3.1. Attitudes to the Communist Past
Sighet Museum seeks to condemn the political violence committed by Romania’s communist regime, particularly for a generation with no direct experience of communism. In order to examine the impact of visiting the museum, both groups of students were asked a number of questions about their perceptions of the communist past. The first focused on their general perception of the communist era. The responses of the visiting group have been considered elsewhere [27
], but in this analysis we seek to add a comparison with the perspectives of the non-visiting group. The responses (coded as “negative”, “ambivalent” or “positive”) are presented in Table 2
Around half of the participants viewed the communist past in negative terms. For example, Rubi (visiting group) stated the following: “Principally, I think that it was a negative period from almost all points of view”. Similarly, Bera (non-visiting group) argued “from my point of view it was a terrible and sad period”. However, there was a large minority of the participants with more ambivalent views. For example, Sara (visiting group) stated: “I know about communism mostly from my family. I remember how they talked to me about it. If I were to express my opinion I am somewhere between 50% negative and 50% positive”. Rada (from the non-visiting group) had a similar view:
I found out [about the communist period] both at school but also from my parents and grandparents. In my family for example, opinions were very divided: my parents didn’t agree with it, they said it was a very ugly period…while my grandmother is very happy only when she thinks about it…My view of communism is neither positive nor negative.
A comparison of the responses of the visiting and non-visiting groups indicates a significant difference in the responses of the two groups (X2
= 6.0, 1 df, p
< 0.05, “positive” category excluded). Those who had not visited were more likely to express negative views about communism, whereas those who had visited were more likely to express ambivalent views, despite having encountered the museum’s unequivocal condemnation of communism. Indeed, when asked if they felt more negative about communism after their visit to the museum few of the visiting group agreed [27
Such mixed opinions about the communist past are not unique to this study. Numerous press reports and academic studies have reported that many Romanians have ambivalent views about the communist past. Furthermore, many studies have identified that some sections of Romanian society express nostalgia for the communist era [61
]. Furthermore, such positive appraisals of the communist past are not confined to those who lived through communism, since various studies have identified that many young people born after 1989 also think of the communist era in positive terms [65
]. Similar findings have also been reported in other post-communist countries [68
Clearly, these young people were not approaching the museum with no prior understanding of its subject [14
]. Although they had no direct experience of communism, the psychological distance between them and the communist past was not as great as might be expected. Instead, this distance was mediated by the stories they had heard about their familial experiences during the communist era. Consequently, many had formed clear views about the communist past, illustrating the importance of broader sociocultural context in influencing the museum experience [69
]. However, the director of the Civic Academy Foundation argued that many young Romanians have formed a very selective view of communism:
There are many who are nostalgic; they discuss with their parents, with their grandparents who forget to tell them the negative side of communism. Many only remember the fact that…everybody had a job, and everybody had a house, but they forget to also explain what that house meant and what that job meant; they don’t know that you were constrained by them. Ultimately there was no freedom of movement and there was the fact that you were allocated a job and you didn’t know where you would end up. You might have to move from Satu Mare [a town in the northwest of Romania] to Constanţa [a town in the far east of the country] and you had to leave your family. They’re not told this, so they see only one side of the story—where there’s certainty about tomorrow.
(Ioana Boca, Interview)
This form of intergenerational transmission of knowledge about a traumatic past has been termed “postmemory” by Hirsch [70
]. She argues that the generation born after a period of collective trauma can form an emotionally powerful body of knowledge about past events that is so vivid as to equate to personal memories. Such postmemories are predominantly transmitted within the family in the space of the home [72
]. The young people in this study had developed a range of understandings of the communist past which, in some cases, corresponded to postmemories; however, not all of these second-hand memories of communism were framed around traumatic experiences. In some cases, individual families may have had an easier time under communism leading to more positive memories. In other cases, these students had encountered their grandparents’ nostalgic recollections of the communist era which had shaped their understanding of the recent past. Indeed, Wildschut et al. [73
] have argued that nostalgia can also be transmitted intergenerationally.
