Een kennismaking met de openbare archieven van Roemenië. Tussen persoonlijke familiegeschiedenis en collectieve geschiedenis
Archives are related to history, memory, and the creation of meaning. In the context of post-communist Romania, getting access to and studying the archives of communism are highly relevant to help us understand the recent history of the region, including those events that a lot of people would like to be/have forgotten. As someone born in 1989, the year of the Revolution and the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, I am looking for my own answers in both state and private archives about the trauma the city of Bucharest suffered during communism, while also wanting to retrace personal family histories. This is an account of my first encounter with the archives of several public institutions and my preliminary observations on them.
Archieven zijn onlosmakelijk verbonden met geschiedenis, geheugen en zingeving. In het postcommunistische Roemenië is het cruciaal om toegang te verkrijgen tot de archieven van het communisme om de recente geschiedenis van de regio te kunnen bestuderen en begrijpen. Gebeurtenissen die velen graag liever vergeten (zouden zien), vallen daar ook onder. Aangezien 1989 niet enkel mijn geboortejaar is, maar ook het jaar van de revolutie en de val van de Roemeense dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, zoek ik mijn eigen antwoorden in zowel staats- als particuliere archieven over het trauma dat Boekarest heeft opgelopen tijdens het communisme. Tegelijkertijd wil ik ook persoonlijke familiegeschiedenissen terugvinden. Dit is een verslag van mijn eerste kennismaking met de archieven van verschillende openbare instellingen en mijn verkennende beschouwingen hierover.
Studying photographs of Bucharest during communism (1945-1989), in both public and private archives, is a waystation in my ongoing artistic research on the image of the city in photography and literature during this period. This research began in 2018 with my doctoral project entitled Bucharest. The City with One Inhabitant. The City-Me, which blends contemporary Romanian literature and the archival study of photographic objects with my own exploration of the city through photography, sound recordings, and diary texts. The title of the project is inspired by two Romanian authors, one of them quoting the other. Mircea Cărtărescu refers in an interview to one of Matei Vișniec’s poetry volumes: ‘Vișniec has once named one of his poetry books The City with One Inhabitant. This is how I always felt about Bucharest – as my city, even more so, the city-me.’1 I look at my own relationship with Bucharest in a similar way – that me and the city that I am trying to portray and understand are one element or that the ratio is 1:1. The Bucharest I am looking at through photography, sound, and text is much more than the ‘objective city’; it is equally the city that I inhabit and the one that inhabits me.
The search for the truth
For someone who was born in Bucharest on the verge of a huge political change, not only in Romania but in the whole neighbouring area known as the Eastern Bloc, December 1989 was a moment in our recent history that was very much discussed and at the same time not discussed enough. There are still events that have not been fully unearthed or consciously processed at a collective level since the fall of Ceaușescu. At least when I grew up, everyone had this oral knowledge passed on through family and personal stories about how easily people and buildings would just disappear overnight and how this became part of everyday life. Once you took the time to dissect these stories, they appeared to be both surreal and banal because everyone knew of or lived through something similar. But this was never a subject we learned much about in school. In primary and secondary school, the 1989 Revolution was the last lesson in our history book. It was always planned for the end of the school year, and since we were mostly behind, we would never actually get to it. Our manuals dedicated between half a page and a maximum of two pages to this crucial event in our recent history. This happened to my class several times, even though I went to different schools. I have always wondered why this was the case.
During my latest visit to Bucharest, I started studying the not-yet-digitized photographs of Bucharest from the Romanian National Archives, which have been made public only since 2007 with the launch of the project Fototeca online a comunismului românesc (The Online Photo Library of Romanian Communism).2 The communist period which interests me the most, was kept under a slumber of secrecy for the longest possible time. People who were active in the Party back then would’ve liked for certain things to remain buried, especially since many remained in positions of power, while it was a few dissidents who wanted transparency and justice at a collective level, and not just closing the books and pretending the atrocities the communists and their allies committed were a thing of the past.
