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Monday, 29 December 2014 00:00

Children of the Revolution: Thoughts on Romania

Written by Georgiana Murariu
Romanian revolution
Photo: ahmed bermawy (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
 

The revolution in Bucharest a quarter of a century ago

 

The final part of our mini-series marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe takes gives us a Romanian point of view, as we hear from Georgiana Murariu about the revolution of 1989 and the years that followed.

In the months prior to the spectacle that was the run-up to the recent Romanian presidential elections, I was reminded that it is never too late or too repetitive to re-hash and reconsider the profound effects of Ceausescu's regime.

As an increasingly educated and critical layer of youth intelligentsia derides decisions based on anything other than the desire for Europeanness, the use of politically-loaded terminology inevitably results in the creation of arbitrary divisions between different segments of the population. Sure, most of these are aphorisms about what it means to be an old communist crone, nostalgically clinging to the principles of the redistributive state and its overbearing, yet amiable paternal hand, but there is also a lot of rhetoric around corruption and the wish to free ourselves from undesirable spots on annual lists of bafflingly corrupt countries in Europe. All of which is fair, I suppose, or would be, were it not for the fact that we've never given any second thought to whether our condemnation of corruption is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its manifestation during the late communist era as well as the transitional period after 1989.

Economically and socially, the resulting "grey zones" became less about coping with a seemingly omnipresent government and more about the opportunistic manipulation of old boys' networks and invaluable knowledge to carry on furtively evading tax, whilst promising the people concepts that were once alien to them, like growth and prosperity.

Perhaps it's difficult to accept that corruption in its Western definition and in its definition from an economic perspective is easy to denounce as a go-to force of evil, while at the same time ignoring the circumstances in which it flourished a few decades back. Indeed, the same corruption we condemn today was once the human face that softened the impact of the brutal policies that were in place during Ceausescu's reign, policies aimed at manically being able to track our progress towards total elimination of debt, which in the minds of the Politburo was somehow synonymous with gratifying and maverick-like self-sufficiency.

At times, it seems like the rupture between the generation that grew up following the revolution and that of our parents makes each of our separate visions of society so opaque to one another, with the only common memories being resigned indignation over the perpetual "lack of funds" that we used to hear about so much in the 1990s.

End of an era

So what happened 25 years ago, shortly before Christmas 1989? The basic premise is surely intriguing enough to one day find its way to a jaded Hollywood executive's dusty stack of potential blockbuster scripts. An ethnically Hungarian pastor, former editor of an dissident journal with a penchant for drawing attention to himself by making the odd contrarian remark on television, gets evicted from his home on 15 December. As the militia van approaching his home inches closer to the scene, a disgruntled group of secret police officers realises that a human chain is obstructing their access to the house.

Ceaucescu
 Photo: Ion Chibzii (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0
Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena in the 1970s.

Days later, the initially peaceful vigil snowballs into a local resistance movement, setting off a chain of events that will forever remain a revolution to the idealists, and a dubious coup d'état to those of us with the tendency to question national narratives.

The protests spread to Bucharest, where Ceaușescu is about to make his final speech; shock and horror on his pallid face as he realises he's no longer in control of the state apparatus, before subsequently fleeing the scene in a helicopter. He hijacks a car in rural Romania and is lured to his death by a driver who takes him and his wife to an abandoned schoolhouse where they are given a hasty trial, sentenced to death and promptly executed by firing squad.

The synopsis of what follows can only be described as a journey mistakenly seen by many as linear, from a centralised command economy to a free market haven for well-meaning investors, peppered by charming but pitiable images of crowds of naïve workers freshly out of a job, walking calculators (as Monica Heintz puts it) converting lei to dollars in their head, with every instance of conversation suddenly turning to talk of fictitious or hypothetical financial transactions.

A rocky road

The concept of the transition, especially in the 90s, the decade that followed immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, invokes an array of coping strategies – from the grand revival of religion and superstitious beliefs to thousands of credulous depositors who bet the last of their money in order to invest in Caritas, one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in Europe in recent times. As ex-company directors and members of the former elite subsequently became barons by manipulating their former social capital and networks, people who hadn’t amassed wealth navigated a multitude of economically, legally, and socially "grey zone"-type situations to protect their families from taking the hit of the "shock therapy" economic policies recommended by Western economists. The latter contributed a great deal to civil institutions' acceptance of gifts or small bribes, which from the time of my visits to the doctor as a child, took the form of expensive whisky, coffee, or luxury soap. As the consumer market succeeded in creating demand for its products by aggressively marketing previously unavailable consumer goods, commodity items like Axe spray or Palmolive soap, became a relatively coveted treat for most households.

