Through the Lens of Transition

Through the Lens of Transition has been a series of webinars held by Transition Dialogue over the course of May and June. We covered a range of topics, from the economy to public spaces, from education to media and the closing of borders, and have had the privilege of hearing from a wide variety of speakers, many of them experts in their field and all with interesting and thought-provoking experiences  of their own surrounding the transition period and the current pandemic. Throughout the course of the webinar series, many ideas came up that fed into each other across all the topics and they create a fascinating insight into the current concerns and expectations that feed into pre-existing experiences of such a time of uncertainty.

A key idea that kept recurring was the concept of responsibility, both of organisations and of individuals, and their need to take it in a time of crisis. This is particularly relevant in discussions of the younger generation’s perception and therefore reaction to issues brought to light by the pandemic, such as of climate change and of economic stability. The latter was particularly important in discussions of the future of the European Union and its need to “show its power” in support of its members, as something did not exist in its current form as a wide-ranging structure for multiple members at the time of democratic transition thirty years ago. Perception leading to action was a similarly crucial point relating to this concept of responsibility, and this was particularly relevant when looking at the sceptical perception of public spaces and individuals experienced by those who lived through the transition period, and how the opportunity has arisen now for new perceptions to be formed.

Historical distrust and exclusion from discourse were related issues that tied into the need to reshape perception, and this was especially with regard to how memories of the transitional period have fed into experiences of the effects of the global pandemic today. Concerns were raised as to the potential negative effect of the pandemic upon global trust, as discussed during our “Closed Borders, Then and Now” webinar, where one of our speakers, Momchil Metodiev, touching on the notion that “open borders may be a right, but those rights may not remain permanent,” as each nation’s needs and issues become less internationally focussed and instead become more insular.

However, in spite of these anxieties surrounding distrust and disarray, one of the continual messages of our webinars ended up being one of hope for a reformation of society as we know it, and taking advantage of the potential for change that was also seen during the transition period. Alicja Pacewicz raised this issue in particular in our talk “Education, Interrupted” about the need to make the increasing digitalisation of our education systems more sustainable and systematic, and the hope generated by both the pandemic and the transition period: “Hope that this challenge is common for all of us. Maybe we will all see how education has to change… in a fundamental way. It will give us the push, not just for more digital education, but for a better education, better adapted for the future world that we and our students are going to create.”

Closed Borders: Then and Now

The first of our talks Through the Lens of Transition, “Closed Borders: Then and Now,” took place in our new online format on 14th May. We welcomed as speakers at this event: Alicja Pacewicz, economist, social and educational activist and co-founder of the Center for Citizenship Education in Warsaw; Alexander Morozov, political scientist, publicist, and co-director of the Boris Nemtsov Academic Centre for the Study of Russia in Prague; and Momchil Metodiev, editor-in-chief of the Christianity and Culture Journal and Research Fellow in the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Our event began with our speakers relating personal stories to do with their experience of closed borders before and during the transition into democracy, ranging from attempting to buy heavy metal music in a foreign shop for a friend who had been forbidden to travel, to facing time in a foreign prison for straying close to its border. Our discussion then moved onto impressions of how the current crisis of closed borders compares to the crisis we face today and the difficulties created by the closure we face today. Particularly, we looked at whether the younger generation, who did not live through the transition period 30 years ago, will rise up to the challenge of “reverting to normality,” and whether their age makes them more predisposed to view open borders as a right rather than a privilege, with Momchil noting that open borders are a right, “but such rights are not permanent.” Alicja pointed out that a potential positive impact of the younger generation being forced to act to revert to normality is that they will be inspired to act upon issues such as climate change, a noted difference in which has been seen due to the impact of reduced travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our discussion tailed off with a question as to how will the closure of borders due to the pandemic ultimately shape each nation’s perception of itself, and a worry about how insular that perception could become, with one of our speakers raising his concern that they may become “suspicious or anxious” of outsiders. Yet, as the discussion ended, there was hope in the form of our panellists’ discussion of their next destination, when the borders have reopened.

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The Virus in our Economies

The second of our talks from Through the Lens of Transition, “The Virus in our Economies” took place online on 28th May. The speakers at this event were: Asta Ranonyte from the Open Lithuania Foundation, Head of Examination Department at the National Examination Centre of Lithuania; Vedrana Pribičević, Economist and lecturer at the Zagreb School of Economics and Management; and Victor Guzun, teacher, former politician and diplomat, formerly Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Estonia. Our aim was to discuss the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping our economies in a way much similar t to that of the transitional period in formerly communist countries, where people who had lived in a socialist economic system and were learning how economic activity worked now as an individual were thrown into the deep end, and were forced to either sink or swim.

