The Pitesti Experiment, or “The Genocide of Souls” | A Case Study of Marxist Re-education in Communist Romania

The Pitesti Experiment, or “The Genocide of Souls” | A Case Study of Marxist Re-education in Communist Romania

February 19, 2022 0 By Anton

In The History of Communism in Europe, volume two, Dumitru Lăcătus, reviewing Stănescu’s contribution, writes that: “[…] the (in)famous “Pitesti re-education” occupies a special place. […] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn believed that the “re-education” practiced at Pitesti was the “most atrocious ferocity the contemporary era has ever invented”.”

Writer Virgil Ierunca, in the description of his book on the Pitesti Phenomenon, published in 1990, explained that “what happened in the Pitesti prison between 1949 and 1952 deserves a special place in the terrifying repertoire of horrors […] committed during the twentieth century”. Romanian filmmaker Sorin Iliesiu called what happened at Pitesti the “genocide of souls”. Although it may sound extreme, as we shall see shortly, words cannot describe the events that occurred in the darkness of the Pitesti prison under the orders of international socialist authorities.

Memorial placard of the Pitesti Experiment

Marxist Re-education in Communist Romania

“In the Gulag Archipelago, from the Russian steppes to central Europe, everywhere where the Soviet empire extended, the arsenal of cruelty has developed as if in a natural environment. Everywhere existed sadistic executioners, unimaginable tortures, false confessions and just as fake trials, systematic murder through all sorts of methods, from inanition to mutilations. However, nowhere in this evil empire do we find the essence of the Pitesti Experiment which was the systematic transformation of the victim in executioner and their psychological degradation through tortures inflicted by other victims.” – Virgil Ierunca, Fenomenul Pitesti (Pitesti Phenomenon)

The communists took power over Romania’s political class in 1947. The reign of the far-Left regime can be divided into two eras: from 1948 – 1965, under Gheorghe Ghiorghiu-Dej and from 1965 – 1989 under Nicolae Ceausescu. Terror and hardships existed across the communist period, but the brutalities, executions and mass imprisonments took place predominantly in the first era, under Gheorghe Ghiorghiu-Dej.

Although during Ceausescu’s reign the Secret Police (Securitatea) was still quite active in spreading fear, making illegal arrests, disappearing people and so on, the years between 1965 – 1989 were marked more by physical hardships, such as the famine in the later years of Ceausescu regime, rather than the psychological terror that dominated the first period. What we are about to relate happened between 1949 – 1952 at the Pitesti prison.

When the re-education process began on 6 December 1949, this incarceration building was earmarked for students and what was going on inside its walls had only one purpose: to destroy the psychology of the individual and create the “new man”. However, as we shall see, the Pitesti prison was not the only place where the process of re-education was attempted by the communists: indeed, considering what the torturers “achieved” at Pitesti, the authorities high up in the Party decided to extent the process to other prisons and forced labour camps.

According to a detailed document published in 2007 by the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, between 1948 – 1964, around 2,000,000 people were killed, tortured, deported or made to disappear by the Securitatea. The re-education process that started at Pitesti made hundreds of victims, the exact number is unknown.

The architect of the project was Alexandru Nikolski (Boris Grunbergher-Braunstein), who was the head of the Secret Police during the reign of Gheorghe Ghiorghiu-Dej and wanted to annihilate the moral and psychological constitution of young Romanian intellectuals, most of whom were students. These young people posed a specific threat for the communist regime: they were an intelligent and unforeseen social force which had to be annihilated.

Nikolski was by any measure a KGB agent. From the “Securitatea, Volume I”, page 703: “He was involved in everything that related to the communist activity during that period: arrests, tortures, forced labour, assassinations. It appears that he was the one who initiated the “re-education through torture” process from Pitesti. He remained loyal to the Soviet interests and implemented various KGB operations, including the strict oversight of the communist party in Romania. He did not hesitate to arrest his previous superiors and protectors: Vasile Luca and Teohari Georgescu.”

Nikolski’s tools were Cornel Dulgheru and Cornel Sepeanu (the former was a Soviet spy), Eugen Ţurcanu, a man of an impressive inclination towards torture who led a group of already “re-educated” students (these were people to whom Securitatea promised favours if they helped with its project), the Pitesti prison’s director, Captain Dumitrescu and the political lieutenant Marina. Others who were directly or indirectly implicated included Cornel Zeller and Ana Pauker.

