Ceausescu — the boring years

Working at an academic library as I do means all sorts of stuff is around, as you can probably tell from my irregular book posts. Right now I’m looking at a book which I am not going to read at all, but which is perversely fascinating anyway, less so for what it is than what it represents.

Nicolae Ceausescu is one of those people from my past who is already well forgotten by nearly everyone who wasn’t Romanian or a Cold War-era political wonk. If you are Romanian, mind you, you have good cause to remember him — only the most recent full generation of said country, born in the mid-eighties and beyond, would have no real memory of him at all, and the dull entropic horror and megalomania of his regime is something that most are more than glad to put behind him. It seems appropriate that the biggest ‘tribute’ I can think of to him since his execution in 1989 is itself also a bit lost in history now — the Fatima Mansions’ single “Blues for Ceasescu,” which frankly is one of their less successful numbers, strident and flailing, though that seems all the more appropriate.

There might well be more recent books in English on his time and place, as well as Romania’s history since then, and I’ll happily take recommendations, but first I’ll note an excellent book published in the early 1990s, Edward Behr’s Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite, which not only looks at Ceausescu but at 20th century Romanian history in general up to that point; it’s an overview but a remarkably detailed one, a good balance of personal perspective — Behr spent years covering the country for Newsweek and other publications — and introduction to what must have seemed a baffling place for outsiders.

The book I’m looking at is something else again — it’s a book of Ceausescu’s, or more accurately, it’s a book by his speechwriters and ghost writers and who knows who else. As had been so depressingly but amusingly the case with totalitarian folks of the past century, Ceausescu had a mania for his seeing books in print with his name on them — that sounds flippant, but think of things like Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao as being tips of an iceberg. Stalin was probably the undisputed king of this, with endless reams of books on party theory appearing under his name. It’s not that books on life struggles and political theory and the like are limited to dictators when talking about politicians (though I amused to think how intensely a certain personality type simply venerates books like No Retreat, No Surrender or The Audacity of Hope instead of engaging with them as political arguments to consider, respond to and maybe even disagree with), but the sense of scholarly and scientific study that was intertwined with Marxism in particular from the start, combined with areas of focus such as working against illiteracy, meant that books had a particular value, a sense of concretizing and legitimizing argument and political belief.

This particular book by Ceausescu and company is rather grandoliquently titled Romania: On the Way of Building Up the Multilaterally Developed Socialist Society. Volume 26. There’s no introduction or overview given to any of it, beyond a youthful and at the time incredibly outdated picture of Ceausescu. After that, it’s a listing of the table of contents and we’re off — among other scintillating chapters are “Address to the Children and Youth-Homeland’s Falcons, Young Pioneers, UCY Members, Workers and Farmers, Pupils and Students — Attending the Traditional Meeting on New Year’s Day” and “Congratulatory Letter to the County Party Committe and To All the Working People in the Agriculture of Olt County.” These are among the shorter titles, I should note.

And the verbiage itself! Consider:

“The years of the socialist construction followed when the first national construction sites were organized; at the same time, the youth were a presence in all areas of the activity of economic and social development of our homeland — they took part in the nationalization of the means of production, in the socialist transformation of agriculture and the achievement of a modern agriculture, in the carrying through of the cultural revolution and the creation of an advanced education, science and culture. All this required sustained efforts and represented revolutionary actions taken by our people, by the working class in the years of socialist construction, action in which the youth of our homeland were always present, fulfilling their duty to the Party, to the homeland, to the people!”

I can’t imagine the translation made it any worse than it originally was. (Not that it’s uniquely bad, really — it’s just so much inspirational waffle, the kind of thing spoken just to hear one speak.) But that’s the thing, you see — this is all in translation, an English language publication of all of this from the original Romanian, published by an official government firm in Romania during Ceasescu’s life. Can you imagine who in the world the audience for this was assumed to be? Can you imagine who it was? Did any of these copies get read for pleasure, even for duty? That it was here and that someone checked it out for research now I get — it was one of several books on Romania turned in this morning — but beyond that, there’s no function or need for any of this now, but I couldn’t imagine there have being one at the time either.

There’s no deep conclusion to any of this now — speeches and things like these are more efficiently and easily kept in online archives, and the Ozymandias-like nature of a shelf of books like these for the mighty to look upon and despair (because of all the trees that were killed off for them) is self-evident. But it seems just Ceausescu is reduced in the general collective memory to this, just and humorous. Seeing as he lacked both those qualities, all the better.


2 Responses to “Ceausescu — the boring years”

  1. Kate Says:

    I remember Ceausescu rather vividly – well, his death at least. I was at my uncle’s house watching Jeopardy on the big screen TV in his den (I was 11 and in full geekdom so I was in LOVE with this TV) and they broke into the show with the news he was shot. I even remember seeing his dead body on TV, a bit traumatizing for someone who at age 11 had not even really experienced the death of a loved one.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    I remember learning about it being home from UCLA for Christmas 1989 — all seems to be vividly tied up with watching an MTV broadcast of a New Year’s Eve B-52s concert.

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