Not far from the "Gara de Nord" (Northern Station), the main train station in Bucharest, there is a small house built for two families with a low gate. There is gardening equipment lying in the neighbour's yard. The "Andreiana Mihail" art gallery is squeezed into four rooms with white panels and a parquet floor. Kids are playing in the street outside. People are coming home with shopping bags.
Mihai greets us at the stairs. He has a gangly walk and a beard a couple of days old and a sweatshirt with a hood. He keeps his hands in his pockets. After studying art, he found work in this small gallery which displays the work of Romanian contemporary artists. Currently, it is hosting a monographic exhibit chronicling the events of 1989, the year of the fall of the Wall and the bloody end of the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.
“I was four years old when the revolution took place. Had communism not ended, or had the revolution taken place a few years later, I would have become one of those children, a small pioneer of the regime. It is a scary thought”, says Mihai pointing to a yellowed photo on one of the exhibition panels. The neighbors’ cat rubs its body against his shoes. Mihai gives an almost imperceptible smile and moves to the next panel.
“This is Ion Grigorescu's, an artist and a football player. A goal-keeper, more precisely. In his own way, he was a dissident even between the goalposts: he always had to tie his shoelaces there and he was always blocking absurd goal shots.” A long series of photos, contemplative faces, family portraits, all of them immersed in deep, unnatural sadness. Everything is embellished with road signs, primarily bans. “It was his way of saying that censorship was in everyone’s home, even in the most private places.”
From one panel to the next, art is being replaced by personal experience. “I adhere to the principles of capitalism. I think that everyone should get however much they worked for. My father is in the middle. He jokes about the past, but deep down he is nostalgic. We never talk about communism or the revolution with him because we always end up arguing.”
Twenty years later in Romania, the 1989 events continue to matter, to divide society and generations. The change of the regime in Bucharest was the bloodiest one in all of Eastern Europe. It began with street protests in Timisoara in the western part of the country on 16 December, 1989. On 22 December, Ceausescu and his wife fled from Bucharest where the streets were already engulfed in heavy armed clashes. Three days later, the images of their execution following a quick trial traveled around the globe. Ceausescu’s exit did not manage to prevent the deaths of hundreds of people, victims of clashes the real cause of which remains unclear even today. Many claim that instead of a revolution (or in parallel to it), there was a coup inside the communist regime.
No doubt there was widespread and visible joy. Then, the appearance of the mysterious ‘terrorists’, the shootouts, the dead, the ‘small civil war’ in the city streets naturally caused confusion. Even today, these events are still shrouded in a veil of mystery.
Mircea Vasilescu, one of Romania’s most respected intellectuals and political analysts and editor-in-chief of Dilema Veche, describes those days with a controlled voice, weighing every word. “Who caused the more than one thousand deaths which marked the revolution? Who were the terrorists? Why were none of them ever identified? There is no conclusion or official version of those events”, says Vasilescu.
The problem, according to the editor-in-chief of Dilema Veche, is that Romania has hidden or discarded of the evidence related to the turbulent days of December, 1989. Many other intellectuals share this opinion. The country has not been able to come to a common agreement about what happened, and varied and polarizing versions of those events remain. This confusion naturally impacts the capability of institutions to describe those events, and the communist experience overall, to the young generation.
In 2006, historian Mirela Murgescu conducted research on high school students which revealed two important findings: young people have a fragmentary and imprecise understanding of what happened in ’89, and the primary source of that information is not the school or the mass media, but stories heard at home.
“No one has ever come to us telling us: okay, now I will tell you about communism and about what happened in 1989. What I know, I know it not from school but from my parents.”
With his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, a goatee, and an intense look, Adrian is sitting in Herastrau Park, the “lungs of the capital city” located downtown. He has made an appointment with his colleagues from the Bucharest Faculty of Architecture to meet there. He has an easel and a drawing pad in front of him and has made several free-hand sketches with a drawing pencil. It is an extemporaneous lab for producing a different projection of the city and especially its public spaces.
“At times I think that in order to redesign some neighborhoods in Bucharest there is nothing else left but to start from scratch”, he says with a jaunty smile typical of his age. His relationship with the communist architectonic heritage is that of refusal. When he talks of Ceausescu’s mad project (which destroyed the most elegant part of Bucharest in order to make room for the monstrous Palace of the Republic which dominates the city with its blunt shapes) his eyes flash with an almost incredulous, strange shine. Adrian’s relationship with the present is also critical and distant. “Instead of thinking about the public space, the only objective of projects in Bucharest today is to make more space for cars.” When he thinks of the future, he has one single goal: to make his dreams and ideas come true, at any cost, here or elsewhere. “It might seem like omnipotent delirium, but I think that it is only in this way that I can also give something important to others”.
