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East European Perspectives: April 1, 2004

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1 April 2004, Volume  6, Number  7

HISTORICAL MYTHS, LEGITIMATING DISCOURSES, AND IDENTITY POLITICS IN CEAUSESCU'S ROMANIA (Part 1)

By Dragos Petrescu

"Man is a complex animal who is tractable in some respects and intractable in others. Both the successes and the failures of our communist cases suggest that there is a pattern to this tractability-intractability behavior, that liberty once experienced is not quickly forgotten, and that equity and equality of some kind resonate in the human spirit." This is how Gabriel Almond concludes his study on communist political cultures focusing on the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, as well as on Cuba, Hungary, and Poland (Almond, 1990, p.168). It might be argued that, apart from liberty, equity, and equality, the notions of social integration, economic improvement, and national cohesion resonated as well in the spirit of the peoples ruled by communist regimes. As far as Romania is concerned, it is this author's opinion that a coherent interpretation of the communist period in that country must address two issues of paramount significance: modernization and nation building.

In terms of modernization, during the 1960s and 1970s, the regime had something to offer to Romania's population at large. The quality of life, for a majority of the population, improved unquestionably. Things changed fundamentally during the 1980s, under the conditions of a severe economic crisis generated by the regime's inflexible policies. Consequently, both the relative and absolute deprivation felt by the overwhelming majority of the population made the 1989 revolution possible.

A question, however, remains: What hampered the development of a societal opposition toward a regime that was not only brought to power by a foreign (super)power -- the Soviet Union -- but was also based on an ideology that had no local traditions whatsoever? In terms of "socialist" traditions, as Michael Shafir has convincingly argued, the weakness of the socialist movement in Romania up to the communist takeover was determined by three main factors: (1) the socioeconomic structure of economy, i.e., the "eminently agrarian" character of the country; (2) the "non-Romanian ethnic origin" of many socialist and communist leaders; and (3) the "disregard displayed by the Romanian Communist Party towards traditional national aspirations" (Shafir, 1985, p. 9). Furthermore, after the period of Stalinist terror and, more importantly, the withdrawal of Soviet troops in the summer of 1958, what created a focus of identification with such a regime?

To answer such questions is by no means easy. This paper argues that an answer can be found in the continuation of the nation-building process under communism, a process that entered a final stage in the early 1980s and eventuated in a cultural syndrome that might be termed "the late creation of the nation." Such a syndrome contributed to hampering a gradual development of societal opposition to the regime and determined in many respects the atypical character of the 1989 collapse of communism in Romania and its aftermath.

The question of "When is a nation?" (to employ Walker Connor's terminology) still arouses heated debate among scholars and laypeople alike. In the case of Romania, the process of creating the nation did not come to an end in 1918, as a majority of Romanian scholars argue. True, few intellectuals focused seriously under communism on the issue of the formation of Romanian national identity. Usually, a strong emphasis was put on the ancient roots of Romanians. This is why, concomitantly with the resurgence of autochthonism in the aftermath of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) Secretary-General Nicolae Ceausescu's July 1971 "theses," references to the ancient Thracians, Geto-Dacians and Dacian-Romans became almost mandatory in any discourse on the formation of Romanian nation. At the same time, a majority of historians and social scientists placed the moment of its formation somewhere between the 1848 Revolution and the 1918 creation of Greater Romania. For instance, in a work published in 1967, historian Stefan Pascu argued that it was the "revolutionary struggle" during the 1848 Revolution that concluded the process of formation of the modern Romanian nation (Pascu, 1967, pp. 49-55).

Nevertheless, as Irina Livezeanu aptly remarked in her work on interwar Romania, "the union of 1918 brought into being a deeply fragmented polity, and the startling effects of centuries of political separation presented great challenges to the newly enlarged state and to the sense of national identity of its population" (Livezeanu, 1995, p. 297). Similarly, Kenneth Jowitt has argued that during the interwar period "the elites and major sectors of the population lacked meaningful, shared sentiments of community and a relatively consistent, jointly shaped set of commitments to the nation-state itself" (Jowitt, 1971, pp. 89-90).

