Reserve a fascinating walking tour through Bucharest’s Communist history and landmarks, with a knowledgeable, English-speaking guide.
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About the tour
In this 3-hour walking tour of Bucharest, you learn about:
- violent beginnings of Communism
- forced nationalization and demolitions
- second largest administrative building in the world
- the unfinished academy for the illiterate
- hidden churches
- places of Communist torture and investigation
- the fall of Communism in Revolution Square
What others think about the tour
Check out our TripAdvisor page for more reviews.
- “The Best Way To Visit Bucharest”
- “The best tour we have been on in Europe”
- “not to miss! excellent guide, well prepared tour”
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Guests coming to our walking tour of Communism in Bucharest are often intrigued by the way the city looks, and often ask me a flurry of questions. My answer, in most cases is:
“Well, that’s because of Communism”.
Let me provide more detail below to the frequently asked questions:
1. Why are there so many cars in Bucharest?
This is occasionally followed by the questions: Why does everybody park on the sidewalk?
Well, that’s because of Communism!
Under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, goods came to be rationed for Romanian citizens, in an attempt to pay off the external debt of the country. Just to be clear: Romania was producing a lot of almost everything, and the Communist Party often set unrealistic production targets for different industries. However, the majority of the goods manufactured here were exported in order to get cash, and pay back debt. Dacia, our national car and pretty much the only brand available locally (with the exception of Oltcit and Lada, perhaps), fell under the same rule: most cars went to export, which meant that regular Romanians who wanted to buy one, had to register on a waiting list (we’ve written about it before). The wait could easily reach 5-7 years. Even when finally receiving their car, Romanians could not pick its color and could not even drive it freely, because there was also a shortage of gas. Hence, Romanians’ obsession and fascination with cars.
As always, periods when there is a shortage of anything are followed by periods when there will be an excess of the same thing, to balance things out. Once the Communist regime collapse and the average Romanian citizen had enough purchasing power to afford even the cheapest car available, the city’s streets started being overwhelmed by thousands and thousands of cars (many of them imported as second-hand goods from other countries). The car is still largely seen as a status symbol in Bucharest, and most Romanians dream of owning one at some point in their lives, even if they need it or not. Some statistics estimate that roughly 10% of all cars in the city are used less than once a year, but this doesn’t matter to those who own them, as long as they can brag to their friends that they are car owners.
This also explains why some of the cars are really fancy and expensive, often exceeding the price of the house or apartment where their owners live. You’ll often see $100k BMW’s, Audi’s or Mercedeses parked in neighborhoods that otherwise look scroungy.
2. Why is there so much graffiti in the city?
Well, that’s because of Communism (not solely, but still…)
Under the Communist dictatorship, the concept of public space was essentially abolished. Public squares or streets where citizens would normally meet their neighbors or friends and discuss ideas were now under the grip of official propaganda, which allowed only forms of expressions that were approved by the Communist Party. Gathering in large groups in public spaces or even freely discussing ideas would get people under the scrutiny of the much-feared Securitate (the former secret police). As such, scribbling something on a wall or even daring to express anything artistic without the approval of the all-mighty Party was the equivalent of a death sentence.
After the fall of Communism, vast spaces in the city became free from political control and in many cases quite literally abandoned. Suddenly, the city became a huge, empty canvas where any rebel teenager with a paint spray can could freely scribble anything, with very little interference from the police. Today, graffiti is omnipresent in Bucharest: you see it on the outside and inside or buses, trams, or trains, on walls of former factories, historic monuments, statues, on rooftops of buildings, on cars or even on sidewalks. To be fair, most of it is just vandalism, and the police does very little to enforce the legislation, but some of it is really creative and even legal.
3. Exacerbated sense of private property
This one is perhaps a bit more difficult to spot, but signs of it are everywhere: “customized” or “personalized” balconies, high fences or walls, or people fighting to protect their parking spot (even in cases when this is not really “theirs”).
As you may know, Communism abolished almost all forms of private property. With the exception of the party leaders, people were not allowed to own more than the average that was considered sufficient and necessary by party officials, which usually translated into 8 square-meters of owned or rented living space for each family member. Anything more than that could raise suspicion from authorities and could get people labeled as “exploiters of the working class”.
