Simona Mitroiu. Slavonica. Volume 23, Issue 2. November 2018.
In Romania, the literary approach to the recent communist past centred on everyday life under the communist regime is usually associated with a nostalgic communist perspective. By reading communist nostalgia in the context of the communist politics that pervaded every aspect of everyday life, this paper traces the connections between narratives and moral responsibility at the level of Romanian literary productions. Many of the topics included in the collective volumes that bring together personal narratives of the past resonate with and influence the fictional creations of the past; in many cases, combining personal testimonies with fictional characters offered an improved mechanism for dealing with the past. The paper argues that the topic of daily life experiences under the communist regime can be further developed, raising awareness of the lack of discussions about moral responsibility at the societal level in post-totalitarian Romania. Even if the younger generations can use the literary narratives of the past to re-appropriate their predecessors’ life stories, the reduction of the past to visual or linguistic stereotypes deepens the separation between public and private memory.
The Romanian communist regime governed for almost half a century, changed many generations’ lives and, through its repressive mechanisms under the Communist Party, maintained direct control over the entire Romanian society. Years of abuses, surveillance, and control left visible scars on the collective narrative and on personal life histories. Noting that ‘dialogue and knowledge pre-empt the destructive power of silence and of un-assumed guilt’, many researchers have continued to argue for an open investigation of the past, because ‘no viable democracy can afford to accept amnesia, forgetting and the truncation of memory’. Past studies have identified different mechanisms used by Romanian post-communist society to address its communist past. These have included published testimonies (at the victim-perpetrator level); individual and civic actions to rehabilitate the past, despite the political reluctance of the post-communist years; institutions created to investigate the past; literary and artistic movements; transitional justice. The approach to the communist past from a trauma perspective—a memory discourse imposed as a result of the impressive boom in testimonies and autobiographical writings focused on past abuses—dominated the first twenty years after the 1989 regime change, and was recently followed by the exploration of mundane life under communist regime. The literary scene’s post-communist analyses of the Romanian process of coming to terms with the past identifies the influence of the same two approaches of recent communist past
The first meta-narrative of the past resulted directly from the freedom to speak about past abuses and research on the Romanian communist past, as well as open access to communist regime archives and public condemnation of communist regime crimes. Different private and public initiatives helped to create a memory space for communist regime victims’ narratives and have offered a comprehensive view of a profound post-communist impact on cultural, historical, social, and political life. The second meta-narrative has distanced itself from the interpretation of the past as being trauma and abuse-related and instead has focused on everyday life under the communist regime. In the public memory discourse, this narrative is mainly associated with nostalgia for the communist past.
On first examination, these two attempts to re-appropriate the past could be interpreted as oppositional and even as a continuation of the sustained duplicity that dominated all aspects of social life during the communist regime. Dragoş Petrescu and Cristina Petrescu note that ‘[t]he largest majority of living Romanians never experienced directly the crimes of communism that represent the cornerstone of the morally correct public version of the recent past.’ In describing the reality that ‘the public perspective on communism conflicts with many personal recollections’, they emphasise that this public perspective ‘fails to reconcile the public and the private versions of the recent past, and perpetuates a duplicity specific to the communist system.’
By utilizing an everyday life approach to the past, the present study assumes that these two re-appropriations of the past represent different layers of the same complex process—coming to terms with the past with all its implications: restorative justice, multi-layered narratives, lustration, public recognition of wrongs, victimization, moral, and legal responsibility, counter-narratives, etc. Research contests the reductionism induced by reading Romanian literature dedicated to everyday life under the communist regime through the lenses of communist nostalgia. Consequently, it argues against the tendency to limit the remembrance of daily life in the communist past to its political and ideological burdens. In doing so, it recognizes the infiltration of politics into daily life and human relations during the Romanian communist regime. Furthermore, it highlights the multi-layered nature of the remembrance process. By revealing the complexity of personal narratives and the multi-layered nature of remembrance, research demonstrates that many who directly experienced the communist regime embraced nostalgia as a mechanism to resist the tendency to reduce their lives solely to political events. Under the communist political regime, people continued to live, marry, give birth, raise children, love, and fight. People’s lives spent in the communist social, economic, and political context included all these details related to commodities and social relations, even if their place in the public memory discourse is rather modest:
[i]n private, family and friends might remember together how people used to dress, eat, drink, and enjoy themselves under communism, as this is part of their personal past. Such memories barely find their way in public, unless they speak of the miserable years after the war or the equally miserable years before the revolution.
The second aim is to advance the analysis of the everyday life stories under the communist regime, from the mundane details, including food, music, holidays, clothes, and books, to the implications of the remembrance process at the level of personal lives and narratives. How do these people remember their past? Research argues for further explorations of the connection between assuming the personal past and moral responsibility through the lens of Romanian post-communist daily life focused literature. The main interpretation of the communist past, which received full attention in the post-1989 public debates, has focused on the crimes of the regime, without consideration of the involvement of the common people in perpetuating the communist system, which made its existence possible. There are concerns that this kind of interpretation ‘placed the responsibility for the past wrongdoings only on the former nomenklatura members and their secret police acolytes’, which in turn victimized
the large mass of the population and absolved it of any contribution to the perpetuation of the system, overlooking the control mechanisms that relied on the wide-scale collaboration and the consent of the Romanians, which the former regime gradually developed.
