Lena Constante (b. 18 June 1909, Bucharest – d. November 2005) was a visual artist and folklorist, one of the victims of communist repression, and the author of two of the most well-known postcommunist volumes of Romanian prison memoirs, which have been published also in other languages, including French and English. Before the start of the Second World War, she was part of the multidisciplinary teams coordinated and led by Dimitrie Gusti with the aim of producing monographs of Romanian villages. As a member of the Sociological School of Bucharest, Lena Constante had the opportunity to study Romanian folk art in some of the most traditional localities in the country. Stirred by communist ideals, it was natural that she should become close to the intellectual circles at the centre of power after the War. She was a good friend of the wife of Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, one of the foremost communist leaders in the first years after the takeover, and contributed together with her to the founding of the first puppet theatre in Romania, the Ţăndărică Theatre in Bucharest. At the same time, her association with this privileged entourage proved dangerous to her. In 1950, she was arrested and implicated in the notorious trial of the so-called “Pătrăşcanu batch.” On the basis of the false testimonies of some members of the “batch,” she was accused, tried, and sentenced in 1954 to twelve years in prison, all of which she served. After this dramatic interval in her life, she married Harry Brauner, who had been her colleague in the teams of monographers coordinated by Dimitrie Gusti in the interwar period and her co-accused in the “Pătrăşcanu batch.” In 1968, as part of a belated process of de-Stalinization, Lena Contante was rehabilitated together with all those implicated in the trial.
After the period of repression, she managed to find her place again professionally, becoming a graphic artist and maker of puppets. With rehabilitation, she received again the right to exhibit the original tapestries for which she had been known already in the interwar period and which again became a success. As a member of the Romanian Union of Visual Artists, she again came into open conflict with the communist authorities in 1974, when she was accused of “destruction of heritage” because she had made tapestries using collages of fragments of old peasant clothes. She managed to defend herself, however, by demonstrating that she had not used items from the heritage of folk costume, but worn-out blouses, bought from or given to her by women in the countryside, who otherwise would have thrown them away or used them as rags for cleaning.
Her longevity as an artist was remarkable. She had exhibitions, both in Romania and abroad, until the last years of her remarkably long life: Lena Constante lived to the age of 96. After the fall of communism, she also published two volumes inspired by her traumatic experience in prison, Evadarea tăcută (The silent escape) and Evadarea imposibilă (The impossible escape), which enjoyed success both in Romania and abroad. Even if she only talks about communist repression, it could nevertheless be said that Lena Constante’s testimony is comparable, in the power with which she evokes the survival of a traumatic episode, with that left by Margarete Buber-Neumann.
She wrote the first book initially in French and published it under the title L'Évasion silencieuse (1990). She then rewrote it completely in Romanian as Evadarea tăcută: 3 000 de zile singură în închisorile din România (1992), and in 1995 it was translated into English as The Silent Escape: Three Thousand Days in Romanian Prisons. In it, Lena Constante states what decided her to contribute to the collective memory of communism in Romania by publishing her prison memoirs: “I want to talk about the state of imprisonment as such. In full knowledge of the facts. Everyday life in a cell. I think I have had a unique experience. A woman, alone, for many years. Years made up of hours, of minutes, of seconds. It is these seconds that I would like to recount, these 3,600 seconds in an hour, these 86,400 seconds in a day, that shuffle slowly along your body, slimy snakes climbing up you from your feet to your neck, without a pause, without mercy, morning to evening and through all too frequent nights of insomnia, one after the other without rest and without stopping, endlessly. Because I want to talk also about human dignity. And about those women, later my prison comrades, who, despite everything and everyone, remained profoundly human beings. And to affirm a hope. The hope that one far-off day, mankind will overcome its nature. Not by changing the courses of rivers, or deserts, or by conquering the cosmos, but by changing itself. Changing its heart and mind” (Constante 1992, 6-7).
These two memoirs are fundamental volumes for an understanding of the communist repression in Romania. Lena Constante received the award of the Romanian Cultural Foundation for “an exceptional destiny in Romanian culture,” and the director Thomas Ciulei dedicated to her an impressive documentary film, Nebunia capetelor (The madness of the heads) (1997).
