The Remains of Communism in Romania
The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a 40-year regime that would change Romania’s political, social, and economical structure to its core. We are talking, of course, by the Communism regime. Thirty years later, the scars are still visible – in the bullet-holed buildings of Bucharest and the behavior of people.
But how did a monarchy succumb to a communist regime? Ironically, the seed was planted in 1944 by none other than King Mihai I, the last ruling monarch of Romania. In an effort to distance himself from the Nazi tendencies of the Ion Antonescu government, King Mihai organized a coup d’etat. While historians believe this move shortened the war by 100 days, it also allowed communist partisans to trickle in the government ranks. For the next few years, they consolidated their position until it all culminated on December 30th, 1947. Forcing King Mihai into exile, they took the power and declared the People’s Republic of Romania. And so the communism rule began, lasting for a little over 40 years until the 1989 Revolution.
The People’s Republic of Romania
The changes were swift to appear. To further establish their grasp on power, the government led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej started rounding up their political opponents. The country’s top intellectuals, businessmen, and influential people were imprisoned or otherwise killed, and their wealth confiscated. The properties now belonged to the state, to be either split among the party heads or used as public buildings. The newly-nationalized economy and industry also drove a major exodus from the villages to the towns. One of the effects of this has been the issue of stray dogs we talked about in a previous article.
With this new structure came propaganda and the cult of personality, a staple of any communism regime. While not officially a part of the USSR, the Soviet forces had an iron fist over the Romanian society. The focus was on work, hard labour, with little personal gain.
It was during these trying times that a new, promising face emerged.
The Rise of Nicolae Ceausescu
Ask anyone what they know about the communism in Romania, and they’ll undoubtedly mention Nicolae Ceausescu. A peasant coming from a poor family, Nicolae Ceausescu was nothing short of an underdog. With very little education, it was his charisma and ideology that helped him rise in the ranks of the Communist Party. As such, it was not a surprise that he took the rule of the People’s Republic of Romania when his predecessor died.
What followed was a breather period for the Romanian people. Coming from the lower ranks, Nicolae Ceausescu worked towards progressiveness, equal pay, and opportunities. Romania opened itself to the west, allowing foreign media to enter the country, and also attracting visits from the Western leaders, including US’s Richard Nixon. It wasn’t until the ’70s when things took a turn for the worst again.
Following visits to China and North Korea, Ceausescu slowly started to implement new nationalistic ideologies. The security became stricter than ever before, the cult of personality was at an all-time high and the propaganda clashed with the reality the people were facing. Bad management led to an external debt of over 11 billion dollars, which Ceausescu aimed to pay off using austerity measures. As such began the rationing, having people queue for basic foods such as meat, bread, or eggs. Electricity and heating were also only available a few hours per day. All of these, paired with grandiose speeches, led to the Revolution in December 1989.
The Fall of Nicolae Ceausescu
In 1884, Timisoara was the first European city to be lit by electric street lights. In 1989, it sparked the revolution that ultimately led to the downfall of the communist regime. The revolution had been bubbling under the surface for the last decade, a direct result of the harsh policies and way of life. As a response to Timisoara declaring itself a “free city”, Ceausescu organized a pro-communism rally in the then Palace Square in Bucharest. Nicolae Ceausescu’s infamous last speech didn’t have the desired effect – instead, the crowds quickly turned against him and the military.
Chaos and violence ensued. The streets of Bucharest and all the other major cities became a battlefield, with the armed forces fighting against the fed-up population. In the days following the initial outburst, more than 3,000 people died. Ceausescu himself attempted to flee but was swiftly apprehended, along with his wife. After a short trial, the couple was given the very last death sentence carried out on the territory of Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu faced a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.
The fourty-two-year regime left long-lasting effects on the socio-economic climate of Romania. Having fallen back economically, the country is still facing the consequences thirty years later. As a reminder of the past, communism also left behind landmarks and historical buildings, some of them with a purely educational purpose, such as the Revolution Square. Others, like the famous Transfagarasan, managed to reclaim its dark roots and become a main touristic attraction in its own right.
Formerly the Palace Square, this is where the revolution consolidated. The Revolution Square sits in from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, on whose balcony the dictator held his last speech. Recognizable by the giant pyramid with the “potato” at the peak, the square is a must-see while in Bucharest. Across the street, the National Arts Museum is one of the buildings that still have bullet holes visible. Once a place of violence, the area of the Revolution Square is now a peaceful one. Walking around, one can also see the National Library of Bucharest, with the equestrian statue of Carol I (the first king of Romania), as well as the Atheneum.
Like any other dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu was a megalomaniac. In a decade where the population suffered from hunger, the regime focused on building bigger and greater. The Palace of the Parliament, or People’s Palace, is one of the results. The construction began and 1984 and the Palace would soon become the second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon. The construction is an example of opulence with its intricate finishings and furniture. Its build required the demolition of households and small enterprises, a perfect example of the sacrifices the people had to endure “for the greater good”.
The “Socialist Victory” boulevard, aiming to be longer and wider than Champs-Elysees, was also build alongside the Palace.
This former prison is a harrowing experience, depicting the atrocities of communism. This is where many of the country’s elite were held captive. Now, each one of the 51 small cells displays a small exhibit. Here, you can get an insight on everything communism, from collectivisation, the Golden Era to the demolition of Bucharest and the feared “Securitate”.
You can visit this museum in Sighetul Marmatiei as a part of our Rural Romania Experience.
Targoviste is a little town in southern Romania, best know as the former Princely Court of Vlad the Impaler. Despite his bloody reign, Vlad valued justice. In a classic case of history offering a lesson, this is also the place where the Ceausescu couple were captured. The Military Garrison where the trial and consequent sentence took place can now be visited. Targoviste, along with the Garrison, can be visited from November to June on our Dracula Experience.
The “best road in the world” as dubbed by Jeremy Clarkeson is one of the most scenic experience you can have in Romania. Offering stunning views, the road snakes up all the way up to the glacial Balea Lake, connecting the historical regions of Transylvania and Wallachia.
A little known fact is that before Jeremy Clarkeson, its nickname was “Ceausescu’s folly”. The road was built as a quick military escape in the event of a Soviet invasion. Over the course of four years, from 1970 to 1974, the construction cost hundreds of human lives, despite the official reports only claiming 40. The cost seems even greater when we consider that the road is only open for a few months each year, from mid-June to the end of October.
The Palace of the Parliament (top left), Revolution Square (top center), Memorial of the Victims of Communism (top right), and the Transfagarasan (bottom)