Once Communism collapsed, the story repeated itself: people who were deprived of property rights for many years wanted to not only own as much as they could, but also make it very clear to the others that it’s THEIR property, and nobody else should interfere with it. Probably the first thing that Romanians do when they buy a house or land is to build a big fence around it and put a “Private Property” sign on it. In the case of apartments, they will often redecorate them to their own taste, often interfering with urban planning laws, simply because now it’s THEIR apartment, so they might as well paint it pink, if they wanted to. This is why many of the buildings in Bucharest, which used to look like this:
Now look like this:
4. Why does everything seem to fall apart in Bucharest?
Well, it’s because of Communism, or more specifically, the general lack of personal accountability that it created.
Whenever something bad happens in Bucharest, or Romania, the average Romanian’s response is that it was somebody else’s fault. People will throw garbage on the street, and then complain that the city mayor doesn’t keep the streets clean. People will break traffic rules, and then complain that traffic is chaotic. Even when you confront them and ask them who is responsible for the situation, most Romanians will shrug their shoulders, and give you a blank look: it’s not their fault, somebody else should fix this.
Why is this? Because the concept of “personal accountability” has been perverted by the Communist idea of “shared responsibility”. “Everything belonged to the people”, preached the Communist Party. There was no notion of individual, personal interest or personal initiative, as the Party (an abstract notion) ruled over everything, including very private aspects of daily life, such as sex or reproduction. Hence, a particular person could not be made responsible for any given situation, good or bad. Individual will was dissolved into the great, abstract and almighty power of the Party (technically speaking, a handful of individuals controlled by a dictator).
Fast-forward 27 years, Romanians will still point fingers at each other, often trying to find an abstract scapegoat for anything that runs badly in their country.
Which leads us to the last item on this list:
5. Does Romania still have an authoritarian political regime?
No, but there is a general perception among the population that the state should fix nearly every problem.
The communist mantra of “the Party above all”, and the ever-increasing, encroaching Communist bureaucracy lead to a general belief that the citizen should not really decide for himself or herself. The Party can make those decisions, as the Party knows better. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians were raised to believe that the “state” should decide where and what they will study, what jobs they will have (but more importantly, what jobs they are NOT allowed to have), where they will live, and even how many children they should have.
As a result, even after almost 30 years of capitalism, a certain segment of the population still thinks that the state is responsible for providing jobs, feeding them, or sheltering them. Volunteering in Romania is seen as a suspicious activity, financed by foreign NGOs and reserved only for teenagers without a lot of professional experience. Taking matters into your own hands is often derided. Solving a problem by yourself or believing in a cause is mocked or even discouraged. These are seen as matters to be solved by the all-mighty state.
Enjoyed this article? Listen to more Communist stories and see Bucharest’s landmarks in one of our upcoming walking tours!
I’ve been fortunate enough to sometimes have guests on the Tour of Communism who experienced the horrors of Communism first-hand. They, of course, have not been so fortunate, but having the opportunity to learn from real people rather than from books is always great for a tour guide (as well as other guests on the tours).
I’ll share two personal stories from real guests on my tours. Coincidence or not, both families were Romanian Jews. I will not disclose their real names, but use nicknames instead.
In the first story, Isaac, a Romanian-Jew in his late 70s, told me how he left the country when he was a child. His father and family have survived the anti-Semitic persecutions of World War II, only to have their business (a printing house) confiscated by the Communist regime. Soon after, they were constrained to “donate” their house to the Romanian Communist authorities, in exchange for being permitted to flee the country. In fact, many Jewish families (but other minorities, as well, particularly Germans) were “encouraged” by local authorities to emigrate to their so-called “country of origin” (a complete nonsense, since many were born in Romania, and they had Romanian citizenship). The Communist authorities feared that a “too cosmopolitan” society might mean trouble for the regime, since different ethnic groups may still maintain an allegiance to foreign countries, so they may spread dangerous opinions, which contradicted the universal truth imposed by the totalitarian regime.
This was Isaac’s first trip back to Romania, after fleeing the country as a child with his father. He came back to visit his birthplace, and also to see their family’s house, now in a derelict state and inhabited by people they don’t know. I told him he could get the house back, but he replied with a content and nostalgic smile that he has no interest to do so. He was impressed with the progress Bucharest has been making in all these years, but his rupture with Romania was too abrupt and violent to justify looking back at his life here or considering moving back.
