The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Power and Privilege: Elite Lifestyles in Communist Eastern Europe

 

When the communists assumed power across Eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII, their stated intention was to create a new, more democratic and egalitarian society. However, a gulf quickly became evident between the political elite and the masses. In the 1950s Yugoslav partisan and communist leader turned dissident Milovan Đilas openly condemned the emergence of what he described as a ‘New Class’ in communist Eastern Europe, comprised of the privileged political elite.[1] In post-war Eastern Europe, it was soon widely recognised that membership of the communist party didn’t just give you political standing, but also provided access to numerous socio-economic advantages. Possession of a party card opened the door to numerous ‘perks’, including the allocation of a superior standard of accommodation, access to special shops (containing domestically produced goods in short supply and imported luxury items from the West) and holidays in special health resorts. Little wonder then, that many people have subsequently justified their decision to join the East European communist parties, as motivated not by  any genuine ideological or political commitment, but simply to ‘get along in life’. The higher up the power structure you climbed, the more levels of privilege reached ridiculous proportions. While official salary levels among the nomenklatura (communist-era bureaucrats) remained relatively low in monetary terms, in practice communist officials could supplement their basic income through corruption, bribery and blat, and they also enjoyed a range of other ‘perks’.

 

The Early Years

 

The conditions of general scarcity and shortage that predominated during the early period of post-war reconstruction combined with the general feeling of insecurity and fear spawned by the Stalinist-era terror as political purges swept across Eastern Europe, meant that in the 1940s many newly appointed officials were keen to ‘prove’ their loyalty to communism, through shows of sacrifice and austerity, and as a result the accumulation of excessive material luxuries by the political elite was generally discouraged. However, even during these early years, communist bureaucrats enjoyed many ‘perks’, including a superior standard of accommodation and access to chauffer driven cars, special shops and restaurants. The gratuitous level of luxury enjoyed by some members of the Stalinist-era political elite in Eastern Europe has also been documented. One example is the opulent living conditions enjoyed by Boleslaw Bierut (Leader of the Polish Workers Party’ from 1948 until his death in March 1956),  recounted in detail by Józef Światło, a high ranking Polish security officer who defected to the West in 1953. According to Światło, Bierut’s living quarters comprised ‘No less than ten lavishly and luxuriously furnished palaces … all fitted out with legendary magnificence’.

 

Boleslaw Bierut (Polish Leader 1948-1956) relaxing with a newspaper, probably in one of his many luxury palaces. Bierut was notorious for his opulent lifestyle.

 

Światło described Belweder, a palace in Warsaw that acted as Bierut’s principal residence between 1945-1952, in more detail:

 

“Inside there is a hunting room decorated in pale brown, like the deerskin with which all the furniture, even the superb armchairs are upholstered. Their backs are made of special wickerwork, brought in India … Ebony furniture is upholstered with the best leather. Along one wall, on a low buffet are selected southern fruits, imported from abroad, sweetmeats of all kinds, foreign cigarettes and selected fruit juices. Along another wall, on a larger buffet are vodkas, brandies, liqueurs, foreign wines. And beside the batteries of bottles, on foreign porcelain dishes and silver platters are caviar, smoked salmon, lobster and the most delicate cold hors d’oeuvre of meat and fish… an entire state apparatus exists to ensure that there should be no lack of the best and most valuable things at Comrade Bierut’s table. General Komar, head of the second department, used to send people to France specially to purchase wine and southern vegetables for Comrade Bierut and the party members…”[2]

 

Światło also went on to describe a similar level of opulence at Konsevian, Bierut’s summer home:

 

“There are 18 rooms in the villa, all newly decorated. Bierut normally spends the summer there, in rooms hung with old pictures and filled with carved masterpieces. He has at his personal disposal a tailor, a chef, a hairdresser, apart from about 230 servants in the little palaces and residences”.[3]

 

Elite Lifestyles in the Post-Stalinist Era

 

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the extensive privileges enjoyed by the East European political elite became even more apparent. In East Germany, for example, the party leaders had initially taken up residence in a set of elegant villas located near the Schönhausen Palace (used as the offices of the head of state of the GDR and then, from 1964, as the State Guest House for visiting dignitaries), in Berlin.  In 1956 however, the SED leadership approved the building of a luxurious ‘secure living zone’ for the party leadership near Wandlitz (about 30 km north of East Berlin). Construction of the Waldsiedlung complex was undertaken between 1958 and 1960. The completed complex covered a total area of 2km² and consisted of 23 luxury detached family houses; a club house with private cinema; a gourmet restaurant; a shop stocking a selection of luxury Western goods; a market garden; a health centre; a shooting range;  a swimming pool; a sports field and several tennis courts. In the 1970s a new four-lane autobahn was also constructed, to provide a direct connection between Waldsiedlung and Berlin. The area surrounding the complex was officially designated as a protected area for ‘game research’ , decreed off limits to all ordinary Germans and  troops were stationed to guard the entrances to the complex, which could only be entered with special passes. The SED elite lived here in luxury from 1960-1989.[4] SED leader Walter Ulbricht (1950-1971) not only enjoyed the comforts of a magnificent 25 roomed house in Waldsielung, but also had a holiday home specially built on the small Baltic Island of Vilm, which was subsequently deleted from maps to avoid unwanted attention! [5]

