From Piața Universității to #rezist
The true goal of the 2107 protests was the fight against passivity. Many of the protesters would not have bothered to vote in the last general elections, but through their presence on the streets, they cast their vote in their own way. It was a fiesta in the truest sense.
In 2017 the Romanian government changed legal provisions which allowed for the pardoning of corrupt officials and changed the law to be more relaxed towards the abuse of power. Since they were announced, frequent anti-government demonstrations in many cities in Romania broke out as thousands voiced their concern that the country was moving away from the values of the EU. The poet, novelist and academic Ruxandra Cesereanu was involved with these protests from the very beginning, documenting them in a journal which will be published in Romania. Here are some excerpts from her writings.
In a recent article, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Wunenburger stated: “There is, at this moment, an epidemic of moralism on the planet, it is a fair compensation for the totalitarian and despotic abuses of the oligarchy. But morality is not a form of politics either.” My journal was born out of an urge to be a raisonneur and witness to the events that were unfolding around me in Romania. My country is not in a worse state than any of the other of former Soviet bloc counties, but all the current developments here (the poison of corruption, the officially sanctioned infractions, the mercenary politicians, the institutionalised theft, the dictatorial tendencies of the ruling party, and the boorishness of certain leaders) could lead to it becoming the real “sick man” of this part of Europe, especially if these tendencies are allowed to continue and become leitmotifs. On the other hand, the vibrant civil movements in Romania represent the other face of the country. I belong to that Romania and that is why I try to speak for it and gather together a testimonial about how my country might be cured of its socio-political and cultural maladies. I feel like a doctor trying to resuscitate my country’s dignity. It is only a metaphor, of course. My only remedy is the power of words.
One day in May 1990, I went to see the marathon of anti-government demonstrations that were taking place in Piața Universității (University Square) in Bucharest. I travelled to Bucharest to attend some literary events but also because I wanted to see, with my own eyes, what was happening in there. It sounds sentimental now, but I felt deeply moved and disturbed by the experience. I will never forget the image of almost 100,000 people, who had made their pilgrimage there, protesting against a government who christened them as “a band of hooligans”. It was, for me, a moment of revelation, an unburdening of my conscience and a step towards assuming civic responsibility.
In December 1989, although I was elated at the fall of communism, I was horrified by the number of people who had died or were wounded in the uprising. It was as if I felt so shaken, so stunned by that collective mourning, that I experienced a kind of spiritual paralysis. Yet after I witnessed the demonstration at Piața Universității and listened to the speeches delivered from the balconies, something awakened inside me. That “something” I would define as a moral conscience. It was a new energy – the energy of the lucid, impassioned observer, feeling engaged, once again, with what was happening in my country. From that moment in 1990, that “something” moulded me into the civil rights activist that I see myself as today, even though I still hold on to the attitude of the observer. In my social-political life, I have taken on the role of the raisonneur, an analyst of attitudes and revolutionary mentality. Piața Universității 1990 was my moment of conception as an activist, and it undeniably shaped my identity as a social commentator.
In 2004 Humanitas published a Romanian translation of the British political scientist Tom Gallagher’s Theft of a nation: Romania since communism, a book, in today’s political climate, which still speaks to us today. The most interesting part is the introduction, as it poses several pertinent and timely questions. One of the core ideas is that Romania was not destroyed by outside forces, but that its internal corruption led to implosion. According to Gallagher, communism merely intensified the ills that were already present in society, as opposed to creating them. The Romanian “tumour” was not even the result of the long history of autocratic oppression, but of a deep seated cultural disposition. Gallagher implies, rather than lists, the following vices that characterise this disposition: suspicion, fear, instability, chronic corruption, and internal rivalries.
The British academic further noted an alarming trend: that, at various points in history, Romanians have been abused by their leaders and have accepted this without protest; and that any tremor of civic revolt has always been somewhat subdued, even though there had been some remarkable moments of revolt. Romania, according to Gallagher, was and still is a crippled country. The recent crisis, and the protests I have witnessed since 2017, bring to my mind, again and again, Gallagher’s conclusion.
February 4th 2017
On Friday night, in Cluj, I spotted a lot of my old journalism and literature students at the demonstration taking place. There were probably many of my current students there too, but in a gathering of over 30,000 protestors it is difficult to distinguish one face from another in that playful, subversive intermingling of bodies. I was surprised to recognise the other ones, the ones I knew from long ago and I felt great warmth towards them. Just like the protests from 1990, the solemnity of the occasion was undercut with playfulness. It spoke of the exhilaration of the crowd of young people (75 per cent of the protestors were very young) who took delight in their togetherness, their common plea for change, uttered for the first time in this moment. What united all the placards and slogans was the spirit of parody. I saw many placards with epigrammatic slogans – I won’t mention them now as social media is already awash with these mischievous provocations. The image that has stayed with me since that Friday night was of a girl, around 18 years old, dressed in jeans and a jacket, wearing a crocheted hat with a pompom; she was earnest yet boisterous, and swayed through the crowd through some kind of dance, holding a placard she had written, in shaky letters: “We want a normal Romania, not a criminal country!” For her and others like her on the streets of Cluj demanding change seemed like the only solution.
