Award-Winning Website Shows Hard Truths about Romania’s Communist Past
By Rucsandra Pop
Thirty-eight percent of Romanian teenagers think that people had better lives under communist rule in Romania than they do now, according to a study by the Soros Foundation Romania in 2011. In the study, The Civic and Political Involvement of Young People, over 26 percent of the young people surveyed say they have never discussed the communist period in Romania in school. In response, teachers say they lack the proper teaching materials that would make the topic attractive to these students.
So what, you might ask; teenagers around the world can be notoriously difficult to interest in their history.
But not all teenagers live in a country once governed by a regime defined for over forty years by persecution, censorship, surveillance, relocations and other forms of state interference and control. Romania’s teenagers are tomorrow’s historians, politicians, civil servants. The need to preserve Romania’s history, to prevent an insidious reshaping of the country’s collective memory, to do justice to those who lived through these times and those who changed them, is not to be taken lightly.
A new website, www.istoriacomunismului.ro, meaning the history of communism, uses visually arresting imagery and ingenious interaction techniques to educate young Romanians about the realities of life in communist Romania. Visitors to the site first encounter a perfectly recreated apartment from the communist period. There they can interact with everything from tapped telephones to a television airing documentaries about communism to forbidden documents and books likely to have landed you in a lot of trouble thirty years ago. The website has just won “Outstanding Achievement in Web Development” at this year’s WebAwards ceremony in the United States where it fought off competition from over 2000 projects from 42 different countries.
“Romanian teenagers don't have enough information to understand the recent past and how communism actually worked. As a consequence, they are easily manipulated by the populist discourse promoting the communist utopia” reflected Ovidiu Voicu, education policy expert at the Soros Foundation Romania. “To eliminate this risk, we need to inform and teach young people, by using a language accessible to them and appropriate for the internet age. The website www.istoriacomunismului.ro addresses this educational need.”
The reality of rising populism across Europe, aided by manipulated historical narratives on everything from immigration to World War II, is very real. Countries as diverse as France, Netherlands, Finland and Hungary all significantly feature the far-right in their political picture. For all, reinventing the past is an easy way to manipulate the present. Memory of course is a subjective thing; however facts—numbers relocated, censored, imprisoned—must be protected.
The website was created after the public debate Teaching the History of Communism in Schools, triggered by the original research and organized with the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile and The Association of History Teachers from Romania. There were over 50 participants, including 15 high school students who critiqued the way schools teach contemporary history. After this debate, the Soros Foundation Romania along with creative agency, Senior Interactive, set to developing this engaging new tool for learning history in a way that resonates.
By recreating a communist apartment, the site allows you to interact with virtual objects which then reveal a story of their own. The site presents defining experiences and characters of communism in Romania, from the cold radiators, the black & white TVs, the Pepsi Cola bottles, to the prison system, the banned books and people’s obsessions with the Secret Police, the Securitate.
The factual content on the site was provided by historians from the Institute for the Investigation of the Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile. An equally important part of the project is an accompanying teaching guide on the history of communism which has been distributed free in schools for teachers teaching the history of communism.
“We don’t yet have a Museum of the Communist Dictatorship, but we have this online museum that is intelligent, dynamic, interactive, informative and full of compassion. The re-enactment of the Secret Police interrogations is devastating”, stated Vladimir Tismăneanu, director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies (CSPCS) at the University of Maryland in an article he wrote for a Romanian website. “This lucid and responsible confrontation with a traumatic past is the very logic of a valid democracy”, noted Tismăneanu.
The website was officially launched on December 21, 2011, 22 years since the Revolution that ended the communist rule of Romania and has received positive reviews in Romania and elsewhere since its launch. To add to its win at the WebAwards, www.istoriacomunismului.ro also won second place in a Romanian civil society competition, The Civil Society Gala, and in the advertising competition, Best Ads.
www.istoriacomunismului.ro might just be the most interesting, free and easily accessible history lesson you’re likely to come across.
Rucsandra Pop is a communications manager at Fundatia Soros Romania.