A Paparazzo of the Romanian Communist Nomenklatura: Vladimir Tismaneanu on the Couch

The release of Vladimir Tismaneanu’s book Lumea secreta a nomenclaturii [The Secret World of the Nomenklatura] constitutes an event. Not so much because of its content though as the author remains faithful to his own style pasting and copying information and part of the texts in the book from older published works and his personal blog thus setting a new record, one hard to beat, in terms of self-plagiarism. This book, with its concise and explicitly personal nature, is extraordinarily revealing of something genuinely symptomatic of the author’s psychological structure and his academically-flavored anti-communism, the two being inextricably intertwined.

It looks like Vladimir Tismaneanu’s memoirs can only be read in the light of the author’s relationship to his father. The duty to confess that Tismaneanu invokes as a pretext for his writing these memoirs is prompted by an external interpellation: both Florin Constantiniu and Cristian Tudor Popescu, among others, have suggested that Vladimir Tismaneanu is a sort of Pavlik Morozov for having denounced his father in the Tismaneanu Report (p. 23).  The parallel holds: Morozov denounces his father in the name of his communist loyalty while Tismaneanu does it in the name of his anti-communist loyalty. Following the denunciation, Morozov’s father is sentenced to death and executed. There seems to be similarities with the Tismaneanu case. In the Ghilotina de scrum [The Ash Guilotine}, a book that includes some of his conversations with the writer Mircea Mihaies, Tismaneanu tells how, following a heated argument with his father about Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969 (the two strongly disagreed on the meaning of the gesture), not only did the two have a fall out and stopped speaking to each other but Tismaneanu’s father had his second heart attack which prepared the way for the third and fatal one. The symbolic killing of the father through denunciation seems to lead to the father’s physical demise. In The Secret World of the Nomenklatura, Tismaneanu seems to go through the same steps once more – from unmasking to (ritual) killing.

The Oedipus complex is frequently misinterpreted and, consequently, misused analytically because it is taken too literally. It is commonly read as the wish to kill one’s father in order to have unrestricted access to the mother’s exclusive love. Therefore, reading Tismaneanu’s anti-communism (that he shares with other former communists’ sons who turned hardcore anti-communists such as Andrei Cornea, H.R. Patapievici, Marius Oprea, etc.) as rebellion and symbolic parricide against his father is completely false. For one, it would mean to take it at face value[i] since Tismaneanu himself describes symbolic parricide in the book as the distancing of the children from the parents’ world, not only in his own case, but also with other sons and daughters of former communists: from Stalin’s daughter to Beria’s son and others (pp 27-29). Moreover, according to its author, the book was supposed to be called Parents and Children. It is precisely this literal reading that cancels the analytical power of the Oedipus complex turning it into a story about succession and the struggle between generations understood as part of the bourgeois symbolic world governed by at least one clear norm, which Tismaneanu mentions three times in the book: the children are not to be blamed and held accountable for the parents’ actions (with the psychoanalytical and inevitably political cherry on top: as long as the children reject and denounce these actions. Circle closed.)

Therefore, what is at stake in the Oedipus complex is not the direct competition with the father but the arousal of the desire for the mother which, in addition to giving substance to the whole triad, also proclaims the centrality of the phallus, i.e. the indissoluble relation between power and desire. The urge to be loyal, which triggers the denouncing of the father as a harbinger of the son’s challenging the father, is caused by the very arousal of the desire and the need to be loyal to it[M1] . The too literal reading of the Oedipus complex usually contains another error: the phallus is mistaken for the penis.[ii] The phallus has nothing to do with the (father’s) actual biological organ, but with the infinity of the desire as an object which can never be attained. The phallus is therefore the incarnation of the desire to desire but also an acknowledgement of the fact that one can never truly fulfill this desire. Although triggered by the mother, this desire actually stands for the subject’s losing the direct relationship with his mother, for his passing from the breast to the phallus, from passive immediate connection to active desire.

It is precisely this passage, – the discovery of the phallus -, that brings about the third perturbing element: the double nature of the father figure as both object  of the mother’s attention and, consequently, as reminder of the impossibility to fully satisfy one’s desire to (re)connect phallically with the maternal object of desire. This is how the desire to kill one’s father is born: not to replace him but to get rid of this protuberance that seems to prevent the son from fully realizing his desire to have full unrestricted access to the mother’s love and attention. Therefore, the father is not the phallus to be conquered but, on the contrary, the biological obstacle that prevents the son from occupying the phallic position. The child’s efforts to draw the mother’s attention and love, including his attempt to kill his father, come from the desire to understand the structure of her desire, to fulfill this desire of hers, to be able to fully satisfy her. The essential structure of desire is, therefore, the need to know what the other’s true desire is in order to be able to fulfill it. What the woman/mother desires is the key question that the Oedipus complex makes visible, the implication being that the true desire is to be both object of the other’s desire and, most of all, the instrument of fulfilling the other’s desire.

