"We have not managed to deal with the legacy of communism in a clear way and this is not only a source of confusion, but also of frustration". The events of 1989, an ambiguous revolution, the Romanians and Europe. An interview with Mircea Vasilescu
Mircea Vasilescu (born 1960) is associate professor at the Faculty of Letters, University of Bucharest, editor-in-chief of the Dilema veche weekly magazine and Dilemateca (a monthly about books and reading). He published the books: Iubite cetitoriule. Lectură, public şi comunicare în cultura română veche (Dear Reader. Reading, Public and Communication in the Ancient Romanian Culture"), Bucharest, Paralela 45 Publishing House, 2001; Mass-CoMedia, Bucharest, Curtea Veche Publishing House, 2001; Europa dumitale. Dus-întors între noi" şi ei", Bucureşti, Editura Polirom, 2007.
He translated into romanian: François Furet, Penser la Révolution Française (Bucharest, Humanitas, 1992); Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses (Bucharest, Univers, 1995) and Histoire de la follie à l'âge classique (Bucharest, Humanitas, 1996); Sergio Romano, Cinquant'anni di storia mondiale (Bucharest, EFCR, 1999).
For Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall is a common symbol of the events of 1989. In that period however, Romania was in a situation of particular isolation, even vis-à-vis the Soviet block. How did the country perceive that historic event?
By the time the wall crumbled, the process of democratic reform has already started in almost all communist countries in Eastern Europe. In Romania, however, everything seemed blocked. Also, at the time the wall was coming down, the XIV congress of the Romanian communist party was taking place in Bucharest. News of what went on in Berlin was censored by the regime so it arrived from Radio Free Europe, by word of mouth or from relatives or friends living abroad. Those early November days had, without a doubt, an important symbolic significance for us too. However, I think that back then the broader sentiment was delusion: we were watching the world around us change radically whereas everything in Romania stood still.
And yet, just a month later the Ceauşescu regime would also collapse. Can it be argued that, in Romania, the event most like "the fall of the wall" was the first street protest in Timişoara on 16 December 1989?
Yes, that is the moment of breakthrough for Romania, but it was also a surprise since I think few thought street demonstrations of such scale were possible. Despite the tireless censorship, the word of what was going on in Timişoara came through and set the scene for the "final act" which brought down the curtain for the regime: the protest in Bucharest on 21 December, followed by Ceauşescu and his wife's escape the next day and their execution on 25 December.
Were you in Bucharest in those days? What are your personal recollections of those moments?
Yes, I was in Bucharest. I remember the joy of the people; hundreds of thousands of them went out in the streets. There was a widespread and visible excitement. Then, I naturally remember the confusion which spread with the appearance of the mysterious "terrorists," the shootouts and the casualties, the "small civil war" in the streets. These events, even today, are veiled in mystery and suspicion despite the efforts of a special parliamentary commission and a lot of journalistic research. Who provoked the more than 1,000 deaths which marked the revolution? Who were the terrorists? Why have none of them ever been identified? There is no conclusion or official version concerning the events from those days.
There are two often-cited versions of that event. One version says it was a "spontaneous revolution" and the other holds that it was a "palace coup" organized by the inner echelons of the communist party in order to take power. With the distance of 20 years, has a shared version of those events emerged?
Today, unfortunately, Romanian society has largely put aside the issues concerning that period of time. As I said, there has been no real shared interpretation views concerning what happened in December '89 remain sharply polarized. From my point of view, both theories remain valid and they are not mutually exclusive. Probably, the "spontaneous revolution" which did take place, without any doubt, was coupled with a coup d'etat organized inside the Romanian communist party and supported by the Soviets and some other Western countries' secret services.
And how did institutions interpret the revolution? Doesn't the revolution form the "founding myth" of new Romanian statehood?
Yes, 21 and 22 December are used by the establishment as a point of reference as the "date of birth" of the new, democratic Romania. This is underscored by different types of "civic celebrations" which serve to remind us that almost all Romanian towns now have a street or a square named "21 December."
Going back to 1989, in your opinion, why was Romania the only country from the Warsaw Pact which underwent a violent political transformation?
Because in Romania the regime was more severe than elsewhere, but also because here more than elsewhere, people felt discouraged and afraid. The model of social and political control in Romania was not much different than in other ex-communist countries. However, here more than elsewhere the secret service, the Securitate managed to create an image of being able to exercise absolute control over everything and everybody. In addition, in Romania, with exception of a few isolated cases, there were not episodes of dissidence and struggle against the regime. When, in the end, the people decided that they couldn't take it anymore, there wasn't a political alternative ready to guide the country into a new system so the unrest and the desire for change were discharged through violence.
What was the role of Romanian intellectuals in those years of change?
The intellectuals started making contributions beginning in the 1980s: the few episodes of dissent registered in Romania were, as a matter of fact, actions of intellectuals such as the poet Mircea Dinescu and the philosopher Andrei Plesu. Then, naturally, right after the fall of the regime, intellectuals were very active in the debate concerning the course the country should take, playing the role of "civic conscience" primarily though the media which, in the first years of transition, had a strong impact on society. Some actively entered politics. A party composed of intellectuals was created in 1992, the Party of Civic Alliance, led by the literary historian Nicolae Manolescu. Then, in 1996, the former rector of the University of Bucharest, Emil Constantinescu, became President. From that moment on, however, the influence of intellectuals in political life started to decline and almost all of them went back to their original professions. At present, many intellectuals write op-eds in daily journals, but I would say that their voices no longer have the strength they once had. In Romania today, papers are not read much and the people watch TV programmes in which eminent intellectuals are almost never invited to appear.
What is Romania's rapport with the figure of Nicolae Ceauşescu today?