The present article argues that the nation-building process in Romania was continued under communism. This also explains why, under communist rule, the elites and masses alike perceived the Romanian nation-state as still "unrealized" and continuously threatened by some of its neighbors, especially Hungary and the Soviet Union. As Rogers Brubaker argues, such a tendency to see the nation-state as "unrealized" imposes the adoption of a dynamic political stance (Brubaker, 1996, p. 63). Since the Romanian state was perceived as not yet national in its entirety, it was imperative to be "nationalizing." Due to a combination of economic, social, and cultural factors, a decisive stage in creating the Romanian nation was achieved in the early 1980s. It is this author's opinion that communist Romania went through a piecemeal process of "ethnic bureaucratic incorporation," to use Anthony D. Smith's term, based on three main components: (1) elite manipulation; (2) cultural reproduction; and (3) modernization conducted from above that entered its final stage only in the early 1980s.

It is another question, however, how the Romanian communist elite conceptualized the process of formation of Romanian national identity. The vigorous revival of national ideology after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Romania in July 1958 poses difficult questions of interpretation with regard to the internationalist phase of Romanian Stalinism under the first communist leader of that country, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (1948-65). It is equally difficult to reconstruct the way Dej's successor at the top of the PCR's hierarchy -- Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-89) -- imagined the process of creation of the Romanian nation. From his numerous speeches one can infer that Ceausescu believed the process of formation of the Romanian nation came to an end with the creation of Greater Romania in 1918:

"The setting up of the [Romanian] unitary national state 6 1/2 decades ago was a brilliant historic victory of the long heroic struggle of the masses for creating the Romanian nation and marked the fulfillment of the ancestral dream of all Romanians to live in unity within the borders of the same country, in one free and independent state" (Ceausescu, 1984, p. 3. Emphasis added).

Thus, after coming to power in 1965, Ceausescu was convinced that he was creating the Romanian "socialist nation." What exactly did a "socialist nation" mean to him? An analysis of his policies toward minorities reveals that Ceausescu actually envisaged an ethnically homogenous Romanian "socialist nation." The official stance toward the idea of the "socialist" Romanian nation was clear: It referred to the concept of political nation. For instance, in his 1976 introduction to a volume dedicated to the history of the Hungarian minority in Romania, propagandist Lajos Demeny argued that Ceausescu's idea of "socialist nation" was close to the idea of a political nation (Demeny, 1976, pp. 5-6). However, Demeny's interpretation was aimed at obscuring the extent of the regime's assimilationist policies. In reality, the main tenet of the PCR's policy toward ethnic minorities was that egalitarian policies under communism would lead to the disappearance of separate ethnic identities.

Under the Ceausescu regime, the process of creating the modern Romanian nation entered its final stage. This aspect is also of prime importance in explaining why intellectual dissidence developed tortuously in communist Romania and only after the economic crisis became evident. As a legacy of the interwar cultural debates, the nationalist ideology remained powerful and ideas, attitudes, and arguments associated with it played a major role in the cultural debates during the communist years, especially after 1958. The revival of such an ideology in the late 1950s-early 1960s, after a period of quiescence -- not of rejection, however -- found an echo in the minds and hearts of the most gifted Romanian intellectuals. In Romania, to use George Schopflin's words, "a legitimating discourse, that of ethnicity" was not only a constant of that country's political culture but was also determinant in creating a focus of identification with, and loyalty toward, the regime (Schopflin, 2000, p. 64). Until the early 1980s, this situation hampered the appeal of dissident ideas to a larger public, who saw in the regime the defender of the country's independence and territorial integrity. History -- a subjective interpretation of "national" history, to be sure -- was a major element of such a legitimating discourse. In communist Romania history did matter, and was interpreted and reinterpreted in accordance with the immediate goals of the regime.

