The Surveillance State in Socialist Romania

800px-Flag_of_Romania_(1965-1989).svgThe BBC is running a tragic but fascinating article about political oppression under the Ceausescu regime in socialist Romania. The article tells the story of Carmen Bugan, whose father, Ion Bugan, was repeatedly spied on, arrested, and tortured for political dissent. Since 1999, the files of the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, have been available to those who were investigated during the socialist period, and Carmen has uncovered the files kept on her family. In the process, she has revealed publicly the true extent of the surveillance and suffering her family (and many other Romanians) endured.

Like every socialist country, Romania under Ceausescu failed economically. As Carmen Bugan describes it, “This was a Romania of food shortages, frequent power cuts, and ferocious reprisals for any form of dissent… Evening bread queues often ended in fist fights.” In order to quell any calls for reform, his government brutally suppressed any opposition, including that of Ion Bugan. Bugan agitated for political reform and attempted to flee the country, but more than once was arrested and sentenced to hard labor.

Part of the sentence was a five-month period of torture by solitary confinement and starvation while wearing 45kg of chains day and night, in the “special” wing of the prison at Alba Iulia… My father’s own account of this period is hair-raising: he was fed once every two days, and allowed to wash three times in the entire period he was held there.

Even after being released from prison, the Securitate constantly spied on the Bugan family using microphones placed throughout their home. The family’s activities were recorded in great detail, showing how complete the surveillance was:

There are records of dreams we recounted to each other in the mornings. The transcriber knew us so well, he or she was able to read and duly note our moods. Some even took sides in family arguments, noting on the margins of the transcripts who they thought was right. It’s like having had a one-sided relationship with these invisible broadcasters of our tormented souls.

One theme that emerges from the Bugan family story is that in addition to all the economic problems and human rights abuses, socialism also breaks down some of the most fundamental social bonds between individuals. For instance, family units are destroyed, as when Bugan was forced to divorce his wife in 1985, for fear that his political views might “corrupt” his spouse and children.

But the problems ran even deeper. In particular, trust becomes impossible under a surveillance regime, even amongst people who seem to be above suspicion. The first time Ion Bugan was arrested, it was a “friend” who reported him to the Securitate. Likewise, Carmen Bugan had companions at school who kept secret files on any remarks she made about her father’s political views. And the Securitate did not stop at spying, but actively worked to trick the Bugans into saying something illegal.

As Carmen Bugan recalls:

Another example is a “legend” (a technical term used by the Securitate) by which an “Amnesty International employee” came to ask mum about my father and whether we were persecuted because of him. The officer was trained to have a German accent, and to look nervous. He invited her to a hotel in town to talk “out of the reach of the microphones.”

This was a trap to throw my mother in prison for speaking with foreigners about my father. Again, we now have the official record against which we can test our own memory of that day when the man came to the house. After he left, my mother said: “No-one is this worried about us, I don’t trust this stranger.” It was a lack of trust that saved her.

This is the sort of example that illustrates perfectly Mises’ argument that socialist states are fundamentally irrational. They not only destroy economies; they destroy society itself.

H/T Carmen Dorobăţ

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