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Everyday heroes of Socialism

Everyday heroes of Socialism

From the early sixties on the leaders of the Socialist societies loosened the internal policies and replaced the strict dictatorship for more peaceful tactics. János Kádár, first secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party said his famous sentence on the party congress of the 20th November, 1962: “Whoever is not against us, is with us.” This “rule” characterised more or less all other countries of the region – except for Romania, which at points turned even stricter due to various events (Polish ’68, state of emergency).


  • To deepen knowledge, gain information and learn about basic facts


  • Use of sources, application of terminology, examination of factors that have affected the events;
  • collecting examples that illustrate what an average person can do under constraint
  • examples for personal courage, autonomous action within the system
  • ability to formulate accurate questions based on the lesson
  • learn about research methodology through the use of COURAGE Registry

by Barbara Hegedüs

Possibilities for acting under Socialism

Citizens basically learned to live within the frames of the system, or were already brought up that way. They learned the life strategies that helped them survive within the given constraints. Instead of being active in the public, people withdrew to the private sphere and accepted the possibilities provided by the system. To be able to meet their needs, they gave up certain rights of freedom, accepted the rule of silence, and dared to discuss politics only behind closed doors. In other cases, they completely ignored the public, in accordance with another idiom of the era: “The walls have ears.”

There were, however, critical thinkers, who did not take the reality of the authorities for granted, and even emphasized that during their everyday life or within their own communities. Often this meant nothing more but living and thinking autonomously, deviating from the official ideologies, or sticking with the national or sexual identities condemned by the socialist morals and world views. At times this went further and people risked their personal freedom, or even their lives, in order to smuggle religious, cultural items to the West or into their countries, for instance. An everyday hero is, therefore, a wide category, and this lesson will give a few examples to the everyday resistance from the socialist era, without aiming to be comprehensive.

Smuggling culture

Nicolae Ceausescu, the president of Romania (the genius of the Carpathians, as he liked to call himself), stabilized his monopole position as a party leader, and defined the full repay of the Romanian state loans as a primary economic goal. Therefore, the country came close to a full economic bankruptcy, and the existence of its citizens became unbearable. While the atmosphere of the socialist societies of the ‘80s was characterised by a general moderation, Romania remained in a complete political and cultural isolation – people were starving and freezing and there were terribly news circulating about the Romanian secret police, the Securitate. The programmes of the two television channels were constantly reduced after 1985, and after a while they only broadcasted propaganda materials in two hours daily.

Irina Margareta Nistor

In this suffocating political climate, an illegal smuggler network was set up  which provided the whole country with copied video tapes. People were squeezed into the block house flats to watch popular American comedies, action and adventure films. This secret home cinema meant the freedom for many people, and watching these films counted for an oppositional act in itself, because people had to count with the raids of the Securitate. Irina Margareta Nistor, who translated and dubbed about 3000 films in a voice-over, became an actual popular hero, even though nobody knew how she looked like, until 1989. In her private collection at home there are several note books containing film titles of films translated and dubbed by her, and about 40 VHS tapes. Nistor is one of the most popular film critics today.

In Czechoslovakia, there were volunteers who smuggled banned literature (religious books, dissident editions) to the West by car, or by foot, through the mountains. They were frequently stopped by the border controllers, and were threatened to be dismissed from school or work by the police, had they refused to uncover the sources of their smuggled goods. On the 12th of December, 1983, three young people tried to smuggle religious books, pictures and tapes through the mountains in a heavy snowstorm, but were caught by the Polish border controllers. As they refused to confess anything, they were interrogated, beaten up and locked up into solitary cells. They were released only due to the international fury – Ronald Reagan and John Paul II spoke up for them, too. The story of these young people is told in the documentary Footprints in the snow (Slavomír Zrebný, 2015).

In the Soviet Union, under the most severe repression by Stalin, listening to jazz or rock and roll was forbidden, too. This ban was outplayed in a crafty way – the banned music was copied onto X-ray records they gained from hospitals, and thus they founded secret music registers. The hospitals gave out the flammable X-ray records almost for free, after which professionals produced musical records out of them with a special recording method. They either kept these records for themselves or sold them illegally – for a bottle of vodka, for instance.  This network was kept under surveillance, of course – many producers and distributors were arrested and detained for years. The subject is presented in the documentary Roentgenizdat (Stephen Coates, Paul Heartfield, 2015).

Movements, brigades, nationalities

The Hungarian traditional folk dance house movement started in 1972, and counted for a tolerated or banned form of entertainment as a particular Hungarian creation in socialist Hungary. The traditional dance house movement founded a new subculture, which became a typical forum of cultural resistance together with beat music, film clubs and other alternative forms of entertainment. The movement was stigmatized as nationalistic by the authorities from the very beginning on, even though it was even (partially) supported by the authorities. It counted for an extinct terrane of observation, with repeated raid actions and sanctions. Members of the movement, for instance singer Márta Sebestyén did not receive a permit to travel abroad, and there were always members of the secret police at the different events, moreover, not exceptionally, musicians and dancers were targeted by the secret service with the aim to be recruited.

