Big Chills, Unexpected Shills (Sibiu, July 1990)
Like Andrei Codrescu, I was in Sibiu in July 1990. It was only recently, however, after re-reading my travel diary, that I realized the similarity of our experiences in discussing the events of December 1989 with locals. Looking back, I believe both of our experiences are a window to how disinformation can be disseminated and consumed: in this case, it came second and third-hand, through rumor and gossip, with its transmitters frequently unwitting of what they are disseminating, and we didn’t question it because it came through people we trusted and liked. This was a theme I developed extensively in my 1999 EEPS article (see especially pp. 526-529, https://romanianrevolutionofdecember1989.com/the-uses-of-absurdity-romania-1989-1999/). What’s different is that I didn’t recognize even back when I wrote the article, that I too had been party to just such an experience in Sibiu in July 1990.
At a critical juncture in his November 1990 Harper’s Magazine article, entitled “Big Chills: My high school reunion, in Romania” (an obvious witty allusion at the time to the 1983 college-reunion film The Big Chill), pauses to explain his thought process as he hears the consensus around him regarding what happened in December 1989:
As my friends spoke, a strange feeling engulfed me. Most of what they said sounded true, but there seemed to be something missing, one element of the plot that no one cared to mention. Here, in the middle of this sumptuous feast, I experienced the eeriness of another (hardly new) revelation: They were all blaming the army for the shootings; none of them blamed the Securitate. And yet the official government line was that the Securitate-not the army-massacred all those people who were undeniably massacred in Bucharest, Sibiu, and elsewhere. Could my friends also have been … ? I felt like drawing two fingers across my shoulder [a sign he had earlier related was used to communicate that someone had Securitate ties], but I had no one to do it for. In any case, the point they were making, and which was being corroborated everywhere these days, is that many shots had been fired, but few in defense of Ceausescu, He had been betrayed by everyone. Even his son, who’d been in charge at Sibiu, hadn’t ordered anybody to fire at demonstrators. Ironically, the People’s Army started shooting at the crowds at the same time that the army was officially coming over to “the side of the people.” However, the shooting was intended to create more panic than corpses. Romania’s TV revolution had only one side …Everyone had been on it.
Codrescu overcomes his momentary suspicion of the account he is hearing, apparently for three reasons: 1) it seems to be what the majority of the people around him are saying and what the majority in general are saying, 2) it is construed as oppositional, as the view of the everyday Romanian citizen against the manipulative state and political elite, and 3) he is among friends or at least people with whom he is having fun. He misses a critical point, however, and betrays his stereotype of who he believes would or could disseminate disinformation, when he jokes “could my friends also have been?…two fingers across my shoulder…” The issue was not primarily who was disseminating the account, but the content of the account itself, and that fact that what people were saying at this event reflected a word-of-mouth and media narrative that was by July 1990 almost a half year old (more on this below).
By the time I reached Sibiu on 18 July 1990, I had just come from crashing on a kind family’s couch in Timisoara, staying in a hotel room in Timisoara where I was overjoyed to find a TV set (only to immediately find its insides had been cannibalized and all that was left was the screen), and staying at a category III dive in Deva where I had a Groundhog Day of listening to the Lambada (for some background, see https://nationalismeasterneurope.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/postcards-from-an-original-democracy-romania-july-1990/; https://nationalismeasterneurope.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/lambada-loopback-deva-romania-july-1990/ ; https://nationalismeasterneurope.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/iliescus-little-helper-1990-nervous-breakdown/ ) It was time, I decided, to treat myself (not having showered in days). So I splurged and checked into the Hotel Imparatul Romanilor.
So I went down to dinner in the, of course, dimly lit dining room. Somewhere before or during the meal, two young men at another table asked to join me. They were a study in contrasts but I pretty soon felt comfortable with their company. Cristian was 21, a 2nd yr. psychology student who worked part-time at the library. He spoke excellent English, which he said he had studied for 7-8 years at home. He had a winning personality, saying things like “I am sick of British English. It is 4 o’clock on the continent and 3 PM in Britain” and that he liked the sound of American English. He would intersperse his conversation with what he had learned from ads, for example, “Adidas, I want, I can.” Dan, was a very tall 17 year old, who didn’t say much, but seemed flush with Romanian lei. Anyway, we talked and drank a lot, clearly far too much, as my travel diary notes that I started the next morning by dining on 7 alka seltzers (which I referred to as “Saint A.S.”) and “as many tylenol,” and yet as I crossed through the lobby later that “day after” I still could not lift my head above my shoulders. I would end up going camping and spelunking with them and their friends in the Fagaras mountains in the days which followed.
