Mocking Communism through Pop-Art

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Despite being discovered as an artist at 63 years old, while living in a dumpster in Bucharest, Ion Barladeanu has been a man of genius throughout his life. An uneducated man who has been making a living by doing several menial jobs (including loader, grave digger, watchman, or thatch harvester), Ion Barladeanu has created hundreds of pop-art collages (which he calls “movies”) from old magazines and newspapers, for a hobby. Many of them are a blatant mockery of the Communist regime and the leading Communist couple Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. You can see some witty examples below (via H’Art Gallery):


Collage by Ion Barladeanu
Collage by Ion Barladeanu
Collage by Ion Barladeanu

In all fairness, these collages have never seen the day of light during the Communist regime, otherwise we wouldn’t probably have heard about Ion Barladeanu today. Now, the artist has resumed creating collages after a pause of almost 10 years, and has been on exhibitions in major European cities, often being compared with other pop-art names such as Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol. BBC had an interesting interview with the artist a few years ago.

His life has been the subject of a documentary called “The World according to Ion B.”, which won an Emmy award (trailer with subtitles below):

Would you buy one of his works?

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Sex Life under Communism (part 2)

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We’ve written about the more dreadful aspects of birth control measures under Communism in Romania in part 1 of this series. Part 2 is going to be lighter. Despite the heavy propaganda centered on family building and despite sex being taboo in Communist times, people still managed to smuggle in pornography, either in the form of magazines or VHS tapes. Video recorders were so rare that they were considered a privilege, which meant that anyone who owned such a device would be instantly popular with friends and family. Mind you, the only television channel in Communist Romania would only broadcast two hours per day, mostly propaganda movies, and watching a foreign TV channel could easily get citizens into trouble with the secret police. As such, it was not uncommon to have impromptu “movies nights”, where illegally copied or smuggled video tapes would be watched by a larger group of friends or neighbors. Of course, these would normally be Western action films, occasionally followed by 1 or 2 porn movies, who would be watched together (kind of a “porn cinema”, if you wish). “Porn” is probably too harsh of a word here; “sexy” would probably characterize such movies better, as Communist censorship from the more relaxed countries in the Eastern Bloc would still interfere with the content. Sometimes, the whole VCR would be rented out to acquaintances for close to 100 lei (roughly, the equivalent of $5).

Besides porn tapes, citizens from Western Romania would be able to illegally intercept TV channels from neighboring Hungary and Yugoslavia, which had a more relaxed editorial policy, to say the least. Additionally, Playboy magazine was available in Hungary, and would be occasionally smuggled into Romania. Generally speaking, movies, magazines, and music were a bit more “liberal” in neighboring Yugoslavia and Hungary, thus making valuable black market products. For example, the disc cover of one of the albums of Serbian band Bijelo Dugme created quite some excitement among Romanians, as well:

Bijelo Dugme album
Bijelo Dugme album

Another route to smuggle in porn and other goods was through the port of Constanta, where sailors would bring it from Western countries. This was considered to be better (or better said, more “hardcore”), as Communist censorship hadn’t interfered with it. In the 80s, truck drivers from Poland or even employees of the state television would sell sex tapes to their friends and relatives. Despite this, Romanian society remained largely reserved about the subject, and sex was portrayed as a “necessary evil” for family foundation, or otherwise decadent when performed outside family boundaries.

(source)

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Sex Life under Communism (part 1)

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One of the insidious aspects of the Romanian Communist regime was its brutal intrusion in the private lives of its citizens, which climaxed (no pun intended!) with the birth control measures initiated by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1967. The regime needed a young labor force to power its forced industrialization program, as Romania was still recovering from the human and economic losses of the Second World War. Additionally, Ceausescu’s rule took on an increasingly nationalistic stance, as he dreamed of a “great” Romanian people. “Great”, of course, meant as many pure Romanian ethnics as possible, while other ethnic minorities (Jews and Germans in particular) were “encouraged” to emigrate to their motherlands (but about this topic, in a future article or in one of our upcoming tours).

