For many dissidents, the revolutions of 1989 did not come soon enough. The great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, one of the original signatories of Charter 77, died in 1977. Other dissidents were already quite old when the changes finally came. The Slovak writer Milan Simecka was able to enjoy life in a free country for less than a year before his death in September 1990.
But in Romania, there was no Charter 77 or Solidarity trade union movement. Only a few intellectuals had come out against the Ceausescu regime, and most ended up in exile as a result. The first real organization of civil society emerged in the first exhilarating days of revolution in December 1989. That was when the Group for Social Dialogue came together: on December 31. There were only 39 original members. And they were unprepared for the rapidly evolving political situation. But if the revolution had come just a little bit later…
Magda Carneci was one of those original members. A young writer and art historian, she had taken a courageous stance against the regime in the summer of 1989.
“During the summer and at the beginning of autumn 1989, when I was a very young writer, I signed a letter together with 17 other young writers in Romania against the regime,” she told me in an interview at the Group for Social Dialogue offices in May 2013. “We sent it in a very tortuous way out of Romania, and it was read over the same Radio Free Europe. This caused some problems for us. But surprisingly the problems were not as big as we expected — because I think that everybody was waiting for something. The political director of my institution demanded that I attend a meeting where I was severely reprimanded. I was threatened with expulsion from my job. But nothing happened finally because it was already November. And then we were waiting and waiting, and the atmosphere was very tense. Calea Victoria, the main route through Bucharest, was blocked. Cars couldn’t circulate on it. So there was a siege atmosphere.”
When the revolution arrived the following month, the situation remained uncertain in Bucharest up until the famous moment when Ceausescu and his wife left the Communist Party Central Committee building roof by helicopter. During this time, the National Salvation Front (NSF) coalesced as the body to manage the transition away from Communism. Invited to join the NSF, Carneci signed up to work on youth affairs. But it was not long before she stepped down.
“It took me a while to realize that I was entering a strange world with old politicians — old Communists — who took power again and began to rebuild the old power relations,” she told me. “Even if I was so young and so naive, I understood this, that I was entering a kind of cabal.”
Meanwhile, the Group for Social Dialogue began to articulate a range of proposals for transforming Romanian society. But, Carneci admits, the group didn’t act quickly enough.
“We were very naive at that time,” she said. “We didn’t have a real political education, and we were not prepared for what happened. Everything came a little too quickly. If, for example, the revolution had exploded one year later, we would have been prepared. Because we had started to prepare: we had plans. We drew up a program about what to do with censorship, the party system, and so on. But it came too early, and we didn’t have time to organize this. Everything came suddenly, and we had to take it as it was. Everybody was thinking that it would be easy to transform such a country in a different way, but it wasn’t. Little by little we became overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that was before us. And we didn’t know how to do our own job and at the same time to be politically active. Little by little we learned, but it took time.”
We talked about the evolution of the Group for Social Dialogue, why she’s optimistic about developments in Romanian society, and how postmodernism and Communism co-existed in Romania.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Bucharest in autumn 1989, and I heard about this on Radio Free Europe. At the time RFE was prohibited, but everybody listened to it in Romania. That’s how I heard about the fall of the Wall and all the events that came before and after. This was our single source of information at that time.
At that time you were a student?
No, I was already working at the Institute of Art History. In 1989, I remember that rumors were already circulating that something would happen toward the end of the year. I heard this for the first time in April 1989. What is funny is that I heard about it during a meeting of the Communist Party, so people were talking about this even in such political circumstances. So even the Communist activists, even the Securitate, was already preparing to react in a way.
During the summer and at the beginning of autumn 1989, when I was a very young writer, I signed a letter together with 17 other young writers in Romania against the regime. We sent it in a very tortuous way out of Romania, and it was read over the same Radio Free Europe. This caused some problems for us. But surprisingly the problems were not as big as we expected — because I think that everybody was waiting for something. The political director of my institution demanded that I attend a meeting where I was severely reprimanded. I was threatened with expulsion from my job. But nothing happened finally because it was already November. And then we were waiting and waiting, and the atmosphere was very tense. Calea Victoria, the main route through Bucharest, was blocked. Cars couldn’t circulate on it. So there was a siege atmosphere.