- Bucharest, Romania
Doina Cornea (b. 30 May 1929, Brașov – d. 4 May 2018, Cluj-Napoca) was a former lecturer in French Literature at Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, who emerged in the 1980s as one of the most prominent and courageous dissidents active under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. Well known internationally due to the efforts of the Romanian emigration and in particular of her daughter, who lived in France, Cornea was equally known nationally due to Western broadcasting agencies, among which Radio Free Europe (RFE) played a leading role. Although Cornea became very visible only after the revolt of 1987 in Braşov, her dissent had in fact begun in the early 1980s, when she engaged in improving the teaching materials for her courses by her personal efforts. Her first attempt at breaking the uniformity of the curriculum was to teach some of the writings of Paul Goma, a former political prisoner in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution and a leading personality in the aborted human rights movement of 1977, who emigrated to France and published several autobiographically inspired novels there. Since Goma became de facto a prohibited author when he left Romania for good, Cornea’s experiment of using his works as teaching support material was immediately interrupted by the university hierarchy. She made a second attempt to introduce authors outside the official curricula to her students, however, this time using translations from French into Romanian which she made herself and distributed as samizdat issues, typewritten on very thin pages so that up to six copies could be made at the same time. Among the authors translated was Mircea Eliade, a member of the so-called generation of 1927, which brought together the most gifted intellectuals of pre-communist Romania. He distinguished himself then due to his encyclopaedic erudition, which proved instrumental after his emigration, for Eliade became a prominent historian of religions in the United States and informally the most famous Romanian abroad. Although the communist regime was then trying to recuperate Eliade in order to use him as an agent of influence in Western countries, he was officially a taboo person as a refugee and former supporter of the interwar Romanian extreme right. His former political allegiance was a little-known fact, for Eliade hid his problematic past very carefully. From among his works published abroad, Cornea translated and used in her classes an interview granted to a French writer, which focused on Eliade’s life and career (without referring to his interwar political option, which surfaced publicly only much later) (Eliade 1978). Cornea’s purpose was to offer a better role model to her students than the communist canon did. In the foreword to the post-communist edition of her samizdat translation from Eliade’s book-length interview, Cornea explicitly stated her motivation for selecting it as teaching material: “The young reader, who is unfortunately used to certain patterns of thinking, will be amazed from the beginning by the freedom, the openness and the creativity in Eliade’s thinking” (Eliade 1992, 5). Driven by such ideas on education, she managed to publish by herself six different issues of a samizdat journal including translations from censored authors, some of which are now preserved in the Museum of the Sighet Memorial (Cornea 1990).
This attempt to challenge the communist curriculum was the motivation for her early retirement from the university. In reality, Cornea’s professional marginalisation was not caused by her unofficial translation from Eliade, from whose works on the history of religions the communist regime had allowed the translation and official publication of some limited-circulation editions, but by her first letter to RFE. Broadcast in 1982, this open letter criticised the educational policies of Ceaușescu’s regime, while defending Romanian cultural traditions and Christian moral virtues, which Cornea considered fundamental in the formation of the younger generation. Like other dissidents in Central Europe, she believed in the moral rebirth of the nation, an imperative goal that could be achieved only by speaking the truth. However, her position was not secular, but religious, and originated in her allegiance to the repressed Greek-Catholic Church in Transylvania, which in 1948 had been forcibly incorporated into the Orthodox Church of Romania. In this letter, Cornea also argued for a reform of the communist system of education, envisaging a return to the interwar model focusing on the humanities and the reintroduction of the pre-communist literary canon. A turn in her dissident activity occurred in 1987, when she began to address her letters not only to RFE, but also to Ceauşescu in order to refer to the pitiable state of Romanian education. In her first open letter to the head of the communist state, she not only analysed the cause of decay, but also proposed a detailed programme for educational reform, which required the de-politicisation of schooling, the autonomy of higher education, the free circulation of books and professors, and the reintroduction of banned authors in textbooks and of religion in the school curriculum. After the strike of November 1987, which took place in her native city of Brașov, Cornea further radicalised her position by publicly defending the workers’ rights and spreading manifestos in their support. In retribution, the secret police arrested and brutally interrogated her for more than a month. Although released due to international pressure, Cornea was thereafter under round-the-clock surveillance until the collapse of communism.