The historian Marius Oprea claims that the need for truth ignited the recovery action of the archives after nearly half a century under communist repression.3 The first twenty years after the Revolution have been a struggle for historians in getting access to the archival fund of communism, and some of them were fighting to define a legal framework for access and research. During this time, the general public also became interested in consulting this fund, and especially the photographic material, since this was not possible during communism. Between 1951 and 1996, the former State Archives were safeguarded by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and, in 2009, a part of the inventory of Files-Annexes from the fund of the Romanian Communist Party (1950-1989) became accessible for study and research. The Ministry of Internal Affairs was also one of the six institutions which received a part of the former fund of the Securitate.4
However, I did not start with the scope of delving into the archives of the former Securitate but with a broader idea of what I was looking for, as my main filters were the location (Bucharest) and the time period (1945-1989). During my limited time in Bucharest, my aim was to focus on the ‘margins’ of the photographic archives of communism and discover what was not-yet-digitized and not-yet-included in this online database. I relied on the possibility of chance encounters with historical documents that would reveal some unexpected and valuable information about a period I have never lived in. I was on the lookout for remarkable slices of how life used to be back then. On the website of the Photo Library, it is mentioned and acknowledged that the photographs made during that period were meant as propaganda material. Thus, I expected I would rather find the protocol photographs of the city or of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, and not images of the queues for milk and cooking oil, or of the jam-packed trams that ran while people were hanging outside of them, preventing the doors from closing. But since I wanted to look at the not-yet-digitized material, I still hoped I would catch a glimpse of something unexpected or of something misplaced. Such images of quotidian life in Bucharest are unlikely to be found in official state archives, but rather in the recent disclosure of photographic material coming from private people. In particular, architects and engineers such as Andrei Pandele and Andrei Bîrsan were secretly documenting the streets of Bucharest at that time. However, they only started making their photographs public in the last ten to fifteen years.
Most of the images I encountered in the public archives were indeed the protocol ones: images of Ceaușescu shaking hands with other world leaders; images of the beloved reigning couple waving at exalted crowds cheering for them; images of joyous national festivities, of prosperity, of admiration and sympathy for the communist leader and the Communist Party; images of Ceaușescu redefining the cityscape of Bucharest, while using the earthquake in 1977 as a pretext for demolition and the restructuring of the main power axes of the city; images of him looking at blueprints and maquettes, pointing left and right with his wand to indicate what needed to stay and what needed to disappear. This was the beginning of overnight demolitions, evictions, and displacements; of getting an unexpected phone call that you needed to pack your things and that you would be reassigned elsewhere because your house was standing in the way of his imagined Future. My family went through this twice, at two different addresses. The first time when they lived somewhat central, at an intersection with the current Dacia Boulevard, and the second time with a house they had in the Uranus neighbourhood. The latter was one of the two neighbourhoods (Uranus-Antim-Rahova) that were completely erased in the 1980s to make space for Ceaușescu’s palace, also known as the People’s Palace, the current building of the Parliament.
The photographs in the National Archives are archived not by topic, not by period, or location, but by their size. From small to large formats, like I organize my sock drawer. During my visits, I looked at 3,546 handwritten descriptions in records of only the first format. Reading all these descriptions from maybe thirty to fifty years ago – or even longer – made my imagination go wild, envisioning what the photographs could look like. The sensibility of the archivist was reflected in their descriptions, and I relied on every single word they wrote down to figure out whether the photographs could be relevant for me. I was exalted when I saw the word ‘București’ (Bucharest) and every year between 1945 and 1989. I never realized that archives could increase your heartbeat.
I also found surprising pictures seemingly unrelated to what I was looking for, such as a few photographs of my favourite church in the city, Stavropoleos, built in 1724. I do not know when they were taken but, by their condition, I would guess the late 1800s or the beginning of the 1900s. Another one shows people queuing to buy sweets in London, with an accompanying note in English, typewritten in light blue ink. The description indicates that the people in the image were queuing to buy sweets after the rations were abolished. How did this record turn up in the Romanian National Archives? What was its trajectory before it ended up here? Since the note dated from 1949, I assume Londoners were experiencing post-Second World War rations, and not the same kind of rations as in communist Romania in the 1980s, which marked the beginning of nearly a decade of penury and hunger. The grocery stores (Alimentara) were almost empty, and queuing for food became something of ‘a national sport’, as the Romanian historian Lucian Boia describes it.5 For people living in the well-known residential building blocks typical of the period, winter in the city meant no heating nor running water and regular electricity shortages. And this was a daily reality. Most Romanians had gotten used to living under communism and their complaints were not so much related to ideology, but to the economy and the lack of basic resources, while they were supporting a huge industry of steel and cement. As Boia further explains: ‘The Romanian economy during communism crashed under its own weight: Too much steel, too much cement! Too much utopia!’6 Romanians endured until it was no longer possible, hence the outburst and blood bath in December 1989. This was atypical for the entire region, as the transition of the other formerly socialist countries to democracies happened mostly peacefully.7
The only weapon and form of alternative discourse that remained unaltered and even thrived during those sombre years was humour:
Oh, Romania, sad country full of humour!
