A booming economy, an abundance of food and fresh produce overflowing from baskets, a seemingly happy and healthy working population, beautifully manicured scenery and immaculate cities– well, heck, who wouldn’t have wanted to go live in communist Romania by the looks of these photos? In 1964, American LIFE magazine photographer Carl Mydans dropped in for a visit to what was then better known as Rumania, a communist state occupied by the USSR (America’s enemy number 1).
What interests me about this photostory portraying the Eastern European nation in warm vintage color film, is the telltale signs that the photographer was closely chaperoned during his reportage of the country, likely never left unattended for more than a fleeting moment. Whatever Mydans pointed his camera at reveals a suspiciously perfect image of Communist Rumania that the regime would have wanted to communicate to the rest of the world. The result is a flawless piece of communist propaganda ironically provided by an American publication.
Whether or not this story ever made it past the editor’s desk and into the pages of LIFE magazine– I can’t be sure. But I’m going to go with: not.
While life in 1960s Rumania looks just peachy, in truth, the country was being ruled by a communist-dominated government that had fraudulently come to power by fabricating a 70% majority of the vote. The communist leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, had been in power for seventeen years and wouldn’t let it go until his death the following year in 1965. During this period, Romania’s vast natural resources were continuously drained by mixed Soviet-Romanian companies set up for unilateral exploitative purposes.
The government severely curtailed political liberties and targeted “enemies of the state” and “parasite elements” to punish, exile or force into labour camps and prisons, sometimes for life. So you can start to understand why photographer Carl Mydans might have been all too happy to oblige in taking the nice, staged photos they wanted him to take.
You might have already noticed the similarities between these photos and the ones we see coming out of North Korea today. That overly boisterous display of strength, good hard-working folks standing around huge piles of food, eerily empty streets– textbook propaganda of a communist state?
Just about the only “real” thing about Mydan’s photo story seems to be the candid shots of Romania’s rural countryside villages, untouched by brutalist architecture and futurist manifestos…
I have a good feeling this old world Romania might still in fact be there? In the end, this photo story might have done its job in convincing me to make a trip down to Romania after all…