WASHINGTON – At the age of 30, Vladimir Tismaneanu fled the Communist regime in his native Romania where he said he felt ideologically suffocated and politically repressed.
“I couldn’t stand the climate of duplicity and universal suspicion in a country run by a dictator intrinsically erratic and paranoid,” says Tismaneanu, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
It was the start of a journey that took him to Spain and France, to Philadelphia and College Park, and now back to Romania.
Nearly 26 years after his formal exit and more than 17 years after the fall of Communism in his home country, Tismaneanu accepted an invitation by President Traian Basescu to return to Romania to head a commission given the assignment of shining a light on the darker corners of the nation’s communist past.
As he describes it, the task was a heartbreakingly difficult one, which he likened to surgery without anesthesia because so many of the victims are still in Romania.
“But,” he said, “better to deal with a wound when it is open – and it is still open.”
He had never before been appointed to any formal post in his native country, a fact which he attributes to his political dissidence during the Communist Era. The pride he takes in this opportunity and its potential impact on Romania is evident.
“I know I’m making history,” he says simply.
Tismaneanu seems an unassuming man of average build, graying hair and almost clear-blue eyes, but his no-nonsense personality commands attention.
The director of the University of Maryland’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, he has written and edited scores of books and journal articles on Eastern Europe and Communist politics, often traveling back to Bucharest to do his research. In 2003, he published a culmination of much of his research, “Stalinism for All Seasons,” which was hailed as the “definitive work on Romanian communism” by his peers.
He came to Maryland from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 and currently teaches courses in comparative politics and political theory.
“He’s pretty much one of the premier experts in his field,” said Jim Rosapepe, who was Ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001 and is now a member of the Maryland Senate from Prince George’s County. “Maryland is lucky to have him.”
Tismaneanu is back in College Park as a full-time professor after taking a sabbatical last fall to complete the report, which resulted in Basescu officially condemning Communism in a speech to Parliament on Dec. 18.
The commission was formed in March of 2006 amid pressure from the Council of Europe to condemn Communism, and while Romania was on the brink of joining the European Union in January. Basescu named Tismaneanu the head of the Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship and asked him to appoint about 20 other historians, psychologists and anthropologists to serve.
The task was simple on its face – produce a report reassessing Romania’s communist history. Tismaneanu, 55, is viewed by many as a leading authority in Eastern European political history, and as a historian and a resident in the United States, seemed to be a non-partisan choice for not only the head of but the spokesman for the commission.
Sitting now in a cramped Connecticut Avenue coffee shop and bookstore, he puts down his espresso cup and reflects.
“I was simultaneously an outsider and an insider,” he says with a half smile. “It may have been frustrating, but it was fundamentally exhilarating,” he later added.
Frustrating may be an understatement in describing a process that involved trying to root out closed files that documented some of the Communist Era’s darkest deeds. Nearly two decades after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, new governments are displacing those more closely associated with the old rule, and renewed efforts are underway to expose former secret police agents and collaborators.
Tismaneanu grew up in Bucharest and was raised by parents he refers to as “Communist old-timers” who took Marxist idealism seriously. However, he says he grew up disappointed in the “existing dictatorship” and became increasingly aware of “the gap between what Marxists had professed and the dismal realities of Communism.”
While at the University of Bucharest, he wrote a Ph. D dissertation that criticized Marxism and, despite graduating first in his class in 1980, was not allowed to hold an academic post in Romania. Since his departure in 1981 he has still had a voice in Romania and other Eastern European countries through international radio broadcasts.
Given Tismaneanu’s credentials, one does not doubt him when he says, only somewhat jokingly, that if the commission hadn’t needed to physically retrieve the thousands of documents they based their report on, he could have written the whole history of Communism in Romania from his Washington, D.C. living room in one month.
But Tismaneanu said he and the other members were insistent that “every single word” of the report – which he at first predicted would be about 50 pages long – be taken from information in the documents provided to them.
Eight months, 663 pages, and multiple trips to Romania later, the commission published its findings. Soon after, Basescu delivered a speech to Parliament, declaring that the “Communist regime in Romania was illegitimate and criminal.”
Tismaneanu, a husband and a father, lowers his voice to a solemn tone, barely heard above the din of coffee shop chatter:
“I know 40 years from now, my name may not be remembered, President Basescu’s name may not be remembered, but the date of December 18 will be remembered as the day the Communist regime was condemned in Romania,” he says.
The significance is not lost on anyone familiar with the country’s history, and Tismaneanu compares the impact to the United States denouncing slavery. Rosapepe, who sees the condemnation as more of a symbolic statement, said it is especially impressive that Romania has come so far from a dictatorship in less than two decades.
“Literally walking down the street [last year] you would not have known if you were in Romania, or Austria, or Italy, or Germany,” he said. “That would have not been true 16 years ago.”
Some, however, are more suspicious of Romania’s push to shed its communist ties. From day one, the commission, and Tismaneanu in particular, met wave upon wave of resistance and hostility.
From highly critical newspaper editorials, to anti-Semitism towards Tismaneanu, to opposition from former President Ion Iliescu, the Maryland professor says he saw scores of attacks against him that questioned his motives in coming back to direct the commission. He says assembling the commission itself was difficult not only for the lack of precedent, but for the parties in Romania who still “unabashedly declare their pride for the old regime.”
But Tismaneanu says that Basescu gave him his absolute support, and pledged not to interfere with the process other than to help open old government files. He also received support from some newspapers, international media outlets, his close family and friends, and received hundreds of letters of encouragement from colleagues, students and citizens, who called themselves the “Silent Majority.”
Tismaneanu says the eight-month ordeal was a full-time responsibility, but the end result was a victory he will not soon forget. There is more work just ahead. Textbooks based on the commission’s report, an encyclopedia of Romanian Communism, presidential councils, and a museum of Communist dictatorship history all lie in the future.
But for now, back in his new nation’s Capital, there is a quiet moment of reflection about the implications for his native country. The espresso long gone, the leather jacket unzipped and the black beret comfortably secured above the nest of gray-black hair, he leans back in his chair and pauses. “The genie’s out of the bottle.”