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East European Perspectives: April 14, 2004

14 April 2004, Volume 6, Number 8


By Dragos Petrescu

As mentioned in the first part of this study, the notion of "nation creation" as applied to Romania refers to a decisive shift in integrating large masses of the ethnic-majority population into the "organized solidarity" and "imagined community" of the Romanian nation; it does not, however, extend to the final, ultimate realization of nationhood. Methodologically, the process of nation building under communism is here analyzed along three major lines of inquiry: (1) elite manipulation; (2) cultural reproduction; and (3) modernization conducted from above. The first -- i.e., elite manipulation -- was addressed in the first part of this study. Consequently, the second part focuses on the other two issues: cultural reproduction and modernization conducted from above.

Cultural Reproduction
The teaching of a "national" history and geography, respectively, contributed decisively to forging the national identity. To be sure, such a strategy was not employed solely by communist regimes. For instance, in his work on the modernization of rural France, Eugen Weber emphasizes the use of the teaching of history in the nation-building process. As Weber puts it, "there were no better instruments of indoctrination and patriotic conditioning than French history and geography, especially history" (Weber, 1976, pp. 333-334). Nationalism is also bound by location. Therefore, as far as the teaching of geography is concerned, the presence of identical maps of the country in every classroom of every grammar school in Romania contributed decisively to the process of "imagining" the nation. In this respect, as Cristina Petrescu (1998) has suggested, the generations raised under communism had a different perception of the national territory than the interwar generations. For them, Romanian national territory was perceived as comprising Transylvania but not including Bessarabia. The mental map they internalized was based on the political maps they saw constantly in the classroom, and Bessarabia consequently ceased to be perceived, on a mass level, as part of historic Romania's territory. Therefore, during the communist period, the process of imagining the Romanian nation did not include that territory.

At the same time, one should keep in mind that, as shown above, the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) elite kept alive the idea that Bessarabia was part of historical Romania. As far as Bessarabia is concerned, the process of cultural reproduction created a set of salient values that undermined the PCR's ability to manipulate national symbols. Consequently, when Nicolae Ceausescu sought to win back popular support by raising the issue of Bessarabia in the late 1980s, he received very little popular backing. The precise moment when the issue of Bessarabia surfaced in the PCR's discourse is still difficult to establish with precision. Paul Niculescu-Mizil argues that discussions with the Soviets were initiated in 1973-74 and continued in 1978. Nevertheless, it was only at the 14th PCR Congress in November 1989 that Ceausescu openly demanded the nullification of the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, as a result of which Bessarabia had been incorporated into the Soviet Union (Niculescu-Mizil, 2001, pp. 448-49).

The importance of the teaching of history was even greater in forging an "organized solidarity," demonstrated by the centrality of the debates on the ethnic origins of the Romanians. With regard to the process of Romanian ethno-genesis, communist historiography underwent three stages between 1948 and 1989. During the first stage, 1948-58, as a result of the Russification campaign, official historiography placed a strong emphasis on the Slavs and their role in the formation of the Romanian people. The second stage, 1958-74, was characterized by a relative ideological relaxation and a return to the theses of the interwar period concerning the role of the Romans and their mixing with the local Dacian population in fostering the Dacian-Roman origins of the Romanians. The third stage, 1974-89, was characterized by "Dacomania" -- that is, by a special emphasis on the fundamental role of the "autochthonous," Dacian element in the formation of Romanian people. As shown above, the PCR's 1974 program imposed a blueprint for writing and teaching national history based on four conceptual "pillars": (1) the ancient roots of the Romanians; (2) continuity; (3) unity; and (4) independence.

At the same time, it should be stressed that none of these four sacred themes of Romanian historiography was brand new. In fact, all of these ideas were present from the beginning of the institutionalization of history as a scientific discipline in Romania. The first two -- i.e., the ancient roots and the continuity of the Romanians -- were developed as a result of polemics with historians from neighboring countries, notably Hungary, toward the end of the 19th century. Furthermore, since the processes of state building and the professionalization of history as a discipline in its own right took place simultaneously in the second half of the 19th century, the third theme -- i.e., the unity of the Romanian people -- was always present in the historical writings of the period. Until the advent of "Ceausescuism," however, this issue never became an axiom. As for the fourth theme -- i.e., the incessant struggle for independence -- this is a feature found in all the historiographies of small countries of East-Central Europe, which were continually confronted with powerful neighboring empires. As Romania tried to emphasize its independent position within the communist camp, the centrality of the struggle for independence in the national-communist historiographic canon was, naturally, a reflection of daily politics. As far as historical studies are concerned, the real problem was that these four themes became the standard, the yardstick of historical interpretation. Consequently, one of the major lessons of national history, as taught until December 1989, was that the Romanian unitary nation-state has been continuously contested and threatened, and that it was the patriotic duty of all responsible Romanians to defend it at all costs. As a consequence, the communist party enlisted considerable popular backing by depicting itself as the sole guarantor of Romania's independence and national sovereignty hinting, to be sure, at neighboring Soviet Union and Hungary.