In November was the last Congress of the Romanian Communist Party. I remember how shocked I was to see for the first time in my life these huge military vehicles surrounding the Communist Party building. I realized that something very grave would happen in the future.
And it did.
And it did.
What was your experience of December 21, 1989?
I had a tough experience. On December 21, there was a meeting ordered by Ceausescu, and I had a feeling that something would happen during this meeting. So I left my job and, together with a friend, we went to the place where the meeting would take place. When the organizers of this meeting realized that we weren’t “their guys,” they kicked us out. But we stayed there anyway. And it was at the central square where the meeting took place. And I was suddenly among a group of people who started to shout against the regime. I was so surprised, and I was so afraid! And at the same time I took courage and started to shout also with the others. It was very strange because we realized that the police didn’t react. They allowed us to do what we did, and this was very unusual.
But after maybe ten minutes, something happened during the meeting. In the middle of the meeting we heard cries and noises and people were starting to run away. Suddenly, the attitude of the police changed, and they formed a sort of cordon between us and the others. They became aggressive. Soldiers appeared from other streets, and they directed guns at us. So we started to run away. And they started to fire. And this was awful. I was very afraid, of course. I hid in a corner, not far from here. This happened between 11 am and noon. It was the first act.
Then by the afternoon, we knew that the revolution had started. I and others started to call people, friends, to come because “it started!” In the afternoon we gathered in front of the university where, in fact, the main act of the revolution took place. There were more and more people, mostly young people, and they started to cry. There was a barricade organized and a meeting, and young people took the floor and talked and pronounced themselves against Ceausescu and the regime. But then war machines and soldiers appeared, and again we had to run away.
I wasn’t at the central committee building because I was afraid by then. My mother came after me, and she said that if I didn’t go back with her she would die. And she simulated a heart attack. So finally I had to take her back home. By then, it was already night. She lived not far from the central committee building, so during the night I heard the noise, the bombing, the gunfire, and so on. It was a terrible, terrible night. And for some extraordinary reason, the phones worked. And people from abroad started to call us because they heard about it. My sister who lived in Germany at the time and some other relatives called. It was such a tense atmosphere. Colleagues of mine would come to my parents’ place, where I kept some food and some clothes. And I could leave the house only in the morning because my parents didn’t allow me to go.
When I went back to University Square, I was shocked because I could see blood on the pavement. The street cleaning machines were working. I saw some people trying to run away, trying to hide, trying not to be recognized by the police. Because now policemen were everywhere, trying to control the situation and occupy the place. So I said to myself, “Oh my god, they stopped the revolution. There’s blood everywhere.” I went back to my job to see what happened, and everybody could talk about only this, of course. We were calling people to try to learn what was happening in other parts of the city. Suddenly a hope arose because workers from the big factories started to come towards the center of the city.
This was so extraordinary that we ran away from our jobs and started to gather. And I saw with my own eyes how Ceausescu flew away in the helicopter from the roof of the central committee building. Along with other people, I entered that building, which was totally untouchable before. Some people invited me to go to the television studio, which was the main staging point of the revolution, but I didn’t go there, I don’t know why. Nevertheless, the people who were the leaders of the multitude were friends of mine because I had called them to come to University Square. They’d come and become leaders.
So, this was on December 22. The next day on the 23rd I was invited to be member of the council of the National Salvation Front, which was the first political organism to lead the country. I was in the group that took care of youth affairs. I was involved in this for several weeks. Little by little I realized that I would become more politicized and I didn’t like it. It was very different from what I did before. So I stepped down.
What part about it did you not like?
I was a very young writer. And there were other more renowned writers than I was, and they stepped down even more quickly. It took me a while to realize that I was entering a strange world with old politicians — old Communists — who took power again and began to rebuild the old power relations. Even if I was so young and so naive, I understood this, that I was entering a kind of cabal.
When did you become involved with the Group for Social Dialogue?
