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Reviewing Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape…

A couple of years ago, I became aware of a new book about legendary Romanian women’s gymnastics champion, Nadia Comaneci. The book, titled Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, was written by Romanian author, Stejarel Olaru, and published in 2021. For a long time, it was only available in Romanian. I was very eager to read this book, because not only am I fascinated with old school women’s gymnastics, but I’m also intrigued by Cold War politics, particularly in Romania.

Although I haven’t yet visited Romania, I have read several books about the Ceaușescu era, and watched some really interesting films about Romania before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc states. So, the prospect of reading about Nadia’s experiences in Romania after she became a national treasure was very exciting for me. I was very pleased to see that the book was going to be translated into English (and other languages).

I just finished the Kindle English translated edition of Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. Stejarel Olaru’s book was translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and made available in the US Amazon store this month. I had originally pre-ordered a print edition; that’s how much I wanted to read this book. I canceled that order when I realized I could get the Kindle edition sooner. As of just a little while ago, I have finished reading after a couple of weeks of effort. I’m glad to be finished with the book, which was very interesting, although less exciting than I had expected it to be.

I want to be very clear. This is NOT a book about Nadia’s life story. Elements of her life story and some information about her family are in the book, of course, as it’s not possible to deliver this story without those elements. But it’s important to note that this book is ultimately about the high price Nadia Comaneci paid when she made history at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. Those who read this book should also come with some knowledge of who Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were, and what their regime was like. Remember that until the former Romanian president and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989, Romania’s government was an oppressive totalitarian regime.

One month before the Ceaușescus were executed, Nadia Comaneci defected with several other Romanians. She did so out of desperation. She couldn’t take life as it existed under Ceaușescu and his Securitate (Secret Police) anymore. But Nadia was a “national treasure”, and as such, she was highly valued by the Romanian dictator’s regime. Nadia worked very hard to be able to achieve Olympic greatness, but after she reached that pinnacle, she was rewarded with constant surveillance at home… phone taps, interrogations, and constant pressure to maintain her physical prowess in a sport where it’s common to retire while still very young, especially at the elite level.

Olaru’s book begins in November 1989, when Nadia undertook her daring escape to Hungary with a group of more average citizens. The group fled across fields during a frigid night. The Romanian border guards missed them, but they were picked up by the Hungarians, who were shocked to find the famous gymnast among those who were fleeing. The Hungarians were going to let Nadia go, and send the rest of the party back to Romania. Nadia, being a team player, spoke up and said that she wouldn’t be going without the rest of the group.

Nadia in 1990, just after she left Romania. If she’d waited a month, she wouldn’t have had to defect.

Very soon after her illegal border crossing, Nadia was on her way to New York City. She lost a lot when she defected; the man she left with was a married man who abused her. A lot of Americans had a negative impression of her in the weeks after she defected. I remember reading a 1990 era Life Magazine article that really made Nadia out to be kind of lowbrow, implying that she was bulimic and a bit of a skank. The reality was, the man was basically holding her prisoner, beating her, and exploiting her for money.

Upon arrival in the United States, Nadia Comaneci requested and was granted political asylum. I remember watching Nadia in the news, as this was going on during my senior year of high school. I barely knew who she was, because I was only four years old when she won gold in Montreal, and lived in England at the time. I didn’t follow gymnastics until I was about 15 or 16 years old. Still, I remember very clearly the story in the news, and was fascinated by it, because although I wasn’t a gymnastics fan in Nadia’s day, I did grow up during the height of the Cold War.

I never dreamed, when I was a kid, that one day, that whole system would disintegrate within a couple of years. If there’s anything to learn from that era in history, it’s that things can change very quickly, forever altering or even ending people’s lives. That’s one reason why I get so worried about Trump and his admirers. History has shown us that things can change in a “New York Minute”, as Don Henley sang back in 1989.

