1989, Memory and Me

By Carmen Levick

RomanianFlag-withHole
Romanian flag with emblem of the socialist cut out (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Memories are funny things: they come and go, they seem true but you discover they are rather fabricated, they haunt you when you least expect it. A few years ago I embarked on a quest to piece together my own history and to outline a road to a truth, to my truth which, according to Jean Baudrillard, ‘has vanished into the virtual through an excess of information’.[1] What follows are my own, individual memories of the days before and immediately after the 1989 Romanian revolution.

16 December 1989

School holidays. It is unusually warm outside and my grandmother tells me that when the trees are in bloom in winter that means a new beginning. I have recently turned 14 and I am really looking forward to changing from a pioneer to a young communist because when you are a young communist you don’t have to wear your tricolour tie to school. I have been waiting for eight years for this moment and I cannot wait to go back to school! This must be the new beginning my granny is talking about! But we have to get through the winter holidays first…

17 December 1989

Exciting morning! I am getting ready to go out and get in the queue for my winter holiday presents from the Party. Every winter, just before what people in the West call Christmas, but we just call winter holidays, kids my age and younger have to queue in front of the universal shop (not the only shop in the village, but the only one where there is actually something on the shelves) for our yearly presents: five oranges, a piece of chocolate and a tin of Globus meat.

It is the only time in the year when we are supposed to see oranges and eat real chocolate but we live on the border with Hungary so it’s easier to get hold of this stuff during the year. I have been queuing for about four hours now and I am glad it’s not snowing. The queue is advancing slowly and this is usually a lively affair but today things are different. The parents who joined their children in the line are whispering. In the evening, Ceausescu is on TV telling us that hooligans in Timisoara are destroying the city but that he has everything under control. Well, that’s good.

18 December 1989

Mum and Dad start whispering too. I feel that something important is happening and I would like to know what it is but nobody is talking to me. I am not allowed to use the phone as especially today it has more ears than usual. We visit some friends in the evening and I finally find out that Ceausescu does not seem to be that much in control as he said on TV. Apparently people are dying in Timisoara and corpses are thrown into the river Bega and into sewage canals. But nobody has really seen anything as the city is in lockdown. People are making stories up!

21 December 1989

Ceausescu is back from Iran and a large assembly of people is brought together in Bucharest in front of the Party’s Central Committee building. We are watching on TV as he addresses the crowd from the balcony, condemning the hooligans in Timisoara and talking about our bright future. But something is wrong! We start hearing boos and Ceausescu is flustered. He stops talking and tries, clumsily and without success, to calm the people. Suddenly the TV programme is cut. White noise.

The following days we are glued to the TV. On 22 December, at 12.08 Ceausescu and his wife flee Bucharest. The army is firing into the people. Tanks are crushing people in the streets. But then, suddenly, there are flowers on the tanks and in the barrels of the guns and the army is with us. Hugs and kisses. Ceausescu is gone! At night people are still dying. Who is shooting? The army are fighting ghosts. But people are dying so somebody must be shooting. The night is lit by tracer bullets. It is Christmas indeed!

On Christmas day Ceausescu and his wife are caught. After a mock trial they are executed. It’s horrible they did this on Christmas day and live on TV. But we are still happy and go on with our Christmas dinner. Democracy is looming on the screen. We will have proper elections and it’s going to be so good. Like in the West. And hopefully now the Americans will finally arrive. In early January there is a small miracle: the shops are full of food and other wonderful objects. We don’t have the money to buy any of them but we are window-shopping and loving it. From here things can only get better!

PozeRevolutia1989clujByRazvanRotta02
Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca, of the kind of images remote from many but via TV screen. (Source: Răzvan Rotta/Wikimedia Commons)

This was my revolution: the way I experienced it as a 14-year-old. But did we actually have a revolution? Nothing happened where I lived. We watched all the gruesome stuff on TV. It was as if this was happening in another country, in another reality. It is almost impossible to try and piece together what happened that December in 1989. Subsequent representations of the Romanian Revolution have all struggled with the construction of their narrative and many of them needed to turn to surreal imagery in order to fill in the empty spaces between death and politics.