The seminar began with a discussion on whether the fears of the implosion of our economy due to the pandemic have roots in similar fears for the economy during the transition period, an idea that can be summed up in the image of empty shelves: once a symbol of new economic potential from the West, and now an image that induces paranoia about the functionality of our current systems.  We then moved to a discussion of the necessity of the European Union to, in the words of speaker Vedrana Pribičević, to “show its power” in its support of each other and “why it pays to be a member of this cooperation.” Victor Guzun added to this that the actions of the European Union during the pandemic have showed that they are a “real global, value-based player and power” and have taken powerful steps to support its member countries, both in their economies and in coming together to tackle the major crises created by the pandemic. He also crucially noted that the consequences of the pandemic should teach us as a societal system as how to interact between individuals and businesses.

We then moved onto a discussion as to how the effect on the economy is manifesting itself in politics. Vedrana pointed out that this can be taken advantage of, as is being currently done in Croatia, with elections being brought forward due to the party in power’s belief in their victory due to their apparent success in cushioning the blow from the virus, even going to the extent of “using epidemiologists as proxies” due to corruption from what she called an “incomplete transition.”

Looking at the polls put to the viewers, many thought that residents of formerly communist countries believed that they would be more “resilient” to the effects of the virus on our economies due to having lived through the transition period. The question was raised amongst the panellists as to whether the pandemic will increase or decrease economic trust between partner nations. We closed our discussion with the question of whether the economic transition of formerly communist Eastern European countries truly over, and with a key point from Asta Ranonyte: “This pandemic is an opportunity. In the transition period, we also faced issues of lack of trust and transparency and worries of the future of our society. Now we are facing similar worries, and we can take this as an opportunity to create new ways to evaluate our societies when it comes to our key issues, such as digitalisation.”

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The Transformation of the Public Space

Through the Lens of Transition, “The Transformation of the Public Space” was our third online event to take place in our new webinar format on the 12th of June. The speakers at this event were: Andrei Zavadski, researcher and communications scientist; Zhenya Kulyeba,  urban activist, NGO “Misto Sad / Garden City”; and Gruia Badescu, urbanist, Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the University of Konstanz. Our aim was to discuss the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic changes our perception of public space, and particularly how the state of public space affects democracy and the ability to demonstrate one’s political views openly and freely.

We began our discussion with each panellist presenting their experience with the transformation of a public space in a city they know well, with our first speaker Gruia discussing first the commercialisation of essential spaces in Bucharest, even of places that have important memory and politicisation attached to them. Andrei went on to discuss the significance of statues and their locations in both his native town in Belarus and his later home in Moscow, and Zhenya continued with her experience working with her organisation to transform public space in Kiev for the benefit of the public and to unite them in communities in places of history and memory that could otherwise become commercialised.

These initiatives to encourage the public to take part in the care of public space and therefore take responsibility for their public spaces were then discussed. We also touched on the concept of public and private life and whether its change from Soviet times to now has an effect on people’s incentive. This led into a discussion on whether this gap between public and private is experiencing a resurgence due to people’s fears of the public space in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how this may bleed into our perception of virtual spaces as substitutes. We ended with Andrei noting that the fear of the public space diminishes when it comes to fundamentally important issues, such as recent protests for the Black Lives Matter movement all over the world, “people all over the country are going out into these streets to fight for their rights… for reclaiming your rights and your dignity, the public space is crucial.”

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Education, Interrupted

On the 25th June we hosted our fourth online event, “Through the Lens of Transition, “Education, Interrupted,” with three speakers: Alicja Pacewicz, a Polish economist, social and educational activist and co-founder of the Center for Citizenship Education with Class Foundation, and an expert of the Polish Ministry of National Education and the Central Examination Board; Caroline Hornstein-Tomić, a Research Advisor at the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar in Croatia, specialising in high-skilled and return migration and related policies, identity politics, post-socialist transformation and state building processes, and also co-founder and Chair of the Management Board of the Zagreb based foundation Wissen am Werk / Znanje na djelu; and Veronika Ludwig, formerly teacher of German as a foreign and technical language at Jiangsu Teachers University of Technology Changzhou, China, as well as a teacher in Integration Courses, and since 2011 a high-school teacher at the Robert-Jungk-Oberschule in Berlin. We looked to discuss the long-term consequences of educational gaps created in transitional times and what teachers and practitioners of education need in order to guide their students through them.

We opened our seminar with discussion of personal stories of education in the transitional period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Alicja relating her experience of children’s confusion and anger at the change around them in society and how to help them deal with these feelings in a peaceful way during a time of martial law. Caroline then continued with her experience of Germany’s relationship with its migration background during the transitional period ultimately influencing her future educational career. Viktoria followed this with her experience of her teacher giving her class “Lord of the Flies” during this time in order to help them understand how societal change happens in groups.  

