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Volume 2, No. 6 - September/October 1992 FOCUS: Post Cold War Politics  
The Killing Of Professor Culianu
By Ted Anton

ON THE LAST MORNING OF HIS LIFE, a charismatic University of Chicago Divinity School professor named Ioan Culianu taught a class on gnosticism, the study of secret mystic sects. One of his graduate students, Alexander Arguelles, was presenting a paper to the faculty for the first time that day. "I was nervous. He said, it's nothing to fear, just a rite of passage," Arguelles recounts. "He patted me on the back and smiled." Arguelles stops. "I'Il never forget that smile."

Two hours later Culianu was dead of a single .25-caliber bullet wound to the back of the head. His execution-style murder in a campus bathroom stunned the school, terrified students, and stumped the Chicago police and the FBI. Now, after sixteen months, the crime looks more and more like what Culianu's friends suspected it was all along: the first political assassination of a professor on American soil.

AT FIRST, the police thought the killing might be the act of a disgruntled student or colleague, perhaps even a practitioner of the occult arts Culianu studied. But investigators tumed up no evidence to corroborate these theories. What they did discover is that for almost two years, Culianu, a Romanian emigré, had been attacking the new Romanian govemment in joumals, broadcasts, and inteniews around the world. He had received death threats, as have other Romanians-in-exile since his murder.

At 41, Professor Culianu was adored by students and admired by scholars from Umberto Eco to Harold Bloom. Fluent in eight languages, the author of seventeen books, and the holder of three Ph.D.'s, Culianu was "brilliant, famous in Europe," says Dr. Moshe Idel, a Hebrew University professor and expert on Tewish mysticism. Tall, with a dimpled smile and deep eyes that looked somewhere beyond you, Ioan Culianu proposed that multiple universes coexist, that the mind creates reality, and that magic can outperform modern science. In the weeks before his murder, on May 21, 1991, he was finishing three books, planning his wedding, preparing for a long anticipated return to Romania, and hosting a conference in Chicago with the retrospectively haunting title "Other Realms: Death, Ecstasy, and Otherworldly Tourneys in Recent Scholarship."

But it is the prophetic quality of the victim's own political statements and Borgesian fiction that add the eeriest dimension to this chilling story. A specialist in the occult, Culianu liked to tell his students' futures and often came up with predictions that were unnervingly on target. At one Hyde Park party he uncovered a graduate student's concealed panic over her career; he told another that she was "humiliating herself in a love triangle" and his accuracy, she says, "knocked the wind out of me." In the fantasy and detective stories he published in avant-garde literary magazines like Exguisite Corpse, Culianu wrote of political events that materialized months or years later, of secret sects, and murders remarkably like his own. This crime is an academic whodunit, touching on the tortured intricacies of Romanian history, on myth and mysticism, and on the buried connections between a scholar's political and intellectual passions. As fiction, it makes uncanny tragedy. The tragedy is, it's not fiction.

AS A TEACHER, Ioan Culianu was open, fUnny, and unforgettable, but as a friend he was secretive and insular. He was born January 5, 1950, into a prominent family in the Romanian town ofIasi near the Soviet border. Iasi had majestic boulevards, stone cathedrals, crooked cobbled alleys and, for Culianu, ghostly memories of his boyar family's former glories. Culianu's great-grandfather and grandfather had presided over its university, Romania's oldest. During Romania's era of fascism and Axis alliance, his grandf~gther was famous for defending Tews by wielding a marble-handled cane against their tormentors.

The boy grew up under the Communists, who came to power just after World War II. The party seized his family's mansion, confining them to four rooms infused by the "bitter smell of decomposing upholstery," Culianu later wrote. Forbidden to play with other children, he amused himself with solitary games in the estate's walled garden. On his office desk after the murder, police found three walnuts from the tree in that garden.

"We lived in fear of Securitate, the secret police," recalls Culianu's sister, Therese Petrescu, now married to one of Romania's leading dissidents. His father, an opposition lawyer and mathematician, could not publish or find a job; he died, a broken man, at 51.