The second guest, a woman in her 60s by the name of Liz, had a strikingly similar story. Her father, a Jewish clock-maker and jeweler, and her mother, a house-wife, barely survived the Holocaust and escaped from labor camps set up in Transnistria. Unfortunately, the Communist regime just brought about more persecutions. Her father was imprisoned after his neighbors told the secret police he is hiding gold in the basement of his house. Owning gold (except for wedding rings) or foreign currency was considered a crime under Communism, and would get people arrested on the spot and labeled as “exploiters of the working class” or “black market dealers”. Even worse, the crime was not real, as he didn’t really have any gold hidden in his basement, but this made very little difference for the Communist authorities. He was released from prison after a friend policeman insisted, and he was told it would be better for him to leave the country. Of course, before leaving, he had to “donate” his house and all his belongings to the Romanian state. Meanwhile, his daughter, Liz, a child in primary school, was being disgraced in front of the entire school by having her title of “pioneer” and her red scarf removed, and being called a “traitor”. (Pioneers were a Communist Youth Organization that every school-aged child in Romania had to join. Their mandatory uniform was a white shirt, blue skirt/pants and red scarf). With nothing left, Liz’s family left the country for Israel with just 2 suitcases.
Later on, Romanian authorities started treating non-Romanian ethnics as goods by exporting them to their “countries of origin” in exchange for cash. If you want to hear the full story, join our Tour of Communism or the more recent Jewish Trail (a 3-hour walking tour about the history of the Jewish community in Bucharest).
We’ve written about the Communist Nationalization before. The confiscation of private property more than 60 years ago by the Communist authorities still has a very painful legacy today, as the folks from the “Bucharest Housing Stories” project show in this 3-episode documentary. A toxic mix of confusing legislation, corruption, neglect, and administrative indolence still creates many social tensions today, as squatters occupy abandoned property (episode 1), owners reclaim their houses (episode 2), and tenants are evicted on the streets (episode 3).
Watch the 3 episodes with English subtitles below, and join one of our upcoming walking tours of Communism to witness more experiences like these:
If you’ve taken a stroll through Bucharest’s Revolution Square, you might have noticed this daring gentleman riding his horse:
This was King Karl I (in Romanian, Carol I), who ruled Romania for almost 48 years (from 1866 to 1914). However, you should know that what you see is not the original, but merely a copy. The original statue that used to be placed here was designed by Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, and looked slightly different.
So what happened to the original? In the wake of World War II, as the communists came to power, they started destroying all symbols that reminded people of the “old world”. This included any monuments dedicated to monarchs or statesmen that the communists deemed as “bourgeois”, “class enemies” or “opponents of socialism”. Hence, the statue of Carol I was destroyed during the night of December 30-31 1947, following the forced abdication of the last king of Romania, King Michael I. Another sculptor witnessed the destruction: the horse was tied to a tank, and pulled down from the pedestal, and then the statue was dragged through the streets to a warehouse.
However, this was not the end of the statue. The metal has been recycled by the communists and used to build another statue, in line with the new regime and ideology: the statue of Lenin, designed by sculptor Boris Caragea, and placed for many years in front of the communist printing house (“Casa Scânteii”).
Of course, the Anti-communist Revolution of December 1989 brought a similar end to Lenin’s statue: it was pulled down from its pedestal using a construction crane, and stored in a museum warehouse outside Bucharest. Ironically, the guy who pulled down the statue – Gheorghe Gavrilescu – was a representative of the working class, which Lenin claimed to fight for. Even more ironically, Gavrilescu committed suicide just 4 years later, after becoming disillusioned with the newly installed Neo-Communist regime in Romania.
Enjoyed this article? Listen to more Communist stories and see Bucharest’s landmarks in one of our upcoming walking tours!
