A Dark Vision Of 'Paris In The 20th Century'

27 December 2010
by Andrei Codrescu
National Public Radio

When he was young, our commentator Andrei Codrescu used to find a rosy outlook in the writings of a certain French writer and futurist. More recently, he's been finding that outlook doesn't look quite so bright.

ANDREI CODRESCU: I was talking to Jules Verne, the writer who designs the future in my childhood, who made me want to live in a submarine with a library, which I did eventually in New York in the '60s. I named my dog Nemo.

Jules made me want to travel around the world fast, and I did that, too. I didn't go to the moon, but others did. And he even visited me when I was a kid in the Carpathians in his novel "The Castle in the Carpathians," where my great-grandmother La Stilla lived.

And I just read "Paris in the 20th Century," written in 1863 and published only in 1994. Your hero, Michel, looks for books in the bookstores and finds nothing but technology. He is a poet. His family of bankers considers him a disgrace to the century of machines, like his uncle Monsieur Huguenin, who is a librarian, a reader and an artist and also a disgrace.

In a time when robots do all the killing, in a world where there are no journalists because machines write their own news, they are perfect. And then a dreadful winter descends on Europe, resulting in a mass famine, temperatures 30 below zero, food supplies destroyed, all rivers frozen, and Michel dies in that machine world, weeping over the grave of a dead poet.

And now I'm a grownup, 10 years into the 21st century, and the world looks a lot like you called it. And I can see why you waited 100 years to publish this, Jules. If you hadn't, I might have grown up a lot less hopeful and given submarines and airplanes a wide berth.

I might have lived in a cave if you weren't so optimistic about the future, dear Jules, Monsieur Verne. I have no choice now but to download you into my Kindle, more fuel for the bonfires greeting the sci-fi year 2011.

Translation as Literary Ambassador

7 December 2010
by Larry Rohter
New York Times

The runaway success of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy suggests that when it comes to contemporary literature in translation, Americans are at least willing to read Scandinavian detective fiction. But for work from other regions, in other genres, winning the interest of big publishing houses and readers in the United States remains a steep uphill struggle.

Among foreign cultural institutes and publishers, the traditional American aversion to literature in translation is known as “the 3 percent problem.” But now, hoping to increase their minuscule share of the American book market — about 3 percent — foreign governments and foundations, especially those on the margins of Europe, are taking matters into their own hands and plunging into the publishing fray in the United States.

Increasingly, that campaign is no longer limited to widely spoken languages like French and German. From Romania to Catalonia to Iceland, cultural institutes and agencies are subsidizing publication of books in English, underwriting the training of translators, encouraging their writers to tour in the United States, submitting to American marketing and promotional techniques they may have previously shunned and exploiting existing niches in the publishing industry.

Books translated into English help nations large and small put their names on the literary map, said Corina Suteu of the Romanian Cultural Institute.

“We have established this as a strategic objective, a long-term commitment to break through the American market,” said Corina Suteu, who leads the New York branch of the European Union National Institutes for Culture and directs the Romanian Cultural Institute. “For nations in Europe, be they small or large, literature will always be one of the keys of their cultural existence, and we recognize that this is the only way we are going to be able to make that literature present in the United States.”

For instance, the Dalkey Archive Press, a small publishing house in Champaign, Ill., that for more than 25 years has specialized in translated works, this year began a Slovenian Literature Series, underwritten by official groups in Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia. The series’s first book, “Necropolis,” by Boris Pahor, is a powerful World War II concentration-camp memoir that has been compared to the best of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, and has been followed by Andrej Blatnik’s “You Do Understand,” a rather absurdist but still touching collection of sketches and parables about love and intimacy.

Dalkey has also begun or is about to begin similar series in Hebrew and Catalan, and with Switzerland and Mexico, the last of which will consist of four books yearly for six years. In each case a financing agency in the host country is subsidizing publication and participating in promotion and marketing in the United States, an effort that can easily require $10,000 or more a book.

“I can see the day coming soon when the only books we are going to be able to do are books that are parts of series,” said John O’Brien, Dalkey’s publisher, acknowledging the growth of the trend. “You’re not just doing it as a book publisher, you are doing it in conjunction with consulates, embassies and book institutes of other countries. That creates a considerable level of interest and a feeling that something much bigger is going on than ‘here is a book by someone I’ve never heard of before.’ ”

With limited budgets and even more limited access to mainstream media, foreign cultural agencies have also come to look upon the Web as an ally in promoting their products. They spread the word not only through sites of their own, Catalonia and Romania being typical examples, but also by using American sites established specifically to champion literature in translation.

One such site, with the tongue-in-cheek name Three Percent, was founded by Open Letter, the University of Rochester’s literary publishing house, and specializes in literature in translation. It has become a lively forum to discuss and review not just that subject but also the craft of translation. Another site, Words Without Borders, founded in 2003, publishes books in translation online and also provides an outlet where translators can offer samples of their work in hopes of interesting commercial publishers.

“Part of what we do is to give younger translators a place to debut their work that is not so high pressure, a place where they can try out being a translator and develop a little confidence before they tackle a big project,” said Alane Salierno Mason, the site’s founder. Words Without Borders began as a “tool for the publishing industry,” she said, but now also considers itself an online literary magazine specializing in translation. It has also begun “sending a newsletter to people in publishing, recommending particular works we have published online for book publication,” Ms. Mason said.

Words Without Borders has also commissioned projects, the most recent being “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East,” an anthology of short stories, essays, poems and memoirs translated from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. Edited by Reza Aslan, the book was picked up by W. W. Norton, which published it last month to strongly positive reviews; Publishers Weekly called it “an impressive success that spans vast regions of time and territory,” continuing, “this is that rare anthology: cohesive, affecting and informing.”

Even the online bookselling behemoth has entered the field, with a new imprint for literature in translation called AmazonCrossing, which is sold online and in bookstores. The first AmazonCrossing offering, “The King of Kahel,” a novel originally in French by Tierno Monénembo, who was born in Guinea, was published in November. Five more titles, all but one fiction, have been announced.

The Amazon executive overseeing the imprint, Jeff Belle, said the company created AmazonCrossing because it saw “an opportunity in an area of the publishing world that is underserved.” He declined to provide specifics about how Amazon determines what books to publish, who selects them and how translators are assigned.

“We are lucky as a global company to have a lot of analytics at our disposal, across our global Web sites,” Mr. Belle said. “That has been very helpful in confirming our original theory that a lot of quality authors and voices have just not had an opportunity to reach U.S. audiences.” Beyond that, he added, “I’m afraid I can’t share exact sources with you.”

While some independent publishers welcome Amazon’s increased involvement in, and support for, literature in translation, others regard it with suspicion. In a kerfuffle in October, Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House attacked what he called the “predatory and thuggish practices” of Amazon, saying that it was “clear to us that Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical.”

Amazon is more open about the grants it has made to entities like Open Letter and Words Without Borders. Government cultural institutes like the Institut Ramon Llull, which is dedicated to propagating the language and culture of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, and the Korean Literature Translation Institute have also helped underwrite conferences and books on translation, and others are sponsoring trips to take American translators to their countries to acquaint them better with their culture and people.

“It is evident to these people that there is very little support here for this kind of work, and that support is going to have to come from outside” the publishing industry, said Esther Allen, a literature professor at Baruch College and former director of the PEN Translation Fund. “There is still a very entrenched attitude on the part of mainstream commercial houses that the U.S. consumer of books does not want to read translations.”

A Tough History Begets Unsentimental Films

2 December 2010
by A. O. Scott
New York Times

Nicolae Ceausescu, right, and his wife, Elena, in “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” by Andrei Ujica. Showcasing Romanian Film

Romania is a small country on the edge of Europe, with a tiny film industry — it’s more like a passionate, fractious, underfinanced social network — and a very large footprint in the world of cinema. Perhaps no nation has more Cannes prizes per capita, or a better streak at that festival, where Romanian films have been one of the big stories of the past decade.

This year’s annual Romanian Film Festival, which runs all weekend at Tribeca Cinemas, shows that triumphs of movies like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “12:08 East of Bucharest” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” were hardly anomalies. Called “A New Beginning,” the festival includes “Aurora,” the latest feature from Cristi Puiu (director of “Mr. Lazarescu”), and “Tuesday, After Christmas,” by Radu Muntean.

Mr. Puiu and Mr. Muntean (whose previous features were “The Paper Will Be Blue” and “Boogie”) are leading figures of the Romanian New Wave, and their new films visited Manhattan in this year’s New York Film Festival. So did “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” an extraordinary documentary by Andrei Ujica, assembled from archival footage, that revisits the life and reign of Romania’s long-serving Communist strongman, who was overthrown in the revolution of 1989.

That event — the subject of Mr. Ujica’s earlier “Videograms of a Revolution”—remains a dividing line in the history of Romanian cinema, but the festival, even as it focuses on new films set in the present, also connects those recent developments with older, pre-revolutionary work. The closing-night selection will be “Carnival Scenes,” a 1981 film by Lucian Pintilie with a Fellini-esque look and spirit quite unlike the stripped-down realism favored by younger Romanian filmmakers.

That tough, unsentimental aesthetic—versions of which can be seen in films by Mr. Puiu and Mr. Muntean—may be a dominant national, generational style, but the diversity of features, shorts and documentaries presented by “A New Beginning” shows great range and variety as well. There remain many worlds to be discovered and stories to be told, even within the boundaries of a small country with a complicated history and a startling number of ambitious, cleareyed filmmakers.

“A New Beginning,” the fifth annual Romanian Film Festival, runs through Sunday at Tribeca Cinemas, 54 Varick Street, at Laight Street;

Eurofile | Back to Bucharest

8 November 2010
by Alexander Lobrano
New York Times

Bucharest                                                                                                            John Hicks/Corbis

Disappointed to find that much of central Paris now serves up the same street-level visual refrain as most American cities—Gap, Zara, Starbucks, Subway—friends visiting from Boston yearned for an urban adventure. Where could they go for a long weekend that hadn’t yet been subjected to the centrifuge of globalization? “Bucharest,” I replied, and they laughed out loud. “Bucharest!? Is there anything to see there? And what about the hotels and the food?”

“Trust me,” I told them, and wasn’t surprised when they returned three days later raving about the delicious strangeness of Europe’s sixth largest city (if you don’t count Istanbul and leave out Russia), which is a three-hour flight from most western European capitals. Vying for the title with Belgrade and Sofia, Bucharest is one of the last major European cities that hasn’t been pasteurized by gentrification or lost its soul to mass tourism. It’s an odd but lively mutt of a city—one that’s clearly seen better days but where something is also suddenly stirring. The locals love to have a good time, and the Romanian economy is chugging along pretty nicely.

To be sure, it wasn’t a place I fell madly in love with when I first went in the early 1990s. Wanting an alternative to the international menu at the Athenee Palace Hilton, I asked the concierge to suggest a restaurant where I could try real Romanian food, whatever that might be. “No, you don’t go out,” he said flatly. “Not safe.” That got my gander up. I’d lived in seriously lousy parts of Boston, New York City and London. So why not go out? “Mad dogs, mad people. You stay here. Please, don’t go,” he pleaded. Well, of course I did, but I got only a few blocks before having a terrifying run-in with a wild-eyed dog and then being surrounded by a flock of pan-handlers with wandering hands.

Palace of Parliament                                                                                              Marco Cristofori

But that was then, when the city, at once funky and then surprisingly elegant, was just beginning to recover from the demented reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. He razed dozens of churches and synagogues, gutted some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, and built a grand boulevard on a base of radioactive mine tailings that leads to his completely bonkers Casa Poporului, or “House of the People,” the common parlance for a building that was then officially known as Casa Republicii. The second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, it looks like it was inspired by the rejected plans for a Las Vegas casino by a second-string architect. Known today as the Palace of Parliament, it also houses Romania’s unexpectedly interesting National Museum of Contemporary Art.

My Boston pals accurately described the building, which took five years to build and wreaked havoc on Romania’s fragile finances, as “freaking weird,” and it’s true that the wacko splendor of the place, with its acres of Transylvanian marble, intriguingly hideous chandeliers, grand staircases and football-field-sized rooms, offers one of the most mind boggling lessons in the madness of Eastern Bloc communism to be found anywhere behind what was once the Iron Curtain.

The heavy hand of Ceausescu’s madcap urbanism notwithstanding, other parts of the city still live up to its pre-World War II moniker, Little Paris of the East. During the prosperous years from 1881 to 1920, Paris was indeed the inspiration for many of the city’s major monuments and public works, including the Arcul de Triumf and the Odeon Theater. Today, the liveliest part of the city is the Lipscani district, or Old Town, right in the heart of the city.

Grand Cafe Van Gogh

During the last few years, Lipscani has come on strong as Bucharest’s party district with the opening of dozens of bars, cafes and restaurants. The Dutch-owned Grand Cafe Van Gogh (Str. Smardan 9; 011-40-31-107-63-71 ) is my favorite for great coffee, good light food and terrific people watching. Also in the neighborhood are Caru’ cu Bere (Str. Stavropoleos 5; 011-40-21-313-75-60), which serves great beer in a stunning Belle Epoque setting, and the city’s two best clubs: the new Chat Noir (Str. Blanari 5; 011-40-740-10- 07-97), where a dressed to kill young crowd gets down to great dance music, and Mojo (Str. Gabroveni 14; 011-40-760-26-34-96), which has good live music.

Bucharest has museums galore, but the two not to miss are the absolutely fascinating Muzeul Taranului Roman, or Peasant Museum (Şos. Kiseleff 3; 011-40-21-317-96-60), and the delightful Muzeul Naţional al Satului Dimitrie Gusti, or Village Museum (Sos. Kiseleff 28-30; 011-40- 21-317-91-10). The Peasant Museum features exhibits of handicrafts, tools, textiles and other objects from all over the country, while the Village Museum, which was founded in 1936 by royal decree, is an open-air architectural museum of farm houses, wind mills and other buildings that were moved to the capital. Together, they not only offer insight into rural life in Romania—a country where most of the population still lives in the countryside—but also a bird’s eye view of its regional history and traditions.

Though the natives are wild about Italian food these days, you’ll want to eat local, and the best restaurant in town in which to discover that Romanian food is both hearty and delicious is Locanta Jaristea (Str. Georges Georgescu 50-52; 011-40-21-335-33-38). It serves delicious grills and ample helpings of mamaliga, the polenta-like dish beloved of Romanians, in the beautiful setting of an old villa with hilarious live entertainment, which might include violinists, someone playing a harmonica, and a chanteuse or two. The recently opened Hanu Berarilor Interbelic (Str. Poenaru Bordea 2; 011-40-21-336-80-09), which offers great Romanian home cooking—including dishes like carnati de oaie (mutton sausages) and mititei (grilled links of mixed ground meat seasoned with garlic, thyme and anise)—is another good address for a Romanian culinary experience, and many of the waiters speak English well, still not a given in Bucharest.

The Plaza Athenee has reigned as the city’s best hotel for years, but I also love the newly renovated Grand Hotel Continental (56 Victoriei Avenue; 011-40-372-010 300) for its terrific location, very comfortable rooms, friendly and professional young staff, and history—it was built in 1886, according to the plans of the architects Mr. Enil Ritten Forster and I.I. Rasnovanu, in German Renaissance style and was one of the city’s grandest hotels before falling into a long senescence that ended with a recent renovation. (N.B. It’s rarely necessary to pay the rack rates posted on its Web site; call or e-mail instead for their best offer.) For less expensive lodgings that are almost equally comfortable and well-located, the Hotel Rembrandt (Str. Smardan 11; 011-40-21-313-9315/16) is an attractively renovated 1925 option (just as long as you book a “business-class” room).

