In his 20th year of rule, President Nicolae Ceausescu is putting his personal stamp on Romania with a vast construction project in the capital and schemes of social engineering that promise to alter the face of this impoverished Balkan country.
Wielding a degree of personal power that goes well beyond that of any other East European leader, the 67-year-old Ceausescu has not let a prolonged economic crisis stand in the way of his efforts to “raise our homeland to higher peaks of progress and civilization,” as he put it in a recent speech.
In the countryside, local authorities have embarked on a nationwide program to eliminate hundreds of small villages, some of them generations old, that are now deemed to be economically inefficient.
Under the rubric of “systematizing” rural areas, peasants in the smallest settlements are to be moved from their own houses to high-rise apartments closer to factories and state-run collective farms. Their villages are to be turned into farmland.
At the same time, Ceausescu is demanding that all 41 of Romania’s counties organize themselves to be economically self-sufficient by next year, so that no locality, in his words, “spends more than it produces.”
In Bucharest, construction crews aided by army troops have demolished half a square mile of densely populated residential neighborhoods in the heart of the city during the past 18 months to make way for a mammoth new “civic center” for the Communist Party and the national government.
The official press has promised that the center will be a “grandiose ensemble” of offices, apartment blocks and shops.
With no public discussion, whole networks of streets in the 500-year-old city have been obliterated for the project, displacing an estimated 40,000 people in Bucharest’s old Uranus district, one of the few areas that survived a 1977 earthquake undamaged. Although government officials deny it, dissident intellectuals and Western diplomats report that some residents were given as little as 48 hours to move to new and smaller quarters on the outskirts of the city before their homes were dynamited.
Historic Churches Leveled
Romanian cultural authorities have persuaded the government to save several of the country’s oldest and most historic churches that stood in the path of the civic center, and several smaller construction projects elsewhere in the city. But at least six other churches dating from the 17th Century to the early 19th Century have been destroyed in recent months, in addition to a synagogue and several buildings mentioned as noteworthy in standard tourist guides and Romanian works of art history.
Among the buildings demolished in recent months are the 17th-Century Alba-Postavari church, once a noted center for weavers, and the 18th-Century churches of Spirea-Veche and Izvorul-Tamaduirii. The latter was pulled down to make way for a park.
Demolition crews have razed one wing of the 18th-Century Antim monastery, which is marked on official tourist maps, and one of the oldest medical establishments in Romania, the 150-year-old Brancovenesci Hospital. Also demolished were portions of the Cotroceni monastery, the burial site of a Romanian prince revered for having printed the nation’s first Bible. Surviving parts of this monastery, which dates to 1679, have been converted into guest quarters for important state visitors.
‘Greatest Monastic Complex’
On the outskirts of the city, the 18th-Century Vacaresti monastery, which is described in a text on art history published by the state in 1984 as “the greatest monastic complex of the century in Romania,” appears destined for destruction. A partial demolition job has left the central church heavily damaged, its roof broken and its portico littered with fallen pieces of masonry. A guard, backed by dogs, discourages photography.
Although demolition of the monastery has been suspended for months, Romanian sources now expect it to be completed soon. The small hill on which the edifice sits has been designated as the site for a new Ministry of Justice.
The destruction of historic buildings has brought expressions of anguish and outrage from dissident intellectuals and Romanian emigre groups in Western Europe. But they have not dissuaded the authorities, who view these projects both as practical necessities for a growing city and as monuments to Soviet-style socialism.
The initiative for all major undertakings in Romania is officially credited to President Ceausescu, whose 20th anniversary in power this year has been marked by new heights of state-orchestrated adulation. Bookstores are devoting special sections to Ceausescu’s collected works, and state television features nightly programs of songs and poems in tribute to the diminutive, wavy-haired president and his wife, Elena, the first deputy premier.
Romania’s ‘Golden Age’?
The paeans of praise may be exceeded only by those lavished on Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader with whom Ceausescu has close relations. Despite the rationing of food and fuel in a three-year-long economic crisis, Ceausescu’s two decades in power are officially hailed as “years of light” and a “golden age” for Romania, while the state press has portrayed the new civic center as the president’s gift to the people.
