Few people outside Romania know of Adrian Paunescu, so many might raise a brow when they hear that, on his deathbed, Paunescu was quickly elevated to the status of a second Mihai Eminescu, the 19th century poet revered as the quintessence of the Romanian Weltanschauung. Paunescu (July 1942 – November 2010) might go down in the history of Romanian literature as number two. His poems might become compulsory reading for generations of pre-university students who, in reasponse to an education system that involves memorization more than critical thinking, would come to hate his words as much and as surely as they hate Eminescu’s. It is certain, however, that Paunescu will also go down in the political history of that Balkan country as one of the most prolific poets who ever lived at the pompous court of megalomaniac communist dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.

Since the collapse of the communist regime, Romanian ordinary citizens, journalists, politicians, and literary luminaries have debated the nature and extent of individual and group collaboration with the communist regime. I contributed to that debate together with my husband by looking at the collaboration of individual Orthodox Church priests with the notorious Securitate, the communist secret political police. Where we saw individual collaboration on the part of the priests and systematic refusal on the part of the Orthodox Church leadership to openly confront the regime’s blatant human rights abuses, others have seen individual collaboration on the part of the priests but clear non-collaboration (and even covert resistance) on the part of the Romanian Orthodox Church as an institution. Countless Romanian academics, doctoral students and theologians have adopted a revisionist perspective washing the sin of collaboration away and blurring the difference between support for and opposition against the regime. One such revisionist academic – hailed as a local authority on church-state relations – advanced the theory that the individual opposition and suffering of a handful of priests and bishops during the early stages of communism compensated for the zealous collaboration of countless others under Ceausescu. Following this logic, not even the Communist Party collaborated with the regime it created, since Laurentiu Patrascanu and others cleansed the party’s moral stigma when they were found guilty, were persecuted or were killed at its orders.

Paunescu’s untimely death might be an auspicious time to reopen the discussion on communist-era collaboration. For many Romanians, who measure opposition with the magnifying glass, presenting small dissenting opinions, veiled allusions, resistance through culture, and political acquiescence as clear instances of enormous courage and moral rectitude, Paunescu will certainly remain a talented literate who “tried to change the system from within” by keeping the communist leaders as his closest friends and occasionally even writing anti-regime poems. For his supporters, Paunescu’s 1979 “Analfabetilor” (Illiterati) remains a virulent anti-regime capodopera that plainly denounces censorship, encroachment of liberties, and the secret surveillance of writers. His Cenaclul Flacara represents for many of my generation one of the highlights of their student life, while his post-communist political involvement with the Socialist Labor Party and later the Social Democrat Party – heirs to the Communist Party – demonstrates nothing else but the poet’s concern for the well-being of the hard-working, honest Romanians cheated by the post-communist capitalist democracy.

For his detractors, Paunescu is the great manipulator, the court troubadour who carved a comfortable life for himself by deceptively legitimizing his adulatory literary production with occasional, but too rare, outbursts of mimicked independence. He was one of the main pillars of the atrocious cult of personality that characterized Romanian dynastic communism during the 1980s, composing sycophantic poems that praised not only Nicolae Ceausescu, the beloved Conducator, but also his illiterate wife Elena and son and heir apparent Nicu. While Flacara might have been a colorful spot in the gray daily life at the time, it permitted Paunescu to remind his fans that the Conducator himself had benevolently agreed to allow the show to go on. Paunescu’s ‘opposition’ was an expression of his ambition to be treated as as equal by the communist nomenklatura more than dissatisfaction with the communist leader, ideology, and policy. Proof of his commitment to hard-line communism was his post-communist affiliation with the Social Labor and Social Democrat Parties. At a time when other Romanians supported pro-democratic and anticommunist formations, Paunescu threw his might behind parties that placed the collective above the individual. His individualism was truly individual, since the only freedoms he cared about were his own.

While this Romanian political Pythia got the attention of international scholars only when his Social Labor Party entered the brown-red-sultanistic coalition in 1995, Romanians will remain divided over Paunescu’s literary and political legacy. Talented poet and sinister politician, Paunescu seems worthy to step into the shoes of Eminescu, whose literary talent was matched by questionable political positions.