How Was It, and How Did You Hear It?


Is it possible to characterize a given epoch of social or political history through the world of sounds described by contemporaries? This seems like an attractive option. Perhaps it would reveal various connections between reality (the sphere of traditional historians’ interest: What was it like?) and its perception, that is, contemporary observers’ internal experiences. It also would be interesting to trace how the soundscapes of the past are recorded in the collective consciousness. Within the background of images of Stalinism in today’s documentaries, the mass song of that era resounds.[3] This background becomes a sign, a domain of interest for semiologists. As concerns the subject of the sounds of Stalinism, I do not have very broad aspirations: I would like to point out some phenomena, to find a few clues in a limited number of sources.


This paper refers to a period in Romanian history that has been described at length by other scholars. There is no need to outline here the “obsessive decade,” as the years of Stalinism before 1989 were euphemistically called. The Romanian variant of the communist dictatorship has an extensive bibliography, the most important synthesis still being the work of Tismăneanu (2003). Among Romanian works, of note is a book by Tănase (1998) that discusses the relationship between the new Romanian ruling elite and the former social elite, in particular the process of the controlled degradation and decimation of the former elite. This issue is discussed in the abundant Romanian-language literature; it is of particular importance as a background to the phenomena described in this paper. Undoubtedly, this variant of regime was one of the cruelest in Central and Eastern Europe and resulted in exceptionally impactful social trauma. Common feelings and emotions included in the sphere of the so-called sensory history should be placed in this context.


I will refer to personal accounts – diaries and memoirs – from Bucharest during the years of Stalinism. Among them are the huge journal of the theater critic and essayist Alice Voinescu (1885-1961), the notes of the journalist and writer Pericle Martinescu (1911-2005) and of the journalist Sorana Gurian (1913-1956) from before her emigration to France, the memoirs of the poet and translator Sanda Stolojan (1919-2005), and two volumes of memoirs by translator and writer Annie Bentoiu (1927-2015). While these authors occupy a span of more than 40 years in age and differ widely in their temperaments and experiences, they are united by their belonging to the social elite (higher education and significant social capital, although Martinescu and Gurian came from poor families), Francophile and pro-Western inclinations, and a critical or hostile attitude towards the regime imposed on Romania after 1945.[4] This sentenced them to various deprivations, including forced changes of place of residence, loss of job, long-term poverty, arrest and imprisonment (Voinescu, Stolojan), inducing them to emigrate from Romania (Gurian 1949; Stolojan 1961). 


During the years of Stalinism (and often also later), these diaries belonged within the most confidential sphere, a world of silence. They were kept hidden, not discussed, and appeared in the public sphere only after 1989 when Romania’s public developed a great appetite for this kind of literature as well as for volumes of memories of experiences from the communist period. Naturally, these were primarily elite messages, notes, and memories of people belonging to the bourgeoisie, a narrow, but very important, model-forming group in Romania in the first half of the twentieth century, accustomed to class distinctions and a certain quality of life, that included access to institutions of high culture, such as the theatre or opera, and a strong inclination for music and listening to the radio. From 1948 on, a significant part of this social class lived with feelings of constant danger, deprivation, and imminent destruction of the world in which they once felt confident – a sense of “losing the world.” This was, in fact, an overtly formulated goal of the new regime. It started a hate campaign inspired by post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, succinctly expressed in the popular circa-1950 rhyme “Ana, Luca, Teo, Dej / bagă spaima în burgheji,” which meant that Ana Pauker, Gheorghe Luca, Teohari Georgescu, and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej – leaders of the Romanian Communist Party – filled the bourgeoisie with fear. In the summer of 1955, Alice Voinescu, a member of the intellectual elite of interwar Romania who had been deprived of a job at the university for years, noted that she heard “only frightened, restless voices” around her (Voinescu 2013: 340). The same Voinescu was scolded on the tram by a “suburban woman” who did not like Voinescu’s elegant lady’s gloves and the tone of her voice (Voinescu 2013: 175). Similar notes reflected the everyday dimensions of fear and symbolic subjugation, much more elusive yet also more public than serious political repression. The tone of these descriptions at times displayed the alleged haughtiness of the former elite and at times their fears and ill-treatment.


I focused on these, and not other, testimonies mainly due to the presence of numerous remarks connected to sounds in them. The testimonies were related to the authors’ personal attitudes, to their sophisticated musical taste and sensitivity, but above all to the existential difficulties they experienced. I used the accounts of other witnesses of the era as an auxiliary source.


