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Some Reflections on My Experience of Romania

Some Reflections on My Experience of Romania

My first direct contact with Romania took place in July 1965. It was choreographed in such a manner that opportunities to meet members of the public were limited. An inescapable feature of life in Romania under the Communist regime was the ubiquity of the Securitate or the security police, known officially for much of the period as the Department of State Security of the Ministry of the Interior. I realised as much from this visit and that realisation was reinforced during my subsequent experience of the country. My professional and personal involvement with Romania encompassed the entire duration of Ceausescu’s rule, from 1965 until 1989, and it was inevitable that this familiarity and my friendship with historians and writers should attract the Securitate’s attention, as confirmed by my consultation in 2007 of my Securitate file.

The literature available in English in 1965 on Romania’s history since the imposition of Communist rule in 1945 said little about the mechanism of terror which Stalin used in Romania to enforce his will, and about the organisation of the Securitate. This omission was, at first glance, perhaps surprising given the importance of the institutionalised terror practised by the Securitate in buttressing the Communist regime under first Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (1901–65), and then under his successor Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918–89). Yet the structure and personnel of the body empowered to terrorise the population into acceptance of the legislation introduced to communise Romania, to arrest the 80,000 peasants who opposed the land reform of 1949, to imprison and torture the six Greek Catholic (Uniate) bishops and six hundred priests who refused to accept union with the Orthodox in the winter of 1948, and, in Ceaușescu’s time, to deport dozens of miners from the Jiu Valley after their participation in the strike of August 1977, remained sketchy. Throughout the Ceaușescu era, the Securitate’s organisation and activity remained shrouded in secrecy, and, precisely because verifiable information was difficult to obtain, scholars of Romanian affairs, including this writer, gave the institution a wide berth.

There were other reasons for this neglect. Some of the accounts given by victims of torture, prison, and the labour camps were so dreadful as to defy belief, especially as Romanians were noted for their penchant for the dramatic. Secondly, there were no official Romanian sources against which to check these accounts. Finally, scholars were concerned that by using material uncorroborated by independent witness they risked accusation of being mere anti-Communist propagandists. The regime’s careful control of foreign visitors enabled it to restrict the flow of information coming out of (and into) the country and thus what went on in Romania remained, until the late 1960s, largely unknown outside its borders. Until 1990, very little material of any kind on the labour camps and prisons appeared in the West, and when it did it was usually in Romanian emigré publications.

It was this lacuna, combined with my own personal experience of Romania and the opportunity to consult some Securitate files, that persuaded me to redirect my research activity after 1990 to the Securitate. Yet my two major studies, Ceaușescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965–89 (1995) and Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State, 1948–65 (1999), are not simply histories of the Securitate, but also seek to examine the part played by the Communist regime’s use of fear and coercion in maintaining itself in power and in suppressing opposition and dissent of any kind. There were other strategies used by Ceaușescu to perpetuate his power. These were appeals to nationalism and the pursuit of an autonomous foreign policy. It was upon the success of these appeals that Ceaușescu was able to extract compliance from much of the intellectual elite and acquiescence from the rest of the population. In those cases where dissent was expressed, I charted in these studies its course and noted the steps taken to eliminate it, and in doing so I also aimed to test the proposition of the Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik that “no oppression can be effective without those who are prepared to submit to it”. As with other machines of political terror, the Securitate’s most potent weapon was fear, and the depth of its inculcation into the Romanian population provides the principal reason for its success. Fear induces compliance and is therefore a tremendous labour-saving device.

As a linguist by training, my research interests were initially in the history of the Romanian language and in the earliest manifestations of writing in it. Those included the works of the Romanian chroniclers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century whose principal motive for writing was a self-confessed desire to affirm their national identity. The main inspiration for my recently published memoir In Search of Romania (London: Hurst, 2022) has been my contacts with Romanians and an experience of the Ceaușescu regime. For me, that experience was shared for relatively brief periods, yet they were sufficient for me to appreciate the pressures under which my Romanian friends and relatives by marriage lived. The lessons absorbed through my education, in the broadest sense, as a British citizen, combined with the knowledge that the worst I could suffer for any offence taken by the regime was eventual expulsion from the country, gave me a freedom of behaviour that was denied to Romanians. This is not to overlook the boldness of those Romanians who dared to challenge the regime, a courage that is all the more admirable when we bear in mind that they did not have the crutch of confidence that a Western passport offered. It is in this light that assessments of the behaviour of the population under Ceaușescu should proceed.

My Romanian friends were many and of various backgrounds and ages. They included creative writers, historians, engineers, doctors, peasant farmers, Party officials, students, pensioners, Hungarians, Saxons and Jews. Most were figures of light, a few of darkness, but I count it as a privilege to have known them. My friendship with them confirmed me in my distrust of generalisations about Romania, generalisations which continue to be made in some parts of the Western media about post-Ceaușescu Romania and which, if accepted, lead to flawed judgements. As Ceaușescu’s despotic excesses increased in the 1980s, so too did condemnations of the Romanians as ‘weak’ and ‘timorous’. Such accusations were based on what appeared to be an absence of challenge to the Communist regime in Romania when compared with the riots in Poland and East Germany in the early 1950s, the uprising in Hungary in 1956, the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, and the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. The unchallenged acceptance of such accusations is precisely a measure of the success of the Securitate in suppressing information about resistance to the regime. For example, virtually nothing was known in the West, even in emigré circles, of the courageous struggle in the Carpathian Mountains of two small bands of self-styled partisans, led by two ex-army officers Gheorghe Arsenescu and Toma Arnățoiu, who resisted arrest for nine years from 1949 to 1958.

My memoir seeks to highlight some of the ambiguities and contradictions which are fostered in human behaviour by the totalitarian state. By appealing to ties of friendship and family, or to naked self-interest, a person could circumvent the strictures of the regime. In Romanian society under Ceaușescu, citizens lived a duplicitous existence. Every day they were obliged to strike a balance between the demands of ‘official’ life and the attempt to lead an ‘unofficial one’. This double game played with the regime, relatives and friends was evident in the strategies that many Romanians adopted to survive the regime. They are embodied in the attitude of many Romanians, expressed to me by a young theatre director in 1988:

What most people want to do under a dictatorship is to forget about it, get on with their lives, and enjoy themselves as best they can. Thus, when Romanian TV was reduced to four hours of transmission per day in 1984 many citizens of Bucharest and the major cities acquired video recorders and cassettes with Western films. The import of these items was not banned, probably because amongst the users were Party and Securitate officials who did not alert Ceaușescu to the trend.

Dissimulation is a posture central to an understanding of compliance and informs my research on Romania under Communism. 

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The Market For Ideas Association

The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)

Amfiteatru Economic