The Unique Experience of Romania
In this activity, students examine graffiti text taken from various public surfaces in Romania from December 1989-January 1990. Throughout the 1980s, graffiti publicly expressed the concerns of demonstrators in Bucharest, Romania, and these selected graffiti texts represent those closely associated to the revolution of 1989. First, students read the text of graffiti found in the primary source, "Graffiti from the Romanian Streets, December 1989-January 1990," Making the History of 1989, Item #697. They answer the following questions:
What do you notice about the graffiti text?
What questions do you want to ask about the graffiti text?
After discussing these questions, students learn more about the historical context of the Revolution of 1989 in Romania and draw conclusions about the themes that occurred most frequently in graffiti, giving insights to the public grievances in Romania that led to the removal of the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Distribute individual copies of "Graffiti from the Romanian Streets, December 1989-January 1990," Making the History of 1989, Item #697.
Ask students to work in pairs and read the graffiti text, writing down things that they notice and questions they have.
Write three columns onto the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.
Use the following questions to guide discussion, filling in the first two columns (Notice and Questions):
What did you notice about the graffiti text?
What feelings do they evoke?
What do you already know about Romania in 1989?
What does this graffiti text say about Nicolae Ceausescu? About the feeling of public sentiment in Bucharest, Romania in late 1989? About views on government?
What can this graffiti text tell us and what can they not tell us about this time period in Romania?
What questions do you want to ask about the graffiti, the context, or the historical time period?
Divide students into 5 groups.
Distribute individual copies of "Birth and Death in Romania, October 1986," Making the History of 1989, Item #694, to each student (alternatively, just one for each group). This article explains the dismal reality of everyday life in Ceausescu’s Romania as it was recorded in the last years of the regime by Pavel Câmpeanu, who managed to smuggle out this article, which was later published in The New York Review of Books.
Assign each group to read just one (of five) sections in the article "Birth and Death in Romania, October 1986," Making the History of 1989, Item #694 (Each group will be assigned a different section of the 5-part article).
Ask student groups to read the article section they have been assigned, seeking the historical background their section provides. Have students write down the historical information they notice from the section they are assigned to read.
What did students learn about the history of Romania from the article they read? (Fill in the third column on the whiteboard, Historical Background.)
Rising levels of poverty/poor economy: Workers spend days waiting for raw materials their factory cannot obtain. The average wage was less than one-fifth the Common Market wage. Before Ceausescu, in 1958, Romania refused to subordinate its economy to the Soviet bloc’s COMECON which curtailed its economic vitality. Regime decided to avoid any specialization in the economy to avoid unfavorable specialization. Also chose to destroy agriculture to avoid the country’s being turned into an agricultural locality (this was reversed in 1982). To supplement meager rations, farmers stoke corn, wheat, and potatoes out of fields; had their children steal the same to avoid legal action.
Food and energy shortages: Chernobyl accident meant people did not want to eat organic foods/crops; canned foods were out of stock. The hoarding of food was common enough that laws were passed forbidding the hoarding of oil, sugar, wheat or corn flour, rice, and coffee. Coffee was no longer available for purchase by private citizens. Meat, buttermilk, and bread were rationed. 5-year prison sentences for those buying excessive amounts of food. To supplement meager rations, farmers stoke corn, wheat, and potatoes out of fields; had their children steal the same. When darkness falls, the cities are plunged into shadow and in the daytime (in some cities) buses run only between 6-8am and 3-5pm. Electric energy and water services interrupted daily, often exceeding four hours. Bucharest residents avoid elevators to avoid being caught between floors. Strongest light bulbs sold were 40 watts and it was illegal to have more than one lamp per room. Heat cut off in the winter of 1984-5 in homes, theaters, and hospitals. “Right to keep warm” became an obsession for most Romanians.
Pervasive surveillance/draconian measures: Virtually every business had a permanent member of the Secret Police assigned. Nearly all measures for birth control were banned to increase the birthrate. At their workplace, many women had to submit to monthly examination to see if they were pregnant or not. Elderly retirement delayed; difficult for them to receive emergency medical care; physicians instructed to cut down on prescription drugs in general to the aged.
Cult of personality focused on Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena: Romania reproduced an exaggerated version of the Soviet social model under Stalin—most Stalinist in its political and social structures. Ceausescu ordered the demolition of a third of Bucharest in order to build a new presidential palace with a boulevard that cut across the entire city of over two million inhabitants.