In the Freudian tradition, reaching the phallic stage also includes the threat of castration inasmuch as the child does give up his desire for the mother and fails to begin the process of identifying with the father. Lacan, on the contrary, speaks of symbolic castration understood less as a repressive, fear-driven process and more as a positive process, of reconfiguration of the child’s relationships with the others. As he understands that he is not the ultimate object of his mother’s desire, that he is something external to himself, there appears a gap, a break: the child understands that he cannot fully immediately satisfy his desire and he enters the language zone, a zone that also makes him dependent on his relationships with the others. This symbolic castration does not, of course, cancel permanently the need for the mother’s total embrace.

For Freud, the unsolved father – son conflict leads to a fixation on the phallus, meaning that the son will not fully grow up, he will be aggressive, hyper-ambitious and obsessed with distinctions and external recognition. He only pretends to accept the father’s order and figure, i.e. shutting off the desire for the mother, hence the pathological fixation on morality which actually translates his major fear of authority and its punishing power. As illustrative as it gets, Vladimir Tismaneanu describes in his book one of his first memories which occurred at the Central Committee’s daycare center, on Aleea Alexandru Street: “They had us sleep after lunch but, as I said, I hated this afternoon nap so I kept my eyes open throughout that long torturing hour. Right after that we would start running around, singing…” (pp 75-76). Further, towards the end of the book, the author openly praises morality: “It is important to know that money can buy anything but they cannot buy morality” (p 181), unaware that he is thus invoking one of the classical oppositions in psychoanalysis. The authority is not challenged directly, openly but passively either through accepted subordination (“eyes open”) or through unmasking and denouncing in the name of morality and ethical idealism (p 182).

Being impossible for him to directly challenge his father and thus claim a phallic function for himself, Tismaneanu identifies fully with the role and the figure of the mother as illustrated in this passage: “My mother would have wanted me to become a pediatrician, this was her calling, she wanted to do good in a very straightforward way. I think this explains why she woke up from the Marxist dream earlier than my father whom I’m actually not sure ever did wake up from it. Preferring the straightforward kind of good, she realized the communists’ love for human kind leads to contempt for the individual. I think this is the lesson that my mother taught me: what it is to proudly carry the burden of responsibility.” (p 37)

But what is it actually “to proudly carry the burden of responsibility”? It is precisely to remain loyal to his mother’s awakening to the communists’ false love for human kind. This break implies another break with the father who is still dreaming the dogmatic dream. In this passage we start to see the author’s infantile megalomaniac hope: awoken from the (father’s) communist world, the mother can now dedicate all her love and care to the son, Vladimir, all the more so as she wanted herself to be a pediatrician, a double confirmation of her love and care for children.

The mother takes up all the space in Vladimir the child’s world, even replacing his father who, after being tortured for the communist cause in Spain, loses his role as an imposing father figure, the Big Other in the family. Here is what Tismaneanu writes: “Once they wanted to recruit my father in the Tudor Vladimirescu division but, given that he had been maimed in the war, there was no question that he would take part in the fighting. During that time, my father developed some sort of hardness, some macho toughness in his relationship to my mother. She adored him and he venerated her. But his nervousness about what would offend him or make him feel psychologically or physically inferior was extraordinary. My mother tried to protect him, she tried to provide for us, protecting him in every way she could. These things would eventually lead to a certain family dynamics which I am not willing to discuss out of respect for my parents. However, there was surely dependence on my mother who was basically both mother and father to me… At first, because he was constantly being investigated by the Party, marginalized, and trampled on. Even later on, my mother was the one who kept in touch with my school, as needed.” (p 52) Yet another quote: “To me, I think I’ve said it before, my father was the voice that came out of the radio. That means that I listened to him a couple of times talking about some weird abstruse notions such as “the workers and peasants alliance” or “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.” (p 72) The father seems not only to be absent but also useless: the mother is the provider for the whole family and she is the one to use her own friendships and influence to keep her job (pp 79-80).

