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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The Food Shortages of the 1980s in Communist Romania

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The 80s were arguably the toughest decade for Romanian citizens during the whole Communist regime. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, surrounded by an obedient clique of ill-advisers, embarked on two major projects with devastating consequences for the Romanian economy, and the living standards of the population:

  1. The massive construction of a “civic center” in Bucharest, which included the “People’s House” (today’s Palace of the Parliament), the Romanian Academy, the headquarters of many ministries, the longest and widest boulevard of the nation, and thousands of new, standardized socialist dwellings for the working class.
  2. The repayment of all external debt of the nation, sometimes ahead of schedule, with the goal of making Romania a completely and self-sustaining country.

These decisions were reflected in the everyday lives of Romanian people, who started suffering from food shortages, as well as regular cuts in electricity, heating, warm water or gas. The goal was to reduce internal consumption as much as possible, and to export anything that was worth something on the international markets. The citizens of Romania could only enjoy leftovers (literally) that could not be sold for export. Food became rationalized, and food coupons became the norm, with people being allowed to purchase only limited quantities of basic goods, such as eggs, bread, or cooking oil.

Egg food stamps
Egg food stamps

Unfortunately, food stamps were not a guarantee that people would actually receive a certain quantity of that good, but merely a restriction on how much a family or a person was allowed to buy.

Bread food stamps
Bread food stamps

Queuing in front of grocery stores, in the hopes of finding anything to buy, became the obligatory past-time of many Romanians, especially the young and the old, who didn’t need to work, and thus had more time on their hands. It was almost a social event, as people lingered outside, no matter how cold or hot, for many hours in a row, often chatting about different topics, but never complaining about the situation too openly, as they never knew who could be listening. It was not uncommon to see people bringing their own stools or women knitting sweaters, as they were waiting for the delivery truck to bring meat or milk.

Queueing for food in Bucharest, July 1982
Queuing for food in Bucharest, July 1982

There was a famous joke running at that time:

An old woman stops in front of a store. Seeing her, a passerby immediately queues behind her. Then another one, and another one, until a very long queue is formed in front of the store. At some point, someone gets bored after waiting for so long, and asks the person sitting in front:

“Hey, do you know what they’re selling today?”

“I have no idea, but let me ask further.”

So people start asking one another, and everybody seems clueless, until they finally get to the old lady sitting in front of the queue.

“Hey, grandma, what are they selling today?”

“I have no idea! I was just tired, so I stopped for a break in front of the store, to catch my breath”, she replies.

Queuing for meat, Bucharest, 1982
Queuing for meat, Bucharest, 1982

Obviously, the Communist propaganda would cover up this grim reality, and showcase plentiful, richly decorated store fronts instead. However, if you pay close attention to the propaganda imagery, you’ll notice the shops only had 5-6 different products in total, but they were stacked in a way to create an artificial sense of abundance.

Alimentara
Alimentara

Of course, when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would inspect such a market or a store (which he regularly did), he would be given the chance to see only the best of the best, which made many people doubt the fact that he was aware of the food shortages.

Ceausescu visiting a farmers' market
Ceausescu visiting a farmers’ market

For more images of everyday life, shops and merchandize in Communist Romania, visit the “Alimentara” Facebook page (“alimentara” happens to be the name given to any shop selling food in Communist Romania).

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Perpetrator of the Communist regime in Romania finally brought to trial

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It looks like the Germans are not the only ones still hunting down the perpetrators of the Nazi totalitarian regime, in an effort to restore justice and offer retribution to its victims. Alexandru Visinescu, a torturer during the Communist regime, and the head of the penitentiary in Ramnicu-Sarat between 1956-1963, was finally brought to trial yesterday, at 88 years of age. He is charged with genocide and considered directly responsible for the deaths of 12 political prisoners, among them the leader of the Peasants’ Party, Ion Mihalache. (The Peasants’ Party is considered the true victor of the 1946 elections, and a fierce opposer of the Communist Party). Ion Diaconescu, a member of the same party, and survivor from the same prison, described the daily lives of the prisoners as consisting of a long series of torture, beatings, unbearable cold, hunger, and complete isolation. Another victim of the same perpetrator was diplomat Victor Radulescu Pogoneanu, who was serving a 25-year sentence for “plot and treason”. He died after prison guards held his paralyzed legs and dragged him down stairs, banging his head on each step.

Visinescu was brought to trial thanks to the efforts of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile, which partnered with newspaper Gandul, in order to expose the crimes of several Communist perpetrators and put pressure on the Romanian justice system to bring them to trial.

