- Beth Lantinga
Goodbye Romania - Almost
Zeitgeist – this term, popular when I was in college decades ago, was applied to this post by someone near and dear to me. This post describes the context of the Romania interviews just finished and also of coming Ukraine stories. So, just to let you know, this is a description of the world inhabited by dwellers in East Central Europe after World War II.
Before we say goodbye to Romania and hear stories from Ukraine, I would like to explain a bit about the setting in which Romanian Christians lived under communist control. Theirs was a world of total ideological control initiated in 1947 by Romania’s Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and continued under Nicolae Ceaușescu until his demise in 1989. What did that mean? According to historian Vladimir Tismaneanu, these Romanian leaders and their underlings sought to achieve, “total ideological regimentation.”
That regimentation touched every sphere of life. A controlled economy was basic to communist ideology. As in all countries under Soviet control, all means of production, industrial and agricultural, fell under the control of central planners. “From Gheorghiu-Dej to Nicolae Ceausescu, collective (i.e. state) ownership of economic resources was regarded as the touchstone of true commitment to the Marxist ideal of a classless society.” (Tismaneanu)
Cultural life was not exempt from ideological control. Professors, teachers, and pastors lived in fear that their words might brand them as enemies of the state. “In the realm of intellectual life, the goal of the Communist Party was to annihilate any form of genuine creativity: literature, history, art, and philosophy were to be ideologically subordinated to the political sphere.” (Tismaneanu)
The Christian church fell into chaos. Pronouncements and policies often defied centuries of theology. Many believers embraced an obedient life here and now in preparation for life eternal. However, they faced government officials who derided and opposed the idea of eternity and were obsessed with creating utopia. Some church members embraced utopian goals and repressed their longing for the transcendent, and in a way, communist ideology satisfied their religious longings.
George Weigel described it like this. “Marxism-Leninism – communism – was the ultimate modern expression of the tyranny of the political. But because it was a tyranny in the service of an ancient eschatological ideal, and because it ironically provided what it denied men needed – a faith and a community of faithful that was universal in scope – it had staying power far beyond that managed by the other political fantasies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including its demonic twin, Nazism.” In another context, Weigel said, “Maybe the construction of the communist system with religious trappings, in a perverse way, affirmed the power of belief and cynically exploited the deeply human need for faith.”
For many Christians, their awareness of fallen human nature made them skeptical of utopian dreams and naturally opposed to government control of every aspect of their lives. They became dissidents. Paul Johnson, as quoted by Weigel, said, “Lenin had no real feelings about corrupt priests because they were easily beaten. The men he really feared and hated, and later persecuted, were the saints. The purer the religion, the more dangerous.” It was dangerous to oppose the dominant ideology.
How did the government officials achieve control of these spheres of life? Fear was their tool and they steered conformity to their ideology by shaping the content of education and by relocating families from villages to large industrial centers. This dislocation resulted in loosened family ties and weakened church connections. Adrift in a fractured world, many submitted to government control because of blackmail or numbing fear. Nearly all were afraid to voice their opposition to the ideology of the state. They had good reason to fear.
Ion Mihai Pacepa, a Romanian general under Ceausescu, defected in 1978 and described the communist apparatus for keeping its citizens in line. Thought control was one of its most cunning and corrosive tools. According to Pacepa “Monitoring the thoughts of the entire Romanian population has been Ceausescu’s major domestic policy goal. In March of 1978, only one supplier of telephones was allowed in Romania because the company had devised a telephone with a microphone capable of recording all conversations in the room installed in.” Ceausescu once said, “In a very short time we will be the only country on earth able to know what every single one of its citizens is thinking.”
Romanian citizens lived in an atmosphere of suffocating control, afraid to speak their minds to family members, and never to friends or neighbors. Those who diverged from the current ideology faced interrogation, the loss of employment, and in many cases prison or worse. Robert Kaplan put it this way, “By the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Romanians were incarcerated in forced labor camps for political reasons. By the early 1960s, a network of camps was established in the Danube Delta where tens of thousands of prisoners were made to work waist-deep in water, cutting reeds, with specially trained dogs nearby to bite them if they faltered.”
Eugene Lyons described the condition like this. “Where there is only one employer, namely, the state, meekness is the first law of economic survival. Where the same group of officials wields the terrible powers of secret arrests and punishments, disfranchisement, hiring and firing, assignment of ration categories and living space – only an imbecile or someone with a perverted taste for martyrdom will fail to kow-tow to them.”
Amazing faith kept the men and women we interviewed whole and healthy under harsh and terrible conditions. Their testimony gives a special meaning to the words,
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide When other helpers fail and comforts flee Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away Change and decay in all around I see O Thou who changest not, abide with me
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.