Skip to content
Review October 2023

An overview of post-communist Romania

Review by Claudia-Florentina Dobre
Edited by Liliana Corobca, 2022
ISBN 9789734691845
1056 Pages
Published by: Polirom
Fortepan / Dőri fotó Kolozsvár

Panorama postcomunismului în România is a sequel to another Panorama, that of communism in Romania. The two books share many similarities as they deal with the same topics: economics, state policies, religion, laws, demography, social phenomena, culture, sports, and so on. By exploring similar themes, the new project coordinated by Liliana Corobca emphasizes a certain continuity between communism and post-communism. This observation is one of the volume’s major contribution to the study of the period, which began on 22 December 1989, the day Ceausescu left, physically, the center of the power, the headquarters of the communist party in Bucharest, and ends in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world. 

The book opens with a discussion about the fall of the Ceausescu regime and the rise of civil society in Romania. Alexandru Gussi outlines the continuities between the fallen regime and the post-communist one, established after the execution of the Ceausescu couple: a continuity of people, structures, and mentalities. Some continuities are detectable even today, 33 years later, especially those concerning people (in politics), discourse (the nationalist narrative), and behaviors (corruption). These continuities are detectable also in the arts (especially in the 1990s), as pointed out by Cosmin Năsui in his retrospective on Romanian art in the last 30 years, in higher education and research as shown by Dumitru Tucan, and most notably in the organization and functioning of the Romanian Orthodox Church. 

As a conservative, traditional institution, the Romanian Orthodox Church did not witness any changes in its functioning and religious hierarchy until the late 1990s. Despite this static state of affairs, in the first post-communist decade, the Orthodox Church was greatly appreciated by believers and invested with confidence by 80-90% of Romanians. The situation changed in the next decades, when, due to new attitudes towards faith and the new expectations of the believers, trust in the Orthodox Church diminished drastically, as Cristian Vasile points out in his chapter on the Orthodox Church in the post-Communist period. Vasile underlines the fact that Romanian Orthodoxy, although prominent, struggled to be recognized as a “national church” and has failed due to several controversies related to its finances, its political affiliations and its shadowy communist past, as well as to its attempts to crush the other “national church”, the Uniate Church of Romania. 

The Orthodox Church’s conservative approach to society and its issues was contested mostly by parts of civil society born out of the ashes of the 1989 revolution and its aftermath. The development of this civil society is discussed in several studies of the book, dealing with the proposed reform programme of the Proclamation of Timișoara (by Ruxandra Cesereanu), the protests of the Piata Universității phenomenon (by Corin Braga) and the organization of NGOs in Romania (Anemari-Helen Nițu). 

They took over clubs and football teams, driven not by love of football, but by opportunities offered in the 1990s to launder money, carry out illicit business activities, and so on.

Another characteristic of this period was (and still is) the control exercised by the former secret services, the notorious Securitate, over institutions, people, and social structures of the new post-communist state. In his chapter, Marius Oprea underlines the main strategies, points out the key figures, and analyzes the outcomes of this resilient and shadowy power.

As part of their program to control society, many retired (and some active) officers of the Securitate became involved in sporting organizations. They took over clubs and football teams, driven not by love of football, but by opportunities offered in the 1990s to launder money, carry out illicit business activities, and so on. Pompiliu-Nicolae Constantin in his study of Romanian sports after 1989 underlines this phenomenon, observing that the loss of state tutelage forced the sport clubs, federations, and athletes to adapt and to accept dubious practices (such as arranged matches), activities, and behaviors. Constantin emphasizes that the market economy and related public policies towards sport in Romania had a negative impact on Romanian Olympic successes. 

An important outcome of the control exercised by the agents of the Securitate and their successors over various areas of the post-communist society was the creation of oligarchic capitalism, based on networks and structures created by the Securitate in the 1970s and 1980s. Emanuel Copilaș shows how oligarchs used concepts like free market, privatization, and freedom to transfer state property into their own hands. The adherence to the European Union and to the European market as well as the development of digital capitalism has challenged this oligarchic capitalism, characterized by corruption, nationalism, and industrial production, opening the Romanian economy to innovation, foreign capital, and new developments. 

Through the adoption of the EU model, Romania was also able to overcome its historic social inadequacy. Public policies inspired by the EU and a commitment to implementing its recommendations modernized the social system while addressing issues of marginalization and exclusion from a humanistic perspective, in sharp contrast with the repressive measures taken by the state during communism. Elena Zamfir analyzes the various social programs implemented by different governments and their outcomes while pointing out their failures. She concludes that, despite all the measures taken to improve social conditions and to diminish poverty, scholars have recently noticed a polarization in society due to increasing inequality between the rich and the working class. 

Polarization is indeed a key concept to understanding post-communist Romanian society and several studies in this volume deal with this topic. Alexandru Radu states that, in Romania, political parties are not the result of genuine grassroots movements and/or group interests but a top to bottom enterprise. This has led to the creation of a sui generisform of political representation, which Radu calls “the entourage party”, a party structured around its leader and his (invariably) entourage. 

