30 years after the Romanian Revolution: from social-political liberties to knowledge and justice
As many historians, political philosophers, social psychologists, victims and families of victims of the Communist regime agree the sooner the truths of the 1989 Revolution will be unearthed and exposed the faster the society will be alleviated of the trauma of the totalitarianism and be able to memorize and reconnect around a general understanding of the past.
When at mid-day on 22 December 1989 Nicolae Ceauşescu, aged 71, left the Party Central Committee balcony and escaped by helicopter the fury of his own people the fate of the Communist totalitarian regime seemed sealed. Ironically, a regime which claimed to serve the working class had entirely fallen in disfavour of the workers and was being ousted from power by huge crowds of labourers drafted from the largest industrial parks. A system that avowed to engineer the highest social standards and guarantee the most sophisticated form of social freedom was being loathed by the very social classes they professed to represent. Freedom, freedom, freedom!, the crowds chanted in Timişoara and the demands for political and social liberty have become the underpinning of the Romanian Revolution two century after the French Revolution had overthrown the Ancien Régime. In ostensibly classless communist Romania a nomenclature based on full obedience towards the regime leaders was no less deaf to the basic needs of their own citizens who were forced to spend daily hours in big lines to acquire the most vital products they were deprived of. From shortages of bread, milk, meat, oil to the lack of hot water and heat and to electricity cuts the population suffered unimaginable depravations. Libertate (Freedom)! was the cry under which actor Călin Nemeş, then 39, received a round of bullets of the Romanian military unit of Cluj-Napoca. Libertate! also united people of various confessions and nationalities in Timişoara beginning with 15 December 1989 and gained the locality the title of the first city free of communism on 20 December. Libertate! was also what the people of Bucharest and other cities cried for starting with 21 December. More than 44 years or 16,362 days have passed since the first Communist-led government came to power and their usurpation of command had followed another six years of conservative dictatorship. Many Romanians had never experienced the exercise of political rights and large shares of them had been born or grown mature in the demographically abundant generations during the 8,930 days of the Ceauşescu regime. The bicentenary anniversary of the French Revolution in Romania evoked another historical irony: the overthrowing by freedom-thirsty revolutionaries of the only Communist leader who bore a sceptre starting with 28 March 1974. As far as recollections of Communist potentates and archival sources allow to be understood, the Ceauşescu regime was heading towards a North-Korean kind of family dictatorship.
Thirty years after the revolution progresses are being achieved in unveiling not only the horrors but also the everyday life of the Communist totalitarian regime. In terms of documentary knowledge a decade after the Revolution laws regulating the access to former Securitate archives have started to be promulgated beginning with Law no. 187 of 7 December 1999 on the access to the personal file and the disclosure of the Securitate as a political police, which was eventually amended and turned earlier this year into Law no. 161 of 26 July 2019. On this basis a large share of the surviving former Securitate archives have been transferred on Matei Basarab St. in Bucharest at Consiliul Naţional pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securităţii [The National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives] where a rising number of historians as well as former victims and even collaborators of the Securitate are gradually reconstituting traits of the Romanian society during the Communist regime. Research has proven inter alia that more opposition to the governmental system existed in Romania than it had been previously assumed that is only now gradually being revealed. Besides, the Romanian National Archives and its county branches are also offering expanded access to key documentary resources capable of revealing the political, economic, social and cultural processes and their impact on the citizens of Romanian Popular and later Socialist Romania. Access to sources remains the vital factor in producing unbiased knowledge and avoiding the temptation of sensationalism and politically-inclined conclusions. The preliminaries of the Romanian Revolution and partially the repressions of Timişoara and Bucharest of 15-21 December 1989 are gradually being disclosed or confirmed by access to documentary evidence. Although some local monographs or articles have been produced for crucial episodes of the Revolution in Timişoara, Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Braşov, Târgovişte, Iaşi, etc. more scholarship by professional historians would likely enlighten events, actions and incidents which are still being shadowed.
The Romanian Revolution and some of the most appalling crimes of the Communist totalitarian system cannot however be entirely reconstituted on the basis of the Securitate archives. The growing body of testimonial literature and the use of oral history have adjusted the Communist regime’s recorded evidences and allows a foray into the human dimension of history, i.e. the perception and internalization of traumas suffered while in custody of the Communist penitentiary system or during the repression of the 1989 Revolution. Initially focused on male’s custodial experiences, lately female perceptions and insights have been also acknowledged.
Aside of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives, the history institutes of the Romanian Academy and the faculties and departments of history, several institutions have been devoted to the research and/or criminalization of the Communist regime. Institutul de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului şi Memoria Exilului Românesc [The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile], Institutul National pentru Studiul Totalitarismului [The National Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism], Memorialul Revoluţiei 16-22 Decembrie 1989 din Timişoara [The memorial of the 16-22 Revolution of December 1989 in Timisoara] and Institutul Revoluţiei Române din Decembrie 1989 [The Institute of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989] have produced valuable knowledge with regard to the Communist past. The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile established in 2005 and expanded in 2009 is the vital institution assembling the double role of knowledge originator and criminalization facilitator. A crucial publication expounding the Communist past, Arhivele Totalitarismului [Totalitarianism Archives], has been published since 1993 under the aegis of The National Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism. The National Center of Documentation, Research and Public Informing on the Romanian Revolution which acts under the Memorial of the 16-22 Revolution of December 1989 in Timisoara has edited an open-access Buletin [Bulletin] starting with 2007. The Institute of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 has printed from 2005 Caietele Revoluţiei [The Revolution Notebooks]. Besides, a series of museums, exhibitions, memorial institutions such as Sighet Memorial, Piteşti Prison Memorial, Jilava Memorial, Râmnicu Sărat Memorial, Ceauşescu Mansion Museum in Primăverii St. and Cavalry Officers School Museum of Târgovişte where the dictatorial couple was trialed, convicted and executed bring their share in honoring the memory of the victims and illustrating the criminal nature of the regime.