Eugen Ţurcanu, Fenomenul Pitesti, Pitesti Experiment, communist re-education, Marxism, "new man", Soviet Union, KGB
Eugen Ţurcanu

Ţurcanu and his team of roughly 20 men formed the ODCU (The Organization of Convicts with Communist Believes). When the re-education process began, the ODCU were waiting for the students to arrive in their cell. The students were divided into four groups, based on how likely each student was to crack under torture and be re-educated. The exact process of re-education will be detailed below. At this stage, we shall only sketch it and recall a few memories of what went on in the Pitesti prison.

The re-education system, or the creation of the “new man”, aimed at the complete annihilation of national values, the moral devastation of the victim, the self-denial of personal convictions, political believes and religious values and, finally, the destruction of the victim’s entire personality to the point of absolute ideological obedience. As Alexandru Ratiu recalled in his book, The Stolen Church¸ parts of which I translated and uploaded on this website, the motto from Pitesti was: “Destroy them through themselves.”

The process began with the victims being introduced to Ţurcanu and his men who greeted the students with a friendly air: the aim was to gain their trust and make them confess their real views about what was happening with them, as well as their thoughts on the communist Party and ideology. Then, when their trust was fully gained, Ţurcanu and his torturers assaulted the students who did not expect the attack, destroying their trust in their fellow prisoners and subjecting them to a series of horrific actions. These included both physical abuse (to the point of death in some cases) and psychological violence (to the point of severe trauma). Here are a few examples, procured from Anti-Humans and Pitesti Phenomenon:

“[…] different body parts were burnt with the cigarette, some prisoners had their buttocks burnt until the flesh fell off. Others were forces to eat a bowl of faecal matter and when they threw up, the vomit was stuck in their throats.”

“[…] some were “christened” every morning: their head was pushed into the toilet full of urine and faeces while others around mocked the words of the christening. This process lasted until the water bubbled. When the prisoner was about to suffocate, his head was pulled out, the torturers waited for a moment and then the process restarted. One of the students who suffered this torture systematically developed an automatic behaviour which lasted for about two months: every morning he would go alone and put his head into the toilet.

[…] the students of theology were forced by Ţurcanu to hold black masses, especially during the Easter period and the Resurrection night. […] Ţurcanu’s liturgy text was pornography, paraphrasing, in a demonic way, the original text. Holy Marry was called “the great harlot”, Jesus was referred to as “the idiot who died on the cross”.

The theology student who was playing the priest in Ţurcanu’s liturgy was undressed to the skin and then covered with a sheet covered in faeces and around his neck the tortures hanged a phallus made out of bread and soap. During the Easter night of 1950, the prisoners forced to be re-educated were made to kiss the phallus and say “Christ has risen”.  

Ţurcanu was closely observing the body language of every student who considered themselves to be re-educated, who were forced to denounce all his friends and acquaintances, who were forced to describe how they slept with their mothers and who they raped their sisters, and if these individuals displayed even the slightest hesitation in the face of such blasphemies, the torture process began anew.”

“During the night, the prisoners could sleep only on their backs, entirely naked, with their hands laid on top of the blanket. If, through sleep, they made even the slightest move, […] they were hit in their head with an iron ball […]”.

Note the attack on religion – the far-Left hates religion and everything that is related to it. For them the Party is God. This topic will be explored in detailed in an upcoming report on Marxist ideology and its view on religion.

Needless to say that what we observed above were just some of the many inhumane actions inflicted on the students to be re-educated. If Ţurcanu was not convinced that the victim was re-educate, the torture restarted. And so on until the individual was no more. Suicide was almost impossible – the prison authorities took extraordinary measures to ensure that the prisoners could not kill themselves.

The way the outside world began to find out about what was going on at the Pitesti prison was not because of any official reports. Rather, as the “re-educated” students were moved to other prisons (such as the one at Gherla where many more died) and to the forced labour camps, in order to expand the process which the Securitatea considered a success, the word got out.

