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How I learnt about injustice

communist school Romania

From Romania to the US, waves of people recently complained about lockdown/isolation injustice. Some US citizens actively protested on the streets against these measures. Certain stories in the news highlighted police abuse in Romania, mostly against elderly people. Over-zealous policemen fined pensioners for the smallest mistakes in the extremely strict lockdown. However, others complained about how these measures infringed on their freedom to practice their religion. 

Right after Easter in Romania, I wrote about the heated debates and emotional stir caused by the ban on gatherings for Midnight Mass. This week, a quote shared by Suki White, Shropshire artist and writer, inspired me to talk about injustice.

Let us have a look at the quote.

 

 

I highly relate to what it talks about. Sadly, while Christianity started as the religion of the oppressed, through ages it reached the level of (wrong) political involvement where churches shifted into the oppressing force. Still, the spiritual core of Christianity remains love and care for all human and non-human beings too.

Growing up in a dictatorial, oppressive regime, I learnt a lot first hand about injustice as lack of fairness. Our life lessons started in our families, many of them deeply affected by the official way of doing things.

“Our parents, the dictators”

In communist Romania, dictatorship penetrated the safety of our family homes too. Parents replicated the totalitarian style in which our country was run. Many people of my generation still struggle with childhood traumas resulted both from being brought up in a tyrannical manner and from a freedom which we did not know what to do with later. We experienced anxieties and inadaptability typical to animals raised in captivity, then released back into wilderness without warning or preparation.

Another Romanian writer in the UK, Maria Stadnicka, used the phrase “our parents, the dictators” in a recent conversation we had. A veritable Archimedes moment for me, it shed light even further on the shared past of our generation. Maria is running a project about how Romanians here in UK coped with lockdown measures as compared to British people. Our generation grew up in a very restrictive regime, both outside and inside our homes.

When I look at why our parents, born in communism, adopted the same tyrannical principles in their homes, I see a deeper, wider context. Our whole modern history, very fragile and troubled, created this context.

High levels of illiteracy in an agrarian country before World War II

Our country gained its full territory only in 1918, through the Big Union. Transylvania joined the other two regions, Moldavia and Wallachia, already united in 1859. All three Principates shared a common Romance language and a common history, marked by a long string of oppressions from both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottomans.

Between the two World Wars, Romania continued to be predominantly agrarian. The 1930 census showed that 80% of its population lived in the countryside. Also, an overwhelming majority (78%) worked in agriculture. Countryside schools taught children for four years only. This resulted in a high level of illiteracy – nearly half of the population living in the agrarian environment was still illiterate before World War II.

Romania before WWII

Via https://adevarul.ro/

Personally, I see this context of illiteracy as fertile ground for totalitarian communism to take hold of both public and private life. Parents in the communist era valued education and pushed their children to always be the best. A bad mark at school guaranteed punishment, which meant even a beating administered to the child. The predominant mentality said that “a good beating is Heaven given”, a saying reminiscent of Victorian-style approaches, where caning schoolchildren was an acceptable educative method.

Looking into these realities, it is no wonder that I, just like many other Romanians in my generation, experienced unfairness since an early age. We didn’t realise back then, and we struggled for a long time with understanding these things. Many of us still strive to fully grasp our past experiences, while distancing ourselves from old traumas.

After our own homes, we faced unfairness at school. Genuinely hardworking students fared well unless their families were identified as undesirables. If parents did not follow or fit the hierarchical order, then there was little to nothing at all to protect children from thorough abuse.

My first personal story about injustice

 

My first memorable encounter with injustice outside the family home happened in Secondary School. I was the second-best student in my class. The top best student fitted the schooling style perfectly, plus she excelled at Mathematics. This was one subject where I needed to study more for top results. Now the pupil placed by her results right behind me was a teacher’s daughter. This was the only possible reason which generated the following situation.

School day Romania 80s

Schools in Romania awarded pupils with top results. We received books and a school prize in an end of the year ceremony.

At a parents evening, my mum received the following laconic feedback:

“Catalina is a genuinely studious, hardworking child. She continues to get top results, shame about Arts & Crafts skills.”

Skipping to the next student, our leading teacher found themselves interrupted. My mother asked for clarification – what did she mean by “shame about…”. Then mother discovered that particular teacher marked me down to the lowest grade, which meant “unsatisfactory”. The comment accompanying the mark claimed I failed to present my main project.

Whoever thought of this scheme thought badly. The Arts & Crafts teacher, who marked me down, forgot that she’d chosen my crocheted ornament for her official panel. She only showcased best student work, as top examples of such projects.

Next day, my mother asked to talk to the Deputy Head Teacher. Seemingly, she managed to do so due to distant family ties. They buried the whole incident as a misunderstanding and an administrative error. If mother did not discover the distant family ties, I don’t know whether the Deputy would have received her at all.

What a girl learnt about injustice while growing up in Romania

This story might sound silly compared to the types of injustice people fall victim to. My paternal grandparents should have been deported, together with hundreds of people in our region. They owned land, in a very prosperous region before communism – a serious enough “fault” in the eyes of the new political regime. Such irony! Grandmother’s great-grandfather, an ambitious, diligent peasant, lived in a house with only one room and dirt on the floor. He sheltered his goat inside too, his most treasured possession and means of survival. This man worked for years to gather about 25 acres of land, as workers back then were paid also in property and produce, not only money. The communists took everything he worked for away from his family, three generations down the line.

As a young adult, I learnt about such circumstances, about the many dissidents imprisoned in political prisons. I also learnt, even through teenage years, that boys could have as much sexual fun as they wanted. Girls who slept with anybody else than their husband were, however, sluts. Once you dated a boyfriend long-term, you couldn’t break up with him if you did not want to be seen as a slut. If you decided to leave him, you needed to make sure your next boyfriend knew nothing about this first man. Otherwise, they would only want to have fun with you and never consider you “marriage material”.

Common effort across boarders to push back injustice 

Unfairness as a form of injustice thrives in different political and social contexts. Lack of voice, lack of empowerment and deep inequalities encourage unfair treatments throughout society. Farmers across Western Europe hire workers from Eastern Europe preferentially, many from Romania. You might think they are right to consider Romanian pickers highly skilled and experience. After all, we benefit from centuries of uninterrupted experience, as a former nation of peasants. Even our worldwide famous artist, Brancusi, herded goats as a boy.

The raw reality might be a little bit different. Some employers prefer Romanian employees because many of us accept unfairness, bowing their heads and just carry on. Many accept long working hours, don’t budge when bullied, and even cover up blunders when employers bend the law and regulations a little.

I strongly believe that only working together we will improve the reality of our world. We are not divided by countries, by languages, by different cultures and costumes unless we want to be divided. However, to unite humanity looks like a gargantuan task. We could at least start by pushing together at a regional level, through structures such as the EU.

We will challenge injustice and change unfair systems and conditions only through a tight, common effort.

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