Romania’s tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu ran one of Europe’s most ruthlessly repressive dictatorships until 1989 when he and his wife Elena were overthrown by their captive subjects and executed on television. The country had been so thoroughly brutalized by its own government that it was still an emergency room case even years after its communist rulers were dispatched. Unlike some formerly Eastern bloc countries, its reputation still hasn’t recovered entirely even though it belongs to the European Union and NATO.
“Last time I was in Romania,” independent foreign correspondent Michael Yon said to me in an email, “it was terrible. It was like hell.”
“The featureless plain filled with cardboard and scrap-metal squatters’ settlements as awful as many I had seen in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in his outstanding book Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus about his journey in the year 2000 from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. Romania, he wrote at the time, despite its location in Europe, was a Third World country. “The train [from Hungary] began to move,” he wrote. “My face was glued to the window. An elevated hot water pipe caught my eye. Where the pipe’s shiny new metal and fiberglass insulation ended and rusted metal and rags began—the same point where mounds of trash and corrugated shacks began to appear, where cratered roads suddenly replaced paved ones—marked Romania.”
The country doesn’t look anything like the Third World anymore. It would not be in the European Union if it did. I was slightly surprised, though, by how many scars from the communist era were still visible when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me and three of my colleagues to visit near the end of 2009.
Some Western Europeans seemed to lose a bit of confidence in themselves and their civilization after the near-apocalyptic traumas of the two world wars, but Romanians, like others in Eastern Europe, have emerged from a third and much more recent trauma in a different emotional state. Bogdan Aurescu, Romania’s Secretary of State for Strategic Affairs, spoke for most of his countrymen as he explained it.
“The level of affection,” he said, “or preference for a partnership relation with the United States is high, one of the highest in Europe. The French have a preference for the Obama Administration, but Romanians don’t make distinctions between a Republican administration or a Democratic administration. It’s irrespective of ideological affiliation.”
His assistant served hot cups of black Turkish coffee and bottles of water.
“Since it’s irrespective of ideological affiliation,” said my colleague Gregory Rodriguez from the Los Angeles Times, “what do you ascribe this preference to?”
“During the communist years,” Aurescu said, “there was a sense of disappointment that the U.S. was not here. We felt separated from the Western culture we feel we belong to. Western culture, including American culture, was and still is a part of our identity. That was very much reflected after the Romanian Revolution 20 years ago in very strong support for both EU and NATO accession. We are culturally oriented, without any possibility of doubt or shift, towards Western democratic culture.”
Bogdan Aurescu, Secretary of State for Strategic Affairs
Romanians seem acutely aware that they’re Westerners, and they want everyone who visits to know it. More than once I was told they look to Italy as a model and are “Latins in a sea of Slavs,” although that’s obvious to anyone who speaks a Latin-based language. Italian is as similar to Romanian as it is to Spanish. I can understand fragments of spoken Romanian, and a substantial amount of written Romanian.
In every city I visited I saw a statue of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of the city of Rome. Romanians seem more conscious of themselves as children of the Roman Empire than people in any country I’ve visited other than Italy. The old maxim that absence makes the heart grow fonder would appear to apply to nations and cultures as well as to individuals.
“How are your relations with Russia right now?” I asked Aurescu.
“It is not an easy relationship,” he said. “We are at the Ostmark, the eastern border, of European and NATO space. We assume certain risks from the instability of the Black Sea region. It is important for us to extend as much as possible this space of prosperity and stability and of shared democratic values within the region.”
“Does it make you nervous that Romania is the eastern most country in the European Union?” I said.
“It doesn’t make me particularly nervous,” he said, “but it is a reality we cannot ignore. We are next to a region that is sometimes unstable.”
He’s actually understating what it’s like to the east. After my week in Bucharest I took a road trip into Ukraine and Moldova and was as shocked at the instant deterioration of just about everything as Robert Kaplan was when he crossed the frontier into Romania from Hungary a decade ago. Ukraine’s capital Kiev is amazing. It wowed me at once. But much of the rest of the country has yet to recover from a totalitarian system so vicious and cruel that it’s still sometimes hard for me to believe it even was real. Driving from even a relatively backward country in the European Union into the remote provinces of Ukraine is like falling off the edge of civilization and into a land that was all but destroyed.