O, țară tristă, plină de umor!8
Boia even traces back Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco’s9 contribution to world literature and the Theatre of the Absurd to his Romanian roots. He further claims that the classic dose of absurdity in our daily existence was only exacerbated by communism, but present already, nonetheless.10
The archives and their voice
Sometimes, there were markings or notes written on these photographs, giving glimpses of someone else’s interpretation of what is depicted or where and when they were taken. Most of these scribbles and observations date back to the pre-internet age, when the sole expertise that mattered belonged to those doing the archiving at that moment, which included their knowledge and interpretation of the visual information. Sometimes there are question marks or the word ‘neidentificată’ (unidentified) next to the description indicating that the archivists were also speculating and/or second-guessing themselves. Hence, this information is not definitive, and alterations or updates might still occur once another archivist engages with the same material.
In an interview with Dr. Ecaterina Lung, historian Florin Țurcanu explains that, despite the mythology around truth and archival material, the archives do not have a voice of their own, but their truth is reliant on the historian who interprets them, on their expertise and moral responsibility.11 Țurcanu refers to the period 1990-2006, when there was a long public debate about opening the relevant archives of communism to the public. People were hungry for the truth because of the culture of secrecy developed and entertained during Ceaușescu’s regime. Back then, only a select few historians were allowed to access certain archival funds that would be in service of the ideology. This culture of secrecy remained in place long after Ceaușescu, nourishing both fascination and frustration with the archives even after 1989.
Țurcanu further adds that there is also a general misconception regarding the ‘pure truth’ that archives are able to convey about the past once they are available to us. He claims that a concept such as ‘the truth of the archives’ does not exist, and it is only through the mediation of experts, like historians, that we are able to understand and analyse the content of the archives. Without them we are lost in speculation or can fall into other traps, like media sensationalism.12
I had a similar realisation once I actually gained access to the public archives and decided to look into their fringes and not into what has already been digitized, ordered, and processed by experts. There was a feeling of being lost and not being able to approach the material like a historian or an expert. Going into the archives as an artist with a certain connection and curiosity towards a period I have never lived in made me wonder whether I should even try and convey any sort of big truth. Is it then acceptable for artists to look for something else than the truth in archives? Is generating other narratives based on factual material a valuable epistemological alternative to the question that archives raise?
In the same interview with Lung, Țurcanu also mentions the precarious state and inadequate conditions of some Romanian archives.13 Behind this is a lack of proper resources, but also a certain callousness, indifference, or negligence towards the preciousness and fragility of these documents by the staff working there. This is an attitude I witnessed myself during some of the visits. During his thirty years of working with archives, Țurcanu has also noticed positive changes in the administration of public archives in Romania, but he believes that ‘digitising them is the first step in their preservation and making them accessible to the public in an efficient and proper manner’.14
The power of the anecdotal
When the archivists did not recognize what was in the photographs, they described what they saw and wrote it down in the records. Everything was handwritten, which adds an aesthetic element to the experience of looking at the archival material. Sometimes I had to get used to the handwriting and find the patterns in their twirls and curls. The different handwritings and types of pens used also indicate a layering of history through the several interventions on the photographs. When I asked one of the current archivists from the City Hall if they could help me figure out what was written in one of the files, they replied: ‘What don’t you understand? Can’t you see it is written in Romanian?’ Then they started reading it aloud up to the point when they also got stuck and said: ‘I cannot really see with these glasses. That is why I cannot read it.’ And then they put the file back. Case closed.
