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Claudia-Florentina Dobre

The Memory of Communism in Romania

In the first postcommunist decade, the communist past was a major stake in Romanian politics and public life. After the fall of Ceausescu’s regime and the bloody events of December 1989, the power was sized by neo-communists, second-rank economic, social, and political elites created by the communist system. Legitimized by the May 1990 general elections, the neo-communists managed to stay in power until 1996. Their public discourse promoted a complete break with communism by condemning Ceausescu and his wife to death, outlawing the Communist Party, and dismantling all the former regime’s symbols. Converted to capitalism, the neo-communists were adamant about forgetting the recent past. Ion Iliescu[1], the first postcommunist president of Romania and the iconic figure of the neo-communist elite, stated that any debate on communism was unnecessary as the regime was already condemned by History. He argued that people should forget the past and invited reconciliation in order to rebuild the country.

The Romanian neo-communists did their best to hide the truth about the recent past (and first of all about their recent past). The material traces of the communist years were destroyed, reused, and/or reinterpreted. The communist leaders’ mausoleum was proposed for demolition by the neo-communist themselves. Even the opening of the archives of the Romanian political police (the notorious Securitate) was instrumentalized to validate a myth of collective culpability. The purging of the secret police’s archives of those files pertaining to the neo-communists (perpetrated during the first months of postcommunism), together with the fabrication of false Securitate-collaborator files to discredit political opponents, created the impression that a great number of Romanians had been informants of the political police. Moreover, many of the self-styled anticommunists were discovered to have been informants and collaborators of Securitate. None of the pre-eminent neo-communist leaders was found guilty of collaboration with the former political police.

In the first postcommunist decade, lustration was not an option in Romania even if the civil society made demands in this regard as early as March 1990. The “Proclamation of Timisoara” asked for drastic restrictions of the right to run for public office in the case of members of the former nomenklatura, the political police, the communist-era police (Militia), and the national army. It was only two decades later, in 2010, that the lower chamber of the Romanian Parliament voted in favour of this measure. Subsequently adopted by the upper chamber as well, the law was nevertheless struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. In 2012, a different lustration law was adopted by the Romanian Parliament only to meet with the same fate from the Constitutional Court.

The neo-communists legitimated themselves through the events of December 1989[2], which they called a “Revolution.” The participants to the “Revolution” were called revolutionaries and they were entitled to all sorts of privileges like receiving state properties, free passes to public transportation, positive discrimination when applying for a job in public offices. Furthermore, a monument was erected in the memory of those who died during the “Revolution” and a celebration day was instituted in 2002.

Another perspective on the public memory of communism was promoted by intellectuals from the political right (the self-styled “democrats” or “anticommunists”), who denounced communism as a foreign regime imposed by the Soviet Union on the Romanian nation after the allied powers “betrayed” Romania during the peace negotiations at the end of the Second World War. This discourse emphasizes the uniqueness of Romanian communism by pointing to the brutality of repression and the chilling efficiency of the political police. Drawing on testimonies of former political prisoners as evidence, it depicts the Romanian concentration-camp experience as extreme even by the standards of totalitarian regimes, and argues that the repression left deep scars and thus discouraged people from rebelling against the communist state. In spite of this harsh repression, a few people decided to fight communism. The armed resistance in the mountains became a myth during the postcommunist period[3].

These two ideas, the overwhelming communist repression and the genuine anticommunist resistance, elaborated by the “democratic” elite, eventually became the official discourse concerning the communist regime. They were imposed as the mainstream paradigm through constant promotion in the public space and the political arena by the Former political detainees association (AFDPR)[4], by private foundations like the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Anticommunist Resistance in Sighetul Marmaţiei (known as the Sighet Memorial: Memorialul Sighet). This last enterprise played an important role in disseminating the perspective of the political right on communism and political persecutions. This leading role was recognized by the president himself in his official condemnation of the former regime.

  • In 1992, Ana Blandiana, a well-known poet and dissident of the last years of Ceausescu’s regime, designed a “Memory Center” dedicated to the memory of victims of communism. This project became the Sighet Memorial, recognized in 1996 as a “centre of national interest” by the “Democrat” government. According to law 95 of 1997, this type of an enterprise was entitled to financial support from the state. The Sighet Memorial includes an International Centre that keeps written, oral, and visual archives pertaining to the communist repression and anticommunist resistance, and a museum. Under the aegis of the Council of Europe, the Sighet Memorial organizes numerous activities related to the memory of political persecution, including conferences and exhibitions. It also collects testimonies, publishes books, and has founded the so-called “Memory Schools” for students[5].

Challenged in the beginning by the neo-communists, this perspective became consensual among public actors, especially after the opposition forces won the general elections in 1996. Although they lost the 2000 general elections in favour of the neo-communists, their anticommunist discourse remained dominant in the public space. This public consensus led to former political prisoners’ rehabilitation, the creation and dissemination of new myths of general victimization and culpability[6], and eventually to the condemnation of the communist regime, in December 2006[7].