“Look at the evolution of political life in Ukraine and Moldova,” Aurescu continued. “And take into account the fact that very close to the Romanian border there is a frozen or protracted conflict in Transnistria which is not yet solved. Each and every winter there are problems with the gas supply via Ukraine from Russia and other sources. Across the Black Sea there are problems in Georgia.”
Members of Parliament Borbely Laszlo and Sever Voinescu made many of the same points, but Voinescu’s party—the Democratic Liberal Party—was on its way out. Would a change in government have any affect on Romania’s foreign policy?
“No,” Laszlo said. “The foreign policy in Romania does not depend much on the changing of the government. We have very clear targets. We have very clear goals.”
“I agree,” Voinescu said. “I don’t think anything will fundamentally change in our foreign policy. One of our main tasks is to increase our influence inside the European Union. We are also very much dedicated to our trans-Atlantic relationship. We are the most pro-Atlanticist nation in Europe right now. According to a German Marshall Fund survey, Romanians were even more pro-Atlantic than the British. We have troops in Afghanistan. We have 1100 soldiers, as you know, and they are in a very, very difficult area.”
“Which area are they in?” I said.
“Helmand,” Voinescu said.
“Oh,” I said. “That’s the most difficult area.”
“It is very difficult,” he said. “It’s tough. I mean, that’s where the war is.”
“Regarding our presence in Iraq,” Laszlo said, “we didn’t have a tough debate like in other countries in Europe.”
Member of Parliamen Borbely Laszlo
“Why do you suppose that is?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said ponderously as he leaned back in his chair. “In Romania there wasn’t a debate in the parliament. And the population here accepts that we have to help with soldiers in Iraq and in Afghanistan.”
“It’s controversial in the U.S.,” I said.
“Yes,” he said and laughed. “We know.”
“Almost everywhere,” I said.
What about Russia? Romania was never a constituent part of the Soviet Union, but its citizens were yoked to Moscow’s world despite Ceausescu’s somewhat dubious presentation of himself to the West as independent.
“Russia is a passionate issue in Romania,” Voinescu said. “The past is a shadow upon our relationship. There are people in Romania saying, ‘Hey, we should do business with these guys. Don’t talk about history, about politics, just like make money.’ There are others saying we cannot forget what happened, that we should be careful, that Russia’s foreign policy always has a seed of agressivity inside. We blame the president or the minister of foreign affairs when our relationship with Russia is not as good as we want, but sometimes I have a feeling we forget this is a two-way street. When you have a relation with a huge country, a global power, one should understand that the tone of this relationship is decided by the big power. Romania took a path towards the West, and Russia still has not come to terms with this.”
Member of Parliament Sever Voinescu
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once described Poland as a “geopolitical spa,” a place he liked to go to get away from the unrelenting anti-American bitchfest in Western Europe after the terrorist attacks on September 11. He just as easily could have been describing Romania or almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe other than Serbia.
“People here liked President Bush more than people in other places,” Voinescu said, “but they now love President Obama. Romanians are ready to embrace any U.S. president. There is a certain kind of emotional attachment to whatever the Americans decide about their own country. I think people liked President Bush because they liked his toughness on certain issues. You know that in this part of Europe, after the whole communist era, you need sometimes a stronger approach when you talk about various issues. On the other hand, they like Obama because, you know, his charm is seductive everywhere.”
I don’t know if President Barack Obama reciprocates that feeling of affection, but I think Vice President Joe Biden probably does. He visited Bucharest at the same time I did to discuss a missile shield the administration hoped to install there instead of in Poland. He and the Romanian president addressed local journalists at a press conference which I also attended. What he said might read like diplomatic boilerplate, but I was barely twenty feet from him when he spoke, and judging by his body language and the tone of his voice, he’s either an exceptionally skilled political actor or he’s absolutely sincere.
