Introduction: Writings from Postcommunist Romania

Article excerpt

For much of the world, communism is only an odd, distant chapter in history. Remnants of this tragically flawed social experiment are visible across much of Europe in monuments, kitschy museums, and niche collector's items. In North America and other regions, its complex story is now read in history books as a cautionary tale, as though it were one of the great fables of Aesop. But in few places was the scourge of communism less of a passing trend and more of a difficult, protracted reality than in Romania. Amid the euphoria of communism's demise, as the historian Lucian Boia wrote, Romanians won their freedom, and "it seemed that freedom would solve everything." (1) Instead, generations will likely have passed before the deleterious psychological legacy of communism fades entirely, and the concrete bloc apartments that mar Romania's skylines will continue to house and shape the lives of Romanian families for decades. The revolution, which brought so much hope despite its controversy, was only the first step in reversing the effects of the long, dystopic dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

My first direct experience with postcommunist Romania came as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2001-2003. What I encountered at that time, along with forty-five other volunteers, was the incarnation of images I had seen for years on television of heard of from Romanian emigres. Cities were stale and gloomy. Stray dogs staggered along broken streets. The air frequently smelled of petroleum and environmental decay while parks and yards were tended with a scythe, if they were tended at all. And despite the many redeeming aspects--a nation with a depth and beauty that could only be appreciated with greater inspection--the overwhelming sense was that I was wading through a landscape still strewn with the emotional and psychological rubble of a devastating conflict. The term "developing country" was a misnomer. The country was rather recovering than developing, and the rusted machinery that stood idly beside hollow, unfinished buildings was only a superficial glimpse at an underlying trauma--a despair that lingered well past the celebrated events of December, 1989.

The same year of my arrival, author and historian Tony Judt wrote an article in the New York Review of Books, entitled "Romania: Bottom of the Heap," which detailed the country's political, social, and cultural shortcomings at that time. The people were experiencing what he called a continuation of "serial historical humiliation," (2) referring back not only to the brutal communist period, but the seemingly endless series of conflicts and invaders that marked Romania's previous history. The nation's postcommunist experience, he aptly noted, was only the latest and perhaps most complex chapter of struggle.

For those who waited a lifetime for the promises of a free and open society, the decade and more following the demise of communism must indeed have felt like a cruel trick of fate--an insult to an already grievous injury: Finally allowed by the government to travel freely, Romanians were subject to suspicion and harsh visa restrictions from abroad. Though no longer standing in the infamous food lines that all of us in the West witnessed on television, most could not possibly afford the flashy Western products that sat teasingly in store windows. Even following liberation, the green grass of a modern democratic state still rested on the other side of the prohibitive veil that was once the Iron Curtain.

Today, serious introspection and accountability regarding Romania's past is being delicately balanced with the desire and imperative to move forward, the nation busy reinventing itself even while it comes to terms with its own recent history and identity. As Judt noted in his 2001 article, the way forward, in part, was political initiative and "politically minded people staked everything on European Union membership" after the fall--it was the one beacon that could most assuredly save them from their postcommunist calamity. …