Knowing Where the Graves Are

How Romania Has Begun to Deal With Its
Communist Past

Edward Kanterian

Lately, analysis of the Nazi era and the Holocaust
has once again intensified worldwide. But the
confrontation with Communism and the gulag still
lags behind. There are psychological, ideological
and also tangible political reasons for this. The
example of Romania shows that, even in the East
European countries most strongly affected, there
is still powerful resistance against facing up to the
phenomenon. - The author of this article is a
freelance writer living in Oxford.

The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has said that
Marxism was the greatest fantasy of the 20th century -
a fantasy which, wherever there was an effort to realize
it in the form of Communism, failed utterly and left
behind a legacy of poverty, the shadow economy,
corruption and depression. In Russia and Eastern
Europe, that fantasy is rightfully no longer taken
seriously as a model of social structure and
development. But it would be premature to write
Communism off or to forget it entirely. That is not only
because some critics of globalization (see the cult book
"Empire") are once again flirting with it, or because it
still has one globally powerful representative in the
People's Republic of China. In the course of its 80-year
history, Communism took a vast number of human lives,
as we know at the latest since publication of "The Black
Book of Communism," and the memory of those victims
demands that Communism be historically analyzed and
understood.

In Eastern Europe, one often hears the bitter complaint
that the West is cultivating a culture of memory with
respect to the Holocaust, but is blind to the millions of
deaths in the gulag. That is true; however, the reasons
for this asymmetry are not to be found in some
conspiracy, but rather in certain historical realities. The
crimes carried out in the name of Communism were
committed over a span of decades against disparate
communities of victims who, unlike survivors of the
Shoah, have not been able to develop anything like a
collective memory in the West. Moreover, it was only
about a decade ago that the Iron Curtain finally went up,
so that the gulag - like the Holocaust in its day - will
need a certain amount of time to resurface in the
awareness of the global community. Of course, there is
no guarantee of this, no compelling historical law.
Rather, it is now up to the communities that were
affected to themselves push for a historical illumination
and examination of Communism, to document the
horrors suffered and to draw the world's attention to this
other great disaster of the 20th century. The realization
must grow in Eastern Europe that the memorialization of
the Holocaust should be seen not as "competition," but
rather as a precedent for the historical illumination of
the past which, while it perhaps cannot be matched, has
set new moral and academic standards which can serve
as a model for the victims of Communism.

Deficient Information

The case of Romania illustrates how this processing of
the past can gradually get moving despite domestic
resistance. The major experience of the Romanian
gulag took place between 1948 and 1960, when the
Communist Party under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej
subjugated the country's bourgeois society to the Soviet
system in several waves of repression. It is estimated
that, during those years, more than a million persons
were arrested, interrogated, tortured, "re-educated" and
interned in camps. In view of the totally deficient
information available, it is impossible to estimate how
many of those people died. Some historians assume that
hundreds of thousands were murdered.

During more than four decades of dictatorship, there
was never an opportunity to count the victims of the
early phase of Communism, much less to memorialize
them. The first signs of a "culture of memory" arose
spontaneously immediately after the end of the
dictatorship. In December 1989, people laid wreaths and
lit candles at sites in downtown Bucharest where
demonstrators had been shot by troops loyal to
Ceausescu. Some of those improvised memorials still
exist today, reminding passersby in the middle of
"Bulevardul Magheru," a commercial thoroughfare rich
in travel agencies and upscale fashion boutiques, of the
price that was paid for their present freedom.

The political upheaval was clothed in a determination to
radically break with the legacy of Communism. But for
obvious reasons, the new rulers gathered around the
ex-Communist Ion Iliescu avoided any examination that
went beyond a monosyllabic denunciation of Dictator
Ceausescu and his wife. Under Iliescu, who initially
governed the country until 1996 and is said to have been
partly responsible for the bloody suppression of
university students in the 1950s, there was considerable
foot-dragging about the introduction of legislation to
facilitate "lustration" (the ban on candidacies by
members of the former nomenklatura) and the opening
of the files of the Securitate, the former Communist
secret police. Characteristically, in 1991 Romania's
highest court simply ignored the first charges brought
against 200 of the worst torturers and executioners still
living, despite the fact that the roster of those accused
included two of the most notorious Stalinists, Alexandru
Draghici and Alexandru Nicholski. Those two men had
played key roles in the waves of purges in the 1940s
and '50s, Draghici as interior minister and Nicholski as a
Securitate general.

Despite failure at the political and judicial levels, a
process of examining the past gradually got started
thanks to the liberalization of Romania's media. In 1991,
filmmaker Lucia Hossu-Longin presented the first
episode in her broadcast series "Memorialul Durerii"
(Memorial to Pain), and was able to do so on the
state-run TV channel during prime time. In periodically
broadcast episodes since then - well over a hundred of
them by now - she has documented the entire extent of
Communist terror from 1947 onward, sometimes
through interviews with prominent survivors and others,
or in visits to former prisons and concentration camps,
including Aiud, Gherla, Sighet, Jilava, and Piletsi - all of
them sites of horrors, names no one had even dared
utter before 1989.