The idea of a Romanian nation created around the four conceptual "pillars" reached grassroots level through schooling, press, cinema, radio, and television. Furthermore, it was inculcated through the national festivals "Cintarea Romaniei" (Song of Praise to Romania) and "Daciada" (a sort of domestic Olympics). Nevertheless, this process started well before 1974, and the year 1968 might be considered a turning point. It was thus not by chance that, in the aftermath of the August 1968 momentum, one of the most powerful Romanian historical myths was revived: the myth of Michael the Brave and his 1600 unification of the Romanian principalities.

Michael the Brave was a medieval prince who, in 1600, merged for several months the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania (the main historical provinces of present-day Romania) under a single rule. Michael the Brave was born in 1558 and ascended to the throne of Wallachia in September 1593. Following the battle of Selimbar (18/28 October 1599), he occupied Transylvania and became Habsburg governor of the province (while also ruling over Wallachia). On 6/16 May 1600 Michael the Brave's troops invaded and occupied Moldavia. During the months of June, July, and August 1600, he was at the height of his power, ruling over the three principalities inhabited by a Romanian-speaking population: Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia. In September 1600, after the battle of Miraslau (8/18 September 1600), Michael was forced to abdicate. He returned, however, to Transylvania with the military support of Emperor Rudolph II in July 1601 but was assassinated on 9/19 August 1601 on the orders of Habsburg General Giorgio Basta (Giurescu and Giurescu, 1976, pp. 324-80).

The reign of Michael the Brave was the subject of one of the most successful movies produced under communism: Sergiu Nicolaescu's mega-production "Mihai Viteazul." The movie was shot in 1969 and released in 1970. What is important for this analysis, however, is that, reflecting the myths of continuity and unity of the Romanians on their current territory, the movie was the perfect embodiment of Ceausescu's vision of "national" history. Furthermore, it is this author's opinion that, as far as "Mihai Viteazul" is concerned, one should concentrate more on the quality of the script and the personality of the scriptwriter, Titus Popovici, and on his relationship with the communist establishment. One should also focus on those who acted as counselors on medieval history-related topics to the moviemakers -- Andrei Otetea and Constantin C. Giurescu, who were the most representative historians of the period -- rather than on Nicolaescu himself. One can hence conclude that Nicolaescu only delivered (albeit with tremendous success) to the general public the official idea of national history dressed up in fancy clothes.

One can proceed and argue that the movie was instrumental in forging the national identity of a majority of contemporary Romanians, and there are at least two main elements that support this assertion. First, the movie was, technically and artistically, very well made. The main character, Michael the Brave, was played by one of the most gifted Romanian actors of the postwar period, Amza Pellea, and the team of supporting cast included the best actors that Romania had at that particular moment. Second, the script was simple and direct: The story unfolded without complications, and the message could reach any kind of audience, from the most sophisticated to the most ignorant. To be sure, the story told by Nicolaescu's movie followed verbatim the story told by the history textbooks and highlighted the above-mentioned four pillars of "national" history. Since for pupils collective viewing was compulsory, the message reached grassroots level efficiently and had lasting effects.

After the launch of the PCR's 1974 program, the regime devised the "Cintarea Romaniei" national festival, which was initiated in 1976 and took place annually until 1989. A national sports competition, "Daciada," whose name clearly referred to the Dacian origins of the Romanians, was also launched. The "Daciada," however, was less influential in forging ethnic bonds than was "Cintarea Romaniei" (Petrescu, D., 1998, pp. 239-51). The latter festival was highly important in forging the national identity of contemporary Romanians because it was devised as a sort of huge cultural-ideological umbrella for the totality of cultural activities that took place in the country after 1976. In other words, everything that could be identified as a cultural event had to be part of the national festival and praise, one way or another, the nation and its supreme leader. Furthermore, the festival gathered not only professional artists, but also large numbers of amateur artists from all over the country. For the amateurs, the festival was first and foremost an opportunity to escape from their boring workplaces and spend days outside the factory (and sometimes out of town). The price to be paid was that they had to praise "Partidul, Ceausescu, Romania," but many felt that it was worth the bother. Insidiously, however, a set of values and attitudes was slowly inculcated through the poetry that people recited and the songs they sang. As a result, many acquired a subjective version of national history and came to believe that the PCR's achievements were indeed little else but a continuation of the heroic deeds of the medieval rulers. Let us not forget that the magic of the 1968 "balcony speech" was still powerful. Also, one should bear in mind that it was only after 1981 that the economic crisis began to undermine the regime's efforts to indoctrinate the population. Furthermore, both "Cintarea Romaniei" and "Daciada" were organized as national competitions, which contributed to a reinforcement of ethnic ties and allegiance.

