Saturday, November 20

Three days in Bucharest

For more than 21 years communist president, Nicolae Ceausescu, ruled Romania with an iron fist. He ruthlessly suppressed all opposition with the help of a secret police service known as the Securitate, while simultaneously promoting a sycophantic personality cult among the general population. At its peak the Securitate operated the largest network of spies and informants in Eastern Europe.

On 22 December 1989, Ceausescu was overthrown in a violent revolution. This was the last of popular uprisings against communist rule that had swept across eastern Europe that year. He subsequently fled the capital, Bucharest, only to be captured a few hours later. Three days later he and his wife Elena were summarily tried and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

Ceausescu’s end came remarkably swiftly. It began ten days earlier in the western city of Timisoara with demonstrations against the harassment of a dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest, Laszlo Tokes. The protests grew rapidly in size. Within hours chanted slogans like "We want bread" turned into bolder cries such as "Down with Ceausescu".

Ceausescu was enraged; even more so when army and Securitate generals ignored orders to shoot protestors. He personally ordered troops to fire on the Timisoara demonstrators. More than a hundred were killed. News of the tragedy spread and soon mass protests were erupting in other Romanian cities. In an attmept to restore order, on 21 December, Ceausescu stage-managed a show of support for his government in Bucharest's main square. As he’d done many times before, he bused people into town to hear him speak and chant their adoration.

However, things went disastrously wrong. The crowd interrupted his speech soon after it began with increasingly bold jeers and chants. The incident was broadcast on national television before transmission was interupted by the censors. However the damage was done and the following morning Ceausescu fled by helicopter as fighting broke out between rival factions.

According to Wikipedia, 1,104 people died over a ten-day period. At least 162 were killed in protests that led to the overthrow of Ceauşescu (December 16–22, 1989) and 942 in the fighting that occurred after the seizure of power by the National Salvation Fornt (FSN). In May 1990, less than six months after the revolution, I was lucky enough to spend three weeks travelling in Romania. I saw for myself hastily erected memorials to the dead in Timosoara, building riddled with bullet holes in Bucharest and thousands of troops and tanks guarding the headquarters of the National Salvation Front. However, it’s the abject poverty I witnessed that’s stuck with me most in the years since.

This poverty was the result of a draconian austerity program Ceausescu had launched in 1980, designed pay off Romania’s national debt within ten years. Vast chunks of economic production destined for domestic consumption were diverted for export, plunging the population into painful shortages and increasing hardship. The Romanian TV channels were reduced to one channel which transmitted only 2 hours per day. Electricity was interrupted for hours, mostly at night. Repairs of basic infrastructure ground to a halt as spare parts disappeared. There were long lines at the grocery stores.

It’s somewhat ironic that Romania paid of the last of its external debts of US$11 billion in early 1989. However, the austerity measures didn’t come to end. Instead, funds were being diverted to pay for megalomanic projects, such as the construction of the grandiose House of the Republic (today the Palace of the Parliament), the biggest palace in the world, and the future Communism and Ceausescu's Museum, known today the Casa Radio.

Having witnessed these hardships for myself I was keen to return and see what impact two decades of progress had made on Bucharest. Sadly, the scars of Ceausescu’s brutal economic policies are still very evident. Much of the city remains in a state of decay and disrepair. It’s a sad sight as Bucharest contains many grand neo-classical buildings and hundreds of acres of parkland. However, economic revival is slowly reclaiming parts of the city. I’m sure it will be almost unrecognisable in another decade.

Garry and I spend almost three days exploring Bucharest from our base at the Marriott Hotel. From here we ventured out to see the Palace of the Parliament, the Lipscani district or old town and explore the city’s many parks. Without doubt the most enduring highlight of our weekend excursion was the Palace of the Parliament. This enormous building dominates the city. It sits on a low hill and is the largest building in Europe and the world’s second largest administrative building, second only to the Pentagon. Ceausescu conceived it to house all of the organs of his communist government under one roof, thus concentrating his power and improving coordination between departments.

In 1989, when Ceausescu fell, the building was only partially complete leaving the post-communist government in a quandary. With the nation improvised and seeking economic advancement, the incomplete building was a serious drain on the nation’s coffers. Officials explored the option of demolishing the hated complex. However, the cost of demolishing proved greater than the cost of simply completing the building and so its construction continued, albeit at a much slower pace. Parliament eventually relocated to the building in 2006, but more than half of the building still remains idle.

Garry and I joined a tour of the building on our second day in town. It’s an opulent venue. We saw room after room of gilded ceilings, carved marble and colonnaded hallways. When you see such decadence it’s not hard to understand why the Romanian people hate Ceausescu so passionately. This vain edifice was being built at a time when the average citizen couldn’t find fresh milk and eggs in their local store. Perhaps the only redeeming feature of the building is the stunning view across Bucharest from its rooftop.

Garry and I also ventured into town to see the site of Ceausescu’s final ill-fated broadcast. Piaţa Palatului, now known as Revolution Square, contains several memorials to the 1989 revolution. A white marble triangle, with the inscription Glorie martirilor nostri (Glory to our martyrs), sits in front of the former Central Committee building pointing to the low balcony from which Ceausescu spoke. Nearby a soaring obelisk immortalises the dead. It’s not a particularly large square and so it’s hard to image the area filled with angry protesters.

Our final morning in town was spent wandering through Parcul Carol, or Carol Park. During the communist era it was called Liberty Park and housed the tombs of Romania’s most prominent communist leaders. Today the mausoleum is empty, but its site is still marked by a dramatic 49-metre monument called the “Monument of the Heroes for the Freedom of the People and of the Motherland, for Socialism.”

In 1991 the mausoleum and the monument were transformed into a memorial for the Unknown Soldier. Remains from an unidentified World War I solider were subsequently entombed by an eternal flame that once burned in memory of workers killed fighting for socialism. The monument sits on a low hill, reached by an impressive series of broad stairs. From its summit the view is dominated by the nearby Palace of the Parliament. While Ceausescu may have been dead for twenty years, the legacy of his regime endures.

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