The group was founded on December 31, 1989. It was the first free independent organization formed during the revolution. We were all more or less friends. We were intellectuals that met in each other’s houses and apartments, and we talked about how we should act after things changed. One of these intellectuals had the idea to organize a group of intellectuals on the model of Charter 77 from Czechoslovakia or the group of intellectuals that accompanied the Solidarnosc movement in Poland. And each of these intellectuals had signed a letter or made a protest or had somehow come out against the regime. At the beginning we were maybe 30 people. Not so many.
Thirty-nine, I think.
Yes, 39. And then we became 47 or 49, and then we stopped. And now we’re around 50, no more than this. And the group declared itself publically at the Intercontinental Hotel, which was full of foreign journalists. Were you there?
No, I didn’t get to Romania until May 1990.
There were many, many journalists from different countries, and we started to get in touch with them. And it was important to be able to speak in French and in English. It was very difficult actually at the beginning, because I wasn’t accustomed to this kind of communication. But somehow we managed to communicate.
So, you joined the Group for Social Dialogue, but you also went back to work at the Art Institute?
Yes, I was working at that time at the Institute of Art History, which is not far from here. But 1990 was such a chaotic year. Most of the time, I was doing social and political activities. We met everywhere in order to try to organize, discuss, form groups and political parties. It was a very hectic period. Also, in 1990, I was chosen to be director of my institute of art history, even though I was the youngest candidate. It was because of my revolutionary activities. So I had to do a lot of work. During those first couple years, everything was a mess. But the Group for Social Dialogue started a magazine here, Revista 22, which was and is a social-political weekly, and we were very proud of it. Our headquarters was a very active place, maybe you remember?
I do. I just showed up and started interviewing people when I got here in 1990.
And even the Open Society Foundation came here. One of the members of the GSD, Alin Teodorescu, was elected president of the Romanian Open Society Foundation. And everything was decided here, in fact. Many other foreign foundations and organizations came here, and we received assistance and materials: the first computers, the first printers, TV sets. And we started also to distribute these to other new organizations and creative societies and NGOs.
When you think back to that year in 1990 and those first two years and what you expected would happen both for the Group here but for Romania in general, and where we are today with the Group here and with Romania, how big is the difference between what you expected and the reality today?
We were very naive at that time. We didn’t have a real political education, and we were not prepared for what happened. Everything came a little too quickly. If, for example, the revolution had exploded one year later, we would have been prepared. Because we had started to prepare: we had plans. We drew up a program about what to do with censorship, the party system, and so on. But it came too early, and we didn’t have time to organize this. Everything came suddenly, and we had to take it as it was. Everybody was thinking that it would be easy to transform such a country in a different way, but it wasn’t. Little by little we became overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that was before us. And we didn’t know how to do our own job and at the same time to be politically active. Little by little we learned, but it took time.
On the other hand, the activists of the old political system were still in place. They didn’t disappear. They were very afraid at the beginning. During the first months they were very silent and discreet. It looked as though they – the Securitate, everybody — had retired from the scene. Then they realized they could come back because the country needed administrators and managers. And these people were the only ones who knew how to administer, how to manage. So the old structure started to reform. It was almost inevitable, because there was not a sufficient critical mass of opposition intellectuals who could balance this huge number of old elite. And, in fact, the majority of the population was like them! They were all more or less educated in the Communist system. They couldn’t think differently. And everybody was afraid of losing his or her position, job, identity. Nobody understood exactly how things would evolve.
Even in my family, I had huge discussions with my parents and other family members older than me. They didn’t want to change the system. So there was a huge opposition—a tenacious, silent, and very effective opposition to change from the majority.
You were a small sliver of society.
Yes, a small sliver of society that was trying to convince the rest of the people that changes were necessary. It took a much longer time than we hoped or supposed. And things have changed: little by little, slowly. And this rhythm allowed everybody to arrange his or her situation in one way or another. Now Romania is very different from what the country was before. But it’s like a mixture. I cannot compare this with what happened in other countries from central and Eastern Europe, but I suppose it’s more or less the same. We couldn’t kill the old generation or just put everybody in jail. We had to get along.
How do you see the role or function of the Group for Social Dialogue today, compared to its role or function in 1990?
