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'RFE's Romanian Service Opened Our Eyes'

  • Vladimir Tismaneanu

Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech in December 1989

Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech in December 1989

It is hard to believe that Radio Free Europe's broadcasts in Romanian will fall silent on August 1.

I grew up listening to Radio Free Europe. In a Bucharest pervaded by official lies, with newspapers dominated by sycophantic poems and hagiographic articles celebrating the "triumphant march of Marxism-Leninism" and the infinite genius of the general secretary, Radio Free Europe was indeed the "spoken newspapers of all Romanians."

I started listening to RFE haphazardly, zapping on our family's old East German radio and discovering the "forbidden fruits": RFE, the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Vatican, the BBC. I even listened to Albania's Radio Tirana denouncing the Khrushchevite "traitors and renegades."

Thanks to RFE -- by far the most influential of all Western broadcasting to Romania -- I learned a lot about the system. I made a habit of listening to Romanian Service Director Noel Bernard's superbly informed and remarkably balanced editorials. His extraordinary voice, penetrating and subtle, made the comments doubly effective. The rigor of the analysis was magnified by the sobriety of his tone.

To the prevailing legends about the unending successes of Romania's socialist strategy, Bernard opposed a lucid vision that emphasized the rise of antidogmatic forces within world communism. For him, communist tyranny was not irreversible. He insisted on the benefits of pluralism, a concept execrated by Romanian party hacks.

Interested as I was in philosophical and cultural issues, I was addicted to the immensely influential broadcasts of Monica Lovinescu and Virgil Ierunca. My own formation owes a huge debt to those uniquely insightful discussions of major trends within the realms of contemporary politics and aesthetics. Marxism was deconstructed unsparingly, with reference to the illuminating works on communism, utopia, revolutions, and ideology by Raymond Aron, Alain Besancon, Jeanne Hersch, Boris Souvarine, and Jules Monnerot. These broadcasts explored the meanings of totalitarianism and ways of challenging the bureaucratic leviathan.

Over RFE's airwaves, I found out about Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Czeslaw Milosz, Arthur Koestler, Nadezhda Mandelshtam, Anton Ciliga, and others.

Defying The Regime

No less important, Radio Free Europe supported all dissident and opposition activities in Romania. It became a tribune for defying the regime's self-serving propaganda. From Paul Goma to Doina Cornea, from Dorin Tudoran to Radu Filipescu, from Dan Petrescu to Mircea Dinescu, from Vasile Paraschiv to William Totok, the voices of Romanian dissent had in Radio Free Europe their most consistent and influential ally.

It was RFE that unmasked the fascist turn of a group of party-backed Romanian writers known as the "protochronists." In their broadcasts, Lovinescu, Virgil Ierunca, and Gelu Ionescu defended the real values of Romanian culture and the liberal voices among Romanian intellectuals.

For dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his clique, Radio Free Europe represented the ultimate villain, an enemy that needed to be smashed, compromised, eliminated. It was the voice of sedition, an invitation to truth in a system where mendacity reigned supreme. Broadcasting about the rampant political corruption of the communist nomenklatura, denouncing the Securitate's endless abuses, telling the truth about the Communist Party's history -- RFE's Romanian Service opened our eyes.

For totalitarianism, truth is subversive. The regime reacted accordingly, unleashing sordid slanderous campaigns against RFE's most active editors. Lovinescu faced assassination attempts. Directors Bernard and Vlad Georgescu most likely lost their lives as a result of Securitate-organized criminal plots. Other broadcasters were singled out for the regime's vicious attacks: Emil Georgescu, Cornel Chiriac, N. C. Munteanu, Serban Orescu, Max Banush.

Among the most influential voices, one should remember Nestor Ratesh, a splendid analyst of the U.S. political and cultural scene; Emil Hurezeanu, an electrifyingly intelligent political commentator; Mircea Carp; Mihai Cismarescu; Ghita Ionescu; Preda Bunescu; and Nicolae Stroescu-Stanisoara.

Following the 1977 earthquake in Romania, RFE helped create a sense of solidarity based on true information. In 1968, it kept Romanians abreast of the search for democratic socialism in Czechoslovakia and the suppression of the Prague Spring by the Warsaw Pact that August. And, after 1985, it promoted the new ideas of reform, playing a major role in debunking Ceausescu's dismal dictatorship as decrepit and obsolete.

After The Revolution

During the 1989 revolutionary upheaval, RFE was the main hope of the Romanians, a source of information, knowledge, and self-confidence. Since the demise of communism, RFE has continued to foster democratic values, tolerance, dialogue, and moral clarity. It has opposed communist restoration and criticized Ion Iliescu and his cronies for their refusal to engage in genuine democratization.

For Romania's democratic intellectuals, RFE symbolizes the values they cherish most dearly. As a regular contributor to RFE's Romanian Service since February 1983, I consider its contribution crucial in terms of defending the concept -- articulated by Vaclav Havel -- of living in truth. When one writes the history of Romanian communism and postcommunism, RFE's decisive role in advocating an open society and opposing any form of totalitarianism must be prominently highlighted.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland and, since 2006, has been chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. He is a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. The views presented in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Key Facts
* The Romanian Service began experimental broadcasting on July 14, 1950, and was fully operational by May 1, 1951.

* Broadcasts to Moldova by the service began in 1989.

*, the service's website, went public in 2003.