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  • Makarenko's and Țurcanu's Re-Education Projects:Debunking a Myth in Romanian Historiography
  • Arleen Ionescu

This article discusses two "re-education" campaigns that have often been colocated by Romanian historiography: Anton Semyonovich Makarenko's re-education of delinquents in the Soviet Union (1917–1936), and Eugen Ţurcanu's re-education of prisoners in Romania (1949–1952). My aim is to demonstrate that although Makarenko's and Ţurcanu's projects of engineering a New Man show structural analogies, the texture of the experience was very different. I therefore propose an original Nietzschean reading of both projects, not from a historical perspective but rather as a history of ideas, where "'[a]ction at a distance' seems to be admissible in the field of intellectual influences" (Wiener 537). Without arguing that Makarenko and Ţurcanu were directly drawing on Nietzsche, my exploration of how their contemporaries distorted and adjusted Nietzsche's dream of the Übermensch, as well as his ideas of the "will to power" and asceticism, can shed new light on the differences between the two projects.

Makarenko was in charge of manufacturing the New Man in two self-supporting orphanages for besprizorniki (street urchins), the Gorky Colony (1917–1928) and the Dzerzhinsky labor commune (1928–1936). His reflections on the former appeared in Pedagogicheskaia poema (The Pedagogical Poem, translated as The Road to Life: An Epic of Education), and those on the latter in Flagi na bashnyakh (Flags on the Battlements, translated as Learning to Live). Ţurcanu's program took place in the gruesome period of Stalinization when re-education was sought to turn political prisoners into New Men. By 1952, when news about Piteşti Prison spread in the West, the regime needed to prove itself innocent and therefore charged Țurcanu and his assistants with conspiracy. Alexandru [End Page 1] Dumitrescu, the prison's director, Tudor Sepeanu, former director of the Bucharest Securitate (Romanian Secret Service), and the military doctor Viorel Bărbosu were charged with negligence and executed (1954–1957). The Pitești enterprise was described as "a criminal activity of a gang of legionaries, conducted in prison because of the lack of vigilance and the criminal negligence of some leaders of the respective prisons" (ASRI 229).

For 36 years (1981–2017), Țurcanu's experiment was regarded by historians as originating from Makarenko's pedagogy, in particular his book The Road to Life. Reading the Pitești historiography, however, we can see that only one source was repeatedly used: Virgil Ierunca's 1981 Pitești, based on information that the Romanian historian gathered from interviews with witnesses who managed to flee Romania. Although two books written by an indirect witness, former convict of Aiud Prison Dumitru Bacu (1963) and Pitești inmate Grigore Dumitrescu (1978) preceded Ierunca's account, his book became so prominent that it was re-printed repeatedly by Humanitas (1990, 1991, 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2013) under the new title Fenomenul Pitești (The Pitești Phenomenon) that was meant to suggest the event's exceptionality.

Aware of the regime's manipulations, Ierunca trusted only memoir sources, a perfectly ethical position at that time, since he "witnessed witnessing" to unprecedented torture (see Trezise). Ierunca's conclusions were that "The Securitate perfected a plan to liquidate the moral resistance of the young political detainees, using a group of inmates led by Eugen Ţurcanu, that was going to put in practice, as ordinary law, Makarenko's well-known theories" (18–19).1

An essential book that quotes Ierunca yet, unlike other studies, does not link the two experiments is Courtois et al., Le livre noir du communisme (The Black Book of Communism), which mentions only that "[t]he objective was the re-education of political prisoners, combining the texts of communist doctrine with physical and moral torture" (457), without clarifying which texts were at stake.

Studies that draw a connection between Ţurcanu and Makarenko include The Presidential Commission's Final Report for the Analysis of Communist Dictatorship (Tismăneanu et al. 2007: 614n229), which nevertheless asserts that subsequent investigations could confirm or refute this view (614); Bottoni (2010), which asserts that Makarenko's theories "were applied to reeducate young 'fascists'" (61); and [End Page 2] Tismaneanu's 2012...