Besides what I can find in the archives as visual material, I am also interested in people’s attitudes towards the archives nowadays. How the archivists treat the material, how the documents are preserved and stored, and how the visitors going there to study them are being treated. I believe in the power of the anecdotal and, therefore, I capture overheard conversations between researchers, archivists in different situations to reveal these different attitudes and dynamics emerging from the interactions between the archival material, institutions, and researchers, which are otherwise not documented. To me, contextual events are as important as the archive itself: e.g. hearing documents being torn or just being laid down on the floor; noticing the amazement when handling the documents with care; the decision-making process of the archivists, librarians, or people behind the scenes who are filtering, tracing, and moving the material from one location to another. I appear to be a somewhat mysterious figure that the archivists cannot figure out. I also doubt how open I should be about what exactly I am looking for and whether I should ask for more help. But it also depends on the archivists and how transparent, involved, and helpful they are willing to be.
So far, I have visited three types of public institutions that own archives: the National Archives, the City Hall of Bucharest, and the Architecture University Library. Each of them has different degrees of accessibility, procedures, openness, or even paranoia15 directed towards the visitors/researchers, while they also have distinct manners of handling the archival material. I was shocked when I was advised to open a folded floorplan of a building and just lay it down on the floor. The archivist noticed my hesitation and reassured me that the floor was clean. I also heard paper being torn when she was refolding that same floorplan. Another employee loudly whispered to one of her colleagues: ‘Look, this girl is scared of me. Look at how delicate she is with that file.’ I asked her if she meant me. She admitted to it and said in an amused manner: ‘Yes. Look at how careful you are with the files.’ I replied: ‘Well, yes, because they are documents!’ She seemed clearly impressed and added: ‘Indeed. If only everyone would be like that.’ But among the archivists, I have also found help, guidance, and benevolence as some of them allowed me to stay longer to consult the material, precisely because it was for research and because I do not permanently reside in Bucharest.
Recovering family histories
The current thread I am pulling is leading me further to discover and piece together the history of our family houses in Bucharest. I went looking for maps, blueprints, documents, and I also hoped to find pictures of the three family houses at the archives of the City Hall. However, all traces of the house from the Uranus neighbourhood completely disappeared. From conversations with family members, it also became apparent that there is no way of retracing its history, surely not in official state documents. This is partly due to the several waves of destruction inflicted upon the archives after 1989 or their scattering among several institutions, which makes retracing them a difficult and uneven process. Regarding the former house in the Uranus district, the inheritor of the documents (or their possible traces) lives in Canada and is not in touch with the family in Romania, nor is he interested in retracing the family history of his deceased wife, the initial owner of the house. In this particular case involving former property, only the owner or an inheritor could ask for the history of an address. The information that I collected is mostly oral knowledge from living family members. I only knew the address as being around the intersection of two streets. My mother, who knew the house as a child, was also second-guessing on which side of the street the house used to be. Knowing this information would have helped determine its number by narrowing down the possibilities. The archivist in charge of my file request reassured me that there were no pictures of what the houses looked like, and that it was not customary to take pictures of the construction process nor of the end result – at least not in the type of files they manage. I find it unlikely that there would be none, as I did find photographs in other files I have consulted. Would they have separated the photos from the administrative file?
I was on the lookout for remarkable slices of how life used to be back then.
Another question is: once a house was retroceded after 1990, did the City Hall not preserve copies of the files the owners had?16 Or are they perhaps stored in a different archival fund or different category I did not get to consult? The archivist suggested looking into two archival funds split into two periods: one was before 1914, the other one afterward. We looked at each year between 1914-1988 for the following parameters: the construction year, the name of the owner, and the address I had received from my mother. We did not manage to find any conclusive information or to pursue a new track, but rather closed the current request with more questions than before. I was only able to make three appointments at their archives in the limited period of a month, my last month in Bucharest, and I was only allowed two hours of consultations per week. This meant I had only two hours to look into their digital registers, which were available on a laptop that the archivist brought with them, and then I could request the physical files for next time.