Decree 770, introduced by the Communist Party in 1967, soon after Ceausescu took office, was essentially an anti-abortion law with many dreadful short-term and long-term consequences for the Romanian people. The decree severely punished any attempts by women to conduct an abortion (either in a public hospital or at home), as well as any medical personnel who would assist them in this attempt. The only exceptions were “medical emergencies”, i.e. when the life and well-being of the mother or the baby would be threatened by disease or medical complications, when the woman would be over 45 years old, when she already gave birth to 4 children, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. These exceptions were very clearly documented in the law. Decree 770, coupled with the fact that contraceptives became virtually nonexistent on the free market (and were later officially banned), led to a massive baby-boom in the late 60s and early 70s.

Birth rate vs. death rate in Romania
Birth rate vs. death rate in Romania

The Communist propaganda backed all this with sex education that would brainwash young girls into believing that child-birth was their patriotic duty. Mothers who had at least 4 children were awarded different kinds of medals and titles (“Hero Mom”), and were often portrayed as a role model for other women. They also received financial benefits for every extra child they would give birth to. The measure was coupled with a “single’s tax”, essentially a fine applied to any adult who chose not to marry. Living in a relationship without being officially married was also frowned upon by the Communist authorities, for whom the stereotypical family had to have a happily married father and mother with at least 4 children.

“Hero Mom” medal

As many families were reluctant to having a large number of children, due to the precarious living standards and the imposed labor mobility (workers would be “assigned” to a factory, and not have a lot of say in choosing their employer), the measures of Decree 770 had to be imposed by force. Women were subjected to a regular examination by the gynecologist every 6 months or so, and public hospitals had to report very detailed statistics about pregnancy and births. These statistics, as well as any decisions to conduct an emergency abortion had to be reviewed and vetted by the Police; otherwise, doctors could easily be sanctioned (sometimes, with prison sentences) for conducting illegal abortion.

Despite these measures, illegal abortion became prevalent. Sometimes, it would be assisted by doctors in perfect secrecy and in exchange for a significant bribe. In other cases, the abortion would be conducted by the woman herself or by acquaintances with no medical background, which could easily lead to other medical complications or even death. Illegal abortion in Communist Romania also inspired the winner of Palm D’Or movie “4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days” (trailer below):

The baby-boom generated by Decree 770 also generated several long-term social and economic problems. As Communist Romania was struggling to pay its entire external debt in the 1980s, the growing population (which passed the milestone of 23 million citizens in 1988) was putting a lot of pressure on the economy, which was unable to provide proper housing or even basic goods. Families with a lot of children often failed to provide proper education and care, and many kids ended up in orphanages or simply living on the streets of big cities after the collapse of Communism. “Children Underground” is a heart-breaking Romanian documentary on this topic, and was filmed on the streets of Bucharest in the early 1990s:


 

End of part 1. To be continued…

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The only building in Bucharest that still has the hammer & sickle: the House of the Free Press

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The hammer & sickle, the universal symbol of the Communist ideology, has been furiously removed from buildings, books, walls, flags, monuments and other decorations during the bloody events of the anti-Communist revolution in December 1989.

Romania's Gavroche
Romania’s Gavroche

People wanted to forget the 40 years of oppression, and the symbols of Communism were the easiest they could lay their hands on and destroy.

But the hammer & sickle logo still survives undisturbed on a building which has been for a long time the symbol of Soviet Romania: “The Spark House” (Romanian: “Casa Scânteii”), the headquarters of the state-owned and state-controlled printed media.

Hammer&sickle
Hammer&sickle

The main newspaper (and for many Romanians, the only newspaper) in Communist Romania — “Scânteia” (literally, “The Spark”) — has been written, edited, and printed in this building for almost 4 decades. Self-proclaimed “an organization of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party”, the Spark was published under the motto “Workers of the world, unite!”.

By 1948, the newly installed Communist regime was considering the construction of a large-scale printing house that would be able to handle the circulation of its official newspaper, the Spark. In the summer of 1949, architects Horia Maicu, Nicolae Badescu, Marcel Locar and Mircea Alifanti begin designing the House of the Spark. The initial designs are rejected, as they were considered “too cosmopolitan” and “too Western” for the project. Instead, after consultations with “experts” from Moscow, the architects adopt a new design which resembles other emblematic buildings from the Soviet Bloc: the Lomonosov University in Moscow, Ukraine Hotel from Moscow or the Palace of Culture from Warsaw.

