Andrea Tompa*


In the present-case study I shall examine Romanian art criticism in the 70s and 80s, focusing on the Radio Free Europe (RFE) cultural programs. During my research in the RFE archives I analyzed texts of cultural programs, theater subject files, background reports, propaganda files, and letters and appeals to RFE kept in the Open Society Archive in Budapest, Hungary (under fond 300, subfond 60). My aim is to understand how criticism functioned in an era of censorship, dictatorship, what discourses were adopted and indeed how free the freest critic could be in expressing opinion. Also by analyzing the adopted critical discourses in their context, the aim of this paper is to give an indication of how such criticism can be read in the present and used for elaborating the past.

In Romania, after a short period of relative liberalization in the 60s, the year 1971 brought a turning point in the censorship of the Ceausescu era. The so-called July Theses (or Theses of Mangalia) of 1971 started the cultural revolution in Romania. Although the institutional censorship administered by the General Directorate for Press and Print (Directia Generala pentru Presa si Tiparituri) was formally closed down in 1977, censorship became institutionally less visible, but paradoxically more omnipresent. Under the guise of democratic structures, different party organs and community organizations could easily become censors. Censors were euphemistically called “lectors” or referees (meaning those who read). Censorship in theater became present on every level: repertory, text, and the whole construction of the play, also the visual element. The process of so-called peer-review (called vizionare) aimed at controlling a performance before its opening.[1] From the beginning of the 70s Romania gradually closed down to the world, and the media in general were in decline.

Radio Free Europe was established by the Congress of the United States in 1949 and transmitted mainly from Munich, Germany, in national languages. The Romanian section became one of the most powerful and influential—if not “the” absolute number 1—radio program of RFE, both in quality and number of listeners. There were several reasons for the popularity of the RFE Romanian section in the country: very poor media in the country—little access to information and also reduced, short TV programs; RFE Romania had, in this period, a strong editorial board, with professional journalists who had already enjoyed a reputation in Romania before leaving the country. Its audience was estimated to be more than 55% of the whole population (but objective estimates were impossible to obtain). Also the absence of jamming contributed to such a big listenership. (Romania stopped jamming RFE in 1963.)

The continuous attacks on RFE in the official Romanian media paradoxically must also have contributed to its high popularity (the hatred toward the activity of RFE came directly from the leader of the country, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Securitate agents were busy observing every move related to RFE).

Criticism lies in the basic nature of existence, the ontology of RFE—the radio station itself was created in order to criticize in every respect those countries which were lacking (on different levels) freedom of speech. To break the silence (of the official media in these countries), to give critical response to works kept in silence, to protect authors and works, but also to denounce censorship and party ideology in the arts and its collaborator was the aim of these programs. Thus RFE discourse—protective or denouncing—became highly personalized.

Among the best programs of the RFE were the cultural programs which had a special position among Romanian intellectuals: they were very influential in the country, and also of high quality. Monica Lovinescu (daughter of an important literary critic) was a major cultural journalist and critic herself. She and her husband Virgil Ierunca, also an RFE journalist, became symbolic figures of anti-communist resistance. The cultural influence of these programs is well reflected in the fact that in 1980 a group of twenty-one writers wrote a letter to Ceausescu complaining about the influence of the RFE’s programs on cultural life in Romania.[2] The popularity of cultural programs was also due to the fact that the journalists adopted a popular and personal style, which was sarcastic, with promptitude and dedication[3]. A collection in several volumes of the major cultural journalist Monica Lovinescu’s radio programs was published first in Madrid, then in Romania in 1990; its first volume symbolically ends with a report on the July Theses of 1971. Although this was only an immediate reaction to them and the consequences of the Theses were not yet visible, this text was an attempt to denounce those who were opportunists, to express consensus and support current trends in cultural policy. Sharp, ironic and personal, Monica Lovinescu’s text deliberately attacks individuals.

As a program about the cultural elite, often criticized (by the American directorate) for being elitist, it also positioned itself counter to the populism of the media in Romania.

