Left: Demonstrators in Bucharest, Romania during the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 which led to the collapse of the communist regime. The banner reads: ‘We are the people, down with the dictator’. Right: Dissident Romanian journalist and producer Cornel Chiriac during a Radio Free Europe broadcast in Munich, 1970. Chiriac was found dead in March of 1975 under suspicious circumstances.
MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics.
The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.
MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.
– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)
[Note: this concentrated historical overview of Romania’s subcultural milieu and socio-political conditions under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist leadership (1965-1989) is part of my PhD thesis on the transgressive discourses and practices articulated inside two notable subcultures in contemporary Romania: the punk and electronic music scenes of Bucharest. The goal of this introduction is to familiarise readers with the distinct political, social, and cultural context which led to the emergence of vibrant and diverse subcultural spaces in Romania after the collapse of communism in 1989. These spaces continue to occupy an important position inside Romanian culture as a whole, and establish a sense of continuity between the country’s comprehensively traumatic experiences of a totalitarian regime and the more uncertain and fragmented identities of present-day youth cultural formations.]
In the process of producing a proper analysis of the evolution of the subcultural environment in post-socialist Romania, one crucial step consists of exploring the socio-political and cultural background which allowed certain subcultural groups to take shape and develop over the last three decades, with a particular emphasis on the structures and configurations of power that defined life in socialist Romania before 1989. Through my exposition of Romania’s political, social, and cultural background during communism, I will highlight the particularities of the country’s subcultural evolution within the wider set of conditions that defined Eastern Europe before the fall of the Iron Curtain. The argument is that, in spite of the presence of similarities with other Eastern European contexts, Romania found itself in a distinct position due to the particularly repressive rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his state apparatus. Whereas social, political, and cultural liberalisation became more or less the norm for many Eastern Bloc countries in the mid-to-late-1980s, Ceaușescu’s adoption of a totalitarian style of leadership during the last 15-20 years of his rule had a strongly adverse effect on young people’s opportunities for engaging in cultural exchange with the West and for developing a vibrant cultural environment in Romania. As a consequence, although it would be incorrect to say that cultural resistance did not exist in Romania during the Ceaușescu years, the main insight is that manifestations of dissidence were only successful among expatriates who could openly criticise the regime and call for change without a serious risk to their freedom or their lives; or among cultural figures living in Romania who could antagonise the regime in subtle, indirect ways.
After Nicolae Ceaușescu’s accession to power as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965, Romanian culture and society experienced a brief wave of liberalisation and openness towards the West. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, Ceaușescu’s espousal of a brand of national socialism which aimed at economic self-sufficiency and independence from both the Eastern Bloc and the West resulted in an increasingly dictatorial and repressive personal rule that severely limited the rights and liberties of ordinary citizens, and strove to exercise complete control over both the public and private spheres. In addition, his economic policies led to a sharp decline in living standards that culminated in the very harsh austerity period of the mid-to-late 1980s, which involved the extreme rationing of basic necessities such as food, running water, heating, and electricity. Ceaușescu’s Stalinist, totalitarian approach also incorporated a pervasive cult of personality and the omnipresent use of communist propaganda through state-controlled forms of media like newspapers, television, and radio. This stood in stark contrast to a series of neighbouring tendencies towards a decentralisation of communist power and attempts at reform, the most visible ones being the adoption of the policies of glasnost (governmental transparency) and perestroika (economic restructuring and liberal reforms) by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, or the measures of liberalisation taken by Hungarian communists throughout the same decade.1
Most importantly, it is impossible to overestimate the negative impact of two aspects of Romania’s communist regime on the culture of the times: firstly, the role of the state’s apparatus in enforcing heavy censorship in artistic fields like literature, music, and film; and secondly, the activities of Romania’s secret police force, the Securitate (‘Security’ or ‘Department of State Security’). During Ceaușescu’s oppressive rule, the Securitate established a sinister reputation as an exceptionally brutal organisation, with thousands of people being imprisoned, tortured, or even killed in custody on suspicion of being political dissidents, or simply because they articulated opinions that were not in line with the party’s official position on various political, social, and cultural matters.