Hotel Ukraine, Moscow
Hotel Ukraine, Moscow

Lomonosov University

Lomonosov University, Moscow

Palace of Culture, Warsaw

Palace of Culture, Warsaw

Spark House
Spark House, Bucharest

The actual construction took place between 1950-1955, a period of economic downturn, as Romania was still recovering after World War 2 and was under Soviet occupation. To make room for the Spark House, the horse race tracks had to be destroyed (horse racing was a popular pastime in interwar Romania).

Layout of the Spark House
Layout of the Spark House

The tallest building volume stands at 100 meters high and has 12 stories, while the side volumes are only 4 stories high. Besides the hammer & sickle, the building boasts other Communist symbols, as well: the Communist star and the bouquets of wheat-ears.

Communist star decorations
Communist star decorations

For a few years, the building remained a symbol of Bucharest, and was even featured on the 100-lei banknote:

100-lei Banknote featuring the Spark House
100-lei Banknote featuring the Spark House

In front of the building, there used to be a statue of Lenin, which was destroyed at the anti-Communist Revolution.

Lenin statue in front of Spark House
Lenin statue in front of Spark House

Rumor has it that the metal from this statue was used to rebuild the statue of King Carol I, which now stands in Revolution Square, and which has — in turn — been melted by the Communists when they came to power in order to build Lenin’s statue. Monument recycling at its best!

Vandalized pedestal
Vandalized pedestal

The statue pedestal is now empty and vandalized, but there are plans to install a 2-million euro monument called “Wings”, symbolizing the hope overcoming the Communist regime.

 

Wings monument
Wings monument

Today, the Spark House has been renamed the House of the Free Press, and is hosting a number of private media companies, including Intact Group.

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The Heroes Who Died Fighting Against Romanian Communism

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With the publicity around the commemoration of 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, few people remember that the Romanian anti-Communist Revolution of December 1989 was the bloodiest uprising against Communism in the Eastern Bloc.  1,104 people died across major cities in Romania, the majority in Timisoara and Bucharest. Some of these heroes are now buried in the the Cemetery of the Revolution Heroes in southern Bucharest.

The anti-Communist Revolution started in Timisoara (Western Romania) on December 16, 1989, and ended in Targoviste with the execution by fire squad of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. However, gun fire continued sporadically even after that. Not all bodies of the victims could be retrieved, as many of them were incinerated in the first days of the Revolution, in a desperate attempt by the secret police to hide any evidence of the bloody repression. The Cemetery of the Revolution Heroes in Bucharest in an eerie place: far from peaceful, nested in the hustle & bustle of a crowded Bucharest crossroad, it brings up painful memories of young and old people alike who sacrificed themselves for a better future. The words marked on some of the funerary stones are truly moving. Below is an attempt to convey the suffering they left behind, and commemorate their memory.

The words on the cross below translate as follows (it is actually a poem in Romanian, but the rhymes are lost in translation):

“You have left believing in life
You didn’t even say “Good-bye!”
You left us crying in the house
And off you went as the lightning.
Even if we can’t see you face
and we can’t hear your voice,
you will always remain in our minds,
and we will always see you in our dreams.”
Your wife & your children

Anti-communist revolution hero
Anti-communist revolution hero

Most of the inscriptions are painfully accurate accounts of the last moments of the victim’s life. Below is such an example:

“Violeta!
When you left home, I begged you not to leave, so that you won’t be hit by a bullet. But you said you don’t want to be a coward, and regret that you didn’t put up a fight. Not one, but ten bullets ended your life, and left your parents in sorrow. We will never forget you!”

Anti-communist revolution hero

Here is another example of a death account, this time for the first victim of the Revolution who has fallen in Bucharest:

Anti-communist revolution hero
Anti-communist revolution hero

“He shouted “Down with Communism!” and offered flowers to the army troops in front of Dalles Hall (note: a building in central Bucharest). He wend on his knees and prayed for the dead of Timisoara city. It was the 21st of December 1989, 5:30 pm. He received 3 deadly shots. He was 19 years old and was the first victim of the Revolution in Bucharest. His nickname was “Micky the Rocker””

We can infer that this hero was a rugby player by the sculpture on his cross. Only his first name was engraved, although there is a detailed account of the last hours of his life:

Rugby player who died in the Revolution
Rugby player who died in the Revolution

“He raised barricades, he saw young people die, and spilling blood. He came home from University Plaza (note: location in central Bucharest) to go into mourning, and left home saying:
Mom, in everybody’s life, there is a train. You need to know when to get on it. For me, this train has arrived now. Now or never, this is a chance of a lifetime. Let me be, as I know better what I am doing. If something happens to me, take this money to take care of yourself.
Bogdan
His train of life only had two stops: one at the Romanian Television, and one at 21 years, 4 months and 10 days old.
His assassins remain unpunished.”

