10. 16. 2014. 08:36

"We did not survive the dictatorship"

An interview with Zsófia Balla

"I wanted to know who, why and how was involved in ruining the first half of my life." - Poet Zsófia Balla moved from Romania to Hungary shortly after the regime change in 1989. We asked her about her decision to request the surveillance file by the Romanian Secret Service (the Securitate) targeting her during communism.

Zsófia Balla moved from Romania to Hungary shortly after the regime change in 1989. We asked the Transylvanian poetess about her decision to request the surveillance file by the Romanian Secret Service (the Securitate) targeting her during communism. We talked about the task of facing the “negative biography” which took shape on the pages of the files. We also talked about the fact that none of the revelations concerning former informers of the Securitate have had any consequences so far.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about that period?

One of the most damaging aspects of a dictatorship is that it obstructs access to, and also knowledge of, truth and reality in a given society. One cannot ask the simplest of questions: like which are the actual underlying political and economic processes of a country? What do people think about their own lives? The regime eliminates all paths to knowledge.

After the Ceaușescu regime terminated all regional radio stations in 1985, including the one in Cluj Napoca/Kolozsvár, you worked as a journalist.

I worked for the daily Előre between 1985 and 1989. Since I was considered politically unreliable, I was not allowed to write about cultural events, only about issues related to factories and state farms. Yet, even when I was doing fieldwork, I could not find out what was actually going on in those places. The factories would give falsified information, and the articles I submitted were frequently modified in the editorial office. The whole system suggested that there was no possibility for someone to get to know herself, or their true abilities. It was impossible to focus on education, personal development or intellectual exploration because one was forced to concentrate on how to survive from day to day, and on that lie that was ubiquitous, unavoidable and constant in our lives. In spite of existing in a constant state of defensiveness, I was trying to preserve my own way of thinking, since we wanted to resist being assimilated to the fundamentally absurd and humiliating world that surrounded us.

How could one survive this?

We didn’t—as one of my writer friends allegedly said in 1990. And I agree, we did not emerge unscathed. Constantly living against something—this inevitably creates a certain kind of psychosis: an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and self-destruction. The regime wanted to control everything, from the kindergarten to the schedule of watching TV in the evening, and so this unlimited power transformed one’s life into a dangerous and hopeless quagmire. The evilness, and also the purpose of the regime lay in the fact that escape was only possible through radical ways. Through revolution, or—as many have chosen—through alcohol, suicide or emigration. And the wounds and distortions did not only appear in a psychological sense, but affected our actual physical states. Not to mention the intellectual works. On the gravestone of one of my professors, the critical philosopher György Bretter, the epitaph says: “Now I will never know who I could have become.”

When did you find out that your phones were bugged?

In December 1989. The phone rang and a man said in Romanian: “I’ve just disconnected you from the Securitate.” When we introduced ourselves we switched to Hungarian, and I found out that he was the nephew of one our neighbors. He told me that in the telephone center there was a separate room for the Securitate staff, where all the monitored lines—each having just a number, without names—were made directly accessible to the secret service. That is how they listened to and recorded the phone conversations. In the days of the regime change this technician had the task of connecting these lines back to the central system, and then dialing up each number without knowing who he was actually calling.

I suspect that this was not the end of it.

Of course not. The man also said that for all those whose phone lines were connected to the “special room,” their homes were also most probably bugged. On the next day he came to our apartment and found the listening device in our living-room, embedded into the window frame. I still have it, you can take a look. It is a miniature transmitting device, a COMECON product, made in Poland, and it was probably put in place in 1981. It has a receiving range of twenty meters, and a transmitting range of two hundred meters. Which means that whatever I said in our upper-floor apartment could be received and recorded easily in a car parked in front of the building.

Twenty meters is quite a lot.

They could hear even what we discussed, in secret, on the outside hallway. Only in December 1989 did I understand why our neighbor—who worked for the ministry of interior affairs—was always walking up and down in front of our living room window, preoccupied with staring at the rooftops, whenever we had guests... That was clearly when he recorded our conversations.

How did you feel when you discovered this?

When the technician opened up the small box and I saw the miniature device I had to grab onto the window-frame, because I suddenly felt dizzy. Everything that we ever said or did in that room flashed before my eyes... The discussions and the political debates. The lovemaking. And I imagined how the “blue-eyed boys” were listening and laughing...

Why did you keep the device?

There is very little material evidence left from a dictatorship. Also, back then I did not have the file yet, with the written order from the authorities calling for my surveillance. Ten days after the change an officer from the new authority for interior affairs—accompanied by an armed soldier—rang the bell at our door. He expressed his regrets because of all the terrible things that had happened, and because in the regime which had collapsed just a few days ago even the intimate lives of citizens were monitored... And then he asked for the device, so they could destroy it. I asked him whether the new organization was the legal successor of the Securitate. God forbid, he answered. In that case, I will keep it, I said, if it was installed by the Securitate, then you do not own the device. The officer was perplexed. He shook his head and noted on his list that the device was lost...