At the University of Bucharest, Ioan Culianu and his fiends reveled in mind games, teasing their professors by inventing elaborate bibliographic citations to scholars with outlandish names. When he placed first in national literature and language exams, Securitate tried to recruit him, as it did most top graduates. A so-called Captain Ureche ("Captain Ear") took him "walking through many alleyways," urging him to inform on colleagues, Culianu wrote in a 1989 statement to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. When Culianu refused, he, like his father, found he could not get a decent job or publisher.

Unlike his father, though, Ioan Culianu escaped. On Tuly 4, 1972, he defected while in Italy on scholarship. Romanian writers abroad have been beaten or killed, in incidents that usually suggest Securitate involvement, and Culianu's subsequent achievements all came as he moved in fear of reprisal through Italy, France, and Holland. Exile, however, gave him excellent contacts around the world, especially with another Romanian expatriate, the late Mircea Eliade, the University of Chicago's acclaimed religious scholar. Eliade encouraged the younger scholar's exploration of mysticism and astral religion and helped bring Culianu to Chicago as a visiting professor in 1986. At the time of his death, Culianu held a professorship in the history of Christianity and the history of religions; the University of Chicago had promised him tenure when his immigration proceedings were concluded.

In Hyde Park, Culianu expanded his research beyond the study of religion, working to recast our concepts of magic, sex, death and the self. His interests ranged widely—from the study of multiple universes to the mind's phantasms, from literary theory to the spiritual techniques of ecstasy. "He had," says Michael Fishbane, a divinity-school colleague, "the linguistic capacity, the originality, the boldness and the energy to produce an enormous life's work." His three posthumously published books suggest the scope ofhis ambition. One covers the history ofgnostic sects, another explores after life journeys, and the third is a comprehensive dictionary of world religions.

Because he linked the occult, physics, magic, Eros and history, his scholarship was mislabeled New Age. It was far more. Culianu sought the underlying structure of fanaticism and faith to find "the patterned predictability of thought itself," writes Lawrence Sullivan, director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions. "He made two key contributions," says Carol Zaleski, a Smith College professor of religion; "One was in the sheer mass of his erudition. But his main interest was in understanding how the mind invents imaginary worlds and makes them so real, they in effect become real."

Yet more than his scholarship, it is his personality students still talk about. "He met us and greeted us by name," says former graduate student Michael Allocca. "I looked forward all summer to seeing him," says Greg Spinner, another of Culianu's students. "I'11 just never know anyone like him again." Spinner and Allocca persuaded him to give them a course in his specialty, divination. The final exam was to predict the future.

On the university quad in 1986, Culianu met Hillary Wiesner, a Harvard graduate student with whom he would cowrite most of his later works. She became his fiancé, and the object of his mystical chivalry. "He invented a kind of religion focused on me," says Wiesner. "My friends couldn't believe him." When Culianu and Wiesner saw the movie Cyrano de Bergerac, though, she understood, at least a little. "He cried at that movie," she says. "In his mind he was Cyrano, alone, on a secret ideal quest against impossible odds to avenge his father and the past."

A WILLING EXPATRIATE, Ioan Culianu followed Romanian politics from a distance for seventeen years. But after the Romanian revolution in December of 1989, he became a firebrand. In his last fifteen months Culianu wrote more than thirty articles attacking Romania's new leaders in Lumea Libera (Free World) a New York-based émigré newspaper, and in Corriere della Sera, the Italian national daily. He made scathing Radio Free Europe and BBC broadcasts; the BBC even told him to tone them down. He wrote prescient short stories about a country called Tormania, his fictional version of Romania.

History helps explain his "latent explosion," Norman Manea's term for the belated political engagement of the Romanian intellectual in exile. Squeezed by the old Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, Romania is a poor, mountainous, oft-conquered country haunted by identity crises and susceptible to corrupt and sadistic leadership, both foreign and native. (The most famous Romanian, Dracula, is a fictional character based on the aptly named fifteenth century prince, Vlad the Impaler.) Democratic traditions have never really taken root; xenophobia and anti-Semitism have often flourished, and as Manea points out, kept many young intellectuals aloof from national politics.