Map of Romanian Gulag, Harta Gulagului Romanesc
Romanian Gulag Map, Based on:

When, finally in 1954, because more reports were coming out as to what was happening in these communist islands of horror, the Secret Police decided to stop the experiment of creating the “new man”, the “socialist man”, and Ţurcanu and his squad were asked to “show their loyalty” towards the Party and sign a document which stated that what happened at Pitesti was without the communist authorities’ knowledge. Feeling betrayed, the torturers refused, and many of them were executed. The Party, as it did in other communist countries, ate its own children.

Let us know explore the re-education process in more detail. We shall look at what happened in different stages, to try and isolate certain components of the process as we want to highlight the similarities between some of these dynamics and unconscious bias training in the West today.

The Re-education Process

“The new man is the invention that has costed mankind the most. The damage caused by this invention is, in principle, impossible to calculate,” wrote Antoaneta Tănăsescu in 1997 book entitled The Myths of Romanian Communism.

The “new man”, or the “socialist man”, was to be achieved through a process of re-education which, in the Pitesti prison, involved the following stages:

Stage one: The Shock

This was the initial betrayal of the prisoners’ trust in those who befriended them when they first arrived in the cell. The surprised attack and the total change of dynamics within the cell (with Ţurcanu and his men asserting a violent domination over the students) involved physical tortures which were designed to destroy the will of the victims, pushing them towards accepting the next steps of the re-education process.

Stage Two: The Demasking or “Unmasking”

This step was divided into two “levels” – the external demasking and the internal demasking. Dumitru Bacu, in his book Anti-Humans, describes this stage as “the outer and the inner demasking”. However, the concepts are interchangeable as the process is the same.

The external demasking involved, as Virgil Ierunca explained in the previously cited paper, the following: “the prisoner had to show his loyalty towards the Party and the O.D.C.C by telling everything that he did not say during the initial interogation done by the Secret Police, disavowing all his links that he had outside of the prison walls as privileges from which he benefited. […] The confessions were made orally, even under physical torture, then written on a placard made of soap, checked by someone who was in charge of re-education, often by Ţurcanu himself, and then put on paper and handed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” (the O.D.C.C was the ODCU).

However, this stage was only initiated when the will of the victim was already severely weakened, if not annihilated. As Alexandru Ratiu recalled in The Stolen Church:

“After a month and a half of torture, the students became very vulnerable. Those who were experimenting on them managed to penetrate deep into their psychic and to annihilate their personality and denigrate their humanity. At this point, the student would identify themselves with a criminal and a monster.

Those who were demasked (i.e. their previous personality was destroyed and replaced with that of Homo Sovieticus), were asked to confess their crimes on paper and in extreme detail. Nothing ought to have been omitted from these fake crimes. Through this process, the communists were violating the thoughts of these prisoners. The aim of all of this was to destroy every trace of who these students were before they entered the Pitesti prison.

The students were forced to negate their own identities – their “masks” – writing down a false autobiography in which they were defaming themselves, reaching conclusions from fabricated events which the communists alleged the students harboured in their subconsciousness.”

Dumitru Bacu in Anti-Humans provides grim details about this process too:

“The first [outer unmasking] was but an intensification of Communist Securitate’s usual investigative methods involving not only some torture but much that was grotesque and irrational. […] The first phase carried to completion the secret police’s earlier investigations through a torturing system whereby they sought to squeeze a man into the position of declaring all, but absolutely all, that he had done or intended to do prior to his arrest.

He had to name and denounce all persons he had been in contact with, all who helped him with money or food, advice or moral encouragement; all who had sheltered him; all who knew of his activities even if they did not participate in them; all who did not sympathize with the Communist regime; all whom he suspected of having infiltrated the Party or having joined it opportunistically; anybody who seemed likely later to engage in anti-Party activity; maligners of the Party; etc.

Then he had to tell whether he had any ideological material — books, documents, newspapers, circulars, etc. — which he had not declared during earlier questioning; where they were hidden; who else knew of their existence; whether he possessed firearms; if so, where hidden. Particular emphasis was placed on firearms, especially those stored away by peasants as the German troops retreated in 1944; and on any individuals of the “people’s army” who might later, through bribery or corruption, place at the disposal of the “enemies of the people” weapons or anything else that could be used against the Party […].