What I did find in their archives is my former childhood home, or at least a few blueprints of the entire architectural complex of building blocks, all identical and set in a row. Among the blueprints, there was also a file with technical requests, authorizations, and other technical descriptions. I hoped to see the name of my grandparents on one of the documents, as they were the owners and even contributed to the construction of these buildings as an engineer (my grandfather) and a technical drafter (my grandmother). Could it be that my grandmother drew some of these plans? There is no signature on them, except that of the architect’s, so I cannot be sure.
But a new path starts to take shape as my mother recently found a file that my grandmother kept about my grandfather’s childhood home on strada Toamnei (Autumn street). In 1988, my grandfather George got a phone call: he was supposed to go and empty the house because it was going to be demolished in order to extend the main boulevard (Dacia). His house and those of other neighbours were standing in the way. Thus, the State expropriated those few houses (through the Decree no. 396/1988), which were private property, and demolished them all. A year later, Ceaușescu and his regime fell. In 1990 (through the Government Decision no. 556/1990, annex 28), my grandfather qualified to receive compensation for the 36 m2 that were expropriated and for 108.36 m2 of built space that was demolished. On 4 April 1991, he received 56,110 Romanian lei as a compensation (today, this would be the equivalent of about 60,835 euros), yet only for the demolished house. On 19 May 1992, he was officially informed that he would receive the property title for the remaining land of 57.80 m2, on which nothing had been built, nor was there any urban planning regarding it. On 24 March 1997, my grandfather opened a legal action for the retrocession of his property rights to the remaining land.
There is a gap between 1992 and 1997 in the file, which was a waiting period until he finally decided to take legal action because the case was not advancing, and its status was murky. He won the case, and the City Hall approved my grandfather’s request on 30 March 1998, which is also my birthday. I was nine then. He effectively got it back on 23 April and sold it on 12 May that same year to the company RICOM SRL.
In the 2000s, a hotel was built on our former land. Each new owner also added a new floor on top of the narrow foundation. It ended up being a four-floor building on the available 63.55 m2. When I passed by this year to visit the area, which is one of my checkpoints when I go back to Bucharest, I saw that the hotel was on sale. I called my mother and said: ‘Should we buy it and build a house instead?’ The restitution circle would then be complete.
Returning. Reconnecting. Rewriting
In my encounters with the several types of archives, I was hoping for something unexpected or unpredictable to happen while I was there. I wanted to find a certain emotional connection to the material. Yet, this happened only when my mother handed me the file that helped me trace an important and traumatic part of our family history. When I found a draft of one of the legal requests handwritten by my grandfather, I could hear his voice. Recently, my mother admitted that her father was devastated by the demolition and was never the same afterwards. During all those years (1990-1998), he had hoped that they would recover the land and be able to build a house on it. I remember that, when I was a child, for a few years we would all go to that small piece of ground and treat it like a garden. We would all plant beans and onions there, but there was never anything to harvest. Or, if there was, the children in the neighbourhood would climb over the fence or grab things through the grid of the fence, and we would never find anything. But we had a ritual of going there every weekend to check on the garden, and it kept the place alive.
Whenever I am in Bucharest, I also return to what once was our garden, and I take a photograph of its current state. It is part of my ritual now. I am also conducting interviews with my mother based on family photographs or specific documents, such as the file she gave me. She acts as the historian/storyteller of our family history as she is the last one who can give meaning to our family archive. These stories, together with parts of our family archive and of the public archives of communism, will be incorporated in my ongoing film entitled Bucharest. The City-Me, composed of a series of short films creating a fragmentary portrait of Bucharest.
The repeated returns to Bucharest and these particular encounters with the public archives have steered my artistic research in a different direction, in which the family album and the photographic archive are novel elements. At their intersection with my own photographs and diary texts, there is a space to analyse the relation between personal family histories and collective history; the relation between the anecdotal, the individual and the universal experience of loss. Despite the individual character of the names of people, streets, and numbers I mentioned above, these are interchangeable elements that mirror the history of so many other families who lived during those times and that make up the collective history of (post-)communist Romania. My project joins the landscape of Romanian contemporary artists concerned with (re)constructing fictional, imaginary, or subjective archives; or using existing archival funds, found footage, family albums, etc. to create a new discourse about the official history and about the role of image production in writing history. Especially in the context of the long secretization of Romania’s past even after 1989, where ideology blurred the lines between truth and falsehood, it is the artists’ responsibility and opportunity to restore the balance by (re)visiting existing archives, documenting oral knowledge, and using the anecdotal to fill in the gaps left by history.