The group is not as effective or prominent as it was, especially during the 1990s, but also less prominent than during the 2000s. Nevertheless, because of its activities and its members, it has remained a standard of comparison. Everyone in Romania knows the Group of Social Dialogue – even the people who hate it, and there are a lot of people like that. But one way or another, they respect the group. GSD has remained like a sort of moral example because its members didn’t become rich, didn’t become prominent politicians. We still organize debates and try to be useful and promote freedom of thought. Even if, in general, the political position of the group is center right, nevertheless we try to be equally distant from the political parties. So, for example, if the center right party that was in power until last year didn’t act correctly in our opinion, we would criticize this immediately in the magazine Revista 22. And Revista 22 is still read, even in the Parliament, even by the TV and radio stations. So the points of view that are expressed there still count. We try to maintain a balance. We promote things that are good and denounce things that are bad no matter the color of the party.
You brought in some younger people into GSD. Have they changed the dynamic in any way?
A little bit. Everybody is in several organizations and has to be active in many directions, and these young people also have their own organization at the same time. But when it’s necessary we communicate. We write statements together, translate them into English and send them to the European Union. They organize debates here, and we try to collaborate.
Are you still the head of the Art Institute?
No, I had to leave because it was a little too hard. And I had the impression that I was the only one who was working there. I went to Paris for a while to get my PhD in art history. I came back, and I was president of GSD in 1993-94 (we regularly change the leadership of the group). I traveled a lot. And then, like many other Romanians, I came back. Those were very dynamic years. We wanted to see everything. I wanted to travel, I was young, and I received some grants: Fulbright, Soros, Getty. So I took those opportunities to develop my career a little bit more.
And you specialize in…?
Modern art: 20th century art in Central Eastern Europe.
Brancusi, for instance?
Yes, Brancusi, who was Romanian. I was interested in the historical avant-garde from the countries in this part of Europe that was under the Communist regime. But I was also interested in what happened during the Communist rule in these countries and afterwards. I received a grant from the Soros Foundation to travel in these countries, and it was very interesting research. After this I published a small book in English, which appeared in Romania, about how postmodernism was discussed and understood in the small cultures of Eastern Europe. It was very interesting.
So, how postmodernism was discussed even during the Communist period?
Astonishingly it was possible here and there, not everywhere, to have a cultural debate about postmodernism. The most interesting example was in Romania, in fact. This is why I was so interested in this topic: because I myself participated in this cultural debate during the 1980s. Then I wanted to know if the same phenomenon happened in other countries of the region. And it happened in Poland, and then in Hungary. In Czechoslovakia it was more discreet. But there was not so much of a theoretical debate around what postmodernism could be. There were artists who related to this atmosphere or this debate. It’s also interesting what happened in painting, sculpture, and other arts during the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s. I discovered that everywhere, more or less, there was a current of neo-expressionism taken up by the young generation of artists. There was a zeitgeist that was everywhere: neo-expressionism in paintings, in sculpture, graphic art. There was also another trend in those years, the so-called inter-media, which was using photography, video, and new technologies to create these new ambient artistic environments.
When I was looking at my old reports from my trip to Romania in 1990, I wrote that Ceausescu’s civic center struck me as being very postmodernist. It reminded me of the famous Chippendale top on that New York building. Similarly, here the buildings had that massive quality and then these neo-classical references at the top.
Neo-classical or classical, yes. Absolutely. In fact, Ceausescu’s huge building, the House of the People, which is now the House of Parliament, was completely a postmodernist design of architecture. But it’s an official postmodernism. In time this will become interesting because history will take it as it is and transform it.
What are you working on right now?
Now I have a double career, I’m a writer and an art historian. I have periods when I’m more a writer and others where I’m more an art historian. Now I’m more of a writer. I’m in the process of republishing my PhD thesis, which was written first in French when I defended it in Paris. And then I published it as a book in Romanian 13 years ago. Now I’m in the process of republishing it in a revised edition with some more images, and I intend also to publish it in English. My PhD thesis was on art and politics during the 45 years of Communism in Romania. In the second edition I added an addendum with a short overview of the last 20 years from 1990 up to 2010, just to bring things closer to our time.
