Brasov does not forget its martyrs. Picturesque and cloistered by Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, the city exudes old-world charm with medieval walls and Habsburg edifices. But a closer look reveals the scars of revolution: bullet holes unpatched in the façade of the downtown Modarom building; elaborate wooden crosses emblazoned with “Our Heroes of December 1989”; gravestones bearing black crosses and small, somber images of the fallen, many of them young students. Street names have been replaced and statues torn down.
In Romania, the brutal Communism of the Eastern Bloc made its bloody last stand. After waves of reform swept feverishly and bloodlessly through Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria during the summer and fall of 1989, the thuggish Nicolae Ceausescu entrenched himself in ideology and delusion. On December 16, a pastor organized widespread protests in the university city of Timisoara. Eleven days and 1,104 deaths later, the Revolution was over.
But the meaning of that revolution, and those deaths, remained elusive. Ion Iliescu, a prominent Party bigwig, seized power and then had his victory confirmed by election – he would remain ensconced until 2004. His successor, the unsavory Traian Basescu, has likewise failed to obscure his numerous links to the Ceausescu regime. Though the cult of commemoration for the martyrs remains sacred, Romanians who remember life under Communism hold a deep-seated ambivalence toward that era. Call it nostalgia, a longing for job security, or classic Romanian dark humor — it may just be a lack of substantive change.
To Americans, such murky results seem hard to understand. We love the idea of revolutions. Ever since starting the whole modern notion back in 1776, we’ve felt a spiritual kinship with those who seek to liberate themselves from oppressors. We see revolution abroad as a confirmation of those values we keep insisting are universal — democracy, freedom, human rights.
But revolutions don’t always seek to remake their countries in the image of our liberal republic. From Castro to Khomeini, we’ve found ourselves split between rooting for the oppressed and fearing their rage, especially when it is directed against regimes we have supported – for oil, for security, for grand strategy. Che Guevara’s face is instantly recognizable, and often, alluring, but we shouldn’t forget that the CIA played a vital role in tracking and killing him. Of course, there’s a political divide at play: leftists are much more likely to idealize foreign fighters, while conservatives are much more apt to hearken back to our own revolution. But our conflicted feelings often cross such boundaries. While far from Romanian political cynicism, we too have a national ambivalence towards revolutions: joy over orange flags in Kiev, terror over the phrase “Palestinian revolutionary.”
This Wednesday’s News column “A righteous struggle against autocracy” was a welcome rejoinder to certain, disappointing arguments regarding the crisis in Egypt. These have advocated for a kind of eugenic suffrage: the notion that certain people (generally citizens of Arab nations) shouldn’t be allowed to vote, because if they do they’ll elect people we won’t much like. Such views are about as patronizing and jingoistic as British denunciations of Gandhi’s Salt March. With the authors of that column, I would like to fall on the optimistic side of both Romanian and American feelings on revolution. I want to hope that the movements across the Arab world represent change, and that this change is for the better.
And yet I find my optimism tempered — if not by the neocolonialist alarmism of the eugenicists, then by memories of Romania and narratives of Arab history. Remember that Mubarak himself is the product of revolution. He rose to power as vice president to Anwar as-Sadat, who along with his predecessors Gamal Nasser and Muhammad Naguib overthrew the puppet government of King Faruq in the name of decolonization and republican values. This was part of the same series of upheavals that ended the monarchy in Yemen — and brought the later-infamous Ba’ath Party to power in Syria and Iraq.
At the end of Caryl Churchill’s chilling Mad Forest, based on interviews conducted with Romanians in the aftermath of the events of 1989, a character cries out in the midst of a cacophony of voices and movement: “I’m going to write a true history so we’ll know exactly what happened.” The sorrow of the moment is that such a history has yet to be written and may never be written. Revolutions do not traffic in clear-cut answers. Only in history and politics can a revolution end up in a different place than it began – mathematics and astronomy know better.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.