Revisiting the Myths of the Romanian Revolution. Part I: The Hegemony of Conspiratorial and Postmodernist Explanations
Revisiting the Myths* of the Romanian Revolution. Part I: The Hegemony of Conspiratorial and Postmodernist Explanations
This is the theoretical introduction to a three part series (Parts II-IV) which will follow:
Myth 1: The “Timisoara Syndrome” or the “False Timisoara Grave (the Paupers Cemetery)/Massacre”
Myth 2: The water is posioned! (Apa este otravita!)
Myth 3: The Romanian Television building is in danger, danger of an explosion! (TVR e in pericol–Pericol de explozie!)
Two scholars of comparative political science, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, essentially captured what has been the dominant trend in studies of the overthrow of the communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989 when they opined: “any primarily narrative account is necessarily unsatisfying, what we need, rather are studies of the dynamics of myth creation and the functions of disinformation–a deconstruction of the revolution itself” (Linz and Stepan, p. 346.).
In stating things in this manner, Linz and Stepan drew attention to the two primary trends in studies of December 1989, what I have chosen to call: 1) Conspiratorial (“studies of …the functions of disinformation”) and 2) Postmodernist (“studies of the dynamics of myth creation”). Both of these research trends developed as early as 1990 and have arguably dominated the field of study ever since.** I break them down here as follows:
1) Conspiratorial. These explanations attribute intentional actions to interested parties, ranging from foreign security services to domestic political officials and military officers. Disinformation, lies, and manipulation, rather than misunderstanding, dominate in these conspiratorial accounts. Such accounts are rife with an almost unbounded or unconstrained voluntarism and agency. The focus is heavily on the “supply-side” (producers) of myth. Examples of this approach include: Michel Castex, Radu Portocala (and Olivier Weber), and Andrei Codrescu.
2) Postmodernist. Postmodernism is premised on the a priori existence of pluralities. There isn’t a single Truth with a capital T, as conspiratorial accounts suggest; there are multiple “truths” with a little t and preferably quotation marks or italics. These explanations question the notion of singular, objective “truth” as suggested by conspiratorial accounts, and thus emphasize subjectivity. Individuals are less agents, than subjects, situationally-bounded and contextually-informed, in constructed realities, and hence likely to fall victim to and to produce misunderstandings. Although postmodernist accounts address both the supply and demand sides of myth creation, what sets it apart is probably the energy and time devoted to the focusing on the demand side, in other words on audience. Examples of this approach include: Katherine Verdery and Gail Kligman, Peter Siani-Davies, and Ruxandra Cesereanu (whose book is appropriately titled, December 1989: The Deconstruction of a Revolution, and who has associated articles posted to the site of the equally-appropriately named “Center for Imagination Studies,” for example, http://phantasma.ro/wp/?p=934&lang=en )
Linz and Stepan perhaps captured the essence of the postmodernist trend in analyzing Verdery and Kligman’s account of the events of 1989-1990: “...[Verdery and Kligman] have sifted through the supposed facts and evidence, and they know all the literature, but their concern is with the very terms by which the events in Romania were experienced, described, and understood: the miners, the demonstrators, the front, the revolution, neo-communism. This makes for a lot of italics, but is illuminating.” (Linz and Stepan, p. 346). An emblematic passage from Verdery and Kligman’s approach comes on page 139 (in Banac, ed.) of their article: “Indeed, we question the coherence and unity of all groups named in one or another interpretation–the “Army,” the “Securitate,” the “Front,” and so on. Such unifying labels are unsuited to describing groups with fuzzy boundaries, internal conflicts and fissures, and constantly changing coalitions.” Indeed, Verdery and Kligman make abundantly clear from the opening line of their November 1990 essay, that they are already jaded and frustrated by the question, “What ‘really happened’ in Romania in December 1989, when the twenty-five year rule of Nicolae Ceausescu was violently overthrown? (Banac, ed., p. 117). That they put “really happened” in quotation marks in itself foreshadows and tells much about their approach.
The differences between these the conspiratorialist and postmodernist perspectives can be seen in how they treat the three myths that form parts II – IV of this series. None of these three myths, I would argue, is central to the understanding of December 1989, but they are reasonably well-known among Romanians, Romanianists, and journalists and academics who study the region. The conspiratorial account suggests journalists and agents from the security services/communist party in Romania and perhaps from other East European countries intentionally fabricated the myths of a Timisoara mass grave of those killed in an alleged Timisoara massacre, of poisoned drinking water in Sibiu and elsewhere, and of the main television station in Bucharest being under attack and at risk of being blown up. The focus here is on perpetrators of the alleged fraud. By contrast, the postmodernist accounts explain these same myths by appealing to a host of more banal explanations–as are laid out at times explicitly and at times implicitly in, for example, the concluding chapter of Peter Siani-Davies’ 2005 volume on December 1989: including parachute and pack journalism, regime inculcated fear and hatred of the Ceausescus and the forces of repression, as well as Western anti-(national) communist othering/Balkan Orientalism (see, for example, the discussion of vampires, Dracula, and Ceausescu, pp. 282-284; for an analysis of these narrative frames with regard to Romania specifically see, for example, http://www.academia.edu/554879/Images_of_Hungarians_and_Romanians_in_Modern_American_Media_and_Popular_Culture Images of Hungarians and Romanians). The focus is thus almost less on those created the myths than on why the audience–especially the television one, in Romania, but also around the world–bought those myths.
