackening of the initial excessive enthusiasm on its members, who had forced the peasants to enroll, and then stigmatized the bourgeois feelings of the conservative villagers, who were unused with the “modern” forms of collective property.

To cope with these problems, the party accepted an intermediate organism to appear in September 1951: the peasant associations[8]. Opposed to the collective farms, they combined traditional with modern, socialist systems. The association members could bring in as much land as they wanted but it remained privately owed even if it was cultivated into big lots to facilitate its toil. Members’ payment was according to the amount of land brought into the association, and not, as with the collectives, in compliance with the amount of work. The administration gave them use of the machines it had in state farms and planned the work as it would do with the collectives latter[9]. Those institutions multiplied rapidly in the fifties, encouraged by state loans, tax and quota reductions. Between 1952 and 1958, their number grew from 1800 to 12748, reaching more than a million members[10].

In this case, as with the 1945 reform, those measures contradicted the communist ideology and were mere transient compromises. Therefore, when party leaders considered the time had come, they restarted collectivizing and used it to change peasant mentality and the old ways of the interwar economy. A party manual used this reasoning: “Pressure will not be used to force peasants into collectives but the only method will be by explanation and persuasion […] Peasants will be persuaded through discussions with soviet peasants, regional exhibitions and extended media campaigns. […] Party commissars will be sent for persuasion and farm organization in areas with fertile lands”[11]. The tactics seemed to bear fruits. In 1962, at the National Conference of the Collective farmers, the process seemed to be complete, as collective farms comprised 80% of the arable land. In that same period, the amount of work in agriculture had dropped by 10%, because of industrialization and the deportations of reluctant rural inhabitants, who refused to join collectives.[12] The massive industrialization that followed collectivizing in most country regions had dramatic effects on the rural economy but mostly on the peasants’ psyche, who became convinced they were the victims of a godless regime.

The huge suffering caused by the quotas, more than any other state policy involving enforced modernization, is recorded by any oral historian in the field. The reversal of traditional values caused desperation, since before, work was the way to prosperity, while now party connections and good social origin did the trick. Those who had worked hard to build their fortunes lived now worse than those who had done nothing. Marginal paupers became influential communist apparatchiks, while the former elites became outlaws and got prison convictions and deportation if they were dissenters. The abject quotas ruined men of means because they had to buy at a loss those goods they had to deliver. This diluted what little capital they still had left because of the monetary reforms from 1947 and 1953[13], which had forbidden people to convert more than a previously settled amount of money into the new currency. Some bribed local party members to avoid classification as kulaks but did not escape regular persecution reserved to the former elites. The surviving strategies deconstructed once solid and somewhat harmonious communities. It was a fight of everyone against everyone else and those whom the regime persecuted remained victims of the hateful communities, their grandparents had once been leaders of.

The anti-kulak campaign was as abusive as the quotas. Some families were too “rich” to avoid insertion in the exploiters’ class – the so-called boyars/ nobles who still had some farmland and forests under the former 1923 land reform – but most people got into that situation because of political reasons and personal enmities. Some were small shopkeepers, others had farming machinery, others were intellectuals, some had employees, some had money, the motives could be many and they were absurd, but the reality is that almost anyone, except for the extremely poor 10%, could be considered an enemy of the state. Obvious abuses were committed as some rich merchants/industrialists avoided classification, while local party chiefs unjustly persecuted their personal enemies. Many party leaders claimed that the central administration imposed on them quotas of kulaks they had to denounce, but the local situation depended too much on the relations of the individuals with the local “bosses”.

The big problem of this campaign was its success. Even if it destroyed the entire rural elite, eliminating local political resistance, this de-kulakization broke once cooperative communities into isolated, suspicious families that could not do anything together, and it also deprived the communist local chiefs of any credibility, since everyone knew they were former paupers turned racketeers. The campaign disintegrated old society but did not succeed in closing the gap between socialist ideals and peasant mentality. Even if initially the numerous pressures were associated with the promise of progress, the latter failed to appear up until the twenty first century, making the town-country gap more like an abyss. This meant rather slow and poor quality mechanization, no infrastructure, no paved roads, no current water but some electric current. However, even if those reforms had improved rural life, the peasantry would still have opposed them, as it had happened with the 1848 abolishment of the corvee. If asked to join the collective by the state agent, men would often flee and leave only women at home, who would pretend not to have any right of signature. In addition, most claimed they would join if other, more influential members of the community did too. Nevertheless, as the state exerted more and more pressure, the villagers’ resistance was broken down. In 1962, it took only 2 months for 50 collective farms to appear, as many as during the entire 1950s. Peasants joined the farms not only with their land but also with all the tools and animals they had. However, even in those late reports that spoke of unanimity, there were still a few dissidents left. In those cases, the state simply seized their land, forbade their access to paid jobs and gave them poor quality land in return.

