Book Review: Repression, Resistance and Collaboration in Stalinist Romania 1944–1964: Post-communist Remembering

Monica Ciobanu. Repression, Resistance and Collaboration in Stalinist Romania 1944-1964: Post-communist Remembering. Routledge, 2021.

Romania’s protracted process of coming to terms with the communist past has been riddled with a multiplicity of memorial conundrums. Several questions continue to linger unanswered long after the country’s transition to democracy was proclaimed as completed in 2007 (when Romania joined the European Union). Was the nearly half of century of communism in Romania a traumatic experience endured at the national level? Or was it a modernizing project based on constructing an egalitarian republican society in an autonomous nation-state? And if the former perspective is embraced, how can a clear demarcation distinguish the victims and the heroes from the villains and the perpetrators?

Monica Ciobanu’s book explores the competing memories of these conflictual pasts. Her reflexive analyses show that no easy, straightforward answers can be provided to these thorny questions due to several aspects: firstly, many of the victims of the brutal repressions unleashed during the first decades following the Second World War (1947–1964) were previously involved in the fascist Legionary Movement. Secondly, the communist regime in Romania endured long after securing its existence through repression. It was during the second phase of its existence that the regime co-opted millions of Romanians by providing the population with housing, education, work, and health service. However, during the 1980s, except for few privileged categories, practically all Romanians experienced chronic economic problems that generated material shortages. Due to these hardships, the great majority of Romanians have come to consider themselves victims of a political regime that failed to ensure them the basic standard of living.

Monica Ciobanu’s book constitutes a methodical effort at deconstructing the deeply entrenched antagonistic binaries underpinning Romania’s historical memory of the communist period. The monograph discusses how the politics of memory was contested among various factions, each endowed with their own historical experiences of communism, collective memories of the regime, and political agendas. Two antithetical perspectives on the recent past emerged after the regime change of December 1989. On one hand, the victims of Stalinist repression in the late 1940s and 1950s articulated a master narrative of communism as a national trauma. At the heart of this perspective was their own suffering in the gulag system, which was broadly generalized to the entire population and the whole historical experience of communism. Opposed to this thoroughly anticommunist perspective stood a post-communist view of the past that was sympathetic with the nationalist ethos appropriated by the regime during the 1970s and was thus reluctant to engage in a thorough reckoning with the dictatorial past.

In discussing some of the most sensitive issues of the “obsessive decade” of Romania’s Stalinist period (the 1950s), such as the infamous “Pitești project” of reeducation through torture and the celebrated armed resistance in the mountains against the communization of the country, Ciobanu dissolves the simplistic, but morally-charged lines separating the good from the bad, and the right from wrong. Ciobanu’s analytical approach focuses on deconstructing antagonistic dichotomies and reassembling them into contextualized pluralistic interpretations, and this is nowhere more evident than when she grapples with the victim–perpetrator duality. In highlighting the sociological reality of collusion, compromise, and cooption, as well as the conflicts and ambiguities intrinsic to living in harsh conditions within the communist gulag, Ciobanu humanizes the heroes of Stalinist Romania by showing their human weaknesses and sometimes questionable political commitments. More controversially, this approach also led her to humanize the villains themselves by providing a contextualized understanding of the perpetrators’ actions grounded in their family and socio-cultural background.

At the core of her approach lies a conceptual model by which Ciobanu frames the dynamic process of memory-making in postsocialist Romania. Drawing on a wealth of sources ranging from archival materials through memoirs to interviews and personal communications, Ciobanu shows how the collective memory of communism underwent several distinct phases: during the early 1990s, the victims of repression were able to provide firsthand accounts and to publish the memoirs of their prison experiences through which they shaped the trauma-narrative of communism based on their personal suffering; this narrative endowed with pain and trauma was picked up by a second category of memory agents – members of the emergent civil society and reborn democratic parties – who made it their ideological platform for claiming political change and condemning communism. Finally, in the context of Romania’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic military and political structures (NATO and the EU), this narrative was appropriated by state authorities, which rendered it into an official master narrative expressed in history textbooks and formal ceremonies.

Exploring this sequence of narratives, Ciobanu unravels the politics of memory in postcommunist Romania by focusing on several themes: in the chapter dedicated to the “Pitești project,” she explores the brutal reeducation process that occurred in that place and highlights the moral difficulty of commemorating victims who had been involved in the fascist Legionary Movement. A similar tension underpins the celebration of the heroism of the armed resistance against communization during the late 1940s and 1950s. Going against the grain, in the chapter dedicated to the perpetrators, Ciobanu attempts to account for the horrific deeds of the villains of Stalinist repression. Ciobanu situates their actions in the broader context of a repressive regime and sociologically accounts for their deeds in terms of modest social origin, violent childhoods, the lack of educational opportunities, and political opportunism.

The penultimate chapter gives voice to women’s varied experiences of repression and shows how these were shaped by social class, which delineated between females including during their imprisonment. Then, the last chapter deals with the case of Corneliu Coposu, the charismatic figure of the anticommunist opposition. In an analysis focused on the morphing politics of posthumous reputation, Ciobanu presents how, after his death, Coposu’s political detractors stopped presenting him as a “dangerous traitor” and “a despised relic of the past,” and acknowledged his political legacy as symbolic for the postcommunist democracy.

In conclusion, Ciobanu’s book poses difficult questions about a haunting past. The answers she provides are just as disturbing as the questions themselves – and this is the greatest merit of this work. As such, Ciobanu’s monograph constitutes a morally uneasy reading that refuses the hasty gesture of condemning the past without comprehending its complex intricacies and moral ambiguities. It is, at the same time, a theoretically reflexive and analytically lucid approach that sets the ground for a contextualized understanding of a troubled and still troubling past. This is also a timely book: such a work could not have been written and published a decade or so ago. More than thirty years after 1989, the ideological passions surrounding the issue of reckoning with the communist past have somewhat relaxed in Romania. After the time of reckoning has passed, the time of dispassionate engagement and critical reflection has come. Monica Ciobanu’s book does exactly that.

Mihai S. Rusu
Lecturer in Sociology, PhD
Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu