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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Inside Ceausescu’s Romania: An Unquestionably Efficient Police State


In 1989, when peaceful revolutions were sweeping across Eastern Europe, the fall of communism in Romania was marked by a higher level of violence and bloodshed than elsewhere in the region. This was due, at least in part, to the repressive nature of the regime established by Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989) and his loyal secret police, the Securitate. Estimates suggest that the Securitate had a higher proportion of representatives per population than anywhere else in the communist block and that by the 1980s as many as one person in thirty had been recruited as a Securitate  informer. In this article, guest author Nelson Duque considers the deadly combination of Ceausescu’s distinctive style of dynastic socialism with the establishment of a brutally efficient police state, which enabled him to maintain an iron grip on power until the dying days of communist rule across Eastern Europe. Nelson briefly highlights the implications of some of the key policies enforced by Ceausescu and emphasises the key role of the Securitate in successfully ensuring the lack of any significant opposition, through the creation of a climate of fear and brutality.


Inside Ceausescu’s Romania: An Unquestionably Efficent Police State.


By Nelson Duque.


In post-war Romania the accession of the communists to power relied heavily on the use of coercion. Romania’s infamous secret police, the Department of State Security (DSS) or Securitate were established in August 1948, fashioned on the Stalinist-era NKVD, and trained by Soviet ‘technicians’. Throughout the communist era, the Securitate were used to maintain the Communist party’s hegemony in the face of any (real or imagined) opposition. The task assigned to the Securitate was to remove all enemies of the regime, by whatever means necessary. To this end, police oppression was widely employed, justified by those in power as a necessary means to weed out ‘class enemies’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in the name of national security. Romania’s first Communist leader Gheorghiu-Dej (1945-1964) was the first to instigate a reign of terror; Dennis Deletant describes the Romanian people under Dej as having a ‘sense that they were being hunted’. However, Deletant goes on to describe Dej’s successor Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule (1965-1989) as an era marked by ‘fear rather than terror’, because Ceausescu did not copy Dej’s mass arrests and deportation policies on such an equal footing (Dennis Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania 1965-1989, Hurst: 1995). Surveillance, coercion and police terror not only remained hallmarks of Ceausescu’s Romania however, but many of these crimes were documented by the Securitate themselves. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of communism in Romania, extensive archived Securitate files totalled 35 kilometres of documents, 25 km of which comprised files containing information about victims of the Securitate, 4 km of files contained information about police informers, with 6km of other, various attached folders. Lavinia Stan has estimated that every metre of the archive contains 5000 documents and each individual file contained, on average, 200 pages in length.


The Securitate


It is still not known precisely how many Romanians were employed by the Securitate, partly as a consequence of the lack of material released since the collapse of Communism. Deletant estimates that from a population of 23 million people in 1989, available records indicate total DSS personnel of 38, 682.Virgil Magureanu, director of the SRI (Serviciul Roman de Informatii), which was formed on 26 March 1990 as the successor to the Securitate, estimates that in 1989 total Securitate personnel totalled only 14, 259, although this figure does not include those engaged in activities outside Romania, and Lavinia Stan suggests the continuity of influence between the Securitate and the SRI means that these figures cannot be trusted. The variance in figures between Magureanu and Deletant illustrates a long running debate over just how many individuals were employed by the Securitate. What is further unknown were how many people were hired to act as informers to the secret police, although this figure is considered to be extensive: Deletant simply categorises ‘tens of thousands of informers’ whom the Securitate, ‘by exploiting fear, was able to recruit’. It has been estimated that by the 1980s as many as one in every 30 Romanians was working as a Securitate informant.


The feared Romanian Securitate had a reputation for brutal efficiency.


The Securitate’s own records claimed that 97 percent of all informers were recruited voluntarily because of their ‘political and patriotic sentiment’, 1.5 percent were recruited through offers of financial compensation, and 1.5 percent through the use of blackmail with compromising evidence’.Frankly such statistics are farcical. Lavinia Stan estimates that between 400,000-700,000 part time informers were ‘employed’ by the Securitate and the chances of 97 percent of these being loyal to the regime is highly unlikely considering the low living standards and repressive policies in place under Ceausescu. Similar to the East German Stasi, fear was an essential method of recruitment employed by the Securitate, with threats and blackmail routinely used to coerce informants. It is likely that people dared not refuse the ‘offer’ of informing out of fear that they too would end up on the Securitate black list, marked as an ‘enemy’ or opponent of the state. The consequences could be serious; for example, World War Two veteran George Marzanca refused to collaborate with the Securitate and within a month he had been arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment, on spurious grounds. In reality then there was often little real ‘choice’ in the matter; so perhaps it is little wonder that many people ‘willingly’ accepted informant status (Lavinia Stan, Inside the Securitate Archives).