In the beginning of the 1990s, it was enough to mention his name to provoke heated debates which were, nevertheless, poorly substantiated with historic facts. Today, things have changed and discussions of those times can be held more calmly. There is a phenomenon, albeit limited, of nostalgia but overall there is a lot of confusion concerning Ceauşescu, mostly because his real role and historic responsibility could not be precisely defined. For the new generations, he is a figure from a distant world, incomprehensible and in some way grotesque. My son, who is 16, laughs when he sees films of Ceauşescu. "He is ridiculous. How could this man be a dictator?" he asks me.
How much did the rushed death sentence for Ceauşescu contribute to the remaining confusion over his historic role?
There is still a lot of discussion today over the need for that trial and that death sentence. A "real" trial of Ceauşescu would have definitely had great symbolic importance and would have helped make a clearer distinction between the country's past and present. But beyond Ceauşescu's trial, Romania lacked a "trial of communism" which would have been at least ethical, if not political or judicial. In December 2006, current president Traian Basescu, in parliamnet, denounced the communist regime as "illegitimate and criminal" and referenced a report produced by a commission chaired by Vladimir Tismaneau, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. This act was not followed up with in practice, however, despite the fact that some measures had been proposed by the commission itself. Also, the draft bill for lustration, proposed by the Liberal Party in 2005, has never even been considered in parliament.
You have written that one of the driving forces of Romanian society during the difficult years was the "will for normalcy." In your view, was this desired state of normalcy reached with the entry of the country into the EU?
Our history has shown that Romanian society has a great capacity to adapt. This is a thesis which was also proposed by philosopher Mihail Ralea in the 1930s. This thesis become one of the defining features of his work. After the first confusing years of transition, the European perspective was quickly adopted as the road to follow. From that moment on, things improved rapidly, both from the perspective of democratization as well as from an economic point of view. We could say that Romania's entry into the EU has brought, at least in part, the 'normalcy" I was referring to. Today we have a society and institutions which resemble those in Western Europe. There is freedom of speech and movement. The same goes for everyday life: Romanians have discovered the "normalcy" of consumerism which, at times, has gotten out of control, perhaps because of a need to compensate for the years of rationing and the misery during the last years of the regime.
Is this the normalcy Romanians dreamed about at the time of the revolution in 1989?
Yes, at least for a large part of the population. But this does not mean that our society does not have its dark shadows and unresolved problems. As I was saying, we have not managed to deal with the legacy of communism in a clear way and this is not only a source of confusion, but also of frustration. The unanswered questions concerning the numerous deaths in December 1989 are still painful. Over the years, it has also been difficult to see many former Securitate agents become novel capitalists or be recycled into the political establishment. Of course, it would be a simplification to say that "nothing has changed" and that it is always "the same people in command," even though this is a sentiment which, by and large, prevails in Romanian society.
There are some who see the experience of the communist regime as a "foreign body" in Romanian history and as an experience which should be completely removed from the collective memory if possible. What is your position on this issue?
I think that despite the negative historical legacy of the regime, it would be impossible to erase forty years of history...forty years in which society, as well as many people's lives, changed profoundly. The real open question concerns the capacity to go beyond a black and white review of that period in history which is often assessed only in terms of "positive" or "negative." The evolution of the communist regime was a complex phenomenon which passed through different phases such as the hard Stalinist period in the 1950s and the relative softening of the party in the period between 1965 and 1973. During that time artistic expression and the expression of dissent enjoyed a form of timid freedom.
An interesting feature of the communist regime in Romania was the level of intervention, not only in the organization of social and political life, but also with what concerns spatial and urban development. How does Romania deal now with the legacy of that experiment which produced the "People's Palace" (now "Palace of Parliament") in Bucharest as its definitely most famous symbol?
Given the lack of historic appraisal of communism and the confusion I was describing, the trend is to utilize this heritage, trying in some way to modify its symbolic significance. Besides parliament for example, today the "People's Palace" also hosts the museum of modern art. This is an attempt to recycle the "monster" and to assign it merit by using it for purposes which are very different from it original ones. The construction of that building had a devastating impact on the city. Twenty percent of the buildings in the historic and most beautiful parts of Bucharest were demolished in order to make room for the palace. Beyond the enormous sum of money invested in it, the project cost the lives of many people involved in its construction. Today, all of this is quickly forgotten. During the debate in the 1990s there were those who suggested destroying it. Even if we were willing to do that, that would have been very difficult to do, if not impossible, given the enormous mass of the building.
Twenty years after 1989, is there still a wall between Western and Eastern Europe in your opinion?
I think that the "great wall" between the East and the West no longer exists. There are still small walls between the two parts of the continent however. For example, there are stark differences in economic development. Some countries in Eastern Europe have gradually come nearer to the standard of the West but not enough to prevent the phenomenon of mass migration which has caused social and political problems such as those connected to the Romanian community in Italy. In addition, the political process is different. The West is more stable thanks to the tradition and experience of democracy and to an administrative capacity which is significantly less tied to the countries of Eastern Europe. In all, or almost all, of the ex-communist countries, politics is connected to a phenomenon of corruption and this has led to a general climate of distrust towards institutions. It is a phenomenon which is reflected in some countries in the low turnout at elections. To conclude, I would say that the legacy of our different recent pasts still affects the relations between the East and the West. I think that we still have to make an effort to successfully communicate and discuss the different experiences which we lived on the opposite sides of the iron curtain.
Is a common European celebration of the events from 1989 possible?
In my view, despite the weight of the different historic legacies which I mentioned, there is common ground for Europeans to celebrate the events of 1989 together and that common ground is the triumph of democracy and liberty. Ultimately, the process of construction of a common Europe is a direct consequence of that victory.