Vice President Joe Biden in Bucharest, Romania
“We serve together in Afghanistan,” he said, “in the western Balkans, and in Iraq. And I feel obliged to tell the Romanian people how grateful President Obama and I and the American people are for the Romanian troops that are in Afghanistan. Our troops—and I mean this sincerely, my son just got back from Iraq after a year as a captain in the United States Army—our troops are proud to serve next to Romanian troops because you are incredibly competent. Your kids—I wish you could all see, as I got to see, just how incredibly competent they are. You should be proud. And to all the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives of those 1100 Romanians that are stationed in Afghanistan, I mean this sincerely, as a parent, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Roughly 25 percent of Romania’s work force left the country during the transition to the market economy according to Dan Lazar, an economic advisor to the president. Even now, while Romania looks reasonably prosperous on the surface, people are struggling in a high-expenses low-wage economy.
“We wanted to have some social protection,” he said. “We had to choose between high unemployment but with high salaries, or low unemployment with low salaries. We chose the model with the lower unemployment.”
Catalin Baba, another economic advisor to the president, said the unemployment rate was still only around six percent even during the steep global downturn.
Low wages or not, there is a lot of money in Bucharest, especially compared with the Romanian countryside. That’s how it is in every country I have ever visited, and that’s most likely how it is everywhere in the world, but Romania is strange because some of the smaller cities look like they’re richer.
Ceausescu’s communist urban planners chopped up Bucharest with a meat axe.
They pulled down most of the classical buildings that once made the city aesthetically pleasing, then they put up a bunch of crap in their place. The streets are too wide. Buildings don’t match, and sometimes there is far too much space between them. There isn’t much coherent fabric or feel to most of the city, even in most of the old city center. It is very nearly an antithesis of Paris.
The brilliant Anthony Daniels, who now writes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple, loathes ghastly brutalist architecture as much as I do. He properly blames the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and his baleful influence for wrecking so many once beautiful cities like Bucharest and even marring cities like London.
“Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform,” Daniels recently wrote in City Journal. “In one sense, he had less excuse for his activities than Pol Pot: for unlike the Cambodian, he possessed great talent, even genius. Unfortunately, he turned his gifts to destructive ends, and it is no coincidence that he willingly served both Stalin and Vichy.” Le Corbusier, he says, “was the enemy of mankind” and “does not belong so much to the history of architecture as to that of totalitarianism.”
The grotesque modern architect once described a house as “a machine for living in” and is still scandalously lionized by many professionals in the field even today. (Do such people stay in the asteroid belt of tower blocks in the suburbs of Paris when they visit on holiday, or do they prefer the beautiful parts of the city such as the Latin Quarter like normal human beings do?)
Corbu’s work and that of his disciples is hard on the eyes in Western cities, but it’s positively brutal in some of the formerly communist capitals. There you can see what all of Europe might have looked like if the man were able to convince Western leaders—as he tried to do—to raze their cities and let him start over.
No sector in Bucharest survived communism intact, and just a handful of streets look like the Europe most of us know. The vast majority of the traditional buildings left standing are wedged now between shoddy modernist blocks, and entire neighborhoods beyond the city center consist almost entirely of dreary public housing units that don’t even meet Corbu’s dismal standards.
On a blank gray wall in the parking lot across from my hotel, an artist painted cogs in a machine the size of Godzilla chewing the city to pieces.
I felt a tremendous sense of relief when my guide Olivia brought me to the tiny section of the old city that hadn’t been bulldozed.
“This is fantastic,” I said. “It’s too bad the whole city doesn’t look like this.”
“I love this place,” she said. “It’s amazing. You should have seen it a year ago. It was terrible. For so many years I dreamed that the old city would look like this someday, and now it does.”
