Redefining Public Service

The Decline of Volunteerism in Romania

The more I learn about volunteering in the United States, the more I think about my own country of Romania, and about the need to revive a volunteering spirit in the hearts and minds of Romanians. The moral value of voluntarism slowly died during the 45 years of the cruelly utopian Communist ideology. Today, when the transition to an open-market economy moves the Romanian society toward a composition of money-oriented and self-centered individuals, volunteerism is a necessity.

Seven years ago Romania rose into anger to irreversibly turn a dark page of its history. Just three days before the Christmas of 1989, during the violent days of the Romanian Revolution, a taste of freedom filled the heart of the people. It revived memories in the elderly who experienced democracy before the war. It gave an ecstatic feeling to intellectuals who had heard about the world beyond the Iron Curtain. And it baffled the minds of those who were too young to understand why the only world they knew was changing.

Joyous songs resonated on streets while strangers shared the kisses and hugs of the victory. But the euphoria of those moments was short-lived. While mothers were still wiping the tears from their eyes, the wreckage of Communism was brought to light, slowly changing the smiles into grimaces.

When talking about the communist years, many Romanians agree that no other historical period has managed to destroy in such a subtle way the infrastructure of a society. The destruction of intellectuality, the politicization of literature, the censorship of religion and the fabrication of history and tradition that resulted from the Communist regime will have lasting effects on the future of Romania.

More importantly, however, seems to be the irrecoverable erosion of the moral values on which the very principles of the Communist ideology were constructed. The willingness of people to volunteer was a central assumption to the application of Communism. One might think, then, that community service would be intrinsic to a society indoctrinated with these ideas for almost half of a century. Paradoxically, though, the Romanian society is averse and sarcastic to anything that involves the concept of volunteering.


But Romanians have been the victims of an ideological system that degraded the real meaning of volunteerism by distortion and overemphasis. In the first years of Communism, Romania's civil society boomed of willingness to volunteer. At the end of World War II, thousands of young men and women joined groups of brigadiers organized by the State to build roads and railroads. They worked with joy and built some of the best passageways in the country.

Communist propaganda called this work "patriotic work." In spite of despicable living conditions, an incredible number of people gathered to work hand in hand. However, enthusiasm quickly subsided as a result of poor working conditions. The powerful songs of the brigadiers ("Rocks will fall, in the brigadier's work!") slowly died together with the abstract idea that their work was benefitting society.

My grandfather owned a thresher, the only one in the village at that time. When Communist officials took my grandfather's land and thresher away as part of "collectivization," they forced him into service for the collectivity. In exchange for his work he received a far smaller portion of the harvest than he did when his thresher was his own. The propaganda of volunteering for the community did not work for him and for many others mainly because the members of the community received too little to lead a decent life.

Moreover, party officials knew about my grandfather's anti-Communist views. So when the thresher wore out, they accused him of sabotage and threw him in prison for six months. Thereafter, nobody could convince my grandfather that working for the Communist society had any moral value.

An important factor that contributed to the degradation of the value of volunteering was the forced involvement of every individual in the communist party. Starting from the age of four, children automatically became part of the Communist political structures under the organization "Falcons of the Fatherland." I was a Falcon and at the time, I took pride in it. At the age of 10 I became a Pioneer and, I would have become a member of the Communist Party if the Revolution had not come.

Starting with the very membership of these organizations, nothing could have been categorized as a volunteer act. Patriotic work became a requirement for professional or academic advancement. My father was characterized thus in his "Note on Attitude" that was necessary for his promotion as a chemical engineer: "He participated with great enthusiasm and zeal at the patriotic work with the students. He answered to all the calls of the party, putting the interest of the community in front of his personal interests."

Without this kind of false rhetoric, my father would not have been promoted. By making it a requirement for professional promotion, volunteer work became a burden associated with an increasingly unpopular political system; this connotation eventually emptied the noble meaning of volunteer work reducing it to an unpleasant constraint.

Volunteer work became a subtly enforced requirement. It became part of my yearly school schedule and my parents' yearly "work plan." An indirect but efficient way of enforcement was the requirement of patriotic work proof before the withdrawal of any official forms from a state institution. For example, when my parents wanted to sell our car, they needed an official contract that proves seven days of patriotic work.

Such enforcement contradicts the very nature of volunteer work, thus degrading its noble meaning. Presently, the real effects of the Communist system on Romania's civil society are more apparent than ever. Romania is in the process of democratization and transition to an open-market economy. This painful process is forcing the society to redefine its values.

After they heroically overthrowing a socially and morally destructive political system, Romanians need to re-learn the moral value of volunteering. If this is revived, especially in the souls of the young, the hope for a better future will not wither away as the value of volunteering did 50 years ago.

Ovidiu C. Daminescu '00 lives in Penny-packer Hall.