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Three Lessons About Autocracy I Learned as a Child in Communist Romania

The lessons I learned seem useful now, with autocracy on the rise as the Trump government attempts to assume ever greater power.

As she straightened the white collar of my uniform before dropping me off at school, my mother would whisper, “Remember: Don’t tell ANYBODY ANYTHING we talk about at home. Do your work conscientiously. Listen to your teachers carefully, but don’t believe everything they say. Now, that’s a good girl, go!”

I spent my childhood in communist Romania in the 1950s. By age eight, I knew that autocratic regimes take away more than your freedom. They also distort your sense of reality. They destroy the fabric of your community. And they undermine your sense of agency, thus invading your very selfhood. School was a minefield, and not just because I was a small, skinny girl who had to sit next to the big bullies. It required complex negotiations and a relentless vigilance daunting for an eight year-old. The lessons I learned seem useful now, with autocracy on the rise as the Trump government attempts to assume ever greater power.

Lesson #1

With so much contradictory information coming at me every single day, I learned to be a skeptical listener. The radio blared the “official” truth about improvements in our lives and the progress of the latest five-year agricultural or industrial plan. But these triumphantly announced successes were belied by my trips to the market and the grocery stores with my mother. At a young age, I was left to stand in long lines for sugar or butter, while my mother rushed to the butcher’s, often returning with the only thing she could find, usually some slices of bologna. Then the radio announced that Romanians were eating too much meat for a healthy diet. The bologna disappeared from the shelves.

I learned to parse language for euphemism, distortion and for lies. I learned to be paranoid. I learned to rely on my senses. I learned that the rules can change arbitrarily. Most of all, I learned to distrust institutions and to question authority. As I forged a sense of reality, I knew it was only provisional.

Lesson #2

Although, in an autocracy, you learn not to trust anyone, you have to find ways to restitch the community that is continually under assault. As Hannah Arendt writes of the rise of Nazism: “The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did.… friends ‘coordinated’ or got in line.”

But who are friends and who are enemies? I learned to be suspicious. In the words of George Orwell, I learned that “Big Brother” was always “watching.”

My best friend’s father or mother could be an informant, sending my parents to jail. Although I tried hard not to say anything at my friends’ houses, I always worried, as I left, that I had said too much. When my aunt and uncle were arrested and then jailed for several years in dire conditions, they suspected that a close friend, arrested before them but soon released, had turned them in. Years later, their suspicions were confirmed but, having experienced the brutality of arrest, they were not as shocked as I was when I heard it.

Still, you need friends, especially if you don’t want to feel utterly disempowered. And, if you are a child, even a terrified child, you need to learn trust. With my parents, we nurtured a small close community with whom we could gather for strategy, laughter and even joy. Humor kept us going, and I learned that the absurdities of autocracy create the best jokes. I learned to laugh.

Lesson #3

Trump has only been in office for a month. To be sure, a formidable resistance is building. People who have never before been politically active are going to town hall meetings, joining action groups, marching on the streets. But as a child, I learned how easily passivity can creep in. What seems shocking today can come to appear normal after a few weeks, or months, or years. Our screams of outrage can all too quickly become shrugs of resignation, turning agency into passivity. Once demoralized enough, people become tired of fighting. They turn inward; they distract themselves. They normalize. Why not go shopping, or to a movie? In my childhood home, the bridge games were occasions for conviviality and political discussion among close friends. I often went to sleep to shouts of anger at the latest arrests or deceptions, all muffled by music on the radio, lest neighbors listen in. But as I grew older, the shouts became complaints and, later, the arguments came to revolve around how bridge hands had been played. My childhood taught me that passivity and normalization are the most difficult temptations to fight.

When I came to the United States as a teenager, some of my childhood lessons came in handy. Others I had to unlearn. A healthy skepticism, a distrust of authority, jokes and laughter continue to be useful. But trust, community, agency — these had to be acquired. If we don’t want to lose these now, we must fight passivity and stay outraged. We must build communities of struggle. And we cannot compromise on truth.

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