Chuck Norris Versus Communism

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.

lonewolfmcquade_quadFor many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.

The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.

Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.

There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is available on Netflix.

Hat tip: Dan Klein and also Emily Skarbek’s excellent post.


I once asked a Russian colleague who came here in the late 1980s how they could tolerate the scenes of American life portrayed in our films without envy. He replied that Russian films also portrayed beautiful cars and well stocked markets so everyone assumed America was not as portrayed....that was just Hollywood.

I've seen the story where the Soviets would air American TV clips of the civil rights movement denouncing the poor way we treated our minorities. They pulled them when the only thing people saw was how well our oppressed people lived - better than they did.

According to Hollywood, secretaries, struggling actors, etc. can afford huge apartments in Manhattan, so your colleague wasn't all that wrong. :)

Soviet people were well aware that Americans, even poor Americans, had more stuff. Soviet propaganda response to that was as follows:

1. America grew rich by robbing poor countries.
2. Thanks to all the free benefits you are more secure than Americans. For example, you have free healthcare, whereas an American who cannot afford a treatment will die in a ditch.
3. We are growing faster than America, so at some point in the future we will overtake them.
4. We are morally superior to America. As it comes to moral values, America is obviously heel on Earth. Just look at the dumb, violent, debauched Hollywood movies. :)

It wasn't just the Soviets extolling their own virtues, Dan Rather solemnly informed us Soviets had "economic freedom" instead of "political freedom," and were perfectly happy that way.

# 2 Under the 1988 Constitution, the third best cinstitution the world has ever seen, Brazilians can count on free healthcare, schooling, vaccines and a safety net for truly poor families with school-aged children.

"Almost all of the movies were dubbed into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles."

Without seeing the movie I'm pretty sure it was dubbed, but rather they used voice-over translations which were (and are) common in some former communist countries. The original soundtrack is partially audible and a single voice reads the dialogue.

Put the phrase "Lektor PL" into youtube and there will lots of movies and tv shows using that technique (it's still the norm for foreign content on Polish TV)

Romania used (and still uses) subtitles but the voice over would have been much easier and cheaper to accomplish.

Correct and so noted. Thanks.

Great documentary, thank you Alex. Even on a boy raised in the capital of a free country like France, the effect of watching these movies (mainly on the public TV channels, were they were shown regularly) was far form trivial.

This is the comment stub for witty "Chuck Norris Jokes" relating to economics:

When Chuck Norris plays monopoly, it affects the actual world economy. /
With the rising cost of gasoline, Chuck Norris is beginning to worry about his drinking habit./
When an episode of Walker Texas Ranger, Economics Edition, was aired in the USSR, the Russians surrendered to Chuck Norris just to be on the safe side./
Chuck Norris does not pay tax, tax pays Chuck Norris./
When Chuck Norris was in middle school, his English teacher assigned an essay: "What powers an economy?" Chuck received an A+ for turning in a blank page with only his name at the top./
There are no Keynesians now; just a group of people who believe in Keynesianism that Chuck Norris has allowed to live./
There are no Monetarists now; just a group of people who believe in monetarism that Chuck Norris has allowed to live./
International grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk used to be called "Ivanchuck", but Chuck Norris made him change his name./

Bonus trivia: I once saw Chuck Norris walking the halls, I think with his grandmaster (martial arts) guru (先生), in Las Vegas.

well, I always rely upon Hollywood movies & Hollywood actors for for factual views of history, economics, and life.

How about Warren Beatty's epic view of Communism in "Reds".

Anybody else having problems with copy-and-paste using Internet Explorer on this site? Keeps crashing...some kind of script anomaly.

Internet Explorer still exists? I haven't heard about it for years - about the same time the swearing around at the office stopped.

I'm using Microsoft Edge for Windows 10. All browser have problems actually. Usually for technical stuff I use Firefox, but it crashes when you print stuff. Opera is OK but does not like Silverlight. Google's Chrome is simplistic and for girls. Safari really is not meant for Windows I think.

So it is not Internet Explorer even if the maker is the same, is it?

Chuck Norris doesn't have a chin, he has another fist under his beard.

There once was a street called Chuck Norris, but the name was changed for public safety because nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives.

Chuck Norris tried to conquer Brazil, like England tried twice, but he was repelled.

Excuse me, if Benjamin Harrison can kick Brazil's ass like he did in 1891, Chuck Norris could do it with a whisper. The only reason Chuck Norris isn't currently Emperor of Brazil is that he has way better things to do than bother with that disaster.

