The Curious Story of How Bootlegged Hollywood Movies Helped Defeat Communism in Romania

Chuck Nor­ris helped defeat Com­mu­nism in Roma­nia… or at least the black mar­ket VHS tapes of his movies did. That’s what Roman­ian film­mak­er Ilin­ca Calu­gare­anu argues in her New York Times Op Ed piece and in a relat­ed doc­u­men­tary short, which you can see above.

Nico­lae Ceaus­es­cu’s regime was noto­ri­ous­ly bru­tal and oppres­sive, even by War­saw Pact stan­dards. In his mad efforts to erad­i­cate all for­eign debt, he impov­er­ished his peo­ple while build­ing a mas­sive, opu­lent palace for him­self in the heart of Bucharest. He shut down all radio sta­tions out­side of the cap­i­tal and restrict­ed all tele­vi­sion broad­casts to a mere two hours a day. And what was pro­grammed was, by all accounts, pret­ty dull unless you’re a fan of Com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­da.

So it isn’t a suprise that when an enter­pris­ing entre­pre­neur began to flood the black mar­ket with boot­leg VHS tapes of Hol­ly­wood block­busters in the mid-80s, they were met with great illic­it excite­ment. “It was amaz­ing to do some­thing ille­gal dur­ing Com­mu­nism, some­thing not Com­mu­nist. Watch­ing impe­ri­al­ist movies,” says one inter­vie­wee.

Movies like Flash­dance, Taxi Dri­ver, and Miss­ing in Action became hits. Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger, Sylvester Stal­lone and, yes, Chuck Nor­ris all became under­ground stars. Yet while Roman­ian audi­ences were wowed by the spec­ta­cle of car chas­es, machine gun fights and explod­ing heli­copters, they were equal­ly trans­fixed by things that West­ern audi­ences might over­look — the rel­a­tive lux­u­ry of a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can abode, for instance.  It was a pow­er­ful reminder that things were far bet­ter in the West than at home. “You could see what those peo­ple had, what they ate, what free­doms they had, how they spoke to one anoth­er,” says anoth­er inter­vie­wee. “It was com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. And some­how, under­neath it all, you felt … what free­dom was.”

Yet the pecu­liar thing about all these VHS bootlegs is that they were all dubbed by the same per­son, a young trans­la­tor named Iri­na Mar­gare­ta Nis­tor. “As Hol­ly­wood movies became ubiq­ui­tous through the black mar­ket, this voice became one of the most rec­og­niz­able in Roma­nia,” writes Calu­gare­anu. “Yet no one knew who she was.”

Nis­tor under­stand­ably worked in secret, con­scious that a bru­tal crack­down could hap­pen at any moment. But one nev­er came. Ceausescu’s regime met a swift and bloody end on Christ­mas Day, 1989. As she looks back on her time as a trans­la­tor and an unwit­ting under­ground celebri­ty, Nis­tor beams with a qui­et pride, explain­ing that her actions were “a way to trick the Com­mu­nists. That was my biggest sat­is­fac­tion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Spot a Com­mu­nist Using Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism: A 1955 Man­u­al from the U.S. Mil­i­tary

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

A Short His­to­ry of Roman­ian Com­put­ing: From 1961 to 1989

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.


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Comments (10)
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  • Joanna Bujes says:

    A lot of non­sense here. 1) Roma­nia was not a com­mu­nist coun­try in any mean­ing­ful sense of the word 2) It was the IMF that lent the mon­ey to pro­mote Roma­nia mov­ing to an export, race to the bot­tom econ­o­my 3) They might have got­ten rid of Ceaus­es­cu, but they did not get rid of the rest of the pigs: the appa­ratchiks and the black mar­ke­teers that have siezed all and are mak­ing every­one as mis­er­able as ever.

  • Dragos says:

    “1) Roma­nia was not a com­mu­nist coun­try in any mean­ing­ful sense of the word”… You obvi­ous­ly did­n’t live in Roma­nia back then. If you mean that Ceaușes­cu brought about a sys­tem in his own image (read “cult of per­son­al­i­ty”), that does­n’t make it less com­mu­nist; it’s after all what every oth­er com­mu­nist leader was doing — mold­ing a the­o­ry into a per­son­al dic­ta­tor­ship. And that is as mean­ing­ful as the com­mu­nist sys­tem that exists in N. Korea today. I’m not exact­ly sure what you mean at point 2) but I will agree with you on the last one: there are still strong rem­nants of the for­mer polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus and of the for­mer way of doing things and “busi­ness”.

  • Stavros Efraimidis says:

    … no rea­son to doubt this inter­est­ing sto­ry, but one ques­tion … being a com­mu­nist coun­try, and with all these lim­i­ta­tions, how come they had so many VCR’s back then ? …

  • Dragos says:

    The same as it was for the Russ­ian peo­ple that want­ed to lis­ten west­ern music bands and mak­ing ille­gal copies of records: “In the for­mer USSR, records were com­mon­ly home­made using dis­card­ed med­ical x‑rays. These records, which were usu­al­ly made under the nation’s samiz­dat move­ment, were nick­named “Bones” or “Ribs”, were usu­al­ly inscribed with ille­gal copies of pop­u­lar music banned by the gov­ern­ment.” (Wikipedia — The same as it was for Croa­t­ian or Bul­gar­i­an peo­ple, that had more con­sumer goods than Roma­ni­ans or a bit more free­dom to leave the coun­try as a tourist or what­ev­er.
    Con­straints often bring the wildest and most cre­ative ideas in peo­ple’s minds. And as I said in the for­mer com­ment, each com­mu­nist coun­try back then was sort of a “one man dic­ta­tor­ship”, real­i­ty that brought about dif­fer­ences about lim­i­ta­tions and way of life to the peo­ple in those coun­tries.

  • Gholem says:

    @Stavros, that was one of the mys­ter­ies of the coun­tries who live under a repres­sive sys­tem.

    My par­ents had some friends with a VCR and we all went to their place to see films until late night. We were 3 or 4 fam­i­lies gath­ered around the tv and every­one brought a lit­tle food and some­thing to drink.
    It was fun in a way.

  • Muie lui Dragos, lacheul imperialistilor says:

    No, it was­n’t a “com­mu­nist” coun­try, you inbred scum, as it was­n’t a demo­c­ra­t­ic, classles soci­ety in which the means of pro­duc­tion were owned by the work­ing peo­ple. It was a bureau­crat­ic, state cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, in which a small elite ran the econ­o­my. Not unlike West­ern “democ­ra­cies”.

  • Dragos says:

    You see, peo­ple like you are the rea­son why f***ed up sit­u­a­tions exist in the first place in this world. D o y o u g e t i t?

  • f*** capitalism says:

    No, it’s because peo­ple like you will always cater to the right-wingers’ sadis­tic plea­sures.

  • Dragos says:

    @f*** cap­i­tal­ism — Do you want to have a civ­i­lized, rea­soned con­ver­sa­tion (you know — bring­ing argu­ments, not call­ing names, etc) or not?

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