Unlike de Courson’s impressions, these testimonies consist of “internal” messages (i.e., generated by the inhabitants of the city). What visitors noticed from their perspective of returning to a city they had not seen for a long time, and what they necessarily recorded superficially, appears in these testimonies as a reality experienced profoundly and over a span of years. I would like to extract from these intimate journals and memories the records of experiencing the sounds of the city during brutal political offensives conducted by the communist regime. In the sources cited in this paper, the notes about sounds mostly refer to the wider context of political terror and the everyday uncertainty of one’s own fate.


Research on hearing, listening, and aurality is a branch of sensory history that has been growing over the last twenty years, undoubtedly still overshadowed by research related to visuality. This is due not only to the technical difficulties associated with recreating old soundscapes and sonic sensitivity but also the usual underestimation of this sphere as an autonomous research subject. In turn, the interest in sounds was clearly influenced by the experience of the civilizational changes in the twentieth century, among which the importance of auditory technologies grew (Sterne 2003). In addition to the fascination with recording and transferring sounds, the criticism of noise and noise pollution has also been growing. Noise has become an important element in defining the social world, particularly in relation to class differences (e.g., dominant classes define and try to control noise), the increase in physical barriers and spatial zones (e.g., defining and separating noisy industrial parts of cities and their quiet suburban zones or isolating an apartment from the sounds of the outside world), and power relations (Bailey 2004).


According to the French researcher Jean-Pierre Gutton, the problem of noise entered public discourses after World War I in correlation with both advances in technology and the growing need for intimacy (Gutton 2000: 145). It seems, however, that the criticism of noise (defined as inappropriate sound) had developed in public discourses much earlier, certainly in the fifty years prior to de Courson’s observation, as Polish historian Marta Michalska (2020) points out, using the barrel organ as an example. What constituted music for some listeners was for others an unbearable and inappropriate sound – noise, a pollution of space. The boundaries between these perceptions (and definitions) largely coincided with the social boundaries between the dominant social strata and the popular class. The efforts to remove barrel organs from public or semi-public spaces (such as the courtyards of Warsaw tenement houses) were an expression of privileged groups defining civilization as well as notions of public hygiene or mass education. The persistent presence of barrel organs in the soundscape of the city was concurrently an expression of the social need to reproduce accessible and non-elite musical sounds.


The barrel organ example captures the aspirations to dominate the sound space as well as the divisions of physical space related to the perception of sounds. The separation of the private from the semi-public and the fully public sphere was to a large extent a mental separation between sounds that can be heard by strangers and those that are intimate, between those that disturb and should be fenced off and those that make life more pleasant, and between sounds that are publicly admissible and those forbidden for some reason. In this way, the world of sounds largely expressed and defined the order of nineteenth-century bourgeois society, especially the relations of domination and power occurring in it (Picker 2003). It is these aspects of sonic history that Jacques Attali (2004) draws attention to, also mentioning the supervision and censorship of sound transmission in the twentieth century. The unprecedented developments of the techniques of recording and transmitting image and sound, which took place in the first decades of the twentieth century, coincided with the emergence of totalitarian regimes, developing aspirations to control all spheres of life by using mass media on a large scale. Control over sound – especially radio transmission – became one of the key areas of interest for the authorities of the Third Reich and the USSR and, subsequently, of the countries subordinated to them. But control over the recording and emission of sounds and music, understood as a propaganda tool, is only one of the issues related to the sonic history of those countries.


In this paper I will point out some phenomena related to the perception of the sound sphere of Bucharest during the Stalinist years, documented by some of its inhabitants. Both the historical period in question and the selection of the group of people whose evidence is the source for this analysis is marked by a quite distinct set of phenomena. We are dealing with a situation of profound social change brought about by the brutal actions of the state apparatus through a large-scale ideological offensive and massive political repression. These events were felt most acutely by the groups exposed to persecution, that is, the social elite to date – the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia – who found themselves in an “abnormal” situation (Brzostek 2020). The destruction of economic life, based on private property, and the symbolic playing field established by the elites to that point, resulted in their material and mental degradation, which is reflected in their memoirs. I chose these sources while being aware of the narrowing of the perspective that results from this. It allowed me, however, to recreate the feeling of “losing the world” (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s parlance), that is, the sense of the destruction of the existing habitus that was experienced by some of the city’s inhabitants. An example of this loss is found in the soundscape of Bucharest, a city that had a reputation for entertainment, a city that reflected the aspirations of the Romanian bourgeoisie established in the era that ended with the start of the World War II.