In addition to the stories about communism that these students had heard from their parents and grandparents, another important consideration is their personal experiences of life in the post-communist period. In particular, many expressed disappointment or disillusionment with their current lives and prospects. Only one-third felt that the post-communist present was better than the communist period, and more than half had mixed views about the present compared with the communist past. Their experiences were framed and juxtaposed against the stories they had heard from their parents and grandparents about the perceived certainties of communism. Many spoke about life in contemporary Romania as a struggle. For example, Vica (visiting group) argued the following: “It seems to me that now, compared to the communist period, is a disaster. We have everything that we need but at the same time we don’t have the money to buy even what we need or what we want”. Similarly, Bran (non-visiting group) claimed that he had “much more freedom, without all those restrictions but with an empty pocket”. Others spoke of the difficulties of finding a job or accommodation, again framed against their understanding of the communist era. Didi (visiting group) pointed out: “many young people finish their studies and they don’t have a job; there are rather few jobs compared with the communist period”. Amir (visiting group) argued: “from the point of view of work, you no longer have a guaranteed job. You’ve got to fight with 1000 other people for the same post…and it depends on the acquaintances that you have, and work experience and so on”. Others highlighted the difficulties of securing accommodation. Nica (visiting group) stated:
One example would be the fact that after working for a while, not long, my grandparents were given an apartment. As for us, we don’t know if we’ll ever have one…today we’ll have to go to the bank. You’ll have to pay back the bank for your whole life to be able to buy an apartment or a house.
Some participants expressed dissatisfaction with broader aspects of contemporary life. Hara (visiting group) drew attention to the general disorder and upheaval that characterized the present: “there’s no longer any order. It’s a total chaos”. Some expressed disillusionment with capitalism, such as Lola (visiting group) who lamented: “these days nobody pays any attention to anything—except money”. Others questioned the state of Romania’s post-communist democracy, such as Iris (visiting group) who claimed: “I for one don’t believe that my vote counts in the sense that I consider that all of them, all that political system, they choose among themselves. I don’t believe that my vote counts”.
These sorts of view indicate how students cannot avoid making comparisons between their contemporary experiences and the pervasive stories of life under communism that had been recounted within their families [27
]. This does not necessarily mean an idealization of the communist past, nor a nostalgia for communism. Most of these young people did not appear to think that the communist era was better. Indeed, they were universally aware of the restrictions on freedom of expression and movement that characterized the communist regime, but many appeared to consider that their everyday lives were not obviously better than those under communism (as they understood it). They recognized that the organization of everyday life could be different from their own experiences which are predominantly characterized by uncertainty. Many of these students were attracted by the possibility of a life with more certainty, but the only example of which they had knowledge was the Romanian communist period.
What this means is that these young people were far from ignorant about the communist past when they visited Sighet Memorial Museum. While they had relatively little interest in the communist period, their wider understandings of the recent past will have mediated the way that they interacted with, and interpreted, the museum’s presentation of communist-era trauma. As Hamber [36
] notes, visitors do not uncritically absorb the messages of memorial museums but instead construct their own meanings [69
], in this case drawing from other sources of trusted knowledge about the past. Among some of those who had visited, the museum’s presentations were not able to overturn stories and narratives received and transmitted within the family. This illustrates how a museum established as part of a transitional justice project does not have a monopoly on the presentation of past trauma and instead is effectively in competition with other narratives and sources of knowledge about that past [27
While these young people had a wide body of background knowledge about the communist regime, this was mostly confined to issues of everyday life as experienced by their parents and grandparents. They had heard much less (if anything) within their families about the human rights abuses committed by the communist regime. Sighet Memorial Museum was established in order to highlight these abuses and to underline the criminality of the communist regime. To explore further whether visiting the museum had influenced the way these young people thought about the communist past the focus group participants were asked if they thought that communism was a criminal system. The responses were coded into the categories of “yes”, “no”, and “ambivalent” and are presented in Table 3
Overall, over half of the students agreed with the question for a range of reasons. Some highlighted the human rights abuses committed by the communist regime. For example, Rubi (visiting group) contended: “I think it was a criminal system because many people suffered, some even died”. Didi (visiting group) stated: “yes, because it was based in large part on the control of the people and the elimination of those who opposed them”. Similarly, Fifi (non-visiting group) claimed: “it was certainly a criminal regime and a regime which imposed itself through brutality, in the course of which many people died”. Other students highlighted restrictions on the freedom of expression. For example, Vova (visiting group) stated: “they didn’t allow people to form their own opinions”, a point echoed by Bobi (visiting group): “people could be free in thought, but not in expression”. These responses indicate that, whatever positive views they may have heard from their families, these students recognized the repressive nature of the communist regime.
