The “Great Public Life”


Upon his arrival in Bucharest at the beginning of 1952, the new consul of the French Republic was struck by the atmosphere in the streets. He considered this to be the space of a “propaganda spectacle” in which loudspeakers played an important role (Brzostek 2015: 282). The loudspeakers that were placed in the public space from mid-1949 on, when the authorities decided to “radiophonize” the country (radioficare), became a clear agent of spatial domination. The state-controlled press described how the loudspeakers with their folk music improved the mood and enthusiasm of working people (Bîtfoi 2012: 358). It was an expression of the new “street politics” (Lindenberger 1993), which enacted a change in the soundscape of cities and the imposition of a new rhythm of activity, marked by agitation (songs encouraging work) and propaganda (announcing political news). These loudspeakers are mentioned in Bentoiu’s memories as the agent that spread loud music, news, and ideological teachings. It was impossible to escape from them and forget what kind of world you lived in. “It's good that after the death of a high political figure, spoken broadcasts were stopped and only symphonic music, especially romantic and meditative music, was played. Days of this kind were a true sonic balm and were marked by guilt streaked with anticipation, and many called this repertoire ‘funeral music’” (Bentoiu 2006: 136-137). This indicated fatigue with the daily propaganda spectacle, which, however, became so monotonous in its repetition that it most likely stimulated the development of a phenomenon that the same Bentoiu (2006: 461) called “dangerous deafness” to propaganda as everyone became accustomed to it. 


One has the impression that as the loudspeakers spread and their sounds conquered the public space, the sounds of spontaneous street life dissipated and faded. In this development, the records of native witnesses of the era coincide with the impression of de Courson quoted at the beginning of this paper. A word that the authors of the testimonies usually use is “silence.” The common impression is one of being in a public space, perceived as devoid of liveliness and freedom. Bentoiu (2006: 137) states that “the passersby in the streets were few and silent, without the merry confusion of earlier times.” She recalls whispering in public places as well as feelings of inferiority and embarrassment in bureaucratic offices, especially when standing in front of the windowed booths to deal with formalities. The feeling of dependence on the apparatus of power and the fear of being noticed by its fonctionnaires led to mimicry (e.g., wearing plain clothes), an element of which was taciturnity (Bentoiu 2006: 215, 473). Stolojan evoked a “cautious reflex” while on the streets that prompted her to abandon the habit of speaking French in public, which had been a favorite distinction of the social elite of Bucharest (Stolojan 2009: 54). Romanian Francophile and Francophone traditions were becoming perilous as remnants of pro-Western sentiments.


Silence, it seems, is a very important concept in narratives about Stalinism. At this point, it is worth referring to the book about the history of silence by the French researcher Alain Corbin (who significantly omits the subject of totalitarianism) and his concept of “tactical silence” (Corbin 2016: 125-142). Tactical silence can be associated with some behavioral forms of Ketman, introduced by Czesław Miłosz in The Captive Mind to analyze Stalinism: an outward submission to the authorities that conceals one’s own views while one pursues one’s own interests and subjectivity. Silence can be one of the ways to protect one’s own subjectivity, to avoid repressions that would harm that subjectivity. The need for silence appears in many testimonies: the silence of the night in Martinescu’s notes, silence in the street, silence in common living spaces, silence during meetings. Silence accompanies the passive reception of official messages. It is difficult to determine the extent to which we are dealing here with purely mental phenomena, i.e., the memory of events that itself shapes the soundscape, or to what extent it is a reflection of certain physical situations. One element of these testimonies is a feeling of loneliness even when participating in group activities (listening to lectures, cheering, singing), whose silences are, during breaks or in the background of an ongoing meeting or celebration, being interpreted by individual participants. At the opposite of silence we find collective singing, especially The Internationale, which began and ended at specified moments during a meeting of a party organization or trade union cell. Bentoiu (2006: 371) recalled the emotions accompanying this song, which suggests “the gloomy majesty of suffering, redeemed by a sense of healing solidarity.” In Bentoiu’s narrative, surrendering to this song was a kind of perverse participation in a ritual that she didn’t enjoy but that, nonetheless, became an important part of her personal experience.


The described phenomena culminated during assemblies, which were the quintessence of the great public life, occurring on official holidays, especially May Day parades. There were also moments when the propaganda spectacle – symbolized in daily life by the street loudspeakers – attained its apogee. Shops were better stocked, and there were food stalls in the streets and dance floors and orchestras in the parks. For the authors of the testimonies quoted in this paper, the facade of the festivities was obvious; to them, the festivities did not feel authentic and only served to feature the lack of cheerfulness of the crowd. “Big traffic, slogans, cheers and a grim resignation,” noted Voinescu (2013: 175) on 1 May 1950. It is significant that the type of emotional involvement greatly influenced what the participants saw and heard in these moments. One of the essential experiences of life under Stalinism was to merge with the mass of people pushed onto the streets on May 1. For Lilly Marcou, a young enthusiast of the system, participating in the procession was accompanied by great positive emotion; cheering and collective singing made her feel part of a great whole (Marcou 1982: 120-121). Bentoiu, on the other hand, remembered the feeling of loneliness in the crowd, although she was among friends, and the necessity to cheer “Slavă lui Stalin!” (Glory to Stalin!) to the rhythm of the march. “I was just pretending to cheer, but that upset me too” (Bentoiu 2006: 365). In similar messages, a vacuum is created between the theatre of collective life, with its expressive emotions, and the world of individual experiences. The deafening sound of songs and cheers is an alien environment in which the individual must endure, must cope, and, most of all, must not reveal their emotions. The inability to express these emotions created a special kind of silence in the hustle and bustle, perceptible between the lines of notes and memories.


Another kind of silence that was clearly recorded in the testimonies was of a very solemn type. The accounts of the day of mourning after the death of Joseph Stalin, when a long period of silence fell over a crowded Stalin Square in the center of Bucharest (at the foot of the statue of the leader), offer a snapshot of a unique experience. Apart from that moment, the days following the death of the leader were filled with funeral music from the loudspeakers, which offered residents a break from the everyday mobilization melodies. The announcement of Stalin’s death was a very important psychological moment for the societies under his dictatorship. It meant the emergence of hopes for change, but these hopes were not clear nor could they be expressed outside the narrowest circle of family and friends. Silence remained a lasting psychological experience, meaning the closing of oneself in these groups or within oneself, hiding one’s own views and personal past that could bring trouble (Bentoiu 2006: 314). It meant a redefinition of the public and private space.