February 5th 2017
Saturday night in Cluj. First of all the exuberant complicity on the tram: there was a family with a small child holding a flag, two schoolgirls (one was telling the other that her mother complained she would catch a cold but the other told her the crowd would warm her up). There was an elderly couple in a prankish mood wearing thick sportswear, well prepared to take on the night’s chill. We were all wearing sensible marching shoes. It was easy for us to recognise each other and occasionally exchange complicit smiles. In the centre of town everyone was moving towards the same destination – Piața Unirii (Union Square). The crowd were singing, chanting, dancing, chatting and joking. I liked wandering around, anonymous, through the multitude, feeling myself swept up in its genuine tenderness. I do not think I have ever heard so many people say “Sorry”, “Excuse me”, “Pardon me” – as everyone stamped on each other’s feet in the congestion of bodies.
There was a particular impulse for everyone to care for one another, to uphold a certain standard of decency and civilised behaviour. The protestors were impetuous and intransigent, but always jovial, witty, and playful. That evening, the crowd seemed more diverse in terms of age, there were as many older people as young ones. The endless march of people snaking through the middle of the road fascinated those watching from the pavements: their gaze seemed captivated and empathetic. Plenty more encouraging eyes followed us from the balconies of blocks of flats. There was a palpable vitality, a spectacle that resembled a kind of communion between all those present. Just like in Piața Universități in 1990, the protestors came to the march as part of groups bound by specific aims, and, despite their differences, everyone was united by a feeling of solidarity. The public square felt like it was restored to its true purpose. The chant most commonly heard that evening was: ‘United, we will save THE WHOLE of Romania!’
February 6th 2017
The evening’s protest on Sunday became a topic of conversation when I was having lunch with my 82-year-old father, Dominițian, who told me that going out and protesting, in order to declare yourself against the law that pardoned certain crimes committed by politicians, was a matter of dignity and a necessary stand against a government that sanctioned corruption and incompetence. That night the streets were transformed into an outdoor theatre – half protest, half carnival. That evening, even more than the two previous nights, reminded me a lot of the 1990 demonstrations in Piața Universității for the way it made me feel that I was a part of the carnival.
What do I mean by carnival? First of all it was the improvised nature of the occasion, the people I spoke to and everyone expressing themselves in their own particular revolutionary idiom: from the 88-year-old man (a former political prisoner from Balta Brăilei), to the veteran of the 1989 revolution; the lady that reminded us all of Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance and the chorus of student voices, each trying to find their way. And then there were the tiny tots perched on their parents’ shoulders (tiny tots that didn’t whine, didn’t demand anything, because the spectacle in the streets fascinated them and was enough), the silent protestors, disabled protestors in their wheelchairs sheltered by the crowd with tactful respect, the countless slogans on placards (from the solemn to the satirical to the downright filthy), drummers banging their makeshift instruments (including pots, pans and wooden spoons), accompanied by others who shook their Coca Cola bottles to the rhythm of the chants. There were others wearing satirical masks and young people channelling hippies in bandanas – reminding me of the ones the young people wore in 1990 as they, in turn, paid homage to those who sacrificed their lives in Tiananmen Square.
Romanian, Moldovan, French and EU flags all rose up together above the procession. The most potent, heartfelt cry that resounded through the streets that night was: “Wake up, Romania! Bucharest, don’t forget, Cluj is on your side!” A national anthem, simplified into a direct message, was understood by everyone. The true goal of the protest was the fight against passivity. Many of those amongst the crowd would not have bothered to vote in the last general election (disheartened, no doubt, by the range of options available), but through their presence on the streets, they cast their vote in their own way. It was a fiesta in the truest sense when we could see, on the television screens, the crowds in Bucharest, Timișoara, Sibiu, Iași and many other places. The public squares around the country seemed to have been transformed into swarms of fireflies, lit up with the screens of mobile phones where people once would have waved candles.
Seeing it all warmed my heart. There is something very powerful about half a million people out on the streets, something intense and irrefutable. Something infrangible. A heart, a reawakening to life.
Translated by Gabi Reigh
Translator’s addendum: On May 26th 2019, a record number of Romanians voted in the European parliamentary elections. Across Europe, the Romania diaspora hit the news headlines as queues of hundreds of people stretched from morning till night so that they could cast their vote in the elections as well as in a referendum about the prohibition of certain pardons and amnesties for corruption offences proposed by the government. Some waited for more than eight hours in line, only to be turned away when the polling stations closed at 9:00 pm in the evening. However, as a result of the people’s determination to make their voices heard, the plan of the Social Democrats (PSD) to change anti-corruption legislation were rejected by a large majority and the party also made significant losses in the European parliament. The day after the election, Liviu Dragnea, the head of the PSD, was given a three and a half year prison sentence after being convicted on charges of corruption.
Ruxandra Cesereanu is a professor at the Faculty of Letters (Department of Comparative Literature) in Cluj, a member of the staff of the Center for Imagination Studies (Phantasma) and director of the Creative Writing Workshops on poetry, prose and movie scripts. She is well known for producing major research and critical monographs, with eight books of non-fiction. She has also published eight books of poetry and seven books of fiction, several of which have been translated in English, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian.
Gabi Reigh’s translations include Poems of Light by Lucian Blaga and two novels by Mihail Sebastian. The 2019 PEN Translates winner The Town with Acacia Trees by Mihail Sebastian will be published in October by Aurora Metro.