``You should see Bucharest by moonlight,'' says a friend just returned from a visit to the Romanian capital. ``The moonlight seemed so much brighter there,'' says the friend, ``and then I realized why.''
The reason: As another winter nears, Bucharest has virtually no street lighting and no illuminated shop windows or neon advertising signs to create the usual city glow.
It is a sharp reminder that Romania today exemplifies, as never before, the weaknesses of a totally centralized, Stalinist government.
Life in the Balkan nation is as dismal indoors as out. For the second winter in a row, city-dwellers will have restricted lighting and heating.
The government has mandated that temperatures be no higher than 12 degrees C. (54 degrees F.) in private homes and public institutions. Last winter, the figure was 18 degrees C. (65 degrees F.), although in practice, temperatures were often much lower.
And party activists will be on the prowl, as they were last year, in an effort to catch -- and penalize -- households that use light bulbs of more than 40 watts.
Shops, post offices, and other consumer services will be open only during daylight hours. Restaurants and places of entertainment must close at 10 p.m., except on Sundays.
Television is on the air for just two hours a day -- and much of that time is spent reporting President Nicolae Ceausescu's activities during the previous 24 hours. Although Mr. Ceausescu is said to be in declining health, the personality cult that has been the hallmark of his presidency is being carried to ever greater extremes this year.
The background to Romania's bleak economic situation is not simply its disastrous energy situation.
A food crisis has troubled the nation since 1981. Sugar, flour, and oil are still rationed. Meat is chronically in short supply. In this agriculturally rich country, city-dwellers must line up at dawn to secure even the most modest ingredients for a passable meal.
Fearing a winter of severe cold like that experienced last year, the regime has already declared a state of emergency in the power industry and put military commissioners in charge of the plants.
The same thing happened in Poland in 1981, when its main industries were all militarized. But the Poles at least could argue that they feared the threat of civil disturbance.
No such dangers loom under Ceausescu's iron-fisted rule in Romania. Nor are there better prospects in sight for consumers. There is only the prospect of another difficult winter, during which people will be exhorted, as they have been for more than a decade, to work harder in order to boost exports.
In other East-bloc countries, export drives have been justified as benefiting domestic consumers. But not in Romania. There export remains tied to a level of industrialization and to grandiose projects which for many years almost everyone but the Romanian leader acknowledged as beyond the country's capacity.
The Romanian homemaker is much worse off than one in Poland, even after that nation's harsher five years of crisis. The Romanian would be happy indeed with the Polish meat ration of 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) a person a month, with 4.5 kilos (about 10 pounds) for heavy workers.
For in Romanian butchers shops, there is often no meat at all.
Like Romania, neighboring Bulgaria has suffered three years of drought seriously affecting harvests and energy supplies. But Bulgaria continues to maintain a relatively decent living standard. It is meeting its energy problem with increased prices for electricity.
The Ceausescu regime is certainly facing an acute economic crisis. But, just as manifestly, it is not simply a case of bad planning or inefficient management, which consistently are Ceausescu's scapegoats.
In agriculture, for example, Romanian collectivization was harsher than anywhere else in Eastern Europe. The ``private'' plot left the individual peasant more miniscule. Still, until recently, this sector produced 60 percent of Romania's milk, eggs, and fruit, and almost 50 percent of its meat and wool.
The current policy -- under an ``agricultural revolution'' initiated two years ago -- has been to squeeze these tiny``farms'' to the point that today they must first supply state markets with produce at low prices (fixed officially), or face confiscation of what little land they have.
And it soon became clear that the purpose of the revolution was not to create incentives to produce more food for the domestic market, but to bolster the exports Ceausescu needed to start paying off the huge foreign debts that he had incurred through his ambitious industrial projects.
Another ``crash'' program has, in fact, reduced the debts from a 1982 peak between $12 billion and $14 billion to about $7 billion currently. But that program envisaged production of 20 million tons of steel annually. Output, however, stands at only 12 million tons. Efforts to galvanize both the coal industry and oil refining for export show a similar lag.
To make good some of the refining shortfall, Romania has had to buy Soviet oil on stricter business terms under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- and has also been obliged to tone down its independent foreign policy, which has been something of an irritant to the Soviet Union.
In industry, the fixed minimum wage has been eliminated. All personnel working in enterprises that fall below quotas of central planners can be penalized by forfeiting up to half their monthly pay.
Romania hews firmly to the Stalinist model. Other East European regimes are discussing new forms of management. Hungary has looked much at the pioneering economic work of Yugoslavia, and Poland and Bulgaria, in turn, are now eyeing the Hungarian reform.
But the Hungarians' successful ``market socialism,'' or the tentative Chinese moves toward reform, or even the first hints of the same in Gorbachev's Russia, go unnoticed in Ceausescu's news media.
Moreover, there is still no apparent sign of dissent or challenge to his autocratic rule.