In the late 1930s a fascist party called the Iron Guard grew in power. Nurturing its own version of blood-and-soil mythology, the Iron Guard, in the words of the historian Vlad Georgescu, "brought a death cult to Romanian politics," and took even the Nazis aback with the barbarity of its pogroms. Aware that much of this history had been suppressed in the post-war era, Culianu had called for an investigator like Elie Wiesel to uncover the full truth of the Romanian holocaust.

In 1944 Romania's young King Michael infuriated the Iron Guard by turning his back on Germany and bringing the country into the antifascist coalition-or, as the ultranationalists saw it, capitulating to the Russians. When the Communists took over in 1947, many Iron Guardists escaped—to the United States. As it happens, Chicago harbors one of the largest concentrations of these exiles. "You have an old but active fascist community here," says a source who asked not to be named. "They still recruit," adds another.

The revolution against Nicolae Ceausescu seemed at first a joyful reversal of Romania's dark history. But a number of recent books that examine the events of December 1989, including those by NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, joumalist Edward Behr, and Radio Free Europe correspondent Nestor Ratesh, have confirmed what Culianu and others said early on about Eastern Europe's last and bloodiest revolt. They argue that what began as a genuine popular uprising in the city of Timisoara was soon co-opted by factions within Securitate, the Army, and the party that had long been planning to topple the Ceausescu regime. Accounts differ as to how quickly and definitively the revolt was hijacked. Some commentators argue that much of the revolution we saw on TV was staged and even claim that the KGB had a hand in it; others say the uprising was genuinely popular and spontaneous but soon provided a pretext for the coup plotters to make their move. All agree that many officials in the postrevolutionary government are veterans of the Ceausescu regime and share much of its contempt for democracy. As Ratesh puts it, the struggles of December resulted in "the striking paradox of a basically anti-Communist revolution producing a regime dominated by former Communists." Romania's government faces a stagnant economy and frequent protests, but the opposition is fractured, and the current regime may well be returned to power in national elections this September. An antiSemitic right—to which some of Ceausescu's former associates have gravitated and which appears to be funded by a faction of Securitate—is on the rise.

Unlike others in Eastern Europe, the Romanian government today retains most of its secret police force (though it does have a new, more benign-sounding name: the Romanian Information Service). Even abroad, the former Securitate, or at least remnants of it, apparently continue to engage in dirty tricks. An official in the FBI's Intelligence Division testified before Congress last November, for example, that while Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary have significantly scaled back their intelligence operations in the United States, "we cannot say the same thing for Romania.... We're still very concerned about their intentions."

Ioan Culianu was among the first and loudest to label Romania's revoludon a coup. His fiction had been even more perceptive: Six months before anyone thought Ceausescu could fall, Culianu published a short story in Italy, "The Intervention in Jormania," that described a rebellion similar to Romania's. A second story, "Free Jormania," told of a coup in the midst of a genuine revolution, in which secret police factions battle and coup leaders film exhumed corpses to innate the number of combat deaths and confuse the public. An ABC Nightline investigation later revealed that the leaders of the Romanian revolution had resorted to just such a grisly strategy—videotaping rows of corpses dug up from paupers' graves and claiming they were the bodies of demonstrators killed by Ceausescu forces. In Romania as in Culianu's fiction, political reality had become a mind game.

A month before he died, a wide-ranging interview with Culianu appeared in the Romanian dissident magazine 22. "He gave the most devastating indictment of the new union of far left and far right in Romania," says Vladimir Tismaneanu, a University of Maryland political science professor and author of Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel. At first reluctant to talk, Culianu went on to caU Securitate a force "of epochal stupidity and yet unseen profundity." Asked about Romania's free elections and press, he replied that the main benefactors were newly free fascists. The professor antagonized not only far left and far right but even the interviewer, calling the revolution a "tragic waste" dictated by the KGB. "It was his death sentence," says Ion Pacepa, a former chief of the Romanian Foreign Intelligence Serice who defected in 1978 and is now hiding in America.

