Inside the hidden network that smuggled Western culture to Ceaușescu’s Romania

Inside the hidden network that smuggled Western culture to Ceaușescu’s Romania

Inspired by his travels to China and North Korea in the 1970s, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu spent the last two decades of his reign furiously clamping down on freedom of speech and culture. But many were willing to run the gauntlet to bring censored Western movies and music to the masses in a makeshift underground network — despite the ever-present threat of the secret police.

22 December 2020

The police arrived halfway through the film, interrupting as the first of two VHS tapes playing Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 saga Jesus of Nazareth was nearing its end. The 30-strong audience scattered quickly, leaving the screening’s organisers — Virgil Frate and an associate — to face the officer alone.

In was a Sunday afternoon in 1980s Romania, in a grimy, trash-strewn neighbourhood of a Transylvanian village called Răchita, some 15km from Frate’s hometown of Sebeș. It wasn’t the first screening he had organised, but it was the first away from his usual turf. It was also absolutely illegal. Besides shutting down the screening, the police confiscated Frate’s VHS player and five of his tapes. His offence was the illegal screening of a religious, Western film.

Depriving a nation of knowledge and information from the world outside was central to Ceaușescu’s strategy to subdue his people

Whole swathes of films, books and other cultural output were banned by Nicolae Ceaușescu, the dictator who ruled socialist Romania with an iron fist between 1965 to 1989. The last decade of his reign was marked by severe food and heating shortages, as well as rampant censorship.

Following diplomatic trips to North Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, and China in 1971, Ceaușescu was inspired to adopt new laws prohibiting all “foreign ideas”, as well as culture judged contrary to socialist values. By the first half of the 80s, Romanians were only able to access two hours of television each day — mainly political propaganda. Depriving a nation of knowledge and information from the world outside was central to Ceaușescu’s strategy to subdue his people.

But the appetite for entertainment was comparable with that for food: a considerable phenomenon considering that, towards the end of the 80s, hundreds of thousands of Romanians were slowly withering from malnutrition.

Romanians like Frate were resourceful and developed ways to fill in these cultural gaps through a market of illicit entertainment products, smuggled inside the country from west of the Berlin Wall. An informal, underground market of western films and music emerged, with people trading illicit VHS tapes featuring American heroes like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone, for vinyl discs with rock albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

A state-sanctioned TV show from 1986, praising Ceaușescu. Image: Romanian Communism Online Photo Collection

Pilots, cargo ship workers, and athletes –– some of the only people allowed to exit the country at the time — smuggled whatever Romanians couldn’t find back home. Among powdered milk and Levi’s jeans, the most sought-after products were the ones that helped people ease their misery the most: VHS tapes, cassettes, and vinyl discs.

These films and albums provided an escape for a subdued nation, rankled so bitterly by an oppressive regime. Once films and music were smuggled into the country, they had to be translated and distributed. But getting them to the people also required a whole underground network of contributors and collaborators willing to risk prosecution from the country’s secret police.

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In 1980, Irina Margareta Nistor started working as a translator for the Romanian television’s censorship committee –– her first job out of university. There, she translated films for the people who decided what was acceptable to be aired on national TV.

The abundant feasts Tom and Jerry ruined as they chased each other on dinner tables were removed. No Lamborghinis or Ferraris were to be shown. Neither were swimming pools and luxurious villas, nor any depiction of religion.

Then, five years into the job, Nistor received an offer from one of her colleagues to translate and voice over films smuggled from the West. An avid cinephile, she was compelled by the idea of seeing so many films, and getting paid for it.

She met her contact a little after 3pm in front of an imposing, large house just a short walk from her workplace at Romanian Television. After she descended into its cavernous basement, she was greeted by a sombre, middle-aged man who introduced himself as Teodor Zamfir.

After successfully completing a test run –– a voiceover for Dr. Zhivago –– Zamfir hired her to translate films he had procured from English to Romanian. From 1985 until 1989, Nistor translated some 3000 illegal films from Zamfir’s one-windowed basement, minutes away from the place she translated for the censorship committee.

“I was part of two worlds ­–– a censored world and an uncensored world,” said Nistor in an interview exactly 35 years since she started working for Zamfir. Their relationship, she says, was cold and transactional. “We both suspected each other of working for the secret police,” she said.

Speaking from her family house in Bucharest, where she lives with her cat Ritz, Nistor, now 63, wears her light blond hair in a bun. Dark red lipstick and a pair of clear-frame glasses knit her features together as she reminisces about her double life. Sat in the basement-level room, with a pair of headphones, a mixer, a mic and a small TV, she translated about six to eight films every shift, which ran between 3:30pm, when she left her day job, until midnight. The tapes rolled continuously, forcing her to translate in real time without pausing or replaying sequences.

Zamfir would then sell the tapes nationwide through an underground network of distributors. He received the lion’s share of the profits, while Nistor was paid per tape. “I was lucky he didn’t realise how passionate I was,” said Nistor, “I would’ve paid him to let me see those films.”

“I was part of two worlds ­— a censored world and an uncensored world. We both suspected each other of working for the secret police”

Romanians crowded into each other’s living rooms to watch films translated by Nistor, in covert settings like the one in which Frate had organised his screening. Few people had their own TV, which was worth as much as a new car and required would-be purchasers to join a hefty waiting list. The lucky few would partner up with anyone with a VHS player to organise ticketed screenings for the whole neighbourhood.