Inside Ceausescu’s Police State


Ceausescu’s Romania was a unique case in Socialist Eastern Europe. From 1965, Ceausescu endeavoured to establish a dynastic form of Socialism; heavily reliant on his own ‘cult of personality’ with power concentrated in the hands of his close relatives including his wife Elena and their son Nicu. Ben Fowkes sees this relationship between family and state as detrimental to society, describing Ceausescu as ‘both incurably Stalinist and fiercely repressive’ (Ben Fowkes, The rise and fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Macmillan: 1995). Unsurprisingly, the secret police were some of Ceausescu’s most loyal agents, carrying out his will during the 23 years of his rule. During this time far reaching policies such as widespread austerity measures, ‘systematisation’ and pro-natalism were all enforced by the Securitate. These policies illustrate prime examples of how the Ceausescus’ directly interfered in and influenced the lives of ordinary Romanians and of how the Stasi employed insidious and brutal tactics to ensure a lack of opposition.


Ceausescu’s policy of ‘Systematisation’ (rural relocation linked to urban planning) destroyed at least half of Romania’s 13,000 villages, allocating the rural population to new fangled ‘agro-towns’ (Tony Judt, Post war A History of Europe since 1945, Pimlico: 2007) The majority of the villages destined to be destroyed were predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities (Hungarians, Germans and Roma). The targeting of ethnic Hungarians in a town called Dej met with initial opposition from Laszlo Tokes, who was a pastor with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Tokes gained widespread support within his parish and as a result he was soon targeted by the Securitate. Tokes and his friends were placed under constant surveillance and subject to daily harassment until pressure on the clergy eventually led to Tokes removal and enforced ‘deportation’ to a village 40 kilometers from Dej, in 1982 . The example of Tokes is telling in a number of respects: demonstrating the use of extensive coercion by Securitate agents; illustrating the lengths to which the regime would go to get rid of an opponent and exemplifying the power of the state over the Reformed Church; as members of the clergy could be forced to denounce their staff at the will of the party.


The case of Tokes further highlights the use of intimidation, brutality and terror tactics by the Securitate. A second attempt to deport Tokes was issued on 20 October 1989; this time he was ordered to leave the town of Timisoara, where he had been reluctantly appointed after the involvement of the US senate. After his refusal, on 2 November, four attackers armed with knives broke into the flat, ‘while Securitate agents looked on’. Fortunately Tokes survived thanks to his friends fighting the attackers off, but this instance indicates the willingness of the Securitate to tolerate state sanctioned murder. The second attempt to deport Tokes was met by a united public outcry from both Romanians and Hungarians. Demonstrations in Timisoara on the 16 and 17 December 1989 were combated with heavy-handed brutality from the Army and the Securitate. The number of casualties was initially estimated at several thousand, but subsequent investigations put the figure at 122. The brutal repression in Timisoara was directly ordered by Elena Ceausescu while Nicolae was on state business abroad, and she subsequently also ordered the cremation of 40 bodies to avoid their identification. This event was to play a clinical role in triggering the revolution of 22 December 1989, which would overthrow the Ceausescus’ from power and lead to the collapse of Communism in Romania (K. McDermott and M. Stibbe (Eds), Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe, Berg: 20o6).