We’ve written about nationalization before (i.e. the confiscation of private property done by the Communist administration in Romania). It was a painful experience for many thousands of middle class and upper class citizens (as well as many lower class, despite contrary Communist propaganda), who were left over night without any property, and labeled as criminals, saboteurs and “exploiters of the working class”. It wasn’t just buildings, factories and land that were confiscated, but also means of production and livestock (such as oxen, cattle, carts or horses that were confiscated from well-off peasants). However, the account below, given by Pavel Stefan, Romania’s communist Minister of Internal Affairs between 1952-1953, offers proof of the cynicism behind this indiscriminate measure taken by the communists:
There was an attorney called Calota, who helped us (author’s note: the Communists) a lot in 1945. He was arrested because he was a member of the National Peasants’ Party, and his house was confiscated. I asked him why he was arrested, maybe he told something he shouldn’t have. He told me he didn’t. Then, I decided to call Gheorghe Pintilie (author’s note: the general director of Securitate, i.e. the Secret Police), and ask him, because he personally knew Calota very well. Pintilie replied: “Who knows how many people we arrested, just because we needed their homes!?”
Want to hear more Communist stories? Join us on our upcoming walking tours!
Doftana Penitentiary, located about 1 hour drive north of Bucharest, is the ultimate paradox in Romanian history. Having served as a detention center for many of the early Communists during the inter-war period (including the first Communist rulers of Romania: Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu), it soon turned into a tool of revenge against the political elite that opposed Communism. Today, it lies in complete ruin, completely forgotten by most Romanians. This article is an attempt to do it some justice.
Built as a fortress and opened in 1895, Doftana Prison has long served as a detention center for political prisoners, despite the seemingly democratic regime that ruled Romania prior to 1946, when Communists took over power. The prison was used until 1960, when it was turned into a museum. This is where many protesters from the Peasant Uprising in 1907 were incarcerated (peasants revolted violently against the socio-economic regime that doomed them to poverty and pseudo-enslavement). This is also where some of the Fascist thought leaders in Romania, such as Corneliu Zelea Codreanu or Horia Sima, served time. By the time the Communist movement was banned from Romania in 1924, Doftana Prison already had a tradition as a detention center for political prisoners, so it became the main destination for many of persecuted underground communists during the interwar period. One of the first Communist figures to spend time (and eventually die of pneumonia) at Doftana was Max Goldstein, the mastermind behind the first terrorist attack against the Romanian Senate.
In the early hours of November 10th, 1940, a powerful earthquake struck Romania, severely damaging Doftana Prison, and killing and injuring more than 300 prisoners. Some of the Communist leaders who were imprisoned here at that time, including Ilie Pintilie, Andrei Prot, Ion Herbac, Ioan Galuzinschi, Alexandru Niconov, were killed by the rubble resulting from the earthquake. At the time of this earthquake, the prison had already been affected by two previous smaller-scale earthquakes: one in 1929, and one in October 1940. Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej, the indisputable leader of the Communist movement, who was locked at that time in Doftana for his role in the railway workers’ uprising of 1933, has appealed to the prison administration for the relocation of the prisoners, considering the prison to be too damaged to be safe. The administration rejected his plea. It is said that Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej had an opportunity to escape right after the earthquake, when the cell where he was locked collapsed, leaving him injured on the ground, outside the prison walls. However, he preferred to help the other inmates get out of the rubble produced by the earthquake
Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was also imprisoned here for a couple of years, and also spent time in the infamous H cells, which were used for punishment. Another wave of political prisoners was incarcerated at Doftana in 1935 and 1937, after violent strikes by industrial workers in Bucharest and Ploiesti (the oil center of Romania).
Prison conditions were tough, and human rights were often overlooked by the administration. Prisoners were served only some polenta and basic vegetable soup. They were routinely beaten up using batons, or kept naked and barefooted in cold weather. Communists, in particular, were beaten until they would renounce their communist ideals and beliefs. Cells had no furniture or carpets, and were routinely soaked in cold water. As a result of the rough conditions, several early Communists died at Doftana, including Fonaghi, Lisavoi, Smatoc, Mironiuc, Sevcencu, and Onofrencu.
Despite all this, the prison became an underground communist “university”, where political prisoners received training from other Communist Party leaders, including the teachings of Marx and Lenin, the history of USSR or of the Communist Party, as well as political economics and philosophy. Many of the propaganda materials were smuggled in by new prisoners, and distributed incognito from cell to cell. Doftana Prison is also considered responsible for the radicalization of many of the early Communists, who re-joined the ranks of the illegal Communist Party as soon as they were released.
