Divisive Romanian leader who succeeded Ceausescu, 1930-
Ion Iliescu was the dominant political figure of post-1989 Romania, and the most divisive. For many, the achievements of his three terms as president (1990-1992, 1992-1996, and 2000-2004) – notably ushering Romania into NATO and laying for groundwork European Union membership – will always be overshadowed by a perception that he failed to follow through on the commitment in his December 1989 “Communique to the Country” to demolish the vestiges of the totalitarian state.
Trained as an engineer, Iliescu studied in Moscow in the 1950s and upon returning home quickly climbed the Communist Party ladder, serving as minister for youth issues from 1967 to 1971. But when he began to display what he has termed “a critical attitude towards the dogmas of the cultural revolution,” he was pushed out of politics, ending up in charge of a technical publishing house.
Iliescu (right) with Elena Ceausescu in 1976, before he fell out of favor with Romania's Communist elite.
His reputation as an outsider proved invaluable in December 1989, when the selling tide of popular protest that began with peaceful demonstrations in support of Timisoara minister Laszlo Tokesculminated in the arrest and executionof communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. Iliescu’s history of dissent from the ruling ideology and his solid professional standing were the credentials that catapulted him to the forefront of the National Salvation Front umbrella movement.
But his presidency began under unfavorable auspices. Throughout the spring of 1990, crowds of students and young people protested daily on Bucharest’s University Square, aiming much of their ire at the former communist officials, Iliescu above all, who had returned to positions of power. Iliescu responded by bringing in miners from the Jiu Valley to quell the demonstrations; they trashed public buildings and attacked protesters and passersby alike, on one occasion leaving seven dead and more than 1,000 injured, by the official count.
Iliescu publicly thanked the minersfor restoring order, and at the end of his presidency he pardoned one of their leaders, Miron Cozma, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1999. Public outrage forced Iliescu to revoke the decision. After leaving office he was twice put on trial on charges of genocide, instigation of war, and complicity to torture. In June 2009 he was found not guilty of all charges.
Iliescu’s legacy continues to divide Romanian society. Protesters heckled him with shouts of “assassin” and “Judas” during the 2008 commemoration of the December revolution and again on his birthday on 3 March 2009. Current President Traian Basescu has called his predecessor “a specialist in coups d’état” – an allusion not only to the controversy surrounding Iliescu’s accession to power but also the Romanian parliament’s failed 2007 impeachment of Basescu, which he blames on Iliescu’s Social Democratic Party.
Though he officially retired from politics last year, Iliescu maintains his voice in Romanian affairs politics through his blog. In a 12 October speech to the Romanian Academy, Iliescu took aim at contemporary national discontent, saying it springs from “the polluted minds of people with complexes” – people he said took no responsibility for the country’s political situation until after 1989, when it became safe to dissent.
On 28 November 1989, in the face of a peaceful mass revolt, the Czechoslovak Communist Party announced it would give up its constitutional monopoly on power. Two decades on, its successor, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, is the third-most popular party in the Czech Republic and has been gaining in recent polls at the expense of the mainstream parties, the left-wing Social Democrats and the center-right Civic Democrats.
Though still reviled by much of the public, the Communists wield sufficient support to likely prevent either of the leading parties from forming a stable parliamentary majority in next year’s elections. With young leaders such as MP Katerina Konecna, elected to parliament in 2002 at age 21, at the forefront, the party is working to burnish its image and expand beyond its elderly base, downplaying its association with 40 years of totalitarian rule and claiming a commitment to the values of democratic socialism. In this video report from the Argus, an online magazine produced by students in the ePhotojournalism program at Australia’s Griffith University, Konecna and other modern Communists talk about the party’s platform and its place in today’s Czech Republic.
Click here to learn more about the Argus’ Velvet Revolution anniversary project and view other videos about the post-communist Czech experience.
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: novelist Ivan Klima.
There are moments in history when a spirit falls down on the mob, and people are filled with joy and hope. It happens in every revolution. The feeling has no connection to the real world. It was the same in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution. There were even many happy Nazis. Continue reading …
What does it mean to be Czech today, two decades after the collapse of communism? That was the question posed on summer day to people strolling through the Franciscan Gardens in central Prague. In this video report from the Argus, an online magazine produced by students in the ePhotojournalism program at Australia’s Griffith University, Czechs from a variety of age groups and walks of life reflect on the state of their lives and their country in 2009.
Click here to learn more about the Argus’ Velvet Revolution anniversary project and view other videos about the post-communist Czech experience.
For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.
February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’sFrom My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’sThe Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.
Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.
This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.
The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.
With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.
Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.
In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.
Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.
“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.
“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”
The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.
Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.
“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.
“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”
INTO THE LIGHT
What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89
“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”
The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.
In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.
While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”
The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.
Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.
To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”
Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).
Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.
“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”
More than anyone else in modern times, he ruled Bulgaria. For three and a half decades from the mid-1950s until glorious 1989, comrade Todor Zhivkov, secretary general of the Bulgarian Communist Party, decided the fortunes of the country, and he has left his mark on it ever since.
Statue of Todor Zhivkov in Pravets, Bulgaria. Photo by Bruce McDon.
