The project “Transition Dialogue” gets off to a new start for the project cycle 2019-2020. More than 20 events are planned in Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia and Germany. experts from seven countries will analyse history textbooks on the periode of transition and give recommendations for civic education on methods and new approaches on the topic. More detailed information will follow here shortly!
Transition Dialogue – Konferenz in Sofia
Am 22. und 23. November fand in Sofia eine Konferenz zur Vorbereitung der weiteren Arbeit zum Thema “Transition Dialogue” statt – eine Kooperation von Sofia Platform und DRA mit Unterstützung der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (bpb). Von den Konferenzteilnehmern – Experten, Vertreter der Bildungseinrichtungen und NGOs – wurde erörtert, wie sich die oft traumatische Erlebnisse der Menschen aus den Transformationsjahren nach 1990 in den früheren sozialistischen Ländern Mittel-, Ost- und Südosteuropas ausgewirkt haben und auf politische Einstellungen und psychosoziale Verhaltensweisen nachwirken bis heute. Nicht selten sind sie eine wesentliche Quelle für die Rückschläge in der Demokratieentwicklung in den Ländern – weil der Wunsch nach Wiedererlangung von Stabilität vielerorts zur “Stabilocracy”, einer autokratischen Verfestigung der Machtstrukturen, führte. Das Thema ist eines der großen unaufgearbeiteten Themen der jüngeren Geschichte – und äußerst kontrovers zwischen den Ländern, aber auch innerhalb der Gesellschaften und sogar in den Familien.
Demnächst wird eine Publikation mit Analyse der wichtigsten Themen der Konferenz und Empfehlungen für politische Bildung unter Berücksichtigung der Erfahrungen der osteuropäischen Länder veröffentlicht.
Transition Dialogue – Конференция в Софии
В продолжение изучения возможностей развития диалога о трансформации с 22 по 23 ноября в столице Болгарии Софии состоялась конференция, совместно организованная ДРА и София Платформ (Болгария) при поддержке Федерального агентства гражданского образования Германии. Участники конференции – эксперты, представители педагогических учреждений, некоммерческих организаций – из стран Восточной, Центральной и Юговосточной Европы активно обменивались опытом о том, как в их странах опыт перестройки 90х годов, часто сопряженный с травмой, повлиял на политические убеждения населения и его психосоциальное поведение. Нередко данный опыт является причиной того, что стабильность в данных странах ассоциируется со «стабилократией», а также авторитарным укреплением структур власти, что неизбежно приводит к поражению демократии. Тема личного опыта перестройки и трансформации остается одним из очень больших, при этом мало исследованных вопросов новейшей истории. Даже при поверхностном рассмотрении заметно, насколько данная тема противоречива не только среди различных стран Восточной Европы, но и внутри каждого общества, и даже внутри семей, с личным опытом каждого члена семьи.
По итогам конференции в ближайшее время будет издана публикация, в которой будут проанализированы главные аспекты, затронутые на конференции, а также будут даны рекомендации по политическому образованию учитывая опыт стран Восточной Европы.
Transition Dialogue – Что дальше?
24 сентября в библиотеке Луизенбад в Берлине состоялся воркшоп под названием «Поколение Трансформации в Восточной Европе: Поколение неопределенности – Поколение недоверия». Данное мероприятие прошло в рамках проекта «Диалог о Трансформации» который является совместной инициативой ДРА и София Платформ (Болгария) при поддержке Федерального агентства гражданского образования Германии.
Эксперты в сфере политологии, молодежного образования и социологии из восьми восточноевропейских стран приняли участие в воркшопе для поиска нового подхода и методов гражданского образования поколения перестройки. Целью встречи явилась постановка дальнейших конкретных задач и вопросов для лучшего понимания актуальных политических позиций, гражданских знаний и возможностей людей, переживших переход к демократии в 90х годах в Восточной и Южной Европе, а также России и ГДР.
Были представлены социологические и политические исследования поколения транформации, ставшие основой для дальнейшего обсуждения формальных и неформальных подходов и других аспектов гражданского образования. Участниками была также подчеркнута необходимость такого обмена профессиональными знаниями для лучшего исследования и понимания процесса перехода к демократии с разных перспектив. Затронутые важные вопросы и темы будут впоследствии вынесены на широкую дискуссию на конференции в Софии (Болгария), которая пройдет 22-23 ноября 2018 в рамках проекта «Диалог о Трансформации».
Transition Dialogue – Wie geht’s weiter?
„The Generation of Transition in Eastern Europe: A Generation of Uncertainty – a Generation of Distrust?“ Zu dieser Frage veranstaltete der DRA gemeinsam mit seiner bulgarischen Partnerorganisation „Sofia Platform“ und durch Unterstützung der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung einen Workshop am 24. September in der Bibliothek am Luisenbad in Berlin. Die Veranstaltung wurde im Rahmen des gemeinsamen Projekts „Transition Dialogue“ durchgeführt.
Expert_innen der Politikwissenschaft, Jugendbildung und Soziologie aus acht osteuropäischen Ländern kamen dabei zusammen, um nach neuen Zugängen zur Erforschung der „Wendegeneration“ und davon ausgehend neuen Maßstäben für die politische Bildung zu suchen. Ziel des Austauschs war es Fragestellungen zu erarbeiten, die helfen die aktuellen Einstellungen, politischen Ansichten und zivilgesellschaftlichen Haltungen der Menschen zu verstehen, die die massiven Transformationserfahrungen der 1990er Jahre in Ost-, Süd- und Mitteleuropa miterlebt haben.
Während des Workshops wurden soziologische und politikwissenschaftliche Studien zur Wendegeneration aus verschiedenen Ländern vorgestellt, die die Grundlage für die weitere Diskussion bildeten. Die so erarbeiteten Kernthemen dienen der Vorbereitung für eine umfassendere Konferenz im Projekt „Transition Dialogue“, welche am 22.-23 November 2018 in Sofia (Bulgarien) stattfinden wird.
“The Generation of Transition in Eastern Europe: A Generation of Uncertainty – a Generation of Distrust?” This question was the main focus of the workshop the DRA organized together with its Bulgarian partner organization “Sofia Platform” with the support of the Federal Agency of Civic Education of Germany on September 24th at the Luisenbad Library in Berlin. The workshop was held within the framework of the common project “Transition Dialogue”.
Experts in political science, youth education and sociology from eight Eastern European countries came together, to gain new insights into the “Generation of Transition” and discuss the possible implications on civic education deriving from them. The aim of the exchange was to develop a range of questions, which would help to understand the current attitudes, political views and civic demeanors of people, who lived through the massive transformation of the 1990ies in Eastern, Southern and Central Europe.
Throughout the workshop sociological and political science studies from different countries were presented and served as a basis for the discussion. The core issues thus worked out will be discussed in length in a more comprehensive conference taking place in Sofia (Bulgaria) on 22nd-23rd of November 2018.
Two years of research, six countries, six different histories of transition, lots of shared stories and many lessons learned about democracy and how to bring about change. We are happy to present our Book:
The book is the final publication of the first project period of “Transition Dialogue” from 2015 – 2017. Project Coordinator: Christine Wetzel
About the Book “Mapping Tranistion in Eastern Europe”
“Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Expericence of Change after the End Communism”, edited by Louisa Slavkova, 96 pages, published by DRA e.V. 2017.
For a free printed copy please send an e-Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Table of Content
About the Transition Dialogue Network
Comparing Transitions: Challenges and Lessons for Civic Education
Bulgaria: Nostalgia on the Rise
Croatia: How to keep Talent at Home
Germany: A Tale of Two Generations
Dr. Judith Enders, Mandy Schulze, Christine Wetzel
Romania: A Missed Opportunity for Minorities
Irina Ilisei, PhD
Russia: Authoritarian Resurgence
Oksana Bocharova, Polina Filippova, Vlada Gekhtman
Ukraine: Transition Reset
Mihaela Miroiu (born in 1955), Professor at the National University of Political and Administrative Studies Bucharest, is one of the most important feminist scholars in the Eastern Europe. She initiated the first courses of Gender Studies in Romania, contributed to the feminism activism movement and published noumerous volumes on feminist ethics and philosophy. In the most famous book of her, “The road to autonomy. Feminist Political Theories”, she expounds the historical evolution of feminism and feminist political theories and most important, she explores the developments of gender policies in the context of communism and post-communism.
