Stelian Tanase went to the Romanian State Archives to find some answers about his country's past, but all he got was the runaround.
Mr. Tanase, a writer and opposition deputy in parliament, spent the past year researching a doctoral thesis on Communist Party elites during their first decade in power.
But his exhaustive attempts to access legally available documents were blocked by the archivists, many of whom were the same people who guarded the regime's secrets under communism. "It was the most frustrating experience of my ... career," he says. "I wanted to find out what communism really was - not rumors but the truth. But I was blocked at every step. Think about it: After an anticommunist revolution, you can't get access to the communist archives! What kind of revolution is that?"
Under the Orwellian regimes of Nicolae Ceausescu and his Stalinist predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Romania's history was rewritten more than once to comply with the ideology, political needs, or personal fantasies of the country's leaders. The official history - in which "the world's oldest human remains" were found in the village of Ceausescu's birth and the Romanian holocaust did not exist - was the only one that could be taught or studied. In a country where the police kept an example of the script of every typewriter, no alternate sources of information existed.
Since the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989, researchers curious about history, sociology, and political science have been trying to find answers about the wartime and communist periods. But the former communists who seized control in 1989 have frustrated research into the communist era, particularly the years after 1965 when many of them began their party careers.
Clues to the nature of the 1989 revolt
With the political allies of President Ion Iliescu swept aside in Nov. 3 elections - and the president himself facing a strong challenge in this Sunday's presidential election runoff - researchers are waiting to see if the new government will pass what they regard as the ultimate democratic litmus test: a willingness to shed light on the recent past by removing barriers to exploration of central committee, party, state, and secret-police archives.
The archives may contain revelations embarrassing to President Iliescu and other once high-ranking Communists, as well as clues about the true nature of Romania's enigmatic 1989 revolution. "We have to come to peace with our past so that we don't forget what happened, and so we are able to avoid ending up in such a situation again," says sociologist Lazar Vlasceanu, deputy director of the United Nation's European Center for Higher Education, based in Bucharest. "To understand ourselves we must learn how the Communist Party intended to build its utopian society and how they failed so miserably."
Some academics are making inroads, particularly in topics dealing with the 1940s. In the absence of archival information, poet Ana Bladiana has begun assembling an oral history of Romania's political prisoners. Works by graduate students have appeared analyzing previously forgotten events: the Army's involvement in the wartime extermination of Romania's Jewish population; the collectivization of agriculture in the 1950s; and the impact of the 1956 Hungarian uprising on neighboring Romania.
Others have returned to help unearth the truth. Historian Dinu Giurescu went into exile in the United States in 1988 after documenting Ceausescu's destruction of half of Bucharest to build his Stalinist palace complex.
"Don't pay any attention to anything [in this book] after 1939 - its a lot of garbage," Mr. Giurescu says as he offers a copy of his own epic survey of Romanian history, published in the Ceausescu-era.
"The young people between 16 and 25 are the real hope for this country," says Mr. Giurescu, who returned to the University of Bucharest to help train a new generation of Romanian history students. "The good ones ... have the willingness and critical insight to face their own history with all its merits and shadows, to acknowledge the evil parts."
Study of recent history is discouraged
But the obstacles to research are many. While officially opening the archives up to 1965, the Iliescu regime keeps access to them limited. "Under communism, trusted historians were given feudalistic monopolies over certain segments of history, and only they were allowed access by the archivists," Tanase says. "The same system is in place today."
Older professors resist the "new ways" and discourage students from studying contemporary events. Worse, members of the extremist Greater Romania Party (GRP) - until recently allied with Iliescu's party - have launched regular attacks on contemporary historians such as Zoe Petre, dean of the history faculty at the University of Bucharest, where much of the research is taking place. Mr. Petre "supports the study of history in a way that is very dangerous for Romania," according to GRP ideologist Augustun Deac, a retired historian.
Replies Petre: "They accuse me of every imaginable heresy and have even called for my execution. They don't like the light to be shined on the exaggerations and distortions of our history left by the last regime."