Seoul , 20th September 2018
At the invitation of the Sejong University of Seoul, the President of the Scientific Council of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization, Emil Constantinescu, held a conference titled “The Memory of Suffering and the Pedagogy of Freedom” President Constantinescu spoke to the 2000 students in attendance about the experience of transition from a Communist dictatorship to democracy in Eastern Europe, and pointed out the similarities between the current situation in the Korean Peninsula and the relations between Romania and the Republic of Moldova – one nation divided into two neighbouring states. The debates were attended by Petru Lucinschi, former president of the Republic of Moldova, and by Ghenadi Burbulis, the most important collaborator of President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Vice-Prime Minister of the Russian Federation between 1990 and 1992.
“The Memory of Suffering and the Pedagogy of Freedom”
„I would like to begin with a confession. I was born in 1939. If that year someone would have crossed the Eurasian continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, would have crossed from Tokio to Lisbon only states under civil or military dictatorships. My family lived in a town located on the Nistru river, on the Soviet border. We were twice forced to take refuge from the Red Army, alongside tens of thousands of people and my first memories are related to this desperate exodus, because those who failed to leave were mostly arrested and deported to Siberia.
Memories of a life under tyranny
I lived until de age of 50 under dictatorship, in a country where people did not have the freedom of movement: you could not leave the country and you were forced to work and live in a particular place, allocated by governmental distribution. A dictatorship that would only recognize state or collective ownership, cancelled all forms of free expression and oversaw the personal life of every citizen, by political police suveillance.
I lived through a post-totalitarian transition whose social price was heavily paid. For those of my generation, democracy is not an abstract concept and any situation that undermines democracy and prejudices freedom affects us deeply.
Peace without freedom
The Second World War, which affected both Romania and Korea, caused the death of more than 25 million soldiers and over 73 million civilians, caused huge economic losses and destructions of the world cultural heritage. The atrocities of the two wars in the first half of the twentieth century proved to be insuficient to understand that peace cannot be strengthened only by managing frozen conflicts.
The establishment of communism in Eastern Europe has led to the elimination of constructive competition, removal of free expression and the emergence of an amorphous form, claiming to be a society, where ideology replaces feeling, free words are traped in slogans, and freedom in general is replaced by concealed terror. All these changes have defined the new face of Eastern Europe, crisscrossed by the suffering of milions of people. The result of Soviet occupation: implementation of communism in Eastern Europe by violent means and bloody repression of anti-communist resistance. The removal of actual and potential opponents was achieved through torture and re-education centers, extermination prisons, forced labor camps, political assassinations, summary executions, mass deportations. Amid a precarious peace secured during the Cold War by focusing on arms race, the price paid by the citizens of the communist states in Eastern Europen was extremely heavy: milions of deaths, tens of milions of human lives destroyed.
When oppression, censorship, terror seemed to ensure a smooth future for communism, the resulting hardship turned into true pedagogy of freedom, thus building solid characters, able to tear appart that status quo.
Culture of freedom defeats dictatorship’s tanks
The fall of communism was, first of all, an ideological collapse that prepared the political collapse of dictatorships in most countries of the former Soviet Block. Culture played a fundamental role in this context. Parallel to the official speech, an „underground” speech was created, meant to denounce deception and falsity and to reject those who „stopped thinking”. The danger came from the intellectuals in their own countries, despised by the members of the communist apparatus. The danger came through the “word” of the democrat intellectuals and through their “writings”, illegally disseminated to citizens of their countries, tricking surveillance and censorship.
The change took place when Mihail Gorbachev's new team launched "perestroika" – the economic reform and "glasnosti" – the transparency, meaning the freedom of communication. We have among us today, in this room, one of the most important members of this team to whom we owe the peaceful transition to democracy: Petru Lucinschi, doctor in philosophy, who later became the Chairman of the Parliament of independent Moldova and democratic President of the Republic of Moldova.
After the peaceful change of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, the first democratic presidents, freely elected by the people, were representatives of the intellectual elite.
The transition was not easy. For those who experienced communism and had to live through the postcommunist transition period, nothing is more true and instructive than the reading of The Exodus. We understand best why it took 40 years for the Hebrew people to reach the Holy Land, what is the meaning of the worship of the golden calf, the temptation of collective debauchery, violence and treason, the need of a Table of Laws and the punishment for failing to comply with the Ten Commandments.
The historical memory appears to be the element explaining why citizens from former communist countries refuse to support totalitarian approaches, regardless of the coat they are wearing. The pedagogy of freedom needs a memory of suffering because, as in the case of health, we perceive the value of freedom only when we no longer have it.