By considering everyday life under the Romanian communist regime through various post-communist literary works, this article explores the relationship between nostalgia and moral responsibility based on literary narratives of the past, including personal life stories (presented in collected volumes dedicated to daily life memories) and fictional works. Many of the topics from the collected volumes that have reunited personal narratives of the past resonate and influence the fictional creations of the past, and in many cases combining personal testimonies with fictional characters offered an improved mechanism for dealing with the past that surpassed a limited, unilateral view. Consequently, many writers have involved themselves in retrieving memories of the past by using both approaches: gathering testimonies and giving voice to past memories through fictional characters.
Svetlana Boym notes that personal nostalgia involves two levels: the longing for something that no longer exists as well as a romance with personal fantasy. Current projections of the past have created a new reality, one that combines the facts of the past with personal and collective re-interpretation based on temporal distance and current context. As Anna Louyest and Graham H. Roberts have remarked, nostalgia was a private affair, but paradoxical in the space of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and formerly communist Eastern European countries, where communist regimes provoked so much suffering. They suggest ‘a new type of nostalgia [is] emerging, a collective form’. Some international volumes dedicated to nostalgia in the former communist states include detailed analyses of specific phenomena or personal narratives on a defined topic.
Maria Todorova describes the media coverage of this nostalgia ‘as a malady’ and describes the identified common sources of nostalgic attitudes in Eastern European formerly communist states, including a ‘merging of economic and social status after the transition’, former inclusion in the working class, ‘pride in production’, security and stability, and the ambivalence of attitudes towards the communist past. Similarly, this present research contests the tendency to insist that nostalgia is primarily connected with the communist political regime, and asserts that it is, in fact, an expression of the personal memories of younger, more active, and more productive individuals, including memories that in general do not exclude—by deliberately forgetting or hiding—past wrongdoings. As Todorova emphasises
[a]bove all, there is a desire among those who have lived through communism, even when they opposed it or were indifferent to its ideology, to invest their lives with meaning and dignity, not to be thought of, remembered, or bemoaned as losers or ‘slaves’.
The analysis of the emergence of the Romanian post-communist nostalgia, which became particularly apparent after 10 years of political and economic change, identifies some predominant factors. These include: ‘the impact of economic, political and social changes generated by post-communist transition’; the process of reckoning with the past, which became more visible at an institutional level after the creation of The National Council for the Study of Security Archives in 2000 and reached its height with the presidential public condemnation of the communist regime in 2006; and ‘the dimension of personal life experience under communism’, which assimilated the communist past with the personal dimensions of childhood and youth. In her analysis of online media related to post-communist nostalgia in Romania, Cristina Petrescu assumes that the phenomenon is ‘neither a desire to restore the past [ … ] nor an unhealthy denial of the communist crimes. It is a lament for the loss perceived by the individual who has come face to face with the transition.’ This present research demonstrates that Romanian post-communist autobiographical and fictional works related to the daily life of the common people offer a more nuanced view than does post-communist nostalgia, and that the former surpass any political nostalgic interpretation. These works also assist in sketching the communist world using various approaches: the perspective of older generations regretting their lives; adults remembering their childhood under communism; the struggles, regrets and journeys of those who left the country; and, although a rare appearance on the Romanian literary scene, women’s memories of their previous lives. The literary narratives of the past demonstrate the multi-layered nature of remembrance, revealing the lines of interconnections between the personal past and political regime memories and their influence over collective nostalgia regarding the communist period
Generations of Memory: Life Stories Under the Romanian Communist Regime
Larissa Zakharova notes that the first analyses of everyday life in the space of the former USSR and Eastern Europe bloc were determined by the shift to examining social history ‘from below’, an approach that demonstrates that
citizens of the Eastern Bloc were not the ‘blind puppets’ or ‘helpless victims’ of dictatorial regimes; rather, they had developed a whole host of tactics and ruses in their daily lives that allowed them to either accommodate or resist the regime, to either help shape its norms or circumvent them altogether.
The structure of everyday life includes more than ‘the ordinary practices determined by people’s material environment and living conditions’ and their values and hopes, recognising that the individuals’ agency; even if they were ‘the targets of political decisions, they react[ed] to these measures by actively adapting to new situations, inventing tactics to avoid the political forces imposing themselves from above.’ In assuming that this approach to everyday life was a ‘constantly evolving phenomenon’, the result of ‘the interaction between political decisions and the responses of ordinary citizens’ this present research argues that the remembrance process permits a complex approach to the subject-object relationship identified between individuals and the political regime. The survey of Romanian autobiographical writings and fictional works about post-communist daily life demonstrates not only the deep influence of the communist regime over daily life experiences, but also the mechanisms used by individuals to evade regime control. The collective autobiographical volumes are primarily constructed around three main topics: the regime’s influence on the daily life, cultural consumption, and childhood memories, even if some editorial initiatives—such as Ioana Pârvulescu’s edited volume—target a more complex overview of daily life under the communist regime. By presenting relevant examples for each identified topic, this section extends the analyses to the literary scene, looking directly to the Romanian post-communist literary approach to understand the relationship between daily life and nostalgia.