There was no such a war in 1891! In the early 1890s, Brazil repelled the British atrack and crushed the anti-Brazilians rebells. Americans can't win real wars,then they must invent fake ones, wagging the dog!

Why do you keep posting these lies? Give it a rest.

You lie, boy! Brazil has never been defeated, can't be defeated! repelled by Brazil.

Because we can defend our Fatherland against foreign aggression.

In fact, Mr. Ceaucescu, whatever his many vices may have been, fought against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and was a good friend of the United States and Brazil.

Unlike Red China, which tried to overthrow Brazil's government throught the local Maoist party, the PC do B, Romania recognized Brazil's status and stance in the Concert of Nations and Brazil's leadership among the Latin countries. He also opposed Russian domination in Moldova, which Mr. Putin is trying to conquer again. Now Romania is an American puppet, remaining silent while its American masters sold out Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. I say, one, two, a lot of Romanias!

Putin is trying to conquer Moldova by using his patented mind rays (TM) that made Moldovans vote for a pro-Russian politician. Hey, it worked in America!

Filip or Dodon? By the way, what happened to Mr. Filip? A second cousin of mine has run away from home as the same time as Mr. Filip was made prime minister of Moldova. I've never heard of either again.

So did Mao.

But Mao tried to conquer Brazil, Ceaucescu didn't.

If only they'd shared that firing squad, too.

'How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it?'

He accepted Romanian military equipment in payment, though the Poles preferred cash -

And Zamfir probably missed getting a T72 by just "that much" -

"perhaps because there were no longer any true believers"

According to Romanians I have known, it cannot be overstated how true this was.

What about the Securitate?

The only Romanian I knew was classified ethnically German (to the satisfaction of the both West German and Romanian governments), and when she finally received permission to leave Romania in the early 1980s, she was put in front of the student body of her university, and denounced by a steady stream of people for hours.

It is quite possible that not a single one of them were true believers. Or, being as she was 'German,' they did truly believe what they were saying regarding someone who wasn't really one of them anyways. True belief is always hard to measure, especially when the people running a system hold fairly unlimited power.

And clearly, being paraded in front of what was essentially a state sanctioned mob, might not make anyone a true believer in anything - apart from the belief that being part of a mob is much better than being its target.

"Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles."

It is so Elizathan.

It was a strange and eerie period. I caught the last decade of the communist regime and what was a bleak, rather difficult period. The TV time was only 2 hours a day, mostly filled with patriotic chants and news. In the weekends we had a one hour program where we could watch cartoons and Laurel and Hardy. It was the most beautiful part of the week. The whole 20 millions of Romanians were gathering before the TV sets to Watch Tom&Jerry. It was so scarce an entertainment that it was much valued.
So the only time when you could decide what movies to see was through pirated VHS videos. I had an uncle who worked in constructions in Irak and bought a VCR. He had all the best movies of the time: the JCVD ones, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the chinese martial art movies, the soft german porn, the B rated horror flicks like Manic Cop series, the Sam Neill movies labeled "Society movies". Our parents would gather and watch them in weekends.
All good stuff was the product of informal relations: you knew somebody who knew somebody. I was able to read Pif et Hercule, a French comic book, through a relation of my father. We were able to eat meat on Saturdays because my mother had a friend working in a factory.
The formal life was however bleak and black and white. I had to get up of bet at 5 am and go buy milk, from the unique shop labeled "Alimentara" (Provisions Store). I would stay in line with other kids or people and the milk would come in glass bottles with large necks and no label. I once saw a man dropping his bottles, and I can still visualize the horror on his face.
In the evening there was a power outage every night. I used to learn and do my homework at candlelight. I once burned the drapery searching for my books. We played verbal games in the dark, parents and children alike. When the light came, it was different every night, our eyes adjusting every time.
So we had to make our lives between the cracks of the communist rule. We played a lot outside, explored the neighborhood from the dawn to dusk. It was somewhat true and real, interactions where direct and powerful. It was our way to fight back. being an adult must have been however more troublesome.

After the communism, the informal relations that made people live Inside the system morphed into a web of capitalist corruption. The bribery endured and become the norm.

very informative comment, thank you

Technically, this wasn't samizdat ("published by myself") but tamizdat ("published 'there'".)

