Coping with the Past Vlad Morariu
History is always a problem, and in addressing it one always runs the risk of asking the wrong questions. That is because the outcomes of questioning and redescribing history are never guaranteed. Questions are advanced by their prerequisites, their guiding prejudices. So what does a question actually conceal behind its words? In Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission to kill Colonel Kurtz, because, he is told, the Colonel has gone insane and his methods are unsound. However, Willard is not only given the order to terminate Colonel Kurtz’s command, he is ordered do so with “extreme prejudice.” These words go far beyond a simple and neutral figure of speech, a simple metaphor that merely adds color to words. The phrase conceals something—the fear that extreme prejudice generated extreme questions, the answers to which have legitimized Kurtz’s radical interpretation of the war’s course. But these same exact words gradually construct Willard’s dialectical thinking as he travels on the river toward Kurtz’s base, since what he sees on his journey contradicts the alleged ethics of the order he has been given. Terminating extreme prejudice as if it never existed is a way to shut down the past and its effects on the present. In one way or another, however, its specter survives, and it will now be Willard who, having carried out his mission, will deliver Kurtz’s legacy, becoming the preacher of the last words on his lips: “Horror! Horror!”
So why, in the present conceptual framework which praises transformation, do we consider the task of “coping with the past” to be imperative and not a parallel task such as “understanding the past,” for example? Is there something (anything) we share with the past? And what about our norms and values when trying to “cope with the past”? Here is one insight: “understanding” and “coping with” can actually never be separated. “Understanding” seems, however, to presuppose something of a hermeneutical approach, an infinite circle of (re)interpretation, the constant enlargement of the past’s contextual aura and as such, being a serious endeavor, it is an effort for which we rarely find time in our everyday preoccupations. Perhaps it is work for scholars, but not an ordinary person, whatever “ordinary” may actually mean. “Coping with the past” seems, on the other hand, a more urgent, down-to-earth task, the accomplishment of which promises to help us manage our own lives. It promises a sort of a concrete politics for survival, a strategy for managing our lives which we need to grasp. That is because there is a presupposition hidden within this formulation, which asserts that we cannot go on with our lives if we do not solve our historical contradictions. And this is generally true for postcommunist societies. However, allow me to inquire further: why are we already assuming these positions of adversity, borrowing, in putting such questions, words which would better fit a vocabulary of conflict (remember the French roots of the verb “to cope”—from the verb couper—to strike, cut, tear)? Why should one cope; i.e., be in conflict with, fight with, confront, and overcome the past? Why not construct a friendlier past?
Let us take the case of Romania. If we pose the question “When?”—as in “When did the past become an enemy?”—I would venture to say that in our recent history it has happened twice: once when the communist party took over at the end of the 1940s, and then, again—reiterated—when they were removed from power in 1989. Someone who believes in the progress of History would expect that the contemporary children of the anticommunist “revolution” would not repeat the mistakes of alleged perpetrators of political crimes. However, History has repeated itself again and public space has been afflicted by a hatred of our communist past; just as our socialist revolution cultivated hatred of the former bourgeois order. In both cases it is as if the past had all of a sudden become alien to us, something akin to the hostile fleet of aliens from Independence Day, a fictional story featuring a relentless aggressor; and, of course, even here there are the Steven Hillers who, with venom on their lips, lead the chivalrous vendetta. At the beginning of the 1990s everybody was an anticommunist, as if no communists had ever existed.
But then again, if we ask “Why?”—as in “Why not make it friendlier?”—we could try to answer in several different ways. Observe, for example, how many times the word “responsibility” has been used, how many votes it has brought in, yet how much disillusion it caused when confronting the past. Following the great narratives of the capitalist dream, the microstories of everyday communist life, normal and insignificant as they were, were quickly forgotten, and a new phantom opposed them: a brutal, fearful, stupid, and grotesque communist—a generalization. Note also the intoxicating speed with which new alternative personal histories were fabricated, stories of heroic dissent, of unsung heroes who now received their glory, the benefactors of a new regime which proved to be as hypocritical and dirty as the former. And finally, let us look at the lack of courage in addressing the growing disillusion of those people who were betrayed by their icons, who later proved to be made of the same stuff as the perpetrators they were stigmatizing (the evidence against them was not as innocent as one might expect, since it was used as a political weapon). The specter of communism is indeed haunting us, but no longer as Marx envisaged it: it is striking back at the very moment when we thought it had been terminated. And, as it turns out, we live in an age in which we are judging our present realities with the same kind of concepts we were employing half a century ago. This is the specter’s revenge: mapping the world with the same key words, it seems nothing has changed, and that, perhaps, things really have become worse. And such is our reality: no real progress, no real freedom. In any case, we still do not know what to do with our past, we are still approaching it with ambiguity, and we still do not understand how people in the past really behaved. To avoid over-generalization, let me tell you a story.