“We collected the money at the entrance, then we split the money between us,” said Frate. “I would get about 80 per cent because I had the player and the tapes, then my associate got his share for providing the location and the TV.”

Irina Nistor.

Thick blankets nailed over the windows would block the view of snooping police informers, while scenes from films like Rocky and Terminator lit Romanians’ faces. People were also mesmerised by Nistor’s high-pitched, husky voice on the dubbing track, which would soon rank among the country’s most known.

“Our perspective changed because of those films, it was an open door to the west and the few films and music we had, helped erode the [communist] system in our minds,” said Radu Rădescu, who watched many films translated by Nistor as a teenager.

The latest fashions, luxury cars and abundant amounts of foods were all things that Romanians weren’t normally allowed to see on TV. “At first, I thought that it all couldn’t be real; I thought it was just fiction,” said Frate. “I enjoyed it but it just didn’t seem possible in my mind. Maybe others hoped to live like that, but for me it was something out of reach.”

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A VHS tape had about three films on it and sometimes, if you were lucky, also a music video. While cassettes and vinyl discs with music were hard to come by through legal means, people coming back from abroad, luggage filled with products, always made sure to also bring back the latest hits.

Once music was smuggled into the country, similar to VHS tapes, they were copied and informally exchanged between everyone. “We felt a sort of solidarity between us, so we were exchanging music for free,” said Rădescu.

This sense of comradery was particularly noticeable among certain groups. Doru Ionescu arrived in Bucharest in 1984 to begin his studies. He lived in the country’s biggest campus where, he thinks, was also one of the biggest black markets for music.

Every room had a cassette player, and every third room would have a magnetophonon, he recalls. Unlike cassette players, magnetophonons could duplicate and copy the magnetic bands in cassettes that recorded the music. That made them rarer and more expensive. If you wanted the newest Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin albums, the student campus was the place to go, explained Ionescu, now a well-known rock historian in Romania.

Andrei Voiculescu.

Despite lacking images, music was also a way for people to learn more about the outside world. Rădescu still remembers when Donna Summer’s hit “Thank God It’s Friday” entered the top charts on Radio Free Europe. “We wouldn’t understand why Friday was such a big deal in that song,” said Rădescu. “For us, Saturday was a day like any other, one where you would go to school and our parents to work. That’s when we realised that Friday was the start of the weekend in the West.”

Broadcast from Munich with the support of the US government, Radio Free Europe was a safe haven for Romanians deprived of music who were desperate to record their favourite songs on magnetophons. Despite being prohibited by the regime, at one point, Andrei Voiculescu, host of the station’s Romanian top hits show, had 5 million listeners.

“If you could understand English, some lyrics would incite freedom, and I’m sure there were sensible people asking themselves questions,” said Voiculescu, who during his time in Munich, sent discs to his grandmother in Romania, who used to sell them to make some extra money.

The secret police, of course, knew what was happening. At some point, Nistor was summoned by her boss at the Romanian television after they became unable to ignore a growing mountain of evidence. He cautioned her after he heard her voice on a bootlegged copy of Jesus of Nazareth, the same film that got Frate into trouble that Sunday afternoon. It was a scary moment, she admits, but it didn’t make her stop.

“That was the moment [when I knew that I had] annoyed them the most, but nothing serious happened,” said Nistor, who says she still doesn’t know why she was never arrested. “That was their system, they wanted you to be afraid, and it drove them mad if they couldn’t.”

It was widely known that the authorities also benefited from the underground market, and some were even involved in smuggling films and music themselves. To keep his business afloat, Zamfir supplied senior people in the communist party with free movies, including Ceaușescu’s son.

When Frate got his VHS player confiscated that night, he was able to get it back with the help of an acquaintance, but only received four of his five confiscated tapes. The police officer in question kept one for himself.

The corruption-choked regime simply couldn’t gauge the impact of the underground market. But neither did Nistor, Frate and the others, who only saw the real impact after 1989, when a bloody revolution put an end to the regime by executing Ceaușescu and his wife. Nistor and Voiculescu have been celebrated as icons ever since. A documentary film directed by Romanian Ilinca Călugareanu, Chuck Norris vs Communism, traces their escapades.

Nistor believes the underground entertainment market was ultimately in the regime’s interest, with films and music keeping people distracted from plotting a potential revolution. Others, such as Alexandra Bărdan, a researcher focusing on the informal mass-media market under Ceaușescu, agrees that smuggled cultural items didn’t necessarily trigger the revolution against communism, as some officials would have feared. “It wasn’t a resistance movement,” said Bărdan, “people were trying to survive and create a sort of normality.”

While these smuggled treasure troves of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies didn’t trigger the revolution per se, they did help Romanian people understand that there was a very different world beyond the Iron Curtain. Underground distribution networks weren’t just a means of survival, but ultimately a way of bringing people together and broadening their collective horizons. When protestors ultimately did take to the streets on 22 December 1989, it was because they knew there was a way of living differently.

“I stopped [organising screenings] after the revolution, there were more and more VHS players and no one would do it for money anymore,” said Frate. “I didn’t do it to make a fortune, but for fun, for some extra money and for the status. I didn’t realise it was so widespread.”

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