Negative propaganda against the radio, which was becoming a more and more serious pitched battle[4] in Romania, could thus have a paradoxical effect. Attacks took place not only on an official (party) level, but also in the media. Artists and poets published poetry or short essays against the radio in newspapers. Such texts were written by the poet Adrian Paunescu, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, major “enemies” of RFE in the public media. The most important ideological anti-RFE critic is the writer, dramaturg, academic and party member Eugen Barbu. Some of the discourses of anti-RFE propaganda are anti-Semitic as well; Noel Bernard, editor in chief of RFE is called in an article by Eugen Barbu “Bercovici,” a hint to his Jewish backround.

In one of the “Confidential reports” of the RFE archive of 1972 the analyst comments on a TV sketch which ridiculed Radio Free Europe. The short scene was performed by one of the best Romanian actors, the excellent comedian Toma Caragiu (a member of the Bulandra Theater). The scene was so silly, and supposedly so well done by the actor, that the negative propaganda basically ridiculed those who criticised the radio, i.e. the current political powers.

RFE criticism—criticism produced and published in a free country, but focused on a country with strengthening dictatorship—could be called criticism of subversion, sometimes of opposition. But according to RFE policy subversive criticism was also a tool to be used carefully: these radio programs were not supposed to create situations the results of which they could not control, and so they would never invite their audience to take a direct action.

Theater of opposition, consensus and subversion are basic theoretical notions which I will use to describe forms of expression in a period of restricted freedom and censorship.[5] These notions help to understand the relationship of a work of art to its socio-political environment. Everything that was not in opposition to the given order was considered to be a form of consensus, since it implied support for (and not a critical attitude towards) the existing order and expressed agreement with it. This agreement could be evident and expressed directly in pro-party manifestations, or more hidden, like art produced to party expectations. (In this regard I consider for example “innocent” comedy also as a form of consensus, and not a neutral form of art, since it did not express any relationship to the given order. ) Generally all theaters in Romania in this period were forced to have “theater of consensus,” like celebrations of party events and other national anniversaries, such as poetry evenings; audiences (workers, pupils, students etc.) were also forced to become spectators of it. It is interesting to see, for example, how ambiguous is the relationship of theater history toward such party celebration events in theaters: a collection of data on Romanian theater (of Hungarian language) very often does not consider it a “premiere” or even a performance, and does not list it as a theater performance, although these events were rehearsed, directed and performed by artists of the theater in question.[6]

Subversive forms of expression in the arts aimed at overthrowing or causing the destruction of the existing socio-political system. The more damaged freedom of speech became, the stronger political control was, and forms of subversive art less tolerated. In the performing arts Romania did not tolerate either form of subversive theater in this period. In Hungary, another country where censorhip was present in this era, the only theater shows which were banned were those of a subversive nature, for example the productions of Péter Halász, who, together with his company, had to leave the country.

Art forms of opposition implied a less radical, more indirect criticism of the existing order, often using an encrypted, symbolic language, not easy for the censors to follow.

If there were no “neutral” forms of art in relationship to the social environment, there were no neutral forms of art criticism either. Criticism of consensus and opposition were those forms and discourse which one could trace in the media of a certain country under censorship. The official party newspaper could publish both criticism of consensus, praising theater productions of consensus, but also criticism of opposition, evaluating theater productions of opposition.

Subversive criticism was not something—at least in Romania—that could pass the eyes of the censors in any media published in the country, since such a discourse had to adopt a direct form of speech, and was directed against official party ideology as reflected in the arts. Such a discourse one can now only find in two kind of files: in those of the RFE, and those of Securitate, the secret police, which observed private or public discussions.

It was also the aim of RFE to synchronize these countries with the “free” world, giving a sense of contemporaneity to their listenership. But as the country gradually closed itself to the West, RFE cultural programs (and general programs as well) moved gradually from synchronizing Romania with the rest of the world to talking exclusively on Romanian issues and criticizing processes in the country, and “turn progressively into a very local program, involved in literary struggles of the time, but seen and heard from a distance,” as Macrea-Toma remarks. This is very visible in the cultural programs of the 70s and 80s.

