Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I’ve made a friend. Well, he made a friend of me, more like. One morning I looked down and there he was…and almost every day since we’ve made the commute from the farm down the mountain into town together.

Lupeni has given me a new appreciation for the term “underdog.” Its streets swarm with stray dogs – soaking up sunshine from where they lie on the sidewalks, trim pups rummaging through dumpsters, menacing thigh-high ones lurking around apartment entrances – and I’m shocked that the miniature poodles and mangled dachshunds survive. At first I was put off by the little dog’s feigning friendship (sometimes licking my ankle) in order to garner my protection, but now I’m grateful for the companionship and glad to be a reassurance for my shaggy-little-footstool-shadow.

Romania, a real underdog in political history, spent a lot of time under other people’s feet. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the Austro-Hungarians all trampled over it, blown by the winds of imperial ambition and power. Most recently, Russia, though technically not an empire, held Romania under its boot.

Before beginning my course on “Modern Romanian History” this spring, the section that Cold War/iron curtain/Soviet Union/Eastern Europe should have occupied in my brain was completely empty, except for some vague notions furnished by old TIME and National Geographic articles lying around the house growing up and by Animal Farm and 1984 readings in school. To illustrate the depth of my ignorance, on a missions trip to Russia in high school I wondered why John Lenin had been buried in Moscow…

Slowly now, but surely, my research and studies are painting the painfully ironic picture: what began as genuine faith in the possibility of equality and wellbeing for all of society through violence, coercion, and disregard for the individual (carried out against new “underdogs” by people who themselves had once been “underdogs”), became complete absence of freedom. In Romania, for example, following WWII and with Soviet assistance, Romanian communists managed to falsify election reports to become the reigning political party for over 4 decades during which it demolished churches, uprooted peasants from their land, collectivizing their farms and stuffing them into bloc apartments, unleashed Securitate (secret police) and their informants on Romanians who dared to raise their dissenting voices above a whisper, and whisked intellectuals/dissidents/clergy away to prison for punishment and “reeducation”… As Polish Solidarity activist Adam Michnik points out, those who start by storming Bastilles often end up building their own.

But what if a group of communist idealists managed to inspire others to adopt their form of government, and of their own free choice people democratically elected a communist or socialist official? This did happen in Chile (President Allende) and Guatemala (President Árbenz Guzmán), and, in a manner not unlike the Eastern European communists whose undemocratic policies they were supposedly “containing,” the Unites States CIA promptly incited coups d’état and installed dictators. In a democracy, just as “good” ideas are never so good as to warrant violent implementation, “bad” ideas are rarely so bad as to warrant violent eradication.

Now Romania boasts a new, democratic government not without corruption, but having in place the structures necessary for freedom. As part of my history course, I had the privilege of interviewing some Orthodox priests in the area. When asked how he perceived the changes since the 1989 anti-communist revolution in Romania, one priest said, “We have so much freedom. We are not used to it and do not know how to use it.”

This is true with my little friend, too. Emboldened by my “protection,” he’ll march up to huge dogs (bound by chains and fences, these guys are still frightening, bred as they are to kill bears in defense of sheep), bearing his teeth, growling and forgetting himself, dizzy with “freedom.” Likewise, some Romanians have used their freedom to express old prejudices, and nationalism and anti-Semitism have reared their ugly heads in publications and political platforms. On a lighter note, of all the music made available to them with greater contact with the rest of the world, Romanian radio stations choose to replay the same handful of European techno songs over and over…And, perhaps out of habit, supermarkets offer a small variety of food options.

But who am I to judge? What noble and creative things do I do with my abundant freedom? I sleep late, spend hours on facebook, daydream about a burrito from my favorite Mexican restaurant…In democracies, freedom means responsibilities, it requires initiative and vigilance and care and a lot of other things that involve work on the part of free citizens.

When we were in Argentina, Mom and I noticed that, in contrast to the often sexual and territorial messages found in graffiti in the States, there graffiti expressed political discontent. We were impressed that, in their moment of passion, these public-property-defacers chose to exercise their freedom of expression in this way, that their sights were set at the systemic and institutional level. Maybe this is a poor indicator, but I do think it points to the fact that in a place like the United States where things like personal security and government protection are widely taken for granted, people (myself included) do not always choose to lift their eyes to the larger political landscape.

God grant that I not fall prey to complacency, but rather live a life full of gratitude and advocacy for the underdog.