This mixture of professionalism and amateurishness harmed not just the quality of the cultural products, but also made more room for those products that served best the communist propaganda machine. Initially, it was only the amateur artists who would exaggerate in their glorification of the PCR and its supreme leader, hoping thereby to achieve official recognition. Not long afterward, nonetheless, professional artists followed suit, perceiving the festival as a means for upward mobility and an opportunity to make easy money. Consequently, until the demise of the regime, many professional artists continuously produced artifacts of pretentious bad taste depicting the supreme leader and his wife. The 1980s proved to be an especially fertile period for the production of this kind of kitsch. What is important for the purpose of this analysis, however, is that the festival was instrumental in praising "Romanianness" and the unity of the Party-State at a grassroots level. By means of cultural reproduction, then, the regime succeeded in enforcing upon ethnic Romanians a stronger sense of belonging to the organized solidarity of the Romanian nation.

In addition to the "Cintarea Romaniei" national festival, another cultural "show" served the regime's identity politics via rather simple means: the "Flacara (Flame) Cenacle of Revolutionary Youth" led by poet Adrian Paunescu. From 1973 until its demise in June 1985, the "Flacara Cenacle" succeeded in confiscating the natural rebelliousness of the young generation and in transforming or directing it toward patriotic stances. By channeling the energy of a generation that did not yet perceive the system as utterly bad, the "Flacara Cenacle" obstructed the development of a genuine counterculture and thus contributed to hampering the appearance and the structuring of a dissident movement in Romania. By mixing rock music with poetry praising the nation, as well as the PCR and its supreme leader, Paunescu's cenacle reached an audience that "Cintarea Romaniei" could not reach: the young and potentially rebellious. The message of the "Flacara Cenacle" was that communism and a sort of alternative culture could coexist. Young people were allowed to remain until the small hours of the morning at stadiums throughout the country where they could sing, dance, smoke, consume some alcohol, and make love. In many respects, the atmosphere in the stadiums where the "Flacara Cenacle" performed was more pleasant than what the system could offer in terms of leisure opportunities, especially in the early 1980s. On 15 June 1985, however, the "Flacara Cenacle" performed in a stadium in the city of Ploiesti, some 50 kilometers north of Bucharest, when a torrential rain prompted a melee. Five people died and many others were injured. As a result, the regime banned the "Flacara Cenacle" (Giurescu, 2003, p. 719). Nevertheless, the harm was done. Politicized rock did not appear in Romania -- as it did, for instance, in Czechoslovakia -- and this was largely due to Paunescu's "cenacle." True, the rock-and-roll counterculture was also undermined by the economic crisis and the rationing of power consumption; as a Westerner ironically observed: "How could you expect rock and roll to survive in a country where there is barely enough electricity to power a light bulb, let alone drive an electric guitar?" (cited in Ramet, 1991, p. 234). However, the role of the "Flacara Cenacle" in "confiscating" a major segment of the alternative culture to which "Cintarea Romaniei" was unable to get and in channeling it into patriotic performances in accordance with the tenets of Ceausescu's July 1971 Theses must not be neglected.

To be sure, the perverse effects of such a policy were acutely felt after the collapse of communism. In the early 1990s, the issues of national identity and loyalty toward a "unitary nation-state" received disproportionate attention, and often overshadowed the issue of democratic transformation of the country. It is also due to this approach to nationhood that Romania's postcommunist transformation has proved longer and more traumatic than in most other former communist countries of Central Europe.

Modernization Conducted From Above
Another issue that needs closer examination is related to modernization -- or, more specifically, to economic development and social transformation under communism. According to the 1930 census, Romania's rural population accounted for 78.9 percent of the total population, while the urban population made up just 21.1 percent (Madgearu, 1995, p. 23). After the communist takeover, during the period 1948-81, the rural population dropped from 76.6 percent to 49.9 percent, while the urban population increased from 23.4 percent to 50.1 percent (Shafir, 1985, p. 47). At the same time, the rapid industrialization of the country resulted in the growth of population involved in industry, and a significant drop in the proportion of the population involved in agriculture. Between 1950 and 1981, the share of the population employed in agriculture decreased from 74.1 percent to 28.9 percent; conversely, during the same period, the share of the population employed in industry increased from 12.0 percent to 36.1 percent. This process occurred under the conditions of a specific trend of socialist industrialization -- that is, the concentration of large masses of workers in huge plants, built near urban areas. Such a significant shift in the rural-urban distribution of the population, as well as the rapid increase in the share of the population involved in industry as opposed to agriculture, determined the exposure of large masses of peasants to urban life and city culture. These masses went through a process of cognitive dissonance -- that is, they were forced to change their behavior, which in the long term would also lead to a change in attitudes -- that "organized" their sense of solidarity beyond the organic solidarity characteristic to a face-to-face society. Finally, this led to their integration into the "imagined" community of the Romanian nation.