His aides say he collected jokes about himself; even if this is not true, the jokes were countless. They parodied his peasant background and folksy style, but at the end he somehow outsmarted people much better educated than him. Among themselves Bulgarians referred to him by the personal and quasi-respectful “Bai Tosho” or “Tato,” a fond diminutive for father. On 10 November 1989 he was sacked by his party comrades. The political jokes disappeared – and the transition began. Continue reading …
From 1967 to 1992 Monica Lovinescu was the inimitable voice that kept millions of Romanians updated on the latest cultural and political trends in the West and the dissident movements in other Soviet bloc countries, at the same time offering critical analysis of the myths surrounding the totalitarian regime at home.
After completing her literary studies at the University of Bucharest, Lovinescu received a scholarship to study in Paris in September 1947. Three months later the communists took power in Romania and blacklisted the works of her late father, literary critic Eugen Lovinescu. This led her to request political asylum, which France granted in 1948.
Numerous articles in European and Romanian-language cultural journals established Lovinescu as a prominent voice among Romanian emigres. (It also made her mother, still in Bucharest, a prime blackmail target. In 1958 the 71-year-old Mrs. Lovinescu was jailed for “undermining state order”; she died in prison after refusing to press her daughter to inform on dissidents in France.) Lovinescu’s standing rose further in 1967, when she became the mind and the voice behind the Radio Free Europe programs Theses and Anti-Theses in Paris and Romanian Cultural Events. Following in the footsteps of her father, well-known as a promoter of modernist literature, she would read from new work and review both underground and mainstream Romanian authors.
Disturbed by her influence and the authority she wielded in Romanian cultural life, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1977 sent two assassins to Paris to have her silenced (according to onetime Securitate chief Ion Pacepa, who defected to the United States in 1978). Lovinescu recalled that two masked men savagely beat her in the courtyard of her house, leaving her unconscious. She returned to her listeners after five days in the hospital.
After the overthrow of Ceausescu, Lovinescu visited her home country several times and in 1999 was awarded Romania’s highest civil honor, the Order of the Star, but she continued to live in Paris, where she died on 20 April 2008at the age of 84. Her post-1990 published works include radio scripts, a novel, two volumes of autobiography, and six volumes of a diary, which raised a stir in Romania over her intransigent judgments of important cultural figures and her disenchantment with post-revolutionary times.
Lovinescu courted controversy again in a 2002 magazine interview in which she offered barbed criticism of former dissident intellectuals who she said should have gotten more involved in Romanian politics after 1989. She took aim what she considered a thriving “Homo Sovieticus” mentality in Romania and the pervasive nostalgia for a communist-era “golden age,” and decried the country’s failure to hold a Nuremberg-style trial of communist leaders. “The only solid base for change is one of mentalities,” she said. “Without that, even the few good things that have been done are built on quicksand.”
Will Rogers’ quip about statistics being less trustworthy than damn lies could apply equally well to opinion polls. Or rather, to the use of poll data by their most avid consumers, the media. Poll results, nicely tabulated and presented in bite-sized, quasi-scholarly chunks, are often reprocessed by harried journalists into quick news articles, not to speak of editorials.
Widely reported in the days leading up to the big Berlin Wall anniversary, a large regional opinion survey appears to back up a number of popularly held notions about attitudes toward democracy, market economics, and life in general in Central and Eastern Europe since the upheavals of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Continue reading …
People in downtown Sofia were just going out for lunch, when an unusual happening made them turn their heads in surprise. At 1 p.m. on 27 October a strange crowd invaded the small square in front of the National Theater. High level politicians, leaders of Bulgaria over the last 20 years, flocked there in numbers – prime ministers, speakers of parliament, vice premiers, even one president.
In the transition period after communism’s demise, they were furious opponents. Former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov of the right had clashed with former Speakers Georgi Pirinski and Blagovest Sendov of the left, as well as fellow party members Stefan Sofianski, a former prime minister himself, and former Vice Premier Evgeny Bakardjiev (who in turn used to quarrel between themselves). Paradoxically, former king and Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg met more friends among the leftist politicians than among the rightists. His former chief security boss was there as well – and he was none other than Boyko Borisov, the current prime minister. Next to him stood Zhelyu Zhelev, the founder of the Union of Democratic Forces and the first democratically elected president. He had had his own difficulties with all of the leaders mentioned above.
Yet they gathered to open the exhibition 20 Years in 60 Photos, organized by the EU Commission representation and BTA, Bulgaria’s state news agency. The ceremony was short and to the point. Then the leaders paused for a family photo. Continue reading …
The last time the Polish farmers’ unions managed to make headlines was last year, when one of the most radical announced a “warning protest” of 3,000 farmers in Warsaw against the “critical situation” in Polish agricultural and rural areas. When the day of the protest arrived, however, the number of protesters had dwindled to a mere 1,000.
It was a far cry from the early 1990s, when protests led by Andrzej Lepper paralyzed Poland, as he led farmers to block roads. Populism calculated to gain the support of rural and small-town Poland later elevated Lepper to the posts of deputy speaker of the Polish parliament, deputy prime minister, and minister of agriculture.
In retrospect it looks as if Lepper’s rise was the swan song of populists’ efforts to build their support on the parlous situation of Poland’s rural communities. Continue reading …