Editor’s note: This piece was published less than ten years (1983) before the end of communist control of Romania. Bradford’s assessment of the Romanian people well applies to the South, a region that had been defeated and “reconstructed” but still retained much of its cultural vibrancy, albeit suppressed and ridiculed by the political class. It also serves as a stark reminder of the evils of Marxist-Leninism, a political economic system many American millennials readily embrace.
The metaphorical image of Romania which sticks firmly in my mind is that of crowds of people on the streets of Bucharest, hurrying in all directions, both during the workday and even more surprisingly after dark.
The purpose of all this activity is not, as we learned, to get to or from a place of employment. In many cases there is no obvious reason for Romanians to be out of doors, only a vague social impulse to mill about, in and with the throng.
In other instances, the end of the journey is a long line where quiet people in fur hats await the opportunity to purchase the necessities of life. Three-generation families are, I was told, fortunate in one respect — the grandparents can stand in queue while the younger adults hold onto their job and maneuver to add a few lei to their official salary.
The conditions are severe in Bucharest, and the “economic justice” of the regime is another name for general penury. The standing jest there is that Romania is a country where the people pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay them.
The prices of ordinary commodities are exorbitant. The government must retire a large debt owed to the inter national banks. Hence, a little private trading, the exchange of favors, and skill in the manipulation of influence are important to the survival of the ordinary citizen.
The official egalitarianism of this Marxist Utopia has nothing to do with the realities of status in Romanian life. Within a ruling hierarchy that is still Byzantine in its essential characteristics, connection means a place: the difference between mere existence and a modicum of privilege.
According to one story, some Third-World countries send their young people to study in Bucharest, not to encourage their enthusiasm for socialism but rather to forestall it. I understand their strategy.
But apart from electronic surveillance, from all the guards and guns, the ubiquity of uniforms, and the dreariness of proletarian architecture, there is for members of the small American community in Romania (and for representatives of other Western societies) another side to their temporary exile, a sense of drama and purpose which comes from living out the role of witness to a proud and open way of life too often taken for granted by free peoples.
The American diplomatic mission to what the ancient Romans called Dacia (still there beneath the surface of the “People’s Republic”) is a very positive, upbeat group, with a genuine sense of their own collective importance as a window on the West.
Under the able direction of Ambassador David B. Funderburk, an eminent North Carolina historian and one of the distinguished conservative scholars brought to government by the Reagan administration, the mission both represents and embodies the value of American citizenship.
Members’ energy and morale are amazing and suggest none of that tentative, apologetic spirit which has been the bane of U.S. diplomacy in recent years.
The same can be said of that small number of business and commercial people, librarians, archaeologists, artists and teachers which completes the American contingent in this Communist state.
The fact that most Romanians unofficially receive our countrymen at their own evaluation of what it means to be an American has, of course, a lot to do with the origins of the situation which I have described — that, and the fading yellow charm of the almost French city of Bucharest, a setting which in several ways reminds me of New Orleans.
We took away from our brief visit to the Romanian capital a variety of vivid impressions: the delight of the Romanians in music and literature; the colorful peasant architecture of the countryside; the courtesy of many members of their cultural establishment, their good humor, their pleasure in receiving American guests and their interest in the genesis and history of our civilization.
The people congregate in book-stores and record shops, and we were surprised to learn of the great number of American writers published in the Romanian language.
On reflection, this cultural activity should not be unexpected in a country were, as one patient editor of a literary magazine explained, two out of three fancy themselves to be poets of promise. Nor is all of this artistic nationalism tendentious or propagandistic, for the Romanians
live within themselves, where they cherish their art.
As hopeless as their situation may seem, they have a kind of cheerfulness. I liked them, especially since, as one of them indicated, they try so hard to forgive us for having turned them over to the Russians at Yalta in 1945.
Observing the results of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dereliction on that occasion should strengthen in any American the resolve that his country not repeat the same blunder.
For the barbarians stand ready to advance whenever our determination to resist them seems to be in doubt. What happens then can be seen in Bucharest.