Irina Ilisei: What did the time of transition mean for the Romanian women?
Mihaela Miroiu: If we’re talking about a transition as a passage to something new, namely to a western type of society, a liberal-capitalist democracy, then we are talking about the 2000-2006 period. Thus, if since December 2000 we began the accession to the EU process, the whole 2000-2006 is a period of transition in itself. So we have a post-communist transition and a transition towards EU accession. That makes two transitions. Different things happened in these two transitions.
The post-communist transition meant the following things for women: First, the idea of gender equality, once promoted by communism, completely collapsed. Right after the fall of the communist regime the political representation of women declined to 3.5% at national level and 1.6% at local level. Therefore, politically speaking, women became completely unimportant and their interests weren’t represented.
What did the economic changes mean for women in contrast to men?
With the fall of the communist industry, specifically the state industry, the whole social network related to it collapsed too: the nurseries and kindergartens which belonged to the industry. This meant, most of the nurseries and kindergartens closed. The state’s support in children’s upbringing fell through. On the other hand, in terms of job loss, the collapse of the so-called “heavy industries” like mining, smelting, machinery, oil refining affected mainly men. Mihaela Miroiu:
The industries in which women worked, the “light industries”, like food and textile industries, as well as commerce and tourism which were dominated by women, were privatized. Therefore, women’s adjustment to the market economy was faster than that of men. Practically speaking, in this first decade, those who created that massive GDP were women. The GDP that women produced was then redistributed as unemployment benefits, compensatory leaves etc. to the men from the heavy industries. The women contributed to the GDP and earned money, their money were taken and redistributed to those affected by deindustrialization. Thus, they did not lose jobs or status, but they lost money. This is where the financial imbalance between women and men began.
You mentioned the low representation of women in politics. How was that felt in practice?
Politically, women were alone, not represented. Along with the transition towards market, the trade unions disappeared and their interests were simply not taken into account. As a result, women had no protection from any trade union whatsoever. The feminist organizations emerged later and they did not appear in order to intervene in the socio-political life of women but rather in their education, their emancipation, the civil rights, this whole process that, intellectually speaking, mostly took place in the ‘70s. At an intellectual, civic and political level, there were some attempts at creating a form of support such as the “222” group for political equality in the Romanian Parliament. There were certain programs designed to help them, mostly made by the UN. Later the first feminist organizations emerged and women’s organizations began to develop, but this whole movement did not, in fact, impact their political status and interests.
As a result, what we discovered from research, was a patriarchy-concept rooted in the minds of the people deeper than we ever thought. This is because in communism, in terms of private relations, nobody tried to change it. And after the fall of the communist regime the church remained as the most influential institution strongly supporting the re-legitimization of the traditional patriarchate. So this is what the women got: all they won was a lighter transition towards market economy.
Did the average women feel frustrated realizing that along with the transition they have lost the kind of equality that they were somehow having during the communism?
I think the main frustration – based on the researches I have conducted especially in deindustrialized areas – was that their men did not work anymore or that their men entered a huge work crisis and even an identity crisis, that what later lead to excessive mortality. Usually, when women loose work places, they don’t manifest extreme identity crises because their identity doesn’t revolve exclusively around professional identity in an “I either have that job or I’m nothing” sort of way. This was not a win for women but a loss for men compared to women.
The second source of frustratuion, according to my research, was the rather conflictual and merciless way of making politics – as women felt it. This alienated them from the world of politics from a moral point of view.
They considered that as long as politics can’t take a more cooperative and ethical form, they have nothing to do there. In a way, from all I have seen, women would be more ready for a stage of consolidated democracy than men through their male representatives. Sure, another frustrating issue is the already mentioned absence of support in children’s upbringing. What was there, was mostly private and pretty expensive.
What are the differences that you notice between the different generations of women – those socialized in the communist era and the younger ones who were socialized in the transitional period?
Now I will be talking specifically about a study which included 101 women from both urban and rural areas of the Hunedoara county, part of three main generations: one generation which we have called the “communist generation”, the one which lived most of its live under the communist regime, that’s my mother’s generation; the “transitional generation”, which is my generation; and, finally, the “generation of democracy” [those who lived only few years of childhood under the communism].
The Communist Generation: Greatfulness for Urban Development and Education
We worked with research concerning all three generations and we noticed the differences between them. The communist generation was somehow pleased with communism and the main satisfaction was the fact that they had access to education, housing provided by the state and services. Generally, because 80% of Romania’s population lived in the rural areas, they had little access to education [bevore]. They were very happy with the possibility of getting an education. They consider this to be the single most important benefit they got during the communist era.
In Romania, women weren’t economically dependent on men as the have always worked shoulder to shoulder to men: both in the non-monetary peasant economy and later when they all got a job in the communist economy. It took equally peasant women and peasant men equally and built an industry with all of them. So in this sense, the main reasons for their gratitude were education and the urban lifestyle.
The Transition Generation: The Change Maker who see nothing good in Communism
For the generation of their daughters, education and the urban lifestyle were natural things. Now the gratitude towards the regime is gone completely, because this broad access was already granted. This is where the frustration emerged from, as the majority of them lived their youth in the ‘80s, with the general state of shortage, the economic crisis, the consequences of Decree 660 (which forbade abortions), the complete absence of contraceptive methods and general a deep frustration with the state – given the fact that the majority of the population was now pretty well educated. This is the generation which found nothing good in the past.
On the other hand, it was the generation which had to make the first great transition. Most of these women had to become some kind of ‘Jill of all trades’, to be both the men and women. A woman must be able to support a family mostly on her own, since her husband is now unemployed and she has to work double, even triple shift to be able to make ends meet. On top of all that, one must change and learn new skills in order to keep up with the world in which they lived. In my opinion, it was a generation with a high endurance and a great capacity to adapt. For good or for bad, everything that has substantially changed in Romania [in the transition time until the EU-access] has done so because of the people in this generation.
The Democracy Generation: Nostalgia and Desinterest in the Rights Achieved
And then there’s the next generation – having nothing to do with communism or being 2, 3 or 4 years old when the regime fell – who thinks that life was pretty good back then because the state gave you a job and a house. There are all kinds of mythologies. If you ask me, I’d say: “If the state, after you graduate from univeristy would send you to the Pocreaca village [middle of nowhere] where there wasn’t even a train, would put that address on your ID and you were kept in that village like a prisoner with no house, no train and no possibility of leaving, was it better that they gave you a work place?” It’s all these illusions regarding what communism actually was.
But this is not what concerns me the most. What concerns me is the answer to the question: “If your husband would have earned enough so as you wouldn’t have to work too, would you have stayed home?” The answer of those in the communist generation and the transitional generation was a firm “no”. They couldn’t even imagine not being independent. On the other hand, many of those in the young generation answered “yes”. What struck me was a feeling of a backwards step in terms of emancipation.
How is it possible for the generation of their grandmothers and mothers to be so strongly independent while their (grand)daughters would willingly accept a state of dependence because it’s “trendy” or because it is a cultural model which they got from the fiction of some glossy magazine. I never quite understood this.
Of course, it is a very interesting generation from other points of view, but a generation which seemed less interested in politics, less involved in civic matters and with a tendency towards abandonment and dependency. This situation had both surprised and saddened me. I was used to the women in my generation, women who were strong, independent, autonomous, which involve others in the process of emancipation, which can’t even imagine not being independent. Back then, mothers and grandmothers were like that and most of them would choose that path. When you belong to certain groups where the need for liberation, for being yourself and being autonomous is strong, depending on a man wouldn’t cross your mind, but when you’re not part of such groups and you’re only connected to such channels which promote the Barbie model, or even luxury prostitution, the woman who managed to get her hands on a wealthy man appears to be the epitome of success.
Do you believe that the transition process in Romania is over?
Yes, I think it’s over and it came to an end in 2016 like it wouldn’t have considered it to be over in 2015. When you see what happened in 2016 in the old consolidated democracies and what foolish election choices were made by the people supposed to have a strong democratic political culture, like in the United States of America or in the oldest European democracy, namely the Great Britain, you start wondering where does Romania stand. And I want to say that as long as in 2016 Romanians did not elect extremist politicians. In terms of democracy, Romania looked a lot better in 2016 than many consolidated democracies.
