Behind the Iron Curtain

Fatima ShafiMarch 4, 2024Crisis & ChangeMedia

Twentieth-century Romania is a dark corner of the world, where electricity is unpredictable, water may or may not be poisoned, and the dreaded Securitate prowls the streets in search of radicalism to weed out from the concrete.

The people’s voices are muffled, their pleas for help cut short – even if they could speak freely, global superpowers across the sea are too far away to hear them and too preoccupied to care. Whispers of revolution are firewood for the Regime, which is always hungry for more dissidents to punish. One by one, communism is relinquishing its hold on Romania’s neighboring countries, but Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, slippery as a chameleon, persists in all its authoritarian glory. Romania chokes in the Iron Curtain’s grip. Husbands, wives, sisters, and brothers cannot be trusted: after the global inflation, courtesy of the Cold War, foreign cigarettes have more value than blood.

“How many Kents will I need to make sure they turn up the gas?”

This is the world Ruta Sepetys gives her readers a harrowing view of in her novel, I Must Betray You. Written from the perspective of 17-year-old Cristian Florescu, I Must Betray You is a poignant twist on the coming-of age genre, wherein Cristian comes of age in an impending revolution, and finds himself on the front lines. Under the mentorship of his grandfather, he learns to morph his fear and anger into a vision of what Romania once was and what it could be again – a Romania he’s never really seen but longs to live in. A country in which his sister can purchase tampons instead of resorting to old cotton or cheese cloth, and bananas are not a rarity.

But he can’t let his epiphanies show. The small apartment he shares with his family, one of a myriad in Bucharest, is undoubtedly bugged, and privacy is a luxury one must stand in queues for. He must navigate through the rivers of trust, love, and betrayal lest he drown in them, like so many desolate Romanians have. He is hesitant to place himself at the forefront and expose himself to the layers of espionage and betrayal within his own community, but also eager to do so, itching to contribute to a cause greater than himself. Regardless of what his desires, though, national insurgency brings with it a sense of immediacy, urgency, and inescapability that Cristian cannot ignore. Rather, it finds him in his own home:

“I hoped proximity might bring clarity.”

In a time and place where literature is considered inherently revolutionary – and thus condemnable – it becomes, for Cristian, a source of catharsis. His diary, that he keeps in English, is a damnable portrayal of the hidden face of totalitarianism, which the outside world cannot, or will not see. Sepetys acutely conveys the loneliness, confusion, and rage of a student under the Regime.

What the reader must acknowledge in Sepetys’s writing style is that she doesn’t overdo it. The 17-year-old protagonist has the same dreams, desires, and epiphanies as any other 17-year-old in his situation would – he is not wise beyond his years or blessed with spectacular fortitude. This makes the book highly relatable as it expounds upon the power of the students and litterateurs in molding their world. Simultaneously, Sepetys also manages to convey the slow pace at which these changes take place – so slow, in fact, that it’s hard to see the events unfolding before your eyes until the result becomes visceral. Her ending initially seems disjointed from the rest of the story, almost unsatisfactory, but the reader then realizes the point she is making. Ultimately, the results of resistance may not be seen immediately, maybe not even in one’s lifetime, but they will appear, immortalized, and bound to the heartland. Not all problems will be resolved together, nor will all truths be unearthed in sequence, because the forges of revolution don’t just burn away tyranny – they also, inevitably, steal from their benefactors. There are no happy endings, there is just the contentment that comes with a fulfillment of purpose. Sepetys says all this in Cristian’s words.

Cristian’s reality is encapsulated in the title: it is betrayal that urges him on, disillusions him from the realities of his world, and teaches him valuable lessons that contribute to his resistance. But the pivotal moment in his development as the protagonist is when he is coerced into a role he has always abhorred. One thing that becomes clear to him is that he can trust no one, not even himself. The demarcation between those in power and those subjugated by it is clear, be it through the color of their cars or the brand of cigarettes they use, but there are also those who toe the line, alternating between power and subjugation. They are the informants, and they are everywhere. They may even be in his household. Throughout the course of the story, he realizes that he doesn’t really know his family. His every interaction with them is eclipsed by the omnipresence of the Regime. Even his secrets are not his own, and none are unimportant to the Securitate. None are beyond utilization.

Cristian’s story is set in a situation that has become all too familiar to the global audience. The novel recalls Ballard’s Neo-Malthusian Billenium – or even modern-day Gaza. This link is particularly profound considering recent international events and the propaganda surrounding them, because Ceausescu’s regime was characterized by propaganda and self-victimization. Sepetys carefully hints that the disinterest of world leaders, and their eagerness to believe Ceausescu’s sugared assurances, are an important reason for the propagation of Romania’s abysmal situation. This book will be particularly enjoyable for teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, when they have been exposed to enough of the modern world to understand the political forces that shape or disrupt it. I gave it a rating of 4 out of 5.

I Must Betray You embodies how feeble fear-induced loyalty is – its formidable façade disguises a flickering shadow. The story symbolizes a powerful, inevitable, truth that keeps reiterating itself: genocide is too big a sin for its perpetrators to be forgiven – and those who were indifferent will also not be spared under history’s scrutinizing eye. The global community may forget, but a motherland, whet with indigenous blood, never will.