Present, past, and future. “Nothing is more precious than time”, he recites, quoting Goethe’s Faust. Engraved on a large gray flag, the phrase was also on one of the panels in the Andreiana Mihail gallery. “It was all over public offices”, Mihai told us avidly, “it was a way of glorifying the great history and, of course, of making Ceausescu feel closer to the people. In some way, however, my generation is turning its back on that history now. We do not want to see great leaders anywhere.”
Only people in their thirties seem interested in the communist past. These are people who have lived parts of their lives in the regime and who have some direct recollections, even if they are seen with the eyes of children. For “Generation ‘89” however, the 15 to 24-year-olds who, today, make up 17 percent of Romania’s population, that period of time seems distant. It is a remote past which does not concern them and about which they feel they do not have much to say.
Elena was born on 14 December, 1989, two days before the start of the street clashes in Timisoara which marked the beginning of the revolution. Both she and her mother were still in the hospital when shooting started in the streets of the capital. Her father came to visit them at the hospital carrying a 22 caliber in his pocket. Today, Elena is in her final year of high school. “Am I proud to be born in the year of the revolution? I don’t think so. For me it is just a year like any other. Who was Ceausescu? A political leader, nothing else. In reality, others decided in his name.”
For most young people today, the “Conducator,” as the leader of the Romanian communist party liked to be called, is part of a world which is distant, incomprehensible, and, in some ways, grotesque.
“My son, who is 16, laughs when he sees recordings of Ceausescu. He thinks he is ridiculous. 'How could that man be a dictator?', he asks me, both amused and in disbelief”, says analyst Vasilescu.
Even though they demonstrate an (at time nebulous) interest in the past, young Romanian ’89-ers are focused on their future. A long report produced in 2005 by a group of organizations working with vulnerable youth in Romania suggested that, despite the lack of specific policies for this population, young people’s outlook of the future remains positive. “Young Romanians are pro-globalization, also because they do not have a clear idea what globalization means. They love Coca Cola and McDonalds because they are American, and they perceive the global environment as a possibility for cultural, economic, and social gain rather than loss”, says Antonio Ciocian, one of the researchers involved in the project.
“After December 1989, our country was in constant transition”, writes Marian Rujoiu, the author of the report. “It is very difficult for young people. They have to get used to the competition and accept its values, but these values have already mutated because everything changes so rapidly. In spite of this, they express optimistic views concerning both their future work and social roles.”
It is enough to talk to Andrei, who was also born in the autumn of 1989, to understand this. Andrei has a blog and it is his great passion. During our meeting, he gives us his business card upon which is his name and, under that, the title “blogger”. His last comment is on a gaming competition and role plays. He goes around in a brightly colored t-shirt which displays his web address in large letters. “It is a passion of mine, but my family supports me and maybe this could turn into a job. Where do I see myself in twenty years? In my house, with a large family, and well-run business, in Romania, or maybe abroad. It depends on the opportunities.”
Meanwhile, easels, pencils and pads are being packed from the benches in Herastrau Park. Standing aside, concentrated on his project until now, Ilie raises his head and responds, after careful consideration, “You want to know if communism is still alive? It is certainly alive in the administration, in the sclerotic mentality of the bureaucracy. Just to be allowed to draw in public, we needed three permits from three different institutions. Sometimes I think the difference between capitalism and communism is not very big.” Continuing with his profound argument, Ilie says, “ today we are certainly better than under the regime. We are free, but if you ask around about what freedom really means, only a few will be able to give you a reply.”
“In essence, we could spend years and years chatting about the past, our parents, and communism”, Mircea interrupts him impatiently. He has bright eyes and a rebellious whorl which frames his young, almost adolescent face. “We are here today to talk about the public space.” He looks for a blank sheet, searches around in his cloth bag, and takes out a black pencil. He fervently sketches a part of a street with two narrow sidewalks on both sides and two people who have barely enough space to walk amidst an ocean of cars. “This is Bucharest today. There is no agorà. People do not have the space to have conversations. We have to go back to exchanging views.” However, when he is asked what specifically needs to be changed, his bright eyes reveal a mild embarrassment, a light sense of confusion.
Perhaps it is the confusion of the 20-year-olds, not different from the expressions on the faces of the youth watching in silence from their graves in the grand cemetery on Eroii Revolutiei square, which hosts the remains of those killed in the violent days of December 1989.
On every gravestone, there is a faded cloth with the colors of the Romanian flag and many flowers. Some women move silently between the tombs, bowed over the memories of their husbands, sons, and daughters. What were the dreams of those young people? Claudia, who has just turned twenty, cannot say precisely. “I do not think they died in vain, however. They tried to change things. The fact that change only occurred partially is not their fault. I can't imagine how their loved ones feel. They have asked many questions over the years without getting any answers. They should keep asking.”