Before this, Visinescu was living a quiet life in a centrally located apartment in Bucharest, living off of a pension which is considered obscenely high by Romanian standards. When discovered by journalists, who tried to get an interview with him, he became suddenly aggressive, trying to hit the reporter, as you can see from the footage below.

Confronted with the accusations, Alexandru Visinescu claimed he was only doing his job in a regime where higher-ups were making the life-or-death decisions. He claimed that he actually tried to show acts of humanity towards prisoners, such as adding water to an over-salted dish of polenta to make it more edible. However, the reports handed to the general prosecutor by the IICCMER institute describe the contrary.

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Anca Petrescu: the architect of the People’s House

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The Telegraph features a good article (and obituary) about Anca Petrescu, the lead architect of the People’s House (now, the Palace of the Parliament), arguably the world’s greatest monument to totalitarian kitsch.

Anca Petrescu
Anca Petrescu

Although Anca Petrescu failed to make the final shortlist in 1981, she refused to give in and, resigning her job, she spent three months building a scale model of her design — bombastic, ornate and smothered in gilt. She then wrote Ceausescu a letter saying that she would like to present it to him. At first she was fobbed off, but her persistence paid off, and in the end her model was presented alongside those of the other finalists.

Read the full story here.

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Celebrating Labor Day in Communist Style

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Today is Labor Day, a bank holiday with socialist roots throughout most European countries, including Romania. The holiday originates in the United States of America, where it was intended as a commemoration of the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, a massacre that took place during a workers’ strike for 8-hour day. This is quite ironic, when you consider that socialism (and communism, by extension) has always been an anathema topic in the US. Additionally, the Haymarket Affair actually took place on May 4th (not 1st), 1886, and today’s Labor Day celebration in the US no longer coincides with its European equivalent, but takes place on the first Monday of September.

But back to the Romanian Labor Day! Interestingly, the holiday is celebrated in pretty much the same way today as it was during Communist times: people have a picnic in the park (usually involving pork barbeque and beer) or head to the sea-side for the official opening of the summer season. There are a few key differences, though:

  1. Today, Romanians have a plethora of meats and beers to choose from, as opposed to Communist times, when they needed queue for a “standard” portion of “mici” (Romanian grilled meatballs) and the local (and only!) beer brand.
  2. The mandatory “1st of May” parades commanded and organized by the Communist Party are just a long-gone nightmare today. Here is a sample, to make you understand how that looked:

Of course, the version above is quite lightweight, being the first official celebration of Labor Day organized by the Communist regime in Romania, soon after taking over political power in 1945. The celebration became much more elaborate during Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorial regime, accounting for the growing egomania of the ruling family.

People from all walks of life were summoned weeks before the official parade, to rehears the songs, dances, and complex choreography associated with the 1st of May. Typically, the would receive invitations from their employer like the ones you see below, which specified the meeting point, time, and exact position the person should occupy:

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In the last decades of the Communist regime in Romania, Labor Day came to be celebrated “through work”. That is, it was no longer a holiday, but a regular working day, with the mandatory parades on top, meant to emphasize and support the regime’s mandates: paying the external debt of the country, developing the industry and overachieving production targets.

In any case, enjoy a break on Labor Day, and don’t forget that socialism made it possible!

May 1st Propaganda
May 1st Propaganda

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The Nationalization of Property under Communism

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One of the first actions taken by the Communist Party in Romania soon after coming to power was the so-called “nationalization” of private property. The term itself was coined by the Communist propaganda, to reflect the ideology they were trying to impose: the property was “returned” to the nation, i.e. to the people who helped build it in the first place. In reality, nationalization meant the confiscation of property from upper social classes (deemed “the enemies of the working class”), without any retribution or compensation.

The first phase started with the confiscation of commercial property: banks, factories, mines, workshops, shipyards, media and telecommunication companies, insurance and transportation companies, etc. — essentially the backbone of interwar Romanian economy. The National Bank and all credit institutions were the first to be nationalized in December 1946, followed by the rest of private commercial property on June 11, 1948, when a law was adopted by the Communist government of that time. This also marked the switch to a planned economy, which was to be directed and supervised by the “State Committee for Planning”. The focus of the planned economy was going to be on heavy industry, following the Soviet model.

1948_M.A.N. adopta Legea Nationalizarii
Communist National Assembly (Parliament) adopts Nationalization Decree

The confiscation of private commercial property also had a more dramatic consequence: many of the original owners of the nationalized factories or companies were sentenced to several years in prison for having exploited the working class or having undermined the economy. Such was the case with Sever & Max Herdan, the owners of the Herdan Mill, who were sentenced to 5 years in prison for “having undeclared inventory and for selling goods without an invoice” (according to “Scanteia” newspaper from June 16, 1948). A true manhunt and denigration campaign started against such entrepreneurs, who were depicted by the official media as “ruthless exploiters of the working class”. At the same time, news reports accounted the “enthusiastic acclaim” given by workers from all factories for the nationalization of property. In reality, many people were just confused or even frustrated by such measures, and Communist Party officials had to travel from factory to factory to preach the benefits of the new planned economy and social order.