It is not surprising that Ioan Culianu worried about retaliation, and thought he saw evidence of it. A month before the revolution, his Hyde Park apartment was ransacked. The Chicago police report shows that a TV, a computer, floppy disks, and bottles of wine were stolen. Culianu, who was petitioning to get his sister and brother-in-law out of the country, felt that Securitate was warning him, says his friend Stelian Plesoiu.

Others disagreed. "It was nothing political, just a bad neighborhood," says Greg Spinner, who helped his professor move out and into a high-security high rise on Lake Shore Drive.

Culianu never mentioned to university friends or the police the death threats he had begun getting. "He was a stiff-upper-lip type," says Spinner, to whom Culianu did once confide he was getting into "dangerous territory" in his poiitical writing.

One person to whom he did mention the threats was his friend Dorin Tudoran, a dissident publisher and poet. "They came in letters or over the phone. He didn't know the source," Tudoran says. "They said they would kill him if he kept writing about Romania. First he was amused. Then he became frightened."

Yet he got himself even more involved in exile politics. In April 1991, a month before he was killed, Ioan Culianu hosted the elderly King Michael at the University of Chicago, later concluding that the exiled monarch was the best hope for stability in their country. Three days before his murder, he decided to cancel his trip to Romania, during which he had planned to visit his ailing mother and attend a conference of the American-Romanian Academy, a scholarly group known for its anti-Communist activity. He told his sister he was receiving threats from the powerful far right group called Vatra Romaneasca (Romanian Hearth), "for all practical purposes an organ of the Romanian Information Service," according to a retired Securitate captain.

He then changed the locks on his office door.

The third-floor bathroom where Ioan Culianu was slain is a serene place. Etched into one toilet roll holder is a swastika, probably unrelated to the crime. Culianu died during the lunch hour on a sunny May afternoon, as hundreds of people filed through Swift Hall for the annual divinity school book sale. His killer apparently perched on a toilet seat in the stall next to Culianu's and pointed the gun down at his head. The single shot sliced through his brain and exploded out a nostril. No one saw the killer flee. The gun was never found. Culianu's keys and wallet were still in his pocket and his black opal watch was still fastened to his wrist. The killing was so precise that when a student entered the bathroom minutes later, there was almost no blood yet, just a bluish arm dangling below the partition.

"These people knew what they were doing," observes Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Robert T. Stein. "To kill with one shot from a gun as small as a .25-that's not easy." The former intelligence chief Ion Pacepa goes further: "It's a typical KGB-style type of execution, one shot to the back of the head."

Culianu's killing uncoiled a string of strange events, rumors, and instances of disinformation. A day after the murder a gift of his books that Culianu had sent to King Michael's home in Geneva, Switzerland, arrived in its Tiffy Pak envelope—opened and empty. The day before the murder, someone phoned the family and many of the business associates of Andrei Codrescu to tell them that Codrescu, a Romanian exile and a friend of Culianu's, had killed himself. Codrescu says he eventually leared that the calls had been made by "an individual in California." But he says that he is afraid to reveal the caller's identity, commenting only that "the spread of disinformation is a typical Securitate strategy."

In the following days the widow of Mircea Eliade, a woman Culianu doted on, began receiving menacing calls at her Hyde Park home. Eliade had named Culianu his literary executor, but in recent years the elder scholar, who died in 1986, had come under attack as an apologist for the Iron Guard and Culianu himself had criticized his mentor. Mrs. Eliade changed her number and has declined to talk.

A few weeks later, the American-Romanian Academy meeting in Bucharest fizzled when a number of scholars from the West who'd been scheduled to attend bowed out. "It was crucial for free opposition in our country," says Mircea Sabau, a physicist at the University of Chicago's teaching hospital and a friend of Culianu's. "But after the killing, few people showed up."

