Can Europe Make It?

Communist nostalgia in Romania

A recent poll suggested that nearly half of Romanians have a positive view of Ceausescu and believe that life was better under him. What is behind this surprising nostalgia for the communist era?

Raluca Besliu
13 April 2014
Nearly half of all Romanians polled claim to have a positive view of Ceausescu, above. Flickr/Ion Chibzii. Some rights reserved.

Nearly half of all Romanians polled claim to have a positive view of Ceausescu, above. Flickr/Ion Chibzii. Some rights reserved.

According to a recent poll, many Romanians remain nostalgic for communism, over two decades after dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown. The INSCOP Research poll revealed that 44.4 percent of the respondents believed that living conditions were better under communism, 15.6 said that they had stayed the same, while only 33.6 claimed that life was worse back then. When asked about dictator Ceausescu, 47.5 of the respondents claimed that he had a relatively positive role in Romania’s recent history, while 46.9 said that his role was rather negative. The recent poll was conducted between November 7 and 14, 2014, on a sample of 1,055 participants, with a 3 percent margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level.

This is not the first survey suggesting Romanians’ communist nostalgia. A 2010 poll conducted by the Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy provided similar results. Of the 1,460 respondents, 54 percent claimed that they had better living standards during communism, while 16 percent said that they were worse. Moreover, 49 percent claimed that Ceausescu was a good leader, 30 percent believed he was neither good nor bad, while 15 said he was bad. The survey has a 2.7 percent margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level.

These results might seem surprising, given the fact that Romania underwent one of the most brutal communist regimes in the region under Ceausescu’s leadership. According to some Romanian historians, these results indicate the public’s discontent with the current political elites’ inability to ensure Romania’s internal and international development and improve their living standards, in contrast to some of Ceausescu’s internal and international achievements.

While this might be true, a key reason behind these results is an institutionalized amnesia regarding communism in Romania, which has not allowed an adequate society-wide debate able to inform the Romanian public. This is because the current political leadership is to a considerable extent formed of former communists, their relatives and business associates, who have no interest in revealing and punishing the crimes of communism, in which they were, to varying degrees, involved.

It would be expected that Ceausescu would be overall negatively perceived in Romanian society, given the fact that, during the last decade of his rule, he was one of the most abusive communist dictators. In 1982, he decided to implement drastic austerity policies, in order to eradicate Romania’s foreign debt by 1990, after witnessing Poland’s near default on its substantial foreign debt, almost leading to its economic collapse. In order to achieve his goal, Ceausescu introduced extreme food rations, forcing people to line up in front of grocery stores hours in advance, while also rationing petrol, electricity and heating. According to exiled dissident Mihai Botez, around 15,000 Romanians died yearly due to starvation, cold and other shortages.

The recent poll results, showing a widespread positive image for Ceausescu, generated a discussion between Romanian historians regarding the reasons why a considerable part of Romania’s population perceives the former dictator and his regime in a positive light. According to Ciprian Plaiasu, from Historia magazine, this is partly due to some of Ceausescu’s internal achievements, such as building Bucharest’s metro system, factories throughout the country and the road infrastructure. Few similar large-scale developments have been initiated in the post-communist era. The historian adds that people might believe that many had higher living standards, because everyone was assigned a workplace and annual vacations were assured by unions, while now many Romanians have trouble finding and maintaining employment.

Dan Falcan, also from Historia, claims that Ceausescu’s positive perception is in fact a condemnation of Romania’s post-communist political leadership, unable to secure the country’s progress, jobs and decent living standards for the population.

The post-communist era has also experienced an expanding gap between Romania’s poor and the rich, previously not visible, because most people, regardless of profession, struggled for the same rationed food and products, while the nomenklatura mostly kept their affairs away from the public eyes. Romania is currently one of Europe’s poorest countries, with 21 percent of the population living below the poverty line, while the average salary is around $500.

Meanwhile, Romania’s rich and their children are ostentatiously extolling their wealth through the media. Many of the wealthiest people in Romania, such as Iosif Constantin Dragan and Ion Niculae, were part of the communist elite and, soon after the Revolution, secured advantageous political and economic positions in the nascent democracy. Through nepotism, many of them are now facilitating their children’s entry in politics and business, ensuring not only the perpetuation of their own wealth, but also a similar future elite for Romania.

According to Plaiasu, communist nostalgia is also motivated by the fact that, for a considerable period in Ceausescu’s rule, he created a positive international image for Romania. His reputation was first established when he condemned the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. The following year, Ceausescu further defied Soviet Russia, by establishing diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, Ceausescu won western leaders’ support and became one of the most appreciated communist leaders, treated as their equal. In 1969, French President Charles de Gaulle visited Romania and granted Ceausescu the Legion of Honor, making him the first communist leader to receive the distinction. US President Nixon came on an official visit to Romania in 1969. This was a historic moment, as it was the first visit of a US President to Romania, to a socialist country and to Eastern Europe. In 1975, Romania was granted most-favoured-nation trading status by the US, while, in 1978, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Ceausescu. Through his reputation, Ceausescu also ensured that Romania had some weight on the international scene.