In order to support the argument put forward in this paper, some theoretical and methodological aspects need to be discussed. As Walker Connor argues, "the nation-formation is a process, not an occurrence" (Connor, 1994, p. 223). In the case of Romania, the process of turning peasants into Romanians (to paraphrase Eugen Weber) took a decisive course only under the national-communist regime of Ceausescu, under the conditions of an extensive program of centrally planned urbanization, industrialization, increased communication, and the spread of education.

When analyzing the process of nation-building in Romania during the 1945-89 period, my study draws on the concepts of "organic" and, respectively, "organized solidarity," coined by the late Alexandru Dutu, an outstanding Romanian historian of mentalities (Dutu, 1999, pp. 9-12). According to Dutu, "organic solidarity" is specific to the private sphere, which includes the family, the parish, the voluntary associations and the like, while "organized solidarity" belongs to the public sphere and can be found throughout history, from the stage of the elderly councils to the modern state. In cases of nation building such as that of Romania, the transformation from an imperial province into a national state took place primarily by relying on organized solidarity. It might be argued that organized solidarity -- i.e., a sense of solidarity developed and continuously reinforced from above within the framework of the nation-state (through education, internal migration, and common socialization in large state enterprises, etc.) -- played a crucial role under communism and, ultimately, forged the Romanian nation. Thus Dutu's interpretation wonderfully complements Benedict Anderson's famous encapsulation of the nation as an "imagined community" (Anderson, 1991, p. 6).

In the present study, Anderson's concept of "imagined community" is understood as a process originating mainly from below, while Dutu's concept of "organized solidarity" is understood as a process initiated from above. True, it is difficult if not impossible to provide a precise date for the creation of a nation. In the case of Romania, as already noted, we deal with a late creation. Here, the notion of "creation" refers to a decisive shift in integrating large masses of the ethnic Romanian population into the "organized solidarity" and "imagined community" of the Romanian nation, and not to the final, ultimate realization of nationhood. Methodologically, the process of nation building under communism is analyzed along three major lines of inquiry: (1) elite manipulation; (2) cultural reproduction; and (3) modernization conducted from above.


Elite Manipulation
A thorough investigation meant to identify to what degree the exacerbated nationalism of late Ceausescuism originates from within the party elite is still to be undertaken. For instance, how much of Ceausescu's nationalism was prompted by interwar trends (via recuperated intellectuals, for instance) and how much was due to his own socialization among Gheorghiu-Dej's men?

Post-1989 testimonies of former members of the nomenclature are not only telling but also puzzling, since they reveal that the so-called internationalist phase of Romanian communism was much less internationalist than was previously thought. Controversies over contested territories such as Transylvania pushed the Romanian communists to seek arguments taken straight from the nationalist repertory even before their coming to power in 1948. Gheorghe Apostol, who was close to Gheorghiu-Dej and briefly replaced him at the head of the PCR in the 1950s, recalls a December 1944 meeting with Stalin at which, apart from himself, Gheorghiu-Dej and Dej's rival and future Foreign Minister Ana Pauker were present. The Romanian delegation prepared its plea for Transylvania by insisting on the history of the region, from the Roman conquest onward. Clearly unimpressed by their historical arguments, Stalin decided that Transylvania should belong to Romania as a reward for having switched sides in the war, in August 1944. Apostol's testimony is significant because it reveals that rather than use the 1931 Fifth Party Congress Theses -- which defined Romania as "colonialist, predatory power" and called for national "self-determination up to [the point of] secession" -- when facing Stalin, the Romanian communist leaders were basing their plea on the importance of the 1600 short-lived union of Transylvania with Moldavia and Wallachia under medieval ruler Michael the Brave. Such accounts raise doubts concerning the Romanian communists' alleged full commitment to the Comintern Theses of the Fifth Party Congress with regard to the multinational character of Greater Romania (Betea, 1995, pp. 259-60).

