“Getting Food” in Communist Romania

When I asked my grandfather about how you could get food during socialism, he mused a bit, and then said, “You know, it was only that short period in the sixties, when you could get things kind of easily, before and after we had problems all the way.” When he married my grandma in 1955, his first achievement, as head of family, was to “get” 25 grams of sugar – a rare and successful acquisition. To “get” and to “resolve” were to become his major virtues later, both as a family man and the director of the centre for distribution of technical materials. In communist Romania, “get” and “resolve” did not simply mean an act of individual survival in an inimical institutional environment: it had to do with a whole range of intricate relationships governing collective life under dictatorship.

As “getting food” proved to be a constant challenge of socialist life, it is easy to imagine how deep the networks of “getting” and “resolving” – among other informal spheres of the communist system – penetrated the formally severe edifice of party-led social life. Coffee vanished from the shops at the beginning of the 70’s; meat, sugar, fat, oil, flour, eggs or milk became more and more rare, so that in the 80’s you could theoretically get tiny amounts of them only by using ration tickets. My grandma recalls a day when, in the late 80’s, she finally discovered something in the meat section of one shop – when she went closer, it turned out to be chicken knees.

Under such circumstances, for people in the city it was vital to be able to get food, especially meat, through connections in the countryside. Because of the forced urbanisation, most of the urban population had first-grade connections there, this wasn’t as impossible as it was risky: you could get into jail for selling and buying a calf, even your fridge could be inspected and in the case that it was, you had to answer uncomfortable questions about its content. From the 60’s people were allowed to have a small farm of their own, from where they could sometimes sell pigs legally. But, as my grandfather recalls, many times a farmer had to overcome his pride and kill newly born calves in a plastic bag, so that he could prove that they were born dead, otherwise he would get punished for having more than two cattle.

Of course, not all of these restrictions were exercised, at least not every time. Besides the forbidding of the trade of food was more complicated, as local authorities were also people who lived from what they “got”. So if you wanted to “resolve” something, you started by giving illegal gifts to the officials. This involved a sharp knowledge of personal qualities, power positions, styles of informal communication and, most of all, a precise accounting of mutual obligations.

My grandpa, as distribution director, was in a relatively high position within these networks. As he told me, distribution directors used to make small favours to each other, which in turn would be returned. This is how my grandparents got the nicest places in the syndicate’s holiday home, but this is also how our family could enter the networks of buying illegal meat – by being able to store it. My grandpa managed to purchase one of the new and rare fridges with a freezer. This wouldn’t have been possible without his high connections: when he went to pick up the fridge from the store, Serban Andrei, ministry of external affairs stood there at his side.

Shall we listen to these stories of “getting” and “resolving” with a solemn expectation of the moral lesson of resistance at the end? Such a lesson would in any case involve an uncomfortable second note of narrative incoherence as the everyday heroes of survival under communism, however much the conciliatory post 89 discourse tries to frame it as such, did not become the winners of the new regime either. Instead of a macro-historical moral tale, what I am more interested in is one aspect of the everyday practice of dealing with superior powers. More specifically, how the dense tissue of negotiating and “corrupting” the formal system looked like from the banal perspective of getting food – elevated, in many instances, into not so banal vernacular moral stories and projections.

Palinkaville

Jobbagytelke, a Hungarian village in Transylvania seems to be a focal point collecting such stories and memories of its neighbours about successful cheating under communism. The main reason for this may be that it escaped forced collectivisation, and managed to prosper during those years of need by selling meat and spirits in a black market of useful relationships. The stories, of course, go further than that.

K.D., former party secretary, and mayor for 20 years of the neighbouring district Csikfalva, told me about how he visited Jobbagytelke when, for a short period, it was administratively attached to his district. When he walked into the village as the new mayor, he found empty streets and gardens, but after he declared to the local leaders that he does not care about their trades, what is more, he could also brew palinka, the village opened up for him. People took him from reception to reception on a hidden network of paths behind the houses, or opened one wall of the kitchen and showed him the brewery behind. As K.D. says, they could “resolve” anything with their goods; this is why they did not get collectivised. He claims to know that they went to jail one by one, “for the village”, so that while one person took the punishment for illegal trade, the rest of the village could continue it.

