For the past twenty-three years, Romanians have been suffering of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The fact that it was not recognized as such made it challenging to properly engage with its causes and deal with its symptoms. Described as a medical condition occurring “after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened” (WebMD), in Romania’s case the PTSD was caused by Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal personal dictatorship. As that took place at national level and made the disorder a social phenomenon, it could be re-labeled in this case as Group Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (GPTSD). Romanians are not, by any means, the first nation to deal with GPTSD, although I am not aware of any other commentators who used a similar term. Postwar Germany and Japan, for instance, dealt with these issues after being defeated in WWII.
Romania’s special case within the former Eastern European communist block as the most violent personal dictatorship has never been formally identified as national trauma by the country’s new political leadership, which was more interested in installing itself in power and perpetuating the tools of oppression through different means than its predecessors. As a consequence, Romanians were not educated about how to understand themselves as victims of abuse and did not engage with that traumatic experience in a healthy way. While they displayed all the symptoms of PTSD, “shock, anger, nervousness, fear, and even guilt” (WebMD), Romanians re-directed that energy and dealt with the trauma as a loss. The history of post-communist Romania is thus an open book for Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.
Romanians are still heavily traumatized by their communist dictatorship experience, which ended shamefully with Nicolae Ceausescu’s last years of apotheotic personal dictatorship and madness. Humiliated, lacking the most elementary freedoms, forced to run famished
from one food line to another, over time Romanians got used to not be respected as human beings, as political subjects, as members of the civil society. Submitted to systematic ideological rape, whacked brutally over the head every time they tried to stick it out and be different, twenty some million people were transformed into psychological masochists, trained to enjoyed ideological and physical traumas. After all, how did it matter that, stuck as they were in their crammed apartment buildings, they could only get hot water two, three days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 6 to 10 pm (not that they could count on any schedule to be respected so they could at least plan accordingly.—Time control, as was brilliantly shown by Katherine Verdery in the chapter “The ‘Etatization’ of Time in Ceausescu’s Romania” of her 1996 What Was Socialism and What Comes Next?, being one method through which the regime aimed to control the population—)? Who cared that the regime’s scientists had decided how
much meat, how many eggs, how many ounces of sugar, flour, oil, and even bread the population was allowed to eat per month and they had even issued ratio cards to make sure that no one had more than the scientifically prescribed portions (that is, if you didn’t have the right connections within the state-owned food distribution system or you didn’t become a black market customer)? Whose problem it was that although they lived in an agricultural country Romanians could not buy decent fruit and vegetables, and what they could find for sale was dirty, half rotten, or rejected for export, but deemed
satisfactory for domestic consumption? For whom did it matter that one of the major events of every evening was the electricity being turned back on after hours of cooking, eating, doing homework or playing in the darkness, and that children even had a verse they chanted for the occasion: A venit curentul, baba cu patentul./The old lady with the pliers, brought back the electric wires? After all, the brilliant leader, as he was called by the state mass media, had committed to pay the country’s external debt to make sure that no other government could ever interfere in Romania’s affairs and, God forbid!, force it out of its isolation and despotism.
For four and a half decades of communist dictatorship, Romanians got used slowly, but inevitably, to being victimized, taunted, and tormented. And, like a drug, they became addicted to abuse. That is why the Revolution of December 1989 took them somewhat by surprise. They took themselves by surprise with the courage to stand up to their oppressor, a courage they did not believe themselves to still have. But, as it turns out, they were not prepared to be freed from abuse, leave behind the perpetual victim status and shake off the inept political system and its mediocre leader.
In her 1969 seminal work On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross determined the five stages of grief. Without occurring in a particular order, she usually described them as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Unable to articulate their trauma for what it was, and deprived of a real lustration law until 2012—twenty years too late—which would have allowed for the healing to begin, Romanians confused their national trauma for loss. The loss of abuse. The Kübler-Ross model allows us point out the steps to healing.
The first stage was anger. Throughout the 90s, Romania was a gunpowder barrel. The opponents of the first democratically-held elections in May 1990 occupied the University Square in downtown Bucharest to protest against the newly-elected government and president of the country in an attempt to denounce them for their privileged positions under the communist regime. They asked for a lustration law immediately and for the elimination of all former communist party members from public life. They asked for a national trial of communism and its crimes, a feat which Ceausescu’s military court and execution did not achieve, and which is still a desideratum for many Romanians today. For some two months students, opposition party leaders, journalists, and artists demonstrated peacefully against the government, recognizing that those who voted for the same names and faces they knew from before did not understand what it meant to be able to express your opinion freely, that they were still unconsciously trapped in the victim mentality and unable to make a different choice. The demonstration in the University Square represented one of the first attempts at the health of the nation. It was, however, brought to a violent end by the president elect Ion Iliescu who called upon the country’s miners to help “clean up” Bucharest of “fascists” and “drug users,” and “protect the victory of the December 1989 Revolution,” in a discourse reminiscent of his 1950s Moscow education as a communist activist. The miners came, and with righteous Bolshevik anger, punished everyone they could get their hands on: opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, university professors. They pillaged, burned, stole and raped. Ion Iliescu has never answered for the six deaths and the 700 wounded in June 1990 and he never took responsibility for his acts.
