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Communist Bucharest 30 years later


It was hard to picture the petite, bespectacled woman standing before us ever wielding an assault weapon. It was even harder to imagine her doing so at the tender age of 16.

“Our class went three times in grade 10,” said Clara, our communist-era tour guide in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. “We had to learn to protect the country. A soldier gave me a loaded AK-47 and said, ‘Shoot!’ I looked at him and said, ‘Are you crazy? Shoot where?’ He pointed 100 meters down range and said, ‘There. Shoot!’ So I shot and it went everywhere.”

My wife, Beth, and I had just checked in to our Airbnb rental in central Bucharest, a renovated Soviet apartment building in an endless sea of identical concrete towers. The pale, faceless domiciles struck us as an immediate reminder of the city’s grim communist past. They were also in stark contrast to the sleepy Romanian villages we drove through that morning on our way to the way to the capital.

Unaware that we would be staying in an old Soviet apartment building until we arrived at the door, Beth and I began to wonder how such communist housing came to be. We grew curious about what other structures communism left behind and what life was like in Bucharest during the dictatorial rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. To answer our questions, we did a quick search of the tour site Viator and got in touch with Clara, who grew up in Bucharest during the grimmest days of Ceausescu’s rule and now gives communist-era tours of the city.

“I don’t hate Ceausescu and I don’t hate communists, but I never forget,” Clara said as we meandered through Bucharest’s Old Town, which could pass for a tree-lined, cobblestone neighborhood in any major European city. “I choose to understand what happened, not to repeat it,” Clara continued. “If it’s up to me, communism will never happen again.”

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania from March of 1965 until a violent revolution ended with his execution by firing squad 30 years ago on Christmas Day, 1989. Ceausescu’s totalitarian rule was backed by a large contingent of secret police known as the Securitate who enforced stringent restrictions on free speech and tolerated no dissent against the communist regime.

“Look at where we are standing,” Clara said, pointing at a row of blocky apartments towering over us. “This line is where Ceausescu decided to build these apartments. Anything that was here before was destroyed. He didn’t care.”

Inspired by a visit to North Korea 1971, Ceausescu decided that villagers should be removed from their homes and relocated into industrial urban centers. To that purpose, he bulldozed large swaths of Bucharest in order to build his ideal communist state full of apartment blocks like ours. What remains of Old Town was lucky to escape his wrath. Thousands of buildings met their demise, including dozens of Orthodox churches, monasteries and synagogues. “People cried,” Clara said. “It didn’t matter.”

Though Old Town was primarily in disrepair as recently as a decade ago, today it is filled with enough cafes, art shops and restored neoclassical facades to show why Bucharest was known as “Little Paris” prior to World War II. Some of Old Town’s historic structures exist today not because Ceausescu chose to spare them, but because they were literally picked up and moved.

“This wasn’t built here,” Clara said as she pointed to Biserica Sfantul Ioan Nou, an 18th century church tucked behind a row of apartment blocks. In fact, builders lifted up several churches by digging out the ground below, separating them from their foundations and then relocating them with a series of rails, levers and pulleys. About 70 feet from where it first stood, the diminutive Biserica Sfantul Ioan Nou now peaks out between housing blocks as if it were asking for permission to come out of hiding.

Bucharest architecture

We made our way to University Square and came across the landmark Intercontinental Hotel, which has played host to numerous foreign dignitaries (Richard Nixon included). Clara snuck in to the Intercontinental one day as a child and recalled seeing American brand name clothing for sale. It could only be purchased with dollars or German marks, which were illegal for ordinary Romanians to possess. But such glimpses of the West were not unheard of. “We had a little American influence,” Clara said. “There were dollars, movies, Pepsi, food. We were aware of what was happening on the outside. That was one of the communists’ biggest mistakes.”