To understand the status of RFE criticism, which was highly personalized, one should note the personal environment of the critics. The major editor of the cultural programs, Monica Lovinescu, was based during her whole activity in Paris, while the headquarters of RFE Romanian section were in Munich. Her famous programs were called Thesis and Antithesis in Paris (and lasted 50 minutes, and later 1.20 minutes) and Romanian Cultural News. Lovinescu recorded her programs in one of the rooms of her house. Paris was the center of the Romanian diaspora and intelligentsia, and Lovinescu was highly appreciated among these people and was also on friendly terms with many of them (such as Eugen Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Lucian Pintilie, etc.) Lovinescu was not only a literary, but also a theater critic with extensive knowledge of theater. She was a translator of Ionesco and Caragiale; living in Paris she had access to very important world theater productions from Tadeusz Kantor to Peter Brook.

To meet Monica Lovinescu and her husband, Virgil Ierunca, was not only prestigious, important, but for visitors going back to Romania dangerous. Securitate files prove that every meeting of a Romanian visitor to the Ierunca-Lovinescu couple was carefully registered. There were lots of speculations about the sudden and similar (although natural) deaths of the two major editors-in-chiefs of the Romanian section, Vlad Georgescu and Noel Bernard; Monica Lovinescu was attacked in 1977 by two Securitate agents near her house in Paris.

Monica Lovinescu after the attack in 1977
Monica Lovinescu after the attack in 1977

The Securitate archives and the RFE-files (and personal files of the journalists) are probably one of the richest materials, samples of which have recently been published[7].

Romanian RFE editors—as one can recognize in their diaries, memoirs or other speeches—lived a “Romanian” life, a life for Romania—but out of the country, with no physical access to Romania, and in a different cultural environment (one of the editors’ mothers died in Romania and the editor was not allowed to be present at the funeral; the event, as recorded in Lovinescu’s diary, reflects a deep conflict of their mission). This would lead to something of a schizophrenic situation, and would affect their personal lives as well; the editors were often not well rooted in their second homes, often did not speak the language of that country very well, and had no very close human relationships with locals. But still they have the satisfaction of having a big impact in their country, with a huge, and invisible listenership.

But to understand the role and position of RFE criticism, one should note that criticism of the arts—especially literary and theater criticism—had a special place in the media of Romania as well: it was one of the most important tools of ideological propaganda, in newspapers and radio, the places where party expectations on art form and content were expressed and guidelines shaped. Very often such criticism was prescriptive and ideological (being part of the criticism of consensus); one can see that after the fall of communism ideological debates in the field of criticism completely disappeared. As one of the RFE background reports summarizes, party understanding of criticism was: “criticism which runs counter to the country’s interest at a given historical period cannot be considered a communist type of criticism.” Criticism of opposition (sometimes present in the same media, the party newspaper[8]), playing the role of classical criticism of evaluating a work of art independently from ideological expectation, or sometimes against it, was written in the same encoded language as the works of art.

While RFE editors and journalists could make direct criticism of some other art forms—especially literature—they were rarely in direct contact with theater performance (none of them ever visited Romania during the Ceausescu era, that would have been too dangerous for them). Only when Romanian performances were shown abroad, or when journalists reviewed some foreign productions—which either had or had not some Romanian connection—could they indeed write free criticism. RFE journalists worked on the basis of the Romanian official media and subscribed to (sometimes unofficially purchased) dozens of newspapers, magazines and monitored radio programs. Journalists prepared their programs also on the basis of a vast amount of printed material and other important resources, such as background reports, confidential files and foreign media surveys.

“While other people were translating from foreign languages, we (RFE editors) were translating from bureaucratese Romanian. We were reading and interpreting newspapers Romanians did not read anymore”—states one of the editors of the RFE Romanian section on the documentary film Cold waves by Alexandru Solomon (2007). This close reading of these articles transformed the clippings into real palimpsest: the ideologically important articles in particular were read by several people, lectors, journalist etc., who used different colours to underline the important passages in the text. These clippings, kept in the RFE archives, went through a process of meticulous working-up—editors, referees or whoever read them tried indeed to understand what lay behind the bureaucratic language of party instructions and guidance. The editors’ eyes seemed to be sharp, while their hands reworked these texts in a nervous manner, underlining or putting a ring around words, often commenting.

Clippings from the archive
Clippings from the archive
Clippings from the archive
Clippings from the archive

Attention to theater became more visible after the scandal of banning a theater show in 1972—the famous case of The Inspector General by Gogol, directed by Lucian Pintilie at the Bulandra Theater in Bucharest. The scandal of banning a play drew international attention to Romania. After this event, censorship became more subtle and less visible, more difficult to track from outside. The process of peer-reviewing (called in Romanian vizionare), as censorship in theater was called, went on behind closed doors and was never officially recognized, and the role of analysis of such a process was crucial and raised awareness of the omnipresent censorship. Thus RFE in its cultural programs considered it important to make visible and present the functioning of the different—often informal—institutions of censorship, and to describe the activities of their staff and collaborators.

In this regard RFE journalists attached special importance to the role of these collaborators—often named, and described in a highly personalized style—who were considered censors and accomplices of the party, or even artists and writers who expressed agreement with the regime. Some statements, articles and interviews given by these people—heads of different organizations—were analyzed in depth. (Lovinescu mentions in her diary that people mentioned as collaborators in their radio programs were not greeted on the street in Bucharest.) For example, Ion Dodu Balan and Constantin Maciuca are often named in these articles; these names are feared in the theater community as the highest-ranking censors, whose word might be decisive. As the researcher Ioana Macrea-Toma observes, there was demonizing discourse on both sides, in both the official Romanian party media and the RFE. Very often the RFE and local media war was a civil war; in some poems and essays on RFE in the Romanian media the RFE journalists (generally very recognizable) were metaphorically named flees or dogs—dehumanization of the adversary being a tool of demonizing it.

Attacks by RFE cultural programs on art forms of consensus lay at the core of the program. This could be viewed as ideological criticism. There were several topics and devices to be criticized. Certain strategies of contemporary plays—such as the positive hero, the schematism of the plot, historical plays about the glorious Romanian past with victorious heroes, the negativistic portrayal of the West etc.—were often sharply criticized; contemporary plays commissioned on the basis of party ideology were called “party dramaturgy”[9]. Some writers of the “consensus” and their work were often ridiculized (the classic battle was fought between RFE critic Monica Lovinescu and the well-known writer and playwright Eugen Barbu). The official cultural policy of insisting on historical plays as a part of a larger propaganda of Dacian-Romanian continuity was vehemently attacked. In one of the background reports there was an extensive analysis of a “consensus play” by Ion Brad titled Call on Consul (Audienta la consul) which had as protagonist the Radio Free Europe itself. The English language report went deeply into understanding the play, which was published in the theater magazine Teatrul in 1977. As a major propaganda tool, the play discredited RFE. (This analysis of the play remained a background report and did not become a text in the radio program. As a matter of policy the play, considered an attack on RFE, and as such had to remain unanswered.)

The change of theater leaders also came to the attention of RFE journalism. Since the scandal of dismissing one of the most important Romanian directors, Liviu Ciulei, from the chair of a leading theater, Bulandra, journalists were sensitive to any change. In the clippings it is clear that they investigated any change of such a nature, often trying to trace the background of the new theater manager, see how he was related to the party—sometimes in the clippings putting question marks to names unfamiliar to them.

The major, ever-lasting Romanian cultural program called Song to Romania (Cintarea Romaniei) was also at the focus of (or, better to say, under attack or siege from) RFE cultural programs. This huge, national cultural form of “expression” became a major tool of mass cultural events and propaganda, focused on amateur work and involving almost 1/5th of the country’s population since the second half of the 70s.

Criticism—or more often denouncement—of the official media’s ideological expectations and the functioning of censorship, analysis of conferences and congresses which aimed at extending and deepening ideological propaganda in culture, as well as of repression against artists and the banning of their work—became more important in RFE programs than “praising” certain works of art, presenting values, i.e. “positive criticism.” To put is simply, negative criticism was something more typically present—because of the general environment and the ontology of RFE.

RFE Romanian section cultural programs and Monica Lovinescu herself were anti-communist and also anti-leftist, so even Brecht or Gorki’s The Lower Depths was a play that she would dismiss on ideological grounds (when Pintilie put it on stage Gorki in Paris her diary expressed her disdain for the Russian author.)