Violence used to hold onto power at any price: Penal and economic sanctions for those who did not follow the law on compulsory participation in agricultural labor for the entire rural population (regardless of profession, they had to participate after January 1982 decree). Farmers brought to trial who had stolen corn, wheat, and potatoes since their meager rations provided little. Women thrown into prison because they had abortions.
Share with students the fate of the Ceausescu regime in December, 1989 (note that the following summary is taken from the Module's Introductory Essay; feel free to refer to it for more details).
The Romanian revolution began in Timişoara, located in western part of the country, close to the Yugoslav and Hungarian borders. Although postwar Romania is ethnically quite homogeneous, most of its minorities live in the area where the Romanian revolution began. In 1989, Hungarians were the second largest group in Timişoara after Romanians, followed by Germans and Serbs. The city’s residents could follow the freer Yugoslav and Hungarian broadcast media and they were more easily swept up in the mounting wave of revolutions across all of Eastern Europe. As countries all over Eastern Europe confronted uprisings in 1989, the power of information and example cannot be discounted in the story of the Romanian revolution.
Background to the extended vigil in Timisoara. One of Romania’s few dissidents, Lászlo Tőkés, a pastor in the Hungarian Reformed (Calvinist) Church, used his Timişoara pulpit to condemn the regime’s “systematization” campaign designed to level thousands of villages, put the land into cultivation, and move villagers into new agro-industrial complexes. For his outspokenness Tőkés was to be evicted from his church in December 1989, but Hungarian parishioners surrounded the church to prevent his removal. Soon joined by ethnic Romanians (of traditionally Orthodox faith), the picketers grew in number and broadened their focus to the hated dictatorial regime. The extended vigil, which began on December 15, engendered a sense of popular power and solidarity, unprecedented in communist Romania. Hungarians and Romanians together sang the 19th century nationalist anthem “Awaken, thee Romanian!” meaning, in this context, citizens of Romania. Given the xenophobia of communist officials, they had failed to imagine the possibility of inter-ethnic solidarity. The song was heard often during the following weeks.
Soon all of Timişoara was on strike, while protesters tried to outwit tanks and armored vehicles. A frequent slogan during these street scenes was “Without Violence!” Between December 16 and 19 over sixty people were killed in Timişoara, and more than 700 were arrested, but the insurgents stood their ground. Some corpses were transported to Bucharest to suppress evidence of the crime. This in turn fed rumors of wildly exaggerated numbers of dead. Another chant, “Azi în Timişoara, mîine-n toată ţara!” (Today in Timişoara, tomorrow in the whole country)” was prophetic.
Ceauşescu portrayed the disturbance in Western Romania as the work of foreign agents, but he also attempted to minimize the crisis by flying to Iran on a state visit. On his return, in televised speeches on December 20 and 21, he called for national unity in defending Romania’s sovereignty against foreign foes. By then, however, the popular anti-government mobilization had spread beyond Timişoara. In Bucharest, the authorities organized a noontime rally on December 21. Thousands of people were bussed to the Communist Party Central Committee (CPCC) plaza to show their support and thus legitimize the harsh repression in Timişoara. The event was choreographed by the Securitate (secret police) and the capital’s communist organizations. On descending into the square, presumably docile demonstrators received banners and portraits with familiar propaganda slogans and the Ceauşescus’ portraits. The rally was broadcast on national television, but when Ceauşescu addressed the crowd from the CPCC balcony, unscripted moments followed. An unprecedented commotion, heckling, and hissing began. Radio and TV feeds were cut as cameras panned to the sky, but not before images of the distressed Ceauşescu and his wife trying to shush down the crowd were captured on camera. The dictator appeared shaken, unable to comprehend that the masses he expected to behave the part of adoring citizens had their own minds. Although order was temporarily restored and Ceauşescu announced raises and subsidies for workers, mothers, and pensioners, the partly televised incident had made Romanians realize the fragility of the dictatorship. The very same day spontaneous demonstrations broke out in other parts of Bucharest. Among their slogans were: “Freedom,” “Timişoara,” and “We Want Free Elections.”
It is as if, in that moment, everyday Romanians saw the possibility, saw the reality of the weakness of Ceausescu’s regime. Those moments of Ceausescu’s weakness and the power of popular pressure explain why, a mere 48 hours later, Ceausescu was attempting to flee Romania, all power lost. The Ceausescu’s were tried a few days later and executed as enemies of the new Romanian state.
Ask students to write 10 graffiti slogans of their own, drawing on their knowledge about the historical conditions in Romania and the revolution that quickly took hold in December 1989.