Of Buildings and Bloody Legacies

An earthquake that rattled Romania in 1977 birthed a sinister idea of a now infamous cultural refurbishment. Nicolae Ceaușescu, the totalitarian dictator of Romania, undertook the mammoth task of restructuring Bucharest – which had been reduced to ruins due to the earthquake.

Ceaușescu had visited Romania’s communist contemporaries in East Asia a few years before the earthquake, of which North Korea stood out for the Romanian dictator. Ceaușescu found himself besotted by North Korea’s Juche ideals, which may be roughly translated to “self-reliance”, accompanied with the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung that laid the edifice for governance in North Korea.

Upon his return to Romania, Ceaușescu started taking little steps towards the realisation of his North Korean dream. This included introducing books on Juche to Romanians. Then, the aftermath of the earthquake gave Ceaușescu the golden opportunity to bring a slice of Pyongyang to Bucharest under the pretext of redevelopment.

He announced a contest inviting blueprints of a new parliament building; the winning contestant was to be ordained the chief-architect. Many renowned architects participated in the contest, but none could capture the dictator’s fancy like young Anna Petrescu’s ostentatious design.

What followed were harrowing tales of violent eviction of people from their homes, the demolition of historic structures and levelling of hills – all to make way for the colossal building. This took place in the backdrop of an economic meltdown. The country was exporting most of its domestic produce to repay its debts while its citizens were squabbling over food, medicines and other necessities. More so, people could not express their woes due to censorship and ubiquitous presence of Ceaușescu’s secret police – the Securitate. His desperate obsession with etching his legacy was met with a resounding revolution that brought an end to his manic rule.

Today, the Palace of Parliament stands as a grim reminder to Romanians of the bloody ramifications of an ego project. In a recent study conducted by Irina Sarah Dragomir, a student of cultural geography at the University of Groningen, a group of survey-participants from Bucharest were asked if they take pride in the gargantuan monument. Most of the elder participants and a few younger ones acridly dismissed the idea of identifying with the structure.

Much of the Palace lies vacant and tourists visiting Bucharest claim that despite all efforts, they could only cover a minuscule portion of the building. Its jocular interiors haunt its inhabitants till date, so much so that the erstwhile president of Romanian senate Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu admitted to have called a priest to bless his office before he took charge, as he told The Guardian in an interview.

History testifies that mostly all dictators have tried to validate their legacies by building monstrous structures. The monstrosity of the dictators’ architectural genius intimidates subjects by constantly reminding them of the regime’s might and valour. Regimes try to evoke nationalistic pride in people vis-a-vis such structures.

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In the aforementioned study, Dragomir noticed that most young Romanians took pride in Ceaușescu’s building while almost all elder participants did not. This is primarily because the oppression experienced by those who lived through a dictatorship whittles down over generations – so much so that it wouldn’t be surprising if in the future, most Romanians take pride in their ornate Parliament building, disregarding the cost at which it was made.

The vicissitudes in the Romanians’ perception of the Palace of Parliament is a proof of how with time, respect for such structures becomes a mark of fealty to the nation and anyone who expresses even slight peevishness with the existence of the structure is branded a traitor. A construction that once cost lives and livelihood is now vaunted as inimitable national pride. At this stage, the dictator, whether alive or dead, has successfully validated his legacy; people begin excusing his brutality as strength, his crimes against humanity as necessary evils and his citadels of doom as art. The cultural refurbishment of the society is now complete.

Dictators are deft in knowing that intangible good deeds are ephemeral; they are discussed briefly and forgotten even more quickly. But tangible monuments would live to retell glory over generations, albeit with receding lambasting. The baton of knowledge has now been passed to democratic leaders as well, who are more focused on building walls than bridges or undertaking mega construction projects in the midst of a health crisis.

We will not forget, or will we? Joseph Stalin had once said “I know that after my death a pile of rubbish will be heaped on my grave, but the wind of history will sooner or later sweep it away without mercy.”

Akansha Ghose is a research scholar at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Her area of study is human rights. She also teaches Law to undergraduate students. She is a history buff having a penchant for revolutionary history and is in love with all street dogs around the world!

Featured image: People cast their shadows on the wall of the parliament building during a street protest in Bucharest, Romania, November 4, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea