Huge flap in Romania this week, as it’s been revealed that the Communist-era secret police recruited children to spy on parents and classmates.
This should come as no surprise. Nicolae Ceaucescu was a creepy little thug, and his Securitate were the scum of the earth. If you can think of a sleazy, evil activity, there’s a good chance Old Nic was into it. Assassinating troublesome Romanians abroad? Absolutely. Torture? Dude, they had training courses. Rewriting history, complete with forged photographs? They had a building full of people for that. You can argue whether Ceausescu was a “Stalinist” or not, but his regime knew all the tricks, and used them.
So, of course they had kids spying on their parents. For everything from Mom’s habit of listening to foreign radio stations to Dad’s jokes about the Ceausescus. While people may not have known this, exactly, it’s not something that should come as a shock.
So why the fuss?
Well, a couple of reasons. One, Romania has been really slow to come to grips with its Communist past. The state archives have been opened only slowly, partially and reluctantly. In large part this is because Ceausescu’s government was creepy, sleazy and evil even by the low standards of Communist Eastern Europe. If you were a high-ranking member of the Communist party in, say, 1980s Hungary, you might still be a basically decent person living a basically decent life. If you were a high-ranking member of the Communist party in 1980s Romania, the chances were good that you were involved in something disgusting. Even if you weren’t, your file would still be full of embarassing information about how you’d abased yourself to the Genius of the Carpathians. (Ceausescu required his subordinates to eat dirt, plenty of it, and smile.) Since the current political leadership of Romania is dominated by people who used to be high-ranking members of the Communist party, it’s not very surprising that the archives haven’t been thrown wide open.
Also, the Securitate was huge. The best guess is that they had 40,000 employees and approximately 700,000 informers. That means one Romanian out of thirty was working for the Securitate. That may not sound like so many, but think it through: even if you weren’t an informer yourself, the odds are pretty good that you had a close family member or dear friend who was. So, again, it’s not surprising that there hasn’t been a rush to open the files.
Yet they have been opening, slowly; and this leads to the second reason. This latest news comes after several interesting revelations from the archives. The biggest one was that Dan Voiculescu — oligarch, media baron, and head of the Conservative party — had worked for the Securitate. The funny thing is, everybody knew this. Voiculescu’s sudden rise to wealth and power, his cryptic past, his authoritarian and secretive habits… every Romanian I ever talked to said, oh yes, Voiculescu was Securitate. But the confirming revelation destroyed his political career overnight.
(N.B., I do not consider this a bad thing. There’s a complicated backstory here involving Voiculescu, Prime Minister Tariceanu, and President Basescu. Short version is, Basescu wants early elections, and so was probably happy to see Tariceanu’s government embarassed.)
A third reason, maybe: there’s a strong sense in Romania that a lot of these issues will disappear with time and generational change. Many of Ceausescu’s inner circle are getting old. Voiculescu was one of the younger players to emerge in 1989-90, and he’s sixty now. Former President Ion Iliescu — who was neck-deep in all sorts of things, but who successfully reinvented himself as the Father of Free Romania — is seventy-six. Year by year, the grave is swallowing the secrets. I think there’s been a strong subliminal sense in Romanian society that, if ignored long enough, the problem of collaboration would simply go away.
But a kid who was 12 in 1989 will only be 29 today.
Romania will join the EU in (glances at calendar) another five and a half months. So maybe It’s good that they’re having this discussion now. Certainly it’s none too soon.