Oh, and if you want to make friends and get on with the locals, heed the slightly exasperated but well-intentioned advice of a good-natured young waiter at Hanu Berarilor Interbelic: “Please don’t tell us how surprised you are that Bucharest is a nice city. We know that. You’re the ones who think it’s on Mars. Please skip the Dracula jokes—Bram Stoker’s blood-sucker is probably the least interesting thing about Romania. And please bin your old donkey-carts-and-gypsies image of Romania before you come.” All of which is to say that it’s a better idea to wait and riff on this intriguing city’s exhilarating strangeness once you get home.

Adrian Paunescu, Poet Who Praised a Dictator, Dies at 67

6 November 2010
by The Associated Press
New York Times

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Adrian Paunescu, Romania’s most famous poet, who remained popular among his countrymen despite his praise for the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, died here on Friday. He was 67.

The cause was multiple organ failure, the Floreasca Emergency Hospital said. His last poem was written last Sunday from his hospital bed.

Mr. Paunescu, a prolific writer who was both physically huge and a larger-than-life character, appeared on television several times a week.

During the Communist era, he wrote flattering poems about Ceausescu that critics said contributed to the dictator’s personality cult. Still, Mr. Paunescu’s verse, often sentimental and melancholy, struck a chord with many Romanians.

In a message of condolence, President Traian Basescu of Romania thanked Mr. Paunescu for helping a generation of young artists but did not mention the poet’s involvement in politics.

Mr. Paunescu was born in the Soviet Union, in what is now Moldova, and moved to Romania as a child. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Holocaust-Era Mass Grave Found In Romania

5 November 2010
by The Associated Press
National Public Radio

Forensic experts take pictures of human remains in a forest near Poprican, northern Romania, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. A mass grave containing the bodies of an estimated 100 Jews killed by Romanian troops has been discovered in a forest in northeast Romania, holocaust researchers said Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. The Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania said in a statement that historians and archeologists unearthed the site in a forest near Popircani.

BUCHAREST, Romania November 5, 2010, 09:34 am ET

A Holocaust-era mass grave containing the bodies of an estimated 100 Jews killed by Romanian troops has been discovered in a forest, researchers said Friday, offering further evidence of the country's involvement in wartime crimes.

The find in a forest near the town of Popricani, about 350 kilometers (220 kilometers) northeast of Bucharest, contains the bodies of men, women and children who were shot in 1941, the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania said in a statement.

On Friday, riot police sealed off the area, not allowing anyone near the site, local reporters told The Associated Press.

The find offers evidence of pogroms against Jews in the region, scholars say, campaigns that were long minimized in a country whose official history taught that Germans were the sole perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Sketchy reports about the possibility of a mass grave in the forest began to appear in 2002, and local authorities began an investigation, which was suspended in the fall after nothing was found. Experts resumed the investigation at the site and began interviewing witnesses again in 2009, according to Romanian historian Adrian Cioflanca.

About 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma, or Gypsies, were killed during the pro-fascist regime of dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu, who was prime minister from 1940 to 1944 and executed by the communists in 1946. About 6,000 Jews live in Romania today.

Historians have documented several pogroms in Romania during World War II, including one in June 1941 in the northeastern city of Iasi, where up to 12,000 people are believed to have died as Romanian and German soldiers swept from house to house, killing Jews.

Those who did not die were systematically beaten, put in cattle wagons in stifling heat and taken to a small town, where what happened to them would be concealed. Of the 120 people on the train, just 24 survived.

Romania's role in the Holocaust remains a sensitive and highly charged topic. During communist times, the country largely ignored the involvement of Romania's leaders in wartime crimes.

The country's role in the Holocaust and the deportation of Jews were minimized by subsequent governments after communism collapsed in 1989.

In 2004, after a dispute with Israel over comments about the Holocaust, then-President Ion Iliescu assembled an international panel led by Nobel-prize winner Elie Wiesel to investigate the Holocaust in Romania.

Exhumed Romania body is Nicolae Ceausescu, tests show

3 November 2010
BBC News

The bodies of Ceausescu and his wife were buried hastily after their execution by firing squad

Scientists in Romania have confirmed that a body exhumed in a cemetery in the capital Bucharest is that of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The remains were exhumed, along with those believed to be of Ceausescu's wife, Elena, earlier this year so DNA tests could confirm their identities.

The couple's relatives had cast doubt on the official story that they were buried in the Ghencea cemetery.

Ceausescu ruled Romania from 1965 until he was toppled in the 1989 revolution.

He and his wife were tried and executed by a military court on Christmas Day 1989 after fleeing mass protests in Bucharest.

The execution took place at an army base near the town of Targoviste and the bodies were buried hastily, leaving some to doubt whether the graves in Bucharest really contained their remains.

"The DNA from his brother and his son show that it is Nicolae Ceausescu," Dan Dermengiu, head of Romania's legal medicine institute told the Mediafax news agency.

He said that in the case of Elena Ceausescu there was not enough material available for a conclusive test.

However, Ceausescu's son Valentin, a 62-year-old nuclear physicist, said he was now satisfied that his parents are buried in the graves where the authorities have always claimed they were.

He now wants to re-bury them at the same cemetery in adjacent plots, he told the Associated Press. They had been buried about 20m (65ft) apart.

The exhumations took place in the early hours of 21 July following a five-year court battle by the Ceausescu family.

At the time, Mircea Oprean, husband of the dictator's late daughter Zoia, said he thought it likely they were indeed the Ceausescus.

"I saw the bodies. My father-in-law's was quite well preserved, I recognised his black winter coat with some holes in it, presumably bullet holes," he said.

Communism Left Toxic Legacy In Eastern Europe

11 October 2010
by The Associated Press
National Public Radio

FILE - This Feb. 11, 2000 file photo shows a general view of the Aurul SA gold smelter in Baia Mare, 650 kilometers northwest of Bucharest, Romania. Romania's last environmental disaster is only 10 years in the past: a spill of 100,000 tons of cyanide-laced waters from the gold mine reservoir in the northern city of Baia Mare.

BUCHAREST, Romania October 11, 2010, 04:01 pm ET

Abandoned mines in Romania leach waters contaminated by heavy metals into rivers. A Hungarian chemical plant produces more than 100,000 tons of toxic substances a year. Soil in eastern Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-producing PCBs.

The flood of toxic sludge in Hungary is but one of the ecological horrors that lurk in Eastern Europe 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, serving as a reminder that the region is dotted with disasters waiting to happen.

Much of Eastern Europe is free of many of its worst environmental sins with the help of Western funds and conditions imposed on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in exchange for membership in the European Union.

Still, the sludge has focused attention on less-visible dangers that survived various cleanups in the region.

The caustic spill—Hungary's worst ecological disaster—also has raised questions about whether investors who took over Soviet-era factories from the state 20 years ago are at fault for not spending enough on safety.

Eight people died in the Oct. 4 deluge of red sludge from a 10-hectare (24-acre) storage pool where a byproduct of aluminum production is kept.

Calls for greater cleanup efforts apply not only to Hungary, which considered itself ahead of most of the former Soviet bloc in fixing ecological harm, but also to neighbors like Serbia that hope to join the 27-nation bloc.

"The scary thing is we didn't know this existed and there could be other ones," says Andreas Beckmann, director of the World Wildlife Fund Danube-Carpathian program, alluding to the Hungarian spill. "How many other facilities and sites are there that could be a ticking time bomb?"

Environmentalists warn of other potential disasters from seven storage ponds about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Budapest that hold 12 million tons of sludge accumulated since 1945—more than 10 times the amount that spilled this week.

"If the gates break there, much of Hungary's drinking water would be endangered," says WWF official Martin Geiger.

Other sites—like the Borsodchem plant in northeastern Hungary—pose similar risks to groundwater. That factory churns out 100,000 tons of the toxin PVC that contains dioxin, the same poison released into the air by a factory explosion in Seveso, Italy 34 years ago that killed hundreds of animals and turned much of the town into a no man's land.

Slovakia, Hungary's northern neighbor, has its own toxic problems, including a huge area in the east of the country that is still contaminated with PCBs from communist times.

Government officials in Bulgaria, alarmed by the Hungarian spill, have ordered safety checks of a dozen waste dams—huge reservoir walls that hold back often heavy metal-laden waste that are prone to leaks or collapse.

In Bulgaria's most serious such accident, walls at a lead and copper processing factory in Zgorigrad broke in 1966, releasing a flood of sludge that killed 488 people and left much of the immediate area uninhabitable.

Activists say smaller leaks are not uncommon. Ecologist Daniel Popov says sludge from a storage pond containing waste from copper ore leaked into the Topolnitsa River in central Bulgaria last spring, killing fish.

The inspections are only for operational waste dams, prompting criticism from environmental activists.

Of particular concern, a WWF report says, is a dam near the town of Chiprovtsi in northwestern Bulgaria because it is directly on the Ogosta River, a major Danube tributary.

Hungary's sludge ponds are a legacy of the Soviet era, when Moscow designated that country as the main producer of alumina, used in the manufacture of aluminum. Reservoirs full of heavy metal-laced sludge are also a threat elsewhere.

A huge storage pond full of corrosive sludge in Romania is part of the landscape of the gritty Danube port of Tulcea. WWF activists say leaks and airborne pollution from the site is responsible for fish and bird deaths nearby.

The Danube—Europe's second-longest waterway—appears to have escaped immediate harm from the recent Hungarian spill. The same kind of spill at the Tulcea plant would devastate a vast stretch of lakes and marshes at the Danube's entry into the Black Sea that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It hosts more than 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater species of fish.

Memories of an environmental disaster a decade ago in Romania have triggered emergency measures for Tulcea and other suspect sites. That's when a reservoir burst at a gold mine in the northwestern town of Baia Mare on Jan. 30, 2000, spilling cyanide-laden water into local rivers and killing tons of fish and other wildlife.

Romanian Environment Minister Laszlo Borbely said Friday his country is accelerating cleanup plans for 1,000 contaminated sites.

"We must be very cautious now after what happened here in Baia Mare and now in Hungary," he said. Romania could access up to 100 million euros ($138 million) in EU funds to decontaminate polluted sites, he said.

Some of Eastern Europe's worst environmental horrors were in Romania—among them Copsa Mica, where TV images of black toxic soot from chimneys of a rubber-dye factory falling onto houses, fields, grazing sheep and townspeople shocked the world in 1989.

International outrage contributed to the plant's 1993 closure. But "historic pollution" with heavy metals from the 40 years that it operated continues to foul the air. Life expectancy in the area is nine years lower than the national average of 72.

The Danube is shared by seven countries, and it has been the victim of toxic spills even before Hungary's caustic red muck.

Among the worst incidents came 11 years ago during NATO's bombing of Serbia, when warplanes targeted fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and an oil refinery in the town of Pancevo, near Belgrade, releasing mercury, dioxins and other deadly compounds into the river.

Foreign funding after the war allowed authorities to contain some of the leaks, but sporadic emissions of toxic gases continue to drive air pollution above accepted levels.

Also near Belgrade, an open pit in Obrenovac just 100 meters (yards) from the Sava—a Danube tributary—contains millions of tons of coal ash from the Nikola Tesla Coal Power Plant. The air has unhealthy levels of carbon black, also known as lampblack, for as much as a third of the year. Sprinklers to prevent the ash from becoming airborne are of limited effectiveness on windy days.

Croatia lists nine locations where dangerous waste has been deposited for decades that still need to be cleaned, said Toni Vidan of the group Green Action.

In Vranjic near Split, a factory producing asbestos closed several years ago, but the waste—about 7,000 cubic meters (9,100 cubic yards) of material mixed with asbestos—hasn't been completely cleaned up. Two years ago, the presence of asbestos in Vranjic was three times greater than allowed. Even today, residents say particles of asbestos are in the air when the wind blows.


Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic and Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report. Jahn reported from Vienna.

What We Can Learn from Transylvania (Really!)

Autumn 2010
by Jay Walljasper
Notre Dame Magazine

Anthony Fiorino in the Romanian village of Mesendorf
                            Photo Krupali Krusche

At a time when vampire tales enrapture teen and ’tween America, the idea of college students doing research in Transylvania sounds like the plotline for a movie spoof. Dracula 101: Advanced Seminar in Twilightology.

But Notre Dame students journeyed to this rugged region of Romania with two quite serious goals in mind—to study how villagers can enjoy the benefits of 21st century life without sacrificing their traditional ways and to learn from people whose deep bond to nature and one another has changed little through the centuries.

“It’s a laboratory for sustainable solutions,” says Krupali Krusche, the Notre Dame architecture professor who in March 2009 led a team of undergraduate architecture students and one Medieval Studies graduate student to Transylvanian villages considered among Europe’s best remaining examples of pastoral society. We tend to think of unspoiled nature strictly as wilderness, but these 10 villages spread across valleys in central Romania provided Krusche’s students a rare chance to study architecture in ecologically pristine landscapes that have been inhabited for centuries.

“It’s the one place in Europe where the life that existed in the 13th century can still be found,” says Krusche. The historic preservation specialist has conducted extensive studies of sacred architecture in her native India and spent the past summer with another ND group documenting the Roman Forum with a 3-D laser scanner. Of life in these Transylvania villages, she adds: “It is the roots of today’s ideal of an organic lifestyle”—sustainable farming, local food, natural building methods, a close-knit community.

Even here, however, traditional village life is threatened as modernization advances into rural Romania. Young people are leaving the area in search of economic opportunity, and many of the area’s German-speaking residents have emigrated to Germany.

Krusche’s students spent most of their time in the hamlets of Viscri, Crit and Laslea, documenting architectural styles and local customs in drawings, photos and text. They sketched home renovation plans so “modern amenities may be introduced without altering sustainable lifestyle practices,” as the group put it in a report. But this was more than an academic project. In partnership with the Technical University of Dresden, Krusche is compiling the students’ work into a pattern book that villagers can use to restore their properties and that European Union officials may consult when drafting tourism or preservation plans. She believes the students’ keen interest in the villages reassured local people that their traditions are not outdated but actually represent a valuable, living example of a green way of life.

“This work is not just some abstract exercise. It will help these people survive in today’s changing economic context,” says Anthony Monta of Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, which helped fund the trip. “It was very gratifying to see the students’ enthusiasm about how their research will contribute to solving problems.”

“At first, these people struck me as extremely poor, but we came to see they are rich in many other ways,” recalls Alejandra Gutzeit ’10. “There was such a harmony in how they lived with the land, the animals, each other.”

Ashley Vaughan ’10 was touched by how villagers offered homemade wine, coffee and sweets as she took measurements and analyzed architectural features in their homes. As for the hearty peasant meals cooked largely from locally raised ingredients, she exults, “It was some the best food I’ve ever eaten.”

It was cows, however, that seized the imagination of almost everyone in the ND group. After grazing all day in pastures on the outskirts of the village, the cows ambled home at dusk on their own, each returning to its own barn to be milked. Who knew cows could do that? It seemed to symbolize the possibilities that modern society misses in not paying closer attention to the cycles of nature.

In this part of Romania, villagers live in handsome old homes—washed in bright blue, green and ochre colors—on winding cobblestone lanes lined with pear trees. The houses are set close together, which makes the streets pleasantly walkable, but each family enjoys considerable space in the long courtyards behind their homes enclosed by walls and timber-frame barns. Beyond the barns lie vegetable gardens, orchards, walnut groves and small farm plots. Farther out are meadows and pastures used cooperatively by the villagers for grazing animals and making hay. They are carpeted with wildflowers, including some varieties said to grow nowhere else in Europe. Finally, one reaches the oak and beech woods that cover the steep hillsides, where people gather firewood and building materials.

Today these villages are home to Romanians and Gypsies along with a small number of German-speaking “Saxons,” many of whose forebears were recruited here in the 13th century by the king of Hungary to help defend the borderlands of Christian Europe against the advancing forces of Mongols and Tatars. A series of unique fortified churches stand as evidence of fierce battles. Centuries later, those Saxons who once dominated the area left, many after the fall of the Berlin Wall when, unsure of their status in post-Communist Romania, they accepted the German government’s offer to emigrate.

