Among Today’s Communists

My grandfather grandfather was arrested because he opposed collectivisation. Father had to flee the village and hide at a relative’s in Dobrudja. He was a law student at the time and was forced to abandon his degree. It was only years later that he was able to return to society and continue his studies, this time as a student at the Academy of Economics.

It was not until the beginning of 2014 that I was able to take part, as a photographer, in the commemorations to mark the birthday of the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. I had wanted to do this since 2011, but I had always been busy elsewhere on the day in question.

I was shocked by what I saw there and it took me more than a month before I realised that I wanted to get to know better the people who want to be the direct descendants of those who trampled underfoot the lives of my family and twenty million other Romanians. Ultimately, the victim in me could not resist the temptation to get to know the aggressor. And I could not have made a better decision.

And so it was that I met the tenth-hand communists, whose masters have left them not just outside the door but lightyears away from the post-revolution trough, people who have not been able to exist outside the old system of relations in their raw form, individuals who some might suggest have not been put in a mental hospital only because their behaviour is relatively placid.

I told them from the outset that I was going to express my own feelings about my experiences with them, but I promised them that I would also let them make their own voices heard. Nobody can present you better than you can present yourself.

Mankind saw the victims of communism and was unimpressed. The living presents the aggressors and let you decide whether you can identify with them.

Comrade Petre Ignatencu, the new leader of the Romanian Communist Party and a taxi driver in his 60s, did not manage to become a party member before 1989, even though it was his ardent desire. This could be a considered a failure, given that many Romanians were forced to become members against their will. For him, the collapse of communism in Romania a quarter of a century ago this December was a grave mistake.

For years, the former Securitate sub-officer has taken it upon himself to lay wreaths at the graves of Romania’s communist-era leaders, as well as visit the sites of key episodes in the country’s communist past to lay flowers. Now he’s hoping to officially revive the Party, with himself as the new leader.

Yet before they can do this they have to overcome the legal barriers; it is currently illegal in Romania to form an official communist party able to compete in elections.

Over the last few years a small group of Romanians, most of them elderly and some, like Ignatencu, former members of the security apparatus, have been pushing to reconnect the country with its communist past.

The group includes people like Gheorghe Zbaganu, a maths professor at Bucharest University who recites Cuban poetry, pays his tithe to the party and is a constant presence at events, Liviu Lungu, a 53-year-old IT engineer who moved to Australia after the revolution but returned to Romania disappointed by Western capitalism, and Gheorghe Ungureanu, a 75-year-old retired professor who previously founded a Communist Party that would only admit those who hadn’t been members of the party before 1989 (it didn’t attract many members). At best the group numbers three hundred people, with only a fraction of those turning up to events regularly.

In June, the group settled into their first ever office, two rooms donated to them by a friendly political party in a rundown villa in Bucharest; the group had been unable to afford the rent on office space before, which had impacted on their ability to gather and hold meetings.

At the inauguration around a dozen people attended. The Internationale was played, and pictures of Marx and Lenin were prominently displayed alongside former Romanian communist leaders Nicolae Ceausescu and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.

For most Romanians, Ceausescu and his wife, Elena -­ both executed a quarter of a century ago, on Christmas Day 1989 – remain villains who ruled over a dictatorial police state and put the country’s development back decades. Last year three former government officials, including Alexandru Visinescu, were indicted in Romania, accused of genocide related to communist-era crimes.

Yet for Ignatencu and the others like him the former communist top brass, especially Ceausescu, were leaders who ruled during a better time. The group see themselves as the continuation of the earlier Communist Party, yet they are not delusional, nor imagining a return to previous times; instead, they simply want to be able to have their voices heard.

“Romania claims to be a democracy but many democratic countries allow far-right or communist parties. Surely it is up to the people to vote for us or not,” says Ignatencu.

A few months ago Ignatencu sent a dossier to the European Court in Strasburg to contest the ban and be allowed to set up the party and compete in elections. They are still waiting to hear back.