Initially, this series of telecasts was watched by
uncommonly large numbers of viewers, because it so
impressively showed Romanians the full extent of the
Stalinist crimes, a subject which had been taboo up until
then. But the fascination with short-lived television
images would have been quickly replaced by
indifference and forgetfulness if other forms of
examination had not developed at the same time.
Among them were the activities of ex-victims, who in
1990 organized themselves into a Society of Former
Political Prisoners, held demonstrations, and drew
attention to themselves by publishing memoirs, books
which were very popular among an activist readership
in the early post-Communist years. Though such
products of oral history naturally did not live up to
academic standards, at a time when no archives had yet
been opened and historians were just beginning to get
down to work these memoirs provided an initial source
of valuable raw material.

Among the most important publications in this category
are the four volumes of memoirs by Ion Ioanid, whose
detailed survey of the Communist gulag system is
written in striking language and bears comparison with
Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." No less important
are the memoirs of philosopher Nicolae Steinhardt, who
survived the gulag experience through conversion to the
Christian faith; those of Corneliu Coposu, an eminent
politician and leader of the Farmers Party, who died in
1995; the writings of Belu Zilber, a once high-ranking
Marxist who fell into disfavor and was condemned in
1954 in a show trial of "Zionists"; or Lena Constante,
who experienced the Communist terror in a prison
specially set up for women. Insight into the odyssey of
an intellectual who initially met the Communist takeover
with ingenuousness, but gradually became an opponent
of the system and spent a number of years in prison,
may be found in Nicolae Balota's extremely readable
journal "The Blue Notebook," which he wrote in the
1950s and published in 1998, with added notes and
commentary. A number of authors dealt with their
sufferings under the repressive system in outstanding
novels, such as Paul Goma's "Gherla" (1990), Ana
Blandiana's "The Applause Machine" (1992) and
Norman Minea's "The Black Envelope" (1996). The
novels by Goma and Manea appeared prior to 1989, but
were published either in exile or in heavily censored
form.

Aside from such survivors, there was a second group of
younger intellectuals and dissidents who, immediately
after 1989, demanded that Communism be brought to
book as a contribution to the democratization of their
society. The activists among them founded periodicals,
such as Andrei Pleu's "Dilema," or nongovernmental
organizations like the Group for Social Dialogue
launched by Horia Patapievici and Mircea Dinescu, and
Ana Blandiana's Citizens' Academy. Dinescu is also on
the editorial staff of the journal "Memoria," dedicated
exclusively to Communism and its victims. The
discourse in these forums was promoted by the
parliamentary opposition, notably the now-defunct
Democratic Convention (CD), and followed by a large
public.

But toward the middle of the 1990s, with the drastic
deterioration of the economy, public interest in
confronting the past dwindled drastically. In 1996, the
Iliescu opponent Emil Constantinescu (of the CD) was
elected president. Because he was unable to improve
the living standards in Romania, his four-year term is
widely considered a failure both at home and abroad.
But with regard to the illumination of the Communist
past, the Constantinescu period was not totally barren,
since it brought a second phase, that of the official
institutionalization and academic buttressing of the
confrontation with the past. Important in this regard is
the National Council for Examination of the Securitate
Archives (CNSAS), which began its work prior to the
presidential election in the year 2000. The CNSAS has
two core tasks: to free the country's political life from
former agents or employees of the Securitate, and to
provide formerly persecuted individuals with access to
their Securitate files.

The creation of this much-disputed official agency is a
typical example of the opposing interests and ambivalent
situation here, which make progress in a straight line
impossible. Initially intended to facilitate genuine
"lustration," the legislation creating the CNSAS was
debated so long in Parliament, and eventually so
watered down, that finally it had only "moral force": that
is, the agency can reveal candidates' espionage
activities during the Communist era, but the people thus
charged are allowed to run for office anyway. What is
even more problematic is that the present Romanian
secret service, naturally thoroughly permeated by old
Securitate types, has control of the kilometers-long
archives and gives the CNSAS access only to whatever
it pleases. As a result, the focus of the National Council
has shifted to unmasking unimportant former spies,
while high-ranking members of the old nomenklatura
walk away unscathed.

A Hesitant Opening

A no less important development is the gradual evolution
of systematic research on the totalitarian era. Its
slowness is due to the hesitant opening of archives,
some of which are still in oldline Communist hands. For
example, one of the leading journals in this area, "The
Archive of Totalitarianism," is an offshoot of the
so-called National Institute for the Study of
Totalitarianism, to which some representatives of the
nomenklatura and former collaborators belong. The
documents printed in the journal are by no means
useless, but they must be taken with a grain of salt, as
Bucharest historian Doina Jela puts it.