Marcela K. Perett ’09Ph.D., then a Medieval Studies doctoral student who joined Krusche’s group to investigate the churches, came away with a deeper understanding of medieval culture as well as a sense of how hard life would be in these villages then and now. “I was struck by how primitive it was. These were people living on the edge of subsistence; I wouldn’t want to live like that. But on the flip side, there was great natural beauty, a really gorgeous landscape. I didn’t get the sense that the people seemed anxious to have a lot of modern things.”

For Tereza Schaible ’10, the visit sparked a conviction that the villagers will be better off if they maintain their traditions. “If this way of life is not preserved, these would just be some more poor villages. If it stays special, people from all over the world will want to come and see it.”

Professor Krusche first visited the Saxon villages as a graduate student in Dresden. That initial encounter was part of a project sponsored by the Prince of Wales, whose work with the local Mihai Eminescu Trust has promoted economic incentives to maintain the region’s distinctive culture. The Romanian organization had bravely opposed Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s plans to level the villages. In recent years it has funded the restoration of 300 buildings and encouraged some 1,000 Saxons to move back into the region from Germany.

Other initiatives train villagers how to use traditional skills—weaving, folk dancing, tilemaking, baking and the production of jam, cheese, honey and garden vegetables—to make a better living or start new businesses ranging from bed-and-breakfasts to a commercial organic orchard. The Trust also drove a proposed Dracula-themed amusement park out of the area.

The students’ work supports this kind of local economic development by offering ideas for how craft workshops, visitor centers, cafés, guesthouses or shops might thrive in existing buildings, bringing needed services and jobs to the villages while ensuring the preservation of a valuable way of life.


Jay Walljasper—whose book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons appears this winter—is co-editor of and a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler. His website is

Voronin Stays True To Form

2 October 2010
Radio Free Europe

Moldovan ex-President Vladimir Voronin

Moldova's Communist ex-President Vladimir Voronin can be accused of many things. But a lack of consistency is not among them.

To many, his recent jibe at Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc appeared incomprehensible for the head of the largest party—granted, a Communist one—of a new European country. More precisely, Voronin earlier this week appealed to the European Union to "condemn" Boc's statement at the United Nations General Assembly in which he said Romania does not recognize the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 24, 1939, better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Voronin was irritated that Boc's statement was "humiliating" to Moldova's statehood, he argued—thus appearing to concede that Moldova owes its very existence as a state to that infamous Soviet-Nazi pact.

The secret protocols of the pact provided for a division of spheres of influence between the Soviets and the Nazis, of course. More specifically, the Russians got Hitler's approval for invading and annexing eastern Poland, the Baltics, and Romania's eastern province of Basarabia, which forms most of present-day independent Moldova.

Beyond Voronin's demand that the European Union condemn an official from a member country for rejecting the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact—might Voronin want the EU to recognize the Nazi-Soviet deal?—the statement represents an implicit admission of his own party's illegitimacy. For Voronin has remained faithful to his Communist credo—no matter how absurd it might sometimes sound—that the Soviet invasion and occupation was, in fact, a liberation for Moldova, as he told RFE/RL in 2005.

—Eugen Tomiuc

The Cheese and Mutton Pastrami Festival

23 September 2010
Radio Romania International


In late September, as the weather grows colder, the village of Bran, in the southern Carpathians, prepares to feast. After having grazed them in the mountains all summer long, shepherds return the sheep to their owners, and this is a great opportunity to celebrate. The Cheese and Mutton Pastrami Festival is held at the foot of the mountains at the end of September every year, and this year the festival has been scheduled for the first weekend in October.

So on today's instalment of Radio Tour, we plan to take you on a trip to the mountains overlooked by the impressive Bran Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights, but frequently associated with the Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler.

The works of Romanian and foreign historians describe Vlad the Impaler as an authoritarian prince, who firmly believed in the virtues of honesty and hard work, and severely punished laziness and fraud, by impaling the perpetrators. Nowadays, the legend attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to Bran Castle. We talked to professor Mioara Stoian Visan, head of the Brasov branch of the National Association for Rural and Environmental Tourism, about what makes Bran worth visiting at this time of the year:

“In this festival, which has turned into a tradition, tourists usually come for a taste of the dishes cooked by the Bran locals. They enjoy the food in the midst of spectacular autumn scenery, and they will be surprised to find out how many cheese types are made here. And of course, mutton pastrami is the treat of the day. A lot of tourists ask us where they can find more mutton pastrami to buy, after the festival is over. There are also various craftsmen who come to showcase their crafts and sell their products, and the festival includes traditional music and dance shows as well.”

The locals have a lot on offer, and, perhaps most importantly, all their products are organic. The cheese, for instance, tastes entirely different from what we can find in supermarkets. We asked Mioara Stoian Visan what she would recommend to tourists who take part in this event for the first time:

“I would recommend a very special kind of cheese, a soft cured very sharp sheep cheese in a fir tree bark casing, which is unique in the world. I would also recommend the smoked sheep cheese, which is also specific to this area. Lately, new varieties of cheese have emerged, such as sweet or salty cheese with basil, rosemary or dill. And we should not forget about the traditional 'bulz', made of polenta and cheese. All of these can be tasted and bought in Bran during the festival, and the locals are competing both in making them, and in packaging them as invitingly as possible. The cheese made in the Bran area stands out among all other cheese varieties in Romania, thanks to the grass in the Bucegi mountains, which is quite special.”

Over the years, the festival has won over many loyal visitors, and, as we learn from Mioara Stoian Visan, tourists always bring along other tourists. But, although this is a great celebration, the tourists who are only interested in spending a quiet holiday will not be disturbed:

“There are two separate things. Those who come here for the festival usually stroll around the stands, which are about 30, to taste and buy cheese, mutton pastrami, must or plum brandy. Others come here just to spend a quiet weekend or holiday, and there is plenty for them to do around here. A lot of locals have bought bikes, or organise horse cart rides and trekking sessions, because, after all, that's why people choose a holiday in the mountains: for the exercise and the fresh air.”

But more often than not, regular tourists are more than willing to trade a relaxing day for a chance to taste and buy the delicious home-made products. Particularly since the festival programme also includes craft demonstrations and music and dance shows. Our guest today, Mioara Stoian Visan, emphasised that the participation of traditional craftsmen in the Cheese and Mutton Pastrami Festival has become a tradition:

“Some craftsmen came from as far as Bistrita with a wooden loom, others have brought wood carvings, others will paint icons, make embroideries or sew. Others yet knit and sell sweaters and hats. Our main goal is to provide top quality services to Romanian and foreign tourists. If they want to better know our traditions and to eat traditional home-made dishes, they should attend this festival. We can't tell about all the surprises that would be waiting for them here, but we extend them an invitation – and it is a heartfelt invitation.”

E.U. Scolds Romania for Faltering on Reforms

20 July 2010
by Stephen Castle
New York Times

BRUSSELS — Romania was publicly criticized on Tuesday as lacking in commitment to fight corruption as the European Union released a report that also praised Bulgaria for the growing momentum behind its reforms.

The document, from the European Commission, detailed how Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, were fighting rampant fraud, corruption and organized crime.

In doing so, it outlined some of the reasons behind doubts about whether either country was ready to become part of the European Union, which now has 27 members. While Bulgaria’s government was complemented on its efforts to root out serious problems, Romania was told that its performance revealed “important shortcomings.”

“Romania did not show sufficient political commitment,” the report said, “to support and provide direction to the reform process, and demonstrated a degree of unwillingness within the leadership of the judiciary to cooperate and take responsibility.”

Until recently, European officials had been more concerned about the failings in Bulgaria. Only last week, a separate report on fraud underlined the fact that Bulgaria remained a serious problem. It showed that one in five E.U. farm subsidy payments was subject to fraud.

Bulgaria and Romania have been under special scrutiny since they joined the Union because of concerns over high levels of corruption.

The very public criticism of Romania provoked an immediate response from its president, Traian Basescu, who acknowledged shortcomings but said the European Commission had gone too far in saying Romania was not meeting its E.U. obligations. “I think the phrasing is unfair, and therefore I must react and show that Romania is meeting its commitments, that we are determined to see them through,” he said at a news conference, Reuters reported.

The main reason for the severity of the commission’s language appears to be its anger at efforts in Romania to undermine the National Integrity Agency, which has been examining conflicts of interest and investigating people with unexplained wealth in Romania.

Amendments approved by the Romanian Parliament made it impossible to do the work the agency was set up to do and broke a promise Romania made when it joined the bloc, the commission said. The action on the amendments represents “a significant step back in the fight against corruption and breaches commitments Romania has taken upon accession,” the report said.

The report urged Romania to improve its judicial system and increase prosecution of high-level corruption and to improve the public procurement process. Similar recommendations were also made for Bulgaria, though they came accompanied by praise.

“For the first time, we see real political will in Bulgaria to push through reform,” said Mark Gray, a spokesman for the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.

Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boiko Borisov, described the report on his country as the most positive so far from the commission. “But I also want to see where the criticisms are and prepare a plan to overcome them,” he added, according to Reuters.

Moldovan Leader Defiant In 'Soviet Occupation' Row With Russia

2 July 2010
Radio Free Europe

Acting Moldovan President Mihai Ghimpu lays a bouquet of flowers at a memorial for victims of the Soviet occupation in Chisinau on June 28.

CHISINAU—Acting Moldovan President Mihai Ghimpu has said Russia should "respect the will of the Moldovans" and stop criticizing a new national holiday marking Moldova's occupation by Soviet troops at the beginning of World War II, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service reports.

Ghimpu last week issued a decree making June 28 a day of "remembrance and mourning" for the 1940 Soviet invasion of eastern Romania, including the territory that is now Moldova.

The Russian Foreign Ministry this week criticized Ghimpu's decree, calling it an attempt to "rewrite history." A similar statement was passed unanimously on June 30 by the Russian State Duma.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on July 1 called on Muscovites and all Russians to boycott Moldovan goods until Moldova apologizes for the decree and cancels it.

Ghimpu shrugged off Luzhkov's remarks, saying "the fate of the Moldovan nation is more important than a few apples and carrots."

Officials in Moldova's four-party ruling coalition -- including Democrat Party leader Marian Lupu and Justice Minister Alexandru Tanase -- have also been critical of Ghimpu's decree.

The opposition Communist Party has said the decree is a veiled attempt to worsen ties with Russia and to possibly outlaw the communists.

Russia is Moldova's biggest trade partner and one of its key markets for the country's main exports of fruit and wine.

Present-day Moldova, with the exception of its separatist Transdniester region, was part of Romania until World War II. It was annexed by the Soviets through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1940.

Romania won it back one year later in the German-led attack on the Soviet Union, but at the end of the war it became a Soviet republic.

The Soviet occupation is still considered an act of liberation by some Moldovans who grew up in Soviet times.

'Soviet Occupation Day' Causes Rift In Moldova's Ruling Alliance

26 June 2010
Radio Free Europe

Moldova's interim President Mihai Ghimpu signed the decree establishing the commemoration.

CHISINAU—Moldova's acting president has come under fire from the ruling coalition allies and the leftist opposition for ordering a new holiday to mark Moldova's June 1940 annexation from Romania by the Soviet Union, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service reports.

Mihai Ghimpu on June 24 signed a decree establishing June 28 as "Soviet occupation day and a day of mourning for the victims of totalitarian communism."

Ghimpu describes himself as a "unionist," meaning he believes Moldovans and Romanians should be together in one nation.

Democrat Party leader Marian Lupu, one of the most popular politicians in the ruling four-party Alliance for European Integration (AIE) said Ghimpu had not consulted his allies before issuing the decree and urged him to cancel it.

Ghimpu's move was also criticized by Justice Minister Alexandru Tanase, vice president of another AIE party led by Prime Minister Vlad Filat.

The opposition communists, which remain the strongest single Moldovan party, blasted Ghimpu's decree and warned it was a veiled attempt to worsen ties with Russia and possibly outlaw the communists.

Moldova, with the exception of the separatist Transdniester region, was part of Romania until World War II.

It was annexed by the Soviets through the Ribentropp-Molotov pact in 1940.

Romania won it back one year later in the German-led attack on the Soviet Union, but at the end of the war it became a Soviet republic.

The Soviet occupation of 1940 is still considered an act of liberation by many Moldovans who grew up in Soviet times.

Romania Plans Big VAT Rise to Secure Bail-out Funds

26 June 2010
BBC News

Romania is aiming to cut its
budget deficit to 6.8% of GDP

Emil Boc said the 5% rise was an attempt to guarantee a $20bn International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.

The move comes after Romania's top court ruled out plans to cut pensions, prompting the IMF to delay key talks.

But critics say the VAT rise will hit consumer spending in the European Union country.

"The government has decided to raise the VAT tax by five points," Mr Boc said at a press conference.

"Under these conditions, the agreement with the IMF will continue".

He said an IMF meeting to discuss Romania's aid package would now be held on 30 June.

The austerity plan negotiated by the government with the IMF aims to cut the national deficit from 7.2% of output to 6.8%.

'Deeply disappointed'

Finance Minister Sebastian Vladescu said the increase, which will be implemented in July, will bring in between 3.5 to 4 billion lei ($1-1.15bn) extra revenue in 2010.

"I cannot hide that I am deeply disappointed that today we are raising VAT," he said, adding that it was important to ensure the country's "financing ability".

The prime minister said the VAT rise would be "closely co-ordinated with the National Bank of Romania in order to avoid inflationary effects".

The increase will put Romania just below a number of states which share the highest VAT rate in the EU - 25%.

The average rate for European countries is 20%, according to accounting firm KPMG.

But some critics argue that the VAT increase could worsen an already struggling economy.

"An increase of VAT will be bad for consumption," said Nicolae Chidesciuc, chief economist at ING Bank Romania told AFP.

He said there was a need to "adjust spending in the public sector".

On Friday, a court ruled out government plans to cut pensions by 15%.

The Constitutional Court said the measure was unconstitutional, a ruling which cannot be appealed.

The government is also planning to cut public sector salaries by 25%.

Romanian Court: Austerity Cuts Unconstitutional

25 June 2010
by The Associated Press
National Public Radio

BUCHAREST, Romania—A top Romanian court ruled Friday that sweeping austerity measures proposed by the government are unconstitutional, a move that will delay a crucial multibillion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The ruling from the Constitutional Court came after dozens of Romanians tried unsuccessfully to storm the presidential palace to protest the measures and demand an audience with President Traian Basescu.

Riot police repelled those who tried to force their way past barricades into the 17th century palace.

The court did not publish its reasons for ruling that the 15 percent cuts to pensions and 25 percent cuts to public sector salaries were unconstitutional.

The ruling will delay the next installment of a euro20 billion ($24.49 billion) loan from the IMF, the European Union and the World Bank last year, which helped pay state wages when its economy shrank by 7.1 percent.

The government will now likely hike the consumer tax and income tax rates to meet the IMF demands for the loan and to keep the budget deficit at 6.8 percent.

Romania has about 5.5 million retirees and only about 4.3 million employees—from which about 1.36 million are public sector workers.

Moldova Orders Russia To Withdraw
Troops From Transdniester

25 June 2010
Radio Free Europe

Interim President Mihai Ghimpu: 'Unconditionally, urgently, and transparently'

CHISINAU—Moldova has ordered Russia to withdraw all its troops from the separatist Transdniester region, where they've been stationed for two decades.

Interim President Mihai Ghimpu issued a decree telling Moscow to withdraw its 1,500 troops "unconditionally, urgently, and transparently"—the first such direct call from a Moldovan leader.

Russia had pledged to withdraw its troops -- who have been stationed in Transdniester since Soviet times—by 2002 under a 1999 agreement brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but it has failed to fulfill its promise.

Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 and fought a war with Moldovan forces in 1992 that left 1,500 people dead.

The conflict was quelled by Russian forces stationed there which intervened on the separatists' side.

Ghimpu's decree also establishes June 28 as an official "Soviet Occupation Day."

On June 28, 1940, Soviet troops annexed the eastern Romanian province of Bessarabia (the greater part of present-day Moldova) under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Russian daily "Kommersant" that Ghimpu's decree is "nonsense." But Kosachev said Russia has to officially react to the last paragraph of the decree, which describes Russian troops in Transdniester as "occupation troops."

Iurie Muntean, a Communist Party leader, told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service he believes that Ghimpu's move is directed against the communist opposition. Muntean said he suspects the final goal could be banning his party ahead of general elections expected in November.

Vladimir Turcan, a former Communist Party leader who leads a small group of independent deputies, told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service that the decree will deepen "political instability" in the country. Turcan accused Ghimpu of pursuing his alleged goal of reuniting Moldova with Romania.

The Moldovan parliament is to examine on June 28 a report by a special presidential investigative commission on the crimes of the Soviet regime.

The report recommends banning the use of Communist symbols by political parties.

The Party of Communists, who ruled Moldova from 2001 to 2009, says the report is directed against today's Communist opposition, rather than the crimes of the former totalitarian regime.

Deep in the Carpathians, Painted Parables

20 June 2010
by Peter Wortsman
New York Times

The painted church at the Monastery of Voronet, in the Bucovina region of Romania, dates back to 1488, and the reign of Stephen the Great.
                         Cristian Movila for The New York Times

WHEN the Moldavian prince Stephen the Great won his first decisive victory against the Turks five and a quarter centuries ago, he decided to mark the occasion with a grand monastery and adorn its walls with the colorful work of artisans of the day. With his second victory came another monastery. With the third, yet another.

The result of his victories—46 in all—was an unprecedented building spree within the densely forested terrain of the Bucovina region in modern Romania. The tradition was embraced by his son and successor, Petru Rares, and their vassals. Many of the mural-covered monasteries and churches survive, nestled in a valley, having withstood the withering summer sun and winter winds for centuries. What started out as Stephen the Great’s war trophies have become some of the world’s most stunning works of art.

They exist now as the present-day Monastery of Voronet, about three miles south of the Romanian village of Gura Humorului, and its sister sanctuaries, scattered within a radius of some 25 miles and collectively recognized as Unesco World Heritage sites.

Murals at the Monastery of Humor, painted in 1535
Cristian Movila for The New York Times

Pinpointing the area that contains this trove is not easy. The region, which became the eastern outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is now divided between southern Bucovina, in northeastern Romania, and Chernivtsi Province, in present-day Ukraine. To further complicate matters, some Romanians also refer to it as northern Moldavia, not to be confused with the independent Republic of Moldova, which borders northeastern Romania. But there is good reason to make the trek, geographic confusion and pothole-pocked roads notwithstanding, as I did last summer.

Driving through Prislop Pass on the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania’s Muntii Rodnei National Park, I caught my first glimpse of the area, a dizzying green expanse thick with virgin forests. The trees gave no clue of the treasure they hid. I had chosen a room at Casa Felicia, a guesthouse next to a monastery in the village of Sucevita, as my base. From there I embarked on a self-guided tour of the monasteries and their murals.

Architectural historians have described the monastery churches, some shaped like gnomes in slouch hats, as Byzantine churches built with Gothic hands. At the monastery church of Voronet, I found that no labels do justice to the images that ring the exterior. Like an open picture book, its pages fluttering in the breeze, every surface is covered with tableaux from the Old and New Testaments as well as local legends and the lives of saints.

Voronet remained a monastery until the 18th century, when Hapsburg occupiers chased out the monks, and was uninhabited thereafter until 1991, when a community of nuns dedicated to the Order of St. George took up residence. There are regular tours, though mostly in Romanian. During my visit, one unsmiling sister of indeterminate age and a certain severity gave a clipped tour in English. “Questions, no!” she half-challenged, half-threatened at regular intervals, brandishing a pointer that might have doubled as a switch; no one dared raise a hand.

But you don’t have to speak Romanian to grasp the meaning of these painted parables. The famous “Voronet blue” base of the color scheme, obtained from crushed lapis lazuli, has an overpowering effect, as if the sky had descended to saturate the surface. Byzantine-inspired scenes, astoundingly expressive, illustrate the Book of Genesis on the northern wall, and include a bewildered-looking Eve, fresh-formed from Adam’s rib.

A soaring, azure Tree of Jesse climbs the southern wall, tracing Jesus’ terrestrial genealogy back to King David, framed by a ring of classical philosophers. In juxtaposing Old and New Testament themes with portrayals of Greek philosophers, the painting strongly affirms a cultural affiliation with the Occidental tradition, as distinct from the tradition of the Ottoman invaders.

Built in 1488, at a time of relative peace, the walled monastery doubled as a military stronghold, just in case. Its frescoes were painted a half-century later, mostly by anonymous masters, except for a certain Marcu, who inscribed his name to the left of the entrance. The images in this and other Bucovina monasteries were intended to instruct, entertain and enlighten illiterate soldiers and peasants and to underline their loyalties.

The cave of Daniel the Hermit, spiritual adviser to Stephen the Great.
Cristian Movila for The New York Times

The sprawling Last Judgment, known as the “Sistine Chapel of the East,” covers the entire western wall and hammers home the message. Moses strives to lead the call to salvation at the throne of Christ Pantocrator (Christ Almighty), while the skeptical Jews linger among the Turks and Tatars, waiting to tumble into hell. It’s a frightening, albeit fabulously entertaining, epic depiction, the D. W. Griffith silent-screen extravaganza of its day.

In the Monastery of Humor, in the village of Manastirea Humorului, about four miles to the north, the dominant hue of the exterior frescoes is a madder-based brownish red that enhances the church’s allure, as if it were a giant magic mushroom sprouting from the earth. Built in 1530 on the site of the ruins of an older monastery, by the nobleman Teodor Bubuiog, a faithful vassal of Stephen the Great and Petru Rares, Humor has exterior frescoes, not as well preserved but similar in style and motif to those at Voronet, painted in 1535 by Toma of Suceava.

Plundered by the Cossacks and other invaders and closed by the Hapsburgs, Humor, like Voronet, was re-established as a monastic community in 1991. The ramparts are still intact. I climbed the stairs of the watchtower for a glimpse of the church huddled within and a sweeping view of the hills without.

The sulfur-based yellow background lends a sun-drenched appearance to the church in the Monastery of Moldivita, built in 1532 by Petru Rares in the village of Vatra Moldovitei, some 20 miles to the west. Its anonymously painted exterior frescoes of varying styles, indicating the likelihood of multiple artists, date from 1537.

A pointed history lesson and warning to the faithful on the south facade depicts the 1453 Turkish siege of Christian Constantinople, and is among the most dramatic outdoor paintings in the region. As I focused with a childish delight on the battle scene, a spectacle of mounted soldiers amassed around the fortified city, I was roused from my decidedly secular reverie by a passing nun who seemed to see right through me, striking a toaca, or prayer board, used here in lieu of a bell.

Romanians flock to the Monastery of Putna, not far to the north, to worship at the tomb of Stephen the Great, canonized as The Right-Believing Voivod (prince) Stephen the Great and the Holy by the Romanian Orthodox Church. He had the structure erected from 1466 to 1469 as his final resting place. Ransacked by Cossacks, the church was rebuilt from 1653 to 1662. The outer walls are bare, lending it an austerity unlike the spiritual lyricism of its sister sanctuaries.

Stephen likewise had a hand in preserving the beautiful Biserica Dragos Voda, said to be Romania’s oldest standing wooden church, built in 1346. It was moved, beam by beam, in 1468 to a less-visible location, behind a graveyard just outside the monastery walls, to protect it from the marauding Tatars.

My heart did not beat faster at Stephen’s sepulcher, but nearby it leapt at the primal allure of Chilia lui Daniil Sihastrul, the cave of the prince’s spiritual adviser, the ascetic mystic Daniel the Hermit, which he carved out of the cliff and inhabited for 14 years.

Perhaps it was the lingering effect of the homemade palinca, the twice-distilled, 60-proof plum brandy that Trandafir and Felicia Cazac served at supper at their guesthouse, Casa Felicia. After a few days of monastery hopping, my spiritual faculty was primed.

I could not help but be stirred by the stark contrast between the harmonious phalanx of angels hovering in rows above and the chaos of the damned below in the surreal depiction of “The Ladder of Virtues” on the northern facade of the Sucevita Monastery, next to the guesthouse. I stared at my photograph of it long after supper. Though visitors are supposed to identify with the virtuous, my gaze was riveted on the tormented tumble of the demons and the damned. Given the grim history of the 20th century, this Bosch-like scene seemed eerily prescient.

Several centuries had passed, but the violence that would tear this region apart in World War II and decimate its population seemed prefigured here.

The combined efforts of the homegrown Romanian Fascist Iron Guard, Nazi Storm Troopers and Stalin’s army are sadly documented, as is the once-thriving culture of the Bucovina Jews, at the recently refurbished Jewish National Home in Chernivtsi, about 20 miles over the border in Ukraine. It now houses the History Museum of Bukovina Jews, which I visited the day before.

“All gone, only words and pictures left,” said Josef Zissels, the museum’s founder, pointing at a display of books by local authors.

Pondering the titles, including “Mohn und Gedächtnis” (“Poppy and Memory”) by Paul Celan, a poet of Bucovina, I thought of “The Ladder of Virtues” and those who didn’t survive the climb.



Tarom, the Romanian airline (, flies to Iasi, in Bucovina, from Bucharest. An online search found fares from $159 in July. Or you can travel by train ( to Iasi from Gara de Nord in Bucharest. Eurolines Romania Touring ( offers rental cars in Bucharest, as do Hertz and Avis.


I holed up comfortably at the Guesthouse Casa Felicia in Sucevita (Comuna Sucevita 487, 40-230-417083; Room and half-board, which includes breakfast and a copious and delicious three-course supper with wine, is 80 new lei, or about $23 a night per person, at 3.41 new lei to the dollar.

A list of guesthouses in Romanian Bucovina is available at:


Romania’s tourism site ( offers a guide to the monasteries.

Daniel the Hermit’s Cave. To drive from Monastery of Putna to the cave, turn right off the main road and follow signs to Cabana Putna. Bear left at the first fork, right at the second, cross the railroad tracks and the little bridge to the dirt road that runs right to the rock. (Or ask for directions in Putna.)

History Museum of Bukovina Jews (Teatralnia Square, 5, Chernovtsi; 380-372-55-66-06; Ukraine).

In Romania, Creating a Bohemian Attic

1 June 2010
by Doris Sangeorzan
New York Times

A former judge, Ligia Valcu moved to her home in Brasov, Romania from an apartment building in the center of the city.”

BRASOV, ROMANIA — Surrounded by cobblestone streets and quiet gardens, Ligia Valcu’s home, here in this alpine village 100 miles north of Bucharest, miraculously escaped razing during the communist era, when many traditional buildings were torn down and replaced with drab apartment buildings.

On Location in Transylvania a former judge, Ms. Valcu, 48, moved here from an apartment building in the center of the city. She had always wanted a bohemian attic, “suspended above the world, where I could imagine that I was anywhere,” Ms. Valcu said, who now refurbishes antique furniture.

She bought her one-bedroom attic apartment in 2008, at the height of the real estate market, when the Romanian economy was doing well, paying 142,000 euros at the time, or $174,476 at $1.23 to the euro.

After a long search that exasperated real estate agents, she said, she found an attic that was buried in plaster and divided into five rooms. She knocked down all the walls to create an open loft.

Surrounded by cobblestone streets and quiet gardens, Ligia Valcu’s home is in Brasov, Romania, an alpine village 100 miles north of Bucharest. It escaped razing during the Communist era, when many traditional buildings were torn down.  Cristian Movila for The New York Times

“Suddenly I could see old, but strong beams,” Ms. Valcu said of the renovation. “The height, the peacefulness made me think of a cathedral.”

She painted the walls white to offset the wooden beams and oak floors. “Because of the light coming through the windows,” Ms. Valcu said, “the house has acquired an abstract, unearthly, other-worldly feel, suspended in time and space.”

Several pieces of furniture were left behind by the former owners, including antique pieces from the end of the 19th century, which she reconditioned.

Other pieces came from local furniture workshops and flea markets, such as a petrol lamp, an antique scale (which made her think of her former profession) and a hat box made of painted wood (it reminded her of the bowler hat from Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being”). Copper dishes and a Villeroy & Boch jug and basin came from Lady Antik, an antique shop in Piata Sfatului, a nearby town.

“This loft allowed me to influence its spirit with eclectic furniture,” Ms. Valcu said. “It has become a refuge from the mundane, a space I wanted to turn into something personal, an extroverted expression of an introverted person.”

A Dictator in His Own Words and Images

20 May 2010
by Dennis Lim
New York Times

Andrei Ujica, the director of “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.”

CANNES, France—As the title suggests, “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” is hardly a conventional historical documentary. Andrei Ujica’s three-hour-plus found-footage epic, screening out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, recounts the life of the Romanian dictator as Ceausescu himself saw it—or, as was often the case, stage-managed it. Devoid of explanatory titles and voice-overs, the film assembles a composite portrait of Ceausescu solely through the existing visual record: the speeches he gave, the parades thrown in his honor, the state visits he made (to the United States, China, Britain and, most memorably, North Korea) and the home movies of family vacations and hunting expeditions.

This is the third in a series of documentaries that Mr. Ujica, who was born in Romania in 1951, has made about the death of communism. “Videograms of a Revolution” (1992), which he directed with Harun Farocki, used existing footage of the 1989 Romanian revolution as the basis for a film essay about media and power. “Out of the Present” (1995) recounts the story of a Soviet cosmonaut who was aboard the Mir space station during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu”—four years in the making (the editing alone took a full year)—Mr. Ujica started with more than 1,000 hours of footage, which he whittled down and shaped into the story of a rise and fall.

Mr. Ujica, who left Bucharest for Germany in 1981 and now divides his time between Romania and Germany (he is a film professor at Karlsruhe University), spoke about his film in an interview here on Wednesday. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. Could you expand on the implications of the title “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu”? Obviously you did not mean to make a typical documentary biography.

A. The challenge was to propose a new subgenre of historical film, to try to show that today we are in a situation where the corpus of images about major contemporary events and personalities is sufficient to allow us to reconstruct history. There’s a level of irony in the title, but for me it was the only possible perspective. This was an archive of images commissioned by Ceausescu and by his propaganda machine, and if you try to make a film using these images, you can make this film only through his eyes. I couldn’t make a film called “The Biography of Nicolae Ceausescu” because I did not have those images.

Q. There are several different types of footage in the film—some of official addresses and events, and some of what look like home movies. Did it all come from the same archive?

A. There are only two big archives in Bucharest, the National Television Archives and the National Film Archives. The National Documentary Film Studio was responsible for the Ceausescu protocol archives, and after the revolution the archives moved to the National Film Archives. The images from the holidays and hunting trips are from the ’70s, and they were shot for the private use of the Ceausescu family. He loved to be filmed and he called them souvenirs. The footage from other countries—some were by Ceausescu’s own cameramen, but sometimes they were shot by, for instance, the North Korean documentary studio or the BBC and sent to Bucharest as unedited rushes which the Romanian propaganda machine could use.

Q. Were you concerned about what a film like this has to leave out by definition? There’s no larger political context, and the effects of Ceausescu’s rule remain almost entirely off-screen.

A. Yes, I did think about that. But those who are less familiar with political events can see this as a fiction film about a historical character, and understand the evolution of a character in 25 years, the changes that power has on him and the nation around him. It’s the same way we would read a historical novel about a general of Napoleon. A cultivated French reader knows the role this person played in French history, and another reader might not but they still follow the character’s psychological evolution.