The problem of Bessarabia was, obviously, more delicate than that of Transylvania. Although any clear references to Soviet-occupied Bessarabia would have damaged relations with the Soviet Union, recent testimony suggests that the Romanian communist elite actually perceived that territory as being a part of historical Romania. In this respect, an episode relating to the publication in 1964 of Karl Marx's "Notes on the Romanians" is illustrative (Marx, 1964). Paul Niculescu-Mizil was at the time the head of the Propaganda Section of the Central Committee and was therefore directly involved in the publication of Marx's tome. Niculescu-Mizil provides interesting details on the way in which the manuscript was discovered in Amsterdam, translated for the use of party leadership and, finally, published with an elaborated critical apparatus that recommended the volume as a purely scholarly work (Niculescu-Mizil, 1997, pp. 260-82.) Simply put, Marx's book offered the Romanian communists the incredible opportunity to express through the authority of a "founding father" something they could not themselves express openly: that the regime considered Bessarabia part of historical Romania. Thus, from 1964 onward, Marx's words would be imperiously quoted whenever necessary to support the PCR's idea of national history.

In the aftermath of the 1956 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Romania's Stalinist leader, Gheorghiu-Dej, devised a strategy of political survival based on independence from Moscow and extensive industrialization. That strategy was strictly followed by Ceausescu. The PCR's industrialization policies under Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu also determined an important aspect of communist Romania's "independent path toward communism": the completion of the nation-building process. As Ronald H. Linden correctly observed, "Romanian leaders have successfully capitalized upon the non-Slavic identity of the population" (Linden, 1981, p. 229). The policy of independence from Moscow -- combined, it is true, with a slight improvement of the standard of living beginning in the early 1960s -- found an echo in the hearts and minds of a majority of Romania's population.

On 21 August 1968, Ceausescu delivered his famous "balcony speech" in which he condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. The effect of Ceausescu's discourse on Romania's population at large was enormous: The speech represented for many Romanians "proof" of Ceausescu's charisma ("Scinteia," 22 August 1968). In my opinion, Ceausescu's "charismatic leadership" -- to borrow Reinhard Bendix's concept -- was made possible by the dramatic conditions of that August 1968 (Bendix, 1973, pp. 616-29). Paul Goma, the initiator of the 1977 "Goma Movement" of anti-Ceausescu protest and perhaps the most famous Romanian dissident, wrote about the mobilizing force of Ceausescu's August 1968 speech:

"Ceausescu's discourse, from the balcony.... Even now, in 1985, I cannot say that then he 'acted' or that he was insincere. In spite of the hysterical atmosphere, those of us who, that August 1968, joined the Patriotic Guards did this neither for him, Ceausescu, nor for the communist party.... Not even for (socialist) Romania. At that time, Ceausescu appealed not to communists, but to...citizens; to defend, not the Party, but the country. By the power of arms" (Goma, 1992, p. 54).

The origins of Ceausescu's "charismatic leadership" are to be found in the "late creation of the nation" syndrome -- as shown below -- and the fact that what was generally perceived as "proof" of his charismatic capabilities occurred at an early stage in his rule: Ceausescu came to power in March 1965 and delivered his most famous speech in August 1968. But one should be reminded that -- as Max Weber puts it -- if a charismatic leader "is for long unsuccessful, above all if his leadership fails to benefit his followers, it is likely that his charismatic authority will disappear" (cited in Bendix, 1973, p. 620). It took, however, more than 10 years for Ceausescu's charismatic authority to erode.

Following that August 1968 moment, a much stronger emphasis was placed on the ancestors' struggle for independence and their heroic deeds. The equation was quite simple: In the past, Romanians had to fight against the Ottomans; under Ceausescu, they had to oppose the Soviets (more obliquely, some references were also made to the alleged irredentist stances of Hungary). As Schopflin aptly puts it: "Mythic and symbolic discourses can thus be employed to assert legitimacy and strengthen authority. They mobilize emotions and enthusiasm. They are a primary means by which people make sense of the political process, which is understood in a symbolic form" (Schopflin, 2000, p. 89).

In Ceausescu's Romania, the resort to historical myths came almost naturally. From the very beginnings of his rule, Ceausescu displayed his appreciation for the heroic deeds of the medieval rulers of the Romanian principalities. Ceausescu's style of leadership was also based -- contrary to the leadership style of his predecessor, Gheorghiu-Dej -- on a systematic program of domestic visits in which he included regularly the most significant monuments and historic sites in the respective area (Petrescu, 1998).

In the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, Ceausescu began what can be termed "itineraries of national cohesion" aimed at mobilizing popular backing for the independent policy of the PCR. Let us follow thoroughly the unfolding of events. On 21 August 1968, Ceausescu delivered the "balcony speech" condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops from five "fraternal" countries: the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria. The next day, on 22 August 1968, the Romanian Grand National Assembly (MAN) was convoked in extraordinary session. In his speech in the front of the Grand National Assembly, Ceausescu stated: "In our opinion, a big and tragic mistake, with heavy consequences upon the fate of the unity of the socialist system and the international communist and workers' movement, occurred." Two days later, on 24 August, Ceausescu held talks with Yugoslav leader Iosip Broz Tito (Constantiniu, 1997, pp. 509-510). (Ceausescu had already visited Yugoslavia on 27 May-1 June of that year.)

On 26 August 1968, the supreme leader of Romanian communists initiated an ample program of domestic visits, and Transylvania was the prime target of his propagandistic efforts. During a single day, 26 August 1968, Ceausescu visited three counties -- Brasov, Harghita, and Covasna -- and participated in no fewer than four mass rallies in the towns of Brasov, Sfantu-Gheorghe, Miercurea-Ciuc, and Odorheiul-Secuiesc. One should note that in the counties of Harghita and Covasna, the majority of the population is ethnic Hungarian. It seems that -- following the lesson of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising -- Ceausescu feared in the days of August 1968 that the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia would stir unrest within the Hungarian-speaking population of Romania. At the mass rallies in Sfantu-Gheorghe, Miercurea-Ciuc, and Odorheiul-Secuiesc, Ceausescu ended his speeches by saying a few words in Hungarian. It was the only occasion on which Ceausescu strove to speak in the Hungarian language (Ceausescu, 1968, pp. 422-54).

With regard to the revival of historical myths in order to stir popular support for the PCR's policies, one mass rally was of paramount importance: the rally held on 30 August 1968 in the Transylvanian city of Cluj. That day, in front of a sizable audience, Ceausescu delivered a flamboyant speech in which he referred for the first time to the PCR as the direct continuator of the heroic deeds of Romanian medieval rulers such as Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), Mircea cel Batrin (Mircea the Old), and Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) (Ceausescu, 1968, p. 478). From that moment on, the cult of ancestors and the manipulation of national symbols became main ingredients of Ceausescuism. Ceausescu made appreciable efforts to lure Romania's national minorities and convince them that the PCR's minority policy was not aimed at their assimilation. A new series of domestic visits was organized during the period of 20-21 September 1968 in another ethnically mixed region of Romania: the Banat. On that occasion, Ceausescu visited three other counties -- Caras-Severin, Timis, and Arad -- and delivered speeches at mass rallies in the cities of Resita, Timisoara, and Arad (Ceausescu, 1968, pp. 506-31).

Ceausescu's posture of defiance toward the 1968 Soviet-led intervention in Czechoslovakia misled statesmen, politicians, and scholars alike. A keen observer of Romanian politics and society, Jowitt has defined Ceausescu's stance as characteristic of a "romantic (liberal) nationalism" (Jowitt, 1971, p. 286). In reality, Ceausescu's vision of national identity had nothing to do with romantic nationalism. He was aiming, so far as the Romanian majority was concerned, at a radical reinforcement of Romanian ethnic ties, a stance made clear by the launch of the so-called Theses of July 1971. The "theses" -- a rather brief document structured on 17 points and issued on 6 July 1971 -- embodied Ceausescu's rigid attitude toward education and cultural production. Ceausescu reiterated the main ideas from the document at a meeting of the party active involved in propaganda and indoctrination held on 9 July 1971. The "Theses of July 1971" represented a radical attack on alleged cosmopolitan, "decadent," or pro-Western attitudes in Romanian cultural life (Ceausescu, 1971a, 1971b). Equally important, they signaled a return to cultural autochthonism. After the launch of the 1971 "theses," the regime began to place a stronger emphasis on the writing of history, and the most important step to be taken was to provide party guidelines for the writing of a "national" history. Thus, in 1974, the founding document of Romanian national-communism was issued: the Romanian Communist Party Program (Partidul Comunist Roman, 1975). This official document opened with a 38-page concise history of Romania that, in fact, became not only the blueprint for a single, compulsory textbook utilized in every school but also the model for every historical writing published in Romania, based on four conceptual "pillars": (1) the ancient roots of the Romanian people; (2) the continuity of the Romanians on the current territory from antiquity until the present; (3) the unity of the Romanian people throughout its entire history; and (4) the Romanians' continuous struggle for independence (see Part 2 of this study).

When a senior Romanian party official boasted in a discussion with a foreign diplomat that "Independence is our legitimacy!" he really meant what he said (cited in Botez, 1992, p. 33). In the Romanian case, until the mid-1980s, nationalist hatred of the Russians (and subsequently of the Soviets) acted in favor of the regime. On a mass level, one of the lessons of national history was that nothing good has ever come from the east. For its part, the regime was prepared to nurture and exploit the Romanians' Russophobia, which, as Hugh Seton-Watson put it, "is second only to that of Poles." (cited in Vucinich, 1981, p. 9). This it did skillfully until mid-1980s.

There was, however, something that the regime could not predict: the ascension to power of Mikhail Gorbachev. After 1985, in the conditions of a structural, economic, and moral crisis of Ceausescuism, the launch of Gorbachev's domestic perestroika led to the emergence of a totally different image of Soviet Union and its leadership. "Gorbimania" started to spread among Romania's population, which was exasperated by the economic crisis and by the orthodox vision of socialism of the "Genius of the Carpathians." When Gorbachev paid an official visit to Romania on 25-27 May 1987, many Romanians hoped, in vain, that he might persuade Ceausescu to introduce some economic reforms. The result was, however, that the Romanians ceased to perceive the Soviet Union as a real threat to Romania's sovereignty; they were rather hoping now that Moscow might set them free from the domestic tyranny of the Ceausescu clan. In terms of nationalist propaganda, therefore, the key argument of the PCR's legitimating discourse -- i.e., independence from Moscow -- vanished after the inception of Gorbachev's reforms.

As a consequence, the regime was left with a sole target: the Hungarian minority in Romania. On 20 December 1989, Ceausescu stated that the revolt in Timisoara, which would spark the 1989 Romanian revolution, was the result of misdeeds by "hooligan elements, working together with reactionary, imperialistic, irredentist, chauvinistic circles...aiming at the territorial dismemberment of Romania" (cited in Perva and Roman, 1991, pp. 38-39). Ceausescu was hinting, among other places, at neighboring Hungary and at the Soviet Union. But the new image of the Soviet Union among Romania's population deeply undermined regime's propaganda efforts. In the late 1980s, independence from Moscow had ceased to be a major source of legitimacy for Romania's communist regime. To paraphrase the statement of the senior Romanian communist official quoted above, independence had ceased to be their legitimacy by the late 1980s.

(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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