Regarding the GDP, of course, we have a big historical discrepancy which cannot be overcome in a very short period of time, but which is not as big as it was 5 years ago or 10 years ago. I think we can safely say that Romania has a historical delay and has a hard time catching up but it now finds itself in the best situation possible in all its history.
So if we compare Romania now to its history and the Romanian democracy to other democracies right now, I am not pessimistic about it. On the contrary!
There’s another important thing about democracy: Romania had the most tyrannical communist regime in the Eastern Europe apart from Albania. It seems that our memory on authoritarianism is still vivid enough to allow us to have the antidote and to be very precautious when it comes to such matters.
What about the backwards steps on democracy that are made nowadays in Romania? Say, the attempts of restricting abortions, these being one of the main gain after the communist fall?
During the communism abortions were forbidden and contraception was restricted, this lead to over 10.000 women who died trying to have ‘illegal’ abortions.
First of all, from my point of view, any kind of criminalization or other ways of taking away freedom of choice are paths to immorality. Because in the moment, in which the decision of having a child or not, no longer belongs to me but to the state (because they decided to do so), I won’t treat this as a moral dilemma but a default answer which was forcibly imposed upon me, mostly by people who will never even get pregnant because they are men. Secondly, I think that if somebody decides that a child is to be born, then they must also raise it. If this person x, this woman x made this decision, then she must take responsibility for it. If the state made this decision, the state must raise it, if the church made this decision, the church must raise it, if the husband forced her to have this child then the husband must raise it.
To sum up, it’s not an everyday decision. It’s not “Maricica killed her baby”, but “Maricica simply couldn’t take the responsibility of being a mother, with all the obligations deriving from that”. I think that in whatever society we find ourselves in, be it one that overcame such a trauma, like Romania did, or one that didn’t, the problem is the same: who takes responsibility? We know that most of those who have abortions come from social backgrounds that imply little or no access to sex education and contraceptive methods. You’re taking advantage of someone’s ignorance or state of poverty to force them to have a baby but what happens to it afterwards?
How do you explain the fact that there are these backwards steps? Is twenty years after this historical trauma forgotten?
Firstly, I think most people don’t know anything about this historical trauma. Younger generations don’t really do about it. For somebody who was born after the communist era, slavery, feudalism, and communism are the same. These are things that they learn about but which have nothing to do with their lives nowadays. Nothing! Maybe their parents have some memories of it. The probability of a parent, especially a mother or a grandmother, talk to their children about this trauma is pretty low because those who have lived it, and I don’t know how many from my generation got away from the absence of this trauma, purposefully forget in order to get away from their own emotional burden or they try to avoid burdening their children and grandchildren with their stories.
In school, nobody teaches them anything about daily life under the communist regime and what the consequences were. So how would they know? This trauma will be gone with my generation.
There’s another important factor: the fact that it becomes a general trend in the world, the spreading of this conservative populism. We can’t say it is yet extremist but it is a populist-right which hates everything that is feminism, civil rights, equal politics and everything involved. What do we expect? What can we expect in the future? It’s a worldwide trend!
Considering that the situation of women’s rights in Romania was heavily influenced by the policies of other countries, do you think that the international trend of populism could have a similar impact on the situation of women in Romania?
Yes, absolutely. But I also believe that great powers have come to accept a way of thinking which produced leaders like Trump and which revolts against the issue or equality and rights as also includes xenophobic and islamophobic elements. The pro-Trump movement is an anti-feminist, against civil freedom and equal treatment, anti-foreigners, anti-muslim, anti-jewish, anti-everything movement. This is thes “menu” of this movement.
If this movement becomes stronger by day in both Western and Eastern Europe – in this particular case, what happened in Poland – this means that we should be very worried about this. This also means that it is likely that we, the others, haven’t yet found the right ways to make ourselves understood. Thus, hostility against people like us is high because people don’t understand us.
But I think here one must proceed with a bit more wisdom when it comes to respecting the choice of others. If I choose to wear a veil to signify the fact that I am a woman and I should cover myself before God and I choose to be a religious woman and a housewife etc., you, a feminist, should respect my choice. Don’t despise and disrespect me! In the same way, if I want to be independent, creative, autonomous or a globetrotter, respect my choice. Don’t create coalitions which are against me. I think none of us has come to really respect the choice of others. This has been achieved nowhere. We’re treating those, who are not like us, like they’re retarded. As long as we don’t make peace and we can’t say “this is what you’ve chosen, I respect your choice”, how can I ask for the same thing from you? Contempt towards those who have not reached your stage of development, that is having rights seems to attract the hostility of others and this hostility, if in an unfavorable context, can become so aggressive as to cancel all the rights that were won.
Do you see the political transformations towards democracy as inevitable?
No, this was never continuous. There are times in history when the good parts of people are supported in order to prevail and to make people more cooperative and trusting and this is when we have democracy. And we have times when mistrust, suspiciousness and envy prevail and become institutionalized and this when we have far-right regimes or fundamentalist regimes. As humans, we are the same people as we were 4000 years ago or 2000 years ago or 1000 years ago. Social arrangements, social institutions support if one part of us or the other to prevail. These totalitarian regimes bring the worst of us to the surface: hate, envy, hard feelings, revenge, the will to strangle the others because they are not like you. Democratic regimes surface cooperation and tolerance.
Did gender policies have any impact on the everyday life of women?
I think they did but in a silent manner. Right now, we have a little bit over 20% women in the new Romanian Parliament compared to 11% in the previous. It’s quite a lot. I can relate this to the high pressure put, even inside the Parliament itself, for gender representation ratios even if the gender ratios weren’t legislated. There was a pressure higher than ever before, and during an electoral year and this made a difference. Parties had enough political wisdom not to keep monopolizing available parliamentary seats with men. Moreover, there are now ethical, professional, and legal instruments with which women can defend themselves if they are being discriminated and the possibility of legitimate protest when gender inequality becomes serious.
Was the voice of feminism heard in the mainstream after ‘89?
Well how would we have all these policies, how would equality of chances be a constitutional principle, how would there be laws for this, how would there be laws to protect you against domestic violence and sexual harassment if this voice wouldn’t have been heard?
It’s not like they were gift from someone, of course it was heard! It is clear than within the European Union we are dealing with many countries for which feminism is state policy and that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s the case of Romania as well. The problem is that we don’t really rush to apply the laws we have or we only do under high pressure and a kind of pressure that must be internal.
And the power pressurizing for gender equality is perceived as rather external?
It’s not external at all. If by “external” we understand the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council only for the time when Romania was not a member state and all this was part of the community acquis. After this, the pressure for this issue
The interview was edited and shortened. You can read the full transcript here: Interview on Transition with Mihaela Miroiu_Plural Bucharest.
Interview taken by Irina Ilisei in December 2016
Translation: Vlad Costea & Irina Ilisei
The transition dialogues are about experiences and memories about the very recent history. For Ukraine, the communist past is a taboo issue, only fragments appear on the surface, but trigger conflicts in families and entire regions. Clashing beliefs about the past are not new and and have become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society – as you can read from the voices below. We were diving into the see of thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.
Voices below are taken from are discussion on the eve of 2017 in the Kiev “Museum of Dreams” – a museum that is exploring how the dream meets reality in human life. Could there be a better place to talk about the time of change since the end of communism?
How to Remember Communism?
Tatyana (born 1957): Communism was only good because we were young
“It scares me speaking with people who are 20-30 years old, and they tell me how cool it was in the Soviet time, how lucky it was, not such a cannibalistic time. I studied in Leningrad, and went through Moscow [in the time after the end of communism]. And I remember I saw happy people on Gorky Street. […] And when I hear of this young nostalgia, I ask again: “Wait, you are 30 years, how do you know what it was like back then?” I had a conversation yesterday. And one woman told me, “I understand everything, I understand, but in that time I was young!” – “Of course, that’s great, but the youth does not return. Do you want to get back to those circumstances instead?”. So go back to youth, yes! But it would be good if there was also a thing like the internet back then (all laugh). Because now I can go to any museum, walk around any city online.”