Even when introducing the austerity measures in the 1980s, it was Ceausescu and his nomenklatura who were blamed for his decisions, not the country or its people. Romanians escaping his regime were welcomed in western countries and enjoyed the somewhat glorious title of political refugees.

Now, Romania has little weight and prestige in regional and international decision-making; its politicians are constantly lambasted by their European counterparts for inefficiently tackling corruption; while the dominant rhetoric about emigrating Romanians in western European countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, is that they do not seek employment or better living standards, but to take advantage of their welfare system.

While, as the aforementioned historians have indicated, there were undoubtedly some important communist achievements influencing the public’s positive perception of the era, the main reason why the regime and its leader continue to be appreciated is the institutionalized collective amnesia regarding that period, which has not allowed an adequate and multifaceted society-wide debate on communism, considering both negative and positive aspects.

The crimes of communism were only officially condemned in 2006, when President Traian Basescu called the regime illegitimate and criminal, trampling on the law and forcing citizens to live in lies and terror. Basescu invoked 21 charges against the communists, including the destruction of Romania’s democracy and the persecution of entire groups of Romanians for the class struggle. His decision was informed by a report, published by the Presidential Commission for the Analyzing of Communist Dictatorship in Romania, which estimated the victims killed or persecuted by Romania’s communist authorities to be between 500,000 to two million.

The Romanian parliament waited until 2012 to allow the prosecution of individuals who committed crimes more than 40 years ago, by changing the statute of limitations for serious crimes. In 2013, the parliament also approved a draft bill, according to which former communist leaders, found responsible for grave violations of human rights would be forced to pay up to 70 percent of their monthly income to former political prisoners, of whom around 3,500 are believed to still be alive.

However, it is doubtful that these decisions will disrupt the established culture of impunity and lead to any substantial condemnations, especially of top ranking officials. According to Ceausescu’s prosecutor, Dan Voinea, Romania’s political and economic elites are predominately former communists, their relatives and allies, whose interest is to ensure that the crimes of communism are never unveiled and prosecuted.

Romania’s first post-communist president, elected for two more mandates, was Ion Iliescu, a prominent communist party member, involved in Ceausescu’s mock trial and execution. He has never had to face prosecutors in explaining his role in the dictator’s death. All key parties in Romania, whether liberal, social-democrat or liberal-democratic, contain ex-communists, ex-members of the Securitate - the communist’s extremely repressive secret police agency - their children, relatives and business partners. The continuity between the communist and post-communist leadership explains the amnesia surrounding communism and its crimes and the lack of political will to uncover and condemn them. For these political leaders, the public’s communist nostalgia is great news, as, in some ways, it legitimizes or allows them to continue their highly contestable democratic political and economic careers. 

In September 2013, a trial was initiated against Alexandru Visinescu for his role in communist abuses as the commander of the Ramnicu Sarat prison for political detainees. He has been accused of committing genocide for imposing horrible abuses on detainees, including food and medicine deprivation, beatings and other brutalities. This is the first trial of its kind. However, many expect that he will not be imprisoned, given the untenable nature of his accusation of genocide, which usually doesn’t apply to political repression.

In many ways, he is a scapegoat for those who ordered the abuses and killings. As Visinescu himself said, he was only executing orders. While this does not exempt him from punishment, it suggests that those who should be more amply punished should be those responsible for ordering those criminal actions.

In order to determine who these latter individuals were, accessing the communism archives would have been a key priority. Most of them remained secret until Basescu’s condemnation, when some of the state archives, containing the Communist Party’s documents, became available for research, while a large portion of the Securitate archives were transferred to the National Council for Research on the Securitate Archives for analysis and investigation.

However, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that the most important communist documents have been done away with at some point in the past two decade. In 1990, in a ravine in Berevoesti county, fragments and ashes of former Securitate documents were found. The documents had been burnt and buried after the communist institution was dismantled on December 22, 1989. Allegedly, 90 sacks full of documents were destroyed in the process. According to Romania Libera, the newspaper that published these documents, the Berevoesti incident was only one of many acts of suppression that took place after the Romanian Revolution.

The generalized communist amnesia is also manifested through a lack of memorial sites recalling the horrors of communism, even though the regime’s scars are visible everywhere, from Bucharest’s grey living blocs to impoverished villages. Some of Romania’s most prominent interwar personalities died as martyrs for their beliefs, as communism deprived the country of a remarkable intellectual elite. These people deserve to be commemorated for their sacrifice.

Shacking off the amnesia and initiating serious investigations and condemnations for the individuals involved in communist crimes would result in a non-violent and desperately necessary purge of Romania’s political class. Until this happens, the 1989 Romanian Revolution will remain incomplete. Unfortunately, it is not in many politicians’ interest to let the gruesome horrors of communism, in which they played key roles, unfold in front of the eyes of a population blinded by the nostalgia of seemingly better times.

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