According to Culianu's sister, Romania's official newspaper, Libertatea (Freedom), then published what it claimed was a Chicago police report asserting that no foreign intelligence service was involved in the crime. But the Chicago police say they issued no such report. In a June 7, 1991 press conference Romania's President Ion Iliescu also commented on the crime, stating a "high American official" told him it was not a political murder. A State Department expert on Eastern European affairs, however, disclaims any knowledge of such a comment by an American official.

Other Romanian writers in the U.S. and abroad began getting death threats. The far rightist newspaper Romania Mare (Greater Romania), published by former Ceausescu supporters, attacked political science professor Vladimir Tismaneanu: "Watch out rat, the rat patrol is after you." In Washington, dissident Dorin Tudoran began receiving threats naming Culianu. "I got calls that said, 'We'll send you after your friend Culianu. We have a bullet with your name on it." The FBI eventually caught the Romanians making the calls, but neither Tudoran nor the bureau will say who they were.

In Athens, a Romanian writer and close friend of Professor Culianu was threatened twice during the week his article on the murder appeared. In New York, a journalist received threats similar to the others. In Chicago, a Romanian radio announcer who has sponsored the king's visits got menacing phone calls and a letter naming Culianu.

Some of the threats may be spurious, traceable to a lone exile nursing old resentments. But there is something odd, and perhaps significant, about the way most of these messages are worded: They borrow the archaic language of the Iron Guard's mystic nationalism. In Athens the letters even featured obsolete accent marks. Most observers say this is an old Securitate cover tactic. In his book Red Horizons, Ion Pacepa details international smear campaigns in which the Securitate used nationalist rhetoric to intimidate dissidents, sometimes inventing new rightwing groups.

A February 1992 article in Romania Mare adopted similar language to applaud Culianu's murder. Filled with vulgar references to the murder site, the article said Culianu was appropriately killed on a "lethal toilet prepared for him as if by destiny."

A MURDER SITE IS A TEXT, and on a quiet May afternoon divinity school professor Anthony Yu analyzes the bathroom site of his friend's murder, close to his book-lined office. "It's ritually significant," he says. "It conveys symbolic and physical humiliation, stain, impurity, a most profane site to end a life. In fact, I've wondered if this was a cult killing."

The police haven't ruled out the possibility that it was a cult killing—or the act of a disgruntled colleague, student, or lover. But if there is such a motive, it is well hidden. "He just didn't have any enemies," says Nathaniel Deutsch, Culianu's graduate assistant, and others concur.

On occasion, though, Culianu's avid research into the occult had gotten him into trouble. At a lecture he gave in France on Renaissance magic, three self-described witches objected to his meddling in their realm. He, his co-lecturer, and several in the audience became seriously ill. Lectures on that topic were "an enterprise," he noted wryly in his book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, "from which I shall refrain in the future."

Many Romanians themselves are skeptical about a political motive in this murder. Why would even an unbridled faction of the Securitate bother with a professor in Chicago who was not a player? The question is a cultural knot; its answer may lie less in the rational than in the mythical, indeed cultist, fanaticism Culianu studied and critiqued.

First, discard the idea that a professor's writings could not inspire enough anger to get him killed. Many compare Culianu's death to the 1940 murder of Nicholae lorga, a famous Romanian historian who had antagonized the Iron Guard and is thought to have been killed by them, outside of Bucharest. "I know the people who murdered Iorga," says Dr. Alexander Ronnett, an elderly dentist and general practitioner who is a self-proclaimed Chicago spokesman for the Iron Guard. "The only thing they did wrong was to be too kind," he says. "They should have skinned him alive in public."

To Romania's new far rightists, Culianu was a traitor to his kind—a writer whose attacks were more direct and personal than those of people like Tismaneanu, Codrescu or Manea, who are all Jewish and therefore excluded, in the neofascist view of things, from the circle of Romanian patriots. He was the intellectual heir to Eliade, one of Romania's most famous scholars abroad. But while the old Iron Guard had proudly called Eliade "one of our own," the new Romanian rightists loathed Culianu. The article in Romania Mare, signed by Leonard Gavriliu, the Romanian translator of Freud, offered its own harrowing commentary on the murder site: referring to the "seething, fermented vision of Culianu's fecal brain," it called him "a piece of excrement over whom not enough water was flushed." It said that Culianu, "a refugee in the gangster megalopolis of Chicago," had no right to criticize Romanian anti-semitism or to demand a reckoning with the country's recent past.

