Foto: Andreea Campeanu
Justin Kavanagh (in dreapta, asezat pe covorul rosu) lucreaza la editia americana a National Geographic. Anul trecut a petrecut cateva zile cu noi, intr-o o vizita de lucru. Ce a tinut sa vada in Bucuresti? – “Take me to Ceausescu’s palace!” Si nu l-a mirat nu atat existenta Casa Poporului cat faptul a fost confiscata de Parlament. Ne-a lasat cu gura cascata povestindu-ne ce ar fi putut face cu ea tari mai luminate decat Romania.
La cateva zile dupa s-a intors la Washington a scris un eseu pe tema aceasta. Si a fost atat de dragut sa ne lase sa-l publicam aici.
19 Years Later: Whose House Is It Anyway?
— by Justin Kavanagh
Everyone’s mood changed once we entered the Palace of the Parliament. Or the People’s House, I never figured out which it really was. But the warm, hospitable Romanians that I’d been with for 24 hours suddenly seemed shrouded in shame and bitterness.
I remembered that sinister greeting from the Irishman’s novel:
“Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”
Like the legend of Dracula, this egregious edifice was imposed on this country, and has since become an unwelcome part of the landscape. If Romania is known to the outside world as the home of Dracula and Ceausescu, the people here are decidedly ambiguous about both unsolicited legacies.
Like the Count’s infamous welcome, our tour of the Palace of the Parliament embodied the dark duality that seems to pervade many things Romanian; a smiling public facade failing to hide some badly masked menace from a knowing people.
We shuffled silently through the security scanner. Once inside, we were herded together by our tour guide. In the first of many grand, anonymous halls, my Romanians hosts told me that this wasn’t officially called the People’s House any more. That was the unofficial name. Originally the House of the Republic, it had become the House of Ceausescu, a name of shame adapted for a few years back in the early 1990s. Back then, when the ghost of the dictator might have been exorcised from its 1,100 rooms, the people might have reclaimed this citadel that was still being completed with their blood, sweat, and lei.
Now they were outsiders again. The Palace was more or less complete, but strangely vacant. Now the Romanians paid, along with foreigners like me, for a tour of the house that had now transmogrified into The Palace of the Parliament. Almost twenty years after the revolution, it’s back to being “The Politicians’ House,” I thought.
The world sees Romanians in a heroic light, as the brave citizens who drove a stake into the heart of the Ceausescu regime in this very place. Yet one of my hosts was now telling me that for Romanians, the real national narrative is the story of Miorita; that their role is that of the passive Moldavian shepherd in the ballad of the Little Sheep. Passive acceptance is still the accepted lot of the people.
We followed the bright, young voice around the vast passages and the empty, echoing halls of the Palace of the Parliament. There was something extremely sinister about the tour. The pleasant young woman with perfect English gave us all the facts and all the superlatives of a building that reflects all the rampant egomania of its creator: we were standing in most expensive administrative building in the world; the building contained one million cubic meters of marble from Transylvania; it housed 480 chandeliers; 200,000 square meters of woolen carpets; the velvet and brocade curtains, adorned with embroideries, were among the longest in the world; one of Europe’s biggest chandeliers was in another part of the building, where we wouldn’t be going today. All very interesting and edifying, but one simple fact was missing from the tour, strangled in the screaming silence that followed these fantastic fact checks: this building was the bricks and mortar of a dictator’s dream. We were standing in the fantasy palace of Europe’s most brutal dictator since Hitler and Stalin.
I wanted to know who mined all this endless marble that lined the wall, and what that cost in human terms. Instead we got a guided tour, presented as a dictatorship Disneyland by numbers. A lot of fascinating figures about interior decorating, but barely a word about one of the greatest political dramas of late 20th Century Europe.
The details were as sparse as the furnishings of the great empty rooms we hiked around diligently. Seeing nothing. Learning even less. There was nothing to see in these rooms except space. We were told about the size of the main offices upstairs, but no mention was made of the Ceausescus’ desperate escape through these rooms to the helicopter on the rooftop.
In the anodyne tone of tour-guides everywhere, the young woman fed us these endless figures and meaningless measurements. What did it tell us about the people who had to built it? Nothing. There was no mention of the people either displaced to build this place.
I heard later that the Bucharest’s wild dog problem started in earnest due of the upheaval caused to the neighborhoods razed for the Palace of the Parliament and for Union Boulevard. Marble halls for the powerful, gauntlets of rabid dogs for the poor. Such details remained the untold legacy of the dictator.