One of the first volumes detailing the daily reality of the communist past was edited by Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu in 2006 and includes 27 stories written by very well-known public figures (writers, political analysts, etc.); while some of contributors were fairly active in denouncing the past wrongs of the communist regime (for example, in 2006 when the volume was published, contributor Vladimir Tismăneanu was the head of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in Romania), others were publicly exposed as informants of the former regime (see the case of contributor Sorin Antohi). The volume presents fragments from the experiences of Romanian intellectuals, including testimonials of those who were professionally active under the communist regime or managed to emigrate, combining past memories of specific events or daily life details with literary forms of expression. In addition to present the intellectuals’ lives and struggles under the communist regime, the volume explores the regime’s influence on insignificant aspects of daily life.
Dan Lungu is a well-known Romanian writer who uses everyday experience as the core of his novels. He focuses on the memories of daily life under the communist regime, following the subfield of sociological works dedicated to those narratives of the past that relate to specific events or aspects of everyday life. His experience as a writer and his sociological background are reflected in his work as the editor of several volumes dedicated to narratives of the past. In 2014, he edited with Amelia Gheorghiţă the volume Cărţi, filme, muzici şi alte distracţii din comunism (Books, Movies, Music and other Distractions under Communism), which presented memories of the past that related to cultural consumption during the communist period and associated social practices. While the call for papers for this volume was circulated on a Facebook page, other contributions were directly requested. The volume includes 33 contributions that offer the experiences of various people from different regions and backgrounds.
Dan Lungu and Amelia Gheorghiţă continued their efforts to gather personal stories of the past with the volume Cartea copilăriilor (The Book of Childhood), a collection of memories related to childhood. This volume includes 61 essays written by non-literary figures as well as well-known writers such as Florin Bican and Mariana Coduţ. The editors made a public appeal for contributions related to childhood memories from the child/parent point of view, including remembrances of toys and games, places and special events, holidays, travel and summer camps, music and books, and relationships between parents, grandparents, and children. The main assumption of the volume is that personal memories of childhood are combined with memories of past historical events and therefore influenced by the past political and ideological regime. Unfortunately, without a predefined structure and any analysis of the written memories of the past, or a clear argument for including any particular essay, the volume remains at the information-gathering level.
Similarly, the volume Și eu am trăit în comunism (I lived under communism, too), edited by Ioan Pârvulescu and published by Humanitas in 2015, also includes stories of the past related to daily life experiences. A wide range of testimonies, gathered from people of various ages across a variety of professions is included in the volume; almost 100 people contributed and only 3 chose to remain anonymous. The volume is centred especially around the testimonies of highly educated people, including well-known writers, researchers, doctors, actors, and journalists. Pârvulescu combined the testimonies while demarcating the contributors to address twenty topics, including urban life, travel, food, clothes, education, and various shortages. The volume also includes a short dictionary of words used in communist Romania and this is useful for younger generations.
By exploring the communist past from the point of view of everyday life, childhood memory discourse began to occupy a significant place in the Romanian literary scene, especially during the past 20 years. Childhood autobiographical literature ‘continue[s] to enjoy large and appreciative audiences’ in the former communist states of Eastern Europe. During the communist regime, childbearing in Romania was declared a patriotic duty that was enforced by propaganda measures, and family planning was transformed into an oppressive mechanism. The common people refer to these generations of unplanned and, in many cases, unwanted children, born as result of 1966 abortion ban decree, as ‘little decrees’ (decreţei), but for Nicolae Ceauşescu, the last Romanian communist dictator, they were active instruments necessary for sustaining his cult of personality. They were the living image of the Romanian people, sons and daughters of the dictator and his wife, and communist propaganda repeatedly used this image to reinforce Ceauşescu’s regime.
In her study dedicated to childhood memoirs from the Romanian post-communist scene, Diana Georgescu offers an ample analysis of Romanian publishing houses’ efforts to encourage works related to youth and childhood memories under the communist regime. The topic and its young writers propose in her view ‘fragmentary and plural micro-histories’, leaving behind the justice and retribution that have accompanied approaches of the past, that addressed past communist abuses and the viewpoint of victims by ‘[claiming] to prioritize understanding’, and contributing to ‘the diversification of social memory’. The political regime pervaded all strata of daily life, and children’s lives were affected not only indirectly by their parent’s struggles and problems, but were also directly and actively controlled by the regime through its ideology included in kindergarten and school curricula.
For example, Filip and Matei Florian’s volume’s Băiuţeii (2012) offers insights into a childhood world where social, ideological, and economic realities oppose and interrupt the world of magic desires, dreams, and uninterrupted play. The name of the volume was formed from the name used by children for their home street, Băiuţ (Drumul Taberei in Bucharest), and designates the generations of children who grew together in that space, because their interrelations and common play determined their future development. Games and play are common parts of children’s lives, from a variety of forms of invented team play to the main hero of many generations, Rahan, the comic book character created by Roger Lecureux. The fact that the age gap between the two brothers in the book is eleven years widens the time span of past childhood experiences. Memories related to family relationships, friends, kindergarten/school, and games recover the world of childhood and its contextual frames. The communist regime, with its imposed social and economic limitations, is inscribed in children’s lives and education; their memories include details such as the cold and dampness of apartments, or the joy of finding two candies dropped by ‘a sucker’ in the dirt and eating them. The children’s lives were shaped by social and economic constraints. Their families were sometimes forced to work far from home. Their father was at home only at weekends and when both parents worked, as was the case when the first child Florian grew up, their son remained by himself, locked in the house:
… when the kindergarten was closed and when Ramona was also on holiday, thus when we didn’t hold our hands coming down on the pile of coal from the kindergarten yard applauded and cheered by the others, playing ourselves, under the teachers’ joyful gaze, by imitating Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu coming down from the presidential airplane, they [my parents] locked me (as I already told you) in the house.