Victoria (1981): Things would have changed anyway – with or without the Soviet Union
“But imagine if it was the Soviet Union, but with what we have now. Perhaps the Union would rethink itself as a country. We are simply different, as a whole […]. Perhaps the Union would now have the same challenges, the Union would also change.”
Victoria (1970): You were not at the elections in the Soviet Union.
Elena (1982): I remember – caviar, music. Everybody went to eat there.
Tetyana (1957): Suddenly election results depended on the people’s choice
After 1985 my first impression – a congress of deputies. I was in Kherson and was walking along the Ushakov’s street. There were no mobile phones, but small receivers, that shouted out to the whole Ushakov’s about the candidates. People listened. They wanted change. Then they were all waiting. We then first realized that something now depends on us. We realized that the election would not be approved by a district committee member. It was great what happened that time. People listened and turned around.
We all love to believe in illusions
What would happen if people in 1914 would have been prepared for what would be in 1917? If people would have anticipated this terrible transformation [the tough time of revolution, shortage of food and civil war]? They probably also would have thought that this would be over eventually and all would be all well in the end. I also once had this illusion . Now I know that there is no stability – history never ends. Ludmyla spoke about absence of ideology. But there is a humanist ideology, we all believe in people. We all want a good world, warm and well for everybody. It’s also an ideology, but it is good.
Clashing values, clashing generations
During the discussion, a conflict evolved between two women – Victoria, born in 1970, and Ludmyla, born in 1981 – about the question, if there was a freedom of choice even in the Soviet Union. Was there really no choice in life (says the one born in 1970) or was it just convenient to deny the fact that there is more than one possible way to go (says the one born 1981).
Victoria (1970): “There are things that unite us with the European Union, but there are also our personal changes: changing of values, transition from paternalism to justice.”
Victoria (1980): “You talk about changes of values. What kind of values did Soviet people have?”
Victoria (1970): “First, this is Paternalism. The question of choice for them did not exist.”
Victoria (1980): “This is not a value.”
Tatiana (1957): “The value of the military communism and stability.”
Victoria (1970): “I mean the paradigm of paternalism. Nothing depended on you, they [Soviet power] could give something to you or not. You lived in set frames and they said that you should be comfortable within. This imposed value, which raised more than one generation. Now these people do not have these frames anymore and it’s not comfortable for them. For us however, the main sense is in that change. The more people accept free values, not the values of the Soviet Union, the faster our country will develop.
Ludmyla (1981): We did not just move out of a closed, capsular existence. We actually have changed the ideology [the whole framework of values, the political ideology]. I have no personal experience of living in the ideological space of the Soviet Union. I have not had time to put forward some unwelcome ideas that could be suppressed. I was too young, just 9 years old. Now we can choose freely. Our mission is to carry this memory. People are now developing a collective consciousness [on the past] and this can be dangerous because it can be manipulated.. We must remind people how it really was. The only task I see for the transition generation is this explanation.
What also makes me angry is when people say, that the Soviet people had to act like they did because they grew up with these values. That people had no choice. That is not true! It was just convenient. And even now, people choose what is more convenient – no influence on policy, not affecting anything. This is perceived also normal. This is a dangerous narrative: to tell people that they have no choice.
Victoria (1970) You have such a position, because you have not lived in that time. Today you said that at the age of nine you did not have to make a choice. You just did not see that the scope of available information was so very narrow, as you may not have been aware of the choices that you could theoretically have made.
The time of the 90s that you have experienced is a very different time. When you lived in Soviet Ukraine, you did not even know what was going on in other countries. There was no choice.
Ludmyla (1981) I think, that you just liked to live like that. Sit and wait that someone decides for you. It was comfortable for you.
Victoria (1970) You had no expectations, because you just lived in this system. You just didn’t know any other varieties of existence.
Tatyana (1957): Luda [Ludmyla], if you did not like the government and the system, you simply went to a psychiatrist.
(Ludmyla laughs) Yes, Luda, this is serious, you lived and you had to be happy, because how can a normal person do not like the Soviets? You were considered crazy if you did not like it.
Adrian Schiop (born in 1973) is writer and independent journalist. He published three novels and has a doctoral degree in manele music, a genre that is rather associated with Roma people and lower social class and rarely finds its place in the academic environment. Adrian has a fine anthropological eye, sensitive to social changes of the generations and on how impact of economic changes on the society and individuals. His latest novel ‘Soldații. Poveste de Ferentari’ [The Soldiers. Story of Ferentari], partly an auto-biographic story about a gay love, is taking place in Ferenatari Neighborhood – a ghetto of Bucharest that seems like stucked in the ‘90, a social universe full of taboos and complex social relations of what can be considered the periphery of the society.
When did the transition begin and how long did it take?
It took place between 1990 and 2007, it was transition until Romania joined the European Union.
And afterwards did you feel it was different?
Yes, the situation has certainly become more stable. Institutions begin to function… even the judicial branch begins functioning independently later… but you no longer get the same amount of rip-offs and scams like it used to, that’s my perception.
And to you the transition period is the time when a lot of rip-offs took place?
Yes, naturally. Industries of all kinds have been bankrupted and stolen. The whole communist industry was stolen. I mean, it was happening at all the society’s levels, from the highest to the lowest. A lot of people ripped off the state and bankrupted state enterprises for personal gains… simple citizens would also get ripped off in masses, especially in the early 1990s when people didn’t have the right economic education. Like that pyramid scheme which tricked people to invest money with the promise of getting rich.
On a personal level, how did you live during the transition?
In poverty. First of all, poverty… when I decided to leave for the New Zeeland, it wasn’t for being oppressed, or other social reasons, it was strictly an economic decision. Meaning that I used to work as a high school teacher, live in a dorm room in the campus… and I would live in that small room because I couldn’t afford paying rent for an apartment. Of course, I was also lazy because I could also tutor students and give private classes for extra money? My subject was Romanian language and literature. But I didn’t like teaching in private, so I had to live off the salary.
And back than there were that soft drink Frutti Fresh [fizzy beverage with fruit flavor, one of the cheapest of its kind] if you remember. I was already working for the fourth year as teacher. And everything was going down, less and less money, everything was becoming more expensive, inflation, whatever. The recession was at its peak, and the next year I couldn’t even afford to buy that bottle of Frutti Fresh. That’s why it was so much “fun” and I said to myself “Fuck this country” if I can’t even afford a shitty chemical soft drink. And that was when I decided to migrate.
That was the hardest burden of them all: poverty. On the other hand, everybody was equal in poverty. At least, as students. As students, we were all poor, very few had money. For example, none of us owned a car. Nowadays if you walk around student campuses you see lots of good and expensive cars. Back when I was a student, there barely was anything to create material differences between us. Students didn’t have cars, and only a few more fortunate wore better clothes, that was the whole difference. But since people didn’t really have money and we were all equal in poverty, we also didn’t have relations based on competition, you see?
During which period were you abroad?
At the beginning of the 2000s, I think it was 2001 or early 2002. What was interesting about it was that I left in what seemed to me as a maximum level of poverty, when it all seemed to go downhill in terms of living standards. And when I returned in 2003, thinks were starting to get better. People would complain “Oh no, it’s worse than last year” and I would say “Definitely not!”. That’s what leaving for a while means, you clearly and more objectively see the differences. I was away just when the situation was transitioning from its lowest point and facing an improvement.
You had an interesting perspective about Romanians, and especially immigrant Romanians from more developed countries, who aren’t critical at all about the situation of poverty. They consider poverty to be somewhat of a temporary situation and think that whoever is in poverty is guilty.
Yeah, they have this meritocratic discourse with slightly fascist ideas, some sort of social fascism. But in reality they have no empathy or considerations for the poor, and generally it still is a problem in Romania. This is also a problem that wasn’t overcome yet. And the reason it wasn’t overcome is that we didn’t get to have a second bourgeois generation, because the first generation that makes the money considers that they started from a low point and have a sense of entitlement and self-worth for their efforts. And this discourse of a person who made it by oneself, this enriched person who say they knew how to make it on top… they think that the poor person next to them should also do it. Why doesn’t he/she? It must be that they’re lazy, right? And in the case of immigration, it has further developed this feeling of merit because they left when they were very poor in Romania… When you leave Romania with a salary of 10 million [approximately 220 euro] and arrive in a place where you’re paid at least 1000 euro, you think you are God-blessed. If you get a loan from the bank and start exhibiting a higher social status, you already start saying “I’ve picked myself up and reached a different social status”. And that’s where we get this meritocratic discourse from. It marginalizes and excludes the poor and heads towards an area of social fascism. It has a lot more depth than one might think.
