“From ‘Hooligans’ to #REZIST” by Ruxandra Ceșereanu, translated from the Romanian by Gabi Reigh

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This photo and those below–Cluj protests, Ruxandra Cesereanu

In this extract from her journal, the poet and prose writer Ruxandra Cesereanu documents her experiences of the #Rezist protests that took place in Romania between 2017-2019. If you want to learn more about these anti-corruption protests and the recent referendum that brought them to their conclusion, read translator Gabi Reigh’s article in openDemocracy.

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In December 1989 in Romania, the crowds spilling into the streets chanted: ‘We will die and we will be free!’ In the infant days of post-Communism in 1990, during the anti- government demonstrations in Piața Universității in Bucharest, the protesters, described by the president as ‘hooligans’, answered back: ‘We are not going home, the dead will not let us!’.

They were paying tribute to those lost in the 1989 revolution and spoke of the umbilical, moral tie between the people in the streets in 1990 and those who had died a year earlier.

In February 2017 and during the demonstrations in 2018-2019, the atmosphere in the street was no longer sentimental or idealistic, but tinged with irony, almost a self-conscious sense of parody and cynicism, yet maintaining nevertheless its witty playfulness. The hyperbolic, impassioned slogans of 1989 and 1990 had disappeared. Language was stripped of emotion and replaced with a more measured, direct message.

All of the protesters’ aims and purposes became united in one word: #REZIST. Here in Cluj (in Piața Unirii and in the marches that periodically begin there and spread through the whole town), just like in Timișoara, Sibiu and Piața Victoriei or Piața Universității in Bucharest (as well as in many other towns, but I mention these in particular because the demonstrations always attract high numbers of participants), the protesters have always felt their cause to be legitimised by that bond with the past, the marathon demonstration in Piața Universității from 1990.

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The name REZIST in itself was not chosen by accident. It is a word that has a special resonance in our recent history, bringing to mind the shared memory of the ‘resistance from the mountains’. This legendary anti-Communist resistance movement, active from the beginnings of Communism in 1945 and lasting till the 1960s, was one of the most enduring in the whole of the Soviet bloc.

Small armed groups, sometimes calling themselves ‘hajduks’ (with another nod to our past freedom fighters) were reported to have taken refuge in the Carpathian mountains. #REZIST is a variation on this ‘resistance from the mountains’ movement, adapted to a new context, where the live ammunition has been replaced by linguistic ‘ammunition’, sonorously chanted slogans, graffiti and a sea of carnivalesque placards.

Yet at the end of the day, to resist means the same thing–not to be lobotomised, not to remain passive.

Perhaps one thing that can be said about all the crowds that gathered in the streets, from 1990 till today, is that they became a symbolic parliament that took its seat in the open air, in Romania’s public squares.

The demonstrations from 2017 to 2019 were not merely a denouncement of the pervasive corruption in the country as a whole, but an attempt to purge it and to give warning: Whoever will rule the country–now and in the future–will be held accountable for their actions. Because we live in irresponsible times and this lack of accountability is ingrained in our political system at every level.

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There is an equilibrium of seriousness and irony that defines these protests, evident as much in the recent ones from 2017-2019 as in the earlier ones from 1990.

Something that has remained constant in these gatherings is a spirit of satirical subversion, a jaunty, jovial atmosphere. It is the palpable joy of young people (because the majority of these protesters are young) who have been glued together by the need to see a change of mentality in their country and find themselves speaking the same language. The placards and slogans might change, but the spirit of parody persists.

The mockery breeds energy– it is not merely a case of laughing through tears.

My hope is that these young people have learned an important civic lesson from their protests. For those of them who did not vote in 2016 (because they were disillusioned or for any other reasons), these marches through the streets signified a belated, metaphorical vote, an assumption of responsibility and acceptance of the fact that whether they like it or not, they are Romanian, they were born here and this is where their life is (for the time being, anyway).

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Ruxandra Cesereanu is professor at the Faculty of Letters (Department of Comparative Literature) in Cluj, member of the staff of the Center for Imagination Studies (Phantasma) and director of the Creative Writing Workshops on poetry, prose and movie scripts. She is well known for producing major research and critical monographs, with eight books of non-fiction: Panopticon. Political Torture in the 20th Century (2001, 2014); The Violent Imaginary of the Romanians (2003, 2015); December ’89. Deconstruction of a Revolution (2004, 2009); The Gulag Reflected in Romanian Consciousness. About Literature and Memories of Communist Prisons and Camps (1998, 2005, 2018); Romanian Bad Habits (2007); GOURMET. Céline, Bulgakov, Cortázar, Rushdie (2009); Weird Library (2010); and The Fugitives – Escapes from Prisons and Camps in the Twentieth Century (2016).

She has also published eight books of poetry and seven books of fiction, ten of which have been translated in English, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian.

 

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Gabi Reigh’s translations and fiction have been published in Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today and The Fortnightly Review. She has won the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation and was shortlisted for the Tom-Gallon Society of Authors short story award. She is currently engaged in a translation project called Interbellum Series focusing on works from the Romanian interwar period: Poems of Light by Lucian Blaga was published in 2018 and The Town with Acacia Trees and Women by Mihail Sebastian are forthcoming. She is working on a translation of Danse Macabre (originally Ciuleandra), by Liviu Rebreanu. Read Gabi’s poem about the Romanian revolution here.