These factors, together with the nearly non-existent opportunities for regular Romanians to travel abroad and the state’s intense efforts in hindering the influx and the consumption of Western culture, created a cultural climate where free artistic expression was often a dangerous pursuit. Artists were thus kept under the watchful eye of the Securitate and were constantly subjected to the fear and collective paranoia that pervaded Romanian society in its entirety. For writers, musicians, and directors, artistic production was therefore restricted to a few options. The first was following the party’s cultural directives of aimlessly praising the achievements of national socialism and of Ceaușescu’s leadership, an option which many self-respecting artists refused to consider. The second was to try to leave Romania illegally in order to continue with their work outside of the draconian limits imposed by the state. The last option was to engage in subtle gestures of defiance against the regime while working around censorship, the party’s overbearing cultural ideology, and the threat posed by the agents of the Securitate.
With most fringe movements or overtly ‘non-normative’ groups either being directly disrupted by the state’s repressive apparatus or forced into clandestine activity out of a fear of its members being discovered and punished by the regime’s secret police, one superficial conclusion is that the subcultural environment in communist Romania was essentially non-existent. However, a more in-depth investigation reveals the fact that Romanian youth culture did manage to incorporate ideas from the West while maintaining its distinct transgressive potential. For example, Madigan Fichter shows how between 1965 and 1975 (the so-called ‘liberal’ period of Ceaușescu’s rule), Romanian counterculture, and cultural dissent more generally, shared many similarities with the anti-authoritarian aesthetic of the hippie movement. On the other hand, this movement was isolationist, strongly anti-socialist, and employed the language of nationalism. In light of this, Fichter argues that any analyses of 1960s counterculture as a whole must include ‘a variety of ideological and cultural positions beyond the New Left that scholars generally emphasize’.2 She goes on to point out that academics have avoided cultural examinations of the early period of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, and this tends to obscure the presence of alternative culture in Romania during the 1960s and 1970s (567).According to Fichter, nonconformism in Romania was reflected in fashion, music, film, literature, and philosophy. Together with a nascent protest culture among students, these circumstances demonstrate that, contrary to the assertion of many other commentators, Romanian culture in this period most definitely contained elements of dissidence and political resistance, especially through the way in which artists, students and intellectuals subtly criticised the abuses of the socialist regime and embraced socio-cultural values that were markedly different from the set of criteria that described a good socialist citizen (568). Among the many unique discursive features of Romanian counterculture in the 1960s and early 1970s, Ficther identifies a common resentment towards a lack of democratisation, promoting pre-communist traditions and Romanian culture as a way of rejecting communist narratives, a re-evaluation of the country’s Stalinist past, encouraging political and social reforms, an anti-censorship stance, the use of national imagery, and valuing the pre-communist national heritage (574-76).
Nicolae Ceaușescu’s decree of 1971, which explicitly prohibited any form of counterculture, caused the decline and ultimate end of this period of cultural liberalisation. Fichter affirms that this new Stalinist approach to Romanian culture was characterised by blatant repression and increased party control over all types of cultural activity. However, while Romanian culture in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s was indeed defined by strict ideological conformity, the regime was ultimately unsuccessful in completely suppressing dissent and youth resistance (579). As Petrică Mogoș and Pauwke Berkers contend, between 1975 and 1985, the complex relationship between musicians and state authorities oscillated between duplicity (aimed at providing benefits for both sides) and resistance through individual and collective articulations of political dissent. The most conspicuous dissenters were located abroad, whereas domestic musicians were much more severely controlled and thus had fewer opportunities to express and/or manifest resistance. In this situation, Romanian musicians managed to challenge the regime by appealing to questions and issues of morality.3 This insight is in line with another point made by Mogoș and Berkers regarding the broader role of rock music in the Eastern Bloc, which ‘served the purpose of questioning the actions and even the very existence of the state itself, by means of critical and autonomous artistic expression’ (57). With regards to music, Romanian rock bands like Phoenix or Iris became instances of acts that were clearly influenced by Western cultural forms and that appealed to open-minded young people thanks to their rebellious nature and the subliminal anti-establishment attitudes they displayed in their music and lyrics. Moreover, throughout the 1970s and up to the mid-1980s, the cultural movement Cenaclul Flacăra (‘The Literary Circle “The Flame”’) constituted itself as a vehicle for subcultural resistance and as a nucleus of youth rebellion before being officially banned by the Romanian Communist Party in 1985.