Elena Ceausescu was also responsible for the serious death rate amongst women through her influential pro-natal policies. As chairperson of the National Women’s Council she nationalised what should have been a private affair, supported by her husband’s rhetoric that a pregnant woman was ‘everybody’s concern’ because family life was a ‘socialised private problem’ (Mark Almond, The rise and fall of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, Chapmans: 1992) . Concern over falling birth rates meant that the megalomania of the Ceausescus’ thus even extended into the bedroom, with propaganda claiming that it was a woman’s duty to rear children for her country. Methods of birth control, including condoms and the contraceptive pill, were either not available or routinely failed quality control. Disturbingly, this resulted in abortion being the only means of contraception for many women, and even this was criminalised in 1966, forcing many women to risk illegal abortions. Securitate agents were stationed at gynaecological wards and were supposed to report on any women who requested an abortion, although they could often be bribed to ‘turn a blind eye’. However, it has been estimated that between 1966 – 1989 this policy resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women and over 100,000 institutionalised children kept in appalling orphanages (Tony Judt, Post war A History of Europe since 1945, Pimlico: 2007). 


Maintaining Control, Ensuring Conformity


Due to the effectivness of their repression and brutality, Ceausescu’s Securitate were described as ‘the envy of other dictators’ (Walter Laqueur, Europe in our Time: A History 1945-1992, Penguin: 1992). As a result of their influence, there was little dissidence and virtually no organised opposition to Ceausescu’s regime. The example of Paul Goma, a dissident writer, illustrates the serious consequences that could result from individuals who were brave enough to take a public stand against the injustices of the regime. From the mid 1970’s Goma began to highlight the human rights abuses taking place under the Ceausescu regime, and even sent a letter to Ceausescu in early 1977 asking for his signature to express solidarity with ‘Charter 77’, the human rights movement in Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly, Goma became a target for the Securitate shortly afterwards: he was harassed by threatening phone calls; his street was cordoned off by the police and most notoriously Horst Stumpf, a former professional boxer, broke into his flat three times within a matter of days, assaulting Goma on each occasion whilst the police did not intervene despite being called. In November 1977, Goma was forced into exile in France.


Writer Paul Goma's public criticism of Ceausescu's regime led to his becoming a target for the Securitate. After being subjected to harrassment and physical attacks, Goma left Romania for France in 1977.


This lack of opposition in either the political or the public sphere also explains how Ceausescu managed to put forward such highly ambitious, yet absurd, economic policies. Official statistics claimed that throughout the 1970’s there was an economic growth rate of between 6-9 percent annually in Romania, with an investment rate of up to 30 percent.Yet the regime was outwardly lying about its economic development. In reality,  Romania was impoverished and starving, with Ceausescu’s austerity measures involvi ng the exportation of almost all agricultural surplus; frequent power cuts and shortages of basic goods, foodstuffs and medical supplies with the population dependent on ration cards. Ceausescu may have succeeded in paying off Romania’s $13 million foreign debt by the end of the 1980s, but his oppressive policies forced many of his own people to near-starvation.


When communism in Romania finally collapsed in December 1989, the Ceausescus’ were the only East European leaders to face immediate trial. A summary of the Ceausescus’ crimes (and those of the Securitate) are documented in their trial transcript, from 25 December 1989. Here the prosecutor accuses Nicolae Ceausescu of ‘Crimes against the people … Genocide … armed attack on the people … destruction of buildings and state institutions, undermining of the national economy’. The prosecution makes disturbing reading, Nicolae and Elena do not acknowledge their crimes and the reality of their circumstances, despite being accused of killing children and leaving people with ‘nothing to eat, no heating, no electricity’.  The prosecutor Gica Popo also demanded to know who gave the order to shoot in the Timisoara uprising, and surprisingly Elena and Nicolae blame the Securitate, accusing them of being ‘terrorists’ who killed indiscriminately;  they also deny being in charge of the Securitate,  although it was common knowledge that the Ceausescus’ had authorised their acts of terror. Following a hurried trial by military tribunal, both Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were sentenced to immediate execution via firing squad.



Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were tried by a Military Council and sentenced to execution via firing squad for crimes against the Romanian people on 25 December 1989.


It is clear that Ceausescu’s Romania was an unquestionably efficient police state. The lives of many Romanians were dominated by fear. The crimes of murder, brutality, coercion, deportation and genocide were all associated with the leadership and with the notorious  Securitate, right up until the dying days of communism in 1989. The legacy of Ceausescu’s reign still haunts Romania today, as they continue to try to break from their repressive past.


About the Author:


Nelson Duque has just completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, graduating in July 2011. During the final year of his degree, Nelson specialised in the study of Communist Eastern Europe. Nelson will begin a PGCE at the University of Warwick in September 2011.



July 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments