In a memorable scene from the award-winning German movie "The Lives of Others," the head of East Germany's Stasi political police angrily demotes an officer who has shown traces of humanity, and therefore weakness, sentencing him to a career intercepting letters in the basement of the Berlin headquarters. "You will open envelopes at the steam machine for the next 20 years, until you retire," shouts the boss, as he slams his newspaper on the car seat before exiting the vehicle. The camera slowly zooms in on the date on the front page: March 11, 1985.
The irony was clear: the end of a regime that thought it would last forever had already begun, as the date of the newspaper marked the ascent to power in the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who would set in motion a chain of events ending in the collapse of communism.
As I watched the movie, I vividly recalled March 11, 1985, as I experienced it in another East European capital, Bucharest. I remembered the omnipresent cold, and the spring that seemed to have forgotten to arrive to Romania after one of the coldest winters on record. I remembered the coziness and warmth in the reading room of the American Library in Bucharest -- one of the only places where a student could escape the numbing cold of the dorms and the classrooms. The warmth there was not only physical, but spiritual as well, and it was well worth the risks one faced being seen entering the American Library, right across the street from the university building in downtown Bucharest.
That was the place where, on March 11, I heard from a fellow reader, a middle-aged Romanian who was leafing through "Newsweek," that "Gorbachev came to power today in Moscow and will replace Ceausescu with Iliescu" -- the man who went on to lead the transition to democracy. "Who is Iliescu?" I asked, baffled, as it was the first time I was hearing the name. The man did not answer. Instead, he smiled discreetly and continued leafing through his magazine for another minute or two, before standing up and leaving.
I left shortly afterwards. It was still very cold outside, and I shivered after the warmth of the reading room. But, for the first time in months, the sun was up in the sky, and I thought to myself that spring might be not too far away.
-- Eugen Tomiuc