Impressions of fear, oppression, and poverty from the not-so-distant past still hang in the air of Romania’s fascinating capital even as it continues to rise into a more optimistic future. James and I traveled here with two of our friends for a long weekend and learned a great deal about Bucharest’s mysterious history from a free city tour guide. It was incredible to hear about the history from someone who was born not so long before the revolution and to see remnants of it up close.
Modern-day Bucharest was largely shaped by and in response to its last communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu in the 1980s. He wanted to rebuild the city in larger-than-life proportions, ordering existing buildings to be torn down to make room for his vision: a boulevard a few centimeters wider and longer than the Champs-Élysées, new apartment buildings to hide churches from sight in the main squares, a grandiose palace nicknamed the iceberg for its maze of underground offices and secret tunnels, and so on. Ceauşescu never lived to inhabit the palace near Unity Square that he dubbed “The People’s House.” Michael Jackson was the first person to speak from its balcony after the revolution where he mistakenly referred to the city as Budapest (the capital of Hungary).
Many buildings in the city are being restored, but many still lie in ruins. Under Ceauşescu’s leadership, people were denied ownership of individual property and evacuated from their homes to live in assigned group housing. Over time squatters took over many abandoned properties, ripping up floorboards and lighting fires to keep warm during the winters.
During communist times, everything was also rationed. People waited in long lines for whatever food was available at a particular time and electricity was cut off in homes at 9 p.m. But our tour guide said the worst part was the lack of freedom. People weren’t allowed to express their ideas openly and were unable to trust anyone, including their families. It was even dangerous to express opposing views about the government in front of children because teachers were trained to ask questions to gain this type of information.
In 1989 rumblings of revolution brought Ceauşescu back from a trip to make a televised speech to show the strength of the government. He spoke from a low balcony (strategically filmed to appear much higher) to a crowd that turned on him. This area is now called Revolution Square and is filled with monuments commemorating the revolution. The military ended up joining the people, and Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were caught not long after, brought to trial, and executed by a firing squad.
In the five or so days leading up to Ceauşescu’s capture there were many casualties, but not nearly as many as in the week or so during his imprisonment. During that time, the military provided the people with guns and told them that there were terrorists in their midst. Paranoia reigned, and whether it was true or whether there was nothing to fear but fear itself, many people died including many foreign students (Ceauşescu had allies with leaders in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan). Strikingly, we saw a magazine photo of an Iranian student’s body with the word “Terrorist” written on it.
At the end of the tour, we tasted a bland crunchy snack called Pufuleti that our tour said her childhood had been full of. “I don’t know if we’re a real democracy yet,” she said. “I think we’re still in transition.” She gave the rest of the bag of Pufuleti to a man of the street, telling us that she had had enough.