While little by little, the country was opening up to the Western world and state censorship was no longer a concern to keep one up at night, a lot of young Romanians sought to correct the West’s perception of the country as a classic post-socialist eastern European state. There was an implication of "Slavonicness" in that perception, and, keen to re-invent our identity and find a well-defined place in the now somewhat more stable equilibrium between European regions, we adopted an identity that we felt suited us linguistically and ideologically: that of being "Latin". Since Romanian is a Romance language, more similar to Italian or Spanish than to, say, Bulgarian or Croatian, co-opting the "Latin" trope came somewhat naturally: South American telenovelas (soap operas) became hugely profitable and successful in Romania, the result of which is a young Romanian population fluent in many dialects of South American Spanish.

My personal take on this is that the stories, which one easily dismisses as cheap melodrama acted out by unrealistically attractive models, have more merit to them than we'd like to think. High-brow culture they are not, but does that really matter when we see elements in the storylines that resonated with the realities Romanians were straddling at the time? The questioning of family ties, the significance of religion and superstition, the occasional demonisation (well-deserved) of old-money, rich villains and their exploitation of the poorer characters – these undoubtedly mirrored everyday reality more than the American blockbusters produced at the time. That’s not to say that the latter genre was not massively successful, but it's important to keep in mind that telenovelas permeated the national psyche to such an extent that Spanish in-jokes became a new source of humour for children, teens, and young adults exposed to them at the time.

Since Romanian is a Romance language, more similar to Italian or Spanish than to, say, Bulgarian or Croatian, co-opting the "Latin" trope came somewhat naturally

 

Classic depictions of Romania in the media in the 1990s were fairly grim and included Western Europeans coming to the rescue of Romania's famous "orphan children", left ailing on the rusty iron beds of unsanitary orphanages. On the ground, national pessimism prevailed as well, with schools for instance seeing children missing school due to having just got intestinal parasites from cheap cuts of meat, or chronically lacking the funds needed to actually pay public schoolteacher salaries.

We were left ambivalent and frustrated at the same time – things used to be more stable under Ceausescu, when, productivity and profit aside, everyone had a job and a family flat. On the other hand, queueing for hours to buy questionable ingredients to make a meal, having to resort to back-alley abortions due to condoms having been made illegal, and having to look over your shoulder every time a mildly subversive sentence left your lips were scenarios a large part of the population was no longer willing to contend with.

25 years on

Things have, of course, changed since the seminal 90s; we’re in the EU now, and the economy occasionally demonstrates ‘growth’, that much-loved marker of success that the financial media likes to put forth as the terminal measure of prosperity. Tourism still isn't booming (perhaps due to persistent deficiencies in infrastructure), but isn't that part of the shabby-chic-charming combination of attributes that makes the country an attractive destination in the first place? The tech industry seems to have taken off, and the majority of cities and towns have become entirely liveable.

However, having said that, people are still left confused as to what the role of the state is and should be. What does it mean to be on welfare? Should those who are vulnerable or dependent on the state and its redistributive tactics be as reviled for voting for parties that promise them more welfare? What if those parties never deliver? Like in a large proportion of former communist East European states, there is a bizarre mix of cynicism and idealism in a veil of deep mistrust. Thus, on the surface at least, the national mood manifests itself as profound individualism and, at times, the collective perpetuation of negative myths about Romanians from just about every walk of life: Romanians abroad, Romanians in business, Romanians in politics, friendship, love and woes – we think we know it all, sometimes inadvertently assuming that the Romanian down our street in Barcelona, London, or Rome, is probably similar to that one Romanian we knew in our once local pub back home. Romanians will stay Romanians (romanu' tot roman ramane) goes an ambiguous but punchy Romanian saying although I'm not entirely sure what it means.

 


Last modified on Sunday, 25 January 2015 20:09

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