1968 in Romania
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Introduction to 1968
The why of the events happening in 1968 has been debated over the past years. Several individual building blocks came together that year. One is that Europe had to do with an unusual surge in births after WW2, creating a large age demographic that were teenagers by the time 1960 came knocking. Second was the new awareness that for the parents the happiness of their children was important to others. Also the lowering of the threshold for a higher (public) education (Universities became accesable for much larger group) played a part. Technical innovations also were of influence. TV formed a window to the World previous generations did not have. TV also brought events like the Vietnam War and public events like the Civil Rights March to the living room. Cheap recordplayers offered the opportunity for musical artists to reach out to an enormous audience. Add that to growing unemployment and economical difficulties and you’ll have the ingredients for revolution

What was it all about in Romania

The sixties were turbulent years in Romania. First of all Stalin died at the start of the decade. Strongheaed their leader Gheorghiu-Dej, a loyal Stalinist, opposed the wish of the new powers in the Soviet Union to reform. Even worse, while the Soviets were arguing with the Chinese Dej happily welcomed them to Bucharest. A risky statement as he would learn when he left for medical treatment to Moscow in 1965. Never to return to Bucharest, he died in the hospital under unclear circumstances. He was succeeded by the previously obscure Nicolae Ceauşescu. One of the first things he did was, following the example of Czechoslovakia, to change the name of the country to "Republica Socialistă România" (RSR, Socialist Republic of Romania). In his early years in power, Ceauşescu was genuinely popular, both at home and abroad. Agricultural goods were abundant, consumer goods began to reappear, there was a cultural thaw and international tourism was welcomed to the shores of the black sea. Like neighbor Bulgaria this caused for influences from the West. This independent foreign policy challenged  the authority of the Soviet Union. But Ceauşescu  played a smarter game then Dej charming Western leaders in a way he became untouchable for the Moscow regime. He loosened social and cultural restrictions declaring in the Western media that “artists had the right to decided how to write, paint or compose”. Of course their talent should always be for the benefit of the socialist state.

1968 became the big test for Nicolae’s policy. The image the outside (Western) world had became close to what Czechoslovakia wanted. Socialism with a human face. But Ceauşescu wasn’t forgotten how Dej ended in a Moscow hospital and one can imagine he did not want to make the same mistake again. Not with the international currency rolling in with the 3 million tourists a year enjoying the sun at the Black sea shores. On May 10 a leading Soviet ideologist condemned democratization and liberalization in Czechoslovakia , Yugoslavia and Romania and claimed that it is supported by an American undermining doctrine. A letter from Alexei Kosygin included harsh criticism of the countries liberalization of travel regulations. On July 12 the Czechoslovakian Communist Party steering committee discussed the invitation to take part in a meeting in Warsaw on July 15. They decide not to participate unless Romania and Yugoslavia also took part. This put Ceauşescu in a delicate political dilemma. He supported Dubcek’s ideas but was not too keen on getting the Soviet limelight also pointed at him. He travels to Warsaw and  cleverly gives his support to Czechoslovakia’s own right to follow their political course but also warns against foreign interference. Romania was not an active participator in the Warsaw Pact (but Nicolae also did resign his membership which made him a supporter on paper).  On August 15, a week before the Soviets would invade Prague, he payed a state visit to Prague. Officialy it was a long before planned visit but the timing was striking. President Ceausescu again declares his support of Dubcek and when the tanks rolled in he refused to take part in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces.

With Czechoslovakia out of the way Romania could continue his pleasing policy and became  the first Warsaw Pact country to recognize West Germany, the first to join the International Monetary Fund, and the first to receive a US President, Richard Nixon. Romanian youth, sensing their change, organized a demonstration on the University square on Christmas eve. The police moved in and the crowd began to chant ‘police brutatlity’ and ‘freedom now’. The police dispersed the crowd, arresting students who were eventually expelled from the university. This way Ceauşescu reminded everyone that freedom was nice but Romania was still a police state.

In 1971, Romania became a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Romania and Yugoslavia were also the only Eastern European countries that entered into trade agreements with the European Economic Community before the fall of the Eastern Bloc. But internally the regime of Nicolae began to show megalomaniac characteristics. After a visit to North Korea, Ceauşescu developed a vision of completely remaking the country; this became known as systematization. A significant portion of the capital, Bucharest, was torn down to make way for the Casa Poporului (now House of Parliament) complex and Centrul Civic (Civic Centre).
The Ceaușescu regime also wanted to boost the country's population to get more workers for the factories and state farms. In the sixties abortion was made illegal, and they introduced other policies to reverse the very low birth rate and fertility rate. Mothers of at least five children would be entitled to significant benefits, while mothers of at least ten children were declared heroine mothers by the Romanian state. A considerable number of women either died or were maimed during clandestine abortions. The government also targeted rising divorce rates and made divorce much more difficult – it was decreed that a marriage could be dissolved only in exceptional cases. Transfusions of untested blood led to Romania accounting for many of Europe's pediatric HIV/AIDS cases at the turn of the 21st century despite having a population that only makes up around 3% of Europe's total population.  But  the outside world  and the Soviet Union largely tolerated Ceaușescu's activities, earning Romania maverick status within the Eastern Bloc.