Even so, Romanian authorities appear to treat the project as a sensitive matter. Armed military guards patrol the site, and plainclothes security agents seek to prevent foreigners from photographing it. Asked why, an English-speaking agent replied, “It is a secret.” If so, it is the most visible secret in Romania. While most of the city’s street lights are blacked out at night to save energy, floodlights illuminate the 10-story complex and welders’ arcs sparkle among the girders long into the evening.
Demolition crews began leveling residential areas for the project in the summer of 1984. At about the time Westerners were cheering Romania for defying Moscow’s boycott of the Olympic Games, volunteer architects and students in Bucharest were working frantically to compile a documentary archive of old houses and churches slated for destruction, one step ahead of the bulldozers.
Last summer, the demolition was extended along a 1.5-mile swath through part of the city’s old Jewish Quarter to make way for a new thoroughfare leading up to the civic center, to be called the Avenue of the Triumph of Socialism.
Widely Circulated Joke
The name has spawned a widely circulated joke, which suggests that it would be more accurate to call it the “Avenue of the Triumph of Socialism Over the City.” Some critics have labeled the demolished area “Ceaushima.”
“The tragedy is that when you look at the design models of this center, it is terribly ugly, a monument of totalitarian kitsch,” a Western ambassador commented, expressing a view that appears to be shared by many Romanians.
Officials, however, defend the project as part of a much-needed “systematizing” of the city, the population of which has swelled to 2.2 million in recent years, or 10% of the entire Romanian population.
In an interview, Cristian Moisescu, the secretary of the Central Commission of Cultural and National Patrimony, said the city’s rapid expansion led to an urgent need for a unified and “representative” administrative center, as well as for new traffic arteries linking the suburbs to the heart of the city.
Moisescu, whose commission is responsible for preserving historical, artistic and archeological sites, said the demands of growth made it necessary to demolish some “uncelebrated” buildings, but none that the state considered worth saving.
No Monuments Destroyed
“No building of civilian architecture, classified by us as a (national) monument and protected by law, has been destroyed,” he said.
Dissident intellectuals, however, contend that the government simply excluded from its list of protected buildings those it intended to demolish, and which Moisescu’s commission was unable to save.
A professional architect and historian, Moisescu indicated in diplomatic terms that the protection of historic monuments has been, and still is, a matter of sharp internal debate.
“We had long talks, discussions, even disputes with urban planners working on the systematization, to look for the best solution for preserving monuments in place,” he said. “In many instances, we won the case.
“The emigres abroad, who consider themselves as defending our monuments, are badly informed. If they are interested in the fate of Romanian monuments, they should stay here to defend them.”
5 Structures to Be Moved
As a compromise between planners and preservers, the government has provided funds for moving five historic church and monastic buildings up to 200 yards to the edge of the civic center construction site. It is a complex and costly procedure, involving fragile masonry structures weighing hundreds of tons, and one that leaves the churches hidden in the shadows of towering new apartment blocks.
The latest buildings to be moved are the 16th-Century Mihai Voda church, one of the oldest in Romania, and an adjacent bell tower. Engineers laid thick pads of reinforced concrete under the two brick structures, then jacked them up onto wheeled carriages mounted on steel rails. The church and bell tower are to be pulled slowly along the rails a distance of about 230 yards.
Critics think it would have been simpler to modify the blueprints for the civic center. But it is believed that Ceausescu’s personal involvement in the project has ruled this out.
The Bucharest project is by no means the only one that has alarmed the cultural community. An underground document currently circulating in Bucharest lists 30 provincial towns and cities in which the authorities are accused of systematically demolishing Romania’s distinctive style of Balkan architecture in favor of socialist-modern concrete blocks.
Villages to Disappear
As part of its program to “systematize” the countryside as well as the capital, the government has begun selecting small villages that are to be turned back to farmland. Officials justify the program as complying with Ceausescu’s demand that the total area of cultivated land be increased--without cutting into forested lands.