Epitaph of a soldier who died at Otopeni airport, the site of a major diversion by the repression forces:

Anti-Communist Revolution hero
Anti-Communist Revolution hero

“Hero fallen at Otopeni.
We will always keep you close to our pain-stricken hearts, forever alive. Titi”
“And you will turn into dust,
Because this is the world’s resistless law
You are born from nothing,
And you turn into nothing,
As nothing remains after you.”

As you can infer from the epitaphs above, the headquarters of the Romanian Television, University square (including the area near Dalles Hall and the Intercontinental Hotel, where a major barricade was raised by the protesters against repression forces), and Otopeni airport were among the “hotspots” of the Anti-Communist Revolution in Bucharest, where a lot of shooting took place, and many victims have fallen.

Some of the victims were really young, such as Ionescu Alexandru Radu, who was just a high-school student at the time.

High-school student who died in the Romanian anti-Communist revolution
High-school student who died in the Romanian anti-Communist revolution

This epitaph is also written in poem form (rhymes lost in translation), and dedicated to another high-school student who died in the bloody events of December 1989:

Epitaph to a high-school student
Epitaph to a high-school student

“Dear class master,
I ask for your forgiveness,
Because I will no longer attend class
I have quietly disappeared from the class book,
As my destiny wanted me to be somewhere else.

Too bad, because I had so many plans.
But I regret nothing,
Because I followed my youthfully impetus,
The best of all.

My classmates will understand this.
I will graduate through them, year by year
Climbing higher and higher,
Although I will always remain a high-school student.

Oh, I never wanted to bring this sad news to my mother,
But my only hope is my father,
Who was a soldier during these unjust times.

My natural decision was to be and to remain
A true Romanian through my youthful sacrifice.

I ask for your forgiveness one more time.
I can hear Christmas carols all around,
And the winter which bestows flowers upon my coffin”
(letter without a stamp)

Anti-communist revolution hero

Anti-communist revolution hero

“In Memorian
Engineer Torino Mateescu, who died on December 22, 1989. He paid with his life for our right to live in freedom”.

Families intentionally engraved the jobs of their loved ones on the funerary stones, to indicate that people of all social strata (including working class) rose up against Communism. Below, you have a high-school student, a professional driver, an electrician, and a turner.

This grave has an interesting sign next to it, resembling one of the placards of the revolutionaries.

Anti-Communist Revolution hero
Anti-Communist Revolution hero

It reads:

“While peacefully protesting for a free Romania, she was shot by the tyrants supporting the Clan of Ceau…”.

The relatives of the victim meant to say “Ceausescu”, but they probably deemed that his full name does not deserve to be engraved.

The next epitaph includes both a poem and an account of the last words of the victim:

Anti-Communist Revolution hero
Anti-Communist Revolution hero

“We didn’t know, just like other people
Who lived with their heads down,
That you were hiding deep inside your soul
Our burning dream of freedom.

That small piece of our hope,
Which remained in our hearts and grew stronger,
And broke through into the blue sky,
When you were holding hands together for us.

But the cruel beast who enslaved us
In caves of darkness and of suffering,
Didn’t want to believe that its power was fading away
Against the pure smiles of kids.

Innocent child, sublime child!
You’re just a cross lost in a cemetery!
When will people understand your deed?
Martyr child and anonymous hero!”