Is this happening among the middle class only?
It’s among anybody who’s made money, do you understand? It’s not about the middle class and maybe that thugs will say the same words if you ask them. Mobs say the same too. “It’s his/her fault if they didn’t have the right mindset or weren’t smart enough to get as rich as I”. But, of course, there’s also the never-ending excuse of not being fortunate enough, but anyway, people who made money have this meritocratic viewpoint. We need to switch to the next generation to develop that sense of guilt and consciousness. Because, if you look towards Western states, you see a lot of education in this direction. As a bourgeois, you are induced with this feeling of guilt, which is socially-beneficial if you ask me. The whole concept of the guilty person’s consciousness was also developed among the bourgeois. It’s this sense of guilt that the second generation feels “Look at me, I’m privileged, I was raised in a really good family, I have everything I need, I went to university, and never had to try too hard to get something. That poor guy has a harder time reaching the top.” We don’t have this kind of mentality in Romania, or at least it’s underdeveloped… this conscience of the privileged to acknowledge that you were privileged since you were brought into this world and had access to what others could only dream of. And this is how the guilty consciousness is born: “That poor guy isn’t guilty for the family he was born in”.
But how are the poor perceived?
Well, it’s the same situation. I think it’s practically a depression. They have developed a lot of complexes and they perceive their poverty as a shame. They are shamed for what they don’t have for reasons they aren’t responsible for.
How did you perceive the change from communism to the new democratic regime?
Well, I have to acknowledge, I was 17 around the time when communism fell and I felt very, very happy. The system was oppressive, Ceaușescu was an idiot… I mean he wasn’t the brightest communist leader.
And how do you position yourself now in relation to communism?
Right now? My positioning is much more nuanced, there was oppression… but how should I put it? It was a cost-benefit situation: the cost was the oppression. Otherwise, the society was very organized. We had a functional society under communism. To whomever disagrees, I have to say that it wasn’t a dictatorship, but a functional society. After the transition, society and the whole body structure of the society have been a mess, Romania has become a dysfunctional state during the transition. Which, again, is a matter of costs and benefits.
Returning to communism, it was a functional system, but the dictatorship costs were too high. What the elders say: you had a job guaranteed; they [the state] would give you a house, holiday through the union, and stuff like that. You had no movement of freedom, you had no free speech… but there were some gains.
Do you perceive the nowadays Romanian society as more functional?
Now, yes. It is more functional. Less democracy now than in the ‘90s. but this is because of there is a tendency nowadays to restrain the liberties. This is in all the Occident and in America. In the moment when a society is functional one needs to be become responsible for own deeds. You need to get responsible for what you do, what you say. In transition everyone was careless because everything could be solved/ bribed.
Why do you say there is less democracy?
There is more surveillance. There is much more supervised society. Police was not functional in the ‘90s. Secret services, no one was caring about them. Justice was not functioning. Now phones are listened, you are under surveillance if you done something wrong.
How do you position yourself in relation to the older generations, given the fact that you lived the transition from communism to democracy in your teenage years? How do you view communism in comparison to your parents?
I feel less nostalgic about communism, even though I do have some small degree of nostalgia. I think I feel anarchy. I mean, the older ones aren’t capable of anarchy. The younger generations that are growing up right now aren’t capable of it either, they seem to be more obedient than we were. We, those who lived our youth in the 1990s, were bigger anarchists. But the feeling is starting to get weaker and rarer in newer generations. I look around and see that the youth are drinking less. Okay, now they have access to more drugs and sometimes they just smoke a joint instead, okay… and after that they drink a couple of beers or take a pill on weekend days. But they no longer have that drive we had, they’re not as self-destructive as we were. They’re healthier and more aware about their lives. “I better not start smoking, oh my God it’s bad if I smoke and only losers do it”. Anyway, right now I’m talking about a middle-class zone. I’m not sure to which extent I can extrapolate other social categories, but in this bourgeois area there is a contrast with what used to be before, as well as with what I think comes next. This anarchic and self-subtle feeling that I want to drink until I pass out under the table, that I don’t care about anything… that’s something that fades. It faded in communism by force because you were being watched, and now you have to act properly and be responsible. It’s a movement that starts to work. You can no longer “fuck everything” like in the 1990s. You could do it in the 1990s, now it’s getting harder.
Why are the 1990s your favorite era?
First of all, it’s because that’s when I was young and secondly… there was a lot more liberty than now. There was less responsibility, I mean why would you enjoy being responsible? Could you please tell me what is the pleasure in responsibility? Let me answer that for you: there is none. There was this kind of liberty in which you could not care about anything and could do anything you would think. No you can no longer do it… you used to be able to tell anything, it was all allowed. It was anarchy!
There is these saying used by elderly people ‘that there’s too much democracy or that democracy has gotten to your head’…
Something like that, in the 1990s there really was too much freedom. But it couldn’t go on like this, you couldn’t build a society on the foundations of everybody not giving a damn, everybody stealing one way or another, nobody doing anything, do you understand? It just wasn’t possible. The problem is that you don’t have solidarity among larger bodies of social classes, and there isn’t solidarity above the middle class. We have this problem among the wealthy. I mean, let’s solidarize ourselves a little bit, shall we? You don’t have this kind of solidarity which is essential to form a society among ourselves. If we keep it like this, at some point it will seem impossible and unconceivable to build this solidarity.
And from the perspective of citizens’ rights and minority rights, what do you think is the situation now as compared to the situation during the transition? What about the situation now as compared to communism?
[Sigh] Let’s refer to communism… as compared to communism, of course you enjoy more liberties. I mean as a citizen, or as a minority and… in comparison with the transition? The transition was cool because nobody knew, in the sense that nobody spoke about taboo subjects [such as being gay]… and people were not aware of this thing.
But wasn’t there a negative attitude towards the gay people?
There was, but nobody could tell who was gay and who wasn’t… it was a very abstract thing. They were subject of jokes, it wasn’t… like in the case of the Roma people towards whom there was a lot of racism because the majoritarian population could distinguish them. Who acknowledged being a homosexual, anyway? Let’s get real about it. In the 1990s nobody would come out of the closet and it was a non-existent category. But what was good about the situation… in a way it was great that you could express yourself and manifest your feelings, and people wouldn’t realize that you were gay. You could hit on a guy whom you thought to be either straight or gay and see how they were surprised and confused. Now people are much more aware “Ah, that guy’s a queer”… they get it when you’re acting differently. I’m trying to describe a filter that tells who is gay and who isn’t. However, nowadays they are trying to establish more freedoms and it’s great. I know that in the 1990s or the beginning of the 2000s we had some parties in Cluj [one of the top largest Romanian cities in West of Romania], every 2 weeks. This happened before article 200 [decriminalizing homosexuality by removing its actions from the penal code]. And I think it was awful until 1995 or 1996, that’s when it was harder to be gay. It was before activists from abroad came in and said “Leave them alone, don’t be a bunch of morons. Cool down!”. And back to the story: even though it was the year 1999 or 2000, the parties would take place across the street from the police station. Cops would come to check once in a while, but they never shut down the bar and didn’t ever arrest anybody. There was this tacit toleration, and I think there were higher orders by police officials after the mid-1990s to tell everyone to leave the gay alone. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.
Until 1993, I think, there were people who would get punished with time in jail.
Oh yes, that’s when we had the biggest problems regarding human rights and the gay community – locked-up gay people. I told you, up until that case with the handball or basketball female player who became famous on national television, it was a lot worse. And people started to get it “Wait a minute, she’s with the green and red lights, we can’t burn her anymore”.
Could you please tell more about that case?
It was a scandal with a female basketball player, who went to a colleague at the gym, and her colleague turned her in for being gay or they got caught, I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, this basketball player ended up doing 5 years of jail time. That was when a proto version of the Accept association [the largest pro LGBTQI+ rights organization in Romania] emerged; activists felt enraged by this scandal and took matters into their own hands.
What was your experience with peoples about you being gay?
