On 14 March I rented a car at the Intercontinental Hotel in central Bucharest and set off for Calarasi, a municipality of roughly 50 000 in south-eastern Romania.

Waiting for me at this unexceptionable post-industrial town by the Danube River was Ion Anghel Mânăstire, the writer and former cop who published the first official album of art recovered by the Romanian police in the late 1990s. 

Anghel had been recommended to me as a source for a story on art and heritage theft and trafficking in Romania. After a few minutes with him and his writer wife at a riverside restaurant facing the Bulgarian town of Silistra, across the Danube, I realised that they were also brave champions of truth, justice and freedom with an extraordinary story to tell. Their story, which is particularly relevant in the era of cancel culture, came to the conversation almost by accident. Had I not demanded more details, it would most likely have been dispatched in a few casual sentences.

It all started in 1985. Anghel was a captain at the Calarasi traffic department of the Romanian communist police, known as the Miliția, and his wife taught Romanian language and literature at a local high school. The ruthless prioritisation of exports through which Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, strived to settle foreign debt was already in full steam. It had turned the country’s ageing peasantry – youngsters had been moved to cities to work in factories – into little less than slaves who worked for a ludicrous share of the harvest they were obliged to hand to the state. 

The Anghel family was not unaffected by such abuses. As a policeman, he was instructed to search the famished peasants for the insignificant portion of harvest they had to steal to feed their families. As for his wife, Stela, she and her students and fellow teachers had to spend several weeks a year collecting grapes, raspberries and other fruits to the benefit of the tyrant’s grandiose delusion. More unbearable than the work, she said, was the task they were charged with during the breaks. In order to educate the illiterate peasants on the feats and glorious achievements of the Beloved Conducător and his phony scientist wife Elena, the teachers had to read Scânteia, the newspaper of the Romanian Communist Party, aloud to them.

Intolerable reality

Revolted by what he saw and heard daily from the peasants, Ion decided to depict their intolerable reality in a novel. It was not the first protest literary work of the young police officer. Two years earlier, also under Ceausescu’s rule, he had paid homage to his in-laws and to the many other peasants stripped of their land and dignity by the brutal first wave of collectivization pushed in the early 1950s by the communists in Romania with his debut work, Talanii, the plural for a derogatory term for an old and decrepit horse. The book did not only get around censorship but was awarded the Writer’s Union prize. At the age of 33, Anghel, who was already employed by the traffic police in his hometown, became a prestigious novelist in the country.

How did a novel critical of the communist regime get publicity, and even recognition, under one of Europe’s most draconian and paranoid dictatorships? Despising their predecessors is a well-ingrained feature of character among red rulers, a habit that often opened tiny cracks through which honest intellectuals in communist countries have found a source of oxygen. Ceausescu was no exception to this. Upon taking over in 1965 he decidedly dissociated himself from both the Soviet Union and his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Installed by Stalin in the late 1940s, Dej’s administration physically eliminated the bourgeois and intellectual class through assassination and a murderous regime of forced labour. Ceausescu wanted to show the world he was different. He freed all political prisoners – though only to turn the whole country into an open-air jail. Under Ceausescu’s rule, surveillance and social control replaced the brute violence that characterised communist Romania in its early days.

The circumstances surrounding the changing of guard, combined with the allegorical style of part of his novel, allowed Ion Anghel to get away with murder with his first book. But, in the eyes of the censors, the theme of his second novel was much more keenly focused. Its criticism was now directed at a contemporary injustice for which none other than Romania’s omnipotent leader was to blame. Ion was taking on Ceausescu’s ‘new agrarian revolution’, the fresh push in the communist collectivization effort that was starving peasants in the Romanian countryside.

Trouble for family

Stela knew the book would bring trouble for the family if it saw the light of day and she tried to dissuade him from publishing it. But her husband would have none of it. He wanted the novel out as a means of revenge for all the gratuitous suffering brought on his people by the regime. Getting past the censors wouldn’t be easy, so he devised a plan. July and August was holiday time in Romania. The entire nomenklatura hit the road to the seaside resort of Neptun. State institutions, including the censors, were working at a minimum service level. Drawing on his contacts in the state-controlled publishing industry, Ion managed to get Noaptea nu se impusca (No shooting at night),through the otherwise painstakingly complex process of getting a book on the shelves in a communist country.

And then came autum. The regime’s hierarchs and their literary enforcers returned to Bucharest to discover with horror the blasphemy put out by one of the country’s rising talents. Denunciatory diatribes demanding the party to take measures against it greeted the book in every single official press outlet. On 16 December 1985 a public process against the author was called at a village called Garbovi, 117 kilometres north of Calarasi. 

Ion was summoned to what he was told would be a genial meeting with readers to discuss the content of his latest novel. But his friends at the cultural wing of the state apparatus warned him of what the meeting was really about. Besides, the writer and his wife had heard about the public denunciation of Octavian Paler, another inconvenient writer whose latest book was chastised by party-directed workers during another ‘debate’ with readers.