Q. You worked with an editor, Dana Bunescu, who also does sound design, and who has worked on many notable fiction films of the new Romanian cinema, including “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Could you talk about your collaboration?

A. Dana is an incredible artist, and for a project like this, it was a great help to be able to work on both image and sound with the same person. There were two levels of editing for the images. The first is about constructing scenes that don’t exist in the raw material as scenes, so we had to build them through montage. The second level was a more normal editing process, putting these scenes together to find the rhythm of the movie.

The sound is the secret true fictional level of the film. More than 90 percent of the material has no sound; except for Ceausescu’s speeches the sound was not archived, only the images. We reconstructed the soundtrack on different levels, creating realistic sound and also using abstract sound to create dramaturgical effects. The film does have a commentary but it’s a nonverbal commentary. It’s in the construction of the sound and in the intervention of the music.

Q. In the course of making the film how did your perception of Ceausescu change?

A. My personal reason for making the film was that I began to understand in recent years that in fact we don’t know Ceausescu. For my generation, he was an abstract figure, a screen on which we projected our hatred of totalitarianism. But it became more and more important for me to try to understand the man behind this character. Who was this man who influenced so powerfully our biographies? And surely, I discovered a human being. You could say the film is against historical clichés, and it shows that the psychological reality is always more complex. For me it was also a historical and psychological auto-therapy. In the end I don’t hate him anymore. I’m free from him, so it was a successful therapy.

Thousands Protest Over Romania Austerity Measures

19 May 2010
BBC News

Demonstrators are against government plans to cut jobs and wages

Tens of thousands of public sector workers have gathered in the Romanian capital Bucharest to protest against plans to cut wages and pensions.

"We will not leave until the government quits," said Bogdan Hossu, leader of the Cartel Alfa trade union.

The government has proposed wage cuts of 25% and pension cuts of 15% in order to reduce the country's budget deficit.

Romania's economy shrunk more than 7% last year and it needed an IMF bail-out in order to meet its wage bill.

It says it needs to implement new austerity measures to qualify for the next instalment of the 20m-euro ($25bn; £17bn) IMF loan.

Widespread anger

Protesters began gathering at the capital from early morning on Wednesday. Police put the number present at around 30,000, while the unions said it was 50,000, according to the AFP news agency.

Many of them arrived from other parts of the country by bus and police blocked a number of streets in the city to maintain order.

The gathering was one of the biggest on the streets of Bucharest was one of the biggest since the Romanian Revolution.

Marian Gruia, head of the policemen's union, called on Romanians to unite, "as we did in 1989, when we overthrew the dictatorship" of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

Demonstrators carried banners criticising the centrist government of Prime Minister Emil Boc and President Traian Basescu.

Mr Boc was re-appointed in December after being forced out when his coalition collapsed in October.

Mr Basescu has said cuts to Romania's huge public sector - which accounts for a third of all jobs - are preferable to tax rises.

But analysts and investors apparently fear the government may lose its nerve and cave in to the protesters. An auction of government debt earlier this month failed to attract enough interest.

Economy ministry official Marcel Hoara was booed and sprayed with water and stones after joining a live televised debate in the middle of the protest. Police escorted him from the area.

Unions are threatening a general strike later this month if their demands are not met.

The Banality of Evil, Romanian-Style

17 May 2010
by Dennis Lim
New York Times

Cristi Puiu, the director of “Aurora,” at the Cannes Film Festival.

CANNES, France—No national cinema has had a higher profile at Cannes in recent years than that of Romania. Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” won the Palme d’Or in 2007. Corneliu Porumboiu took home the Camera d’Or for best first feature in 2006 with “12:08 East of Bucharest” and returned last year with the well-received “Police, Adjective.” But the film that kicked off the Romanian renaissance, in 2005, was Cristi Puiu’s “Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” a three-hour black comedy about a Bucharest old-timer’s nightmarish odyssey through the Romanian health care system.

Mr. Puiu is back at Cannes with his third feature,“Aurora,” which Manohla Dargis called “a slow-burning tour de force” in her Saturday dispatch. The Romanian house style—long takes, big blocks of real time—is by now familiar to cinephiles, but Mr. Puiu puts this scrupulous naturalism to new and seemingly perverse ends. “Aurora” follows an unnervingly opaque man of mystery, played by the director, over a 36-hour period as he goes about his humdrum life and, in a couple of jolting scenes, commits several acts of violence.

“I know it’s a hard film to put a label on,” Mr. Puiu said during an interview here. “But this is pretty much the film I wanted to make.” Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Q. What was the starting point for “Aurora”?

A. One night I switched on the television and saw this program which showed the testimonies of murderers and criminals. They were all delivering a sort of fiction about the facts. It was obvious that they couldn’t really put into words what they did and it was self-preservation instincts that made them build up these stories around the facts, creating reasons and motivations with bits of their own philosophy of life—a whole package of fiction.

Q.How did you end up taking on the lead role?

A. I listened to testimonies and read books and watched documentaries, but I realized that to do this properly, I had to search for the criminal inside myself. I had to subscribe to what Flaubert said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” After months of searching for an actor, Clara Voda, an actress in the film, told me, “Try yourself.” At first I thought I’m too shy, but something interested me when I was auditioning myself. There was something about my look. It was the look of a person who’s concerned by something—I was concerned by my film—and that was what I was looking for, somebody who is looking inside his brain somehow.

Q.You worked with four cinematographers, and the film has a very meticulous visual style. Was it a difficult process having to be both behind and in front of the camera?

A. On “Lazarescu” we shot 39 nights and this one was 80 days. I needed the time to integrate this condition of also being in front of the camera—it was completely schizophrenic. I kept saying to the camera guys to try to watch this character like a father who’s looking at his son who’s taking his first step, and any moment he could fall down and break his leg. It implies love, but it’s also a bit scary.

Q.Much of what we see in “Aurora” seems banal and haphazard, but in retrospect it’s quite a precisely structured movie—can you talk about finding the form of the film?

A. I wanted to repeat the direct-cinema, observational-documentary approach from “Lazarescu,” to create the film in the editing room. But I knew it was important to have the three moments: the time before, in between, and after the killings. It is the same character but our perception of him is changing. I wanted the film to denounce the causality that we install while watching a film or reading a book. This causality is a cultural construction and we need it to survive, but when you get closer to things, it’s not that simple.

Q. I imagine it’s a film that will play very differently on a second viewing.

A. The film has the shape—if I might say without any pretension—of a palimpsest. You have to discover what is behind the things you see. If you didn’t get inside the film the first time, it is very hard to come back to it. But if you did, I think you will be interested to discover things you couldn’t see the first time because of your expectations.

In “The Death of Mr Lazarescu” the title appears and you know this old man is going to die. It’s the model of “Titanic”—everybody knows entering the cinema what will happen, and the accent is on how things will happen. But in “Aurora” I tried to build the film on the unpredictability of the character’s trajectory.

Q. What’s the significance of the title? You’ve said it relates to F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Sunrise,” which is called “L’Aurore” in French, and is a much more optimistic film than yours.

A. Murnau’s film is about his hopes concerning the relationship between a man and a woman, what that should be. This film is about what I think is the relationship between human beings. Murnau’s idea requires a great amount of tolerance. I don’t know what real life is like outside Romania, but in Bucharest, where I live, relationships are pretty brutal.

The film is about the beginning of a new life for the main character and all the others who are engaged with him. The sunrise is a transitory moment—you cannot say if is night or day, if it will be a cloudy day or a sunny day—but it is about a beginning.

Moldovan President To Send Soldiers
But Will Skip Moscow WW II Parade

26 April 2010
Radio Free Europe

Moldovan interim President Mihai Ghimpu

CHISINAU—Moldovan interim President Mihai Ghimpu has agreed to send 70 Moldovan soldiers to participate in the May 9 military parade on Moscow's Red Square but will not attend himself, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service reports.

The celebrations are to mark the 65th anniversary of the Allied victory ending World War II in Europe.

Ghimpu announced his decision during an interview with a radio station on April 24.

"We would be very grateful to Moscow if the war had only ended fascism, but it also imposed a communist regime by force in our country, and Russia still maintains troops on our territory," Ghimpu said.

Ghimpu says he initially intended to accept the invitation from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to attend the anniversary celebrations in Moscow together with the leaders of other former Soviet republics. But he said he changed his mind when the other coalition partners insisted that Moldova should also send soldiers to participate in the parade.

Prime Minister Vlad Filat and former presidential candidate Marian Lupu say Moldova should attend the events. They also see Moldova's participation as a step toward improving relations between Moscow and the pro-Western majority coalition in Chisinau.

Georgia and the Baltic states have said they will not attend the parade.

The territory of today's Moldova, which was part of a greater Romania from 1918, was annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. During the war, many Moldovan soldiers fought both with the Soviets and in the army of Romania, which was initially an ally of Nazi Germany. Those who served in the Romanian Army were considered "enemies of the people" during the Soviet period.

Counting the ‘Blessings’ of Insomnia

29 March 2010
by Gordon Marino
New York Times

Drip, drip, drip—that’s what insomniac thoughts feel like, a leaky faucet behind the eyes. Last night the ideas were plinking; forehead-pounding regrets over past deeds, horrid fantasies, car crashes of expectations, unrealizable longings. It’s sheer torture. I don’t deserve it! Drip: Or maybe I do.

For decades, I have been spending my nights flopping around the bed and finally stomping to the medicine cabinet for anything that will put me under the waves. The story I recite to myself, often in the grips of sleep deprivation and to the rumble of garbage trucks, is that it all goes back to being awoken constantly as a kid by parents battling like Vikings in the living room.

I have done my share of meditation in that frayed state of wired exhaustion, but unlike the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, I never learned to take serious instruction from sleeplessness. Born in Transylvania in 1911, Cioran hardly ever shut his eyes. In fact, at his death in 1995, there was exaggerated talk that he had not slept in half a century. Whatever his hours of slumber, the night watchman’s systematic reflections on the existential meaning of insomnia warrant the attention of our nation, which outpaces every country on earth in the consumption of sleeping medication.

The precocious son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran went to study philosophy in Bucharest in 1929. He published his first book, the lyrical “On the Heights of Despair,” at 23. Though he would come to publicly regret it, in the 1930s Cioran supported the fascist Iron Guard in Romania. He won a scholarship to study in Paris in 1937 and moved there permanently in 1941.

Cioran published a good deal in his native Romanian, but it was in his second language of French that the religiously atheistic writer found his peculiar voice. His highly aphoristic style recalls that of another insomniac philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The titles of Cioran’s books ring like an acoustic necklace of despair. Take, for instance, these pearls: “The Trouble with Being Born,” “The Fall Into Time,” “A Short History of Decay,” “Anathemas and Admirations,” “The Temptation to Exist,” “Tears and Saints.” But from the beginning to the end of his days, Cioran’s thought gyred around the subject of sleepless nights.

Cioran, who was a friend of Samuel Beckett’s, is too relentlessly dark for most tastes. Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observed, “A love of Cioran creates an urge to press his writing into someone’s hand, and is followed by an equal urge to pull it away as poison.” I’ll take the poison any day. I find a brother in the beetle-browed philosopher critic of philosophy, and feel less lonely for the fact that there is, at least, someone who can acknowledge that we are tromping through a vale of tears. And while there will hopefully be much tenderness and joy on the path to our disappearance, there will also be much ugliness, agony, and cause to weep.

Indeed, Cioran once wrote that he would not need to write, if only he could weep at will. And then he moans, “But a negative reticence, aggravated by education, or a defective functioning of the lachrymal glands, dooms us to the martyrdom of dry eyes … It follows that we are all sick, and that each of us would require a Sahara in order to scream our lungs out …” (“A Short History of Decay,” p.43). Too much? Cioran uniquely connects the Muse with the capacity for exaggeration and the capacity for exaggeration with insomnia.

There are many poets who bow before the divinities of languor, however, scarcely anyone, save Cioran, pays homage to insomnolence. In a superb article, “Cioran’s Insomnia,” Willis Regier remarks, “Cioran treated insomnia as his defining experience and insignia. He lifted insomnia to the level of a love, a passion play, and heroic battlefield.” Regier registers this Cioranian paean:

…when you came, Insomnia, to shake my flesh and my pride, you who transform the childish brute, give nuance to the instincts, focus to dreams, you who in a single night grant more knowledge than days spent in repose, and, to reddened eyelids, reveal yourself a more important event than the nameless diseases or the disaster of time!” (“A Short History of Decay,” p.169)

And to take a page from on “On the Heights of Despair” (p.83) Cioran offers this blessing:

Just as ecstasy purifies you of the particular and the contingent, leaving nothing except light and darkness, so insomnia kills off the multiplicity and diversity of the world, leaving you prey to your private obsessions.

What strangely enchanted tunes gush forth during those sleepless nights!

Hordes of artists throw their arms around their melancholy as though it were the very taproot of their creativity. Kierkegaard, for instance, referred to his melancholy as his best and most loyal friend. Cioran felt a similar attachment to his insomnia. While he cursed his nocturnal suffering and used morphine, among other things, to try and knock himself out, he ultimately understood his long journeys into the sickly morning light as both crushing him and yet shaping his sensibilities. After all, isn’t wakefulness good? And sleeplessness a sort of wakefulness? “What rich or strange idea,” asks Cioran, “was ever the work of a sleeper?” (“A Short History of Decay,” p.147)

Unlike most scribblers on sleep and its absence today, Cioran did not ponder the biochemistry of shuteye. Instead, he fiercely focused on the subjective experience of, as Regier so elegantly puts it, “the sleep that would not come to bed.” Cioran also explores the significance of the fact that there is but one creature who cannot clock out for a break from the groaning of creation.

We have traditionally defined ourselves in terms of our capacity for reason. Cioran disagrees. We are, he thought, unique for our insomnia. He writes:

The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal who cannot sleep. Why call him a rational animal when other animals are equally reasonable? But there is not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep yet cannot. (“On the Heights of Despair,” p.85)

A kindred spirit whom Cioran carefully studied, Dostoevsky hinted that the understanding of ultimate truths requires psychological conditions that can only be described as pathological. Of course, like his mage Nietzsche, Cioran did not find much to favor in the concept of truth. However, let us suppose that Cioran is correct, and the raw truth is that existence is a mad cycle of happiness and horror that ends with either getting it in the neck or in a noisome nursing home. If so, then what better state could there be in which to appropriate this truth than that 4 a.m. dread of sunlight, creeping in the window of the bedroom you’ve been padding around for hours?


 NOTES: Editions referenced in this article: “A Short History of Decay” transl. R. Howard (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975) and “On the Heights of Despair” transl. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992)


Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He is author of “Kierkegaard in the Present Age,” and co-editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.” His new book, “Ethics: The Essential Writings” will be published by Random House this summer. He is currently working a book on the distinction between despair and depression.

Holocaust Survivor Fights Apathy on Final Trip Home

27 March 2010
by Ray Furlong
BBC, Sighetu Marmatiei

Hedi Fried was never supposed to return home. Packed into a cattle truck in 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz with the other 17,000 Jews in Sighet, now Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania.

But like her town's most famous son, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, she survived and has often returned to the town to bear witness to what happened with talks and lectures.

Now, aged 85, she's made an emotional final journey there.

The rain streams down as we draw up outside Sighet's Jewish cemetery.

"This is my pilgrimage, the last one," says Hedi, stepping over a large brown puddle.

"I thought we'd come back soon. We didn't. My parents didn't come back."
—Hedi Fried

"When I come to Sighet I remember my childhood stories, and I see the ghosts. When I walk the streets I see people coming and going. But they're not here any more, none of them."

There are rows of gravestones at odd angles in the grass, many engraved with the word Auschwitz and several names. Hedi's family gravestone contains, among others, her mother and father.