Olaru’s book also offers a very negative and damning look at Bela and Marta Karolyi’s years as Romanian team coaches. As bad as some of the revelations have been from American gymnasts who have trained with them, they are even worse in this book, as Olaru writes about how the gymnasts were literally starved and sometimes physically beaten when they didn’t perform well. Securitate notes provided by alleged informants, such as Geza Pozsar, the choreographer who worked with the Karolyis, indicate that the gymnasts often wept because they were so hungry. As Nadia grew older, she and Bela had difficulties, because she was no longer as compliant as she had been. He could no longer “spank her bottom” when he wanted to, especially after she became famous.

I’ve watched Bela Karolyi for years when I’ve viewed women’s gymnastics on television. His public persona is that of a big bear, with lots of energy and enthusiasm. But, based on this book, and several others I’ve read by people who have trained with him and his wife, Marta, he is clearly an abusive coach on many levels. So far, I have not seen evidence that he sexually abused his gymnasts– thank God– but I have seen ample evidence that he was verbally, mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive to them. However, even the best gymnasts, like Nadia, got that treatment. At least he was somewhat “fair”, I guess.

When Bela and Marta Karolyi defected from Romania in 1981, the Securitate became even more intensive in their efforts to control Nadia Comaneci and protect their national treasure. Although she lived a relatively upscale life by Cold War Romanian standards, the reality was, she was more in a cage than her fellow Romanian citizens were. And the “lavish” privileges she enjoyed weren’t all that great. She did have a car and a seven room villa, for instance, but the villa was poorly insulated. Consequently, she slept in the kitchen so she could stay warm. And she didn’t necessarily have to stand in line to get food, like rank and file Romanians did, but the fact that she didn’t have to do that doesn’t exactly make for a luxurious lifestyle, as Romanian officials tried to indicate.

In many weird ways, reading about how Nadia and her family members were policed reminded me of reading about people trapped in cults or abusive relationships. The Securitate didn’t want Nadia to abandon Romania, so they were constantly looking and listening for indications of potential plans to leave. And they did things like tell her she couldn’t survive outside of Romania. They didn’t seem to realize that Nadia had already proven her incredible strength and resilience, not just in 1976, but in the years following that triumph, after she grew several inches and gained twenty pounds. For awhile, she was looking as washed up as John Travolta did throughout the late 80s. But, just like Travolta, Nadia Comaneci made a great comeback for the 1980 Moscow Games and came home with more medals. I don’t know why the Securitate didn’t see that she was capable of doing that again in 1989; she was only 28 years old when she left.

As I read this book and got some insight into Nadia Comaneci’s plight after her 1976 Olympic glory, it occurred to me why Nadia was known for never smiling. Based on Olaru’s accounts, backed up with actual notes from the Securitate, phone taps, interviews, and interrogations, it sounds to me like Nadia Comaneci’s life was a living hell. When she was being trained by Bela Karolyi, who has his own version of this story famously depicted in a movie about Nadia, she was evidently enduring a nightmare that we could never fathom. No wonder Nadia was willing to risk it all and leave for the West, once she retired from gymnastics.

Today, Nadia Comaneci is married to fellow Olympic gold medalist, Bart Conner, who won his medals in Los Angeles, back in 1984. They run their own gym in Oklahoma, and share a son named Dylan Paul Conner, who was born when Nadia was 44 years old. She still physically looks amazing, but I notice she smiles a lot more these days.

Overall, I think Nadia and the Secret Police is an excellent read for students of Cold War history, especially if they are interested in the Ceaușescu era and/or Romania. I will warn that this book is translated, and sometimes the translation gets a little mucked up. There were times, for instance, that the translator wrote names as they would be written in the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Union, with the last name first. Other times, he writes them as if they were in a western country. At times, the writing is also a little dry and formal, and there are some typos. I was surprised by the abrupt ending of this book, although I appreciated the many footnotes, notations, and photos.

Again, I cannot reiterate this enough. This book isn’t really for people who idolize Nadia or gymnastics and are looking for a life story. This is a book about history and politics. Nadia Comaneci just happens to be the subject, because she’s probably still the most famous Romanian in modern times. The focus is less on gymnastics, and more on world politics and intrigue. Yes, it’s useful for diehard Comaneci fans to read, but the focus is more on the oppressive government regime and less on Nadia Comaneci’s gymnastics prowess. I’m glad I read it. And I’m glad I’ve finished it, so I can move on to the next book.