In the countryside, people isolate and marginalize you… nowadays we at least have some demographic niches where we, as gay people, can breathe. In central Bucharest, among hipsters, among corporate employee… do you get my point? You can breathe relaxed. But if you start descending the social ladder and scrutinize among the lower classes, problems start to appear. When you head towards the working class, or people who are less educated in general among which you can find the people from rural areas and the underclass… then the beautiful story about tolerance ends there. They wouldn’t even listen to people. Well, personally I have encountered violent reactions due to the fact that I openly expressed my sexuality, you see? However, I’ve more often encountered isolation. I’m talking about people who put it plainly “Okay, we understand, you like penises. Don’t tell me about it because I’m not interested to hear it.”. And these people don’t feel in the mood to have a drink with you or do any other social activities. I feel a little disappointed about the situation, but I’ve also noticed a certain degree of fear to be considered gay when you talk to somebody who is openly gay. People are afraid others will start asking “Why are these two staying together?” So a lot of regular persons decide to just stay away and avoid any conversation longer than a few words. The men in my village do not talk much to me because this thing [being gay] is known.
And from 2007 and up to the present day, did you have you feel an evolution in regards to other people’s perception towards you?
Yes, you can feel that. They become much more aware, more tolerant. You can tell that this is being associated with Western ideas and culture, and people want to be hip. It’s in the snobbish nature of the Romanian to try to appear open and avoid looking foolish or backwards thinking. “You have to understand gay people”… but yes, you can feel progresses from one year to the other. When you start watching television, please tell me which channel is openly homophobic. Is there any?
To make a parallel: Why do you think that the gay community benefits from a better image and has made more progresses in comparison with the Roma community?
It’s because gay people come from all social classes. First of all, you don’t really see them and I think that in this country only about 1000 people are openly gay in the way they dress and act in public. The rest of them are much more reserved. Conversely, the Roma community is associated with poverty and that’s the end of the story. That’s where the problem is in people’s minds: poverty. It’s the same with people from Moldova. Poverty is stigmatized. Gay people cannot be associated with poverty; they’re just about different sexual preferences.
As this is one of your strongest field of expertise: how is the transition reflected in the manele music [a genre of Turkish, Balkan influence often associated with lower social class]? Were there traces before the Revolution about what the music would shape up to become?
During the communist era, manele was the first so called “polluted” folkloric cultural movement. Since the communist days, manele have had a capitalist discourse: people envy you for what you have; it’s all about the money… It was about this kind of hustle and swag since the communist period. But no, the wording was a little different and I couldn’t identify the word “șmecherie” [tricks, swindle] in any of the lyrics from the time. It’s all about people who envy you and human relations based on competition, you know? It’s all about being wealthy, not trusting anybody due to your privileged status, and putting money in the center of it all. Even in communist days, this was the music of “entrepreneurs”. In those cases, the entrepreneurs were illegal smugglers. Who could be an entrepreneur in a time with so many restrictions? Petty salesmen of smuggled goods who were conducting illegal activities. And their music has to reflect their views about life and that’s when an early form of manele shapes up.
And how did manele evolve in the transition period?
They gained more depth, in the sense that they were brought forward to the public. In communism, manele were a part of the prisoners’ folklore and part of the orchestration draws inspiration from those times. But very few artists or “muses” for their songs about illegal activities had the distinction of exceptionality. But after the 1990s, we were exposed to this capitalist discourse with hustling, the fetishization of money, women as porno mistresses, this kind of grey economy where only money matter and the moral principles are irrelevant. Moral principles are limited to own family but not further than that.
And how do you see the relations during the transition in relation to the capitalist discourse? Does it become to strengthen its roots in capitalism? Do manele start containing a criticism of capitalism?
No, not even for a second. They’re not critics of capitalism, not even critics of poverty… it’s all about the American dream: “I either want to get rich or I’m already rich”. They always talk about a past when they were poor, but never write song lyrics about currently being poor. It’s all about “I used to be poor, but I’ve made a lot of money through my own efforts”, like in the American dream.
Interview: Irina Ilisei
Translation: Vlad Costea
For Ukraine, the issue of knowledge communist past is a taboo topic. While only fragments of the issue appear on the surface, it divides families and entire regions in conflict. Dealing with beliefs about the past has become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society. We therefore propose to dive into the thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.
This post collects thoughts, memories and statements taken from a discussion that took place on the eve of 2017 in the “Museum of Dreams” in Kiev that is exploring how dreams meet reality in human life.
The quotes explore the memory of communism as well as the time that succeeded communism and lasts until today: The time of transition. But what exactly is transition?
transit – an attempt of a #defintion
Transit – this is where you don’t stay long. A transit passage is something temporary, moving from one point to another. But the transition we speak about, is not temporary – it is the life that we live. Generally speaking, life is a constant transit, it moves from one state to another. But in some periods we move faster. [from many voices]
“I think transit should be considered through acceleration. Stability can’t be detected, we find it only in the memories. When we remember – we fix a certain time. Get a different decade of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s – very different Soviet times. We summarize these periods. This generalization suggests one thing – it’s time for respite. The analyze possible when you are not in action. When you’re in a revolutionary time – you do not analyze, you are acting. Transitiveness is the revolution and the education. Transition is not attributed to any generation. There were people who could spend five months on the novel by Tolstoy, do they believed that their time was changing? Do they felt so these changes?”
Talking about our #generation
Artem (1976): a broken generation
“We are a broken generation. I was 15 years old when it happened. In Germany it is about unification. But here we called this times – the collapse of the Union. […] My generation – it’s the guys who became the criminals of the 90s. We are the separate generation – a transit and broken one.
This is a generation whose socialization time, 14-16 years, coinciding with the collapse of values. In adolescence, there was a complete breakdown. We grew up on the values, believed in honest, fair, good. And suddenly we found ourselves in a vacuum. In this Nietzschean «nothing».
We are the generation who can self-sacrifice themselvs for those children who are growing up now. They grew up in other picture: independence, freedom, liberalism, access to information and so on. I felt very homeless. Of course, I tried to flip this feature to advantage: the ability of quickly re-education, a willingness to change. All of these events: Maydan and the war – for me it was very natural. I quickly found myself like a fish in the water. Therefore, I perceive us as a broken generation. At the front are lots of guys of my age and my generation […]. They try to protect the future and they think their lives were broken anyway. This generation is the core bone of the war with Russia now.”
Lyudmyla (1981): need to move
“We are really romantic generation. But if we see something stable, we for sure need to change it (smiling). Well, at least we move the furniture.”
Sergiy (1972): nothing special
“Wandering through our lives, we change the world. Generation change itself brings something new. Over the past 50 thousand years this happens. It is not right to say that this is some special generation of transition. The time change occurs every forty years, as global change of everything. Technical progress give the fast opportunity to share the information, your idea spreads by second. To check the information on social networks simply is not possible. And future generations will have to learn how to control and filter the information.”
Alexandra (1987): We can make a difference
“It reminds me of metamorphosis of a butterfly. […] I think that every generation is a cluster of individuals of a certain age and that creates the understanding of a “generation”. Living this metamorphosis is not a goal, no purpose or process. I feel that the metamorphosis happens faster: We have more faith that we can make a difference and a willingness to do something. Transit isn’t an understandable word, but it speaks about the process. This is a motion vector. That I’m going in this direction.”
Alexander (1987): At a t urning point
“I do not remember the Soviet Union. I want to change the world, I want to act. I constantly desire to do something, run forward. That turning point for country, I do not remember. Now we also are at such a turning point, maybe it would be analysed later. Now I just want to do.”
Andreea Petruț (born in 1990) is a young and talented researcher working in the field of public policies for higher education. Her academic background is in Political Science and Management of Organisation. She is active in several non governamental organisation and civic actions that promote integrity, equality of opportunities, participative democracy and protection of the environment.
What has the transition meant to you, your family and for the community you used to live in?
Well, that’s a long story. First of all, the transition has influenced my early life, as I’m born in 1990 in a small town with 20.000 inhabitants, close to the city of Brașov, practically in a small urban area. At that time, I used to think that the area I was born in is something big, mainly due to the fact that my interactions with other communities took place primarily in the rural area, and the largest community I would see was the city of Brașov. And I had the impression that I’m doing well and had somewhat of an opening in terms of culture and information.