Historians consider collective farming as the destructive chapter in the building of communist, while industrialization is seen to have been a more positive aspect[14]. The impact those processes had on rural social relations, on work ethos and life ideology, transformed the communities in a way only climate change would be able to do. The peasant workforce moved to large building sites and while heavy industry appeared, the country’s face changed forever. Young peasants got away from the poor and oppressive countryside to earn a new life in the developing industrial towns of the new socialist Romania. They gradually moved into wretched blocks of flats and brought with them an entire set of rural habits that still define the contemporary class of urban working proletariat, as it is the case with all developing nations. The still backward agriculture and the continuous lack of mechanization required a lot of workforce, and this is the reason Romania has almost 49% rural population, the highest proportion in all continental Europe. Some of the former privileged praise the collective positive aspect of raising the number of people having access to education. The statistics confirm the decrease in the number of workers between the ages of 16 to 24, the period for conducting higher education. The lack of capital and technology made the rural farm of the thirties excessively dependent on labor, so young people could not be sent away to study. Some progress was noticeable with respect to electrification – though consumption was symbolic and rationalized – and infrastructure, as paved roads had appeared and buses connected once isolated countryside with the urban areas.

It is almost a commonplace that party personnel was recruited from the poor peasantry[15] as in Romania the intelligentsia had little sympathy for communism, represented by the perpetual enemy, Russia. Nationalism and extremist rightist movements had much more appeal, and the Legion of Archangel Michael was the most successful of them all. While priests and teachers had been legionnaires or members of other parties, communist propagandists came from the poor families on the outskirts of villages and lacked education or prestige. Those young stubborn and rapacious apparatchiks entered in conflict even with their own families because they refused to obey the sacred rules of the community. If the regime had acted only through those few adherents and some other people it brought to villages to replace the deported German population from Transylvania, it would not have succeeded. Instead it used army and Securitate units, investigated by torture, deported or imprisoned traditional leaders to bring down the resistance where needed. Therefore, fear became a second nature in these tormented communities. People tended to feel nostalgic about the good old days of the king and dreamed for the Americans to come and end the nightmarish reality of the communist regime.

Agent recruiting for the new elite passed through a few stages. In Romania, the legion was the main anti-system movement, with some success in the rural areas because of its anti-Semitic propaganda and Orthodox ethos. Communist agitators had little to say that appealed to the villagers’ mentality, even if they came from peasant-soldiers captured on the Russian front and gathered in two soviet divisions: “Tudor Vladimirescu” and “Horea, Closca, Crisan”. Those soldiers and the later militants had little knowledge of Marxist dogma but afterwards the regime selected workers and sent them to popular universities in order to get the personnel able to replace the old time clerks it distrusted. New elite members recruited on “healthy social origin” basis and their offspring and successors form almost entirely the rural elite today[16]. We can say they are predator elites, legitimized by the fear of Securitate or Militia and consolidated through the deportation and imprisonment of former elites. “Theft is illegitimate by definition and there is no authority without legitimacy. There is only domination. A predator elite is one that does services only to itself, oppresses the subordinate population, creating poverty on a large scale and whose existence is imposed by force”.[17] This is how the communist system forged new Romania. Collective farming emerged as the founding crime against society.

Communist policies – ideologically speaking – should have facilitated the disappearance of classes, families and promoted a new socialist identity based on working class ethos. In fact, it brought forth new forms of inequality, strengthening old barriers of wealth and prestige. Instead of raising collective individual activity, people became increasingly isolated into smaller families as everyone feared imprisonment. Romania became a mass prison whose leaders pledged world peace and social progress just like in Orwell’s 1984[18]. The natural consequence of isolation was lack of communication and rising conflicts. In a society with no moral legitimacy, nobody respected anything except for the basic surviving rules. Before World War II, peasants were community members regardless of the dimensions of their property. Once communism had triumphed, wealth differences implied a politically privileged status. The descendants of those who opposed communism had no access to positions of economic status. The education system banned those with exploiter origin and refused them access to universities up until the eighties.