 

Many of the other East European leaderships followed suit and also built their own private luxury accommodation complexes, for example those in Katowice (Poland);  Buda (Hungary); Sosea (Bucharest) and Boyano-Knyazheva (Sofia). Construction of these ‘privileged communities’ were funded by state money and because the apartments were given ‘high priority’ status they were built to the highest standards, employing the most highly skilled craftsmen and  using high quality materials directly imported from the west. The complexes were naturally located in the most attractive and sought after areas; in many cases the land required was fraudulently appropriated, with claims that the land was needed to construct important public buildings, and in cases where the desired area was already inhabited, the occupants were forcibly resettled irrespective of cost.

 

Hirszowicz claims that, by the 1970s:

 

“The practice of occupying sites for hunting grounds, holiday homes and sporting grounds to be used by the privileged few (usually higher officials) was common. The users of these facilities often had at their disposal special transport facilities and personnel; for the more important ones even airports and special highways and roads leading to remote spots were earmarked”.[6]

 

One good example is provided by the case of Abramow, a village in South-Eastern Poland:

 

“The village was situated in the Bieszczady mountains where a special micro-climate favoured a particularly fine breed of deer. The decision was made to use the area as a hunting ground for dignitaries. In 1968, 3000 ha were fenced off, and over the next few years this was increased to 7,000 ha. The ‘official’ reason was that the area was needed by the armed forces for strategic reasons. By 1980, the hunting grounds extended over 60,000 ha and the intention was to expand them further. Buffer zones around the hunting grounds were also fenced off and the families living in these zones were compulsorily resettled; those who complied could move to towns where they obtained a flat immediately, but those who resisted were removed forcibly during the night and dumped in one of the dilapidated houses in the mountains abandoned by the Ukrainian population in the late 1940s and pressure was put on them to stop resisting the compulsory resettlement order. In the ‘militarised’ zone, shooting lodges were erected and special landing strips for planes were constructed to make access easier for the visiting dignitaries”.[7]

 

However, perhaps the most extreme example of excessive elite privilege during the latter decades of communist rule in Eastern Europe was provided by Nicolae Ceausescu. The fact that the Romanian leader and his family lived in the lap of luxury while most ordinary Romanians lived under conditions of enforced austerity and extreme repression, struggling with deprivation and poverty, has been well documented. During his time as leader (1965-1989) Ceausescu owned over 15 luxury palaces around Romania, including a riverside villa at Snagov, a lakeside resort at Cernavodă, a mountainside lodge at Braşov and the Primaverii Palace in Bucharest, which had rooms filled with priceless silk, porcelain, marble, silverware, chandeliers and carpets. Ceausescu also acquired a large collection of valuable gifts and ‘trinkets’ from other world leaders, many of which – including a leopard skin, a pair of silver enamelled doves and an ornamental bronze yak – were recently auctioned off in Bucharest.[8]

 

This level of luxurious living was even extended to non-human members of the Ceausescu family. Ceausescu’s pet dog, Corbu (who was awarded the rank of ‘Colonel’ in the Romanian Army!) was often driven through Bucharest in a limousine accompanied by his own motorcade, and there are reports that the Romanian ambassador in London had official orders to visit UK supermarket Sainsbury’s every week to buy dog biscuits for Corbu, which were then sent back to Romania in the diplomatic bag![9]

 

A pair of enameled and silvered doves, originally a gift to Romanian Leader Nicolae Ceausescu from the Shah of Iran in 1977. The doves were auctioned in January 2012. The Ceausescu family lived in the lap of luxury while millions of ordinary Romanians struggled to get by.

 

 




[1] Milovan Đilas, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (New York: Praeger, 1957)

[2] Józef Światło, Za Kulisami Bezpieki Ipartii), [‘Behind the Scenes of the Security Forces and the Party’], (Free Europe Committee Booklet: New York, 1954)

[3]Józef Światło, Za Kulisami Bezpieki Ipartii [‘Behind the Scenes of the Security Forces and the Party’], (Free Europe Committee Booklet: New York, 1954)

[4] Robert Hopkins, ‘Restored, a monument to East Germany’s hypocritical communist elite’, The Telegraph, 30 December 2011. Also see Wikipedia for more details about the Waldsielung complex.

[5] Mervyn Matthews, Privilege in the Soviet Union: A Study of Elite Life-Styles under Communism, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), p.166

[6] Maria Hirszowicz, Coercion and Control in Communist Society: The Visible Hand in a Command Economy, (London: St Martin’s Press, 1986) p.100

[7] Maria Hirszowicz, Coercion and Control in Communist Society: The Visible Hand in a Command Economy, (London: St Martin’s Press, 1986) p.100

April 23, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

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