The individual under interrogation had to confess all the discussions he had had with his fellows, report in detail all educational meetings that had dealt with citizenship and political events, and denounce all who had shown attitudes hostile to the prison administration or made sarcastic remarks in connection with interpretation of Marxism, or jokes about Stalin the “teacher. “

Answers were required to such questions as who among the students had a “fanatical” attitude; or was better informed; or was capable of polarizing the younger members around him; who gave medical help to those condemned to hard labor — all this in order to determine precisely the classification of individuals for eventual use in “unmasking” those who as yet had not walked through the fire.” (Bolded text my own).

The external demasking required the student to completely betray his family, friends and everything he believed in. All of this “confession” had to be done with outmost sincerity. If there was a single doubt that the victim was not convinced about something he said during his “confession”, the torture would restart.

Only after the outer or external demasking was completed, the real hell began: the internal or inner demasking. This involved not only turning on the other students and “confessing” about their supposed crimes against the Party, very often made up crimes, but, as Bacu explained, the annihilation of the victim’s soul. Once more, I quote from Anti-Humans:

“When the student had declared all, or as much as he had to in order to convince the re-education committee that he was hiding nothing, only then began the real tragedy, the “inner unmasking,” the attempt to annihilate the soul. Through the first unmasking he had given over enough information and names to the Securitate to destroy collaborators still free; now he would be forced to yield up his own personality for immolation. The re-educators hoped to destroy the moral and psychological strength of his inner being and transform him into amorphous material, to be shaped by them into a “new structurization. “

To this end the students were obliged to crush underfoot everything they held most sacredGod, family, friends, love, wife, colleagues, memories, ideology — everything which bound them to the past, anything that might give them inner support while in prison.

When the student had passed this test also, to the satisfaction of the re-educators, he became an “honest and clean” vessel worthy of receiving the new doctrine of Marxist humanism, embodied at that time in the person of “the genial leader of the peoples,” Mr. J. V. Stalin.” (Bolded text mine).

The inner or internal demasking was not done only in writing but also orally, before other prisoners. Ierunca recalled how the young men who were the sons of priests from villages were forced to blaspheme against God and their families:

“[…] they were forced to detail erotic scenes in which their father supposedly made advances to them [the young men] even in the altar as the Body of Christ was prepared. Their mother was supposed to be depicted as a prostitute, the prisoner being forced to invent detailed sexual scenes to which he himself witnessed.”

Their confessions, even if they were based on invented events and actions, were not taken as expressions of regret but as admissions of guilt. Only after their personality was “exploded”, as Makarenko designed, through these tortures and their souls violated, the next phase of the re-education process can begin.

Stage Three: The Victim becomes the Torturer

The student who suffered physical and psychological tortures for a prolonged period of time, once the ODCU was satisfied that the victim was no longer an individual and thus, the man was no longer capable of thinking for himself, the re-education process was deemed completed: the “new man”, the “socialist man” was born.

It was now time that this Homo Sovieticus to begin re-educating others. Through this stage of the process, the communists wanted to achieve one thing above all: to eliminate the possibility of innocence and instil in the victims the permanent feeling of guilt.

This part of the process was also meant as a show of loyalty to the communist Party.

The End of the Experiment

What happened inside the Pitesti prison occurred in a similar fashion in only one place on Earth, from the data I have gathered: in some prisons in China. As details:

“Not even in the Soviet gulags can we observe such methods. The only place where a similar experiment was conducted was in Maoist China in the Pekin prisons. There, all the prisoners were re-education through a similar process after which they became devoted communists. At Pitesti and at Pekin, the system of re-education had the same aim: the transformation of prisoners in torturers and to use them against other prisoners until the final goal was achieved – the re-education in the communist creed. The Pitesti Phenomenon would excel in terror, but not in duration, the Maoist re-education camps.”

What happened at Pitesti stopped not because anyone in the communist Party was concerned about the horrors committed. Rather, as re-educated students were transported at other prisons and forced labour camps, reports about their violence and desire to torture spread like wildfire. This meant that the Party’s “good name” was in danger.

This Case Study is part of a longer report entitled “Creating the “New Man”: Marxist Re-education under Communism and in the West today”.