1948-miting-nationalizare-la-grivita-rosie
Workers demanding nationalization of private property in one of Romania’s factories

But perhaps the most painful blow given by the nationalization to Romanian society was when private houses were confiscated (in two phases: March 1945, and then April 1950), an action which has deep social, economic and historic consequences even today, as descendants of the original owners are still struggling in court to get their property back. Owners of such houses became tenants essentially over night, having to pay rent in their own house, and risking years of hard labors in prison if they showed any sign of protest or any tentative to save or hide parts of their belongings. Below is a literal translation of Decree 92 from April 19, 1950, which nationalized more than 10,000 residential properties, and which gives you a sense of how such measures were seen by Communists themselves.

Decree 92 for the nationalization of real estate, issued on April 19, 1950, and published in the Official Bulletin, issue 36/April 20, 1950:

In order to support the strengthening and the development of the socialist economy of the People’s Republic of Romania,

In order to ensure the good management of the housing sector, which has been subjected to degradation through sabotage by rich landlords and exploiters who own a large number of houses,

In order to confiscate from exploiters an important means of exploitation,

The real estate mentioned in the addendum […] will be nationalized. The following criteria were applied when compiling the list:

  • Real estate who belonged to former industrialists, former land owners, former bankers, former retailers, and other elements of the high-ranking bourgeoisie.
  • Real estate owned by property speculators.
  • Hotels, together with their entire inventory.
  • Real estate still under construction, built for the purpose of exploitation, which have been abandoned by their owner, together with all construction materials, irrespective of where these materials are being stored.
  • Buildings damaged by earthquake or war, and built for the purpose of exploitation, whose owners have not invested into their repair or reconstruction

Real estate belonging to workers, civil servants, independent craftsmen, professional intellectuals, and pensioners does not fall under the incidence of this decree.

The nationalized buildings shall become property of the state, as goods of the entire people, without any compensation, and free of any property rights claims.

“Real estate”, as used in this decree, shall refer to both the buildings and the land on which they are built, as well as all equipment or installations used for the maintenance of the buildings.

“Real estate” belonging to the wife, husband or minor children of the same family is considered as belonging to a single owner.

As a consequence of this decree, the State takes ownership of the real estate from the former owners. The former owners who currently live in these buildings shall become tenants of the State.

[…]

Destruction, damage or alienation of real estate in any form is punishable with 5-10 years of hard labor and confiscation of wealth. The same sanctions apply to anyone who tries to undermine the nationalization of real estate.”

If you are curious, this is the full list of real estate nationalized in 1950.

A common sight: Ceausescu micromanaging construction projects

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The photo below shows a very common sight throughout Romanian Communist media: dictator Nicolae Ceausescu micro-managing a construction project. He was often depicted by the Communist propaganda as a very energetic and knowledgeable leader, who would advise various experts and engineers on anything from architecture, production processes, and research, to agriculture, chemistry or measures for increasing output. Indeed, he enjoyed being in the middle of things, and dictating last-minute changes to the normal course of action recommended by the experts.

Ceausescu in Drumul Taberei
Ceausescu in Drumul Taberei

The photo was taken in 1977, during the construction of Drumul Taberei district in Bucharest, Romania. The construction of real estate for the working class was an important topic on the official agenda of the 70’s and 80’s, often justifying the demolition of historic, bourgeois neighborhoods, in order to make room for the new socialist buildings. Drumul Taberei was one of these emerging neighborhoods in Western Bucharest (in retrospect, Drumul Taberei provided more decent living standards in comparison with other socialist real estate projects: more green areas and more space in each apartment or studio).

Ceausescu’s working visits to the construction sites or various factories throughout the country became almost the sole topic on primetime TV and radio news and in the official Communist newspaper “Scanteia” (literally, “The Spark”). For the common people working on these megalomaniac and unrealistic projects, it was really a stressful event: they usually had to go through several dry-runs, and prepare long hours, so that everything looked perfectly to the demanding leader. This often involved beautifying the reports and numbers, in order to avoid a neurotic fit of the dictator. Such was the case with many projects, including the underground transportation system, the Danube-Black Sea Canal, the People’s House or the many endless districts of Communist apartment buildings.