"They went up in smoke," she says, "but I had their names put here."

A prayer for the dead is recited, and Hedi shows me her grandmother's gravestone nearby. She died long before the Holocaust, when Hedi was a child.

"I remember how she always used to give me sweets," she says, recalling a bygone age when Sighet was a bustling Jewish city.

As we drive through potholed streets to our next stop, she points at the low-rise houses with crumbling 1920s facades.

"All of these were Jewish houses," she says, the only person in the town who can remember what it was like.

Her family moved into a new house in 1937. "I was delighted with it. I thought we had invented functionalist architecture!" she says, as we stand outside an elegant but decayed building.

"That was my window. I can see myself talking to my boyfriend," she says. But the mood instantly darkens. "I can also remember leaving for the last time."

"This was the most modern house in town, the first with a water-closet. So the last thing I did here was to flush the toilet.

"I thought we'd come back soon. We didn't. My parents didn't come back. My sister and I survived just by chance."

After surviving Auschwitz, Hedi and her sister were moved to Bergen-Belsen, later liberated by the British. After the war they moved to Sweden, where Hedi worked as a psychologist.

Nightmares Continue

She has also been a tireless campaigner to keep retelling the story of the Holocaust, travelling the world to give talks and lectures, first returning to Sighet in 1968.

"So many survivors found it impossible to talk about what happened. But for me it's actually therapy. Even now, coming here, I'm working through it.

"At first I thought I could never return to Auschwitz, but I did and since then my nightmares are not as strong. I still have them but I no longer wake up in a damp sweat."

But Hedi is also concerned that new generations are not learning the truth about the Holocaust.

"My aim to come to Sighet was that the children understand what their great-grandparents have done, because when I lived here as a child I was a 'damned Jewess','' she says.

"They don't know what their grandparents have done: some have been perpetrators, a few rescuers, the majority bystanders. And that's what they have to learn: never, ever be a bystander."

Teenage Ignorance

At the Elie Wiesel museum in Sighet, schoolchildren perform a folkdance for Hedi. She gives a talk - but the event is disorganised.

While she sits behind a table, teenagers stand huddled in front of her looking embarrassed.

Others are outside in the corridor. They couldn't hear a word even if they were trying to - which they're not.

I ask one 17-year-old boy why he is here.

"I don't know why, we've been told to come," he says, laughing.

"What do you know about the Holocaust?" I ask.

"Nothing, we haven't done it at school yet."

A 15-year-old girl who was inside is a little more forthcoming. She says Hedi spoke about her childhood in Sighet and what happened to her family.

"Were you surprised?" I ask.

"Yes," she replies.

"Have you ever heard what happened here in your town before?"


Fading Traces

Monosyllabic answers are common to teenagers. But the local schools clearly did not see Hedi's visit as an opportunity to teach their pupils about this town's horrific recent history.

Of the 17,000 Jews who lived here before the war, there's hardly a trace - just a few families and a single surviving synagogue.

After the talk, Hedi joins in the folkdance, drawing on enviable reserves of energy for an 85-year-old.

But back at the hotel afterwards, she's clearly tired when asked about the lukewarm response that her testimony drew from the local youth.

"People don't want to talk about it, especially what happened in their own community. The bystanders are ashamed of it," she says.

"But tomorrow I am going to another school."

Listen to Ray Furlong's radio report for BBC Radio 4's PM programme on the iPlayer.

Romania Declassifies All 1989 Revolution Documents

10 March 2010
by The Associated Press
New York Times

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—The Romanian government will declassify all remaining secret documents relating to the country's 1989 anti-communist revolution.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said the move would allow the truth to come out without endangering ''state secrets'' 21 years after the bloody uprising.

The defense ministry said it would declassify over 8,000 pages of information pertaining to the revolution where late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and executed. More than 1,100 people died in the bloody revolt. Just two people have been convicted.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that all documents relating to the revolution should be handed over to an association of former revolutionaries who are seeking to find out who shot unarmed demonstrators in 1989.

Examining 1989's Achievements, Disillusionment In Eastern Europe

1 March 2010
by Nikola Krastev
Radio Free Europe

Panel participant Benjamin Barber said that 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, people in Eastern Europe mostly continue to live in the shadow of communism.

NEW YORK—It's been more than 20 years since the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. But for a number of leading thinkers who gathered on February 27-28 at Columbia University to discuss the demise of communist Europe, there remain more questions than answers about that tumultuous period.

Panels explored the demise of communism, the nature of postcommunism, the legacy of dissent, the promise of democracy in the region, and the creation of narratives about the communist past.

The level of political commitment within the various communist parties in the Soviet bloc varied from country to country, according to Erhard Busek, a former Austrian politician and current professor at the Vienna-based Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe. He noted that it was the Czechoslovak communists that became the most retrograde after the events of the 1968 Prague Spring, when Soviet troops invaded the country to crush a period of liberalization.

After that point, Busek said, the party's more liberal members were purged or imprisoned. In that sense, he said, even the Communist Party under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev appeared more progressive.

"They were not divided, and for sure by power—they had stronger capacity," Busek said. He said many who were "famous later on as Czech intellectuals" left the party over disagreements, "kicked out" after 1968.

Romanian Perestroika

Mircea Mihaies, vice president of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest, said that unlike the dissident movements in Czechoslovakia, Poland, or even Bulgaria, dissidents in Romania were weak and had low social standing in Romania.

The more vocal critics of Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, he added, were silenced by the country's notorious Securitate secret service, either by assassination or by sending dissidents into exile.

"The repression of the Securitate system was more violent than in any other communist country. There was no real dissident tradition," Mihaies said. "The technique by the regime was to send them away. And I think that this role of the dissidents was supplemented by institutions like Radio Free Europe."

Besides being the only Eastern European country to summarily execute its communist leader, Mihaies said, Romania also earned distinction by replacing one communist regime with another.

"It was just a change of masks. The fact is that the same people [who led Romania before 1989], they claimed, 'We're not party members anymore, but we still want to govern the country,'" Mihaies said.

"And until 1996 it was extremely painful for the country, because in the special case of Romania we just initiated a kind of perestroika. This is a kind of delay that is still to be felt in Romanian everyday politics."

Because of the path chosen in 1989, Mihaies said, in terms of developing its civil society Romania remained in a state of hibernation, with sizable unfulfilled potential. The violent nature of the 1989 Romanian revolution also left an imprint on the domestic political developments for the next decade.

No Country For Old Men

Timothy Frye, the director of Colombia's Harriman Institute and professor of political science, said that a notable distinction in the measurement of happiness between Western and Eastern Europe was that while people in the West were feeling less satisfied in their middle age but more so in the later part of their lives, the trend in the East was overwhelmingly downward from middle age on.

According to a survey conducted by the Harriman Institute, he said, the absence of marketable skills for middle-aged and old people in Eastern Europe led to a significantly lower life satisfaction and standard of living.

"I don't know what the explanation is for it," Frye said. "Part of it is probably that older people's human capital is even less suitable for the market than younger people. The collapse of pension systems in many countries in the region certainly contributed to it as well."

But the survey, Frye, said, clearly indicates that older people with useful job-skills in the market are much happier than their counterparts without such skills. The sense of happiness is not only a function of age, he said, but also the feeling of satisfaction and purposefulness.

Poles, for example, feel more cheerful today than a decade ago, according to Elzbieta Matynia from the New School for Social Research in New York. She said that "people feel much more positive after 2007. I think they have much more to say now and the situation in [the] economy is much better, and they have something more to say in Europe. I think the European element was very important, the extension of the European Union."

Positive Signs

Lack of transparency, corruption, and the involvement of organized crime during the early privatization period in the 1990s left many Eastern Europeans feeling they'd been robbed.

Among other interesting findings of his survey, Frye said, is that while 80 percent of Eastern Europeans disapprove of the way in which state property was privatized and would like to revisit the results, 70 percent of them would prefer to have it in private hands.

Frye also singled out Bulgaria as an underappreciated success story. While the presence of organized crime and corruption is significant in Bulgaria, he said, there hasn't been a lot of violence, economic growth was relatively stable, and there have been a succession of peaceful and democratic transfers of power.

"What happens in Bulgaria is that after 1997 and after 2001 in particular, the political spectrum becomes much more populated by centrist parties and it forces the two right/left-wing parties that have been at each other's throat for the last decade, to take more moderate positions," Frye said, "and by narrowing the political spectrum towards the center Bulgaria has become a much more stable and much better-run country."

Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a frequent contributor to major periodicals, argued that the demise of communism in Eastern Europe after 1989 created some unexpected consequences.

Barber said that "in the absence of a theory, a paradigm that allows us to think about justice and that allows us to think about the inequities and problems of capitalism, we will not be able to deal with the new pathologies, which are no longer pathologies of the command economy and the totalitarian state, but the pathologies of capitalism and the pathologies of liberalism that are now the new problems that people in Poland, in Hungary, in the Czech Republic, in Slovenia are facing."

The experiences of the past 20 years, Barber said, indicate that people in Eastern Europe for the most part continue to live in the shadow of communism. The decisions made and the policies implemented are to a large extent a reaction to their communist past.

Art World Swoons Over Romania's Homeless Genius

26 February 2010
by Lizzy Davies
The Guardian

Ion Barladeanu lived in the garbage room of a block of flats until mid-2008, when his work was discovered by the art world

"This was a man living on the border of society and still retaining a sense of self," said Alexander Nanau, a Bucharest-based director who has filmed a documentary on Barledeanu for HBO Central Europe. "He was lazy in a good way because that was the only way he could make his art – by hiding from a society he didn't want to get involved with."

Eventually, in 2007, Barladeanu showed his collages to an artist who happened to also be combing through the garbage. Amazed, the artist called a gallery owner. From that moment on, Barladeanu's days in the dump were numbered. "I instantly thought it was something very important, at least for Romania," said Dan Popescu, whose H'Art gallery specialises in young, little-known contemporary artists. With badly decaying teeth and a face ravaged by over 60 Romanian winters, Barledeanu was not young, and his anonymity would not last long.

Within six months, he was given his first exhibition, a flat of his own and a brand new set of dentures. In 2009, he made his first trip overseas and showed some collages at the Basel art fair. This week, he jetted into Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower for real and had lunch with the actor and fan Angelina Jolie, in town for her next movie.

Barledeanu describes himself as a "director" of his own films and considers each collage to be a movie in itself. While many are light-hearted, others are darker, infused with black humour and often focusing on the man he calls his "greatest fear". "I knew that if he knew about my work Ceausescu would not sleep in peace in his grave," he said. "If people had found out about my work they could have chopped my head off … But this is my revenge."

Many of the most explosive collages were made after 1989, but those that were made during the regime have already interested collectors. Antoine de Galbert of La Maison Rouge art foundation said he appreciated "the risk involved" in Barledeanu's work, while Jérôme Neutres of the Grand Palais said the artist's background lent the collages a unique appeal. "Of course there is a fairytale aspect to his work, but that is not important to me. What I like is that he has been spared the usual artistic circles and his work is refreshing as a result," he said.

Whatever the world thinks, Barladeanu says he will carry on working regardless. "It's like eating pie or sandwiches. It fulfils me," he said in his fast-paced Romanian slang. "If I were reincarnated in another life I would still be making collages, and if I could take them to the moon I would."

Moldovan Communists Soften Stance On Missile Shield In Romania

17 February 2010
Radio Free Europe

Igor Smirnov, leader of Moldova's separatist Transdniester region

CHISINAU—A top Moldovan Communist Party official has dismissed fears that Romania's intention to host a U.S. antimissile shield would trigger a regional arms race, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service reports.

Communist legislator Vasily Sova said that Moldova, which is a neutral country, should discuss the matter with Bucharest and seek assurances that the new shield would not be detrimental to Moldova's security.

Sova also downplayed recent warnings by Igor Smirnov, the leader of Moldova's separatist Transdniester region, that he might ask for Russian missiles to be deployed in Transdniester to counter Romanian and U.S. plans.

Sova said Smirnov's remarks were "pure provocation."

Earlier this month, Moldovan Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin blasted Romania's announcement that it was prepared to host U.S. missile interceptors. Voronin said the new shield would put Moldova "on the front line" of future confrontations.

Moldova's pro-Western Prime Minister Vlad Filat said on February 16 that Romania—as a sovereign country and NATO member—has every right to host U.S. missiles.

Romanians Move To Tax Their Once-Beloved Fast Food

17 February 2010
by The Associated Press
National Public Radio

BUCHAREST, Romania—For post-communist Romanians a Big Mac and soda meant much more than a meal: It was a culinary signpost from the free and capitalist west—a sign they too, at last, had arrived.

But modernity requires something different today: the Balkan country is moving to join the health conscious 21st century by proposing taxes on burgers, french fries, soda and other fast foods with high fat and sugar content.

"We have to relearn how to eat," Health Ministry official Adrian Streinu Cercel said.

The ministry says that—in marked contrast to the situation under communism—half of Romania's 22 million people are overweight, while instances of obesity have doubled among 10-year-olds.

Officials have refused to say how high the taxes would be. But Cercel says authorities expect to generate up to euro1 billion ($1.37 billion) in new revenues—compared with an estimated euro16 billion in total revenues for 2010.

If the plan goes through, Romania will be aligning itself with—and even outdoing—other countries looking to crack down on fatty foods and encourage better eating choices.

Taiwan also recently floated a fast food tax, while Denmark and Austria have made artery-clogging trans-fats illegal. Britain, Norway and Sweden have banned junk food commercials from TV at certain times of the day, while Norway also has long taxed sugar and chocolate.

In the United States, first lady Michelle Obama this month unveiled a public awareness campaign called "Let's Move" to fight against childhood obesity, while both New York City and California have gone on the legal offensive by outlawing trans-fats.

But Americans have generally been seen as less willing than Europeans to allow their government to dictate their diets.

Critics of the Romanian proposals agree the government should stick to educating rather than taxing, especially during a recession. Some also criticize the government's plans for exempting pizzas and kebabs and other potentially high-fat dishes, saying the exclusions showed the measure was a "McFat tax"—targeting certain Western fast food outlets—and not something that was truly meant to help the public.

Fast food franchises were not available under the Communist dictatorship that was overthrown in 1989. In the years that followed, the country was so poor that—as elsewhere in Eastern Europe—Western-style fast food was considered a luxury.

When they arrived in the mid-1990s, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were widely prized, becoming more affordable and ever more popular as the country developed. In 2007, Romania joined the European Union.

Romania's Health Ministry has been analyzing the nutritional content of some 40,000 fast foods and drinks over the past weeks to decide what exactly should be taxed before submitting the legislation to Parliament next month.

But as Romanians love both their traditional food and fast food options like kekabs, there would likely have been a public outcry if all such foods had been targeted for the tax, nutritionist Gheorghe Mencinicopschi said.

Experts warned against labeling all fast food as bad or all home-cooked food as healthy. For example, a typical Romanian lunch of sarmale—stuffed cabbage rolls smothered in sour cream—followed by walnut-studded yeast cake for dessert is unlikely to be on any recommended diet plan.

"It is dangerous to use generic terms," Mencinicopschi said, noting that different ingredients and cooking style can transform a takeout meal from healthy to horrible.

Romanians spend 40-50 percent of their income on food, to which a 19-percent value-added tax is already applied.

The new fast food tax, if passed, could lead people to pay 20 percent more for fast food products, food industry experts said—a blow to the average Romanian earning about 1,500 lei, or less than euro360 ($500).

Though some say the tax could have a positive impact on people's eating habits, others say it is just a new way to squeeze the taxpayer and could even lead to worse eating habits.

Mihai Visan, who heads the Romalimenta food producer group, said bootlegging increased after the government imposed taxes on alcohol, and cigarette smuggling spiked after tobacco taxes were raised.