When did you decide to ask for your surveillance file?

When my ex-husband—who remains a close friend to this day—Marius Tabacu and his wife, Enikő Koós asked for their eleven-thousand-page file.

How much did you say?!

You heard it right: eleven thousand. Because they were truly dissidents, taking part in several anti-regime actions, and so they were taken more than once by the Securitate, during which their home was searched. I would like to emphasize that I was neither a hero, nor a dissident myself. It even happened that I refused to join an important protest because of a personal resentment—and looking back now, I see it as cowardice. I need to face these things, otherwise I cannot strive for truth. I acted as most Transylvanian intellectuals did: I refused to collaborate with the Securitate and the authorities, and I did not write what they asked me to write. For example, the celebratory poems for the front page of Előre. So I was no hero, only an oppositional writer. And I had to somehow live with the fact that I could not have an individual volume published between 1983 and 1990, only my poetry for children, and I could not change my job or could not get a passport to leave the country... All the official orders prohibiting these things can be found in my file. Together with the order that called for slandering my name, entitled in Romanian “Ordin de discreditare.” I even found sentences in there which could have come only from close friends or colleagues.

So you decided to ask for your file because of your ex-husband?

Yes, he notified me that my name appeared in the reports as a target under surveillance. So I requested a copy of my own file: some 1700 pages, which I could take home. However, I could see from the original pagination that I received only a fraction of the whole material. Furthermore, it contained just the lighter and harmless parts, because the most serious issues—my expulsion from Dej and the several attempts of recruiting me as an informant for the Securitate—were all missing.

What did you feel when you first leafed through the file?

Curiosity and horror. I wanted to know who, why and how was involved in ruining the first half of my life. I was saddened by the infinite cynicism of how they saw and portrayed us.

And afterwards?

They were mostly interested in my connections, in my friends and visitors. They even transcribed what my mother asked from Péter Esterházy at lunch, and what he answered. A recurring theme was to qualify my behavior as “nationalistic and chauvinistic,” and, of course, as “oppositional to the regime”.

What do such files contain?

Mostly the reports of Securitate officers written for their superiors, based on information they gathered from conversations with regular or occasional informers. They also contain the transcripts of recorded conversations from the telephones or listening devices. The most interesting part was to discover the little messages written in pencil on the margins of pages—this was how the officers communicated with each other sometimes. Thanks to this scribbling, the names of some of the informers were revealed.

Who did you recognize among the informers?

At first glance it seemed that none of our close friends were recruited, but later I identified at least three of our closer acquaintances who were collaborating. Perhaps they did not have a recruitment record, but they helped the secret service in one way or another. The officers assigned a pseudonym to everybody, informants and targets alike. Using the name Olimpia to inform on us, for example, was one of my close acquaintances who now runs a retirement home in Cluj Napoca—it features in the press for its scandalous operations.

Did you confront this woman?

No. Although she wrote tens of pages about me, unscrupulously falsifying the things I said, I did not want to make it public. And besides, previous revelations about other former informants failed to stir the waters. No one is questioning the infamous Transylvanian critic who was publicly exposed by Csilla Könczei… The Hungarian Academy of Arts accepted him as a member without a second thought.

Why was only a fraction of the file delivered?

It can be conveniently claimed that parts of it were lost during the revolution. However, I am certain that a lot of material is still classified. In the countries where the list of secret service officers was not made public and the archives were not opened, this material can be used for political blackmail.

Can all of this be explored through writing?

Many of my poems bear the mark of the dictatorship, but one could address it only indirectly. Everything that one experiences will be present—like a watermark—in one’s life and writing. But experience is only valuable for me if it can be shaped into having a certain meaning, if it can express something universal.

And what about forgetting? Does it help?

It is impossible to forget. For a long while I was even hiding the listening device, because I thought that they would come one day into my home and take it away. There is a great Romanian saying: after you’ve burnt your mouth with something you will want to cool down even the yogurt. Of course, moving to Budapest with all the initial euphoria, and then the passing of time, somehow brought back my joy of life. But still to this day, I am highly sensitive and receptive to every little sign, nuance, reference or concealed threat which reminds of the totalitarian regime. Because they are deadly familiar.

This interview and Zsófia Balla's photo (by Miklós Teknős) were originally published in Hungarian on nol.hu.

Sándor Zsigmond Papp

Translated by: Szabolcs László

Tags: Zsófia Balla