In addition, the rejection of imposed cultural codes amounted to a form of ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’ and thus to a strong manifestation of symbolic resistance aimed at weakening the hegemony of the regime, as Neo-Marxist subcultural theorists would argue (61). Despite the advancement of rock music being stifled by means of ‘penalising forms of censorship’ due to many rock artists’ refusal to comply with communist ideology, a significant number of Romanian musicians who emigrated engaged in both collective and individual forms of dissent such as music-based anti-political initiatives, civic action, and non-conformist behaviours (65, 67). With cities like Munich acting as centres of political dissent for the exiles of the Romanian music scene throughout the 1980s, the criticism aimed the bureaucratic regulations typical of the regime and the precarity of working conditions in Romania was complemented by individual forms of symbolic resistance, reflected in a portrayal of Romanian society as something immoral (67-68). Here, some of the most notable examples of both collective and individual subversion include: the establishment of the Union of the Free Romanian Artists by a group of fugitive musicians, whose purpose was to bring together the diverse creative milieu of Romanian exiles; the official denouncing of the censorship practiced by the Romanian state from singers like Mia Braia; Cornel Chiriac’s defection to West Germany in the early 1970s and his subsequent involvement with Radio Free Europe as a DJ and a critic of the communist regime; the instrumentalist Gheorghe Zamfir defiantly selling his music to porn producers in West Germany; and members of the rock band Sfinx smuggling foreign currency and using false tour contracts in order to avoid paying taxes and prolong their stay abroad (62, 68).
Overall, the Romanian subcultural formations of 1975-1985 – especially those centred around music – can be interpreted as ‘symbolic structures’ that created a private cultural space which was strongly opposed to the numerous mechanisms of state control and repression. Grounded in shared musical taste and a common approach to aesthetics and philosophy, these ‘micro-sites of cultural struggle’ had a powerful counter-hegemonic role by drawing attention to the dysfunctional aspects embedded into the social and political fabric of the times (73). When taken in conjunction with the existence of a series of more overt countercultural trends from the previous decade, the scholarly perspectives presented above should lead us away from a view of Romanian socialism ‘as one unbroken, monolithic period of oppression’. Instead, they invite academics and cultural critics to explore the nuances behind Romania’s cultural evolution during this period, without invalidating the view of the Ceaușescu years as a very bleak chapter in Romania’s history (Fichter 580).
Given these circumstances, the overthrow of Ceaușescu during the Revolution of 1989 – the only violent anti-socialist revolution inside the disintegrating Eastern Bloc – was a tragic but inevitable conclusion to the abuses of power, isolation, and anxieties that had been defining daily life and culture in Romania for almost twenty years. On many levels, the collapse of communism in Romania opened up more avenues for audacious self-expression and cultural exploration than in other Eastern European states at that time, particularly because of the fact that fundamental freedoms and cultural growth had been more acutely suppressed than in places like Yugoslavia, Poland, or the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s leadership. The emergence and growth of a post-socialist subcultural milieu was thus characterised by a strong desire to reconnect with the rest of the world and with the West in particular. Although the explosion of very diverse subcultures and styles initially borrowed heavily from Western forms, Romanian subculturalists managed to infuse the attitudes and values absorbed from the West with local flavours, and to construct distinct cultural identities. In the case of subcultures like hip-hop and punk, the fall of communism and the newly-found cultural freedom also offered young people an opportunity to openly affirm the political potential of music, often in relation to the difficulties and challenges of post-socialist transition(s) and in the shadow of the country’s communist past.
- Anna Szemere, Up from the Underground: The Culture of Rock Music in Postsocialist Hungary (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001): 106.
- Madigan Fichter, “Rock ‘n’ roll nation: counterculture and dissent in Romania, 1965–1975”, Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, vol.39, no. 4 (2011): 567.
- Petrică Mogoș and Pauwke Berkers, “Navigating the Margins between Consent and Dissent: Mechanisms of Creative Control and Rock Music in Late Socialist Romania”, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, vol. 32, no.1 (2018): 56.