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book reviews

A review of The Girl With Seven Names…

Hi, folks. I am currently on tiny Hebridean Princess in Wick, Scotland. We’re on a whisky themed cruise, so we’ll be hitting eight distilleries this week. We visited our first one, Old Pulteney, this morning. I probably won’t be writing so much over the next few days, but I did want to write a review of The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyenseo Lee and her ghost writer, David John, before I forget too much. This story, which was published in 2015 in the wake of Lee’s riveting TED talk, is one that is almost too hard to believe. And yet, it’s a true story of one woman’s unlikely exodus from North Korea.

Hyenseo Lee, now married to American Brian Gleason, was born in North Korea in 1980. Her birth was complicated, not because her mother went through serious medical issues, but because of songbun. Songbun is a Korean concept of social order. Lee’s mom had met the love of her life on a train to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, where only the most loyal, highest ranking North Koreans are allowed to live. She was on her way to see a relative when she ran into a North Korean soldier who was charmed by her ability to sing. They traded addresses, but lost touch for awhile. When Lee’s grandmother found out, she was against the relationship because the soldier didn’t have enough songbun. Lee’s mom was married to another man– a handsome, high ranking man, with whom she had no chemistry. They conceived Hysenseo– given a different name at birth– but the marriage disintegrated soon afterward. A few years later, when Lee’s mom married the soldier from the train, her name was changed again.

Lee grew up thinking her mom’s second husband was her real father. She was devastated when she learned the truth, particularly since she had a brother who was only her “half” brother. The family suffered a house fire, but Lee’s dad was careful to remove the portraits of beloved North Korean leaders. If he hadn’t, the family would have been punished. They had to hang the portraits in their home, clean them lovingly, and guard them with their lives. And when Kim Jong Sung died in 1994, everyone had to look gutted, even if they weren’t. Because not looking gutted by the death… not crying or being hysterical… could mean imprisonment, torture, or even death.

Then, when she was still young, the man she knew as her father was murdered by the North Korean government. Officially, it was called a suicide, though, and that was very shameful and had a deleterious effect on the family’s songbun. Lee’s mom paid a bribe to get the cause of death changed. Lee witnessed many atrocious acts against people. She saw her first public execution at age 7, and writes that people felt obligated to attend the executions of people they knew. It was kind of like going to a funeral.

When she was nearing 18 years of age, in 1997, Lee decided she wanted to cross the Yalu River into China. She was friends with a border guard who really liked her, and because she wasn’t yet 18, she could get away with things adults couldn’t. One night, after dinner, she slipped out and cross the river into China. She decided to stop by the home of a smuggler, with whom her mother had business dealings. She got a wild idea to see family she hadn’t seen in years, even though it was 8 hours away. She went to see her family, who weren’t expecting her. She saw what a much easier life they led. She learned that she’d been told lies her whole life and that there was a whole world out there for her. She stayed… and turned 18, which made potential punishments much worse if she had gone back home. She missed home, especially her family, but she had to find work in China.

Fortunately, Lee’s father had taught her to write in Chinese… fortunately, she was uncommonly bright and resourceful. Lee found her name changing again, as she posed as a Korean Chinese woman, hiding her North Korean identity. I was amazed as I read about how the winsome Lee managed to escape so many situations that could have either gotten her imprisoned or killed. Her name would change four more times before she finally settled on one that worked.

The Girl With Seven Names is truly an amazing story. I used to be able to read books quickly, but lately that’s been more of a challenge. This book was quick and easy to read, even though it’s a very convoluted tale that includes many concepts, like songbun, that have to be explained. Lee’s ghostwriter, David John, has done a fantastic job making this story seem as if it came straight from Lee herself. I was marveling at how well written it is, and what a pleasure it was to read this book.

Pictures are included, even in the Kindle version. If you like books about North Korea, or North Korean defectors, this is a very good one to have. I was continually surprised by how smart, resourceful, tough, and determined Lee is… even to the point of getting her family out of North Korea.

Highly recommended!

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