Tell me a little bit about that addendum. The artists that I’ve interviewed have gone off in very different directions. Andreja Kuluncic is very political and works with mostly marginalized populations. David Cerny, of course, is more of an artist provocateur. I’ve mostly been interested in those artists who’ve been working at this intersection between art and politics. I’m curious what happened here in Romania, whether there has been some really interesting art that has emerged over the last 20 years.
You should talk to Dan Perjovschi, who works here as a member of the 22 staff. He’s a painter who draws with markers. His drawings are like political caricatures. He illustrates 22. Then he started to transform these political drawings from 22 into interventions in public space. I think he’s comparable with the other people you mentioned. He has circulated quite a bit internationally. It’s easy for him to come only with his markers and to do drawings temporarily. He was even invited to MoMA and other important museums all over the world to do his intervention. His drawings are always political with messages concerning east and west, globalization, post-Communism, China, new global powers. He does very funny drawings, and they’re easy to understand.
Let me ask you about the current Romanian political situation. As you said, things have improved little by little. But how would you characterize the political system today? It’s a center Left coalition government; there was the political crisis a year ago. Where do you think Romania’s heading politically? For me, the situation resembles to a certain extent Hungary when there was a coalition government between the socialists and the liberals. And that led to what we have today, which is Fidesz, which is a right-wing party.
I don’t think that it will be the same in Romania. The circumstances are different. This coalition will orient more and more pragmatically to what is good for the parties involved and for Romania, in the European context. I’m positive, more or less, because I think people are pragmatic. On the other hand, in any coalition there are always tensions and good guys and bad guys. It changes all the time. But I think that this coalition will stay in power for a while.
I talked with Andrei Chiliman. So there you have an example of a conflict within the coalition. What’s your interpretation of this split? Will it lead to anything significant, in terms of the Liberal Party?
I don’t know. Maybe yes maybe not, but for the time being, I’m tempted to say no. I appreciate Chiliman. He’s a man of quality, and it’s a pity that there are not many like him in the Liberal Party who have dignity and can explain a different point of view. But I think that Chiliman will be isolated and probably won’t be able to create another Liberal Party. It’s a pity.
Let me ask you about economics on a day-to-day level. People talk about corruption, about dirty businessmen. But how you see the Romanian economy?
Well, I tend to be more positive. It’s so easy to be negative. It’s so easy to say everything is corrupt. But I lived in Paris for eight years, so I had the experience of another country. I know that there also are corruption scandals in France, maybe not as many as here or maybe not the same style. But corruption exists everywhere. And politicians are more or less the same. So I tend to be more positive and believe that things will become more and more stable, that Romania will become a more normal country. There are already pockets of normality in Romania where there’s a middle class that’s more or less the same as in the rest of the European world. I belong to this middle class, so I feel comfortable here as I would in Paris. My living standard is fine.
I know that there are many problems in other parts of society. But you don’t see them really. If you go to the countryside, everybody has their new houses, their new cars. So, yes, there is the unemployment, but everybody manages to find a solution. Either they live in the countryside, so life is not very expensive there, or they have relatives in the countryside. They find a solution. There is poverty, but there is not so much misery. There is a difference between poverty and misery. The only part of the society where there’s misery and problems is among the Gypsies. But even they have started to be assimilated little by little through educational or social programs. The Open Society Foundation has a huge branch here with programs for them. Gypsies are a problem everywhere, though more here in Romania and Bulgaria for historic reasons. But little by little, they are getting absorbed. It will take time.
When you think back to your worldview in 1990, and you think about how you look at the world today after 23 years, have there been any major shifts in your thinking?
I became less naïve. So, I matured from this point of view. But I’m not disappointed. Everybody evolves in society in the way in which he or she needs. So there are huge changes. I can say that I had one life before 1989 and another life after 1989. Our life was so rich, full of events during these last 23 years. It was a great chance for us to live it consciously in an adult age. It was not easy, but what is easy in this life? We’ve been exposed to so much more information in economics, in politics, in the banking system, so much knowledge that we didn’t even know existed before. Our life has been enriched. It is so much more complex and challenging than it was before.
Bucharest, May 28, 2013