One cold and rainy day in 2008—91 years after the October Revolution—three men tried to erect a red banner on a marble pedestal in Bucharest’s Square of the Free Press, right in front of the Stalinist Casa Scînteii, which originally housed the official state press, in particular the newspaper Scînteia (The Sparkle), and today accommodates the offices of the most important newspapers in Romania. The banner read “For a correct history: bring back the statue. 1917—2008. 91 years since the Great Workers’ October Revolution” and was signed by the New Romanian Communist Party (NRCP). On the same pedestal stood the V sign erected there sometime at the beginning of the 1990s as a symbol of victory, but also in order to (temporarily) fill the empty space left behind after the removal of the statue of Lenin. That was the statue that the New Romanian Communist Party wanted reinstalled, the same effigy that had been honored by a Russian delegation led by Mikhail Gorbachev in May 1987, the same sculpture that decades earlier had witnessed the passing of a French delegation led by Charles de Gaulle. Back in 1990, the press wrote that it took four days to completely remove Lenin from his pedestal. It seems that his feet had been cemented to the plinth a little too firmly and the revolutionaries had to use a crane to get it off. As if Lenin had been refusing to leave. In any case, the youngest of the three men, who was secretary of propaganda for the NRCP, was filming the other two while—with serious, sullen expressions on their faces—they gave statements regarding their protest, later published on the party’s website (http://www.npcr.ro/ziar/2008/noiembrie/activitatepartid.html). But the propaganda secretary was not very used to talking in front of television cameras, so when confronted with a real reporter, he let the other two comrades talk. And while the Chief Accountant of the party was explaining that Lenin’s removal had been illegal, since no official document existed with instructions to that effect, the party’s president—the oldest among them and formerly a true illegalist (as opposed to those many thousands fabricated by the distortional History Manuals of the former regime)—seemed to be more realistic. Smiling at the camera, he said that he was pretty sure that Lenin would never be returned to his original place. So it was not really a protest arguing for Lenin’s physical comeback, it was more a statement about the return of his teachings, in a world which, as the man said employing words from an old-fashioned discourse that seems to hail from another time, “has fallen prey to exploitation by the rotten capitalist system, which, being in a profound crisis, is deeply contradictory and anachronistic.”
This was in October and word about the global financial crisis had yet to spread. And while we know that a third of the world’s population earns less than two USD per day, and while we have witnessed, three months after the incident described, a profound crisis of the capitalist system, we still smile at the old man’s words of warning. Not because he is not right, but because his words seem so remote when attempting to map our present reality. A Lenin reloaded, at least in terms of his ideological features, seems no longer to fit the conceptual scheme with which we make our way through the world. He will not solve our past traumas, he could only restate them. The tall and venerable bronze statue of Lenin had been a symbol for the victorious new regime, which back then seemed powerful enough to dismiss the bourgeois past. And indeed, it was its decision to demolish Ivan Meštrović’s statue of King Carol the First, melt it down and use the material for Boris Caragea’s project of a statue glorifying Lenin. And just as King Carol disappeared with the bourgeois past, so Lenin too disappeared with the communist past. For a while nobody knew, or even asked, what had happened to the statue. Later on it was revealed that it had been temporarily stored in the backyard of a museum complex some 20 km outside of Bucharest. Last spring I went there myself, not as a gesture of pilgrimage—I actually traveled there to see a contemporary art biennial which was partly located in the same museum—but more out of curiosity.
Lenin shares his space with former Prime Minister Petru Groza, the first postwar official to invite the communists into government. Lying on his back, Lenin’s grandeur—his saintly halo—is diminished to a minimum. Somebody has put a capitalist Kent cigarette in his mouth; he looks as if he has fallen asleep while smoking. A mockery, of course, just like his hands and arms which bear marks made by scrap iron seekers, who tried to sever and steal parts of him to make some money. He proved too resilient, however. Now Lenin seems to be sleeping, but he does not look comfortable: he is not at home. The fact that he has been forgotten there for the past 17 years says something about Romanian society. It says that the past is our adversary and that we are at war with it. As one of the first victims, Lenin died on the battlefield; but because there has been no official armistice as yet, he rots there, waiting for better times and for somebody to come and pick up his cadaver. And maybe there is no better way of illustrating the death of Lenin than with another little story: Gigi Gavrilescu, a victim of the reprisals following the anticommunist strike in Braşov in 1987, has been credited as being the man who maneuvered the crane which demolished the statues of Groza and Lenin. He later worked as a doorkeeper at the Alianţa Civică (the Civic Alliance), which back in the 1990s was the loudest voice against the neocommunist regime of President Iliescu. Several years later, however, he was found hanged in the building of the same Civic Alliance, and the note he left behind explained that he was very disappointed with the new Romanian political class.
The scrapping of Lenin says something about our alien past and our fear of approaching it. However, alien as we make it, the past refuses to become the past, moving forward with us, haunting us, unconcerned whether it does so through a little old man who dreams of the resurrection of world communism and the final revolution, or the ex-Securitate officer who, in the meanwhile, has been a member of Parliament and does good business with state funds. In this sense, Lenin is not finished although with his Kent in his mouth he is not what he used to be. Only when he goes home, not to being mocked in the Museum of Communism or Circus of Freaks, but to an establishment which accepts him as part of our history, understands him not with regard to ethics but in the terms of a comprehensive anthropology, only then will he be given a break, and only then will we make a truce with our past and ourselves.