Festive practices and identity engineering in (post)totalitarian regimes. IPN debate

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes more often resort to and are more efficient in using political myths, including because they have at their disposal a more robust arsenal of political-ideological tools. Some of these instruments take the form of festive practices, including marches, parades and mass demonstrations, organized on various occasions and usually having a great political weight. The experts invited to IPN’s public debate ”Festive practices and identity engineering in (post)totalitarian regimes” discussed the festive celebrations and rituals and the technologies used to make them more efficient, the similarities and differences in festive practices used by totalitarian and post-totalitarian regimes.

The permanent expert of IPN’s project Igor Boțan said that the festivities are solemn events that are usually held to celebrate an important event. He explained what rituals mean, stating that they are religious services held according to traditional rules, on certain occasions, such as birth, marriage, sowing, etc. The expert also referred to national identity or national self-awareness, explaining that it is one of the components of a person’s identity, associated with the affiliation to a particular ethnic group or nation.

Igor Boțan also treated such notions as totalitarian and post-totalitarian regimes. According to him, the people living under a totalitarian regime generally support it because of the pressure of propaganda, ideology or fear. Usually, the citizens are afraid to criticize the government and pretend to be loyal to it. At the same time, a post-totalitarian regime is a special type of non-democratic regime that usually appears after the death of the leader-creator of the totalitarian regime.

“If we refer to the common features of totalitarian regimes, they are dictatorship. The power does not change. There is only one dictator or ruling party in power. The external or internal threat is constantly invoked. Fear is cultivated. There is strict censorship in the media. There is propaganda in the media. Any criticism of the state or government is prohibited. The military service is usually compulsory. Society is subject to militarization. The state intelligence services are extremely active. Nationalist parties and ideologies develop. There are chauvinistic feelings in society and many other things. There is a system of labor camps, such as the Gulag, for example, during the Soviet period,” explained the expert.

Doctor of history Nicolae Mihai, researcher at “C. S. Nicolăescu-Plopșor” Institute for Research in Social Studies and Humanities” of Romania, emphasized the importance of understanding the role of rituals from the perspective of their function of social cohesion. He noted that the role of social cohesion is very important, as individual values are aligned with group values.

“Especially in the 19th century, from the formation of nation-states to our period, by attacking the religious factor and the church as an institution and the monarchy, they tried to transfer all this sacredness constituted around the church to the nation that is initially the new historical actor, and after this we see in the period of totalitarian regimes, especially in the case of communist regimes,  how “the best son of the people”, as Nicolae Ceausescu was in Romania, becomes the one around whom all these attributes of sacredness are built,” stated Nicolae Mihai.

The doctor of history pointed out that in totalitarian regimes, unlike democratic ones, there is no longer representativeness, where the nation elects a Parliament, those who watch over the proper development of the laws and the situation of the nation as, suddenly, some of the more selected or, possibly, the most selected ones take control. “From that moment on, things change radically. Although they try through their festive practices to give the impression that, in fact, all the citizens agree with the wishes and measures taken by the leader, things are not like this and then ideology and propaganda intervene considerably to compensate for this feeling of adhesion that should be a natural one,” noted the researcher.

Doctor of history Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu, associate professor, head of the Contemporary History Department of the Institute of History of the Moldova State University, said that the emergence of Greek theater was related not only to the aesthetic aspect, but was indispensably linked to beliefs, ritual, hierarchy, social status and even power relations. The festive practices of the contemporary period are carried out according to the same laws of ancient theatrical practices and the totalitarian regimes aim to control the masses. “How those actions were carried out, how the mechanisms were put into operation, we see by the example of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, Nazi and Stalinist - primarily through propaganda, indoctrination and repression-fear. Propaganda in this whole equation plays a fundamental role. In a society that is treated in this way, there is no other information than that which is disseminated through propaganda,” stated the doctor of history.

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu noted that during the Soviet period, the instrument of festive practices was massively used to indoctrinate, to control public opinion. The Bolsheviks preferred to organize, from the very first years, mass rallies that would embody these masses’ support for the policy implemented by the Bolshevik leaders. The anniversaries of the revolution were landmarks in the official calendar instituted after the revolution. The anniversaries and jubilees related to the great personalities of Marxist-Leninist ideology were also celebrated with great pomp. Moreover, there are those well-directed street demonstrations in which the myth of the evil enemy, world capitalism-imperialism, also appears.

The public debate entitled “Festive practices and identity engineering in (post)totalitarian regimes” was the 37th edition of the series “Impact of the past on confidence and peace building processes”. The project is supported by the German Foundation “Hanns Seidel”.

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