Olivia Horvath, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
A few blocks from the old city is Romania’s parliament—the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
Ceausescu’s monster palace
When it was still under construction before he died, Ceausescu called it the “Palace of the People,” though ordinary people would never have been allowed to set foot in it. The apartments lining the main boulevard in front belonged to high-level officers of the repressive Securitate. Even today that boulevard looks like an intimidating Champs-Elysees of a totalitarian state, and it’s so monstrous in scale that it can only really be photographed from the air.
Back then, fake stores that pretended to sell goods not even the elite could afford were at ground level. According to Ion Pacepa— Ceausescu’s chief national security advisor and a general in the Securitate who defected to the United States in 1978—Ceausescu once visited Macy’s on a trip to New York and thought it, too, was a fake. He wondered aloud in the car how long it took the Americans to “set it up.”
Some of my official meetings took place inside the parliament building, and I took photographs whenever I had a chance.
“What do you think of this building?” Olivia asked me. She seemed to think I loved it since I took so many pictures. It was certainly more pleasant to look at on the inside than on the outside.
“It’s impressive in some ways,” I said, “but it’s also—well, it’s big.”
“We hate it,” she said. “So much of the city was destroyed to make room for it. And it constantly reminds us of him.”
“Communism changed our mentality,” said Daniel Apostol, editor in chief of Romania’s Money Channel. “We are still fighting now to come back to what we were. We lost the culture of private property. We lost this sense of privacy and respecting each other’s time and respecting people as individuals, as human beings. That was the worst thing that happened to us. This is why we are struggling so much now to get back to the capitalist society, to the free market, which can run only if there is respect for private property.”
“You had to learn these concepts as an adult?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “We didn’t have it before. And we are still learning it. We cannot just one day say, ‘Ok, we get it.'”
I couldn’t see or feel what he was talking about exactly, but I did hear things that struck me as odd.
“You should take the bus in this city,” said Alina, my translator. “Every time there is an argument between two people, everyone on the bus gets involved. Everybody takes sides. A husband will yell at his wife, and half the bus takes his side while the other half takes hers.”
My translator Alina
Maybe this sort of thing would have happened in Bucharest even if communism never existed, but it certainly wouldn’t happen in the U.S. where we’re taught from childhood to mind our own business and leave other people alone.
Apostol is my age. He was a teenager when Ceausescu’s regime was overthrown, so he remembers it vividly. It began suddenly–bang, just like that–when thousands of people attending one of the dictator’s rallies started booing and jeering.
“I went home,” he said, “and my mother said there is something on the TV, Ceausescu is speaking on TV. I switched on the TV set and saw that huge gathering in Bucharest. People started screaming at him. I thought it was a joke. I didn’t realize what was actually happening.”
Ceausescu initially didn’t realize what was happening either. The screaming crowd was cheering just moments before. In hindsight it’s obvious that they only applauded because they feared terrible consequences if they did not, and it’s entirely possible that each person who privately loathed the man while pretending to love him thought few others felt the same way.
It’s nearly impossible for individuals to resist totalitarian states. The first people who dare say anything are hauled off to prison or worse. It’s hard for us in the West to truly appreciate how much nerve it takes to say no to that kind of tyrant even in private let alone outside while the boss is giving a speech. As Jay Nordlinger recently wrote, Ceausescu and his wife “had the entire country wired. Citizens were spied on, day and night. And they were defenseless. Privacy was virtually nonexistent. Every single telephone came equipped with a microphone—not merely to record phone conversations, but everything that went on in the room.”
No regime, though, can arrest everyone in a crowd of thousands. There is some safety in numbers even if, as we can see today in Iran, there is not absolute safety. As soon as a few brave souls in the back of the audience dared to boo and hiss at Ceausescu, everyone realized they weren’t the only ones who hated his guts. The tipping point came at once, and the Ceausescus would be tried and executed on camera in a matter of days.
You can watch excerpts from the revolution, trial, and execution, but be warned. Portions of the video below are a bit gruesome and may be disturbing for some viewers.
Still, Daniel Apostol couldn’t believe what he was seeing on television when citizens in that crowd let their dictator have it.
