Thursday, July 29, 2010

And here my troubles began: Romania then and now *

A recent comment by my friend and fellow blogger John, reminded me of one of the reasons I decided to start this blog. It was a realization I made last month while visiting the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, in Sighet : that perhaps one of the most cruel victories of the pre-1989 dictatiorship in my country was to erase collective memory as to its atrocities. Some of you may have noticed I included the Sighet Memorial in my list of contemporary art platforms in Romania. While the memorial is not dedicated to art (though you will find recent works of art scattered through the building) it is one of the best places to learn about the situation in Romania and Eastern Europe in the 1945-1989 period, moreover it is a space that makes one deeply aware of human suffering and endurance.

It sure feels that we need to collectively jog our memory now, when one of the most hated dictators in Europe, who ruled Romania like the tyrant that he was for decades, is being exhumed. It is hard to watch on TV images of people, most of them old people who lived in a repressive machine most of their adult lives, going to pilgrimages to Ceausescu's grave. It is more bewildering to read in a recent poll by IRES (Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy), that if elections were held next week, 41% (!!!) of the population would vote for Ceausescu! As part of the same study, we find out that 63% of Romanians believe they had better lives during communism. You know what I say to these people - my people? That they should at least consider that Ceausescu would have never allowed free elections in the first place! Maybe a reality check would jog their memory as to the constant surveillance and paranoia instilled by the Secret Police. Even if I was only 4 at the time, I will never forget the never-ending queues for basic food supplies, such as milk or bread and the empty shelves in markets filled only with plastic vegetables or meat, as a sadistic ornament. So I am having a really hard time trying to understand how two thirds of us are nostalgic for the dictatorship.

Now more than ever we need more institutions like the Sighet Memorial to remind us of how much we wanted our freedom back in the 80s and 90s, how many were tortured and killed during the regime, how all of us have been traumatized for generations to come by the apparatus some people would willingly want to take over their lives again. So my entry today serves a double purpose: to familiarize my readers who have limited knowledge of the socio-economic-political transformations that have been sweeping through Romania in the past two decades, and at the same time it is a historical marker of the economic crisis pulling apart the public sphere. The path to democracy unanimously acquiesced in 1989 is starting to unravel as those who once shouted "Better dead than communist!" are now erased by those laying wreaths and tears on the grave of the dictator.

Eastern European historiography is commonly approached in terms of before and after 1989. What was before, is generally perceived as a totalitarian system of control, while after represents a period of transition to democracy and free market economy. The account of these past weeks events in Romania seems to challenge that description, illuminating the tension between the outside perception of the structure of things and the reality on the ground. I tend to reject this binary representation of history,because I think Romania is a country that falls outside these lines.

There is perhaps no better example to my objection, than the evolution of The Palace of the Republic, Ceausescu's most hated project in Bucharest now turned Parliament building and art museum. The building was started in 1984 and left a permanent scar in the geographical and human memory of the capital: about nine Orthodox churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and over 30.000 private residencies were demolished to make way for the architectural embodiment of the Socialist paradise envisioned by the communists. It was never finished, and even today undisclosed sums are being pilled to make bewildering additions (like an underground car park) to this monstrosity. In 1990, in an attempt to dislocate meaning by altering its function, The Palace of the Republic was, without any referendum, transformed over night into The House of the People and then The Palace of the Parliament.

This autocratic decision (by the National Salvation Front/ Social Democratic Party) to house the democratic structure of the new Romania in a former dictator's palace seemed more like neo-communism at the time. It certainly got severely criticized by the general public as well as civic groups such as the Group for Social Dialogue,the Civic Alliance and We, the thugs. Even more criticized was the PSD's (Social Democratic Party) directive to create a national museum for contemporary art (MNAC) in the northern wing of the same building in 2004. Again without any referendum or consultation of the artists, art historians, architects etc., this was decidedly a political dictate meant to bolster then prime minister Adrian Nastase's bid for the presidency. And thus, the usage of freedom and democracy in post 1989 Romania seemed from the start more like mis-usage, since it remained the privileged of a handful of politicians (like not so long ago it was in the hands of Ceausescu and the Party), who built their moral status by promoting art and culture that corresponded to their own definitions of fairness and equality. To this day, politics, media, culture and businesses remain intertwined in corrupt ways, violating democratic ideals.

It is against this backdrop that some of the most exciting Romanian artists have forayed their bid to work in a system fraught with bureaucracy, corruption and insecurity, but a system that calls for creative solutions. Many artists and cultural workers derive their creative energies from failure and the frustrations of working along fixed directions. While limitations may turn to openings for some, the question still remains, will we ever be normal or has communism already won?

*Kudos to those of you who caught on to my title reference.
**Image credit: Dan Perjovschi, Postmodern ex-communist, 2006


  1. Even though I already know the story, hearing it again just fascinates me - specifically when something along the same lines is occurring in the region I'm living in now.

    Great job!

  2. We need more solidarity to stand against tyranny! or at least abusive governments