As readers of this blog might recall, I have a Merchant Navy background, having served as an Engineer Officer for around seven /eight years when I was young. One of the ships I worked on was engaged in a Mediterranean run from Liverpool to Athens, then Istanbul and on into the Black Sea, to Romania, Bulgaria, and once to Odessa in Russia. During our stays in Romania, we saw the flat complexes which has been built to serve as Soviet Russia’s holiday paradise, built in serried, dull, uniformly awful styles of concrete hutches along the golden Black Sea beaches of Mamaia, just a little to the north of Constanta. These were rented, awarded, (as prizes in some strange, ritualistic pattern) to the lucky, or unlucky, workers and their families based in the worker’s paradises of the former Soviet Union. The standards of the hotels and apartments in Mamaia were, to Western eyes, uniformly awful, but you must remember that these facilities, although basic, rough and totally bland were so far above the disastrous places where the proletariat of the Soviet Empire actually lived and worked that they were regarded as being luxurious in the extreme! I suppose that, in living standards as in every other human experience, if you normally inhabit a dung-heap, a cleaner pig sty would be regarded as a great leap forward!
I would like to tell you about a small occurrence in Constanta, during my last trip there in 1963, to demonstrate what it was actually like living in a Socialist paradise! The whole port area was cordoned off, with barbed wire everywhere, uniformed gun-carrying guards everywhere, and access was strictly controlled. The harbour itself was protected by a harbour wall, upon which fishermen used to sit or stand for hours, hoping to increase their meagre rations by the free bounty of the sea. Access and egress was controlled by heavily-guarded gates, through which the fishermen had to pass when leaving the dockside. The rule was that every fisherman was allowed three fish free through, but any caught over that number had to be offered to the gate guards. If they didn’t want the excess, or they had already confiscated enough, the fishermen were allowed through with their extra fish, but; I stress, the fish had to be declared! We, as filthy capitalists, were allowed into the city, but only after being issued with special passes which were suspiciously scrutinised by the gate guards, and as you can imagine, in a labour-intensive place like a port, there were massive queues come knocking-off time! We headed out into town round about six in the evening, but there was still a substantial queue in the locals’ queue, which we were able to by-pass, being filthy-rich capitalists, you understand; so it was from an an almost empty gate lane that we saw the true face of Communism in action!
A fisherman had caught seven fish, and had shown the required three, and had declared a further two, but had slung the other two fish from twine down his back, under his coat. Because of the long queues, the slime and blood from the fish had started to leak, and had run down his back onto his trousers. He had in fact passed through the gate, and has started walking up the rise towards the main road, when the ‘spotter’, a guard who, presumably posted to watch for just this occasion, called out to his machine-gun toting buddies, three of whom raced out and surrounded the ‘criminal’. They pulled his coat off, took the fish and threw them on the ground; then knocked the fisherman down and commenced kicking him until he lay silent, broken and bloody on the pavement! This in full view of maybe five hundred men standing silently in the queues! As the string of workers was passed through the gates, they one by one passed the broken body by, as though he had been infected with some dread contagious disease, never stopping, never looking! In the end, after maybe fifteen had walked by, we went forward, lifted him onto our arms and carried him the hundred yards to a café. Here we paid the owner to phone for an ambulance, which arrived about twenty minutes later, and the silent but still breathing body of a man who had committed the heinous crime of trying to feed his family was slid into the rear of the vehicle, which slowly rolled away! We never were able to find out what happened, whether the man lived or died, the people who spoke English in the Port clammed up like stones when we attempted to find out his fate!
On the beaches of Mamaia the accents of the holidaymakers now come from Burnley, Glasgow and Leipzig, the beaches are still fronted by the concrete blocks, and the blood still seeps through the foundations into the soil!