The impact in music

Due to the more liberal wind Romanian youth enjoyed in 1966 easy acces to Western radio stations with the regime no longer jamming broadcasts of the BBC, Radio Free Europe and Radio Luxembourg. Also, like in Bulgaria, tourism brought records from the west to the shores and bars of the Black sea. In 1967 a translation of French book  ‘the history of Light music; from troubadours to the Beatles’ was released, giving the Romanian youth the means to read about pop music in their own language. But as you learn from above text the relative freedom was paper-thin. Romanian youth stayed cautious. As the violent repression of the student demonstration on Christmas 1968 only underlined. But the university also turned out to be a good place for get together in small clubs. The Pop Club at the Academy of Economics was a haven for rock music. It was here that local band Olympic 64 played covers by the Beatles and the Stones. They also wrote their own lyrics to the music. In that way they changed ‘Strawberry fields forever’ with the lyrics of an old Romanian poem heralding the Romanian medieval warriors. They had succes by singing 'Vezi bine, gard des n-ai” (It's Been a Hard Day's Night, The Beatles), „Ogarul” (Oh, Carol, The Rolling Stones), „Elin oribil” (Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles) „Nenea Virgil” (Bungalow Bill, The Beatles) and „Popa Nan” (Penny Lane, The Beatles). Their beatmusic gained a deeper layer when singer Dorin Liviu Zaharia (September 25, 1944 – December 3, 1987) got interested in mixing Romanian folklore with Indian music and rock he created a sound and attitude that were in contrast to the communist regime's "commandments". He wrote and composed with the Olympic '64's members the rock suites "Decameronul focului alb" (The white fire decameron) (1969) and "Karma Kaliyuga" (1971), both considered lost since no recording survives. The only recording to be actually released was the 1970 single 'Cîntic de haiduc/Ziua bradului de noapte'.

In Timişoara the beat group Phoenix arose taking first prize in 1968 at the ‘Beat 68’ event. In return they were allowed to record a debut album on the Electrecord state label. But by 1969 the reactions to Western rock music became a bit too enthusiastic. A visiting Lebanese band saw the Romanian music fans erupt in a frenzy smashing benches in the stadium where they performed. Police punished the crowd with clubs and dogs and kicked the band over the border. .

But things really got out of hand when Blood Sweat and Tears came to Romanian in summer 1970. Missing out on the Rolling Stones tour of the Poland and Yugoslavia in 1967 the Romanian kids were begging for some rock ‘n roll. The opening show in Bucharest ended in chaos when vocalist Clayton-Thomas threw his tambourine and maracas across the stage. The next day officials told the band they were allowed to continue the tour but only if they played more jazz-like songs, dressed moderate and did not throw their instruments around. BS&T later called it the Bucharest Manifesto. That evening every third seat was occupied by a militiaman supervising the youth around him. During ‘Smiling faces’ the band was supposed to hurl a gong but a policeman shook his finger at the musicians as a warning. Angered Clayton smashed the gong hurling it offstage. He later recalled: “The crowd went crazy. And then the dogs were turned loose on the kids. Some even ran through the plate glass windows to get away. It was a very bad scene”.  Three days later the band was kindly asked to leave. In the summer of 1971 Ceauşescu visited China and North Korea and saw how they regulated foreign influences. Back home he decided to have his own cultural revolution holding his own governmental agencies responsible for promoting influences of a decadent culture. And so even the paper thin freedom went up in flames.

What happened next?

While Ceauşescu started creating his own personal dream world echoes of the freedom still lingered on. In 1971 a folk festival sponsored by Iron Mincu (Institute of architecture) featured the young singer Marcela Saftiuc. She performed soulful folk songs and added her bill with translated covers from Dylan and Joan Baez. The Cromatic Grup performed at the same festival with a mix of blues and jazz, guitarist Sorin Tudoran laced his music with solos he knew from Jimi Hendrix and Cream. In the seaside resort of Mamaia Andrei Voiculesu had his own discotheque where he played international music for the tourists. He became Romania’s leading DJ and introduced hundreds of Romanian kids to Western music until officials pulled the plug in 1973.

By 1975 an economical crisis hit Romania forcing the regime to tighten its grip even further. Anything Western was forbidden. Popmusic was still allowed but now had to sing praise to Marx, Lenin and of course Ceauşescu. In the late 1970’s he ruthlessly sought to smash Romania’s servitude to the West by eradicating Western cultural influences. The country’s rockscene, pressured by the ideological constraints and material deprivation, stifled all together. Rock ensembles like Sfinx and Cromatic continued to record but as a shadow of their former selves. New band slike Medusa and Modul transformed reggae, new wave and funk into banal echoes of the Western originals. Untill 1989 when everything changed.

Timothy Ryback's 'Rock around the bloc' (Oxford press ISBN 0-19-505633-7) again was a valuable and unmissable source of information for this chapter.