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Published: July 18th 2014
The perception of Romania held by many was reflected in the weather on my first day in Bucharest – a city that is celebrating its 555th
year since it was first mentioned in texts. Though summer, an unseasonal deluge had descended upon the capital – the sky dark and leaden, the rain torrential. A gloom hung over the eclectic architectural styles whose facades varied from the bland to grand – elegant domes of Orthodox churches, drab communist era apartments, a classical abode flourished with ornate patterns, a modern glass encased office block were intermingled amongst the alleys, streets and boulevards.
Romania is a nation more known for its infamy than its beauty with such historical figures as Vlad the Impaler (the 15th
century inspiration for Dracula) and Nicolae Ceaușescu (the Communist dictator who ruled from 1967-1989), and this inclement weather seemed to fit their rather dark reputations. Both Vlad and Ceaușescu suffered death at the hands of their adversaries, and their legacy looms large in the mind of foreigners.
However, for the Romanians, Vlad is a distraction from other more important parts of Romanian history. But Ceaușescu’s influence is still felt; the streets and squares still whisper tales of his
The Central University Library of Bucharest - Romania
Statue is of King Carol I sits in front of the builidng.
megalomania and oppression. When people discuss 20th
century Romanian history, it would be described as either being “before”, “during”, or “after” Communist rule. Such was the considerable influence of this period on the psyche and life of Romanians.
My guide and driver for my week in Romania was Valentin, a softly spoken, Nikon DSLR carrying gent was who a child under Ceaușescu’s reign. He was happy to share his impressions and memories of those times as we drove around Bucharest.
“TV was bad. There was only two hours of TV a night,” he factually said. “Thirty minutes was news, and the rest was a documentary talking about Ceaușescu. On Saturday morning they had some TV – it was a cartoon for kids. But it was all propaganda.”
“Goodness, that is worse than North Korea!” I exclaimed. “When I visited in 2009, there were three channels that run most of the day, with one channel dedicated to the arts.”
Valentin nodded, but no further words were needed. The comparison had further exposed the scale of the repressive regime that ruled Romania for decades.
We drove past Revolution Square (formerly called Palace Square), a place where seething
masses of protestors clashed with the police and military, resulting in many martyrs to the cause of democracy. Their sacrifice is signified by a white monument splashed with red paint that signifies the hundreds of lives lost during these dark days. Behind this monument is the former Central Committee building where on 21 December 1989 a pivotal event occurred.
“Ceaușescu gave his final address
from that balcony,” said Valentin pointing at a portion of an imposing looking building. “He thought the protest was isolated. But he was wrong.” Valentin continued, “Ceaușescu fled to the rooftop and escaped in a helicopter. He was captured later. After a two-day military trial, he and his wife were executed.”
This was a defining moment in Romanian history, a moment where the people, despite the threat of violent retaliation from the nearby military and police, publicly jeered and shouted slogans against Ceaușescu. The prepared propaganda filled rhetoric was not enough to placate the crowd as decades of repression and repercussions could not be contained. That day saw one of the most brutal regimes in modern European history washed away on a tide of courageous resistance.
Though Ceaușescu fell 25 years ago, reminders of the Communist Era
were everywhere. The most overt display was originally known as Ceaușescu’s Palace, but has since been renamed as the Palace of the Parliament. A whole suburb of Bucharest was displaced in order to construct this stupendous complex. Opinions differ as to wisdom of this decision – some state that the area was dishevelled, whereas others hold the contrary view given that 40,000 families were affected.
No expense nor effort was spared by Ceaușescu to complete this complex. It took 20,000 workers working three eight-hour shifts a day for ten years to construct this monstrous edifice. One million square metres of marble was used, and in order to only use local resources, silk worms were imported from Asia to produce the silk required for the wallpaper.
“All the schools had silk worms that we had to care for” reminisced Valentin, “and we would have to feed them.”
Such was the degree of forced dedication and resources expended to expand Ceaușescu’s greatness.
The capacious rooms of the Palace of the Parliament possessed a grand if not slightly authoritarian air. Though our tour saw us walk 1500 metres, we only gazed at a mere five percent of the Palace.
This is the grandest personal building constructed in the twentieth century, though Ceaușescu did not survive to see its completion in 1994.
We departed Bucharest under brightening skies and headed north. During our journey, I espied a fair number of decaying buildings.
“That building is ugly, what is it?” I blurted.
“When communism fell,” Valentin informed me “some buildings for government industries were taken over by private companies, but others were no use, and this is what you see.” Indeed, this is what can be seen – yet another decrepit, dilapidated remnant of communism.
More curious was a massive tangle of towers and web of wires sitting by the left side of the road not far from Bucharest.
“What is that?” I queried.
“That was used to control radio and TV signals into the country.”
I was astonished.
“And it could listen in on people’s phone conversations too,” Valentin continued.
Here it was, probably the most potent display of Ceaușescu’s regime. An electronic spider web that entrapped the voices of unwanted opinions and discarded them like the husks of desiccated insects.
Our drive took us to the foot of
Revolution Square - Bucharest, Romania
Ceaușescu gave his final speech from Central Committee building.
the Fagaras mountains, a spine of peaks that cuts through the centre of Romania. Further along this road was the Transfagarasan, a project inspired by Ceaușescu that was constructed in the early 1970s at the cost of many lives due to the hazardous conditions. However, we were unable to drive along this road the following day due to a ferocious storm that passed through Romania.
Valentin parked the car and I wandered to a place where I had an uninterrupted view of the canyon of forested mountains that soared in front of me. A waterfall sat at the rear of the scene, the white tumbling cascade of water providing a contrast to the deep greens elsewhere in the valley. A fresh scent wafted from the thousands of trees surrounding me on every side.
Whilst surveying the scene in awe, a father and son passed me. I gave the father a smile and he returned the gesture, but the boy was preoccupied devouring a chocolate ice-cream in a cone, the brown scoop glistening against the warm sunlight. I watch them slowly diminish in size as they strolled away from me along a dirt road.
They disappeared behind a
tree, and after reappearing on the other side, I saw the son finish consuming his treat and stretch his hand toward his father, who grasped the small hand as they continued to walk together. A father and son joyfully dwarfed beneath these gorgeous peaks.
This boy is from a generation able to grow without the communist shadow looming over his life. Both he and his father are safe from the scourge of a brutal form of communism: no violent state police, mysterious disappearances or arbitrary detentions to threaten this boy’s childhood. Sure, this boy must still tackle other issues of a modern society that are shared by all developed economies, but here is a life with freedoms unimagined by his grandparents, and opportunities unachievable by his parents. His will be a life characterised by progress and liberties as Romanians continue to emerge from the shadow of communism to once again find their voice on the world stage.
My visit to Romania was kindly supported by flydubai. All views are my own.
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