Jela herself has been editing the series "Procesul
Comunismului" (Communism on Trial) since 1998, under
the auspices of the leading publisher Humanitas. As
stated in its program announcement, the series is more
or less a substitute for "a Nuremberg Trial of
Communism, which will never take place." Humanitas
Publisher Gabriel Liiceanu believes that the long
duration of Communist rule resulted in a loss of the
sense of social ethics, so that the society, once it had
thrown off the dictatorship, immediately began to forget
everything. According to Liiceanu, to counteract this
"quasi-amnesia" requires not only the horrifying reports
written by individual survivors such as Ioanid, but also a
rational analysis of the overall phenomenon. That is why
the series, which now covers 20 titles, includes a core of
classic writings about Communism by such Western
experts as Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest, Alain
Besançon and Stéphane Courtois. The latter's "Black
Book of Communism," in its Humanitas version, was a
best-seller despite its high price.

Naturally enough, a focal point of this series of books
consists of works by Romanian researchers. Worthy of
special mention here is Stelian Tanase's "Elites and
Society," which makes an important contribution with a
social-theory analysis of the Dej era. Two other notable
titles are both by Doina Jela: "Confession of a Former
Torturer" (1999) and "The Black Dictionary" (2001).
These two volumes are probably unique in form in
Eastern Europe. "Confession" is actually a horrifying
interview with Frantz Tzandara, the only erstwhile
Communist torturer who was willing to give an account
of his crimes. He was hired in the early 1950s, at the
age of 19, and did his "service" in various camps and a
notorious psychiatric clinic for political prisoners.
Tzandara's life has since been filmed by Romania's
leading filmmaker, Lucian Pintilie, and the work brought
him a nomination at the Venice Film Festival.

As to the "Dictionary," it shows that Tzandara's was not
an isolated case. This volume contains portraits of 1,700
of Dej's and Ceausescu's henchmen, not only torturers
but also Securitate officers, prison guards, judges,
doctors, even cleaning women - in brief, those
individuals who in their various ways created and
perpetuated the Stalinist machinery of murder. How is
such a book meant to be read? According to Liiceanu,
as an inventory of forms of criminality, as an X-ray
portrait of the true nature of Communism, which "made
terror the foundation of society beneath its mask of
discourse about the wellbeing of mankind." Jela got the
idea for her "Dictionary," incidentally, from Cicerone
Ionitoiu, a former prisoner who has a far more extensive
project in mind: a "Dictionary of the Victims of
Communism in Romania," projected to be in 12 volumes.
The first volume features family names beginning with
A-to-B and contains no fewer than 5,000 entries. A
work like this clearly constitutes a kind of memorial.

One of the most important institutions for studying and
trying to deal with Romania's past is both a memorial
and a research center: the International Study Center
for Communism, of which the Sighet Memorial is a part.
The Center was founded on the private initiative of Ana
Blandiana and her husband, Romulus Rusan. Located in
northern Romania, in the city of Sighet (or Sighetul
Marmatiei), where the Communist occupation forces
established one of their first concentration camps in
1948, the Study Center is comparable to Berlin's
"Topography of Terror" or Moscow's Memorial Society,
the latter founded by Andrei Sakharov in 1989. The
prison at Sighet held some of the most important
personages of pre-Communist Romania, among them
politicians such as the eminent democrat and former
prime minister Iuliu Maniu, who died there in 1953, as
well as academics, journalists, and bishops. In creating
the memorial facility, Blandiana had to fight against
many obstacles. During the Iliescu era neither financial
nor political support was forthcoming from the
government, and when some funds were received from
the Council of Europe, the official government
newspaper commented that Romania's suffering was
being sold to the West. But the real help came from
private donors (often from Romanians in exile and those
who had suffered from Communism) or from Western
universities. At any rate, the concentration camp was
eventually completely reconstructed and transformed
into a museum and memorial.

For the past nine years, academics and gulag survivors
have been meeting in Sighet each summer for
conferences at which they are gradually tracing and
unraveling the history of East European Communism.
One result is the 45 monographs and memoirs which
have been published so far; another is the 3,000 oral
history tapes of interviews with former victims. (The
comparison with Spielberg's Shoah Foundation is
obvious.) The Study Center receives some 500 visitors
daily, many young people among them - a substantial
number, considering that Sighet lies deep in the
countryside.

The Sighet memorial is unquestionably a major
achievement of Romania's civil society. Yet Blandiana
and her colleagues are skeptical. Since Iliescu has been
back in power, government leaders have been trying to
write off the country's past. The present prime minister,
Adrian Nastase, proud of his image as a democrat in the
West, repeatedly startles his countrymen with
statements such as "Anti-communism is obsolete" or
"Graves should be left in peace." But graves can be left
in peace only when one knows where there are.

July 05, 2002 / First published in German, June 24, 2002

Copyright © Neue Zürcher Zeitung AG

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