In my travel journal, I recorded Cristian and Dan’s accounts of their own experiences in December 1989 and their view of contemporary politics. I transcribe from my journal, with minor edits, as best I can here:
Cristian says the current political situation is “shits.” He would trust Iliescu, Roman, etc. if they had really changed their ways, but they have only changed their faces or, rather, the face of the system; they cut off the head, but the body still lives. Dan is in agreement. They did not take people to account after the revolution and say “he/she was a killer” and thus wipe the slate clean. On the other hand, Cristian is quick to absolve Romania of responsibility for the past 45 years (even the Securitate, which he denounces of course) saying their unfortunate proximity to the Russians, who have the infinitely finite mentality derived from the Steppe, and the agreement between the US and USSR (at Yalta, and then he says, maybe even at Malta). He says blame needs to be affixed, but on the other hand he says, it’s not our fault.
Cristian relates to me about the revolution. He wrote poems in the despair before it, when it seemed a remote, impossible dream, and ironically, as his mother said, in May a photo of him in the army shows him making a V for victory sign–a prophet. He was at home with his father eating when a man from the army knocked on the door telling them there was an alarm. (His father, whom he originally said was in the army, then in the weapons division of the police department, and even his friends joke that he is in the Securitate (does this explain his determination to absolve his country of fault and responsibility at times?–a psych. view) was called to HQ; Cristian was called to his unit 13 km away.
On that Sunday [December 17th] and until they had been preparing and waiting till Tuesday, even Cristian seemed to believe, as a result of propaganda and even objective facts that Hungary was launching an invasion. But at their army unit they had listened to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe…and by Wednesday had determined what was really going on and decided not to shoot at demonstrators. On Thursday [December 21st] spent morning and afternoon surrounding square of protesters in Sibiu, which included Dan–how funny life’s situations transpire, he says. Back to the barracks to serve a 7 to 7 “fire” watch. In the square other units had fired into the air, his refused to fire at all. Friday morning [December 22nd], heard the announcements on TV that hooligans were putting the nation in an anarchic situation, then next thing, Mircea Dinescu, Sergiu Nicolaescu, etc. were on the screen and scenes of the revolution ensued.
That afternoon [December 22nd], at 3 PM, Cristian was arrested by the politruc [according to Cristian, a “Securitate officer” sic.] in his unit who was trying to deflect attention from himself to the son of a policeman (who Cristian later revealed was under arrest for a month after the revolution–a very difficult time for the family). Luckily Cristian who was fearing his life might be lost in a misunderstanding ended up watching the revolution on TV as the guards thought his arrest was bullshit. Later his commandant surprisingly discovered and then released him.
…Cristian also thinks [Securitate Director General] Vlad’s cooperation, the placidity of the army and police officers, the Palace of the Republic escaping [gunfire damage], etc. (the example of a drunken Major General running his units through checkpoints, crashing helicopters from Alba Iulia in mad dash, only to get to arms factory in Cugir, to find that they weren’t “terrorists” as they had been told after all…) are strong evidence that Iliescu had some predetermined agreement with the Securitate that this was only a change of leaders at the top and they had nothing to fear).
Re-reading this, there were a lot of signs (retrospectively in blue) that I should have paid attention to in evaluating Cristian’s account. But by summer 1990, I was already conditioned by the Romanian emigre intellectual narrative in the US according to which the crucial factor in evaluating the credibility of someone’s account was what did they say about Iliescu, Roman, and the National Salvation Front? If they were supporters, one should be skeptical of their account; if they were opponents, their account was likely to be more credible (think this is not the case? read through the articles of Vladimir Tismaneanu from 1990-1991!). And, like Andrei Codrescu, what Cristian was saying “was being corroborated everywhere these days, is that many shots had been fired, but few in defense of Ceausescu, He had been betrayed by everyone. Even his son, who’d been in charge at Sibiu, hadn’t ordered anybody to fire at demonstrators. Ironically, the People’s Army started shooting at the crowds at the same time that the army was officially coming over to “the side of the people.” However, the shooting was intended to create more panic than corpses. Romania’s TV revolution had only one side …Everyone had been on it.”
I have detailed the evolution and characteristics of Securitate disinformation, specifically in the Sibiu case, during 1990, on many previous occasions.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but think that nothing captures better the unfortunate convergence and confluence of Securitate disinformation and the anti-communist Romanian opposition of the early 1990s than the fact that Angela Bacescu should publish the same article denying the existence and role of pro-Ceausescu Securitate “terrorists” in Sibiu in December 1989, in the anti-Front, opposition weekly, Zig-Zag in June 1990 (nr. 15, 6/19-26/1990, p. 8), and in Corneliu Vadim Tudor’s Romania Mare two months later in August 1990 (nr. 16, 8/21/1990, pp. 4-5).
ION CRISTOIU’S ‘ZIG-ZAG’ AS GATEWAY
In the early 1990s, perhaps no mainstream publications served more as a haven for former Securitate officers and informers than the weeklies edited by Ion Cristoiu, in particular “Zig-Zag” and “Expres Magazin.” The Timisoara revolutionary Marius Mioc has gone so far as to call Cristoiu “the spearhead of the campaign to falsify the history of the revolution” (Mioc, 2000a). Cristoiu’s two most famous alumni are undoubtedly 1) Pavel Corut, a former Securitate officer who wrote under this name and the pseudonym “Paul Cernescu” for “Expres Magazin” during 1991 and 1992; and 2) Angela Bacescu, who since writing for “Zig-Zag” during the spring and summer of 1990 has been a mainstay for the notorious “Europa,” a veritable mouthpiece of the former Securitate (see Hall, 1997; for background on Corut, see Shafir 1993). Both strove during their tenure at Cristoiu’s publications to minimize and negate the Securitate’s role in the deaths of over 1,100 people in December 1989, particularly the Securitate’s responsibility for the so-called post-22 December “terrorism” that claimed almost 90 percent of those who died during the events.
Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, Cristoiu’s “Zig-Zag” and “Expres Magazin” were widely regarded as pillars of opposition to the rump Communist Party-state bureaucracy that made up the National Salvation Front (FSN) regime of President Ion Iliescu — including a large proportion of the former Securitate. To the extent that Cristoiu and his publications became the object of suspicion and cynicism within the opposition, it was because of an alleged slipperiness and inconsistency in his treatment of Iliescu — he was accused of cozying up to the regime when it appeared to benefit his interests (based on my own experience in discussions with various journalists and intellectuals in Romania between 1991 and 1994).
Probably no publication played a larger role in 1990 in rewriting the history of December 1989 than “Zig-Zag,” edited at the time by Ion Cristoiu. Because those analysts who have commented on the role of “Zig-Zag” in 1990 have focused almost exclusively on the change in coverage — a turn toward more favorable coverage of the FSN and President Iliescu after former Ceausescu court poet Adrian Paunescu took over editorship of the weekly from Cristoiu for a time during late 1990 and early 1991 — it is important to note that much of the most damaging revisionism began long BEFORE Paunescu became senior editor. As Marius Mioc notes, in an interview with Lucia Epure of the Timisoara daily “Renasterea Banateana” in September 1990, the notorious Ceausescu court poet Corneliu Vadim Tudor was asked which paper he enjoyed reading most (Mioc, 2000a). His response: “‘Zig-Zag.’ I like this boy, Ion Cristoiu.” The reason for Tudor’s appreciation of Cristoiu’s journal is “easy to understand,” according to Mioc, since that weekly “was the first [publication] that, after December 1989 (and especially after the May 1990 elections), began the campaign to rehabilitate the pro-Ceausescu theory of the revolution” (Mioc, 2000a). Indeed, in June 1990 when “Romania Mare” — a publication that at the time was supportive of the Iliescu regime — first began to appear, Tudor would list his favorite publications. At the top of the list with five out of five stars was “Zig-Zag,” a publication that under Cristoiu had developed a reputation as a critic of Ion Iliescu and the FSN!
It is hard to state with certainty what exactly Cristoiu’s role was in having his publications serve as a conduit for revisionist Securitate disinformation. This much is clear, however: Cristoiu was not unwitting for long about the backgrounds of the former Securitate personnel who came to work for him. Asked point blank about the Bacescu case in a book-length interview in 1993, Cristoiu was unrepentant. He claimed that he realized from the beginning that Bacescu was writing to defend the interests of the former Securitate but, since “there was something true in what the Securitate was saying,” he allowed her to publish (Iftime, 1993, p. 126). Cristoiu stated that he had “no regrets” and denied that it was accurate to assert that “Zig-Zag” had been “manipulated,” even though he admitted that Bacescu had shown up “without need of money…and she brought a lot of documents with her.” Cristoiu justified Bacescu’s sympathetic presentation of the Securitate in the December events as follows:
“Until April, 1990, the Securitate had been presented as a force of evil…. [Thus] [i]t was an absolutely new theme [to write that the Securitate had been innocent of the charges against them]. A shocking point of view in a period when the government was still glorifying the Revolution and always talking about martyrs…” (Iftime, 1993, p. 126).
Only in this way, Cristoiu concludes, was it possible to learn that “not a single terrorist had existed” in Sibiu — the city in which Nicolae Ceausescu’s son, Nicu Ceausescu, the so-called “Little Prince,” was party first secretary — a story which he maintains “was later confirmed” (Iftime, 1993, p. 127).
Despite Bacescu’s unambiguous ties to the former Securitate since she transferred to “Romania Mare” and then permanently to “Europa” in late 1990, to my knowledge — short of Marius Mioc — no Romanian writer has gone back to compare what Bacescu wrote after leaving “Zig-Zag” with what she wrote while at “Zig-Zag” or to scrutinize the validity of the allegations she made about the December 1989 events in the pages of that weekly. Significantly, for example, the article written by Bacescu to which Cristoiu alludes as exonerating the Securitate in the Sibiu events was reprinted VERBATIM in Tudor’s “Romania Mare” after she transferred to that publication in the second half of 1990 (Bacescu, 1990 a and b). Clearly, the publication of an article exonerating the Securitate by someone who did little to hide her connections to the former secret police — first in a publication bitterly critical of the Iliescu regime and then in a publication supportive of the very same regime — should have raised alarm bells and led to scrutiny of her claims. In the confused, stultifying, and slightly surreal context of post-Ceausescu Romania, however, it did not do so.