It is intriguing to note that whereas conspiratorial explanations tend to be favored on the European Continent, among French and German journalists and academics, and particularly among Romanians themselves–as Verdery and Kligman memorably lay out in their 1990 account “‘the plot mentality’ characteristic of virtually every Romanian’s description of events before, during, and after December” (p. 119)–postmodernist explanations tend to be associated with US and UK academics, particularly from the social sciences, who are not Romanian emigres. (The most notable exception to this generalization is undoubtedly Ruxandra Cesereanu, whose accounts are highly postmodernist, but perhaps this is not so surprising considering that she is primarily a novelist and literary critic.) Indeed, one of the more interesting things to observe is how Romanian emigres in the US and UK academic systems will opt more for postmodernist explanations when in the “polite company” of fellow western social scientists, but will write and voice more conspiratorial accounts, although not always consciously, in Romania or with fellow Romanians. (Romanian emigres don’t want to look like fools–which is what they are likely to be viewed as, should they argue more conspiratorial accounts among their Western academic peers; but they also realize how out-of-hand postmodernist explanations, with their failure to assign agency or blame, will be rejected by fellow Romanians. Theirs is a difficult, but telling dilemma.) Suffice it to say, those who advocate conspiratorial accounts view postmodernist explanations as hopelessly naive and as the luxury of those removed from the events and their consequences, while those who advocate postmodernist accounts view conspiratorial explanations as a useful instinct gone awry, as deformed lenses, and not without a certain amount of intellectual condescension.
*The discussion of myth in the context of the Romanian transition of December 1989 is large. Among those who have used it, and who are not discussed above, are: Ciobanu, Deletant, Egry, Mungiu-Pippidi, Shafir, and Tismaneanu.
**My own 1999 EEPS article, Richard Andrew Hall, “The Uses of Absurdity: The Staged War Theory and the Romanian Revolution of December 1989,” East European Politics and Societies, vol 13, no. 3 (Fall 1999), pp. 501-542 ( https://romanianrevolutionofdecember1989.com/the-uses-of-absurdity-romania-1989-1999/ ) reflects both these dominant trends, conspiratorial and postmodernist–having been encouraged by dissertation advisors and fellow graduate students, and my own perception at the time of the “professionally correct” thing to do, to focus on “why it happened?,” rather than “what happened?,” the latter single case study approach being what Charles King once quipped as akin to ‘professional suicide,’ the former being seen at least in theory as enhancing the case’s comparative character, lending itself to comparative analysis, and helping it “travel” better.
Castex, Michel. Un mensonge gros comme le siècle: Roumanie, histoire d’une manipulation (Paris: Albin Michel, 1990).
Cesereanu, Ruxandra. Decembrie ’89: Deconstructii unei revolutii (Iasi: Polirom, 2004).
Ciobanu, Monica. “The Myth Factory,” Transitions Online (19 December 2005).
Codrescu, Andrei. The Hole in the Flag. A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991).
Deletant, Dennis. “Myth-Making and the Romanian Revolution,” Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (July 1994).
Egry, Gabor. H-Net Review of Siani-Davies (November 2011), https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=25906.
Linz, Juan J. and Alfred Stepan, “The Effects of Totalitarianism-cum-Sultanism on Democratic Transition: Romania,” in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 344-365.
Mungiu-Pippidi, Alina. “Doubtful Revolutions and Counter-Revolutions Deconstructed,” Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, vol. 8, no. 1 (April 2006), pp. 109-112.
Portocala, Radu. Autopsie du coup d’État roumain (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1990).
Portocala, Radu and Olivier Weber. “Les cinq actes d’une manipulation,” Le Point, 922, 21 May 1990.
Shafir, Michael. “Preparing for the Future by Revising the Past,” Radio Free Europe’s “Report on Eastern Europe,” Vol. 1, No. 41, (12 October 1990), pp. 29-42.
Siani-Davies, Peter. The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).
Tismaneanu, Vladimir. Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
Verdery Katherine and Kligman Gail, “Romania after Ceausescu: Post-Communist Communism?” in Ivo Banac (ed.)., Eastern Europe in Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 117-147.