In the following two years, however, she emerged as a leading dissident in communist Romania. Her most important critical analysis came to be known as “the letter of 23 August,” for this was the date of its broadcast by RFE, coinciding with the Romanian national day during communism (in fact the day when Romania changed sides in WWII, continuing the war on the side of the Soviet Union). This document of 1988 was her second open letter to Ceauşescu and constituted her most elaborated programme of political, economic, and social reforms. This programme went beyond the usual Gorbachev-like reforms meant to restore “socialism with a human face,” and asked for the separation of party and state, even for the independence of the legislative, executive, and judiciary; the guarantee of basic rights, such as freedom of speech and association; the end of the communist party’s monopoly on information; and the introduction of market criteria in order to reform the inefficient economy (Cornea 1991). In short, Cornea argued in 1988 for a change of regime, envisaging the coming breakdown of communism in the region. Despite being under continuous surveillance, she managed to send this letter to RFE, together with her response to an invitation to participate in Solidarity’s conference in Cracow (which she could not honour due to the travel restrictions imposed by Ceaușescu’s regime). This was possible only thanks to a fortunate chain of events and the daring actions of Josy Dubié, a Belgian journalist, who came to Romania in order to make a documentary film. Cornea wrote both letters in minuscule writing on cigarette paper and sewed them inside the head of a doll, which she handed to Dubié, whom she had met by coincidence in the centre of Cluj. After checking Cornea’s identity with the Belgian embassy in Bucharest, he did his best to return to Cluj and interview her. A former sailor with an adventurous spirit, Dubié managed to deceive the secret police agents who followed his car, and after a race through the streets of Cluj worthy of Hollywood films, he managed to get to Cornea’s house. Due to this meeting, the Belgian journalist took with him across the border not only the doll with the two texts inside, but also footage with Doina Cornea, which he included in his film The Red Disaster. On his way back to Belgium, he delivered the doll with the two letters to the RFE studio in Munich. This series of fortunate circumstances that allowed Cornea’s messages to reach RFE epitomises the adversities that all Romanians (especially those in provincial cities) faced when trying to make their criticism public via Western media (C. Petrescu 2013).
Besides the letter of 23 August, Cornea wrote several others in 1988–1989, including one to re-state her solidarity with the strikers in Brașov and another to ask Pope John Paul II to support the re-establishment of the Greek-Catholic Church (Cornea 1991). However, she remained mostly known for her contribution towards raising international awareness of Ceauşescu’s project of demolishing Romanian villages in order to transform them into so-called agricultural centres. In comparison with Cornea’s programme of reforms, which was pragmatic and future-oriented, her letter against the systematisation of villages was nostalgic and past-oriented. “Village spirituality,” as Cornea put it, represented the essence of Romanian identity, so the plan that envisaged the resettlement of peasants into blocks of flats was nothing less than an attempt to destroy “the soul of the nation.” Drawing upon the idea that the village represented the repository of national traditions, she managed to get the support of other individuals for her letter. To give an idea about the scale of such collective protests in communist Romania, Cornea’s letter against the demolition of villages was finally endorsed by twenty-eight people and represented one of the most supported open letters against Ceaușescu’s policies. This protest was unique because it united Romanians and Romanian Hungarians alike. Moreover, the letter was important because it stirred outrage among Western audiences and mobilised internationally the critics of the absurd policies promoted by Ceauşescu’s regime. Besides the letter, which was destined mostly for the Romanian public, the aberrant and arbitrary plan of systematisation became known to a wider audience via The Red Disaster, the documentary made by Josy Dubié, to which Cornea also contributed. Aware of the fact that in Romania he was not allowed to film freely, Dubié pretended to be a tourist accompanied on vacation by his alleged lady-friend, in reality his camerawoman, and used a hidden camera to shoot images which no-one had previously captured. Even more important was the fact that Dubié managed to get the tape of his film out of Romania. He tricked the customs officers who subjected him and his companion to a rigorous body search and examined their car down to the smallest detail (due to his known encounter with Cornea), by hiding the 16 mm video tape inside audio cassettes. Broadcast by TV channels in most Western European countries and by Hungarian public television, the film presented the large-scale demolitions in Bucharest, which were reminiscent of natural disasters such as earthquakes or of wartime bombardments. Cornea’s fragile appearance was the shock image of the film: the Western viewer could not remain untouched by this Mother Theresa look-alike who was standing alone against Ceauşescu’s oppressive regime. Although her words were not really intelligible, she seemed to embody the nation’s redemption from a miserable and humiliating existence. In short, her image greatly enhanced the message of The Red Disaster, triggered significant Western support for the preservation of Romanian rural areas, and led to the establishment of Opération Villages Roumains. This was a civil society network originating in Belgium but active also in France and other Western countries, which effectively stopped these demolitions by encouraging Western rural communities to adopt villages in Romania. By the end of communism, Opération Villages Roumains had become the largest ever network of transnational support against the abuses of Ceauşescu’s regime. At the same time, Cornea emerged as the very symbol of the feeble but resolute opposition to this dictatorship.