To write negative criticism—or rather to adopt a discourse—on works of consensus was rather a clear mission with fewer moral dilemmas for a critic. To deal with values, i.e. the classical “positive criticism” and to praise a work of art of opposition was a more tricky task, if the authors lived in Romania and not in exile. If praised by the RFE, a work, or especially the author, could came to the attention of the authorities, and become even persecuted. But at the same time an RFE positive criticism could also offer some defense for the person, who thus would not be touched. As for works of opposition, if analyzed or discussed in depth by an RFE program they could become a denouncement if the critic were to adopt language too clear about the content of the piece. In the files it is visible that although journalists followed all the Romanian cultural events carefully, many of them had to remain uncommented on in the programs.

Dilemmas of how criticism should be written at that particular moment are well reflected in Monica Lovinescu’s diaries, since RFE cultural programs were very careful and tactful about what they said. So-called dissident authors, or works of art of opposition, could hardly be negatively criticized: “that would mean giving arguments to those neo-realist and socialist troglodytes,” wrote Lovinescu in her diary in an angry tone. Nor would she give negative criticism to a dissident author for escaping into the ivory tower (estheticism being one of the sins of the artists in her view), but after a long hesitation writes hercareful text, remarking “I can’t exactly write what I think.”

“I write—with a strategic plan—about Tudoran,” another persecuted writer. Or: “I cannot say the essential thing,” she confesses about Nicolae Steinhardt, a priest, and say clearly “that he is a saint.” Diaries remain the place where the critic can say what she thinks; this is the private sphere, not the public. Criticism also becomes a work of strategy, and Lovinescu continuously writes in her diary about her dislike for such strategic (in Romanian: “cu tact”) writing, which not only she but every RFE journalist adopts. “I am now doing only very strategical texts,” remarks Lovinescu in 1983, which means she is no more saying what she thinks, but what she considers useful at that particular moment. Her husband, she remarks, “has just written a special review for D. Mirescu, strategical, violent, but with no hope,” she writes. No hope meaning—it will not help. The effect of the RFE programs are not necessarily predictable. After a film that had been produced, but not yet released had been discussed and defended on RFE (Daneliuc’s Glissando), the Romanian authorities released it. This time criticism “helped.” But this was not necessarily the case.

On one hand, for the reviewer such “strategic” discourse caused the frustration of not being able to say what should be said, which could be called a conscious self-censorship. But neither was the journalist completely free from the directors of RFE at different levels (cultural journalists might be instructed not to discuss certain people’s situations when their positions became more delicate—they succeed in leaving the country, and being left in peace).

To criticize work of opposition too in a negative way was almost impossible under such circumstances. The critic would not be able to “offend” something which was anyway in danger. Lovinescu in her diary remarks: “I dedicated a whole radio program to two performances which I did not like, without being able to say so.” She was reviewing the show of the dissident director Lucian Pintilie (who worked in theater in the West, but also made a film in Romania, which was not released). By giving a negative review to such a theater show produced in the West the critic would give the authorities arguments for not releasing the film and not letting the director work, but would also strengthen the “official” idea that every Romanian artist that left the country had to be a failure. The other show was called Ionesco, premiered in Paris and directed by Roger Planchon; the performance was based on two Eugene Ionesco plays. This time the difficult task for the critic was to give a negative review of Ionesco—a playwright of Romanian origin, who was also a critic of the Ceausescu-regime. Lovinescu adds this comment in her diary: “But I did not say I liked them either.”

Not saying means not giving an opinion, which is a basic role of criticism. RFE had to fill in the gap also on the activities of Romanians in the West—especially of the well-known Romanian directors who left the country at the beginning of the 70s (Ciulei, Serban, Esrig, Pintilie); Monica Lovinescu also produced a text called Export of Directors.

Monica Lovinescu’s text for the radio Export of the directors
Monica Lovinescu’s text for the radio Export of the directors

Their work disappeared completely from the Romanian media, and—as were many other people who fled to the West—were considered dead. RFE journalist carefully followed their work in the American, German etc. media, and sometimes reviewed them as eye-witnesses. But to give a negative account of such work was beyond their remit.

Only those books and performances which were produced outside the country (i.e. in free countries) by people who did not have the intention to return and work in Romania could the RFE journalist discuss relatively free, presenting their real context and relevance. But still no negative criticism could be written—as the Ionesco-case showed: Western Romanian artists who fled to the West were not to be negatively reflected in the media. These works, if they were not highly praised in the reviews given by the RFE critic, were not criticised either—just “discussed” with no evaluation, as the “political protective role for dissidents”[10] required.