When not in kindergarten or at school, the space between blocks of flats was the main playing area (during the communist period children, even from a very young age such as 3 years old, played by themselves, no adult supervised their activities, and mothers were called only by upset or injured children).
Life in school and kindergarten reveals the control exercised by the regime, even in the minute details of daily existence: for example, pupils were never allowed to have long hair. Empty words like ‘The Party’ and ‘The Fatherland’ were inculcated into pre-school- age children’s minds. To become a pioneer in the service of the Communist Party was considered to be a great honour and children were selected and divided into different series to access this public status during very festive public ceremonies. The autobiographical literature focused on childhood memories demonstrates the duality of the childhood world and implicitly of childhood remembrance: the regime’s pervasiveness in everyday life is counterbalanced by the landscape of play and games and the personal childhood micro-world that enabled an escape from regime control and ideology and from an ‘altered and suffocating world’.
The autobiographical volumes describing the memories of adult daily life were, in fact, temporarily preceded by fictional works that presented ordinary people as the main characters and their memories of the communist regime. In 2004, Dan Lungu published the novel Raiul găinilor. Fals roman de zvonuri şi mistere (The Hens’ Heaven. Fake Novel of Rumours and Mysteries), in which he depicts specific memories of the past as well as characters’ lives during the period of democratic transition. The novel was widely translated and it was, in fact, well-received by international critics. For example, for four months it was the top bestseller for the Jacqueline Chambon printing house, and in December 2007 the German edition was declared the book of the month. The characters are the inhabitants of a small Romanian city suburb. It is from these nostalgic characters’ present day positions as pensioners or unemployed people, who have lived in a world of continuous change through the very long and sinuous transition from the communist regime that they remember the past. Their life narratives include: personal memories, whether real or fictionally created; phantoms of the past, including the image of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu keeping a primordial place; nostalgia; personal frustrations; desires; and stereotypes and are all governed by the projection of a strange and insecure Occident.
Nostalgia penetrated every layer of the characters’ narratives even if they were clearly not naïve in judging the communist past. In fact, on many occasions they ironically pointed out the faults of communist social life, dominated by falsehood, various constraints, and lies: ‘If the lies hurt, the Party meetings would have been full of lamentations, moans and screaming, more than in hell.’ The past is regretted, but the regrets are related to their professional active role and their social inclusion; they were the heroes in communist propaganda and, as workers in factories and on construction sites, they were part of ‘the golden future’. After they listened repeatedly to the same demagogical discourse that asserted their merits as promoters of the collective well-being, pushing the country on to new heights, these men—as it is a man’s world described in this novel—witnessed the collapse of the old industrial infrastructure and the disappearance of their jobs which were considered in the transitional economy to be old and inappropriate. They are living in a world that no longer values them and consequently they re-interpret the past, focusing on what they consider to be its positive elements: the communist obsession with constructions and production (even if resulting in fake information); the absurd constraints that limited every free activity, reinterpreted now as an excellent order, etc. They refuse to let go of this ‘created’ world because it represents the hope that their lives could possibly regain their lost meaning. For example, one of the characters, Relu Covalciuc, declares during one of the men’s meetings at ‘the men’s heaven’, the local pub: ‘We believe ourselves better now, for no reason; one day the communism will return. And then we’ll see who is lying now (…) Those who can’t paint the buildings constructed by Ceauşescu (…)’. Clearly, regret spins around personal involvement in social and professional life. The same character describes his affection for coffee as a consequence of his time working in a factory:
I’m used to coffee from the factory. There were always moments when you didn’t have anything to do; I just stayed waiting for the materials and I’d drink a small coffee made on the radiator. When the materials arrived, we didn’t have electrical power. What should I do? I just drank another coffee […] And all over again. I think that is why coffee was so cherished and searched after before, everybody had these empty moments when there was nothing to do […]
The old world, so full of construction and great realisations, proves to be a myth, a phantasm projected over the past, as the present disappoints through its insecurity and its lack of predictability. Everybody was accustomed to complying with an absurd set of norms and regulations; the grip of the communist regime was so tight that in the transitional society they lived not knowing what to do with their freedom and how to adapt to this new reality. When freedom of expression also became a reality the debate itself became poorer. Under the communist regime the small rumour was an extremely rich source of underground discussion: ‘[…] everybody discussed a lot about every trifle […] Now nothing is as before! Everything was more important then […]’. The sharing of memories remains the common element that unites but also divides Lungu’s characters; their narratives may include different interpretations of the past. The owner of the local pub remarked that two topics can cause a fierce debate: the past as it was, with different memories indicating different realities, and the image of the last communist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu. He lost his intangible aura and became nearly a familiar figure. One of the characters, Mitu, narrates an invented story of their past friendly meeting, and the rest of the characters use various nicknames for Ceauşescu that erase the intangible status of the dictator and appropriate his image into their world.