After passing the main gate, newly arrived prisoners had to go through a name call, typically accompanied by physical violence by the guards. The prison warden at that time, Savinescu, would order the more unruly prisoners to be locked up in the so-called “H” section or in the dark cells (cells without any natural light). After the name call, prisoners would go through a body check, where any precious objects would be confiscated by the prison staff.
The prison is shaped as a horse-shoe, with a garden in the middle, which was taken care of by one of the Communist prisoners, Ion Galuzinschi, who ended up dying in prison after 15 years of detention. It had a total of 308 cells, distributed into 8 sections (named A-H): 3 naturally-lit and 5 dark.
The naturally-lit cells were reserved for prisoners with sentences shorter than 1 year, and were located in sections A, B, and C. Each section had a 3 floors, totaling 63 cells. The natural light came from the inner courtyard through huge, barred windows, which are now broken. Section A housed the prominent leaders of the Communist movement: Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej, Chivu Stoica, Emil Bodnaras, and Lazar Grunberg. Section B was dedicated to those sentenced to hard labor after the strikes of 1935-1938. Prisoners locked up there were subjected to hunger, as they were only allowed to receive 3 kilos of food per month.
Section F was presumably the worst section, as it featured the dirtiest and darkest isolation cells. Vasile Luca, one of the early communist leaders, is said to have spent time in the F cells, after an altercation with one of the guards.
The H section was dedicated to the punishment of rebellious prisoners. It had 40 small, completely dark cells with absolutely no furniture inside. The only allowed accessories were a wooden bowl, a wooden spoon, and an empty metal can that would serve as a toilet. The floors of the H cells were intentionally kept wet by the guards, to make life even more difficult for prisoners. The punishment usually lasted between 2-3 months. Food for the H cell tenants typically consisted of a very salty soup and a slice of polenta. H cell prisoners wouldn’t receive any food for two days every week.
Prisoners were allowed to have a 30-minute long between two of the prison walls. Prisoners who were caught sharing cigarettes or food with others would be punished by being sent to dark cells.The prison lazaret was poorly equipped, and anybody who had to use it would risk death from further infection or medical mistreatment.
A hunger strike was organized during the winter of 1922-1923 by a group of 25 political prisoners. The prison ward retaliated by locking the protesters up in abandoned and unheated cells that had no windows. After 4 days, the freezing prisoners were released from these cells, and eventually granted a milder treatment. Prisoners received the right to work in a prison workshop in 1924, but this right would soon be revoked one year later, after altercations between prisoners and guards.
The prison ward Cristescu introduced the so-called “silence rule”, which banned prisoners from talking to each other. This rule was abolished in April 1936, after protests by the prisoners. Until its abolition, prisoners would communicate through hand gestures or Morse signals.
Prisoners who died during their detention were buried in unmarked graves in an improvised cemetery just outside the prison walls. The cemetery was known among inmates as “The Three Plum Trees”.
Doftana Prison became a place of pilgrimage during the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It was regularly used as a ceremonial site for the students joining the Pioneers organization or the Communist Youth Organization. Ceausescu himself used to visit the prison museum quite often, and was received enthusiastically by locals and welcomed with red-carpet ceremonies. Despite being declared a historic monument, the prison is now a complete ruin, having suffered damages during the earthquakes of 1940, 1977, as well as during the winter of 2011, when the massive snowfall caused the roof to collapse.
According to estimates, the prison is valued at about 1.2 million euro. Some investors were interested in buying the building and turning it into a medical clinic or into a modern hotel that would still preserve the prison feeling, but none of these plans came through. In the meantime, the building continues to decay slowly but surely, exposed to the natural elements and to ignorant locals who steal construction material or scrap metal from its structures.
For more pictures of Doftana Prison, visit: https://flic.kr/s/aHskcspN2z
One of our readers has shared this amazing video filmed using a drone:
Want to hear more Communist stories? Join us on our upcoming walking tours!
We’re pleased to announce that we’ve been recently featured on BBC:
Yet while the wounds haven’t healed for many Romanians, the growing number of tourists that today visit Romania, and in particular its capital Bucharest, are keen to find out more about life in the former Socialist Republic of Romania
As a result, over the past two years, Romanian entrepreneurs – most who were only children at the time of the 1989 revolution – are starting to organise “communism tours” for foreign visitors. The tourists typically come from across Europe, the US, Japan, China and Israel.
Read the full story here.