The discourse of Comrade Ignatencu never ceases to amaze me. As if lifted directly from the old textbooks of political economy and the archives of Party congresses, this discourse no longer sounds as impassioned as it did in 1945, however. In his eyes, the Communist Party is inseparable from the State; it is the guiding force and the only solution for real progress that will lead to man’s self-fulfilment through labour, unlike capitalism, which is only interested in profit. People expect the head of state to solve their problems and so the communist leader must be invested with the necessary power to be able to meet this expectation. The leader must have absolute powers. The end justifies the means.

Comrade Ignatencu does not believe that property should be sacred if it prevents the Party from achieving a particular end.

The leader of the new Romanian Communist Party has three priorities in life: the Party, his work, and his wife – in that order. He himself says that, the Party forbid, if his wife should desire a different position in the pecking order, then she “would lose out, from the very start.”

Ignatencu even accepts the Party’s dark past. In his opinion, the Party cannot be held responsible for the crimes of its members. Not that there were any great crimes in the communist period, and certainly no crimes against humanity in his opinion. The communists were trying to build a new society and such a society couldn’t come about by asking people nicely, smoothly and without suffering.

But to give you an idea of what communism means, the following is from a discussion I had with Petre, on the subjects of children’s education and human rights:
“When you educate a child, do you ask him whether he likes it? Do you ask the child what he wants to do and what he wants to learn? That would be degradation. The child learns what you teach him, because you prepare his future for him. In his old age the man will be the way you educated him as a child. You educate the child. The child has to know that he is obligated to do what he has to do, not necessarily because he wants to do it. But in this country the wheel has turned, because up until 1990 children knew that they had to study at school, that they had to go to school, and that they had to work after that. What do children learn nowadays? They learn to get their own way don’t they? They are taught to phone the child protection services if their parents or teachers clip their ears. That’s what children are taught. They aren’t taught to be civilised.
Nobody lays a finger on children who are educated at school and are civilised. It’s the hooligans who don’t want to learn who get punished. What are you supposed to do with a child who doesn’t want to learn? Just leave him like that? He’s the one who will end up hitting you on the head. You’re obligated to use less orthodox means. When a mother beats her child she doesn’t do it because she doesn’t love him. She beats him because he’s cheeky, because he doesn’t do as he’s told. A child also needs to learn the meaning of fear…”

He’s right: we all knew the meaning of fear, thanks to the repressive apparatus of the Communist Party, fear of informers and fear of those in charge. That fear left us without any backbone; it paralysed us for at least four generations. It taught us to live with our heads bowed, and that’s why many of us even today don’t know that there is a sky above, the sun and the stars.

“Socialism was defeated in the region, at least in Russia, because it lost the media war. The communists were presented as evil. They go on about human rights, but I’ve never heard them say what human rights. What rights? The right to a fair trial? The right to health? Once I had an argument with a citizen who said he got arrested for just talking. How about that! You talked? Did anybody stop you talking? Of course not. They arrested you because you said what you weren’t supposed to. We have to draw the distinction. Because otherwise nobody would have punished you for it. Those were the rules. Ceausescu was a stickler for the law. He didn’t do anything unless he was legally covered for it. But now they say he was a dictator. The real dictator is the one who does whatever he likes.”

He’s right there, too: the communists didn’t kill you for just talking, but for what you said. Nothing could be truer. The communists let you talk, as long as you said what they wanted to hear. Freedom of speech was the freedom to express the will of the Party, but such nuances are too subtle for Comrade Ignatencu. With reference to the famous Leninist dictum: “If you are unable, we will help you, if you do not know, we will teach you, if you do not want to, we will force you,” Comrade Ignatencu asks, rhetorically: “How was the Party to blame if eighty percent of the Romanian population put the communists in the position of having to force them? But they forced them to do good, to learn, to be disciplined. And the ones who opposed, the ones who shirked, were sent to the Canal, to Gherla Prison.”

My grandfather opposed and he ended up in a communist prison. Whatever Comrade Ignatencu might say, I don’t believe that my grandfather forced the Communist Party to take away his freedom.

Petre Tutea, a famous Romanian philosopher, once said: “With your left hand, you can’t even make the sign of the cross, let alone run a country.”

I say that there is no greater crime than to forbid a man from achieving his maximum
potential just because society decides for him how much he needs and above all how much he is allowed to want.

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