It is Tismaneanu’s father who appears to have been castrated, needing the protection and help of the mother the way a child does. Tismaneanu’s father is no longer capable to fulfill the virile-warrior function of real men. As a result, he is no longer the object of the mother’s (erotic) love but the object of her maternal care. In an exemplary reversal of the Oedipus complex, Tismaneanu the child and his father do not compete over the mother’s womb (erotic desire) but over her bosom (the need for protection, adulation and passive love). Therefore, the father’s castration (bodily – his missing right hand, symbolically – his fall and humiliation as a member of the communist hierarchy) actually comes to mean that symbolically the father can no longer have sexual intercourse with the mother – the idea behind the author’s euphemistic silence (“a certain dynamics”). To put it in Freudian language, the child enters the parents’ bedroom but does not witness the parents’ intercourse; instead, because of the father’s castration, he witnesses the lack of the intercourse which traumatizes the child even more.

But Vladimir Tismaneanu would rather not go into that area of his memories, invoking his respect (but not his love) for his parents, where respect is perfectly compatible with the register of morality (see above). What is the purpose of remembering all this if anamnesis is obviously out of the question? To what end does he travel back into his childhood if those memories are to remain repressed? Surely, these memories, disclosures, portraits (the book’s subtitle) are meant to create the setting for his challenging his father and, by extension, the world of the communist nomenklatura he associates with his father, a world that had obviously forced his mother to assume a marginal, submissive and defensive position. The book includes a telling passage to that effect: in 1957, Leonte Rautu, deputy member of the Politburo and head of the Directorate for Propaganda and Culture at that time, gave Tismaneanu and his mother a lift in his car to Sinaia. Here is how Tismaneanu remembers this occasion: “We drove off and I will never forget how Rautu slept all the way to Sinaia – we could only see the back of his neck. He didn’t say a word to my mother the whole time. They knew each other very well, they had been once arrested together in 1936, they had been war comrades inMoscow… But he wouldn’t say a peep…” (p 101).

Tempting as it might be, I will not conclude that the book Perfectul acrobat. Leonte Răutu, măștile răului [The Perfect Acrobat. Leonte Rautu, The Masks of Evil], co-written by Tismaneanu and Cristian Vasile, is nothing but a way of getting even in time with the memory of this episode that the author seems unable to forget. But is a direct connection between personal trivia and one’s political and ideological production justified? This is precisely the kind of allegedly academic endeavor Vladimir Tismaneanu has embarked on in his books, under the name of psycho-history or psycho-biography, where this type of research seems to explain communism and its leaders through the lens of various dysfunctionalities the latter have experienced in childhood particularly in the relationships with their parents. The implicit argument is that a normal, harmonious development would have protected them from the temptation of communism and, consequently, of evil. Communism is a disease, a childhood dysfunctionality that later explains the embracing of a “criminal” ideology.

This interpretation needs to be rejected not solely on grounds of its underlying pathologization but, above all, because of the psychologizing and non-analytical explanations it operates with. Therefore, in Tismaneanu’s case, the question is: What kind of “mask of evil” is the back of Rautu’s neck that the author and his mother stare at the whole way to Sinaia? Once more what the child Tismaneanu actually sees is the lack of sexual intercourse, hence the unforgettable traumatic nature of this car trip. Basically, he sees Rautu not being in the least sexually attracted (symbolically speaking, of course) to his mother as he prefers to sleep all the way through over enjoying her company despite their previous shared experiences (prison, war). The mother, de-sexualized by her relationship to the castrated father, loses her attractiveness to the nomenklatura world: she can no longer arouse desire. The mother thus appears twice vanquished: politically marginalized and de-feminized, she is reduced to being a mere crutch for the cripple husband.

And the child becomes the instrument of his mother’s desire. She is the one who guides his choices as an adult before he emigrates, including exempting him from going to manifestations based on a fake medical certificate issued by a doctor friend of hers (p 171). Further, after the father’s death, his mother helps the author leave the country in 1981, using once more her family relations and friends. His gratitude matches her gesture. Tismaneanu writes: “I admit that I tend to idealize my mother and I believe she deserves it for several reasons. Not the least, because she gave birth to me twice: the second time back in 1981.  And she kept on fighting the Securitate, she was interrogated, they tried to manipulate her against me and she resisted.” (p 179)