Unlike Paler, who did not attend his own trial, Ion and Stela called a handful of friends and supporters together and they made themselves available at Garbovi. They first went to the cultural centre, but the doors were shut. The ‘meeting’ was to be held at the village’s state cooperative. Once in Garbovi, Ion Anghel and his retinue also got wise to the fact that no copies of his novel had reached the village’s public library. How could the destitute men and women who were so interested in meeting the writer possibly have read the book?

Slammed his defamation

Flanked by party leaders and communist cultural high priests who had come from the capital and other centres of power, Ion listened from the presidium table to what the peasants and farming technical personnel had to say. Strenuously reading from manuscripts produced for the occasion by a party official, a succession of semi-literate countrymen slammed his defamation of the campesinos in a forlorn attempt at literary critique. The novel, they obediently said, falsifies reality, turning a world of goodness and enthusiasm into one of despair and pestilence. The writer’s role in the show was to apologize for it, to acknowledge that he had slandered the peasants by dishonestly attributing brutish language to them, and retract what he had written.

But Ion not only refused to do so. Knowing the charges he was to face, he had come to his ‘process’ with a well thought-out defence. Besides, he had the support of his wife. Pretending to be a local professor by the name of Valentina Ionescu, Stela Anghel took the floor to stand up for justice. A work of fiction shouldn’t be treated as a propaganda piece, she pleaded with the astonished red hierarchs. They soon realised that an undesired speaker had crashed the party. Furious at the fake Valentina Ionescu, they denounced her as an impostor and ordered her out. But it was too late. Inspired by the bravery of the unknown woman, the peasants also started shouting, but to expose the show trial against Ion and decry the inhuman conditions they lived in.

Ion and his loyal supporters had defeated the inquisitors – though they’d pay for their defiance dearly. Some lost their jobs, and Stela was subjected to dozens of arbitrary inspections at work. She was banished from her town’s public cultural life in which she and her husband were active. As for the cop-writer, he was demoted and assigned to patrolling the streets of Calarasi at night, an entry-level job he was forced to perform until the regime was violently overturned in the popular uprising of December 1989.

After the revolution, Ion and Stela Anghel scored another victory over their tormentors in the form of successful careers that brought them self-realization and the esteem of the community. Ion continued publishing books, and rose to prominence as a top communication officer within Romania’s police. Stela kept cultivating her passion for teaching. She took part in international professor exchange programs and even published her own novels.

‘Years of affirmation’

In spite of the happy denouement, Stela looked back on their years of persecution with sadness. I asked her why and she said: ‘Those were our years of affirmation, our best years, when we were most eager to do things, to enjoy life,’ she said. ‘The way they played cruel games on us… We went on holiday and after two or three days a policeman from the city we were at came and told my husband that he had to immediately report for duty,’ she recalled. 

‘And then there were the night phone calls. The sound of a telephone ringing gives me goosebumps to this day. They used to call at one or two in the morning to order Ion to go to I don’t know what street because a dog was barking. Some other time, they called him to order him to go and buy a bra for the wife of the boss. It was horrible.’

Calarasi is situated in the Baragan, a steppe plain in southeastern Romania known for its extreme weather. More than 40 000 Romanians of unhealthy origins were deported there by the country’s Stalinist regime in the 1950s, and the area is a synonym for bleakness and despondency in (to borrow from the terminology of literary criticism) the country’s imaginary. Romanian writer Panait Istrati, a disenchanted socialist who condemned Marxist totalitarianism after witnessing Stalin’s terror during a trip to the Soviet Union, once wrote of the Baragan: 

‘No trees grow here, and it’s so far from one water well to the next that you can die of thirst half-way. The inhabitant of Baragan constantly hopes that one day someone will come and teach him how to live better in the Baragan, in this dreadful wilderness where water is hidden in the deepest bowels of the earth and where nothing grows except thistles. They cover the land in less than a week. It’s the only thing the Baragan will tolerate, except for the sheep who lust after these thistles and devour them greedily. Come winter, the shepherd abandons this God-forsaken land and returns home. Then the Baragan dons its white fur coat and lays to rest for six months. Nothing lives here anymore. That’s the Baragan.’

The Baragan is even today one of the poorest regions in Europe. It rarely makes headlines unless it’s for cases of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation and corruption, and one can only imagine the severity of life in this corner of the continent under Ceausescu’s unforgiving brand of communism. 

An inspiration

Yet, Ion and Stela’s story is a rousing reminder that the noblest aspects of our shared humanity manifest themselves even in the most unlikely circumstances and hostile surroundings. Their defiance of a despotic power can also be viewed as an inspiration. Cut off from the outside world, and completely at the mercy of the bullies in power, they refused to back down on what they knew to be right and true.

If they could, then we who live in prospering and interconnected democracies have no excuse to succumb to the modern day witch-hunters and their mob trials.

[Image: Calarasi district. Bogdan Giușcă, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=971252]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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