Lungu utilizes common people’s experiences of everyday life during this communist regime in many of his works. He is interested not in the terror and traumas related to the communist regime, but rather in memories of past youth, childhood, or adulthood during that time. His approach becomes an expression of individual lives as he enters a world of daily life activities. The world recreated is not one dominated by heroic characters who oppose or challenge the regime, but of those who lived under the imposed conditions, adapting to the daily routine and its necessities. His characters remember their lives and the everyday experiences that shaped their personalities and mentalities. With humour and use of language stereotypes, anecdotes, and stories specific to the communist period, the author introduces the reader to the world of the generations that directly experienced the communist regime. Childhood and adulthood under the communist regime as well as new problems arising from the democratic society, become the subjects of Lungu’s analysis of the characters’ everyday lives. Consequently, his novels allow the younger generations to approach their parents’ and grandparents’ lives and, hopefully, to better understand the social, political, and economic conditions that shaped their mentalities and sometimes caused their nostalgic views.
Autobiographical volumes focused on the everyday life during the Romanian communist regime mainly present memories of intellectual figures who distance themselves from the nostalgic view of the past, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Childhood memories seem to be the most developed area of post-communist Romania exploration of the everyday life, and the interest of the Romanian publishing houses in the ‘Golden Age’ generational memory discourse played a significant role in this development. Furthermore, the fictional works enlarge and deepen the remembrance process of the daily life. By creating common people characters with whom many of the Romanian people can empathize and presenting their narratives of the past, the literary scene offers a more nuanced approach to the past; it provides space for alternative narratives and indirectly questions the public memory discourse.
Daily Struggles, Representations of the Past, and Gender Experiences
Autobiographical volumes and fictional representations of the past that focus upon women’s experiences and memory of the daily life present a narrative of the past centred on daily life shortages and struggles, women’s social and family involvement, their roles, individual ambitions, and endeavours. Women’s memories of daily life under the communist regime introduce a new topic: the endless struggle to obtain the necessary consumer goods. In many cases, Romanian women were involved in developing networks of friends and relatives capable of supplying everyday consumer goods. The second predominant topic explored in both autobiographical and fictional narratives is women’s struggle to fulfil their professional aspirations. While the Romanian communist society publically promoted women’s rights and an egalitarian view, in fact, women’s social and cultural involvement, as well as the possibility of fulfilling their creative potential were actually quite low. Simultaneously, the narrative involved in the remembering process underlines the role of the empathic listener and the necessity of offering a larger public memory space for women’s narratives of the past. Using literary remembrance of the past, two different approaches are exemplified, and the differences are correlated with the feminine characters’ level of education and, more importantly, with literary exploration of guilt and responsibility for past wrongdoings.
A gender-focused volume, Tovaraşe de drum. Experienţe feminine în comunism (Road comrades. Feminine Experience in Communism) (2008), edited by Radu Pavel Gheo and Dan Lungu, is presented by the editors because of a public attention shift from the history of intellectuals and their lives during the Romanian communist regime to that of ordinary people’s lives and histories. The editors remark on the necessity of enlarging the area of studies from prison memoirs to those of everyday life under the communist regime and to focus on women’s experiences of the past (an area of research where the main topic previously analysed had been that of forbidding abortion). The volume’s contributors vary in age, but their shared cultural background as highly educated intellectuals is the unifying trait of the included testimonies and therefore ultimately offers a unitary narrative of the past. Unfortunately, no other volume further developed the topic, missing the chance to enlarge the diversity of the narratives and to add new layers of challenges and interpretations. Some contributors offer remarkable insights into their personal past and indirectly into Romanian society’s collective struggle with everyday life shortages. For example, Adriana Babeţi provides a remarkable description of the everyday struggle to obtain ordinary goods, from food supplies to wood for heating the family home, and to ‘carry’ them back home. During the last years of the communist regime, every family had to stop in some way the cold from entering their apartments during the long winters; therefore, acquiring an illegal source of heating fuel was a priority. Babeţi’s topic becomes ‘woman as carrier’, as she describes a world where women learned to help themselves, without their fathers, brothers, or husbands, because in many cases these men were dead, too old, in prison, working all day, or simply absent. Single women struggled to develop an underground network to find out where and when some delivery would be made and to succeed in obtaining precious ordinary goods:
Sometimes, I was happy with my prey and, with a dumb smile on my face, I would cross the park on my way home and I would hum to myself ‘Cu-cu aaa-a odiridi’; sometimes (…) I was on the verge of crying and I would cross the park with my aching shoulders and with my eyes downcast murmuring with great feeling ‘What happens to us God, what happens to us. From ’88 I hardened myself and nothing came to me anymore: not to laugh, not to cry, not to sing, not to quarrel.
The everyday reality of common lives can surpass the imagined ones of those who did not directly experience the regime. How can you envision the reality that toilet paper was a luxury, that you needed an entire underground network to know when and where you could stand for hours in a line to obtain something so trivial, but so necessary? Additionally, how many European Western people were eager just to listen to these stories? For example, Rodica Binder who emigrated to Germany in 1987 remarked on the difficulties in sharing these stories of shortages and everyday struggles: ‘the everyday experiences, our struggles, narrated with resignation and with hardly retained pathos, surpassed the common force of imagination of those living in “the free world”‘, thus ‘we refrained from telling about our troubles. We swallowed them.’
