In the Mirror of Romania’s Defunct Secret Police, Former Dissident Sees an Image of Herself

Romania: Dossier 666

Bucharest, Dec. 21, 1989: Former Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (R) delivers his last public speech from the balcony of the Romanian Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest (Photo: AFP).

Her file was number 666. They gave her a code name: Diana. The former French professor closes her eyes and breathes in the odor of this September morning. Comfortable in an armchair, a newspaper open on her lap, Doina Cornea smiles. The smell of coffee draws her to the kitchen, and she returns with two small cups and sets them on a table. “I hide the cigarettes so I won’t be tempted,” she confides. “But what the heck, I’ll light one up anyway.” And then she smokes a second, and a third, and smoke fills the office where, piled around the room, lie photocopies of the huge file compiled on her by the Securitate, fallen dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police.

"I’ve always liked a cigarette with my coffee,” Doina Cornea continues. “At one point, I was contacted by a young African who was studying in Romania. He told me how much he admired me, and offered to carry my protest letters to the West. Each time he came to visit me, he would bring a packet of coffee, something you didn’t often see at that time. I suspected this young man was up to something, and my husband told me to stop accepting his gifts. But I always took his coffee. For a year, I drank coffee which I imagined was paid for by the Securitate, and had a lot of fun sending their informer off on wild goose chases. It turns out I was right. When I was able to read my file, I found reports the student had written about me. Sometimes he would exaggerate so as to look good. This is typical of informers. They make certain things out to be bigger than they are, so as to seem invaluable to their bosses.”

It was in April 2001 that Doina Cornea made her first request to see her secret police file. She had to jump a series of bureaucratic hurdles, but eventually, 28 voluminous files were opened to her on condition she go consult them in Bucharest, more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) from where she lives. “It’s been tough,” she admits. “My pension isn’t big enough to pay for frequent trips to Bucharest, or to pay for all the photocopying I’d have to do. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to read all they wrote about me.”

Our fear gave birth to an evil as profound as original sin.

For two years, Romanians have been allowed access to the 1.8 million files—laid end to end, the paper would stretch 12 kilometers—that the Securitate kept on them during the 50 years of Communist dictatorship.The secret police stopped at almost nothing. The files contain faithfully transcribed conversations from telephone taps; information stolen through hidden microphones in homes, offices, and prisons; daily activity reports on people tailed by Securitate agents; statements signed by neighbors, friends, or enemies; copies of private letters and transcripts of interrogation sessions. And because a “suspect’s” file targeted not only that person but also their family and friends, the secret police managed to X-ray the private lives of millions of Romanians.

When people get to read their Securitate file, they’re overcome with emotion. Some have fainted; some break down in tears. Attendants at the reading room say they wish they had a nursing station for medical emergencies caused by such reactions. "For me, the experience was much more intense than I had thought it would be,” Doina Cornea recalls. “I was reading and crying all at once. I was astonished to read what my friends, my colleagues, and even people close to my family had said about me to the Securitate. I found a transcript of conversations among the three other detained women who shared my cell. They didn’t know that everything they said was being taped. Initially, when I was out of the cell for interrogation, they called me all sorts of names. A week later, one of them told the others she now felt I was a real lady. I totally broke down at reading this. Here was a common criminal who didn’t know me at all but who respected me, while my intellectual friends.…” Her voice trails off with remembered hurt.

Doina Cornea Romania
Bucharest: Doina Cornea urges hunger strikers to end their protest against the Communist regime on May 23, 1990 (Photo: AFP).  

Today, 12 years after Ceausescu’s fall and assassination, Doina Cornea talks of anything but revenge and bitterness. “I’m happy and at peace. The past hasn’t spoiled my friendships. I still see friends who know that I know. We don’t ever speak of this, but I think all Romanians should go see their own file and get to know themselves better, because we can’t move forward by hiding behind lies.” The truth hurts, though. The truth is that the Securitate would not have succeeded in its totalitarian enterprise without the help of many ordinary Romanians. The secret police with its 20,000 or so officers could never have kept watch on several million people. The Securitate’s secret, so to speak, was its ability to recruit some 600,000 informers from among the men and women in the street. According to a study done by the Romanian Political Prisoners Association, 39 percent of the informers were university-educated, while 37 percent had finished high school. An even more troubling statistic: Just 1.5 percent of the collaborators were paid and 1.5 percent were blackmailed, while fully 97 percent were motivated purely by “political and patriotic feeling.”

For Doina Cornea, the roots of her misadventures with the Securitate lie in an epiphany that happened during a visit to Strasbourg, France, in 1965. “I was sitting in a café with a group of French friends. I was an admirer of [Gen. Charles] de Gaulle, but there was one Socialist friend in the group who criticized him unmercifully. I was expecting the police to come arrest the guy at any minute, but of course nothing happened. Right at that moment, I came to a full realization of what my life in Romania really was. I was ashamed, and little by little, that shame pushed me to action. I tried to live normally in an abnormal country. Nothing more than that.”