I’m going. If need be, I will sacrifice myself, so that you’ll have a better life. If I don’t go, and others don’t go, what will happen?” And so he went… He was (hunted) gunned down on the Christmas night between 24th and 25th of December. The perpetrators remain unpunished”

I leave you with the powerful words of one of the anti-Communist revolution heroes. These words should be in every history book out there:

Anti-communist Revolution hero
Anti-communist Revolution hero

Liberty is not served by someone on a tray! We will conquer it with our own blood!“, Luiza said. The next day, on the 21st of December 1989, in front of the Dalles Hall, Luiza would commit the supreme sacrifice, while shouting “Don’t run away! They are not shooting at us! They cannot kill all of us!” But a bullet put an end to her revolutionary elan. We will never forget her!
Nico, Mom & Dad

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The Nuns’ Convent: the first church to be moved during Ceausescu’s Communist regime

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This rather inglorious little church, painted in white and with its beautifully-carved pillars covered by modern plastic windows is actually an important Medieval relic that has reluctantly survived Communism. Ironically, it’s hidden behind the headquarters of the Romanian Intelligence Service, the follower of the reputed “Securitate” (Romania’s secret police during Communism).

The Nuns' Convent
The Nuns’ Convent

Well, this church deserves more glory, so we decided to include it in the Tour of Communism and tell its story, because of several reasons:

  • it’s much older than it looks
  • it’s actually not in the original location where it was built
  • it has survived Communism in a rather spectacular way

So please read further!

The Nuns' Convent before being demolished
The Nuns’ Convent before being demolished (photo: Gheorghe Leahu)

The church is actually only a small surviving piece of a larger monastery — the Nuns’ Convent — which was built during the 18th century (most likely, prior to 1726) by Tatiana Hagi Dina, a nun who escaped slavery under the Ottoman Empire and wanted to thank God for this. The monastery (including its church) was doomed to be razed to the ground by bulldozers in what was to become the greatest peace-time demolition of a city: the “systematization” of Bucharest during the 1980s. This was essentially dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s vision to rebuild the entire historic center of Bucharest into a socialist civic center full of administrative buildings, the largest of them being the People’s House.

As you can see from the photo below (photographer: Andrei Pandele), the demolition of the monastery was well under way, when a brilliant construction engineer, Eugen Iordachescu, came up with the proposal to move the building, and with a rather ingenious solution for how to do that.

Partial demolition of the Nuns' Convent
Partial demolition of the Nuns’ Convent

The proposal was reluctantly accepted by Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, but soon the Communist authorities decided to use it as propaganda, thus covering up the demolitions, and bringing into the spotlight only the great technical achievement of moving buildings to “better” locations. The lack of proper housing for the working class, the devastating effects of the 1977 earthquake, and the need to develop a great civic center worthy of a Socialist power were also used by the Communist propaganda to explain this massive construction site in the middle of Bucharest, thus counteracting protests from Western media.

The Nuns’ Convent during its moving

The church was originally located near the current South-Eastern entrance to the People’s House, on a picturesque street bearing its name.

Old street near the Nuns' Convent (photo: Dan Vartanian)
Old street near the Nuns’ Convent (photo: Dan Vartanian)

The street was part of a intricate network dating back to Medieval times, all of which would disappear under the blades of bulldozers during the 1980s:

Network of old streets
Network of old streets

One of the conditions for allowing the church to be moved was that it would not be visible from any of the newly-built grand boulevards. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were notoriously anti-religious, and would not tolerate seeing a church when looking through the windows of the Palace of the Parliament. Hence its current location, squeezed behind the Soviet-style buildings that would host the Romanian version of KGB.

Partial demolition of the Nuns' Convent
Partial demolition of the Nuns’ Convent (photo: Dan Vartanian)

Sadly, after being moved in June of 1982, the church was only allowed to function for one more month, and then it was completely shut down until 1995, when it was officially re-opened.

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Bucharest’s Communist Landmark on its 30th Birthday

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Yesterday marked 30 years since the foundation stone for the Palace of the Parliament (formerly known as the “People’s House”) was laid officially by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

People's House
People’s House (source: zf.ro)

This sparked some debates about how much the palace is worth today (although, realistically, nobody is interested in selling it or buying it). Initial estimates from 1989 put the price tag of $1.89 billion on it, which increased to $3 billion in 2006. Although its real market value cannot be determined, two things are sure:

  1. Romanians would not be able (nor willing) to build anything similar today.
  2. The palace is definitely underused and in bad need of renovation, which means more expenses before the initial “investment” is amortized.

Whether you like it or hate it, let’s all wish it “Happy birthday!”.

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