A scent of palinka hovered all over the village, K.D. says; they traded it in small barrels that had a double bottom, with water on the top, but palinka inside. Palinka was so prevalent in the village, that 12-year-old girls could drink a cup without getting drunk. These same girls took palinka to the city in the big cans that they used to take water to those working on the fields. They would fill these cans with palinka, go down the street in their fieldwork clothes, say hi to the militiaman, and then get on the train and take the spirit to the buyers. Of course, too much alcohol ruined the people of Jobbagytelke, so K.D. also thinks that women used to “choose the cock”, and bore children from the few healthy men in the village, instead of their alcoholic husbands.

The Man Who Could “Resolve” Anything

To understand better this imaginary halo around the village one should be aware that it has a tradition of straw hat handicraft from before World War One, which consisted of collecting and folding the straw together, collective events with story telling and chanting together and helped to form the village into a strong community with a special sense for music and singing. From this background of a cohesive and folklore-rich Jobbagytelke rose the figure of  B.A., local council secretary from the sixties on, who founded a folk dance ensemble in the village and took it all around Europe, during the years when all Romanian citizens, not to mention those of Hungarian ethnicity, were so restricted in their movement.

There is no end to the tales and anecdotes around B.A.’s character. B.A. could “resolve” anything, by his sweet talk, jokes, shrewd diplomacy and fine gifts. He appears in these stories and anecdotes as a cheery and reconciling folk figure of advantageous negotiation and manipulation with the powers of communism.

In the years of the deepest dictatorship, he went to Hungary with his folklore ensemble and sang the Hungarian anthem – a religious song – in churches. To do either of these things would land others in a Romanian jail. He and his people didn’t. He is the one who “resolved” that no collective was set up in Jobbagytelke. As the story goes, he went to Bucharest in his Hungarian traditional costume, took meat and palika with him, and explained to the officials that all the lands around his village are on hills, and could not be worked on with machines.

When I asked V.K., former agricultural engineer in the region, whether this argument was sound, he told me about much more steep slopes being worked by tractors in those times, so that in some cases the tractor would pull the plough downhill by its own weight alone. Considering the logic of forced collectivisation in the region, his opinion is that it was not the arguments, but the gifts and connections that saved the lands of Jobbagytelke. As the communal agricultural engineer of Jobbagytelke told him, “You may have a successful cooperative in your area, but believe me, we do quite as well, even if it doesn’t appear on paper.”

This is Not the Way

However outstanding its neighbours may see Jobbagytelke, examples of similar practices can be found elsewhere. The above-mentioned Csikfalva, for example, was a rich cooperative, a status that, as V.K. told me, caused just as much trouble as being “rich without papers.” The more you produced as a cooperative, the more the state would take away, not to mention the neighbouring cooperatives, which got into trouble for not being as effective and so tried to hold the successful ones back.

One of V.K’s stories involves a large amount of grain disappearing from the Csikfalva cooperative stock right before the day of inspection – so that it would not appear in the state administration and could be withheld by cooperative members. The case got to the military court, the inspectors were interrogated and claimed not to have found any deficiency. After letting them fear a while, the court recorded the inspector’s confessions and the case was closed; the cheating stayed at the local level.

V.K. illustrates the moral economy of the times with another story. Cheating happened all over the place, “half of them I didn’t even know about, as I wasn’t a party member. But when I saw that the aim was not equal distribution, but to take as much from the people as possible, I said to my brigade: you can steal freely.”

Stealing freely meant, for example, the following: people would take smaller amounts of products from their (righteously “owned”) land and the local militiaman caught them. The militiaman would go to the agricultural engineer, V.K., to show him the damage. He would send him to the local conciliatory committee. The head of the committee, for her part, would also go to V.K. for advice. He would tell her to punish the thieves for about 10% of the price of what they stole.

The militia man, unsatisfied with the committee’s decision, would go back to V.K., who would tell him that he has nothing to do with what the committee does, but the militiaman could punish the thieves if he wanted to. Here the procedure stopped, because the militiaman was balancing on a very thin line between not being interrogated by his superiors and not being beaten by the locals. Besides, his interest was also in living peacefully in a village that willingly paid him gifts for this peace. V.K. also told me how the same village, with the help of the local council’s secretary, tamed a new militiaman who, newly arrived, began to punish old women for crossing the street in the wrong place. There is rumour that some locals even beat him, but the secretary’s calm advice, condensing the complexity of the multiple system of rules to be respected, sounded like this: “This is not the way”.

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