Stalin meets Paris: A Few Days in Bucharest

Here goes my third update from Romania. I arrived two Wednesdays ago to Bucharest, the capital and the site of our group orientation. After a nap and a (wasted) 1.5 hours watching the Vice Presidential Debate, I hit the metro for downtown. The capital’s architecture can be best summed up as “Stalin meets Paris and their lovechild is postmodern capitalism”. To start with the Parisian note, our hotel was right next to the “Charles De Gaulle” roundabout and lay about 0.5 miles away from a Romanian version of the Arc de Triumf. The long boulevards dividing the city easily remind one of the French capital. In the historic center, most of the older nineteenth century buildings modeled on Parisian architecture are in decay, but a few still lie in better shape and escaped the psychotic “urban planning” of the Communist dictator Ceausescu (nicknamed “Dracula with a Bulldozer”).

The monstrosities of Socialist Realism are sadly still present. The Communist Party Headquarters holds government offices. Two monuments to the martyrs of the Revolution of 1989 stand outside of it. Shockingly, the monuments lie in striking decay and neglect. As I learned later, the term “Revolution” itself is contested by Romanians. While all undoubtedly concede the heroism of countless ordinary protestors and activists, the word “revolution” conceals how much violence was merely between different factions within the Communist Party and Security Services. Consequently, much of Romania’s immediate “democratic” leaders were previous Communist Party officials (excluding, with their execution, the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth double team of Ceausescu and his wife). Undoubtedly, few Eastern European countries experienced a true clean break with the old order, even nations like Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary with much stronger liberal traditions and resistance movements. Still, the continuity in Romania in the early years was particularly shocking. The regime’s paranoia and isolation even from the rest of the Communist bloc made any resistance figure approaching the stature of Victor Havel or  Lech Walesa impossible. And so for many Romanians, the events of 1989 were better described as elite musical chairs than a genuine revolution and transformation of national life.

The true ode to the megalomania and moral bankruptcy of Communist Romania is the Palace of the People (nicknamed the “Madman’s House”). The Palace is the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. Inside are 1100 rooms and 4500 chandeliers. As you walk around the perimeter, you can’t help but one wonder if the palace looks even, slowly slinking under its own weight. Seven hundred architects worked on the project, operating in terror thanks to the shifting tastes of Ceausescu and his wife. It’s hard to imagine all this construction taking place at a time of widespread hunger in Romania, the so-called “North Korea” of Eastern Europe thanks to Ceausescu’s fascination with the “achievements” of Kim Il-Sung and Mao. When I see this horrifying monument (now the home of the Senate and Parliament), the nostalgia for this regime among a few people here is totally incomprehensible.


So the lovechild of “Stalin in Paris” is postmodern capitalism. Bucharest did not feel as post communist as I expected. Worried though I was rightly about pickpockets and taxi scams, Bucharest is actually the third safest city in Europe. There’s almost no homicides, burglaries, or violent crime of any kind (in spite of Romania’s high EU rankings on poverty). Destitution is still visible. Countless Roma beggars. Bent over, frail elderly women who appear to walk around each day with all their belongings. The faces generally look worn out, tired, and cold. Granted I may have unfair standards after six weeks in the Mediterranean culture of Greece. And it was rush hour in the Bucharest metro, where I held on to my passport and wallet for my dear life. All this being said, the center of Bucharest seemed quite ordered – no overflowing trash (present even in Athens’ main tourist areas) and little graffiti. You can spot a Pizza Hut, Subway, Starbucks, multiple KFCs, and McDonalds quickly. Numerous international banks. Well dressed businesspeople. Bus advertisements for Family Guy (translated here as the “Demented Family” – accurate, no?) and South Park. And constant announcements about a visit by John Maxwell, a leading American leadership guru. Mike Tyson(!) was actually around.

Seeing these symbols of “American culture” made me think of two great quotes from the French. The former primer minister George Clemenceau: “America is the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without the interval of civilization”. Or, more seriously, from the fantastic French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, an actual defender of America’s role in the world among French philosophes: “America has a knack for the propagation and an ability to export its worst while reserving for itself its immense virtues”.

A brief detail catching me was the constant presence of the European Union flag. The flag was everywhere present outside government buildings and business offices. It was notably more visible than in Athens or nearby countries like Poland and Hungary. As a recent visitor, it symbolized Romania’s cautious, low profile on the European diplomatic scene. The crisis in Greece obviously leaves few people there feeling any abiding loyalty for the European project. As Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary vocally challenge Brussels (Merkel) on refugees, federalism, and sovereignty issues, Romania is extremely quiet. This is not to say that Romanians are in lock step with EU policy. One local academic I met during orientation would surely prompt “trigger warnings” at today’s American university for his assault on Germany’s refugee policy and iconoclastic praise of Samuel Huntington, Ron Paul, and Patrick Buchanan [side note: not a few Europeans actually think Trump will be less militant and trigger-happy than Clinton].  Nevertheless, Romanians describe the country as being very pro-EU in sentiments. This remarkably survives the failure of EU membership to live up to the hopes of dramatic change that accompanied entry in 2007. The upcoming parliamentary elections in December are expected to be fierce but there’s a broad consensus across the left-right axis in continued loyalty to Atlanticism, the European Union, and NATO. In other words, a decent foreign policy consensus protected from the rancor of partisan battle. Can the same be said of our own beloved republic? To quote George P. Shultz, our greatest living Secretary of State, on this election, “God help us.”


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