The public anticommunist discourse has never enjoyed the same consensus among ordinary people. Periodic surveys revealed that around fifty percent of Romanians have a rather good image of communism[8]: a kind of nostalgia for a more secure, egalitarian, and organized past in contrast to the uncertain, disorganized and inequitable present. This nostalgia find its expression in the public space through a memorial trend that I call the “pink” memory, after a book of memories published by a few young artists, writers, and scholars, under the title, The Pink Book of Communism (Decuble 2004).

The Pink Book of Communism is a collection of personal memories about childhood and adolescence during the communist regime, in which auto-irony and “golden age” nostalgia dominate the narrative. This stirred some controversy. The authors were accused of trying to fabricate a rather “good image” of communism. Furthermore, the book was perceived as a response to Stephane Courtois’s Black Book of Communism, which had already been translated into Romanian with an addendum on Romanian communism. The sense was that The Pink Book was meant to diminish the communist crimes described in the Black Book.

This memorial trend is the result of a generational change. At the beginning of 2000s, a new generation of artists, scholars, and political leaders gained influent positions in the cultural, political, and social fields. They challenged the public memory of communism which depicted the former regime as “criminal” and the Romanians both as victims and perpetrators. An ironic and sometimes nostalgic memory of communism started to be promoted in the public space through a series of books, films, theatrical comedies, and artistic installations.

This trend culminated in an artistic project called “Replacing Lenin.” In March 1990, three months after the fall of communism, Lenin’s statue in Bucharest was dismantled and stored away. The pedestal remained empty until 2010, when an artist and assistant professor at UNARTE succeeded in convincing the mayor of Bucharest to let her use the pedestal for a series of artistic installations. The first one was a huge statue of Lenin made from pearl barley and fruit drops. It was inaugurated in January 2010 and did not stir any interest at the time. In the following years, other installations occupied Lenin’s pedestal and enjoyed more success. The irony promoted by this artistic project was intended to increase awareness about Romania’s recent past and to help heal the communist trauma. By questioning the way Romanian society remembers its communist past, the project called upon people to revise their beliefs about the former regime and its heritage. The project also aimed to provoke a civic response to the challenges and moral dilemmas of the postcommunist years.

Reproduced from Claudia-Florentina Dobre, Uses and Misuses of Memory: Dealing with Communist Past in Post-communist Bulgaria and Romania, in Małgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak, (eds.), European Memory: Eastern Perspectives, Berghahn Books, series Studies in Contemporary European History, New York, Oxford, p. 299-316.

[1] Ion Iliescu, born on 3 March 1930, was president of Romania between 1990-1996 and 2000-2004. He was a communist leader who opposed Ceausescu at the end of 1980s.

[2] On 16-17 December 1989 people from Timisoara started a revolt against communism. This was repressed by the Securitate (Secret Political Police), and the army. The news of Timisoara protests spread throughout the country and on 21 December 1989 a large manifestation against Ceausescu began in Bucharest. On 22 December, forced by the revolts of the people in Bucharest, Ceausescu and his wife fled the capital and sought refuge in the country. They were arrested by the army after a few hours. On 25 December, Christmas day, Ceausescu and his wife were put on trial and sentenced to death by an ad-hoc tribunal.

[3] The anticommunist fighters were small in number, a group encompassed not more than 7 to 10, even less members, they were around 10 000 persons in all Romania, and even if there was a plan to fight against communism, a general resistance movement could not be organized even if it seems that the United Kingdom and United States promised to help the resistance fighters. Supplies, guns and even soldiers were parachuted in the mountains but only for a short period of time. The majority of the resistance fighters were killed or imprisoned by the authorities.

[4] Soon after the fall of Ceausescu on 22 December 1989, the former political detainees created a national association called “The Association of the Former Political Prisoners of Romania” (Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici din România – AFDPR). It militated for the public rehabilitation of the political detainees and anticommunist fighters and the recognition of their merits.

[5] The “Memory Schools” are a type of summer schools meant to get students familiarized with the political persecutions of the communist regime.

[6] The public discourse of the neo-communists emphasized that the whole Romanian nation was guilty of accepting communism and of adapting to the regime. But they also accepted the right wing’s discourse of victimization, and argued that Romania was a victim of history and geopolitics.

[7] In April 2006 President Traian Basescu, who had been brought to power by a centre-right coalition, decreed the creation of a commission intended to study the communist crimes in Romania. After six months, the commission presented its report in more than 600 pages. The Report presented communism as a repressive regime which persecuted Romanians and destroyed the country traditions, laws and former elite.

[8] The 2006 Open Society Foundation survey shows that twelve percent of the population found communism a good idea that had been well applied while forty-one percent considered that communism was a good idea but had been put in practice in a wrong way. Open Society Foundation, “The Actual Perception of Communism,” http://www.osf.ro, last visited, December 2012. A 2011 survey by the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) shows that forty-three percent of respondents considered communism a good idea but wrongly applied, while eighteen percent viewed it as a well applied good idea. IICCMER and CSOP, “Atitudinii si opinii despre regimul communist din Romania. Sondaj de opinie publica” (Attitudes and Opinions about Communist Regime in Romania: Public Survey), 23 May 2011, http://www.iiccr.ro/, last visited, February 2013.

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