is an artist-researcher working with photography and film, currently living and working in Brussels and Bucharest. After living in different cities in Belgium and the Czech Republic, where she studied Photography and Cultural Studies, she became interested in her hometown, Bucharest, and in her identity as a Romanian living in Europe. This led to her doctoral research project at LUCA School of Arts and KU Leuven, entitled ‘Bucharest. The City with One Inhabitant. The City-Me’, which combines photography, sound, and text.
- Interview in Răsuceanu, Andreea. Bucureștiul literar. Șase posibile lecturi ale orașului / Literary Bucharest. Six Possible Readings of the City. Humanitas, 2016, p. 89. (My own translation) ↩
The Online Photo Library of Romanian Communism was meant as the first and largest online and free database in Romania that provided access to photographs from 1945-1989, but also from 1921-1944. The Romanian National Archives (ANR) and the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism in Romania (IICCR) established a protocol in 2008 for collaborating on this project. At its beginning, the photo library encompassed 1,500 digitized photographs, which would be gradually updated to a total of 10,000 photographs. It currently contains about 5,700 photographs.
Website: Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, www.fototeca.iiccmer.ro. Last consulted on 27 November 2022. ↩
- The first version of the law giving access to one’s own file from the ‘Securitate’ (the Secret Police) was voted in 1999, ten years after the fall of Ceaușescu, the last Romanian communist leader (Law 187/1999). After a tenuous process, an updated version of this law was not passed until 2006. This opened an enormous recovery action and investigation into the files of the former Securitate. In Mihuț, Florica. “From ‘Classifying the Failure’ to ‘Classifying the Past’ – A Talk with Marius Oprea about the Battle against the Strongholds of Secrecy.” Arhive și cunoaștere / Archives and Knowledge. ed. Corina Iosif, Florica (Bohîlțea) Mihuț, Daniela Zaharia, Editura Universității din București, 2020, pp. 111-112. ↩
- The Governmental Decision no. 1134/1992 divided the fund of the former Securitate among six institutions: the Romanian Intelligence Office (SRI), the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the External Intelligence Service, and the Public Ministry. In Mihuț, p. 113. ↩
- Boia, Lucian. De ce este România altfel? Zece ani mai târziu. / Why is Romania Different? Ten Years Later. Humanitas, 2012, 2022, p. 111. ↩
- Boia, p. 115. (My own translation) ↩
- Boia, p. 113. ↩
- Boia, p. 112. (My own translation) ↩
- Ionesco was one of the foremost figures of the French avant-garde theatre, whose anti-plays have contributed to what is known as the Theatre of the Absurd. He is best known for plays like The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve), The Lesson, and The Chairs. ↩
- Boia, p. 88. ↩
- Zaharia, Daniela. “Introduction: Archives and Knowledge in Dialogue.” Arhive și cunoaștere / Archives and Knowledge. ed. Corina Iosif, Florica (Bohîlțea) Mihuț, Daniela Zaharia, Editura Universității din București, 2020, p. 109. ↩
- In Lung, Ecaterina. “The Historian and the Archives. Interview with Professor Florin Țurcanu, from the University of Bucharest.” Arhive și cunoaștere / Archives and Knowledge. ed. Corina Iosif, Florica (Bohîlțea) Mihuț, Daniela Zaharia, Editura Universității din București, 2020, p. 139. ↩
- Ibid., p. 140. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Paranoia may sound like a strong term in this context. However, I do not use it as a figure of speech, but it is a relic of almost fifty years of communism and the existence of the Secret Police. ↩
- The 1990s and the 2000s were marked by the retrocession lawsuits during which people were waiting to receive their former property abusively expropriated by the former communist state. Some of these lawsuits are still ongoing. A high-profile case was the one of King Mihai I, the former king, who was forced to abdicate by the communists in 1947, who then took over and forced him to leave Romania that same year. Only in 2007 was he able to reclaim the Royal Domains of Sinaia and Săvârșin. ↩