After 1989, Romania opened up a new chapter in its history, along with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. Some see it as an improvement, others see it quite the other way around. Countless historians and social scientists have studied post-communist societies, and one of the most pervasive phenomena in them is the nostalgia for the life of pre-1989. Every country that underwent this transformation has seen the spread of this attitude, a yearning for the past. People tend to idealize the past, irrespective of how harsh a regime was or how harsh life was. Nostalgia paints the past in rosy hues, and the present in harsher tones when people no longer identify with the times. Nostalgia places in the past all that is good, and ridicules the present.
Romania has not been spared this phenomenon, which largely affects the older generations. In so far as it is perfectly understandable, it is also quite unfair. Romania has made huge strides from three decades ago, from all points of view. It is going through the safest period in its modern history, in spite of all kinds of drawbacks.
We asked historian Dragos Petrescu, professor at the Bucharest University School of Political and Administrative Sciences, what Romania has gained in the last 30 years:
“As far as I'm concerned, Romania has gained a lot. My generation had lost all hope to be able to travel freely to the West, especially in the 1980s. It is natural for us to think differently from people born after 1989. Romania is now a member of the EU, a member of NATO, and while the market economy can never be fully functional, still it functions. There is a dynamic private sector, we have foreign investments. These are things that indicate that Romania is on the right path.”
Many of the things that the nostalgic find objectionable in today's society can be explained by the fact that they are manifestations of learned helplessness. They are old habits of the kind that die hard. Dragos Petrescu says they are the result of a political culture that can be very difficult to change:
“There are many things that depend on us, Romanians, and our political culture. It has to do with the generalization of a democratic political culture, which we know we have to rely on, without whining, without waiting for help from the outside, starting with some very serious things that have to do with national security. The fact that Romania is not yet able to secure its own airspace with its own forces says a lot. Political corruption, selling political decisions to the highest bidder, this is what brought us to this point. This is not the fault of the Ceausescu regime, but of the politicians that Romanians elected without giving things much thought. It is very important to be careful who we elect, because we may very well turn out to be very sorry.”
We asked Professor Petrescu if he believes that the shortcomings of today's society can be blamed on the legacy of communism. He told us he believes it is a combination of the communist legacy and that which came before communism:
“We do have a legacy, but it is not the difficult legacy of the communist past. It is a legacy of a country placed at the base of the diagonal of European development, which starts in the southeast and runs towards the northwest of Protestant ethics, as the great German sociologist Max Weber put it. We, Romanians, are here, in the southeast, with Christian Orthodox ethics, which complicates things, people are used to waiting for a handout rather than working hard in order to live better. This has a lot to do with the fact that this area is underdeveloped, this is why it is called half peripheral.”
Just like any other society, Romania has to look to the future to find meaning. Dragos Petrescu believes that future generations have to make a change, because the present is defined by past generations.
“There are things that should make us more optimistic, namely the trans-national diaspora, which works in Western countries, and which has assimilated a more advanced political thinking. They are returning home and want to see things changing. They have the slogan that they would like the country to be like Western countries, namely to have a consolidated democracy, which can be brought about by this much more dynamic younger generation.”
30 years after 1989, Romania is in fact quite stable, and freedom is the basic point of reference, and that is the most important thing of all.