The pages from Adriana Bittel’s journal, also included in this volume, impress the reader with her capacity to sketch the reality of women’s conditions under the Romanian communist regime. Bittel’s style mixes an ability to maintain an inner detachment from personal social and economic struggles with an acute sensibility to deliver daily life hard realities and their long-term effects. The endless struggle to obtain ordinary goods can reduce or even erase anyone’s high aspirations and cultural ideals. For many Romanian women, the reality of the communist regime was even harsher because their daily schedule included so many tasks to be accomplished. The women were transformed by the communist regime into equal partners with their husbands—including their responsibilities on construction sites and factories—but they also completely retained their roles as wives and mothers. Bittel describes the period when she, at 37 years old, was a corrector and editor to a Romanian cultural journal, România literară, but also the main care provider for the members of her family, including elderly parents and a small child. The pages of her journal bear witness to the life of an intelligent woman reduced by the regime to her roles of family caretaker and procurer of ordinary goods necessary for physical survival. The conditions at work—cold and miserable—added their share of strain; consequently, her resulting fatigue and exhaustion dominated in a world where the absurdities of restrictions and shortages surpassed common sense:
Today the winter started. Sleet. At the gas stations there are lines of hundreds of cars: there is a rumour that the gas will be rationalized. […] The taxis stop circulating, and the buses were reduced by 40% […]. The public lighting was also reduced to half. When night came, Wednesdays when I’m on duty on rotary press, our street is in the dark. Recently, I bumped into a drunkard who was pissing on the wall of our neighbouring house.
Even in these conditions there is an inner struggle to preserve a minimum of human dignity, reduced to small material symbols: ‘Even if I patch up my underwear and my stockings (I cannot change them as I cannot find others), I still care how I look. Sometimes, I even wear beads.’ So many material struggles and inner compromises reduced both cultural aspirations and personal high intellectual standards. The minimum, in any of its forms and aspects, became the last barricade in an absurd communist world.
Bittel resumes describing her own experiences and explores further women’s experiences during the communist regime by giving voice to the memories of the past in a fictional volume of short stories: Cum încărunţeşte o blondă (How a Blonde Turns Grey) (2015). The fictional stories and the author’s capacity to look directly into the past and question it and its witnesses shows a great delicacy in creating the characters’ narratives. These combined qualities make the volume an excellent instrument for exploring literary fictional narratives of the past. Even if it presents a mixture of genders and a combination of voices, the volume clearly surpasses the common and generally predominant masculine perspective of the past. It amply includes women’s experiences under the Romanian communist regime, with their voices ranging from those of very young girls sent to camp schools to lonely pensioners without any family members to soften life’s hardships. The characters’ stories reveal their life events as mothers, wives, daughters, students, and active members of Romanian society, by considering their professions as well as their failed dreams, desires, worries, and struggles. None of the characters fights against or directly recognizes and names the communist system’s failures, and none of them directly opposes the regime; they are all common people with common problems. Their stories present their lives and thoughts as they were reduced by the absurd communist regime to permanent worry and struggle over the procurement of material goods. The communist society did not encourage women’s high aspirations and years of adapting to these material burdens reduced even their inner private space that would otherwise be dedicated to possibilities, dreams, spiritual fulfilment, and cultural necessities. Bittel describes:
[a] kind of disgust. The muddy car that needs to be washed with buckets of water carried on stairs. And pancakes. The smell of hot oil, fried. [Both tasks telephonically requested by her husband.] And the package with bleeding kidneys, outside on the window sill. Don’t forget it. [The meat was obtained on the black market or after many queuing hours.] This permanent preoccupation: food, washing clothes, cleaning […].
Bittel’s short story ‘The Radiological Exam’ presents the struggle of a woman writer to find time for writing down her character’s narrative. She is also a mother, a wife, and holds a completely unrelated job. Therefore, her desire to write is reduced to nothing. She notes,
[w]hen I was bending over the bathtub with clothes to be washed, when I was cleaning the cement floor and the linoleum, but especially long in evenings when I was cleaning the kitchen, I was deeply affected by a sensation that resembled the old people’s sorrow: exhaustion, revolt and remorse. Another day without writing down […].
Enslaved by the daily chores and her duties as mother, wife, and daughter, she cannot enjoy or cherish the love for her family; everything is contaminated by the guilt and remorse of not being able to express herself through her writing.
On the other hand, in the story ‘The Pensioner Fighters’ Bittel offers, through the female character’s thoughts, some details about the meaning of professional life for many Romanian women lucky enough to work in an office and not in industry or on construction sites: a permanent self-censorship because the regime had its own informers:
My dad, as he spent his life in offices, gave me brief instructions: you do not pass comments on anything, you do not let them provoke you to engage in any confidences, you do not make jokes [as the main topic of jokes is about the communist regime].
She also describes repetitive and sterile work, without any prospect for professional and intellectual career development. Consequently, the character counts the years left until she can retire: ‘I was getting home exhausted, even if I was not doing much. […] Until my retirement—I calculated—I was having thirty two years more.’ Individual freedom of expression and career development were tightly controlled by specific apparatuses created by the regime. Professional inclusion did not offer any feeling of accomplishment, because the regime deeply influenced human and professional relationships. Consequently, high individual professional aspirations were possible only in the social and political context defined by the regime.