His full identification with the mother’s perspective, as the instrument of her desire, is expressed by two different strategies adopted by Vladimir Tismaneanu. Before he leaves the country, he becomes a top student in the communist education system: “My father was in hospital, at Otopeni, we had had an argument and we hadn’t spoken for a year. Hearing that I had been admitted to the university with a high average, he took it as a great personal triumph. I accepted to visit him at the care home, he was a convalescent then. He had tears in his eyes. The place that had basically spat him out in 1959 was now, 10 years later, rolling out the red carpet for his son.” (p 160) Vladimir Tismaneanu is admitted to university with an average of 9.8 (he got a 10 in Marxist philosophy) and is delighted by the prospect of being part of the communist education system, an accomplishment that had obviously impressed a sick father on his hospital bed – the symbolic image of the father throughout the author’s life. Tismaneanu tries to take up an active, masculine, warrior-like role, basically trying to compensate for everything that his father was never able to be. His revenge, both against his father and the regime, had thus to come as a “triumph of the will”, pure seminal assertion. Tismaneanu sets to work, he writes, reads, cultivates relations, publishes in cultural magazines, and does research. He becomes the model student, the very incarnation of the communist new man, capable to leave behind his family background and fully integrate in the system. However, his enthusiasm comes to an abrupt end when, after graduating from university, he is denied the job he deemed worthy of his ego and ambitions. The ghost of his father’s destiny – marginalization, humiliation – revisits him. The child appears thus still caught up in his father’s world, unconsciously acting and functioning according to the rules of this world. This explains why, from the book, we only learn about the father’s reaction to the news of the son’s admission into university and not about the mother’s. It comes as no surprise then that it takes for the father’s death in order for the son to think of emigrating (a possibility made easier by the mother, similar to a second birth), i.e. escaping the world of the father for good.

When he reaches the West and finds himself constrained by the racist labor division in Western academia which ascribes the epistemic and theoretical power in writing history only to Westerners while non-Westerners are acknowledged only as embodied memory, Tismaneanu adopts a “feminine[iii]” strategy which will leave a lasting mark on his future career, especially on the type of anti-communist that he will practice. Tismaneanu will begin a shaming process targeting the communist nomenklatura, which he will carry out through extensive unmasking, denouncing, moral judgment and symbolic castration of the nomenklatura members, both men and women. Instead of challenging the nomenklatura representatives on the “masculine” terrain of analytical and historical Marxism (which he had actually begun doing in Romania), Tismaneanu opts for challenging them on the “feminine” terrain of memory, biography, and oral history. As a result, Tismaneanu’s whole work, both scientific and non-scientific, whether published in English or Romanian, is nothing but a long personal, subjective, and passionate indictment of the communist nomenklatura.

This memoir is but symptomatic of this fact. The kind of writing and unmasking operated by Vladimir Tismaneanu, -sometimes using the purest ‘50s Stalinist language as is the case with the portraits at the end of this book-, are structurally and genealogically connected to the strategies used by Securitate against the nomenklatura and state bureaucracy.[iv] In his effort to settle the score with the former nomenklatura members, Tismaneanu must take up the role of the Securitate interrogator. Hence his fascination, shared by all Romanian anti-communists, for the Securitate archives. They are the ultimate resource for shaming communist potentates. Tismaneanu’s is not a detached analytically and bibliographically informed attitude towards the world he is writing about but a mix of fascination and repulsion, of desire and repression, of passion and disgusted self-censorship. Writing, particularly in this confessing biographical form, thus substitutes the absent sexual intercourse between the mother and father; in other words, it becomes a form of autoeroticism and masturbation. For Freud, the child’s narcissism never fully disappears, -not even after the child grows up forced by the fear of castration -, but stays hidden, expressed as love and fascination for the loved object. Here we see the reverse phenomenon: the total idealization of the mother (overestimation of the desired object) becomes the cause of utmost narcissism.

Here is why, in this memoir, Tismaneanu does not look like a well-behaved child confessing before a figure of authority who asked of him to confess about his communist past (the Foucauldian version, possibly inspired by Tismaneanu’s critics and of his nomenklatura past). Further, he does not really seem to be on a Freudian psychoanalysis couch either for, as we saw, he is not in the least interested to take the anamnesis all the way through as his memories are very selective not only when it comes to his own past but also to his relationship to Nicu Ceausescu, for instance. On what couch is Vladimir Tismaneanu lying then? Judging by the kind of details, information, dirty secrets, and disclosures he produces, Tismaneanu looks more like a paparazzo invited to sit on the couch of a celebrity gossip TV show about the Romanian communist nomenklatura and to reveal private details and juicy gossip. For its most part, The Secret World of the Nomenklatura, particularly the second part dealing with portraits, is nothing but a gallery of photograms meant to show us the main nomenklatura members with their pants down. Each photogram is accompanied by tidbits of gossip, rumors, and private details. Further, the book reads very well as a guide of the Primaverii quarter: who lived where, at what address and with whom, as well as the nature of the relationships between these people. For instance, we find out that Nicu Ceausescu used to get beatings from his father (p 136), that Alexandru Barladeanu was impotent and that is why his wife left him for another man (p 54), that Lucien Goldmann was one of the first young men to court Tismaneanu’s aunt (p 34), that Nicu Ceausescu and Donca Niculescu-Mizil met at balls organized in the high-school’s gym, that Bodnarenko became a drunk towards the end of his life (p 197), that Miron Constantinescu’s daughter killed her mother with a small axe (p 245) and many other similarly tabloid-like information.