And the violence continued throughout the first half of the 1990s. It took varied forms. In Transylvania, Romanian-Hungarian inter-ethnic tensions, kept under artificial control by the communist regime for years, exploded resulting in an outpouring of pent-up ethnic hatred. In Southern Romania, ethnic Roma clashed with Romanians on various occasions. In parallel, a national angry reaction to everything perceived as a symbol of the forcefully-imposed values was directed against patriotism, voluntary work, social involvement, and care for fellow humans and for community. The results of that national anger are still visible today.
It was that anger that led to the installation in power of a postcolonial governance, led by former second-echelon communist
party leaders, such as regional organization secretaries, military and secret service officers hungry for power and material benefits and ready for payback, and managers of state companies turned capitalists who got first dibs on the privatization of the few profitable enterprises of Ceausescu’s moribund and monstrously anachronistic industry and became millionaires. In short, the anger of the populace, together with its inability to see through a different type of ideological manipulation, perpetrated openly, through mass media, allowed for the Revolution profiteers to take over.
Unable to devise and apply any other leadership practices than the ones that they had learned as apprentices and servants of their former masters, Romania’s “new” political class installed a postcolonial system, thus continuing the practices of the ancien régime. In the long run, that gave the political observers the impression that the December 1989 street demonstrations against Ceausescu and communism were not spontaneous after all, but the workings of a coup d’état conspiracy. It was Romania’s postcolonial regime that permitted and legitimized corruption at all levels, refused to adopt lustration laws, empowered profiteering and theft and established a rotten oligarchy very much alive today.
Romania’s postcolonialism lasted for about a decade, until 2000, and encompassed Ion Iliescu and Emil Constantinescu’s presidential mandates. Despite the fact that he was a president elected by the democratic opposition, Constantinescu was only able to prove once again that Romanians were tributaries to an authoritarian state of mind. Undoubtedly animated by the desire to change the country’s political spectrum, the opposition came into power in 1996 without the slightest idea of how to govern outside the structure imposed by the communist regime and perpetuated by their continuators, the Social Democratic Party of Romania (today, the Social Democratic Party), from 1990 on. Once elected, the Christian Democrats and the National Liberals strengthened the country’s postcolonial system and continued to lead it the same way as before, authoritatively.
Around the year 2000, Romanians moved away from the anger stage and entered a combined stage of denial and bargaining. It was at this point that the voice of the young intelligentsia was heard for the first time, when the ideological possibility of social capitalism came to fore, and when the long debated and delayed attempts to address the issue of the crimes of the communist regime were finally beginning to take shape. The bargaining stage came to a rather abrupt and irreversible end in 2007, when Romania, still suffering and unsure of its place in the world, joined the European Union. The dialog within the civil society was replaced by legislation directives from Brussels, freedoms barely understood had to be given up and with them the chance to develop a way to think critically about individual rights, multinational corporations and overbearing state systems. Romanians joined the EU full of hope and good intentions, determined to heal themselves from decades of oppression, meet the expectations of their rich partners and change themselves in a competitive, prosperous European nation. Unfortunately, they found themselves in a federative system that was not really federal, in a legislative system where the laws were adopted not with their needs in mind, but which they were obligated to follow nonetheless despite the fact that they did not have the same rights and benefits like the citizens of the countries that are the de facto leaders of the Union.
Denial, however, continues to this day. Romanians are still unable to admit to themselves that the absurd system they had to live through was, for all intents and purposes, abusive. They refuse to accept that fact and hang on to the idea of loss, deploring the “good times” of the regime. Rather than looking in the mirror and spelling out the enormity that dominated their lives for so long, and understanding themselves for what they really are: victims of ideological rape at national level, Romanians are electing to identify with their abuser, call the dictator “the best leader of postwar Romania,” elevate him at rank of saint and martyr and organize pilgrimages to his grave. They are always ready to argue with whoever dares remind them how hard it was to live in an ideological cage, how humiliating to be afraid of neighbors and family members, how desperate to see no future in sight. They reply invoking happy memories of childhood, adolescence, youth, and forgetting that time not only heals everything, but also alters memory and helps remember only good things. But when happy childhood remembrances push aside the arrests, the forced labor in the fields, the dissidents, the labor camps, the interdiction to travel abroad forgetting is akin to sin. Forgetting opens the door to history repeating itself.
After twenty-three years of post-communism lived in misery, six years after joining the European Union, and when their status as second-class citizens of the exclusive Benelux countries club seems to become reality, Romanians are dealing with the depression stage. National depression. Most don’t believe in anything anymore, don’t see a future and lost all hope that Romania will ever be a normal country again. It is true that in the past few months there have also been signs of acceptance: civil society revival is visible aided by a better assessment of Romania’s long years of Soviet military and ideological occupation, people’s engagement with the political class is different, and national pride is returning. But the national psyche is still far from healing. It’s difficult to predict how long the depression stage will last and how it will end, especially since it coincides with a prolonged period of global economic instability, which always ends up breeding nationalism. Only when they will go through the depression stage, will Romanians be capable to accept their status as abuse victims, understand better what happened to them as a nation from 1946 until 1989, and finally move on. Until then, their national (Group) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms will continue.