Doina Cornea’s troubles began in 1982. “I was with my husband at the beach on the Black Sea. I turned on the radio and we listened to the reading of a letter entitled ‘To those who haven’t stopped thinking.’ It was the Western anti-communist station Radio Free Europe. My husband was thrilled by the letter, but when he heard my name at the end as the writer he turned green. Me, too. I couldn’t believe that the staff of the station would reveal my name, but I found out later that the journalists who handled it believed that I had used a pseudonym. ‘So what do we do now?’ he asked me. And I said that we had to keep on with what we were doing.” And Cornea did keep on doing the same thing, sending 30 letters to Radio Free Europe and to the European Council throughout the 1980s.

“After the first letter,” Doina Cornea goes on, “they called me in to the Securitate offices. At first, they were nice enough, which encouraged me, but I quickly learned the rules. I must never tell them the outright truth nor an outright lie, but a combination of truth and lies. It was like a game of chess where each player makes his move based on the previous moves of the other. What they wanted above all was to find out the identity of the courier who was taking my letters to the West. It was Gilles Bardy, a French professor who was teaching at the Philology Institute in Cluj. He was taking a huge risk, because he didn’t have diplomatic immunity to arrest.”

In the meantime, Doina Cornea’s letters were being widely disseminated in the Western press, which helped protect her from the anger of Ceausescu and the Securitate.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do much without the help of Western embassies,” she acknowledges today. “The French Embassy went very far indeed in supporting me. Every Thursday, I had to call them in Bucharest to confirm that I was still alive. It was a sort of guarantee that allowed me to continue my activities.” Watched 24 hours a day, put under house arrest and then thrown in prison, sometimes interrogated night and day, Doina Cornea maintained and even improved on her methods of resistance. In 1984, the Romanian authorities gave her a passport so she could go stay with her daughter in France. She left, but to the great surprise of the Securitate, returned to Romania and continued to denounce the abuses of the regime. “I would tell myself that if I could get just five people to wake up to what was going on, that would be worth it,” she says.

After Ceausescu’s fall 12 years ago, the new regime’s propaganda machine regularly vilified Doina Cornea. Headlines in government-owned newspapers would read "Doina Cornea Wants to Sell the Country to Foreigners," or "Doina Cornea Has Bought the Dacia Automobile Plant," or "Doina Cornea Is Trying to Starve the Workers." In Bucharest, a woman who could have been her double was violently attacked. Even after the dictatorship was gone, the former dissident remained a bother not only to a new regime seeking legitimacy, but also to a society that refused—and still refuses—to look at itself in the mirror of its own past. Romanians haven’t managed to deal with their collective guilt. “Why?” Doina Cornea asks. “Because everything has a price and few people are ready to pay this price. I have the most faith in the workers and peasants. Even today, Romanian intellectuals have a snobbish side. They wouldn’t even speak to a worker who hadn’t read Kant. But you can’t accomplish anything without some self-sacrifice. A country changes because of little things that we do each day. These little sacrifices should be a daily regimen."

Romania today remains in confusion about its past. Two years ago, the National Council for Research on the Archives of the Securitate, known as CNSAS, was set up. But the council is unable to carry out its mission. The secret police’s files are in the keeping of the Romanian Intelligence Service, or SRI, which took the place of the Securitate, and which refuses to hand them over to the research council. "The Securitate files should not be held by the SRI,” says former intelligence chief Virgil Magureanu, who held the job from 1990 to 1997. “The first thing that should have happened is that they be turned over to the CNSAS. Without the files, this institution died before it was even born." Today, on grounds of “national interest,” the SRI is going through all the files in the archives to expunge proof of the abuses carried out by the Securitate. To see their own files, Romanians must make application to the CNSAS, which acts as an intermediary with the intelligence service.

Before they see their files, applicants may have to wait up to a year. The length of the process helps explain why so few actually have gotten a look at their files in the past two years: 862 people out of 7,208 applicants. "When you look at these files, you quickly understand how stupid they are,” asserts Mihai Pelin, the author of several books on the Securitate’s files. “Under pretense of defending the national interest, the Securitate did any old thing that came to mind. These files are incredibly ridiculous, because the Securitate was in the habit of inventing problems and enemies of the regime in order to extend its mission. All Romanians should get to know their files as a way of healing themselves of this evil. And everyone needs to know that 120,000 people, most of them workers and peasants, were imprisoned for no reason.”

To mobilize public opinion, the CNSAS has put together an exhibition that reconstructs the shadowy world of the Securitate. One of the exhibits is a Securitate officer’s uniform, and organizers say this has caused unexpected trouble: some visitors have spat on the uniform, while others tried to urinate on it. “But we’re the ones who created our idol!” Doina Cornea exclaims, referring to Ceausescu. “Our fear gave birth to an evil as profound as original sin. Do you know what bothers me the most after all I’ve been through? The fact that anyone, everyone could have done something. There was nothing special about what I did, it was within the grasp of each of us.”