The Estonian Students’ Construction Brigade (ESBB), which employed cheap labour force, consisted of Estonian young people, and was founded in 1966 in the Soviet Union. Even though patriotism and the motivation for political responsibility was among its tasks, the ESBB quickly became a base for free thinking and behaviour, which tried to keep its autonomy from the Comsomol. Members of the brigade were trying to avoid direct opposition, and at the same time enjoyed a relatively great freedom in the dictatorship – they frequently organized performances outside work time (their performance, Eesti Pidu, the Estonian Party has remained in the documentation), they created jokes on the authorities, wrote songs, revived old, banned student traditions. This could be possible because their officers came from their own circles, and not from outside. The organization had been most popular in the first half of the 1980s, diminished in the second half of the decade, and was officially and finally dissolved in 1993.

Homosexuality counted for a public issue and a hot discussion topic in the wider society, and its acceptance varied within the socialist societies. Homosexuality did not count for a penalty issue in Poland, nevertheless, the so-called “Jacinth” act took place here between 1985 and 1987, under which the communist secret police organized a series of arrests and investigations, based on which they established a database on gay people and their network. About 11 000 people were documented as a result of this action. In most states – like Hungary, the DDR or Czechoslovakia – homosexuality was decriminalized in the sixties (in Romania in 1996 only). Despite of legalization, being gay still counted for an unacceptable deviance, and the state security regularly kept gay places under observation, and infiltrated agents among them. In Hungary, for instance, there was a separate division for gay people. Gay people were forced to a permanent double life, constant stealth and self-denial. Even visiting a gay club counted for a fearless act. The documentary Hot men, cold dictatorships (2015) directed by Mária Takács is an important film on this subject. The first openly gay activist was Alajos Romsauer, a founder of the Homérosz Association.

The position and acceptance of the Turkish minority had changed with the communist social order. Till the mid-fifties, the state had ensured a right for native language education, there were Turkish language magazines, and the university studies of Turkish students were supported by positive discrimination. Later on, however, the means of the ideology became much more drastic. The leadership aimed to repress all sorts of national movements, and started a complex attack against the churches. After several resettlements, waves of emigration and limitations of language use, the state started an open campaign against the Bulgarian ethnic Turkish minority.  Due to the aggressive assimilation politics, religious practice and clothing were banned, the press was shut down, books were banned, and the use of native language was forbidden at public places. The Turkish population was forced to take up Bulgarian names, sometimes violently. These acts lead to massive protests and clashes between the authorities and the Turkish ethnic minority. Süleyman Kazımov Saadettinov, who worked as a machine engineer refused the violent name-changing campaign, and was therefore arrested and sent to the forced labour camp of Belene. After one year, he was subjected to probation, and afterwards deported from the country in 1989, similarly to many other fellow-citizens. A secret photo was taken of Süleyman – probably the only photography from the labour camp of Belene, from 1985-1986.


Find Gheorghe Muruziuc in the COURAGE Registry. Prepare a presentation on his story or write his blog from the days when he climbed up the factory chimney.

Letter from Romania. Try to imagine the personality of the author and write his/ her profile, his/ her resume, describe his/ her destiny, his/ her family tree. Prepare a ppt with images, write a fictional interview with the author of the letter, make shots with your camera on his/ her everyday life, etc.

Watch the movie Chuck Norris vs. Communism. What kind of films did people watch primarily, what genres? How did these films present America and the West?

Show an X-ray radiogram. What does it remind you of? In what ways can it be used? Have a look at an X-ray record of bones.

Watch the film Roentgenizdat. What does it tell about everyday life under Stalinism?

Watch a detail from the film Hot men, cold dictatorships. Do you think the situation has changed since Socialist times? How do you think men see the issue of freedom – those who grew up under the Kádár-era and young gay people of today?

Write an essay that starts with the sentence: What if I had to hide from society because…

What kind of national and international gay right movements do you know? Check up the COURAGE Registry!

Find the secret photo of Süleyman in the COURAGE Registry!

True or false? Find the answers in the COURAGE Registry! If the statement is false, find the correct solutions!

Le Cabaret Travesti operated in the Soviet Union.

Homeros-Lambda was the first official gay right organization in Hungary, registered in 1987, founded by Dr. Lajos Romsauer and Péter Ambrus.

Embiya Cavus porcelain artist was deported to the forced labour camp in Belene, similarly to Süleyman.