In his chapter The Timisoara Massacre, Baudrillard notes that many Romanian eyewitness accounts speak of being dispossessed of the revolution by only seeing voluntary traces of it on screen. They are ‘deprived of the living experience they have of it by being submerged in the media network, by being placed under house arrest in front of their television screens. Spectators then become exoterics of the screen, living their revolution as an exoticism of images’.[2]

While there was at least one factual event —at 12.08 Ceausescu left the building of the national parliament— almost everything else should have been questioned and challenged by us, the armchair revolutionaries. And, although at first we got stuck in the mirage of the image of freedom —which, if deep-frozen before, was now over-spilling its banks— the years following the revolution prompted an abundance of questions about truth and authenticity.

We preferred ‘the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real’.[3] But what was real? After the revolution, stories started to pop up everywhere: about what happened, who got killed, who escaped and if they were heroes or collaborators, who shot all those people, who were the terrorists? The more intellectual faces of the previous regime were now ready to take over and give us freedom and democracy.

One of the first plays to question the official events of the revolution and attempt a reconstruction based on the reactions of ordinary people to the events of 1989 was, interestingly enough, not a Romanian play but a ‘play from Romania’: Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. It was written in the first months of 1990 when Churchill went to Romania with a group of theatre students from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama to work with acting students in Bucharest and to try and find out more about the events of December 1989.

Structured in three acts, Mad Forest presents a before and after event, two weddings (Lucia and Florina’s) enclosing a rendition of what happened in December 1989, through seemingly unmediated (although English) voices of ordinary people, many accidentally involved in the events. What is fascinating about this work, is that even this very early play uses as a basis for its second act the narrative and imagery of the media revolution.

The characters telling the story: doctor, translator, housepainter, flowerseller, student, painter, soldier, Securitate man[4] and bulldozer driver, are all impersonal types, set against the main characters of the play, who give a sometimes painful but extremely visual account of the events. They piece together what everybody knows as being the official version of the revolution, with more personal, unseen events: ‘STUDENT: Then I saw students singing with flags with holes in them and I thought, surely this is the end’.[5]

Churchill gives voice to a Securitate man without turning him into a villain or a victim. Much like the other witnesses, he relies on the TV for his truth, which is now ruled by disorder as he himself notes: ‘Until noon on 22 we were law and order. We were brought up in this idea. I will never agree with unorder.’[6] His view of order and disorder challenges but also reaffirms Baudrillard’s conclusions about instating ordered democracy in Eastern Europe: ‘In Eastern Europe, where there was something (communism, but this was precisely disorder from a global point of view), today there is nothing, but there is order. Things are in democratic order, even if they are in the worst confusion.’[7]

Bio: Dr Carmen Levick is a lecturer in Theatre at the University of Sheffield’s School of English, having previously taught at University College Dublin following the completion of her PhD in their Theatre Studies programme. Carmen’s research focuses primarily on representations of revolution in theatre, Shakespeare in performance and physical theatre. She is currently working on a monograph mapping the performative representations of revolution in Eastern Europe, and recently presented a talk at the University of Sheffield’s Festival of Arts and Humanities entitled ‘Performing Stones: Memory, Forgetting and Communist Monuments’. You can follow her on Twitter at @Carmen_Levick.

Full photo attributions:

CC BY-SA 2.5 pl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1237708

Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca taken by Răzvan Rotta, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Photos_of_the_Romanian_Revolution_of_1989_in_Cluj-Napoca_taken_by_R%C4%83zvan_Rotta

References

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 54.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 56.

[3] Ibid., p. 57.

[4] ‘Securitate’ refers to the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania.

[5] Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest, London: Nick Hern Books, 1990, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 42.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 29.

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