A deep commitment to democracy and a devotion to the Greek Catholic Church are features of the activity of the Romanian diplomat, writer, philanthropist and politician Ion Ratiu (1917-2000). Guided by these principles, Ratiu was a fierce critic, in self-imposed exile in London, of the communist regime in Romania for over 50 years, earning considerable recognition as president of the World Union of Free Romanians. After the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, Ratiu returned to his native land to stand in the presidential elections of May 1990 but was disappointed to come only third in the ballot. Nevertheless, he was elected as a member of parliament and led the campaign for Romania’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures. In the mid-1990s, Ratiu endowed the chair in Romanian studies at Georgetown that I have the honor to hold as a visiting professor.
In the contemplation of the campus, the intermingling of the spires of Healy Hall with fresh, new architecture and under the imprint of the college’s spiritual tradition, it is easy to overlook that alongside our God in history, there is also a devil. One of the courses that I teach at Georgetown bears the title “The Devil in History.” It takes its name from the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) , whom I had the privilege of meeting several times in Oxford. He argued that communism and fascism represent two incarnations of the disastrous presence of the devil in history. Both ideologies are seen as two sides of the same coin of totalitarianism — and both were a political, social and cultural construct that transformed earlier ideas regarding good and evil. In their application, both relied upon repression.
My experience in communist Romania first made me aware of the reliance of the regime upon repression. An inescapable feature of life under Ceausescu was the ubiquity of the securitate, or the security police. I realized as much from my first contact with the country as an undergraduate, and that realization was reinforced during my many subsequent visits. That first contact was my attendance in 1965 of a summer school in the mountain resort of Sinaia, some 100 miles to the north of the capital, Bucharest. One Sunday I was allowed to venture out from the complex in which we foreign students were quartered. In the town I was immediately intrigued by the fact that people of all ages stared at my clothes and, in particular, at my shoes. The latter, I learned, were the conclusive hallmark of a Westerner, since Romanian items of clothing were uniform Standard de Stat or “state-standard product.” Only on one occasion did a trio of young Romanian students summon up the courage to ask me where I was from. On hearing I was British they invited me for a “coffee.” I was led to a log cabin in the surrounding forest from where, as we approached, I caught the strains of “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles. Inside, it was crammed with teenagers in animated conversation against the background of music from a jukebox. Successive songs were from an album by the same band, and my friends eagerly asked me to augment their fragmentary understanding of the lyrics. This I did, adding translations where necessary in my faltering Romanian. Eventually, feeling that they were in my debt, I enquired why no ordinary Romanians came up to the summer school complex. They laughed, looked around and invited me to walk with them. ‘’You see,” they said, “we live in a socialist country, and here the state maps out your life for you from birth. You are assigned a school, you are assigned a job and you are assigned a place to live. Conformity is the rule; you do what you are told and meeting foreigners is off-limits. If your expectations are low and you don’t step out of line, then you will be satisfied. And to make sure that you don’t step out of line, they have the Securitate.”
During the late 1980s I often spoke out on BBC Radio against Ceausescu’s gross abuses of human rights. Yet, to my surprise, I was given a visa in September 1988 to enter the country. My observations of that visit were encapsulated in an article in The Times, under the byline “From a Special Correspondent,” which appeared on Oct. 8, 1988. Two months later, I was informed that I had been declared persona non grata. I prepared myself for a long interval of exile from my second home, only to be caught completely off guard by the sequence of events in Timisoara and Bucharest that led to Ceausescu’s overthrow Dec. 25, 1989. I was even able to claim a presence in Romania in 1989 for, thanks to BBC Television and especially to its chief foreign affairs correspondent John Simpson, I returned to Bucharest on Dec. 29 and indulged myself in the idea of a Romania without the Securitate. Today, it is corruption that corrodes democracy in Romania, and Ion Ratiu stands as a reference point in the fight against it.
Dennis Deletant is the Visiting Ratiu Professor of Romanian Studies in the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.