Furthermore, the surprising thing about the gallery of nomenklatura women’s portraits is the violence behind the descriptions. Marta Draghici “was an extraordinarily harsh woman, a bitch feared even by her close relatives, a fanatical communist, a permanent reservoir of hatred” (p 187). Tamara Dobrin was “…a genuine scourge… She hadn’t been nicknamed the viper or the cobra for nothing. Fixed gaze, a permanently serious face, frowning, constantly lying in wait, the famously alert comrade (she was said to relax only thanks to alcohol)” (p 199). Tismaneanu concludes: “Each one of these champions of Stalinism unleashed deserves a portrait: hyper-alert, suspicious, resentful, jealous and arrogant to their subordinates, eaten away by physical and intellectual inferiority complexes, Romanian Stalinists were equally eager to bow low before the highest Party officials” (p 208). This is not merely about misogynism or the classical strategy to pathologize communists drawing on their personalities, especially as far as the women’s portraits go, but it is revealing of the same idolizing of the mother as the basis for his megalomania. By contrast, here is the erotic and moral portrait Tismaneanu draws of his mother’s sister, Cristina Luca: “…compared to Ghizela Vass or Ida Felix, the head of the Foreign Affair cadres, she was not ugly. She was even beautiful, she could choose a good perfume, she had seen the big museums in Paris, spoke French perfectly, had studied at the Sorbonne, she had been a real heroine of the French Resistance” (p 24).

In the Foreword, the author boasts of having been called „a Marcel Proust of Romanian anti-communism” by writer Mircea Cartarescu. Aside from the megalomania of both authors, the statement is not that farfetched: after all, Vladimir Tismaneanu is nothing but a chronicler of the private life of the communist nomenklatura. It follows that there are no secrets in the Secret World of the Nomenklatura except for the author’s infantile fascination with a world he had always wanted to belong to but which kept rejecting him.

Translated into English by Miruna Voiculescu

[i] Marta Petreu’s pseudo psychoanalytical studies are another good example of misinterpretation of the Oedipus complex as they are based on a very limited reading of the complex and an equally deficient use of it.


[ii] I am drawing here on Richard Boothby’s excellent interpretation in Sex on the Couch (Routledge, 2005), in which he not only goes on a mission impossible today, i.e. rehabilitating Freudism after the feminist critique, but he does it from a Lacanian perspective.

[iii] To prevent any useless discussion of these categories, I am quick to add that the distinction between the “masculine” and the “feminine” strategies does not essentialize the two genders but denotes instead that the very man – woman distinction, although ontologically objective, it is not historically articulated in a neutral way but contingently. That means that the distinction itself gets its color from its first term: the man is not there simply as a term of the relation but it structures the relation as such in the sense of essential gender categories, patriarchalism, heteronormativity, etc.

[iv] For a more in-depth discussion, see my article: http://socasis.ubbcluj.ro/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9&Itemid=10

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  • xxx

    I’ve also been wondering about the exact same factor myself lately. Pleased to see a person on the same wavelength! Nice article.

  • Alex Boican

    This is a very interesting psychoanalytical reading of Tismaneanu’s anti-communism, but I think it remains on the bourgeois surface of the oedipal subject. Is there a class struggle social unconscious to this individual trauma? In the end, the anti-communist attitude is a social and political ideology, even if based on a subjective experience. Why did the opposition to the communist regime generally took a right wing position? Was it because of the regimes successful implementation of social equality (which the right wing critics see as the root of all evil), or, on the contrary, because of the failure to implement social equality in real life, and instead the regime reproduced and enforced bourgeois structures of power and feeling, thus making them legitimate. The elements analysed in this article, i.e.,the castration of the father (the hard communist) and the phallic success of the mother (the soft bourgeois) suggest the latter to be the case. I think that there is a lot of critical theoretical work to be done in the understanding of what kind of social relations were articulated during communism, and how they determined the crystallization of social conflicts into political and ideological fronts, as well as personal feelings.
    Also the reference to Proust is ambiguous. Is it meant as a praise to Tismaneanu, or is a criticism of Proust? In either case I think it misplaced. Proust, was not just a chronicler of the private life of the bourgeoisie, but also an astute examiner of class struggle, that between aristocracy and bourgeoisie during the third republic, a thing that cannot be said about Tismaneanu’s writing on the communist nomenklatura.