“But you knew other communist governments had already fallen, didn’t you?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“So,” I said, “it wasn’t unthinkable, was it?”
“We knew what was happening in Poland, in Hungary, and the Czech Republic,” he said. “We knew that.”
“So didn’t you feel like Romania might be next?” I said.
Daniel Apostol, editor in chief of Romania’s Money Channel
“We were frustrated because all over the world things were changing,” he said, “but nothing changed inside Romania. What was wrong with us? I had to ask, is this really happening? Or, no, it’s impossible, these people did a stupid thing and will be in jail in a few hours. In the evening I went out in the center of town. Everything was in turmoil. The political leaders were out of their offices. There was a revolution in every city on the 21st of December, and on the 22nd everything was burning in Bucharest.”
“What’s the feeling in Romania towards communist regimes today?” said my colleague Larry Luxner from the Washington Diplomat.
“I don’t have any good feelings about them,” Apostol said. “I can’t say anything positive. I just can’t. Nothing good came to me from the communists. Ok, I’m alive. I was born. I am still here, and now no one bothers me. But I would have a much better life if they never came.”
Bucharest is an interesting place for students of totalitarianism. I can still feel that it was once communist. While walking around near Ceausescu’s monster palace and the Borg hive neighborhood of the old Securitate, that feeling was overwhelming, even crushing.
Ceausescu’s monster palace
The Transylvanian countryside is another world. The region north of the capital would make an outstanding European vacation destination, especially for travelers on a budget. You can soak in the atmosphere and charms of old Mitteleuropa while spending less than a third of what it costs in the nations immediately to Romania’s west.
It’s hard to believe the city center of Brashov, just a little more than an hour’s drive north of Bucharest, is even in the same country.
The communists more or less left it alone architecturally, and the city leaders—or whoever is in charge of such things—seem to have made aesthetic restoration a higher priority than the local officials in Bucharest who are still only half-finished restoring what’s left of the old city.
Sighisoara, Romania, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler
Sighisoara, Romania, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler
Some of Romania’s smaller towns and villages seem to have recovered so nicely, even though they don’t have much money, that I could almost believe Ceausescu neglected them and focused all his attention on Bucharest. The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania, however, dispelled that illusion.
The institute files criminal charges against individuals who tortured and murdered their fellow citizens for the old regime.
“We have launched complaints against more than 300 persons accused of killing people during the communist era,” said Raluca Grosescu, head of the Research and Documentation Department. “The institute is also building a politics of memory by developing educational projects.”
“What have you learned and uncovered in your investigations,” I said, “that wasn’t known before you started working?”
“At the macro level,” she said, “it was known that in Romania people were killed, but there are personal stories which were completely unknown. When we move to the micro level, the human level, we help the families find the bodies and learn what happened to each person.”
“What was the main thing that could get a person killed during the communist era?” I said.
“Most of them were killed because they opposed the collectivization process,” she said.
So much for the idea that Ceausescu didn’t mess with the countryside.
“They were peasants,” she continued, “who didn’t want to give their properties to the state. They were people who formed resistance groups in the mountains or even individuals who just didn’t want to do this.”
The killers worked for the dreaded Securitate. They were the agents of total surveillance who turned their country into a vast open-air Panopticon.
“Do you interview the perpetrators? Larry Luxner said.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”
“Were they honest?” he said. “Did they make excuses?”
“Do they have a conscience?” said Victor Shiblie, also, like Larry, from the Washington Diplomat.
“Some admitted it and even apologized to the families,” she said, “but these are rare cases. Let me give you an example of the general behavior. We logged a complaint against a former communist general of the Securitate. He admitted on a TV show that he was involved in political torture, but he said it was legal at the time, that he was defending the communist state from its enemies. He said he was not sorry. In fact, he was proud of it because he defended his country. Most of the perpetrators have this kind of attitude.”
Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania. Vlad “the Impaler” Tepes supposedly once spent the night here.
I asked her what on earth the average Romanian must think while listening to these people on television.