However, a minority of the students were again ambivalent. Some drew a distinction between the ideals of communism and the way it was put into practice in Romania. For example, Tedi (visiting group) argued: “on paper, communism seems to me the most ideal political system, but it can’t be interpreted in such a totalitarian way. Communism in Romania (as in the other countries) was taken to the extreme”. Gino (also in the visiting group) expressed a similar view: “I don’t think that communism in itself, namely the ideas that it has, the ideology and all that, is a criminal system, but the way in which it was put into practice, yes”. Iris (non-visiting group) echoed this point: “I don’t think the system itself was criminal, as much as the people who lead that system and their mania for persecution”. Other students were uncertain about the nature of the communist regime. For example, Mama (non-visiting group) stated: “I can’t say that it was a criminal regime because nobody from that time was condemned for crimes against humanity undertaken in the name of communism or by the communist order, but categorically it was a restrictive and closed regime because you didn’t have freedom of speech”.
A small number of students (mostly in the non-visiting group) did not accept that communism was a criminal system. For example, Anda (non-visiting group) stated: “no, it wasn’t criminal, but it was a closed system”. Others were prepared to defend the actions of the communist leadership. Lulu (non-visiting group) contended:
I don’t think that it was a criminal system because...for example, Ceauşescu didn’t want bad for the country and before the revolution erupted he did everything possible to pay the [foreign] debt and for Romania to remain without debt, and I think that he wanted the best for the country, even if it was strict.
A Chi-square test indicated that there was no statistically significant difference in the responses of the visiting and non-visiting group (X2 = 0, p > 0.05, “ambivalent” and “no” categories combined). There were no differences between the two groups in the examples used to illustrate their views. In particular, the group that had visited the museum was not more likely to refer to issues of imprisonment or persecution within their responses. As noted above, most of those who did not accept the criminality of the communist system were in the non-visiting group; however, the museum did not persuade all those who visited of the criminality of the communist regime, and some drew a distinction between the concept and the practice of communism. These findings again indicate that, despite the museum’s rhetorical presentation of communism, many of these young people were free-thinking critical agents who were able to come to their own conclusions about the nature of the communist regime.
Transitional justice is underpinned by the notion of “never again”, i.e., that learning about past violence will prevent it recurring in the future [36
]. Therefore, memorial museums which interpret political violence are as much about provoking reflection on the present and future as they are about the past [13
]. Indeed, this was explicitly recognized by the museum’s founder who argued: “I have always said that the Memorial is not a path to the past, but to the present and future because the first problem is to understand, to understand communism, so that we can identify its remnants in today’s society” (Ana Blandiana, interview).
To investigate whether visitors to the museum had reflected on the relationships between the past, present and future the focus group participants were asked if there was a possibility that Romania could experience communism again. Table 4
presents a summary of responses, again coded as “yes”, “no”, or “ambivalent”.
Some students considered that a return to a period of repression was possible, although responses tended to be focused around the claim that “anything might happen” rather than a conviction that Romania could return to communism; however, almost three-quarters of the participants did not think that Romania would again experience communist repression while, once again, a minority were ambivalent. There was no statistically significant difference between the visiting and non-visiting groups (Fisher’s exact test, p
> 0.05, “no” and “ambivalent” categories combined). There was a difference in the nature of the responses given by those who had, and had not, visited the museum. The visiting group showed evidence of understanding and reflection about the difference between Romania under communism and Romania today. For example, Zena stated: “I don’t think that we could ever arrive again in communism. I am of the view that we’ve evolved and it would be impossible to make the same mistakes”. This idea was echoed by Manu who argued: “I don’t think so, because Romania has learnt from the mistakes which it made in the past”. A related point was the importance of learning from the experiences of those who had lived through communist rule. For example, Rubi claimed the following:
I don’t think that the communist period could return, principally because the mentality of people is different, especially that our parents lived in that period and it was something negative for them. But us, we’ve grown up with what they’ve taught us, and no, I don’t think that it could be repeated.
A similar argument about how young Romanians were different from their parents was made by Mimi: “I don’t think that we could return to communism, especially since half the population didn’t live in that period and young people are much freer, they have completely different ideas compared with our parents and grandparents”. Bebe made a different form of comparison between the past and present:
I don’t think it would still be possible—at least not from the perspective of today’s Romanians, I don’t think that they would tolerate such a period… at least they have the right to choose through a free vote the political system that they want. There were laws in the communist period, there are laws today, but today human rights are respected, and the right to choose their own leader.
