Three weeks ago, when the Nobel committee awarded its literature prize to Romanian writer Herta Muller, it lauded her courageous and unflinching fictional portraits of “daily life in a stagnated dictatorship” in communist Romania. What they did not mention, however, was Muller’s ongoing nonfictional critique of the leadership of post-communist Romania.
Only days after she won the Nobel, Muller, who now lives in Germany, blasted her homeland for not having broken more completely with its communist past. In a stunning series of confrontations in December 1989, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed. Twenty years later, Muller said, as many as 40% of the people in power in contemporary Romania are veterans of the Securitate, the dreaded communist-era secret police.
Two years ago, she published a scathing essay in a Frankfurt newspaper accusing the country she fled in 1987 of “collective amnesia.”
“In Romania,” she wrote, “they’re pretending that [the past] disappeared into thin air.” This amnesia, she said, allows the “old mentality” to function in “new methods.”
Last week, as a guest of the Romanian government, I visited Bucharest for the first time since 1998, and I couldn’t help but think of Muller’s critique.
I saw how much things had changed in the decade since I had last been there. A higher quality of living for the lucky few, significantly worse traffic congestion and a seemingly exponential rise in the number of people who speak proficient English.
Eleven years ago, the country’s aspirations were symbolized by its drive to join the European Union and NATO, a dream that stemmed as much from Romanians’ dogged insistence on being Latin and Western (as opposed to Slavic and Eastern) as it did from their desire to elevate their standard of living. Both of those goals have since been fulfilled, and I was curious to assess the state of Romania’s famous fatalism -- a trait blamed not just on 40 years of totalitarian rule but on centuries of foreign domination.
“It’s even worse than it was before,” leading writer and talk-show host Stelian Tanase told me. “After the fall of communism, people wanted to talk and scream. Now we’ve lost the courage to assert ourselves in public life.”
Ioana Paverman, a 24-year-old political science graduate student, agrees. She says too many of her classmates want out of Romania; they aren’t trying to make it better. Her guess is that seven out of 10 of her undergraduate classmates have left the country. She insists it’s as much a vote against the culture as it is about economic opportunities.
Like Muller, she thinks what’s missing is a reckoning with history, confronting the legacies of Ceausescu. “You can’t build a future if you don’t have a past,” she told me at a cafe near Bucharest’s University Square. “We’re practically doing what the communists did -- erasing what went before.”
Where Paverman sees the cream of her generation voting with its feet, others see too many not exercising their rights at all. Focus groups conducted by the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest found that when asked to name the source of their rights, most young people said “the government.” What that means, says the center’s executive director, Ioana Avadani, is that those born after the end of communism are still growing up in a paternalistic culture in which “schools don’t prepare them to live in a free society.”
Similarly, a June survey by Romania’s National Institute of Opinion Surveys and Marketing found that 66% of respondents discuss politics only once a week or less. Not surprisingly then, Romania experienced the single most drastic drop in voter turnout of any comparable post-communist Eastern European nation -- from a high of 86% in 1990 to 39% last year. Asked to explain it, two-thirds of the survey respondents blamed the “low quality of Romania’s political elite,” who they believe are the same cast of characters from the past.
Such polls lead back to Muller’s point. Neglecting to confront the terrible communist past, reconfiguring the old power structure rather than starting anew, not only breeds cynicism but leaves the electorate unsure of the exact nature of their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
But does it mean that Romania is hopeless? For a visitor, it is a positive sign that the body politic is being tested and probed. That intellectuals and students are raising their voices in concern. That a quarrelsome, newly named Nobel Prize winner is giving Romania’s political deficits a high profile.
But I was also struck by how little the 1989 “revolution” and even European integration had changed what ails Romanian culture most.
There’s a proverb in Romania that has been passed down from generation to generation and is used to counsel those in conflict. “When your head is bent,” it goes, “the sword won’t cut your neck.”
Twenty years after their brutal revolution, some Romanians are still fighting that fatalistic impulse. It remains to be seen if the rest of their countrymen will ever lift their heads.