Perhaps her most revolutionary position was the endorsement of a collective letter, signed by dissidents and non-dissidents across the country, asking for the non-election of Nicolae Ceauşescu at the congress scheduled for November 1989. In short, Cornea was among those few Romanian intellectual dissidents that raised issues outside those related to the sphere of cultural policies, which were her immediate interest. At the same time, she was also among the even fewer that genuinely tried to organise a cross-class alliance against Romanian communism. Cornea was known as a defender of the workers, not only because of her public position after the revolt in Braşov in 1987, but also because of her collaboration with and support for a group of workers that tried to organise an independent trade union following the Polish model (Cornea 2009). In December 1989, Cornea emerged as a leading public figure, and she continued for some time to play a significant role as a public intellectual. In the aftermath of the revolution, she was co-opted together with several other dissidents into the first post-communist form of political organisation, the National Salvation Front. When this turned out to be dominated by neo-communists interested only in seizing power in post-communism, she withdrew in order to support the emerging political opposition and the reestablishment of civil society. Against the political domination of the neo-communists, Cornea also actively engaged herself in the preservation of that part of collective memory that was banned under communism, in particular that related to the Romanian Gulag. In the last years before her death, she ceased to play a public role in post-communist Romania.
- Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Sorin Costina (b. 10 January 1942, Brad, Hunedoara county) is a doctor and an art collector. About the place where he was born, he says that it had no tradition in the field of the visual arts: “Consequently, my instruction [in visual art] when I left high school equalled zero.” His father was a doctor, and his mother the daughter of a priest. In fact at one time his grandfather was Metropolitan of Moldavia. He saw his first museums and galleries in Bucharest when he was twelve. Later, in Iaşi, where he studied in the Faculty of Medicine (1959–1965), he was a frequent visitor to the city art gallery. It was there that he saw his first exhibitions: a retrospective of the expressionist painter Ion Ţuculescu and an exhibition of British abstract painting.” At the level of my knowledge at the time, I confess that I understood nothing,” says Sorin Costina. It was in Iaşi that he met his future wife, and together they moved to Brad when they finished their studies. “Having got used in Iaşi to going to the theatre, we found a solution: we would go to Bucharest two or three times a year to see as many plays as possible. I went into exhibitions rooms and museums. I felt ‘handicapped’ in this field.” On one of these annual pilgrimages to Bucharest, Sorin Costina discovered in a second-hand bookshop the four volumes of the history of art written by George Oprescu. “They became my favourite books that year.” In 1969, he made his first acquisitions, and from 1972 he regularly bought works of visual art, and at the same time became very close to the world of the creators of these works.
He practised general surgery in his native town for forty-nine years. He is now a pensioner and the owner of the most consistent and representative collection of Romanian art of the 1970s to 1990s. “I’ve been a surgeon all my life, in little provincial town forgotten by the world, in a poor area of the Land of the Moţi [in the Apuseni mountains]. My collection was made out of my poverty and the poverty of the artists. Certainly such a thing is no longer possible today. My collection was my means of intellectual survival in those dark years,” says Sorin Costina, speaking about himself and about his passion.
- Brad, Romania 335200
Nicolae (Nicu) Covaci is a famous Romanian composer, singer, guitarist, and painter and one of the founders of the rock band Phoenix, a well-known group in Romania. Born on 19 April 1947 in Timișoara, he was raised only by his mother, as his father was arrested by the communist authorities due to his political convictions. Despite economic difficulties, Covaci was tutored in French, English, and German and took private lessons of piano, violin, and guitar thanks to his mother’s efforts. His musical career started in 1961, when together with several others he founded the group called Sfinții (The Saints). In choosing the name of the band, they were inspired by the British TV series The Saint, which Romanian Television was broadcasting at that time (Stratone 2016, 62). The name was an implicit mockery of conformism, as the behaviour and outfits of the members of the group hardly respected the existing social norms. Because the Romanian authorities thought that the name had religious connotations, they pressured the band to change it. As a result, The Saints became Phoenix in 1962 (Covaci vol. 1 2014, 57, 75, 89).