Notwithstanding the official condemnation of the Communist regime in the Romanian Parliament on 18 December 2006 following the publication of Tismăneanu Final Report by a president who has recently been attested as a Securitate collaborator nicknamed Petrov, the spread of knowledge with regard of the Communist past is far from being satisfactory. A history of communism in Romania is an optional subject in barely a few schools while in regular history classes the time allocated to this period is still insufficient and scheduled at the end of the scholarly year. Many elderly people are hunted by nostalgia, which they pass on to their grandchildren born after 1989. Many of their mid-aged children have received little information on the history of Communism and Revolution from their teachers many of whom were themselves uncertain on how to lecture on a period whereof little archival-based monographs existed and the opening and researching the sources was still slow to progress. Former Securitate archives were burned, destroyed already in December 1989 and accusations of further brushing up of records have been heard ever since. The process of communism has proceeded slowly and it’s still being promised at every anniversary of the 1989 Revolution. The institutes devoted to unearthing of Communist past and criminalization of wrong-doings complain of lack of sufficient resources and political will to speed up their activities. Research bodies, especially the Institute of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989, are accused of following a political agenda set up by its founder and president, the first chief of state of Romania following the Revolution, Ion Iliescu, who is counted among the second rank communists who took advantage of the popular movement and detour it to serve their own ends. Charges of prejudices are directed also against the leadership of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile and in fact none is spared at least of doubts with regard to their trustworthiness. Moreover, researchers complain of administrative, bureaucratic and financial difficulties which are slowing down their research. Many meaningful sites reminding of the Communist Gulag and the 1989 Revolution are neglected and even the aforementioned memorials get to grips with low budgets. Teachers are seldom taking their school children to such gruesome places of memory even during the „Şcoala altfel”, a week of alternative education which privileges museum visits.
Additional important impairments in discovering and spreading of truth about the Romanian Revolution are the technical hitches in dealing with a period that is so near to us that challenges a methodological apparatus which is fashioned to work with the benefit of perspective and wide access to sources. Many of the main actors are still alive and some of them have been active in politics. Therefore, be it true or not, they are believed to try to impose their own reading of history by controlling, manipulating or influencing facts, people, and institutions. Historians themselves are divided between their professional function of sine ira et studio exegetes of past and their role of zóon politikon, whichmay add to the intrinsic subjective human nature the passion of political credos. When professional historians are not available to postulate one or another side of the truth, a large specter of journalists, former Securitate or army officers, retired politicians, revolutionaries are often readily available to take on the job and advance the most implausible scenarios.
This elusiveness has pervaded the society and thus queries with regard to the persons responsible for the regime, the Securitate and the Army crimes of 17-22 December in Timişoara, Bucureşti, Cluj-Napoca, etc. are not yet fully answered (and the perpetrators, even when they are known, are not brought to justice). Equally important is the topic of „terrorists”, as the new power installed in December 1989 labeled the gunners seemingly liable for many of the 743 victims following the arrest of the dictatorial couple in Târgovişte. Is the theory of terrorists accountable to Ceauşescu who continued to shoot against the anti-Communist demonstrators supported by substantial evidence? Or rather, as the prosecuting attorney maintains, the new power holders of the second echelons of Communist Party needed the fire in order to position themselves in the role of firemen? Or, else, most of the shooting and the resulting victims were the results of anguish, chaos, improvisation, lack of military professionalism and the spread of rumors? Or, finally, was a mixture of all of these hypotheses?
As many historians, political philosophers, social psychologists, victims and families of victims of the Communist regime agree the sooner the truths of the 1989 Revolution will be unearthed and exposed the faster the society will be alleviated of the trauma of the totalitarianism and be able to memorize and reconnect around a general understanding of the past. This is not, of course, to argue in favor of a unique interpretation of history which was the apanage of the totalitarian and dictatorial regimes, but to establish the basic facts and most likely conclusions grounded on documentary evidences. On one hand, this is the duty of historians, some of whom have already progressed steadily in their scholarship of the Communist regime and the overthrowing of the dictatorship of Ceauşescu couple. The adaptation of methodologies to recent history scholarships, the consistent use of sources (including audio-visual records), the sound use of oral history, the careful analysis of memorial literature and the avoidance of moral stances are needed in order to reconstruct such a complex recent past as the 1989 Revolution. On other hand, the justice is expected to gather clear evidences (making also use of historical narratives) and pronounce unbiased sentences. The produced knowledge may then be transferred to the society, especially to the youth. American social activist Frederick Douglass have rightly argued that „knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave”. Therefore, the political and social freedom the participants to the 1989 Revolution have striven for shall be also converted into freedom of knowledge, justice and education.