One of the best-known novels in Romanian literature which discusses nostalgia for the past is Dan Lungu‘s novel Sunt o babă comunistă! (I’m a Communist Old Lady!) (2007). It impresses through its power to recall specific memories of everyday life under the communist regime, memories that are interlinked with a difficulty to adapt to and understand present society. Post-communist changes surpass the capacity for understanding and the main character of the novel reassigns only positive interpretations to her personal past, erasing from her current memories its struggles and negative everyday life aspects. In a world characterized by sustained efforts to transition from the communist regime to a democratic one, tangible signs of the past and their destruction are more visible, occupying both physical space and people’s minds; such is the case of the factory where the novel’s main character has worked her entire life.
When the old Romanian factories and construction sites were abandoned because they were outdated or badly managed and thus bankrupt, people perceived this occurrence as a direct attack on their personal past. For years, they were subjected to the ideological discourse that put an equal sign between them and their workplace; in fact, their whole life was spent at their workplace. Consequently, the abandonment or the erasure of their old workplace is synonymous with their expulsion from Romanian social and professional life:
Such a big factory was transformed only in few years to a ruin good for growing weeds and home for stray dogs. The windows were stolen, the sockets were wrenched out. When I pass by it I turn my head. […] I have the feeling that there, in my factory section, our skeletons remained in their working position, ready at any moment to just start to work.
Emilia Apostoae speaks of her daughter who chose to emigrate after the 1989 Romanian changes, stating, ‘What should I have said to her? Stay here, my daughter, in this country that is going nowhere? Stay here to work until you crack down only to be underpaid? So, I didn’t say anything. She didn’t ask either’, and married a foreigner—’from another village’ the mother jokes.
Emilia Apostoae, the main character of Lungu’s novel, cannot adapt to the social and economic changes and refuses to let the past to rest. Furthermore, she erased past wrongs her memory, and she remembers only the good life spent under the communist regime such as aspects of her professional life, her fulfilled social life, her family life, and her capacity then to provide necessities in order to raise her only daughter. Because collective memories are created based on shared community memories, she is now facing her desolation in the realms of memory. Her former colleagues and family members do not share her attraction to the past and when comparing memories, their interpretations of past events collide, deepening her feelings of isolation. Consequently, confronted with the memories of her former best friend, she mourns not only their common past she so highly evaluated, but also this collision of memories, especially as she begins to understand the multi-layered nature of remembrance. Emilia cries:
for those times, but also because Aurelia, with whom I shared the same bread for twenty years, refuses to admit how happy we all were. Because her memories, good gracious, are so different from mine … Because I feel that sometimes she is right.
This discrepancy of memories drives her to dig deeply in her own past and to attempt to find and correlate her memories with the others’ narratives; this attempt shakes her unilateral vision, enlarging her level of understanding the past.
Because she is also confronted with her daughter’s questions about the past during their telephone arguments, at first Emilia is on the verge of denying any of its negative aspects. She clearly defends her personal past, because she experiences counter-arguments as being personally related to her youth, adulthood family, and professional past. Some researchers argue that because of
the official quasi-monopolisation of the management of the daily existence of the citizens, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, for those concerned to dissociate aspects of their lives which were happy (their youth, family, friends, leisure) from the political formula that has influenced and made them possible.
The communist regime made it possible for Emilia to fulfil her long childhood dreams: to move from her village to a town and escape from a sterile life where everything caused her only repulsion. As a result of her daughter’s argumentative pressure, she begins to question her alliance to the former regime, even if she perceives the question itself as an affront to her personal past: ‘If everything was only bullshit, where is my youth? I didn’t make bad things happen to anybody, I didn’t condemn anybody to prison, I didn’t collaborate with the Securitate [the Romanian secret police], why should I feel guilty?’
Once she has started questioning the past, the answers she finds raise new arguments and the differences between the personal and collective past become more visible. By abandoning her initial motto ‘Oh God, what a good life we had during communism!’—repeated in in several forms throughout the first part of the novel—Emilia starts to question not only her personal happiness, but also the possibility of happiness in a world where many others suffered:
Emilia Apostoae was truly happy or it is only an illusion, as she is in fact suffering from madness? Yes, in your way you were happy! All my memories are saying this to me. But, once I had this answer, from my question arose, as from a real matrioska, more questions: how could you be happy when others were unhappy? What did you do for the happiness of others? How many happy people need to surround you, so you could have the right to be happy?
Her cherished past when she was so happy and when every problem she had was resolved by an extended and very well-maintained network of colleagues, friends, and relatives (so necessary in procuring everyday necessities) is also the past where others’ dreams and ideals were brutally annihilated.
Emilia’s conversation with her tailor, Madame Rozalia, offers some glimpses into the lives of those crushed by the communist regime. The tailor’s dreams of becoming a painter were destroyed by the regime and she found refuge in her father’s profession. The regime flattened and crushed any attempt of creativity and even at this level:
The communists were producing only brown, black and grey clothes. […] the shoes were all black and brown. So were the purses and umbrellas. As the communism gained more power, everybody retreated in two-three dark colours, like in a bad photo. The crowds on the street seemed to be mortuary convoys.