After the old order disappeared, the new one lacked moral authority. In general, new collective farm presidents and engineers were more famous for alcoholism, womanizing, incompetence, rapaciousness than for their managing skills. The fact, reflected in a diluted, counterfeit manner, even in communist propaganda films, confirms that it really was a problem. The widely spread incompetence and poor management brought communist systems to virtual economic collapse in 1989.

Nationalization, collectivization and industrialization changed social relations in rural and urban communities violently and changed an entire country’s morality. Collective farming became obviously inefficient because of its inability to produce more than traditional Romania had achieved. It had to falsify registers in order to pretend it was a modern institution, on a par with the western world private companies’ production.

Rural patterns changed in the new society. The number of nuclear families decreased in accordance with the rise of poverty between 1951 and 1964 from 29 to 24%[19], surprisingly, since interwar Romania had not been a wealthy nation. These enlarged families could help each other better against a terrorist state. The marriage age had also dropped since traditional times. In 1931-1940, the average marriage age was 20.5 for women and 24.7 for men. In 1960-1964, it got to 17.5 for women and 23.5 for men[20]. Commuting from town job to rural home increased because of exogamic marriages. If from 1919 to 1945, only 35% of the families had had husbands from outside the village, this number rose to 43% in 1962[21].

People recall the tormenting times of the quotas when poverty got to middle-age levels in rural communities because the state took everything to give it to the soviets as war compensations. One peasant remembers: “[…] in the quotas time, people had to steal because they were left without money, vegetables or bread […] it was a great famine. Everything we produced went to Fagaras. There were our tomatoes loaded in kilometer-long goods trains”[22]. Socio-political changes affected the individuals’ self-respect but that did not raise the party’s prestige. People perceived all communists as traitors, outsiders and godless people whom one should avoid and fear. Isolation became a life ideal, as the saying goes, ‘mind your own business and have nothing to do with the others’. While in interwar Romania there had been more people eager to be local councilors and mayors than then available positions, in the sixties people feared public responsibility. This is how a few families managed to dominate the communities, monopolizing all available positions in the school, collective farm or popular council.

The imposing of communist power meant massive social change with enduring consequences. The wealthy interwar class had either disappeared in prisons or become outsiders after returning from deportation, while their children had difficulty getting into schools and lived in constant fear of the authorities. Communism leveled the new society into poverty and separated men by fear, envy and hate. Villages became more conflictive and increasingly passive, and in their refusal to accept communism, they remained as anti-modern and deeply antithetical to cities as before. This is perhaps the reason why real socialism responded by launching urbanization procedures. They aimed to destroy villages by forcefully transforming them into small towns and by redistributing population from rural to urban settlements. The only thing that stopped communists from achieving that was their 1989 fall from power, in a violent revolution.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Cătănuş, Dan; Roske, Octavian, Romanian Collectivization: The Repression, 1948-1953, Bucuresti: Institutul Naţional pentru studierea Totalitarismului, 2004.

Conquest, Robert, Harvests of Sorrow, Bucureşti: Humanitas, 2004.

Deletant, Dennis, Communist Terror in Romania. Dej and the Police State. 1948-1965, Iaşi: Polirom, 2001.

Dobrincu, Dorin, Peasants and Power. The process of collectivizing agriculture in Romania. 1949-1962, Iaşi: Polirom, 2005.

Enuta, Nicolae, ”The Kulaks: Death Enemies of the Collective FarmŞtiinţă şi Cultură, no. 8, 1952.

Gheorghiu-Dej, Gheorghe. Cuvântarea rostită la încheierea consfătuirii pe ţară a ţăranilor colectivişti, Bucureşti: Editura Politică, 1962.

Iancu, George; Ţârău, Virgiliu; Trasca, Otmar, Collectivizing Agriculture in Romania. Legal Aspects, Cluj: Presa Universitară Clujeană, 2000.

Ionescu, Constantin, Men, Society, Socialism, Bucureşti: Editura Academiei, 1973.