Ceaucescu's Romania was very poor even by the Soviet block's standards. That was because Ceaucescu severely curtailed consumption in order to pay off a large foreign debt. He did pay off the debt, which in retrospect was a stupid thing to do. He should've done the sensible thing, which is to keep on borrowing and at the end, when the music stops playing, stiff the creditors instead of his own citizens.

Paying off the debt shows that Ceaucescu was a model leader. The best policy for every country in Europe is to embrace severe Austerity, it's going to work any day now!

non-economics Chuck Norris joke: "He has a bear skin rug in front of his fireplace. Not dead, just too scared to move"

"Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free."

Give me a break. Things weren't great, but unless you were some kind of filthy radical pushing for wacky things like gay rights you weren't really oppressed. Romanians were cynical about the regime and everyone pretty much knew the score. Things haven't changed that much because Romanians haven't changed that much. Maybe they weren't allowed gay rights or "political freedom" but if they are now, they don't seem to care much. Freedom is not a panacea except for ideologues. Economically things have improved somewhat, but fundamentally Eastern Europe is still Eastern Europe, because of the modes of thinking there. Nepotism, cronyism, corruption is ingrained in the culture. So is traditionalism and realism. If think "freedom" is the way to robust institutions and the ability for anyone to publicly express bizarre personal predilections you're going to be waiting a long time for it to come to Eastern Europe.

Elections aren't a panacea in the same way giving up a daily fifth of vodka won't cure your cancer.

"“Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk "

"Give me a break."

If there wasn't some danger, then you would have reasonably expected there to have been multiple people doing voice overs wouldn't you? Perhaps it's too casual a use of the word hero, but then the word gets casually used a lot. It's one thing to protest something in the US, where it's rare for a non-violent protester to even be arrested. And if they are arrested they are almost certainly just booked and immediately released. It's another thing to engage in a subversive political activity in an oppressive (even for Communists) authoritarian dictatorship with an active and brutal secret police.

In the USSR (which is bigger than Romania) there was exactly one man who did vast majority of voiceovers. I don't know why, perhaps there weren't that many people who could translate foreign languages. Everyone knew this guy's voice, no one knew his name. Today, his name is known - Dmitry Puchkov. He'd laugh at you if you told him he was a hero, or was in any danger. Incidentally, his opinions are strongly pro-Soviet.

This one?"
His first film translation was completed during the Perestroika period, when Western productions were first introduced to Soviet viewers."

" He’d laugh at you if you told him he was a hero, or was in any danger. Incidentally, his opinions are strongly pro-Soviet."

Since he worked for the government as a police detective and didn't start doing translations until years after the break up of the Soviet Union, this doesn't sound remotely comparable.

Dmitry Puchkov - "At the time of his earliest public works, he worked as a police detective for the Militsiya ...The first films he translated were Carlito's Way in 1995, and shortly after Aliens, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Last Action Hero. "

Sorry, the translator of the 1980 was not Puchkov but a different man named Leonid Volodarsky. He was famous for his nasal voice.

History is highly contingent.

How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it?

This is something I always wonder; here in Czech republic, in the 80's some people were just 'escorted' out of Czech republic. They didn't put them in prison, they didn't kill them. They 'sent' them to austria. Havel was in prison; but they always let him out, and somehow ti seems like the government was really scared of these people. Yet, they didn't kill them; they couldn't get right work, their children might not get to the university of choice; yet there didn't seem to be a lot of physical extortion.

It was a strange time, wasn't it; one would expect much more brutal government doing these things these days.

My impression of the Soviet system in the Brezhnev era was that the system was dysfunctional and heavy handed, but more authoritarian than totalitarian. You could dislike your life and swap around bootleg VHS tapes and nobody would bother you. People got in trouble for opposing the regime, and the regime wasn't self confident enough to really crack down.

Put another way: the regime was cynical, corrupt, and spent, but one of the things it was cynical, corrupt, and spent about was enforcing ideological purity.

One place where the leftism of academia has left a real gap is in the history of the Brezhnev era (at least for books available in the West). You can find good biographies of Stalin, Kruschev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, but try finding something of similar quality for Brezhnev.

I suspect the reason is that nobody wants to write about an era in which everything is cynical, grimy, depressing and ugly. But that's an important stage in the history of Communism!

That's apparently the typical endstate of these kinds of regimes. Libya under Gaddafi was in much the same condition when Totten visited in 2004 -- checkpoints everywhere but mostly for show, people were supposed to be reading his Green Book, but they'd have it upside down or it would just be the cover.

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