Freedom and bread
Debating the relations between the democratic power and individual freedom also targets the distribution of wealth. In “The Karamazov Brothers” novel by Dostoyevsky, Ivan tells Alyosha that if people would be asked to choose between freedom and bread they would choose bread. This is also the psychological foundation on which totalitarian regimes ground themselves, in order to obtain a consensual obedience. A signifcant part of the population in the former communist countries regrets the times when they had poorly paid but safe jobs, lived in miserable conditions but in houses received by government allocation and they were given minimum food rationed by cards. The most important psychological element stopping rebellion was, paradoxically, the fact that everyone was equally poor and they did not feel humiliated one in relation to the other. The comeback of neo-communist parties is based on this nostalgia.
In the democratic societies with market economy from the Occident, freedom is followed by a chase after material goods that create significant differences between the rich and the poor. These differences are often not correlated with the quality and quantity of work performed and with the contribution to the general welfare of the society. Many times theese realities overwhelm the ones who believed in the ideals of democratic principles in the Western World.
Only through a greater transparency in the governing process and the „hidden relations” governments have with corporations, more fair governance methods can be reached.
The experience of the communist regime, which tried to alienate our natural humanist European vocation, was paid at the cost of tens of millions of human lives. Freedom regained through sacrifice has created not only rights, but also responsabilities, we gradually familiarize ourselves with, in often difficult social and psychological conditions. The citizens of the former communist countries have been deprived of all their rights, including the right to live, for half a century. Their suffering and struggle lesson is for each of us a first step towards understanding the greater lesson of freedom: respecting each other’s freedom.
The assimilation of the democratic conscience needs more time than the one required by the adoption of democratic laws and institutions. Let us remember that when the American system of power separation was exported to Latin America or South-East Asia, it invariably led to totalitarian regimes, until a democratic conscience able to ensure the functioning of democratic institutions was formed.
Democratic culture is threatened at the beginning of the third millennium also by the dominant postmodern culture, that seems to invalidate the appeal of the ideals of the European Union founding fathers. Political leaders, the same as ordinary citizens, seem to ignore the social significance of governance by thrift, virtue and moderation, essential moral values. Perhaps exactly a return to these values, given that the social costs of governance are supported increasingly harder, where society is rapidly being divided between the privileged and the disadvantaged, could be a reconstruction tool for politics on other grounds than the collectivism imposed during communism or the selfish individualism promoted in capitalism. Return to moral values could be an alternative to the careless or contemptuous attitude towards the needs and the requirements of those treated only as a mass of voters or producers and consumers of goods and information.
In the long run, for the survival or the quality of democracy the essential factor is the democratic conscience of those who chose freely. In „The Karamazov Brothers”, Dostoyevsky tells us that: „man prefers stillness, and even death, to the freedom of solitary choice between good and evil. Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering”. Dostoyevsky wrote these lines in the nineteenth century, from the perspective of people who never knew individual freedom or democracy.
One hundred years later, in December 1989, young people who demonstrated against the communist dictatorship in the University Square in Bucharest, did not ask for bread, or for higher wages. They voiced „Free elections!”, „Freedom of the press!”, „Freedom we love you, we die for you!” and „We will die and we will be free!”. At midnight, the repression troops went in with tanks against the unarmed demonstrators, who did not threaten any governmental institution, but offered flowers to the military. Dozens of people were killed and thousands arrested and tortured. Those arrested would have been killed too, as it happened 5 days prior to theese events in Timisoara, if not half a million of Bucharest citizens would surround next day the tanks and the symbols of communist regime. The incredible lack of fear and the solidarity of people forced the dictator to flee and freedom was gained. In one of history’s bright moments, people were willing to die for the ideals of freedom and democracy.
The answer regarding the future of freedom and democracy is the choice of each generation and, in the end, of each of us.
This was the experience of our transition from the communist dictatorship to democracy, which I have tried to present to you sincerely, as I have lived directly.
Good or bad, you, the next generation, can decide what you choose to learn from it. I can tell you what we, Romanians, can learn from the experience of South Korea and what I have understood from my three visits to Korea over the last 24 years.
I would use a single word - patriotism, an increasingly rare sentiment in today's globalized world. And I would first refer to solidarity. Over the last three decades, we have secured our territorial integrity by integrating into NATO, the economic security through EU integration, and we have had the highest economic growth rate in the EU for the past 5 years.
But, 100 years after the Great Union of all the Romanian lands in a single state, we are more disunited than ever of group or individual political or social interests. We need to redefine ourselves in the globalized world by what we are, not by what we have.
Only this way , we can preserve our national identity and dignity.”