The cultural field of power was structured following a similar pattern, as Doru Pop argues in his study. Pop points out that ideas spread within Romanian post-communist society through influential intellectuals and their entourages, who create poles of influence through publications, mass media and the control of cultural institutions such as the Romanian Cultural Institute. He describes several such groups, sometimes antagonistic towards the ideas they promote, but always concurrent as regards resources and influence: those that debunk myths, the postmodern pro-European, the old-fashioned nationalist, and the anti-communist.  

Social changes mean that all these groups have lately lost their social and political influence, being forced to retrench into the field of literature, as Bogdan Crețu argues. He shows how the cultural field of power is driven by ideologies from anticommunism to old-school nationalism, and to neo-Marxism and its deviations. Cultural life, Crețu argues, is divided by centers of interests and relations of power characterized not by adhesion to aesthetic values but by ideological affiliation, which has transformed the literary field into a tribune for propaganda, and for social and political activism. In his view, the post-communist Romanian literary field evolved from the recuperation of the interwar golden age of literature, to over-sexualized narratives, and recently to a nationalist/anticommunist/neo-Marxist discourse embellished in literary terms and introduced to audiences as major literature.

The myth of the golden age was revived shortly after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, not only through the republication of influential authors from the interwar period, censored during the communist regime, but also through the return of exiled artists who placed themselves in direct lineage with the interwar important figures through their education, but also who presented themselves as role models fashioned by Western values, practices and approaches to art. Anca Hațiegan notes that in the theatrical field, the return of exiled directors changed the paradigm through new techniques, new subjects and new approaches to artistic performances. However, these changes were not sufficient to attract audiences, and the influence of theatre in Romanian society has diminished in recent years. 

The opposite happened with post-communist cinema, which gained momentum after 2004, with many Romanian films winning important international prizes such as the Palme d’Or, Golden Bear, or the Silver Lion. Doru Pop argues that the “miracle of the Romanian cinema”, to quote Dominique Nasta, is due to a new generation of directors, who, inspired by Romanian realities, created a new art form characterized by simple narratives based on personal stories combined with irony and strong personalities. 

The juridical field did not escape the struggle either, as Cosmin Budeancă’s essay demonstrates. New legislation was passed to undo the wrongs done by the communist repressive system. After the fall of communism in Romania, people who had been detained for their political views successfully sought a form of recognition for the suffering they had endured. On 30 March 30 1990, the Provisional Council of National Union, the supreme forum for governing the country at that time, adopted Decree No. 118 which aimed at “granting rights to persons persecuted for political reasons by the dictatorship established on 6 March 1945”. 

Post-communist legislation is also examined by Daniel-Mihail Șandru, who begins his analysis with the new Constitution adopted in 1991 and the role of the Constitutional Court in interpreting various laws. He follows this up with an assessment of the various juridical reforms and the quality of legislation according to European standards. 

the power to shape the city must belong to the people and that communities should be involved in managing the area they are living in.

Fair and good legislation as well as correct and just practices in the Courts help people and society to cope with the communist past and its dramatic consequences. However, it is not only legislation that can help, but also certain other non-judiciary measures analyzed by Lavinia Stan. She gives the example of the renaming of streets and localities, pulling down monuments, and public commemorations as symbolic acts, which played an important role in reshaping the public space of Romania. 

Architecture too plays a part in redefining public space, not only on a symbolic level, but also in a very practical way. Augustin Ioan argues that the power to shape the city must belong to the people and that communities should be involved in managing the area they are living in. He advocates for minimal state intervention and for the engagement of various social groups in the everyday life of their city, and of their neighborhood. 

Ioan’s vision of a minimal state is a program for a new future, where the communist past is finally dispensed with, leaving behind the post-communist endeavors, which shape and reshape society, the people, and the landscape. As my brief overview of this edited volume demonstrates, the communist past has hung heavily over society and had a negative impact on the post-communist period. 

This book sees itself as a useful tool for understanding the shortcomings of a system fashioned by the fallen regime. It would have been also useful to discuss (perhaps in the introduction) the term post-communism, its meaning and its time frames as well as to provide an overview of the main achievements and failures of this process of building a democratic, inclusive and prosperous society.    

Aside from these small flaws, the book is at times a much-needed introduction, at other times a valuable synthesis of the research, a handbook of post-communism, an era that is hard to grasp, and difficult to describe and explain. Despite this difficulty, the authors have succeeded in drawing a generally comprehensible picture of the period, outlining its contours while opening the floor for new research, societal and academic debates, and historiographical achievements.  

Claudia-Florentina Dobre is a historian and researcher at Nicolae Iorga Institute of History, Bucharest. She has conducted research on the memory of communism, on museums, memorials and monuments, on deportation, and everyday life in Romania during communism, on knowledge exchange and academic cultures in the Black Sea Region in the 20th century. Her most recent publications include: Fostele deținute politic și Securitatea. Studiu de Caz (Cetatea de Scaun, 2023) and Ni víctimas ni heroínas. Las antiguas detenidas políticas y las memorias del comunismo en Rumanía (Editorial Aula de Humanidades, 2022).