Conversely, those who had not visited the museum tended to argue in more general terms that Romania was unlikely to return to communism. Simi argued the following: “I don’t think so…well, because people have changed, and I don’t think that we’ll arrive back where we started”. Tata based his argument on Romania’s membership of the EU: “However long I live, I’m 100% convinced that we won’t see communism again in Romania. Why? Because we’re in the European Union and those in Brussels would not let such a thing happen”. Lulu claimed: “I agree that Romania won’t return to that regime because it would be too radical a change, and people wouldn’t agree with it…they would take to the streets to protest”.
Here, there is evidence of the impact of visiting the museum. Many of those who had visited appeared to have developed a fuller and more nuanced understanding of communist repression which enabled them to reflect more fully on differences between the past and present. Many were able to make comparisons between communist and post-communist Romania in terms of human rights and freedoms. They also recognized communism as a reference point against which to judge the present, whilst also acknowledging the importance of learning from the past. The encounter with the museum had also shaped the way that they thought about the future [13
]. As a result of the reflection and memorywork which they had undertaken they were convinced that Romania would never return to the extreme form of political order that communism represented.
3.2. The Broader Role of the Museum within Post-Communist Transitional Justice
As noted above, memorial museums are not only about the past, but they also speak about (and to) the present and future. Therefore, in addition to their role in memorializing the violence of the past, museums can also contribute to broader transitional justice processes of democratization. As Sodaro [13
] (p. 4) argues, memorial museums aim to instill in their visitors an understanding of, and appreciation for, democratic values “by demonstrating the violence that results from the lack of these values”. In this way, memorial museums have the potential to be “performances of democracy” [10
] (p. 14). Moreover, previous research has indicated that visiting a memorial museum can increase support for democratic institutions [44
The activists behind Sighet Memorial Museum clearly envisaged a role for the museum in strengthening democracy in post-communist Romania. The museum’s founder argued the following:
In terms of the rule of law, yes, it’s clear that the Museum is a place in which… you can understand what happens if there is no rule of law; if the law is no longer law, if hypocrisy or simply the interests of certain people can annihilate everything around them.
(Ana Blandiana, interview)
Similarly, the director of the Fundaţia Academia Civică, which manages the museum, contended the following:
If you want to understand Romania today you need to visit the Memorial, because if we don’t understand what happened to us, I don’t think that we can head into the future…I think that it’s important (especially for young people) to understand how important are democratic values and the rule of law, and how easily they can be lost if you’re not careful and if you don’t defend them.
(Ioana Boca, interview)
To explore this issue in more detail, the focus group participants were asked for their views about the role of Sighet Memorial Museum within broader processes of transitional justice in Romania. Students were asked firstly if they considered that the museum could contribute to post-communist democratization in Romania. In addition, they were asked for their views on whether the museum could contribute to healing the memories of communist repression. Again, the responses of the visiting group have been reported elsewhere [27
] and in this analysis we are adding the perspective of the non-visiting group. The views of the students (again coded as “yes”, “no”, and “ambivalent”) are summarized in Table 5
Although over half the participants agreed that the museum had a role in the consolidation of democracy in Romania, opinions were mixed, and a significant minority of the participants disagreed or were ambivalent. There was no statistically significant difference in responses of the visiting and non-visiting groups (X2 = 3.37, 1 df, p > 0.05, “no” and “ambivalent” categories combined). Whether or not they had visited, those who considered that the museum could contribute to post-communist democratization tended to focus on its role in in presenting visitors with the actions of a regime which represented the very opposite of democracy. For example, Cara (visiting group) stated: “We already know what happened and we can avoid the same things and getting in such a situation [again]”. Similarly, Dina (non-visiting group) claimed: “Yes, I think it can contribute, because that museum is actually an expression of the opposite of democracy and then people can see how it was, and what consequences it had”. Iubi (non-visiting group) contended that the museum “shows us what people then didn’t have, the things which they couldn’t enjoy or experience, in comparison with what happens today. We have the right to vote, to freedom, to free expression regardless of what your opinion is”.
Other participants were more skeptical. Aria (visiting group) argued: “to be able to change democracy it [the museum] needs a bigger impact”, a point echoed by Gigi (visiting group) who stated that: “it can’t be only this museum. It would need something else”. A more pessimistic view was expressed by Tata (non-visiting group): “My response is no, because no museum in the world can contribute to the consolidation of a democracy. In order to consolidate a democracy we need to contribute, the people, the state itself. Or if a museum (whatever it is) can contribute, it can contribute very, very little”.
Memorialization projects are seen as having a key role to play in the establishment of a democratic culture [11
]; however, the young people here (whether or not they had visited) had mixed views about the role of a memorial museum within broader processes of transitional justice and a significant minority were unconvinced about the museum’s contribution to democratization. This is not to say that museums cannot contribute to processes such as democratization, but rather that its role was not always obvious for this group of young people.
The participants were also asked if the museum could contribute to healing painful memories of the communist era (see Table 4
). As reported elsewhere [27
] very few of those who had visited the museum considered that the museum could contribute in this way. The non-visiting group responded in a similar way and there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups (Fisher’s exact test, p
> 0.05, “no” category excluded). For example, Iubi (non-visiting group) argued: “I don’t think either that this sort of memorial museum can heal painful memories because what happened—the events—are kept in the memory of those who lived and I don’t think it’s possible to heal the memories through the establishment of a museum”. A more nuanced response was given by Fifi (non-visiting group) who contended: “I believe that [painful] memories can’t be healed but they can be eased through the fact that the people who died there are remembered”.
While it is claimed that memorial museums can contribute to healing through acts of remembrance [12
], these students (whether or not they had visited) were unconvinced that Sighet Museum had such a role in healing the painful memories of the communist era. Instead, its role in healing was largely confined to providing comfort (and possibly closure [28
]) for the relatives of those who had been imprisoned in Sighet. This perhaps indicates a recognition that the extent of the trauma experienced by those who had lived through communism was such that a museum could make little contribution to social healing. However, it should be noted here that older people with direct experience and memories of the communist era might think in a different way about what a memorial museum can contribute to healing.
Sighet Memorial Museum interprets a period of history which ended more than 30 years ago. This raises the issue of the timescale of transitional justice projects, and specifically how long a memorial museum will remain relevant to its various users. Certainly, the key stakeholders associated with the museum were convinced that the museum continued to be relevant for Romanians. When asked if there was still a need for the museum 30 years after the fall of communism, a former detainee argued the following:
Certainly there is, there is…and after 50 years and after 100 years there will still be a need for this museum, because if we don’t keep it [the communist period] in mind, we could return to where we were 30 years ago. We need to know the past; the past needs to be continually kept in mind, because if you don’t know the past, you don’t know what you need to do in the future.
(Ioan Ilban, interview)
The museum’s founder also spoke of the long-term role of the museum but recognized that its role would change over time:
Paradoxically, I think that as time passes, these testimonies about a fairly long period of history (the traces of which I hope will over time be erased from our history) will be interesting and will exist, and will continue to be visited, just as archaeological sites and classic museums continue to be visited.
(Ana Blandiana, interview)
Both interviews highlighted the importance of long-term remembrance of the human rights abuses of the communist era as a reminder to present and future generations. Both the visiting and non-visiting groups of students were also asked if there was still a need for Sighet Memorial Museum 30 years after the fall of communism. Their responses are presented in Table 6
As Table 6
shows, there was general agreement that there was a continued need for Sighet Memorial Museum. As reported elsewhere [27
], the visiting group members were unanimous in this regard, and very similar views were reported by the non-visiting group members (with the only uncertain responses being among this group). The difference between the groups was not statistically significant (Fisher’s exact test, p
> 0.05, “no” and “ambivalent” categories combined) and, whether or not they had visited, these young people clearly recognized the importance of memorial museums as instruments of remembrance. As such, their views were aligned with those of the museum’s key stakeholders. The focus group responses were focused on two issues. The first was the importance for present and future generations to know about what happened in the communist period [27
]. For example, Papa (non-visiting group) highlighted the importance of the museum for his generation: “There’s a need for the museum because it shows us
, those who weren’t alive at the time, the things that happened, and it can make us think about what happened and reflect on those things”. Others highlighted the importance of the museum for future generations, such as Bera (non-visiting group), who stated: “It’s important, especially because the generations who will follow won’t be able to find out (in the same way that we did, by being told by people who lived in that period) about what happened”. A second type of response focused on honoring those who suffered under communism but, significantly, this was only mentioned by those who had visited the museum. For example, Didi (visiting group) stated that “it’s important in order to see how many people suffered so that we can have what we have today”.
These responses indicate that, while many of these young people were unconvinced about the museum’s role within broader processes of transitional justice, they fully understood the importance of remembrance. Furthermore, even if they had not visited, they recognized the museum’s role in this regard. Once again, they were engaging with the temporal frame of remembrance within transitional justice [36
] and they understood that the museum was a resource for (and about) the future as much as being about the past [13