Millions of Romanians would argue that another of Ceausescu’s biggest mistakes is the capital’s most prominent structure: the Romanian Palace of Parliament, right in the heart of Bucharest. To say that the Parliament was an exercise in narcissistic megalomania doesn’t begin to capture the full essence of this behemoth edifice. Occupying nearly 4,000,000 square feet and built with enough marble and steel to make it the world’s second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon, Ceausescu envisioned establishing his residence here. Undeniably, the Parliament is an impressive feat of engineering and architecture. But to put the building in historical context, construction began in 1984 at a time when everyday Romanians were starving. Considering that many of the Parliament’s 3,000 rooms are either unfinished or unused, it isn’t hard to understand why so many Romanians abhor its existence.

Bucharest parliament

“We didn’t need this,” said Clara as she shook her head outside of the Parliament, the disdain in her voice still fresh over three decades later. What Romanians needed instead was food. Before Ceausescu began to build the Parliament, he had decided to pay back all of Romania’s foreign debt at once, which essentially bankrupted the country and required the export of most of its goods. Clara recalled spending hours in line waiting for her family’s daily ration of bread. “We didn’t starve because we had a little meat and cheese,” she said. “Sometimes we had bread with the meat. I didn’t like it, but at least it was food.”

The last stop on our tour was the aptly named Revolution Square where Ceausescu’s iron grip came loose. Ceausescu had the habit of shipping peasants to the site of his speeches so he could always have a crowd of adoring subjects to cheer every word. “We would just pretend to like him,” Clara said. “We would cheer, ‘Oh yeah, Comrade!’ and then swear in our head. It’s all you could do. But here,” she said, pointing to her heart, “you felt nothing. They didn’t care about the soul. But you can’t delete millions of people’s memories.”

By December 21, 1989, Romanian resentment had boiled over. Instead of forced cheers, the crowd booed Ceausescu’s final speech. The military opened fire and over a thousand civilians lost their lives. Each victim’s name is printed on a vandalized memorial not far from the balcony from which Ceausescu spoke. Though Eastern bloc regimes were falling like dominoes, only Romania’s revolution experienced such bloodshed.

Sensing the end of Ceausescu’s reign, the military switched sides and the dictator fled. Within days, Ceausescu and his wife met the firing squad. “I asked my father after 1989, ‘What do we do now?’” recalled Clara. “He said, ‘I don’t know. Live, and you’ll see.’”

Romania is still discovering how to live post communism. It is the poorest country in the European Union and corruption has plagued its fledgling democracy. Its current president, elected in 2014, is the nation’s first to have no ties to its communist past. Opinion polls as recent as five years ago showed more than 40% of Romanians would still vote for Ceausescu today. “Communism was easy,” shrugged Clara. “You didn’t have to think. We were never taught how to think. It took me 20 years to learn to feel emotion.”

We returned to our stern apartment block which stood in a concrete line like a soldier awaiting orders. The lobby was barren and sterile, and our steps echoed on the tile floor. The decor looked unchanged since 1989. We shuddered as we imagined the faces of our building’s residents 30 years ago after they returned from the bread lines empty-handed. We imagined the chill they felt when the building’s power and heat were turned off because the government could not afford to keep it running.

A rickety elevator carried us to our eighth-floor apartment. Stepping inside was like crossing into a different world. The apartment walls were decorated with purples and yellows that leapt off the stark gray walls. The amenities were as modern as any traveler would desire. Neon lights glowed outside the balcony and traffic buzzed below. Vendors hawked the last of their daily wares while the neighborhood cafes and bars began to fill.

We couldn’t help but see the parallels between our old Soviet block apartment and Bucharest as a whole. On the exterior, Bucharest is marked by its chilling past and drab communist structures like scars that will never fade. But step inside and emotion stirs against the gray backdrop as its once-neglected soul continues to burst free.

Tim Miller is a Chicago-based writer who produces clean, well-researched copy in a timely fashion. He can be reached at tamiller2@gmail.com

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