Going back on what transition meant for me, I associate transition with poverty, the poverty that I, my family, and especially the people around us would live in. I cannot make parallels to what happened before 1990 because I wasn’t even born at the time, but what was more difficult compared to the communist times was the fact that you felt poor, but you would see the wealth on the other side, around you, on the television screens, in friends’ houses and houses of rich people, and that’s how I think the feeling of frustration and injustice were been born. Because I’m thinking that before 1990, you didn’t have a standard to refer to or compare yourself with, so that you never knew that you could have more and better. Everyone was doing badly, we were all equal somehow, but from the moment of the transition and the beginning of capitalism, the inequalities have practically begun to grow, to become more visible and to feel stronger. To put things in a chronological order: In the ‘90s when I was born my parents had a small studio (one room apartment) and from what they told me, the only moment when they felt helped by the change to a new regime was when they managed to buy the studio. They were renting the place during the communist times and through the inflation they managed to buy the place for very little money. That was the first moment when they and other people managed to become homeowners and I think this helped them a lot.
You were talking about poverty in your family on one side and the richness of the others on the other side. Could you feel the economic disparities since the beginning of transition or only later?
I felt those from the very beginning, since my first years of life. I was comparing myself to my cousins and what they were getting. That was the period when people started to go for work in Germany. The only things of wealth that I remember are the help coming from Germany. When they were coming with the clothes and toys from there, that was the holy time of the year. But because we were having relatives who were connected to Germany, they were having much more thing than us, they were having TVs… and you were starting to wish to have a Barbie doll or to have what other people have. My father was always telling me: “We are poor, you need to understand this. This is how we were born and this is how we will dye”… this is very interesting, I still have discussions with my father and we reflect on that. And I think a lot about that because 15 years after that I blamed my parents that we do not have a business, that we stayed poor. After that I started to understand that the practically they started a family in 1990. Being used to think after a specific pattern, that the state will help us to have a stable workplace and a slary, these are our life costs. They made a life plan based on that. And communism failed and I see them as a 18 years old child that you set free in the world: “Go and carry it off on your own”. This is how I perceived my parents and now I try to understand them from this perspective. My father had a very pessimistic nature. He was afraid to take risks. He never wanted to lend money from the bank. He was saying: “We do not have capital, we cannot do something [a business] because we do not have capital”… He was afraid to take risks. For some time I blamed him for our financial situation that was affecting even our family life but also at all other levels, but now I try to understand him. I lived with the TV on all the time, since I was very little, and I remember that period when people who were doing currency exchanges [selling foreign currency like dollars or DM which were preffered as safer during the times of huge inflation] and they were tricking the people. My grandfather lost money due to Caritas [pyramidal scheme which attracted a large number of people all over Romania and many lost their investment]. Risks were high with FNI [National Investment Fund, another system that was promising high gains, attracted people and many were left broke] later on and not many people remained happy after this story. I understand why my parents were afraid about the whole story with the capitalism.
Once the communism failed the citizens did not benefit of a systematic program that could explain to them what were their rights and their liberties, what the new regime actually means at political, economic level but also from the point of view of their rights. They were not taken care of. I was watching TV but at TV one could not understand anything. They were told only fragments, no one was saying the whole reality about what is happening and what is going to happen. Specially the people that were educated in the spirit of the Marxist ideology, in the ‘90s they did not know the rules any more and they did not know to keep the pace with that. This people got in the category that I call ‘the losers of transition’, people who only get to survive to the daily living costs in those years. I remember very clearly that phase when prices were raising and you were going today to the shop and the bread was this price and after 3 months the price was double. There were very high living costs. If I wanted to buy a youth magazine I was collecting coin by coin because my parents did not have what to give me. I was very much touched by this period of absolute poverty I would say. And my parents would say: “We are rich, you need to see how bad are others doing”. Back than I could not see the situation in this way. Now I realize that we were privileged. There were families in our town that were living in the ghetto area. Our town was built very interestingly in what concerns the social dynamic because in the communist area they moved people from Moldova [East of Romania] or from Oltenia [South West of Romania] in the period of industrialization.
What about the effects of mass-industrialization? What were its effects during the transition?
Our town wan an industrial one. During the communism there were workplaces for the inhabitants and for people living around the town. There were very large state factories in agriculture, mechanics, wood industry, etc. Across my apartment building there was Colorom, one of the most important producers of dye in the country, one day I should talk about some traumas concerning pollution as well. There was lots of industries and almost everybody was anchored in this work. In the coomunist times there were brought people from Moldova and Oltenia, from poorer regions to work over there. They got houses at the periphery area, even it was a small town we haf ghetto neighborhoods. The ghetto area were like it is Ferentari [well known ghetto in Buchares] nowadays and a lot of poverty. I really remember this because the image left me a strong impression, my mother was teacher in a kindergarten and the cleaning lady was a woman that I cared about very much. She was from a village in Moldova and she was raising her daughter all alone. I was staying with her when my mother was busy and she was taking care of me. She was living in a apartment house for people without families [precarious types of buildings built during the communist which were supposed to be temporary for people who came for work in industrial centres and did not yet got married, after the communist failed the people remained in those buildings and grow families over there], it impressed me that image with long corridors between the apartments, common bathrooms on the corridors and rats ad families staying together in large numbers in a single room and a tiny kitchen. My mother was teaching in the kindergarten in that neighborhood and there were coming children who were beaten, almost not educated at all, who did not know how to talk and my mother was responsible to educate them.
The social relations in the town… it was very wird because people staying in the ‘wealthy’ area, like my parents did – we were staying in the center, on the main road, not in in peripheral neighborhoods – they were not interacting with the ones at the margins of the town. It was a small town, everybody was knowing everybody, but there was practically a social segregation. There was a middle class of semi-intellectuals who were like “we are engineers, teachers we do not stay together with the ones who work in the factory”. Even they were respecting each other they were reluctant to interact with the ones of other ethnicities, the ones from other social categories. When I say other ethnicities I refer to Roma because we were not teached back than to respect the Roma people even they were around us. However the multiculturalism was respected in my place, it was a town where Hungarians and German minorities were living and there was a high inter-ethnic respect but in what concerns disadvantages social categories I do not remember any concern.
How did the transition influence the different generations? Did transition fueled a conflict between generations?
First of all, I don’t remember from the transition period, and this is something I also spoke about with my parents… we don’t remember to have met other rights, other than the right to vote that my parents would exercise. They never felt that the right to free speech has helped them in any way or that they enjoyed any other civil rights. To us, democracy hasn’t come with this added value. Maybe it was felt in big cities such as Bucharest and Brașov, where people had access to much more information, but in our community, we couldn’t enjoy the transition to the new regime.
My parents never perceived democracy as something that brought something good for ourselves, for our lives. They wanted me to become a doctor or pharmacist so that I can make a decent living, but at some point I opposed their will and expectations, I said that I want to study political science, understand how democracy works in this country. I used to watch television when I was a child and hear about how the 1990 generation, “children of the transition”, have to bring the change, or else this country will have a dark future. I really believed in this thing, that I have to do something for my country and I took seriously this role. That’s when I had a big argument with my parents, and I managed to convince them to allow me to study political science. I’ve started to go to university and be an active citizen from a civic point of view, participate protest movements, publically express my opinion, join different organizations, work for various projects, do community work.
After I became student I started to work for the community, to be part of student organizations, to volunteer, to help people from disadvantaged communities. And my family did not understood this: “How to do something like this? Where is this coming from”. There was a clash between their believes, even it passed 20 years since the communist regime failed, they did not know what democracy is and we learned together. There was a very hard period because my parents were forbidding me to go to protest. When the street protest started in 2012 they told me: “That is not possible. You just have to go to university, why put yourself in a risk situation. You damage your own future”. Or at university I had an argument with the rector, I was fighting for students rights. They did not understand this, why it is necessary to fight for your own righst and do not let abuses to take place in the society. 2-3 years ago it happened a funny episode because I was fined by the Gendarmerie during the protests for Roșia Montana [agains construction of a gold mine that was damaging for the environment and for the community over there]. There was a huge scandal in my family: “Our child started to fight with the system” – the fines were coming to my home/ parents address and my parents were not understanding why it is important to fight, to react as citizen when things are not going well in a country.