The cultural opposition of Phoenix and implicitly of Nicu Covaci, was related to their musical activity. Due to isolation from the West, information about foreign music always reached Romania with some delay and mostly by way of informal and clandestine channels. Taking advantage of the limited liberalisation that characterised the beginning of Ceaușescu’s regime, Romanian youth tried to discover Western music and fashion, so they began to imitate the behaviour and outfits of their musical idols. In this respect, Timișoara, a multiethnic city located near the Western border, was more privileged than the rest of the country. Young people in Timișoara could tune their radios to the frequencies of foreign radio stations (especially Yugoslav ones) and British pirate radios broadcasting foreign music. At the same time, some of them had relatives in the Federal Republic of Germany from whom they received musical magazines such as Bravo, Musical Express, and Rolling Stone and the latest albums of the most popular artists of that time. Thus, Nicu Covaci and his friends began their musical career by singing covers of the latest hits and copying the dress styles of the artists presented in the pages of foreign magazines. Most important of all the Western influences that left traces on Phoenix during the 1960s was the hippy subculture. Its revolt against mainstream society and its social and political conventions, its quest for human closeness based on sincerity as opposed to the existing formalism, and finally the belief that world could be changed and that young people armed with love and the wish for peace could make that change possible also echoed in the minds of Romanian youth. They began to imitate the hippy fashion (flared trousers or tight pants, flowery shirts, a piece of textile tied over their foreheads to hold their long hair) and to question the existing order imposed on them by the regime and by the older generations. This was the context in which the members of Phoenix decided to write their own songs and to become the spokesmen of the younger generation’s rebellion against authority and lack of freedom. After winning a national musical contest for students, in 1968 Phoenix recorded their first EP, which contained two original songs, Vremuri (Times) and Canarul (Canary) composed by Nicu Covaci and another member of the band, Moni (Florin) Bordeianu. These tracks gave voice to the Romanian young people’s revolt against the communist regime that incriminated differences and failed to understand their need for freedom and personal experimentation. The first song Vremuri (Times) describes the rebellious stand and outfit of youth as just one among many nonconformist fashions that initially triggered the disapproval of the mainstream society but ended up by being accepted by it. In contrast, Canarul (Canary) tells the sad story of a bird that tries in vain to escape its silver cage and accepts its defeat by looking with sad eyes at an outside world that cannot hear its cry of despair. The allusion was to Romanian young people who were like the bird in the cage longing for their lost freedom, and whose failed escape attempts only left them the option of looking at the outside world beyond the Iron Curtain (Covaci vol. 1 2014, 83, 105, 127–131; Stratone 2016, 60–61). Another song heavily loaded with political meanings, which betrayed even more poignantly the revolt of younger generation against the communist regime, was Nebunul cu ochii închiși (The madman with his eyes closed) written by Bordeianu and Covaci in 1968 and included on the band’s second EP. The madman in the song could be interpreted as the Romanian communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who because of his privileged position (he is described as standing on a mountain and looking down at the world) became increasingly divorced from reality. Thus, his words spoken from the top of the mountain failed to inspire anything but indifference on the part of the population.
The so-called Theses of July 1971 officially put an end to the liberalisation process and stressed the need to improve the political and ideological education of all Romanian citizens. The arts, culture, and education were to play an essential role in this endeavour as they were to serve the political aims of the communist regime and to find their sources of inspiration in Romanian realities and traditions. In this context, Nicolae Covaci as the leader of the band Phoenix continued his cultural opposition towards the communist regime by using the means provided by it. He turned to authentic Romanian folklore and used it as a source of inspiration for the new compositions of the band. The result was a fusion between rock and folklore that observed the official cultural line but at the same time distinguished Phoenix’s music from other attempts to use folklore for political means. Consequently, the next three albums of the band were thematically inspired by traditional tales about outlaws, Gypsies, and mythical animals, and made Phoenix one of the best-selling bands in the country (Covaci vol. 1 2014, 237–267).
Despite their success, or maybe because of it, the members of Phoenix, and especially Nicu Covaci, were harassed by the secret police. After Covaci refused at a public meeting to become a member of the Romanian Communist Party, his harassment intensified. Moreover, the cultural authorities censored the public appearances of the band, as they were afraid of Phoenix’s growing popularity and that their nonconformist behaviour could become contagious among young people. As a result, Covaci applied for an exit visa as he had married a Dutch woman, and left the country in 1976. In the next year he returned to Timișoara and played with other members of Phoenix in a concert to raise funds for the victims of the earthquake of 4 March 1977, which had caused serious destruction in the southern part of Romania. Nicu Covaci then used his trip back home to help the rest of the band flee the country. Hidden in huge loudspeakers, they crossed one national border after another until they reached the Federal Republic of Germany, where Nicu Covaci hoped to resume the activity of the band. Unfortunately, disagreements among them led very quickly to the breakup of the group. After the fall of the communist regime, Nicu Covaci and Phoenix resumed activity in Romania, which continues to the present day (Covaci vol. 1 2014, 433-469; vol. 2, 15-165).
- Timișoara, Romania