However, the integration of the rural regions could not have been achieved without a sustained program of economic development. As shown above, the development of a network of paved roads and, following the Leninist tenet, rural electrification contributed heavily to forging the nation. Rural electrification was accompanied by the spread of cheap radiophonic equipment that brought rural Romania out of its autarky. Furthermore, the spread of television in the late 1960s decisively influenced this process of cultural integration. Interwar Romania had a deplorable network of paved roads. More than 10 years after the communist takeover, paved roads still made up just 4.8 percent of the total network of 76,000 kilometers in 1956, while in 1980 paved roads made up 20.0 percent of the total road network. In terms of electrification, the situation was equally distressing: In 1945, only 535 of 15,000 villages were connected to the national grid; in 1965, there were already 3,034 electrified villages, while by 1970 their number rose to 10,591 (Ronnas, 1984, p. 246).

The spread of education, which is a crucial ingredient in the process of cultural reproduction, is directly linked to industrialization and urbanization. True, in interwar Romania the rate of illiteracy substantially declined between 1918 and 1948. However, the vast majority of the population did not have more than four years of primary schooling. After the communist takeover, an education reform was initiated by the Education Law of 3 August 1948, which stipulated that out of seven years of free education, four were compulsory. Beginning in the 1955/1956 school year, seven years of school became compulsory in urban areas, followed by a similar provision in 1959/1960 for rural areas. In the 1961/1962 school year, compulsory education was extended to eight years. In the 1938/1939 school year, just 14 percent of the pupils went beyond the primary level. As a result of communist educational policies, by 1965/1966, the percentage had increased to 59 percent. Consequently, successive generations of pupils, educated according to a unique curriculum at a national level fully achieved (especially by learning "national" history and geography, as already noted) a profound sense of national identity. A corollary, however, was that the Romanian nation was understood mainly in ethnic and not in civic terms.

To conclude, it can be argued that apart from the timid economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s, an alluring facet of "Ceausescuism" rested in a national ideology that provided a strong and enduring focus of identification with, and loyalty toward, the communist regime. National ideology, an enduring element of prime symbolic importance, was skillfully manipulated by the Romanian communists. It is this author's opinion that a cultural syndrome, the LATE CREATION OF THE NATION, provided unexpected support to the communist regime and hindered the development of an organized movement against it. It also acted as a hindrance to the rapid democratization of the country after the 1989 revolution. For instance, if one compares societal response to the territorial losses of Romania in the summer of 1940 with societal reaction stirred by the perceived threat of losing Transylvania in January-March 1990 (the Targu-Mures interethnic clashes), one must conclude that while the majority of ethnic Romanians were passive in face of a genuine threat in 1940, in 1990 a great proportion was active when faced with a manipulated danger of an allegedly similar threat. It could be argued that in 1940, the conditions were different from those of early 1990. True, Europe was at war in the summer of 1940, Romania's interwar system of alliances had been dissolved, and there was not much room to maneuver.

Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the gravity of the situation in Romania in late 1989-early 1990. If one looks back at the sole bloody uprising among East-Central Europe's relatively peaceful revolutions of 1989, and at the "power vacuum" that followed the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, one realizes that "mutatis mutandis" the 1940 conditions were, in many respects, comparable to those of 1989-90. What is important, however, is the fact that societal reaction was different. When the leaders of the National Salvation Front claimed that the nation was in danger, different forms of self-organization emerged and protests from below abounded. The most striking illustration is provided by the speed with which the nationalistic "cultural" association "Vatra Romaneasca" (Romanian Hearth) spread and established branches all over the country. Whether the nation was really under threat is another question, however. One can further ask what the true goals of "Vatra Romaneasca" were, who was behind it, and why its influence diminished drastically by the end of 1991, concomitantly with the consolidation of political parties. The crucial aspect remains that many people displayed genuine concern and were ready to defend the real or imaginary threat that their homeland was perceived as facing. Many of them had never visited Transylvania, yet they responded to the appeal of "Vatra Romaneasca" and other similar associations. And yet, when a real conflict -- in fact, a mini-war -- broke out in Bessarabia in 1992, there was no similar reaction in Romanian society. The jury is still out on whether this signified PCR success or PCR failure in the process of late nation creation.

Dragos Petrescu is associate professor of modern European history at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest, and director of the Romanian Institute for Recent History (IRIR) in Bucharest.


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