Securitate, too, reserves special vengeance for anyone who puts their criticisms of Romania in writing. In 1991 Dimitru Mazilu, a former high official of the ruling National Salvation Front who had just completed a manuscript critical of the new regime, was beaten and slashed in his Geneva apartment. The two hooded men who attacked him with razors spoke Romanian—and they left with Mazilu's manuscript. Other writers and publishers have been beaten or killed in France, Germany, and Canada. According to Ion Pacepa, the Ceausescu-era Securitate used radiation to surreptitiously poison dissident writers it had detained.

Still, even those who are convinced that Culianu's was a political murder are puzzled about why he in particular might have been targeted. One explanation may be the breadth and passion of Culianu's attack on Romania's new government. Appearing in April 1991, a month before he died, Culianu's interview with 22 was one of the first broadsides on the ruling National Salvation Front and the December revolution to be published in Romania itself. In it, he "combined the emotionalism of a poet with the depth of a political scientist," says Vladimir Tismaneanu. He castigated not only Securitate but the Iron Guard, cultist nationalism, the Orthodox Church, and Romanian culture. He called for investigation of Romania's genocide of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Any one of these could provoke reprisal in a country that has never confronted its recent past. "His criticism was complex, nonlinear, subtle. You must put it together," says Mircea Sabau. "Then, it's devastating."

The 22 interview would have "hit them [the current Romanian government] hard," says Ion Pacepa. "They'd say,'This guy's trouble. He's only going to get worse. Let's get rid of him.' It may not even have been a govemment decision."

The fact that Culianu was not known outside the academic world may also have made him more vulnerable. "They go after those less well-known to confuse the police and scare the rest of us," says Sabau.

When it comes to Balkan intrigue, the Chicago police proceed pretty much as usual. "The FBI handles the international dimension," says Chicago Police Commander Fredrick Miller, who will say only that he's recently gotten a new lead in the Culianu case.

The enigmatic killing grips those who knew Ioan Culianu. "Losing him was like the burning of the Library at Alexandria. There's so much he knew, it'll take years to sift what he could tell you in a second," says Greg Spinner. "I can't stop thinking about him," says Nathaniel Deutsch. Beyond the senseless loss, the correlation between his research and his murder is the most unsettling element of this crime. Ioan Culianu believed in multiple universes--perhaps because he lived in multiple worlds himself. He taught his students to suspend disbelief to become good detectives of the occult; he believed Eastern Europeans had to do the same in order to uncover the occult political twists of a deeply divided region. He believed in the power of the past and the power to rewrite it, as he saw such power used in his country. "His scholarly interests were almost a mirror image of the organization that was plotting to kill him," says his fiiend Vladimir Tismaneanu.

Culianu's last short story, "The Language of Creation," appeared in Andrei Codrescu's magazine Exquisite Corpse the month Culianu died. It tells of a historian "forty years old, living in a high rise security building on the Lake." He teaches at a "grey and renowned Midwestern University." And one day he comes to possess a strange music box that contains in code the language spoken by God: the Language of Creation. The three former owners of the box have met with murder in centuries past.

The current owner considers using the box against a "distasteful political regime" but fears he will suffer the same fate as those who came before him. As much as he tries to break its secret code, he never can. After much indecision he finally leaves the music box at a yard sale and escapes to freedom from what had become the intellectual prison posed by its secret.

After twenty years of exile, with all those accomplishments behind him, and so many ahead of him, one wonders why Ioan Culianu didn't leave his own past at a yard sale. Did he sense the full extent of the danger he was in? At times it almost seems he did. If one looks deep enough into the story of his murder, one may see a professor unconsciously grappling in his fiction and scholarship with the very real forces that combined to kill him.

Ted Anton teaches in the Master of Arts writing program at De Paul University. He recently received a grant to investigate the Culianu case in Romania


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