Emilia finds out about the other face of the communism: ‘that which has stolen the colours from my life’ and she directly confronts her own personal nostalgia.
However, can this be nostalgia for the communist past or is it, in fact, a normal phase through which all those who retreat from their professional life pass, especially as their lack of social interaction leaves more room for questioning the past? As Emilia remarks, at her age: ‘all your life is there, with you, in the same room. […] You rearrange the same pieces, without getting bored.’ She has answered her question from the first part of the novel, but needs to be certain and understand the past by looking at it through the lenses of the present. When she starts to question her past, correlating her memories and arguments with the others, she already knows her answer. However, she does not know how many of her findings will affect her personal interpretation of the past and how much of her memory was infused with her positive re-interpretation: ‘I regretted those times, the people that surrounded me, their joy, solidarity, but, I don’t know why, this nostalgia didn’t have anything in common with the name of communism.’
Through his character, Emilia Apostoae, Lungu created a powerful spokesperson for many generations that lived under the Romanian communist regime and who clearly need public space to share their stories of the past. Was the Communist Party something that these generations truly cherished? As Emilia describes her relationship with the Communist Party it becomes clear that party membership could offer various benefits, and that she, like many other Romanians, wanted to have a good material life. The fact that she did not need to harm others for this purpose convinced her that such a life was worth living. This was true of many generations of people existing under the Romanian communist regime: they only wanted to live a good life and tried to adapt to the social and economic context. The post-1989 attempt to judge them through the perpetrator-victim paradigm of to some degree diminishes their lives, denying their right to memories of a good past life. Conversely, these generations need to confront Emilia’s question: ‘How many happy people need to surround you so you could have the right to be happy?’ The remembrance of the past is a complex process that requires a permanent dialogue between different witnesses of the past and from different positions, while also considering representations of the past projected by the post-1989 generations. At the end of the novel, Emilia understands this permanent construction and re-construction of the past cannot be made from a unilateral viewpoint, in which the other becomes both active listener and narrator:
I was feeling that my past began to change. New pieces were coming into play, they didn’t match at all, and they were forcing me to play again [the remembrance game]. Other memories were coming in my mind. Gestures and feelings long forgotten. The same places, the same people, the same time, but other events. […] We were all like in a family and until recently we were happy. Now … now it begins falling apart.
This novel was adapted into film by Stere Gulea in 2013 and had a very good reception by Romanian critics and the public. The novel, as well as the film, allowed the young generations to learn more about the daily lives of their parents or grandparents, even if the film underestimates the necessity for Romanian society to come to terms with the communist past and the complex essence of the recuperative memory process. By moving the emphasis from the process of recollecting the communist past through everyday life to trivial symbols, such as the T-shirt inscribed with the words ‘I Love the Communist Party’ worn by the main character on the movie promotion poster, the movie does not fully explore the reality of this past and fails to address in an ethical way the generations represented by Emilia Apostoae. Furthermore, using these kinds of visual and linguistic stereotypes does not allow the younger generations to truly explore the past and connect to its reality.
Narratives and Moral Responsibility
A clear line of separation between distinct categories of people (highly educated/well-known figures versus common people) defines the area of publicly shared past narratives: when testimonies relate to the everyday life narratives; these are largely gathered from the highly educated witnesses of the past. When they are related to the abuses and trauma provoked by the past regime, the range of witnesses includes different professional, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. Daily life experiences during the communist regime are not a sufficiently developed research topic because many other specific and related subjects need to be further expanded and their significance to the process of coming to terms with the past needs to be enhanced. Clearly, fictional works add more substance as fictional characters’ stories help to surpass this existing limit of backgrounds narratives from the highly educated.
Referring to the communist past of Eastern Europe, Tony Judt described the penetration of communist regimes into people’s lives: ‘It is not for any real and imagined crimes that people feel a sort of shame at having lived in and under communism, it is for their daily lies and infinite tiny compromises.’ As the works analysed here have demonstrated, these kinds of post-communist narratives tend to offer the image of a well-improved past. The personal past is reconstructed through its permanent connection with the present context and in many cases past suffering and struggles are reinterpreted accordingly to the present individual context. Consequently, when association with publicly known victims of the communist regime is not possible or desirable in a society where the paradigm of victims versus perpetrators tends to influence the public discourse of memory, the past becomes a ‘happy place’. This was the time of childhood, youth, or adulthood, when those in question were healthy and fully involved in social and cultural life. Nostalgia about the personal past proves to be ‘a particularly complex phenomenon, where personal recollections become inextricably bound up with collective memory.’ The unspoken collective and individual questions linger over the entire process of coming to terms with the communist period: did all the past ‘daily lies and infinite tiny compromises’ happen without affecting the relationship between personal narratives and moral responsibility for the past regime wrongs? Emilia Apostoae’s often-posed question during her long travail of interrogating her personal life, ‘How many happy people need to surround you so you could have the right to be happy?’ truly remains singular in the Romanian literary scene and, unfortunately, without major public reverberations at the level of the Romanian post-communist society. Most importantly, the reduction of the past to visual or linguistic stereotypes deepens the separation between public and private memory and dismisses entire generations’ narratives, and justifies their reluctance to establish a constructive dialogue where the problem of moral responsibility can finally be assumed.