In a major economic and political speech in September, Ceausescu made no reference to the elimination of small villages, but he called on local authorities to “organize the land better and reduce unproductive areas and useless roads.”
The government has given few clues to the scope of its plan, but Western analysts believe that hundreds of small settlements may be eliminated in the next few years. For example, in Constanta county on the Black Sea coast, one of 41 administrative districts, local party officials have said that 113 of 188 villages will be preserved, implying that the remaining 75, most of them with 25 or fewer inhabitants, are to be turned into state farmland. Officials in other counties have reported similar figures.
Devastating for Peasants
“This is a major development all over the country, to eliminate the presumably wasteful use of land by peasants,” a Western diplomat in Bucharest said. “The effect on the peasants of moving into these apartments is devastating. You see them sitting on the front stoop completely idle now on weekends. Before, they’d be working their plots of land.”
The program appears to resemble one the Soviet Union undertook in the 1970s only to find that it accelerated the flow of villagers to overcrowded cities while destroying a traditional way of life.
Some Romanian intellectuals believe the consolidation of small villages has political as well as economic aims. A critique of the scheme circulated by dissident intellectuals in handwritten copies--typewriters must be registered with the police--accuses the regime of seeking to eliminate individual housing as a way of tightening its grip on the peasantry.
“From the oldest times,” it says, “the Romanian has typically lived in one-family houses. The Romanian is an individualist. Now he is being forced to live in blocks of flats. The one-family home, surrounded by a garden, is being replaced by collective dwellings in which the daily life, habits and movements of every family may be easily known and watched. Huge blocks of flats are a symbol of the pre-eminence of the collective over the individual.”
Ceausescu put forward another plan recently that would further collectivize the cities. It calls for building communal kitchens on a massive scale to accommodate half the urban population by 1990. This would presumably make more efficient use of food, increase labor productivity by saving workers the trouble of cooking and also reduce the need for building kitchens in every new apartment.
Equally alarming to many city dwellers, Ceausescu has hinted in recent months that urban pensioners should return to their hometowns in the countryside and find gainful work. This has prompted rumors--so far unsubstantiated--that the government plans to move large numbers of elderly people to the countryside, where health and social services are poorly developed, in order to open up urban apartment space for productive workers.
Western analysts cite these and other ideas as signs of an increasingly mercurial character to the Ceausescu leadership. For example, in a December, 1984, report prepared for the U.S. Air Force, the Rand Corp. concluded that the “current situation in Romania simply cannot continue much longer.”
“Ceausescu has brought the country to the brink of economic catastrophe,” the report, by East European specialist F. Stephen Larrabee, went on. “At the same time, his personal behavior shows increasing signs of irrationality and instability. Eventually, a group of (military) officers--perhaps in coalition with some of Ceausescu’s former lieutenants--might decide to take matters into their own hands in an effort to rescue the nation from what they perceive as certain catastrophe.”
(The government’s human rights performance has also elicited heated criticism from some members of the U.S. Congress. In a meeting with Ceausescu on Sunday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz warned that Congress might strip Romania of vital U.S. trade concessions unless the regime eases some of its repression. Ceausescu denied the charges but agreed to a new round of diplomatic consultations on human rights issues).
Despite reports of an attempted military coup in 1983, Ceausescu seems politically secure at the moment, partly as the result of an almost continuous reshuffling of party and government managers that makes the formation of opposition factions difficult. He has also come increasingly to rely on family members by blood or marriage, including his wife, Elena, and son, Nicu. Relatives occupy at least 20 influential posts.
Whether Ceausescu is able to carry through his plans for re-engineering Romanian society may depend more on the state of his health. Diplomats in Bucharest gave credence to reports last summer that the 67-year-old leader was suffering from prostate cancer. Although he has appeared tired at times, he has nevertheless maintained a busy schedule, including a trip to China and North Korea in October and a steady round of visits to factories and farms at home, exhorting Romania’s workers, as always, to greater heights of socialist achievement.