The Sentimental History of Communism

Apostol Dej
The cover of Gheorghe Apostol’s 2010 book “Me and Gheorghiu-Dej”

“I met Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej in 1929 […] I was in my second year at the Professional School of the Romanian Railways Workshops. I was working as an apprentice in the iron and bronze foundry … One day, due to a short-circuit, all the lights were off. Ion Ifrim, the foreman, sent me to the electrical department to call on someone who might fix the power system […] I was told that only one person could do it and [someone] pointed him out to me. This particular electrician shook hands with all the workers in the foundry as he entered the workshop and everybody received him with warmth and respect.

  • Welcome comrade Gheorghiu! Bring us some light!

Gheorghiu replied:

  • Where there’s light there’s also more justice and the exploitation of our work is also reduced. Together in their fight, workers will obtain more freedom, a bigger and better loaf of bread”

Written in the 2000s, by Gheorghe Apostol, one of the most important names of the Romanian communist establishment, there is hardly anything about this passage which might seem credible: totally disconnected from the working class culture which it allegedly depicts, from its mores and language, it seems to be more a socialist Cuore (as a Romanian writer, Radu Cosasu, would put it), a childish exercise in the 1950s socialist realist prose, rather than a real dialogue which might have taken place at some point in the troubled waters of 1929 Romania. And yet it is exactly this total lack of verisimilitude which makes the passage as touching and endearing as it is clumsy. Before their careers as statesmen, before they reached the heights of power, both Apostol and the future leader of the Romanian Communist Party, Gheorghiu-Dej, had actually been part of the working class culture which Apostol describes so implausibly. As railways workers, they had been actively involved not only in the political agitations surrounding the railways sector, but also in the daily rituals characterizing the working class culture of the interwar. In this sense, there was no social distance between Apostol and the milieu he was describing; no social gap which might have made this encounter between two railway workers a clumsy caricature of communist ideals, a ragged puppet of socialist realism as it is the text now. Similarly, in the early 2000s, already in his 80s and enjoying a comfortable old-age and pension, there was hardly any reason for Apostol to fake some petty-bourgeois exercise in working-class idealism and to adopt the high-falutin language of 1950s propaganda. And yet the text is exactly that: Apostol’s memories seem stuck in that particular language of 1950s literature. So there should be another explanation.

Maybe the clumsiness and mawkishness, the lack of any sense of verisimilitude are more the signs of a heart-felt desire to give those daily meetings in the unlit, gloomy foundry a sense of dignity which, pace our own sense of plausibility, can only be found in the unrealistic tone of socialist realism.  As if somehow the banal sentences of daily life on the shop floor, its every-day interactions, the curt remarks or randy jokes uttered in that year of the Great Depression would need the artificial lightning of formulaic phrases, of clumsy officialese to get out of the gloomy night of the shop-floor. Which might mean, in the end, that even for a sly activist as Apostol, adept in the slippery and dangerous machinations at the heights of power, a former deputy prime-minister and general secretary, who had survived not only the dangers of the communist underground but also those of power; even for him, a person not all innocent or sensitive, those formulaic words and their artificial lightning, far from being the poor remnants of propaganda, had a dignity which was a safety boat, an open door into History. As if socialist realism had provided a reality  which, although fake, was much more real for him, for Dej and all those people working  in 1929, in an iron foundry somewhere in Eastern Europe.

One thought on “The Sentimental History of Communism

  1. My grandpa succeeded in having a face to face meeting with Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej in order to get his marriage certificate recognized because he married a Soviet Union citizen. Dej asked him: “O iubesti, bă?” The rest is history (my way of saying I got your postcard finally. Ale, Wien, before the October elections)


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