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A ‘Lifeline’ To Listeners In Ceausescu’s Romania

Romania -- RFE/RL Romanian Service journalist Monica Lovinescu, 1993.
Romania -- RFE/RL Romanian Service journalist Monica Lovinescu, 1993.

In the face of severe personal reprisals from the communist authorities, Monica Lovinescu spoke to her listeners about literature, philosophy, art, and the culture of free thought so reviled by the regime.

Essayist, literary critic, and journalist Monica Lovinescu (1923-2008) was an essential presence for almost 30 years on shortwave radio for RFE/RL’s Romanian (now Moldovan) Service, Radio Europa Libera. Lovinescu used her microphone to challenge the dictatorship in post-World War II Romania, even while it cost her and her family dearly.

She remains, in the words of her former colleagues, the moral and ethical model for Romanians of all generations, including the intelligentsia in Moldova.

Lovinescu was living in Paris in 1964 when she teamed up with Radio Europa Libera to become, as political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu wrote, “one of the most important voices of Eastern and Central European anti-totalitarian thought.”

Romania--Cover of the book titled Monica Lovinescu in the Documents of the Securitate 1949-1989.
Romania--Cover of the book titled Monica Lovinescu in the Documents of the Securitate 1949-1989.

​Lovinescu was foremost a literary critic and cultural observer, whose signature radio programs, “Theses et Anti-Theses” and “Current Romanian Culture,” challenged totalitarian thought and broke through the wall of communist propaganda. Her 2008 obituary in the Times of London noted that she “became synonymous to the voice of freedom and a lifeline for those listeners behind the Iron Curtain, hitherto deprived of any alternative views.”

Her style was blunt, transparent, and untamed.

“Hers was not a soft voice, not a beautiful voice. It was a harsh voice that spoke beautiful words. It was a voice you could not forget,” remembered RFE/RL Moldovan Service Director Oana Serafim.

Serafim added that Radio Europa Libera’s programming in communist Romania was “the most important source of real information about the country and about the rest of the world. Telling the truth was simply enough…Lovinescu told the truth when everyone else pretended not to see.”

The need for truth, the power of dissidence, the danger of indifference, and the importance of memory to freedom were themes animating all of Lovinescu’s work.

She held roundtable discussions on the air with and about some of Europe’s most visionary thinkers of the day, including Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Vaclav Havel, and introduced her audiences to the ideas of George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler, and Michel Foucault, among many others.

China -- Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu (R) and his wife Elena in Beijing, October 14, 1988.
China -- Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu (R) and his wife Elena in Beijing, October 14, 1988.

In addition to working for Radio Europa Libera, Lovinescu wrote for numerous publications that were influential among Europe’s post-war intelligentsia. She translated banned literary works into her native Romanian in an attempt to revive intellectual discourse in her home country.

Her greatest ally was Romanian Service colleague Virgil Ierunca, who was also her husband and lifelong collaborator.

Serafim explains Lovinescu’s broadcasts as a kind of “school of literature, arts, politics, and morality for a country where such things were sheltered from the public in darkness.”

But her work did not go unpunished. Tismaneanu recalled Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s hatred for her.

“There is no exaggeration in saying that no other Radio Free Europe broadcast was more execrated, abhorred, and feared by Ceausescu and the communist nomenclature than those undertaken by Lovinescu and her husband, Virgil Ierunca.”

Ceausescu’s notorious Securitate kept Lovinescu under strict surveillance and ran a vicious campaign to discredit her in the Romanian press. In 1977, she was brutally attacked in Paris, likely on Ceausescu’s orders. Her injuries left her hospitalized for five days, after which she picked up her microphone and resumed her work. In 1981, Ceausescu contracted with the infamous terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as “Carlos the Jackal,” to place a bomb in RFE/RL’s Munich studios targeting her colleagues.

France -- Monica Lovinescu in Paris, May 1994.
France -- Monica Lovinescu in Paris, May 1994.

​Even before Ceausescu’s ascent to power in 1965--he became the general secretary of the Communist Party in 1965 and declared himself president of Romania in 1967--the regime of his predecessor Gheorghiu Dej targeted Lovinescu and sought to neutralize her by persecuting her mother, Ecaterina Balacioiu, who was assigned to degrading jobs and hardships in retaliation for Lovenisecu’s work. In 1958, when she was 71, Balacioiu was condemned to 18 years in prison for “hostile discussion against the democratic regime of the popular Republic of Romania.” She was deprived of food and medicine and is believed to have died in prison in 1960.

Although tormented by the suffering of her mother, Lovinescu persevered. She returned to Romania from her Paris exile in 1990 following Ceausescu’s execution on Christmas day the previous year. She continued reporting for the Romanian Service until her retirement in 1992.

Broadcasts to Romania were discontinued after the country’s accession to the European Union in 2007. Now with a bureau in Chisinau, the Moldovan Service carries on in the tradition that Lovinescu established.

Lovinescu’s death in 2008 was honored with a state funeral and a posthumous award of the “Romanian Star,” the country’s highest order, in recognition of her work in support of Romania’s independence.

“In a country where fear dominates, the dream that reality can change and that there are people who can tell the truth is a really powerful motivation, a really powerful resistance,” Serafim reflected, noting that in Romania and Moldova, countries that are rebuilding after decades of repression, “People need to know that it is possible to believe in values and to defend them. It doesn’t matter what price. That’s what Monica Lovinescu taught us.”

--Nicholas McCarthy