The Whisperers of Bucharest


The loudspeaker outside the window, making noise from dusk to dawn, disturbed the couple Anda and Vlad Stolojan. They tried to collect signatures from neighbors asking the district authorities to silence the loudspeaker, but no one dared to sign the document. The loudspeaker was an instrument of power, and the fear of it outweighed the urge to protect one’s private space. The authorities tried to interfere in this space in various ways. From the end of the 1940s, housing regulations were in force that greatly limited the possibility of making decisions about one’s own apartment and granted administrative authorities the right to place tenants there. This created the phenomenon of komunalka, common in the USSR, in which there was the cohabitation of strangers resulting from compulsory decisions on where people should live as well as specific social policies causing the mixing of various social groups. Among the effects of these actions were numerous conflicts between the people who were forced to live together, including tensions related to noise, mutual distrust, and, in particular, fear of denunciation. Voinescu, who found herself in this situation, chose silence as her way of living in an apartment where she did not feel comfortable. In turn, the noises of other tenants in the morning forced her, by then a pensioner, to get up early, imposing on her the routine of a worker (Voinescu 2013: 175-176).


One important domestic device was the radio receiver. As part of the radioficare campaign, not only were street loudspeakers installed, but residents were encouraged to install a cable radio network in their homes. Its subscribers had only one program at their disposal, a compilation of channels I and II of Bucharest radio. This encouragement contributed to the rapid growth in the number of subscribers, which increased from around 80,000 (1950) to more than 300,000 (1957), with almost one-third using cable sets (Parusi 2007: 662; Anuarul statistic al oraşului Bucureşti 1960: 163, tab. 79). The receiver did not allow for the searching of any stations and was limited to an extremely ideological and Sovietized local program (Bîtfoi 2012: 279-280). So it was not this type of radio set that Mihai Cantuniari, who grew up in Bucharest in the 1950s, wrote about: “What was the radio for us in the 1950s and 1960s […]? It was everything: our only window to something different, the only connection with the wider world through news and music, a guarantor of freedom of feeling and thinking, which reached us in spite of specially designed jammers” (Cantuniari 2007: 45-46). Most of the state radio subscribers used receivers that made it technically possible to listen to foreign broadcasts. It was in this situation that a very significant, inversely proportional relationship, manifested itself: the more resonant street propaganda became, the more efforts were made to conceal listening to “hostile” Western stations. Nonetheless, such broadcasts were hampered by jamming installations. Radio London, for example, was listened to “with endless patience, recognizing sounds amid the unbearable chaos of the jamming” (Bentoiu 2006: 5). The Stolojan couple listened to the BBC “with the ears glued to our Blaupunkt” (Stolojan 2009: 71). This is how the father of teenager Marcou (1982: 140) found out about Stalin’s death before it was even reported by local media. He relayed the news to his daughter, a devoted communist, very gently, knowing how she would plunge into despair. In turn, the stepfather of teenager Lucian Boia, an officer, listened to the reports of “hostile radio stations” about the Hungarian revolution (Boia 2018: 84-85). Foreign radio was listened to in the bedroom very quietly, while in the other room another receiver was broadcasting propaganda and official music on its loudest setting (Barbu 2006: 92). This shows the disintegration of the public sphere, which was appropriated by the regime (as the official sphere), with its surviving remnants hidden in the private domain, also partially appropriated (through surveillance and pressure) and partially transformed into intimate attitudes and contacts. This was reflected in and through sounds, in the tone of public and private life noted in the testimonies, and especially in what can be called privatized public life. But it is best reflected in the analysis of Stalinism in the USSR by Figes (2007) under the suggestive title The Whisperers.


The tone of the voice – especially as regards the control of its intensity and volume – seemed to be one of the important areas of everyday self-control. Trusted persons exchanged whispers with information about arrested or repressed family members or friends or their fears for the future (Bentoiu 2006: 297, 331, 384-385). The whisper marked the circle of initiation. In kommunalka-type flats, it also marked the boundaries of the intimate space in which one could feel more confident; in the common space the voice was immediately lowered (Stolojan 2009: 54). The whisper was also a symbolic determinant in the sphere of the gossip and rumors, vital in contemporary life as a substitute public sphere whose “rumorers” (zvonişti) were threatened with repression. The soundscape of the apartment was, just like the external sphere, a labyrinth in which tenants learned to move by adapting their behavior to the boundary lines between rooms and persons. Another feature of this space was a special kind of sonority, resulting from mutual sonic control in which the tenants listened to each other, avoided sounds, or, conversely, intensified them to annoy people they didn’t like.


From 1948, the Romanian authorities pursued a housing policy in which people belonging to the former social elite were deprived of houses and flats and directed by housing offices to new addresses where they usually had to live in a small space with other tenants. Leaving (evacuare), displacement (dislocare), and allocation of living space (repartiţie) became tools of repression, control, and social engineering. The repartiţie experience meant finding oneself in a new, often hostile, social landscape and soundscape. It was a harsh experience that had become more common and produced the labyrinthine structure of everyday life. The sphere of the individual’s comfort zone became very narrow, and their uncertainty kept growing. This was accompanied by the difficulties of everyday life, especially the lack of food supplies, as well as the loss of many everyday features that were previously common to the old middle class, from the living space to kitchen and dining room equipment. Musical instruments, including pianofortes and pianos, were among the items that bourgeois families frequently had to get rid of. Performing and listening to music in the apartment had become more difficult.


“The therapeutic effect of music is well known today, but it is more difficult to recognize the one associated with intellectual and moral cleansing, thanks to which we regained our strength to face the next day’s waves of organized hatred and the omnipresent desire to exercise power, which we encountered at every step,” Bentoiu recalls (2006: 330). In this sentence, “we” means not only the experience of family members or friends but the entire imaginary community of people, allegedly like-minded and similarly threatened by the new reality. In the face of poverty and repression, groups of friends and acquaintances tried to maintain their bonds and elements of their own lifestyle. As is clear from the testimonies, music played a role in this as well. Among the most valued objects were the gramophone and certain musical recordings. Bentoiu (2006: 202, 280) recalls listening to classical music records in a small group and modest “teas” (ceaiuri) with dances by the turntable. Gurian (1950: 89) describes how, on a borrowed gramophone, she listened with melancholy to a French hit over and over again – Fréhel’s lyric “Où est-il mon moulin d’ la plac’ blanche.” Music created the illusion of moving in time or space and also gave the illusion that one had a choice.