Jowitt, Kenneth, Social Change in Romania. 1860-1940, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Kideckel, David, The Solitude of Collectivism. Romanian villagers to the revolution and beyond, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Liiceanu, Aurora, Neither Black, nor White. The biography of a Romanian village 1948-1998,  Bucureşti: Nemira, 2000.

Mungiu-Pippidi, Alina; Althabe, Gerard, The Sickle and the Bulldozer. Scorniceşti and Nucsoara. Ways to subdue the Romanian peasantry, Iaşi: Polirom, 2002.

Ogoranu, Ion Gavrilă, Trees Bend but don’t Break, vol 1-2, Timisoara: Marineasa, 1995.

Onişoru, Gheorghe, Romania in 1944-1948. Economic transformations and social realities, Bucuresşti: Fundaţia Academia Civică, 1998.

Şandru, Dumitru, The Agrarian Reform of 1945 Romania, Bucureşti: Institutul National pentru Studiul Totalitarismului, 2000.

Tănase, Stelian, Elites and Society. The Gheorghiu Dej years: 1948-1965, Bucureşti: Humanitas, 1998.

Verdery, Katherine, Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic and Ethnic Change, Berkeley: California University Press. 1983.

 

This research work was financed by CNCSIS, ID 2274/2008.

 

 

Notes



[1] The PCR became PMR – Romanian workers party – by absorbing the socialist party form the old monarchy.

[2] Romanian Popular Republic, Justice Ministry, Legislation regarding the Collective farms and the peasants associations, (Bucharest, 1956). 

[3] Nicolae Enuta. "The Kulaks : Death enemies of the collective farm"Stiinta si cultura, no. 8, 1952, 14. Propaganda texts commonly accused them for undermining agriculture and other violent acts in the attempt to construct an image of ruthless criminals as portrayed in the books and movies of Ceausescu`s Golden Age. We can hardly imagine that this kind of literature was known in the mostly illiterate villages of the fifties.

[4] John Montias, Economic Developement in Communist Romania, (Cambridge: Massachusets Institute of Technology Press, 1967), 30.

[5] David Mitrany, Marx against the Peasant. A study in Social Dogmatism, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1951).

[6] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi; Gerard Althabe, The Sickle and the Bulldozer. Scornicesti and  Nucsoara. Ways to subdue the Romanian peasantry, (Iasi: Polirom, 2002), 79.

[7][7]Mihail Rucsenescu, ”The Process of Cooperativizing Agriculture in Romania”, History magazine, no. 32, 1979, 434-435.

[8] Also of soviet inspiration, associations to cultivate land together as in the dark middle ages. (TOZ)

[9] Mihail Cernea, Sociology of Agrarian Cooperatives, (Bucharest: Academia, 1974), 50-52.

[10]Mihai Rucsenescu, op.cit., 433-439.

[11] Justice Ministry, op. cit.,  47-48

[12] Tsantis Andreas & Roy Pepper, Romania: The Industrialization of an Agrarian Economy under Socialist Planning, (Washington: World Bank, 1979), 139.

[13] Dinu Giurescu, “January 1952. Monetary reform”, Historia. Historical Magazine, no. 85, January, 2009. Oral memory narrative on website: http://ro.wikisource.org/wiki/Amintiri_din_România_socialistă/Jaful  accessed on 20.03.2009.

[14] Kenneth Jowitt, Social Change in Romania 1860-1940, (Berkeley: University of California Press 1971), 100-111.

[15] Robert Seton Watson, The East European Revolution, (New York: Praeger, 1951), 342. In underdeveloped countries, communists recruit their members from the intellectual strata, while in the developed ones the working classes form the core of the apparatus.

[16] Alina Mungiu Pippidi, op. cit., 102.

[17] Moore Barrington, Injustice. The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, (White Plains: M. E. Sharpe, 1978), 445-446.

[18] George Orwell, 1984, (Iaşi: Polirom, 2002).

[19] John W. Cole, “Familial Dynamics in a Romanian Worker Village”, Dialectical Anthropology, no. 1, 1976, 251-166.

[20] David Kideckel, The Solitude of Collectivism. The Romanian villagers to the revolution and beyond, (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1993), 97.

[21] Kideckel, op. cit., 98.

[22] Cole, op. cit., 98.