“The first ten years of transition,” she said, “were characterized by the politics of forgetting.”
The same thing happened in Lebanon after the civil war. So many people had done terrible things to their neighbors that a general forgiveness may not have been possible, at least not for a while. Amnesia helped them live with each other in the meantime. I asked one Maronite Christian why he still hated Israelis for the siege of Beirut in 1982 but was able to forgive his old Lebanese enemies. His answer might not be what you’d expect.
“I don’t have any choice,” he said as he hardened the muscles in his jaw line. “Because…they live here.” His voice sounded anguished as though he were remembering horrors I can only imagine, horrors that he tried hard not to think about but could never truly forget. “The Israelis don’t live here. The Israelis live over there, so I don’t have to forgive them!”
I couldn’t help but think of the Middle East while in Romania. My colleague Larry couldn’t help but think of Cuba since Fidel Castro’s prison island is part of his regular beat. Raluca Grosescu had recently returned from Havana herself, and he wanted to know what she thought of it.
“Cuba is still a country with a communist regime,” she said. “Fighting against communists in a post-communist period is easy, but when you fight against communists during a communist period, it is very…it is not so easy. When I was in Cuba last year, it reminded me of what was happening in the 1980s in Romania.”
“Would you say it is more repressive there than under Ceausescu,” Larry said, “or not quite as much?”
“From an economic point of view,” she said, “it is worse in Cuba than it was in Romania. They are transitioning to a market economy, but the economy is still controlled by the state. Cuban people try to work in tourism in order to get some convertible pesos because you cannot buy anything in Cuba with pesos. You cannot buy anything. So what’s happening—and this is sad—is you have people abandoning their work. Architects are working in bars, and students are making tourist guides.”
“What’s the younger generation in Romania like?” Larry said. “Do you have to pull them in to be interested in what you are doing? Do they care? The ones who never saw communism?”
“Most of them don’t care,” she said. “I think this is normal. They care about their own lives, the present. But at the same time there is new interest in the past. This is something that happens in many countries after transitions of around 20 years. It happened in post-Nazi Germany. The politics of memory started in the 1970’s. In Israel also. During the first 20 years it was a problem to talk about what happened. Only in the 1960s did they begin a politics of memory. It also happened in other countries like Greece where they had dictatorships.”
“Why do you suppose this happens after 20 years?” I said. “Is it because there is a whole generation of people don’t know much about it?”
Raluca Grosescu, Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania
“I believe,” she said, “it’s because there is a whole generation that wasn’t involved. In Romania, for example, more than ten percent of the population were informers of the Securitate. Another 25 percent of Romanians were members of the Communist Party. Ten percent were part of the nomenclatura. In this moment we have a generation willing to talk about the past because it is not their personal history. It is painful to talk about your own involvement.”
I’ve always wondered what democrats who grew up in communist countries thought of communists who grew up in democratic countries. Hardly anyone in the West ever voted with their feet, so to speak, by moving to a communist country, but communist dictatorships created millions of refugees who fled their homelands for Western democracies. East Germans were willing to risk being shot to make a run over the wall, Cubans are still willing to risk drowning to reach Florida, yet once in a while I still meet Westerners who have a warm spot in their hearts for regimes like Castro’s.
“What do you think,” I asked her, “of people in the West who think communism is a good idea but haven’t actually experienced it? There are quite a few people who admire the system in Cuba. You know the types I mean. The people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts.”
“Ah, yes,” she said. “They are ridiculous. But somehow I can understand them. Let’s take the example of France. In France they were all socialists when they were young. Sartre was a close friend of Castro’s. Gerard Depardieu was a close friend of Castro’s. They believed in this ideal, but after they saw what Stalin did they couldn’t look to the Soviet Union. So they turned their hopes to Cuba. Then they saw what Castro did. The only one who still seemed to live up to the ideal was Che Guevara. So they turned to Che Guevara. I understand them. They were wrong their entire lives, and it is difficult to admit this.”
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