"Meat will be taken from unlicensed slaughterhouses, and carcasses will be sold to small producers," Visan said.

World Health Organization nutrition expert Tim Armstrong also said that, while the agency recommends countries consider such taxes to improve eating habits, they could also effectively penalize the poor, who are more likely than the wealthy to buy such products.


Associated Press Writer George Jahn in Vienna and AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.

Ceausescus Move to Keep Name From Advertising

16 February 2010
by The Associated Press
New York Times

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—What's in a name? The Ceausescus think a lot.

Late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is the best-known Romanian of the last century, but his notoriety isn't the first thing you'd think ad makers would swoop on when promoting a brand.

Surprisingly, Ceausescu has been used in recent years to sell products from chocolate to condoms to hotel rooms. Now the surviving members of the Ceausescu clan are trying to limit use of the name, saying it violates their official registration of "Ceausescu" as a brand at the State Office for Makes and Brands.

Some advertising featuring the Ceausescu name mocks the Romanian leader, like mobile-phone ads that refer to the repression of free speech in the communist era. Others betray a nostalgia for the late dictator, seen as a patriot by some who yearn for a time when jobs were secure and there was little grinding poverty.

In December, a Romanian theater ran into trouble with the Ceausescus after it staged a play called "The Last Hours of Ceausescu" to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu's overthrow and execution. The play was then staged in Zurich, Bern and Berlin.

Ceausescu repressed his nation with an army of 700,000 secret police informers. He stifled dissent, limited travel abroad and by the end of his rule there was severe rationing of even basic foods such as oil and eggs.

Ceausescu's son and son-in-law launched an official complaint in January in a bid to force the play's producers to seek permission to use the name, saying the show violated the Ceausescu name's official registration as a brand two years ago.

"We just want to stop people exploiting the name," the son, Valentin Ceausescu, told the Associated Press. He acknowledged that the play was artistic expression, however, rather than a commercial use of the name, and they were not likely to win the case.

Romania's advertisers swooped in the Ceausescu name a few years ago.

A television ad in 2005 has black-and-white images of Ceausescu speaking at the last Communist Party congress a month before his demise. A mobile phone rings and a man in the audience stands up and walks out of the hall with the voiceover saying ''You won the right to speak free and now you can "speak free for 1000 minutes," at the end of the commercial alluding to the communist era when free speech was repressed.

Another advertisement for a different brand says "Capitalists in the country, get connected!" playing on a Marxist slogan used in the Ceausescu era.

Less polite is a condom advertisement, where manufacturers extol the virtues of protected sex, wondering what would have happened if the parents of Hitler, Stalin or Ceausescu had used a condom.

Ceausescu was even used to relaunch a popular make of chocolate that was no longer produced after 1989. His face appears on commercials about the Ciocolata ROM bar, a rum-flavored chocolate bar on sale in the country's confectionary stores and supermarkets.

Just over a year ago, real-estate agents in the western city of Arad began a campaign with the slogan "Long live the new urban revolution!" with Ceausescu's face on posters.

Associated Press writer Alina Wolf Murray in Bucharest contributed to this report.

Missile Threat Signals U.S. / Russia Reset Strains

15 February 2010
by Reuters
New York Times

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moldova's rebel region of Transdniestria said on Monday it was ready to host Russian tactical missiles if the Kremlin were to ask, escalating growing tensions about defense between Moscow and Washington.

Transdniestria linked the offer to the possible deployment of U.S. interceptor missiles to neighboring Romania. Both Romania and Bulgaria have offered to host elements of a reconfigured U.S. missile shield.

Russia's most powerful politician, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and other officials have called U.S. missile defense plans an obstacle to a successor to the 1991 START nuclear arms reduction pact, under negotiation for months.

Transdniestria's leader Igor Smirnov was quoted by Interfax as saying he was prepared to host Russian missiles and made clear it was linked to the latest U.S. missile plans.

"As far as the Iskander (missile) is concerned, we have long said we are ready," he said.

Moldova's acting president, Mihai Ghimpu, dismissed Smirnov's offer as unrealistic, telling Reuters Transdniestria is "an artificial creation and has no right to a voice in Moldovan-Russian relations."

The breakaway region's offer came a day after Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow's ambassador to Washington had raised the missile issue, RIA news agency reported.


"We have already asked our partners in Washington ... what does this all mean and why after the Romanian 'surprise' there is a Bulgarian 'surprise' now," Lavrov was quoted by RIA as saying in Nicaragua.

The Bush administration had planned to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, but President Barack Obama amended plans for the shield, which he says aims to defend against ballistic missile threats from Iran.

This month, the NATO and European Union member Romania, which borders Moldova, said it would accept U.S. interceptor missiles under a reconfigured plan. On February 12, Bulgaria expressed its readiness to play a role.

The revised anti-missile system crosses one of the red lines—along with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia—that Moscow drew as conditions of its agreement to "reset" U.S. relations, said Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Masha Lipman.

"Now Romania and Bulgaria are an issue. This further nurtures the distrust on the Russian side—the notion that the U.S. is not seeking to build relations with Russia and develop a constructive dialogue but is pursuing its own goals regardless," said Lipman.

Apart from delays in agreeing a replacement for the START treaty, which expired in December, she said Washington has received less cooperation from Moscow than it had hoped on Iran's nuclear program and Afghanistan.

"It was easy to change the rhetoric because there was a new man in the White House, but to change the substance, to overcome the distrust is so much more difficult," she said.

(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Alexander Tanas; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Romania: '89 Revolution Files Will Be Declassified

12 February 2010
by The Associated Press
New York Times

The Defense Ministry will declassify 8,000 secret documents relating to the 1989 anti-Communist revolution. The ministry’s decision came after the European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that a copy of the whole revolution file should be handed over to an association of former revolutionaries. One revolutionary fighter, Doru Maries, said Friday that he hoped the documents would provide answers about who shot unarmed demonstrators during a revolt in which more than 1,100 people died. Twenty years after the revolution, in which the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and executed, only two people have been convicted.

Prospects of the Bucharest-Chisinau Relationship

5 February 2010
Radio Romania International

After 8 years of frozen relations due to the deep-seated hatred of Romania shown by the former Russian-leaning Communist power in Chisinau, Romania was quick to take advantage of the thaw, following the emergence of a new pro-Western administration in the autumn. Basescu picked Chisinau as the destination for the first foreign visit of his second presidential term and has labelled the Europeanisation of the Republic of Moldova as his most important project. The statement made by Moldovan president Mihai Ghimpu also seemed to support this stance:

"I believe that there are no problems that the regime in Bucharest and the Chisinau administration cannot solve. We are two states, but we share an underlying culture, and identity and language."

Highly incompetent, the Communist regime managed to multiply the effects of the international economic crisis. The new government obtained a loan worth over half a billion dollars from the US from the IMF and a 260-million loan from the US. However, as the poorest European state, Chisinau still desperately needs funds. That is why president Basescu felt the need to say the following:

"Romania has decided to grant non-reimbursable financial support to the Republic of Moldova that will extend between 2010 and 2013. This loan is worth 100 million euros and will be allotted in 4 yearly instalments, each standing at 25 million euros. It will cover education, infrastructure projects (mainly modernising schools) and locally important infrastructure projects."

The Romanian delegation also talked about projects that could bring the Republic of Moldova closer to the EU, via Romania, firstly by integrating infrastructure. The projects include the connection of the gas pipelines and power grids, in order to reduce Chisinau’s energy dependence on Moscow. Basescu also supported the replacement of Soviet-style railways in the Republic with more modern European ones. "The railway gauges in the republic are too wide by European standards, which confines Moldova to the Eastern commercial space and sets the tone for its economic system", economic expert Valeriu Prohnitchi says. Analyst Armand Gosu, deputy editor-in-chief of Bucharest daily '22', believes that all these Romanian initiatives are their own way of supporting The Republic of Moldova’s European aspirations, after Brussels failed to observe Bucharest’s suggestion to include the former Soviet state among potential EU candidates from the Balkans:

"Romania has not managed to impose this idea on the EU, namely including Moldova in the Western Balkans group, in order to speed up its accession or set up an accession calendar for the Republic of Moldova. We are still a long way off, and it seems that Romania’s proposal to integrate the Republic of Moldova in the Western Balkans group was not the best solution."

A sociologist and expert on the ex-Soviet area, the Romanian professor Dan Dungaciu hails the political results of president Basescu’s visit which are the most impressive since 1991, when Chisinau proclaimed its independence from the former Soviet Union. Dungaciu warns, however, that these projects are still a long way from becoming reality: 

"We’ve never before seen such statements in the history of the relationship between Romania and the Republic of Moldova, but they must be put on paper and turned into reality. The rhetoric of the meeting, which is very encouraging, must be followed by 99 percent perspiration, both in Bucharest and in Chisinau, so that these beautiful words become reality and give substance to the partnership for European integration between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. This is what we should expect after president Basescu’s visit to Chisinau, because that’s when the difficult part really begins."

Romanians Accept Plan for Basing of Missiles

4 February 2010
by Nicholas Kulish and Ellen Barry
New York Times

MUNICH—Romania’s top defense body approved an American proposal to base missile interceptors there, the country’s president said Thursday in a hastily arranged announcement.

The president, Traian Basescu, said in a statement that Romania, a former Warsaw Pact member and now part of NATO, was prepared to negotiate with the United States to accept ground-based interceptors as part of an antiballistic missile defense system. He said it could be working by 2015.

While the participation of Poland and the Czech Republic in the missile shield had been well known, the possibility that Romania would join them was not.

Romania made its announcement as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was in Turkey for a NATO meeting. He was not immediately available to comment but the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the announcement was welcomed. “We’re pleased that Romania has agreed to participate in that defense shield,” he told reporters in Washington.

Political analysts in Romania said the speed of Mr. Basescu’s announcement appeared to be an attempt to capitalize on the agreement at the expense of political rivals at home, where most view a deepening of ties with the United States favorably and where Mr. Basescu narrowly won re-election in December.

“He wanted to take credit and announce, ‘In my second mandate, I’m this strong and big contributor for Romanian national security,’ ” said Radu Tudor, a correspondent in Bucharest for Jane’s Defense Weekly.

Mr. Basescu said the proposal accepted by the Supreme Defense Council came from President Obama, whose under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Ellen O. Tauscher, was in Romania.

Mr. Obama abruptly changed course on the proposed antiballistic missile shield in September, focusing on a system designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles from Iran.

The original system, proposed by President George W. Bush, would have put a radar installation in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. Russia opposed the plans, arguing that the system, so close to its border, was a security threat. Russian criticism diminished after Mr. Obama reconfigured the proposal to use smaller interceptors.

Mr. Basescu said that with Romania’s participation, the system was not directed at Russia but rather “against other threats,” without specifying them.

Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the Romanian announcement would not come as a complete surprise to Russian leaders, since it “was one of the options people had in mind.” He said the Romanian site was farther from the Russian border, and—unlike the proposed Polish site—would not allow the interceptor missiles to stop a Russian missile headed to the United States over the Arctic Ocean, a possibility that had aroused anxiety in Moscow.

“Of course, people who would be interested in portraying any kind of missile system as potentially a threat will be able to use this, but I don’t think the government has much interest in playing this up,” Mr. Trenin said.

Russian leaders still complain that the missile system could upset the cold war balance of power. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said in December that the plan was the main obstacle to negotiations on replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But Aleksandr A. Khramchikhin, assistant director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, in Moscow, told the Web site that Russia had long suggested Romania or Bulgaria as an alternative to the Polish and Czech sites.

Nicholas Kulish reported from Munich, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.

Zap! Was Romanian Election Loser Victim of Occult?

22 January 2010
by The Associated Press
New York Times

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Was a top contender for the Romanian presidency zapped out of the race by a shadowy parapsychologist enlisted by his rival?

The claim might be dismissed as preposterous in most other EU countries. But here in Romania, home of Dracula and other occult traditions, Mircea Geoana's assertion that a "negative energy attack" led to his narrow loss to re-elected President Traian Basescu has been the talk of the nation.

"The Evil Witch defeated Geoana," wrote the daily Evenimentul Zilei in a recent commentary typical of the buzz. "Romanian politicians really believe that magic forces can make you president or can destroy you."

"May the Force be with us!"

Like most former Soviet bloc nations, Romania is used to rough and tumble politics and the first claims and counterclaims after Basescu's narrow Dec. 6 runoff victory were nothing out of the ordinary, with Geoana's people complaining of massive fraud.

Then came the startling allegation: Geoana, in media interviews last week, asserted he was targeted by waves of negative energy during a key debate just before the runoff that was won by Basescu.

"People who were working for Basescu in this domain were present to the right of the camera," Geoana told Antena 3 Television. His wife, Mihaela said Geoana "was very badly attacked, he couldn't concentrate."

At first Romanians mocked their ex-foreign minister saying he was a bad loser. Basescu himself jokingly dismissed the allegations. But the recent publication of photos showing well-known parapsychologist Aliodor Manolea close to Basescu during the campaign has caused Romanians to ask whether the president really did put a hex on his rival.

The photos show Manolea, a slightly built, bearded man with a round face and cropped receding hair, walking yards (meters) behind Basescu ahead of the debate. Manolea's specialties include deep mind control, clairvoyance and hypnotic trance, according to the Romanian Association of Transpersonal Psychology.

Manoela's alleged role in the elections evokes age-old Balkan rituals where the evil eye, witch doctors and other mysterious forces were used to launch mystic energy attacks on opponents and sap hapless victims of their vital strength.

While such superstitions are now usually found only in the most backward rural pockets of the Balkans, belief in the paranormal spawned some unusual practices up to recent times.

Former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was so terrified of even traditional psychologists he feared were a threat to communism that he abolished psychology departments across the country and banned the word from the official dictionary.

In 1982, he staged a crackdown against people who were allegedly practicing transcendental meditation, purging the interior ministry and dismissing scores of officials who were allegedly involved, including a deputy interior minister.

In neighboring Serbia, Col. Ljubodrag Stojadinovic, a former army spokesman, was discharged after divulging that the military had a parapsychology unit in the 1990s under ex-President Slobodan Milosevic that launched psychic attacks on the United States and other enemies.

"Group 69," which Stojadinovic said included publicly known fortune tellers and witches, claimed to have inflicted "heavy losses" against the enemy with its tactics, including downing aircraft. He said one of the group's main tasks was to capture at least one senior "enemy of the Serbs"—the U.S. president, for instance.

Neither the Serbian government nor the military has issued a denial of Stojadinovic's claims.

Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was said to have believed in witchcraft and actively participated in paranormal activities. Now on trial for at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, he was arrested in July 2008 in Belgrade disguised as a New Age guru.

To the south, former Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski employed a parapsychologist and medium known simply as Mina, as an official Cabinet adviser. Some Macedonians—who widely consult fortune tellers and astrologists—believe Mina helped Georgievski avoid full-blown civil war between Slavic Macedonians and the nation's ethnic Albanians.

"It is not strange in Macedonia for people to have their alternative personal advisers," said Mirjna Stojanovska, a 28-year-old German language teacher. "It is part of our mentality and culture to call upon a higher power to help people cope with the problems in life."

In a further twist to Romania's presidential intrigue, photos reveal Manolea amid Geoana's entourage during a 2007 electoral campaign, suggesting the clairvoyant may have been inclined to offer his services to anyone willing to pay the fee.

There has been no comment from Geoana, who in recent days has moved to distance himself from the topic in an attempt to limit dents to his credibility.

Basescu's office also has declined to comment on Manolea, with officials referring inquiries to the Liberal Democratic Party that supported the president. Officials there have given evasive answers—but not outright denials.

Basescu's campaign spokesman Sever Voinescu declined to say whether he knew Manolea—the author of several books on energy auras and other esoteric topics—but blasted Geoana, accusing "the loser in the election of thinking he was bewitched with toads like in medieval Africa."

