The Dracula tales are perhaps the last you would hear if you step foot in Bucharest. Far from it. Although a statue of Vlad the Impaler stares at the lanes leading to Old Town Bucharest, the country’s more infamous dictator’s tale is the one Romanians love to narrate. Is there ever a revolution without blood?
Nicolae Ceausescu’s trial lasted around 90 minutes. He had his wife, Elena, had tried escaping via a helicopter but they were stopped. Caught. He was found guilty of mass genocide, ruthless subversion of power and tried to flee the state with over a billion dollars deposited in foreign bank accounts.
On Christmas Day, they were taken to a barrack outside of Bucharest. They were shot at 120 times. It is worth spelling out. A hundred-and-twenty times.
That was the last instance of death penalty in Romania. It has been abolished since.
Romania’s economic meltdown started in the 1970s when Ceausescu borrowed billions of dollars from foreign countries to invest in needless, extravagant projects. It took a decade for him to realize he wouldn’t be able to repay the loans. He slashed imports, raised exports and soon, Romania was subject to a food crisis.
And as is with the case of any ruthless communist dictator in power, logic failed to prevail when he chose to construct the infamous Palatul Parlamentului – The Palace of the Parliament. It is billed as the world’s largest, heaviest and most expensive administrative building ever constructed (arguably second only to the Pentagon in size). An outsized architectural ego of Ceausescu.
When I took a tour around the Palace of Parliament with Mihai, a good friend of mine and a Bucharest local, the guide mentioned how Ceausescu would look over his sprawling balconies at those who were dying on the streets – shortage of food and merciless winters consumed many a prey. His wife Elena, we were told, and to put it as eloquently as I can, was a female dog.
The building symbolizes everything that is wrong with dictatorial communists. Every brick has a tale to tell – of Ceausescu, his complete disregard for people welfare, his execution chambers several levels below, his obsession with controlling the press. Paint it with broad brush-strokes to extend this to the Eastern Bloc – every ruling hypocrite conformed to the same norm. As most communist states today do as well. Milosevic. Pol Pot. Ho Chi Minh. And today, Kim Jong Un. People under such regimes are taught communist theory in school and experience human cruelty in daily life.
Romania was one of the last Soviet satellite state to throw off its communist regime, and the only one to execute its leader. Leading up to Ceausescu’s execution was a civil unrest movement – the Romanian Revolution of 1989.
I walked around Revolution Square and the Memorial of Rebirth (strangely a thin pyramid-needle-cum-obelisk) that pays homage to the struggles and lives lost during the revolution to overthrow Ceausescu. The names of the victims are inscribed on the concrete walls in bronze. Across the square is the Central Committee building of the once Communist Party of Romania.
Romania has been in the news recently with its impending elections in 2019 hoping to elect a leader who can renegotiate its position in the European Union. After more than a decade since joining the EU, Romanians have not been sure if they have gained or lost more as a nation. With over a third of the farms in mainland Europe within Romania, an output of 3.5 percent is a worrying statistic to absorb. The country has had its share of challenges with land-grabbing by the government and wealthy individuals.
Pre-communist Bucharest was dubbed the Paris of the East. Bucharest has its own Arch de Triumph. After Ceausescu’s death, there have been attempts to restore some of its old French architecture. The Kretzulescu Church, damaged during the revolution, has recently – and painfully – been restored.
The Stavropoleos Monastery in Old Town deserves a visit. Mihai recommended that we try the Polenta at a restaurant nearby, the waiter seemed surprised when I asked him for tabasco sauce. Cornmeal porridge is bland. He made it up my taking me to Haveli, an Indian restaurant in town for dinner.
The varying architectural styles around Bucharest gave me the impression that the city is a canvas that has been painted by many artists. Every beautifully crafted French structure was neighbored by an ugly, grey communist block. The city, otherwise, has a vibrant cafe culture and is dotted with green parks and hidden churches throughout the suburbs.
Renovating the Old City also meant relocating the large masses of the poor Romani population to the outskirts of town, where they continue to remain largely oppressed. There is a myth that Bucharest is unsafe due to large hoards of Romani pick-pockets. I personally did not feel any less safer than in the rest of Europe.
When I visited Bucharest once again two years later during spring – Mardi Gras – the Romanis were selling hand made crafts on the streets of the city to welcome the new season.