10/17/2014 10:49 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Romania: The Revolution Came Too Early

For many dissidents, the revolutions of 1989 did not come soon enough. The great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, one of the original signatories of Charter 77, died in 1977. Other dissidents were already quite old when the changes finally came. The Slovak writer Milan Simecka was able to enjoy life in a free country for less than a year before his death in September 1990.

But in Romania, there was no Charter 77 or Solidarity trade union movement. Only a few intellectuals had come out against the Ceausescu regime, and most ended up in exile as a result. The first real organization of civil society emerged in the first exhilarating days of revolution in December 1989. That was when the Group for Social Dialogue came together: on December 31. There were only 39 original members. And they were unprepared for the rapidly evolving political situation. But if the revolution had come just a little bit later...

Magda Carneci was one of those original members. A young writer and art historian, she had taken a courageous stance against the regime in the summer of 1989.

"During the summer and at the beginning of autumn 1989, when I was a very young writer, I signed a letter together with 17 other young writers in Romania against the regime," she told me in an interview at the Group for Social Dialogue offices in May 2013. "We sent it in a very tortuous way out of Romania, and it was read over the same Radio Free Europe. This caused some problems for us. But surprisingly the problems were not as big as we expected -- because I think that everybody was waiting for something. The political director of my institution demanded that I attend a meeting where I was severely reprimanded. I was threatened with expulsion from my job. But nothing happened finally because it was already November. And then we were waiting and waiting, and the atmosphere was very tense. Calea Victoria, the main route through Bucharest, was blocked. Cars couldn't circulate on it. So there was a siege atmosphere."

When the revolution arrived the following month, the situation remained uncertain in Bucharest up until the famous moment when Ceausescu and his wife left the Communist Party Central Committee building roof by helicopter. During this time, the National Salvation Front (NSF) coalesced as the body to manage the transition away from Communism. Invited to join the NSF, Carneci signed up to work on youth affairs. But it was not long before she stepped down.

"It took me a while to realize that I was entering a strange world with old politicians -- old Communists -- who took power again and began to rebuild the old power relations," she told me. "Even if I was so young and so naive, I understood this, that I was entering a kind of cabal."

Meanwhile, the Group for Social Dialogue began to articulate a range of proposals for transforming Romanian society. But, Carneci admits, the group didn't act quickly enough.

"We were very naive at that time," she said. "We didn't have a real political education, and we were not prepared for what happened. Everything came a little too quickly. If, for example, the revolution had exploded one year later, we would have been prepared. Because we had started to prepare: we had plans. We drew up a program about what to do with censorship, the party system, and so on. But it came too early, and we didn't have time to organize this. Everything came suddenly, and we had to take it as it was. Everybody was thinking that it would be easy to transform such a country in a different way, but it wasn't. Little by little we became overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that was before us. And we didn't know how to do our own job and at the same time to be politically active. Little by little we learned, but it took time."

We talked about the evolution of the Group for Social Dialogue, why she's optimistic about developments in Romanian society, and how postmodernism and Communism co-existed in Romania.

The Interview

What was your experience of December 21, 1989?

I had a tough experience. On December 21, there was a meeting ordered by Ceausescu, and I had a feeling that something would happen during this meeting. So I left my job and, together with a friend, we went to the place where the meeting would take place. When the organizers of this meeting realized that we weren't "their guys," they kicked us out. But we stayed there anyway. And it was at the central square where the meeting took place. And I was suddenly among a group of people who started to shout against the regime. I was so surprised, and I was so afraid! And at the same time I took courage and started to shout also with the others. It was very strange because we realized that the police didn't react. They allowed us to do what we did, and this was very unusual.

But after maybe ten minutes, something happened during the meeting. In the middle of the meeting we heard cries and noises and people were starting to run away. Suddenly, the attitude of the police changed, and they formed a sort of cordon between us and the others. They became aggressive. Soldiers appeared from other streets, and they directed guns at us. So we started to run away. And they started to fire. And this was awful. I was very afraid, of course. I hid in a corner, not far from here. This happened between 11 am and noon. It was the first act.

Then by the afternoon, we knew that the revolution had started. I and others started to call people, friends, to come because "it started!" In the afternoon we gathered in front of the university where, in fact, the main act of the revolution took place. There were more and more people, mostly young people, and they started to cry. There was a barricade organized and a meeting, and young people took the floor and talked and pronounced themselves against Ceausescu and the regime. But then war machines and soldiers appeared, and again we had to run away.

I wasn't at the central committee building because I was afraid by then. My mother came after me, and she said that if I didn't go back with her she would die. And she simulated a heart attack. So finally I had to take her back home. By then, it was already night. She lived not far from the central committee building, so during the night I heard the noise, the bombing, the gunfire, and so on. It was a terrible, terrible night. And for some extraordinary reason, the phones worked. And people from abroad started to call us because they heard about it. My sister who lived in Germany at the time and some other relatives called. It was such a tense atmosphere. Colleagues of mine would come to my parents' place, where I kept some food and some clothes. And I could leave the house only in the morning because my parents didn't allow me to go.

When I went back to University Square, I was shocked because I could see blood on the pavement. The street cleaning machines were working. I saw some people trying to run away, trying to hide, trying not to be recognized by the police. Because now policemen were everywhere, trying to control the situation and occupy the place. So I said to myself, "Oh my god, they stopped the revolution. There's blood everywhere." I went back to my job to see what happened, and everybody could talk about only this, of course. We were calling people to try to learn what was happening in other parts of the city. Suddenly a hope arose because workers from the big factories started to come towards the center of the city.

This was so extraordinary that we ran away from our jobs and started to gather. And I saw with my own eyes how Ceausescu flew away in the helicopter from the roof of the central committee building. Along with other people, I entered that building, which was totally untouchable before. Some people invited me to go to the television studio, which was the main staging point of the revolution, but I didn't go there, I don't know why. Nevertheless, the people who were the leaders of the multitude were friends of mine because I had called them to come to University Square. They'd come and become leaders.

So, this was on December 22. The next day on the 23rd I was invited to be member of the council of the National Salvation Front, which was the first political organism to lead the country. I was in the group that took care of youth affairs. I was involved in this for several weeks. Little by little I realized that I would become more politicized and I didn't like it. It was very different from what I did before. So I stepped down.

What part about it did you not like?

I was a very young writer. And there were other more renowned writers than I was, and they stepped down even more quickly. It took me a while to realize that I was entering a strange world with old politicians -- old Communists -- who took power again and began to rebuild the old power relations. Even if I was so young and so naive, I understood this, that I was entering a kind of cabal.

When did you become involved with the Group for Social Dialogue?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.