An e-mail to the reclusive parapsychologist was not answered.

Reputed Romanian psychologist Aurora Liiceanu says the region remains a fertile breeding ground for such superstitions even while seeming to adopted an outward veneer of cynicism more in keeping with the rest of Europe.

"This society is inclined to the irrational; it is a culture of superstitious people," said Liiceanu. "Luck has a great role here, it is a force."

"Luck and destiny."

Jahn reported from Vienna. Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and Kostantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed to this report.

Romanian Claims Negative Energy Lost Him Election

18 January 2010
by The Associated Press
New York Times

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—In the latest bizarre claim to come out of Romania's presidential race last year, the loser and his wife have claimed he was subject to attacks of negative energy by aides of President Traian Basescu during a crucial debate.

Former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana who lost the Dec. 6 runoff, claimed Basescu ordered the attacks against him, Mediafax news agency reported Monday.

''During the Dec. 3 debate ... people who were working for Basescu in this domain were present to the right of the camera. ... I saw them and I know who they are,'' Geoana told Antena 3 television. Geoana fared badly in parts of the debate.

His wife Mihaela Geoana said Saturday her husband ''was very badly attacked, he couldn't concentrate.''

Former President Ion Iliescu dismissed the allegations as ''discussions for naive people, for uneducated people,'' according to Monday's edition of the daily Gandul.

Geoana aide Viorel Hrebenciuc has previously alleged there was a ''violet flame'' conspiracy during the campaign. He said Basescu dressed in purple on Thursdays to increase his chance of victory.

Asked about the violet connection, Basescu joked earlier this month that ''it was the color of the year'' in 2009.

Basescu narrowly won the election. Geoana's Social Democracy Party claimed the ballot was marred by fraud.

Moldova Sets Up Commission To Evaluate Communist Era

15 January 2010
Radio Free Europe

CHISINAU—Moldova's acting President Mihai Ghimpu has approved the creation of a special commission to assess the country's communist past, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service reports.

The commission will be led by historian Gheorghe Cojocaru and will include around 25 writers, philosophers, and historians.

It will deal with the decades before the break-up of the Soviet Union up to 1991, and will produce a report by June 1.

The commission will reportedly for the first time be able to study the Moldovan archives of the former Soviet Union's secret police, which have thus far been closed to scholars and the public.

Saxon Fortified Churches in Romania

14 January 2010
Radio Romania International

Included on the UNESCO list are 8 churches and monasteries from Bukovina, 8 wooden churches from Maramures, 5 Dacian fortresses from the Orastie Mountains, the Hurezi Monastery in Oltenia, the medieval fortress in Sighisoara, southern Transylvania, the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, as well as the Saxon fortified villages and churches from Transylvania. Out of the more than one hundred Saxon settlements in Transylvania, 7 are included on the UNESCO heritage list: Biertan, Calnic, Darju, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor and Viscri, all of them being located in southern Transylvania. Today we’ll present to you some of the Saxon fortified churches; our guide will be Marian Constantinescu a travel journalist and editor for Traveller Magazine.

Saxon villages in Transylvania are typical of the early centuries of the second millennium. Settlers who came in large numbers from Germany’s Saxon region erected these settlements in the border area. As they had to cope with the Turkish and Tartar invasions or wars, the settlement’s central area, which also included the church, was fortified with defense walls. There were many ways in which the Saxon churches were fortified, so we cannot speak about a common architectural style, but about a style that was characteristic of each of the local communities in the region. That is why Transylvania’s Saxon sites today are architectural monuments, unique in Europe for their manifold purpose: civilian, religious and military.

Today we start our journey across Brasov County in the town of Prejmer, located quite close to Brasov; the town boasts a Saxon fortified church. With details on that, here is journalist Marian Constantinescu.

”This fortified church in Prejmer dates back to the 13th century. What’s special about it is that it is made up of no less than 272 rooms, the equivalent of the number of families living in Prejmer at that time. Prejmer also boasts a famous organ, just as famous as those of the Saxon churches. Y which is mentioned in the 17th century chronicles as one of the most famous in Transylvania.”

Another Saxon fortified church which is highly recommended to visitors is that in Viscri. Situated on a hill which juts over a plateau, the church has two rows of walls and 4 defense towers, one of which is very tall and dates back to 1494. If you want to go to Viscri, follow the road linking Brasov to Sighisoara. Look for traffic signs in Rupea, which is 7 km away of Viscri. Here is Marian Constantinescu again:

“We now make a stopover in Viscri, which re-captured public attention a couple of years ago, due both to the investments made in the region and to the visits paid by Prince Charles to the area. Viscri is an interesting combination of natural beauty and architecture, boasting an old church, Saxon type fortifications, with towers, bastions and other elements specific to local Saxon architecture. Viscri is mentioned in documents rather late, because it was not one of the famous citadels, inhabited by very rich people. It was mentioned in documents as late as 1400, under the name of Alba Eclezia. In 1500 it was included among the free communes of the seat of Rupea. It is worth mentioning that Viscri was a prosperous commune, with 51 households, 3 priests, a teacher and only 2 poor people, as the documents of the time show.”

If you leave Brasov and Rupea behind and follow the route to the famous medieval citadel of Sighsoara you can make a stopover in Saschiz, another village which boasts a Saxon fortified church. Journalist Marian Constantinescu has more:

“Those who competed with Sighisoara for about 500 years are the residents of Saschiz. That is why, it is not by chance that the Saschiz church and the fortress tower have almost the same shape as the Hour Church Steeple in Sighisoara. The bastions are reminiscent of Gothic architecture; later on, they were reinforced according to the principle of a building where villagers could take refuge. Prince Charles paid a number of visits there and was impressed by the traditions and the way in which a whole range of traditional products are preserved. If you come here, you can admire some of the traditions of painting with floral designs in Transylvania. Unfortunately, some of the furniture and galleries were erased by Calvinists. Nevertheless, there are still traces left and in peasant houses, you can see the famous dowry chests and wooden objects painted with floral motives. Now and then, in Saschiz, you can listen to organ concerts, the big organ being one of the best and most impressive in this country.”

We have presented to you three of the Transylvanian Saxon fortified churches. You can admire them, along with 9 others, in RRI’s series of QSL cards this year, featuring Saxon fortified churches. To conclude, here is an invitation for you to visit Romania, extended by journalist Marian Constantinescu:

“Fortunately, there are lots of other such heritage assets of the Saxon civilization in Romania. We may tell you about them some other time. For the time being, we just urge you to come and visit Romania; there is a lot to see, to buy, there are many interacting cultures, including the Transylvanian Saxon culture.”

Bonfire of the Bureaucrats

14 January 2010
New York Times
by Serge Schmemann

When the Berlin Wall unexpectedly fell 20 years ago, a German friend of mine made a sage observation: The Communists opened the wall for the same reason they had raised it 28 years earlier—to keep East Germans from fleeing west. The fact is that the “Ossies” had been streaming out of East Germany throughout that fall of 1989 through cracks in the Iron Curtain opened by Mikhail Gorbachev’s pere­stroika. Unable any longer to halt this hemorrhage by force, the desperate German leaders gambled that if they let their people visit the West from time to time, they might not wish to flee East Germany at every opportunity. The Politburo official assigned to announce the new rules on Nov. 9, 1989, botched it, giving the impression that the wall had been thrown open. East Berliners rushed to the crossings, a bewildered officer opened the gate, and the rest is—literally—history.

I was there that night, and it was a moment of such intense exhilaration that it takes an effort today to recall how spontaneous and startling it really was—and how mundane the motives. The people who charged the checkpoints were not led by brave freedom fighters, and the apparatchiks who changed the rules were not visionary reformers. It was more that the hard-bitten old Communists had run out of steam.

That, in brief, is the thesis of this splendid and compact study of the demise of Communist systems across the Soviet empire in 1989: these were not grand victories of what we now call “civil society”—organizations and movements outside the structures of the state—but rather the implosion of what Stephen Kotkin terms the “uncivil society”—the bureaucrats, ideologues, political police, managers and other members of the Communist elite who ran the states of the Soviet bloc in partnership with the Kremlin. “It was the establishment—the ‘uncivil society’—that brought down its own system,” Kotkin explains. “Each establishment did so by misruling and then, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin radically shifted the geopolitical rules, by capitulating—or by refusing to capitulate and thus making themselves susceptible to political bank runs.”

Kotkin is certainly equipped to pass judgment on the events of 1989, as he is well known for his magisterial study of the Soviet iron-mining city of Magnitogorsk and for his concise history of the fall of the Soviet Union, “Armageddon Averted.” “Uncivil Society” grew out of a graduate seminar Kotkin taught at Princeton with Jan T. Gross, a Polish-American historian known for his studies of anti-Semitism in Poland, who is listed as a contributor.

The phrase “uncivil society” may be a bit awkward as coinages go, but that is a minor nit in this refreshingly lively analysis of how Communist regimes collapsed in three East European states—East Germany, Poland and Romania. Each had its unique circumstances and history: East Germany was the most successful Soviet bloc economy, but it “achieved second-rate citizenship in a world that already had a first-rate Germany.” Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu was hailed in the West because he managed to push back the Soviets, but he built such a brutal cult of personality and such a foreign debt that he ended up the only leader to be executed. And Poland—well, it was the grand exception, the nation Marx called “indigestible” and the only one in East Europe that acted, in a formula Kotkin borrows from the writer Jonathan Schell, “as if” it “were already a free country.”

But it is Kotkin’s analysis of what was common in the collapse of all the Communist rulers—including the Russians—that makes for the most interesting reading. Ultimately, he writes, the system was crushed by the “double whammy” of Gorbachev, who lifted the threat of military intervention, and a political class that proved unable to compete with capitalism. Still, the reader shouldn’t get too smug on revisiting that victory. Kotkin suggests a sobering parallel between the bankruptcy of the Eastern elites and the ruinous excesses of Western elites as revealed in the financial meltdown of 2008.

Serge Schmemann, a former Times bureau chief in Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem, is the editorial page editor of The International Herald Tribune.

Uncivil Society
1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

By Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T. Gross
Illustrated. 197 pp. A Modern Library Chronicles Book/The Modern Library. $24.

Parallel Paths, Opposite Destinies

14 January 2010
Radio Free Europe
by Eugen Tomiuc

Müller (second from left) with literary colleagues in 1985. Her informer moved in the same circles.

Shortly after Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October, documents came to light showing she had been closely monitored by Romania’s infamous political police—the Securitate. The documents from the Securitate archives also revealed the code name of her most avid informerVoicuand the real name of his Securi“ate handlerLt. Col. Paduraru.

At the time, I found it quite ironic that the informer’s code name was Voicuan ancient grassroots Romanian namewhile his style and spelling mistakes betrayed him as being an ethnic German like Herta Müller. However, the informer’s identity was not known at the time.

But my initial assumption has proved correct. In a program broadcast on January 12, German public television ARD revealed the informer’s identity as Franz Schleich, an ethnic German writer and journalist who belonged to the same circles as Müller in Communist-era Timisoara. German TV cited a graphology test that established that the handwriting on Voicu’s notes to the Securitate is identical with Schleich’s handwritten dedications on some of his books of poetry.

Ironically, Müller and Schleich, both ethnic German writers from Romania, had nearly identical trajectories for a while. Both emigrated to West GermanySchleich in 1983 (his fast-track emigration might have been connected with services he rendered to the Securitate) and Müller in 1987. Once in Germany, both continued to write about communist-era Romania.

But while their paths were similar, their destinies were not. Once in Germany, Müller remained true to her moral stance and never made compromises in revealing the true nature of communism.

Schleich claimed to be a victim of communism, and returned to Timisoara as a visitor in 1985 and 1986. According to documents, he again met with his Securitate handler, Lt. Col. Paduraru, and was given new tasks. Paduraru later said Schleich completed those assignments with the same zeal as when he was living in Romania.

In light of these revelations, Schleich’s claim that he had been a victim of communism seems profoundly disingenuous. However, he was indeed a victim of communism, without even realizing it.

His mind had been so spoilt by the regime’s poisoned ways that he never found redemption. Although he moved to the coveted West, he had to sell his soul for a German passport. And his soul stayed back at the Securitate headquarters in Timisoara.

In Romania, A Quest For Clarity Between The Lines

11 January 2010
National Public Radio
by Howie Movshovitz

Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective examines the
relationships between law, language and morality.

Does this movie sound appealing to you? The main character spends most of his time either skulking on a sidewalk smoking cigarettes, or questioning the meanings of words with his wife and his boss.

The judges at this year's Cannes International Film Festival thought so — in fact, they gave the movie their Jury Prize.

It's called Police, Adjective, it's from Romania, and it's opening this month in theaters in this country.

The film tells the story of a young detective who struggles with whether to arrest three students who've been smoking hashish. He believes that their lives will be ruined for what he considers a minor crime.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu says the film is a discourse on language and the detective's search for the meaning of such words as "conscience," "moral" and "law."

'Look Up Conscience'

"The movie is built around this concept, this discourse, and at the end I arrive [at] the meanings of the words," says Porumboiu. "What is conscience? Because police have to enforce and respect the law, which is made by words, I had the impression that all the time we speak, one with each other, but at the end each has his own representation."

The representation or meaning of each of those words can be determined by whoever speaks them — or they can be taken literally. In a crucial sequence, the young detective's commander, in a soft, patronizing voice, forces him to read dictionary definitions of the words he uses to justify leaving the students alone.

"Look up conscience," the police chief says, and fixes a cold stare while the young detective reads like a child in front of the school principal. It's a grim, humiliating scene, and the weight of the commander's oppressive logic squashes the young cop's spirit.

The Language Of Oppression

The story's joyless feeling is matched by the film's images of the small city of Vaslui, where it takes place, and where Porumboiu grew up. He says Police, Adjective was filmed on gray November days using long takes with a stationary camera. There is no music.

But Porumboiu rejects the idea that his film is a metaphor for the dull lingering chill of the former authoritarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. He says that it's just about a cop searching for meaning.

"In a way, I'm afraid of metaphor," says Porumboiu. "It's this character, and he has — he's in this transition period. He doesn't have values. He doesn't have something he can grab, you know."

As the commander takes away his words, the young cop looks like he's grabbing for a lifeline, drowning in his own silence. His sense of ethics goes unexpressed.

That silence may not be a metaphor, but it does in a way represent the plight of people struggling to escape the legacy of tyranny, says Corina Suteu, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, a government agency that promotes her country's culture in the United States. She recently organized a festival of new Romanian films.

"The question this film asks is, 'How much has Romania got out — how much do we really get out of long-term legacies of totalitarian thought, of the authoritarian way of thinking, of ideology? How free are we really to get out of it and also make our individual choices inside a society?' " Suteu says. "For me, the film really points this [out] very, very strongly. And also in a very simple, completely non-sophisticated way. Maybe this is why Corneliu really hates to speak about it as a metaphor. He wants to keep it simple."

An Unadorned Style — For A Reason

That style also characterized Porumboiu's critically acclaimed first feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest. Suteu says that Porumboiu's unadorned films reveal perplexing and difficult problems: Both the commander and the detective want to do their jobs well, but they're trapped by the history of their country.

"The mind that is captive cannot get rid of this captivity," asserts Suteu. "You become, finally, the main guard of this captivity. You become the captive and the one who is the guard to the prison. This is maybe the most dangerous and awful legacy of the totalitarian regimes, because you're afraid to get out of this captivity. 

Suteu says that having to live with dual realities is what the great Romanian Dada artists Tristan Tzara and Eugene Ionesco called "absurdity," and that Porumboiu has entered this absurdist tradition with his observation that words have become meaningless.

"I think now we are living in a world where we are making the laws," says Porumboiu, "but at the same time, I think that it's more and more difficult to understand each other."

His characters don't seem to think we can. Porumboiu is a little more optimistic.