The discussion then moved onto obstacles surrounding the ways in which education changes during unprecedented times, one of the main themes of which being the lack of trust in favour of higher control, which often has presented issues in the face of reforming times when “obedience” is prioritised. Particularly, as Caroline noted, this comes into play when wishing to “encourage debate, discussion and controversy… diving into these issues and encouraging students to understand that there are different points of view on issues.”

We then moved onto the opportunities for the educational system to reform itself in light of the pandemic and how this may pan out, especially with the “digital push” of education online and the issue of its sustainability when teachers are retiring at an increasing rate. We discussed the need for standardisation of teachers in online settings so that accessibility for pupils remains the same. We closed with comparing the transitions and their effects: that of 30 years ago, and that of today. Although Alicja explained that she found the two transitions “incomparable,” she saw similarities in the way they generated hope: “Hope that this challenge is common for all of us. Maybe we will all see how education has to change. As a paradigm, not just in content or methods. It has to change in a fundamental way. Maybe the coronavirus will give us the push, not just for more digital education, but for a better education, better adapted for the future world that we and our students are going to create.”

Education, Interrupted:

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Media Credibility in Incredible Times

For our final talk in our series “Through the Lens of Transition,” we discussed the topic of “Media Credibility in Incredible Times.” This talk was held on the 24th July, and our three speakers at this event were: Dörte Grimm, freelance author, children’s writer, director of documentaries and short films; Anna Litvinenko, researcher and teacher at the department of Communication Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, and researcher in the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group “Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism – The Power of the Internet in the Post-Soviet World”; and Viktoras Bachmetjevas, teacher of philosophy at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and former advisor to the minister of culture of Lithuania responsible for media policy. We looked to discuss the issues surrounding media responsibility to its audience and the balance between disseminating crucial information and keeping people safe, particularly when these people have lived through times where the media could not be uniformly trusted.

We started our discussion, as is now tradition in our talks, with each of our speakers sharing a personal story relating to their experience of our topic in the transitional period. This time, Dörte opened with a story of a relative of hers from Canada visiting her family in the GDR when she was a young child in 1988, and shattering their perceived illusion that the life they lived in the GDR was free and bountiful.  Following this, Viktoras described his experience of the sudden explosion of different types of media as Lithuania went through perestroika, and his experience witnessing the broadcasts of the January Killings, centred around the TV Tower in Vilnius. Anna finished this segment with her memories of the coup in Moscow in August 1991, with TV stations blanketed with performances of the ballet Swan Lake that had come to mean something was not well with the Soviet government, and how, to this day, she finds trust in the media something difficult due to her experience in the 1990s.

The discussion then moved onto issues of responsibility of the media when it is under various different influences, particularly financial ones. We also discussed the concept of “plural realities” when it comes to media, and how different inputs and perspectives on information affect the consumer, particularly when they become one, such as was the case in the reunification of Germany, and we also touched on the controversy surrounding the concept of “media watchdogs” in Russia.

Lastly, we moved onto questions on how scepticism in the media’s representation and information surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic relates to remnants of scepticism in the media from the pre-transition period, touching on issues of distrust and exclusion in our societies that push them into blaming the media for their exclusion. We also talked about how the realisation that the media can never be fully objective also affects journalists in their role, with Anna describing the precarious situation in Russia so: “they use the same rhetoric as democratic states to take control of the media: the law against fake news. But they are the ones who determine what news is fake.” Our discussion closed with methods on how to cope with “over-information” and how to systematically and critically approach it in our current climate.

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Second book on Transition Dialogue online

In “Challenges of Transition in Eastern Europe: Lessons for Civic Education” eleven experts from Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, Romania and Hungary share their observations on the biggest challenges and obstacles in dealing with the past of transition in democratic ways today. The compilation is based on the outcomes of a conference that took place in Sofia on 22nd-23rd of November in 2019. It entails contributions from Thomas Krüger, director of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), Stefan Melle (DRA Berlin) and Louisa Slavkova (Sofia Platform). Some of the topics discussed are:

📌 The Elusive Nature of Communist Nostalgia
📌 Urban vs. Rural during the Transition Period in Central and Eastern Europe
📌 A Soft but Mighty Power: Transition and Trust
📌 Dealing with the Past and Teaching History – Civic Education on the SED Dictatorship
📌 Memories and Narratives of Communism. Selectiveness and One-sidedness
📌 The Generation of Transition in Eastern Europe. A Generation of Uncertainty, a Generation of Distrust

Contested Memories – or Where does Nostalgia Lead us?

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.

Interview with Adrian Schiop

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

December 2016

Dividing Memories – on a Generation

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]

Tatiana (1982)

“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.”