To discuss work of opposition—those books, performances or films—which, in encrypted language, were critical of the regime was a difficult task for the RFE critic. Again, adopting direct language when discussing these works, the critic would risk denouncing either the work, its creator, or possibly both. “Too much attention” from the RFE radio programs for a show, book and their author could be dangerous. Those pieces of art which made a big impact on the Romanian stage in this era remained little discussed and reflected in the RFE programs, since the journalist could not have done any better then the critics in the Romanian media.[11] Nobody—in the country, or in the RFE programs—could talk about why these shows were indeed important, and what their real content was (i.e. translate the encrypted language of a shows, make clear their impact etc.). Such criticism could not go beyond the borders of the performance and discuss its social-political relevance. So in the critical discourse of direct speech there is be an absence of the works of opposition in any media as an immediate response. An open and non-strategical discussion could have been adopted only in special cases: as in the case of the important Hungarian theater show Marat/Sade about the ’56 Hungarian revolution being invited to BITEF festival to Yugoslavia in 1982. After the festival presentation Western critics discussed openly the show and its relevance to the revolution of ’56—which caused lot of trouble for the theater and author. After such a “mistake” authorities were very careful what they would allow to be invited abroad.


When freedom of speech and aesthetic expression suffers restrictions, art criticism cannot be fully free in expressing views, subjective tastes or opinion. Lack of freedom of speech is conditioned by the urge to defend or accuse certain people, values, or works, but all these strategies will go beyond the boundaries of criticism. To what extent these texts (radio programs of the RFE) can be called criticism in the classical sense of the genre remains a question. Very often criticism becomes cultural journalism, cultural policy criticism, ideology criticism, diplomacy, the texts often lying between the extremes of protective and offensive discourses. The opinion of the critic, for many different reasons, had to suffer of not being expressed, and very often the critic was aware of it. There was no public space for a completely free and honest opinion to be written, and only in the private sphere (diaries, private talks, letters) could the critic finally express an honest view.

The research for this article was partially sponsored by Central European University.

The theses explained herein represent the personal ideas of the author,

but do not necessarily reflect the opinion of CEU.


[1] On the process of censoring theater, see the works of Liviu Malita.
[2] The original record of this complaint was published in Adevarul literar si artistic 757/2005.
[3] As Ioana Macrea-Toma states.
[4] Not surprizing, that the documentary film made in 2007 by Alexandru Solomon about the RFE was called Called waves (Razboi pe calea undelor), alluding to the cold war.
[5] I started to use and develop these notions after a conference on past elaboration, also published in the volume Theater after the change. An inspiring article by Radka Kunderova on how to read criticism of the past was presented in this conference.
[6] See the datas in: Kötő József–Kántor Lajos: Magyar színház Erdélyben. Editura integral, Bucuresti, 1998.
[7] See the work of Iulia Vladimirov.
[8] A question to study in past elaboration would be whether such criticism was always written by different critics, or whether critics of opposition were also expected to write party propaganda in their texts. For example, criticism of consensus in the main party newspaper Scinteia was written by Margareta Barbuta, often attacked in RFE, called „Stalinist.”
[9] Some names from the RFE files: Theodor Manescu, Tudor Negoita, Lucia Demetrius, Ion Brad, Dan Tarchila Zidarul.
[10] See Ioana Macrea-Toma’s dissertation.
[11] And, of course, RFE critics could rely only on what the Romanian media said about the performances, since their journalists did not have access to the shows. It is visible in the clippings (articles published in Romanian in big newspapers) that journalists paid attention to these works, and tried to understand the encoded language of the critic, by underlining the „hints” which were given to the reader.


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*Andrea Tompa, PhD (1971) is a Hungarian theatre critic, researcher and writer. Her main field of interest is contemporary Hungarian, Russian and East European theatre and drama. She is the editor of the theatre magazine SZINHAZ (Theatre). Since fall 2009 she is the president of the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association, and also an academic at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. Recently she published her first novel, the Hangman’s House, about Romania the 70ies and 80ies.

Copyright © 2012 Andrea Tompa
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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“I am not going to say what I think” Criticism and censorship. A case-study of Romanian criticism in the Ceausescu period