An Interview with Dr. Florin Curta on Communism, Faith, and Academia

Dr. Florin Curta, Professor of History and Archaeology at the University of Florida, is one of the leading medieval historians in the world. His language capabilities, which include a reading knowledge of no less than eleven languages (including some he does not bother to list on his C.V.), are rarely matched even among academics. Moreover, his ten books, many on very complex historical issues, have consistently received positive reviews from his fellow historians with one winning the American Historical Associations’ Herbert Baxter Adams Prize in 2003. See links to his C.V. and publications here.

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Yet while his academic background is exceptional, his personal background is (at least) equally fascinating. Dr. Curta grew up in Romania while it was under communist rule. As a young man he was drafted into the Romanian army where he served as a paratrooper. Once he was done jumping out of perfectly good airplanes with a rifle strapped to his back, he pursued his education in Romania as both a historian and archaeologist. One could suggest, only half jokingly, that he was the original Indiana Jones.

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(Above L.) Florin, during one of the many study abroad opportunities he has offered UF students over the past several summers, demonstrating archaeology on a site at Uppakra (in Sweden) in 2012. (Above R.) Florin and his wife Lucia photographed in a window of a chalet in the Austrian Alps in 2009.

During this period in his life, before he and his wife Lucia moved to the United States to complete doctoral degrees in medieval history, he was a direct witness to the enormous changes taking place in eastern European societies at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, Russian influence was diminishing, and the acceptance of communism was on the wane.

Because of these experiences, Dr. Curta often approaches matters in a way that is not typical for academics. He is a conservative, which is unusual for scholars in the humanities. Some of his political and social views have been inspired by his deep religious faith as an Orthodox Christian, as well as his real life experiences under communist rule. These experiences have provided him a unique perspective of the democratic and capitalist U.S. society that he has made his home. He has kindly agreed to offer his brief insights on a few of these topics below.

Question 1. While a number of U.S. academics are sympathetic to various aspects of socialism, you are not. Why? How have your experiences living under both communist rule and in a modern western capitalist state influenced your view?

Of course. As my father used to say, it is so much easier to be in favor of Communism when dining in a quaint restaurant of the Left Bank in Paris, then when starving in Ceauşescu’s Romania (By the way, I have heard the other day a different version of the same from a Russian friend commenting on the political views of certain Russian-Americans: “It is very comfortable to be pro-Putin [when] living in America”). Now, the main reason for being skeptical about either Socialism or Communism is the greatest lie at the heart of the Marxist ideology, namely that all humans are equal—not just in their rights, but in their capabilities and potential. Whenever someone is “better” (i.e., more talented, more determined, etc.), that becomes a problem for the entire system, for it challenges its fundamental principle.

There is another reason for which I think that capitalism is still the better solution. Under both Socialism and Communism it takes an enormous amount of time for one’s idea, innovation, or discovery to be put into practice, for the benefit of all. There is no incentive in the system for implementing change that is not centrally approved and applied. For an individual idea to be accepted and implemented by the system, it would need much greater effort, energy, and time under Communism than under capitalism.

Finally, there is little, if any individual freedom under Communism. That, too, is a consequence of the first reason mentioned above: the individual is viewed only as a part of a larger body, that of the collective interests of society. The absence of religious rights, for example, derives directly from that, as well as from the ideologically driven atheism of the system. Most people in the academe don’t reflect much on those ideas, absorbed as they are by discussions revolving around the notion of social justice. As Raymond Aron famously put it, Marxism is the “opium of the intellectuals.”

Question 2: In your experience, how were Christians treated under communist rule in Romania? Since moving to the United States, have you, as a deeply religious Orthodox Christian, ever experienced or witnessed anti-Christian bias in your professional career? Do you think anti-Christian bias in academia is significant?

There were (and still are) many kinds of Christians in Romania. The majority are Orthodox Christians, and while many priests have been incarcerated, tortured, and killed, under Patriarch Iustinian Marina (1948-1977), the Orthodox Church under the Communist regime witnessed something of a renewal, especially in terms of the revival of monastic life. At the same time, however, the regime discouraged any participation in church life, with many churches being closed or even demolished (especially under the last years of Ceauşescu’s regime).

In exchange for state support, some priests accepted to use the sacrament of the confession in order to denounce their parishioners to the secret police. Meanwhile, the regime persecuted the Greek Catholic (or Uniate) church, which recognized the pope in Rome as their leader. That church was outlawed in 1948, and its bishops died in the Romanian gulag. Many Greek Catholics, especially in Transylvania, joined the “underground Church” with secret religious services and a life not unlike that of the early Christians. Since the number of Roman Catholics (who also recognized the pope as their leader) was relatively small, the regime did not persecute them.

Much harsher was the treatment of Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians, because all those Protestant denominations were identified with the national minorities of Romania (Germans and Hungarians, respectively) who were not happy with the nationalist policies of Ceauşescu’s regime. Persecutions of Christians in Romania was therefore a matter much more complicated than in other Communist countries, for example the Soviet Union. In addition to issues pertaining to the regime’s systemic atheism, religion in Romania was often linked to one’s national identity, which created many complications and often contradictory policies.

There was a widespread social schizophrenia: many avoided any association with Christianity in public, while still celebrating Christmas and Easter with family, supposedly as “traditions.” Many did not marry in the Church, and did not baptize their children, for fear of political repercussions. Religious education and mission were completely banned, but young people (like myself) who grew up with religious grandparents still got sufficient exposure to incorporate Christian values into their early education, despite the aggressive atheism of the official school education. The elderly had no jobs to lose any more, so they were not reluctant to go to church, and they typically took their grandchildren with them.

The result of the complicated relations between the Communist power and Christians of various denominations was that some of the latter viewed themselves as more anti-Communist than others. Conflicts between Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Romanians after 1989 led to serious tensions between the two churches, most visible during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Romania in 1999. At that time, I was just getting my job at the University of Florida, and had been in the United States for six years. I had sufficient time to observe and understand attitudes towards Christianity in American society and especially in universities. Is there anti-Christian bias in the academe? Perhaps, but nothing on the level of what I have experienced in Romania. In the US, the anti-Christian bias is a matter of a(n admittedly large) number of people pretending to be tolerant, but espousing virulently anti-Christian views. I have been myself the target of such a burst of hatred from one of my colleagues, who, nonetheless, stopped all harassment when showed compassion at a moment of crisis and distress. There is, in my opinion, no anti-Christian bias entrenched in the system, which is why much of the anti-Christmas and anti-Easter propaganda is ultimately ineffective.

Question 3: As a well-established and tenured scholar, you have a certain freedom to express conservative political or social views that typically do not fall within the mainstream of academic thought on various issues. What advice would you give to young and untenured scholars who hold similarly conservative views?

I don’t know if I am qualified to give any advice to young and untenured scholars. The truth is that my life experience is not like that of most freshly minted Ph.Ds and, as a consequence, I doubt that there would be any basis in my advising others on what they should do. I will however say that when one is truthful to one’s beliefs, that truth shines through, so to speak. In other words, one does not need to proselytize; it is sufficient to behave in a certain way, to be a model for others, to take action in circumstances where others would not move a finger or remain cowardly quiet. I will also say that one needs to choose one’s battles carefully: not everything is worth one’s energy and enthusiasm.

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