What were your impressions about the wellbeing of the community you were living during the transition and economic switch from a system to another? As Codlea, your hometown is a place where, like in many other places of Romania, industry fall apart, factories closed down?
I remember that period perfectly. You couldn’t be happy at home due to the fear that the factory would close down. My father was working there and you would always have this fear. Whenever he was coming home from work, he was always upset. There was no way to enjoy life due to the situation. I would understand my parents’ feelings very well, I was very connected to them. There were times in my childhood when I would play with dolls, and my favorite game was about privatization and closing down factories, because that’s what the universe around me was all about. I remember that between 1995 and 2000, when the privatizations started and they would give compensatory salaries and emergency ordinances to the people in town, that the shops (the few of them that could be found in such a small town) would simply get crowded and filled with people, as everybody wanted to spend their money. Unlike everybody around us, we didn’t have the money, and the first time I went to the shops I would feel jealous. “Dad, why don’t you go get your compensatory salaries too, so we can have the money others enjoy?”. But steadily, everything started to close down, we reached the highest degree of poverty, a lot of my colleagues and neighbors have returned to the Moldavian villages [Eastern part of Romania, where the economy is less developed] they originally came from because they could no longer afford to stay. After all the factories had been closed, they would go and work the crops to make some money. There have been 2 or 3 years when you couldn’t find a job anywhere and there were rumors that the unemployment financial aid of your colleagues would come to an end. Everywhere, even in school, people would talk about this situation, as it no longer was a problem of parents or employees since it had its direct effects on us, the children.
Everywhere, even in school it was talked about it, because lack of jobs became a problem that was no longer of our parents only or of the employees only. It was reflecting on us and of the children. I remember that the privatization was done by using MEBO method [Management Employee Buyouts]. There were shared stocks to the employees of the companies, everybody was buying shares, and everywhere there was lots of talk about it both in the town and on TV. I was imagining how my father will buy shares and we would get to be shareholders and we would get to be rich. That was my dream, maybe this time works out, this time we would get rich if he is going to be given shares from the factory. And that was an wave of enthusiasm. Of course that the shares were only papers and nothing happened with those and the factories were sold. There were some things through which we were kidding ourselves, they were giving us hope that maybe this time it will be better and finally we were seeing that the hope is burning down and we remain with nothing.
What were the stages of the transition according to you?
First of all, the 1990-1992 period is the one that I’d regard as an actual confusion, when people still had hopes for absolute freedom. People were making plans and still hoping that things can still take a good turn.
Then came the 1992-1996 period when people were simply not aware how to defend themselves from the robberies that were taking place at the higher hierarchic level, from the problems that existed at the top, and they were still trying to make a way for themselves. I perceived it as a period when people try to gather their resources and start something, but at the same time they would lose a part of their hope, that change would come. It was the time when prices were beginning to rise, there was the emergence of that story that was sold to you in the 1990s about people who died for your freedom, and you would realize that it’s far from that great and unachievable ideal.
Between 1996 and 2000 there was a time of hope because we had the story of PRO TV (private television channel which brought Western ideals and first promoted that Romania should become a member of NATO and the EU) which marked an opening. At least to me, a child who was living in an apartment, this was the main activity that would sell one hope. You would watch the screen and see that the ideals you dreamed about was possible and really exists: people win money for watching TV shows, they do some other exciting things. Additionally, a year after PRO TV first aired, the Romanian Democratic Convention Party got in government and its leader Emil Constantinescu was regarded by us with hope, even if we weren’t a family of intellectuals. When these new people come into the scene and bring experts, we believed that it will get better. I remember very clearly the times of riot, when every time you turned on your TV you would see a trade union protesting, and they would scream “With the goat and the one-eyed they lied to our people” – referring to President Constantinescu and Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea. At the political and economic level, that time too brought economic hope, but had disastruous consequences – as I know that the country was about to go bankrupt, and this fact was felt in the people’s pockets at a level that impact the quality of life itself.
In regard to the ‘90s I want to point out the coldness. When I say poverty I say coldness because the prices for utilities were very high and the boiler that was heating the town was shut down. The people did not had money to build their own heating system and they were improvising. In each house there was an improvised stove, like a clock bomb in the home. All the apartment building could explode, my parents were waking up during night to verify it. In the evening you were freezing in the house and this was happening the whole town. Making bath was possible only once a week, with water heated in over 16 pots. Everything was like a ritual, a poverty ritual and this only to cover some basic needs such as warming up, washing or eating Sibiu Salami which was a bit better than others. There were some major privations that one would not expect after the regime failed.
The next period, between 2000 and 2004, begins with Romania entering NATO. If I were to answer the question about how I perceived the NATO integration, I would answer that we were in joy, we were celebrating despite not having any idea what it means, what are the implications and what is NATO all about. Everybody was happy that Romania was a member of NATO. To this day I have no idea why they were so joyful about it, because I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand what it was all about, why would you be happy about militarization? But that was the general perception, of celebration and everything. I don’t know exactly with what I should associate the 2000-2004 period, the governing of Iliescu and Năstase but as far as I can remember things were starting to get better at the economic level. At the democratic level, I don’t think they ever got that good, but we never felt the consequences of this area. Where we were coming from, it was all linear between 1990 and 2005. I know that during the government of Năstase (2000-2004) people were very persecuted and there was a lot a pressure put on them, and this is something I found out later on, but we were somehow outside this universe and these practices, and this subject area did not affect us in any way.
There’s something I omitted: the association of the years 2000-2004 with the obtaining of Schengen visas and people going abroad, I think that’s something that market me and every other person in the country who saw his acquaintances and closed ones leave. I remember that in the building I live in, out of 20 apartments, there were a maximum number of 4 where no family member had left the country. I’ve seen this with school mates, friends who lost themselves and their future due to their parents who left just to be able to pay the bills. If I were to label the years 2000-2004 and what followed, I’d call it the people’s exodus and the halving of the population in small towns and communes.
From 2005 onwards I know that the economy got better, they started to open shopping malls, a real-estate development took place, even though this time it was done in the same chaotic and poorly planned manner. But at least you could feel that there was a trace of hope.
In regards to political rights, democracy, social system, cohesion between classes – or its lack, thereof, do you think that the transition period has influence on the events that are happening now?
The most concerning case to me is the lack of cohesion between social classes and inequality. The disappearance of the welfare state that existed before 1990 created an immense inequality between social classes. The biggest problem is a lack of solidarity between people. I don’t know how this culture of individualism has been appropriated so fast, a culture in which neither you, nor the state care about the ones that you leave behind. We will have to invest a lot to fix these gaps, to do policies of equity that will help those who were left behind in those times. Also from the field of rights and liberties, I think that the problem was that we didn’t have a state with strong institutions, and this fact has laid the foundation for many abuses against vulnerable people. If not even the middle class had whom to address and had no leverage, no help from the state, I think those who had less financial possibilities and less resources were put in even more difficult situations. There was no consistent support that could contribute to the raise of quality of life and to respect the rights of these people. In regard to minorities, back then, when I was living in my parents’ home, I was not even concerned about these issues and what are the problems that people from minority groups are confronted with. There is a distorted opinion of people in what concerns the (minority) social groups, that I was not even aware that there are these people confronting with problems and that society is diverse.
What is your opinion on the criticism that is now directed towards those who receive welfare money? Do you think they derive, along with the welfare policies, from the communist era?
I think they come from the transition era because that’s when this cult of individuality was born and developed. They practically began to reject everything that came before 1990. I think this criticism rather comes from capitalism and the transition period because people, had they been taught to not have this fear for what might come tomorrow and the very high risks that life has, and if there was somewhat of a stability in regards to their standard of living, then this pit between social classes could have been eliminated.
Do you think that the rejection of welfare policies from the transition period comes as a rejection for the system that came before the communist era?
Social policies have been rejected because people didn’t have trust in the state and in stability, and to the fact that regardless the risks they assume, at some point they will land on something soft – and they missed this. The ones who had success after 1990 are not aware about the lack of equality of opportunities. They have the impression that the responsibility of the welfare is an individual one, without realizing how many variables play a role in the evolution of the individuals and that in many cases there is the need that the state to intervene for balancing certain social disparities.Interview: Irina Ilisei
Translation: Vlad Costea & Irina Ilisei