The tour did achieve its purpose though. It sent the visitor away impressed by the sheer scale of the construction. The empty monotony and lack of imagination of everything about the place made a dull impression too. “This is what you get when you give a peasant from Oltenia endless possibilities,” whispered one of my hosts.
The real shock of that day for an outsider, however, was the visceral reaction of the Romanians themselves, the chilled shift from their spirited demeanor. Inside these walls, they seemed to trudge through their hidden history under a gloom. It was like witnessing a haunting.
Clearly, the past still lingered in these rooms. But what of the present and what of the future? I decided to ask the obvious question: “Why is this place so empty?” Where else in the world would one find these acres of empty floor space inside such a well-constructed building at the very heart of a capital city? Why not put all this valuable real estate to practical use?
I was given a quick historic recap of the many previous plans for the building: proposed home of an alternative World Bank; planned home for the Presedintia Republicii (Romanian Presidency), Marea Adunare Nationalã (Great National Assembly), Consiliul de Ministrii (Government Ministries) and Tribunalul Suprem (Supreme Court)—this was the original plan under Ceausescu; after the revolution, a site for a multinational casino; there was even a debate about razing it to the ground in order to banish the phantom of the dictator, a solution which would merely have compounded the public insult of this black hole in the Romanian economy.
So, to assuage the hurt, the House of the People became known for a spell after the revolution as the House of Ceausescu. Nowadays, it is home to the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, as well as the site of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), and the Museum and Park of Totalitarianism and Socialist Realism. Yet most of the rooms we saw in it were empty.
So why not use all this wasted space? How many NATO summits can there be on the calandar to fill up its vast corridors, its grand halls, and its echoing conference rooms? If the House of the People was not the de facto House of the Politicians, why not open more of it to the public to use as they see fit?
The answer to that question came from Cata: “The public don’t use it Justin, because the public don’t really belong here. We got rid of one Ceausescu and replaced him with a hundred little Ceausescus.”
The spirit of oppressed passivity that Ceausescu inspired in Romanians seemed to prevail in that cold, brightly lit yet foreboding place. His legacy lived on there. “The great architect” was one of the many accolades his propaganda machine bestowed upon him. “Defender of the present and the future” was another.
Inside the citadel today, one still hears the wind rattling through doors and windows, which were never properly installed. It’s a fitting reminder that no amount of power or wealth can fully insulate a leader from the outside world.
Now the world was coming in as tourists, walking through the small part of his world that we were allowed to see. We stopped to take in the Grand Hall, with its large empty space in the wall originally intended for a large painting of “The Polyvalent Genius” (who made up this stuff?). This endless monument to megalomania was now pushing the limits of my patience.
We trooped on into another ornate hall, with another plush pile carpet. Then something very interesting happened. Andreea, the youngest of our group, got bored and, in the casual way of her generation (the post-revolutionary Romanians) dropped herself and her rucksack and her camera in the middle of a main hallway and simply sprawled out on the floor. I waited for the inevitable guard, the outraged lackey in uniform chastising her lack of respect. I wondered how long one could make oneself comfortable on the carpets of the Senate Building in Washington, say, or the palace at Versailles, before the wrath of officialdom would descend with all its fusty force. Tired too of this tour, I joined her on the carpet. If nothing else, being horizontal gave one a good look at the opulently decorated ceilings. They were a long way up. I wondered how many stories were contained in the buildings razed to make this one.
Soon we were all on the carpet. No guard ever came. Security here is just another façade, I thought. The guards know that all they are guarding is a vacant space at the heart of Bucharest. They are making a show of guarding the void that represents modern Romania’s soul.
I later learned that two neighborhoods including numerous Christian Orthodox and Protestant churches, synagogues and Jewish temples, and 30,000 homes, were sacrificed to make way for Ceausescu’s house. A football stadium was interred in its foundations. Although all the construction is now more or less complete, Bucharesters (Bucuresteans?) are still living with the fallout of this Ceausima; and all Romanians are still living through the half-lives of Nicolae Ceausescu. He is Romania’s modern-day Dracula, the Undead, still draining the life force of his people. Still alive in the collective memory, still poisoning their politics with his lingering legacy. It is the politicians, after all, who still have the only set of keys to the big house on the hill.
Lying there on the comfortable carpet in his “House of the People,” I wondered what those people felt about the place now. It is a question I’d like to ask them: what would you do if you were given the keys to the House of the People? No doubt the dictator would have chased such an act of flagrant imagination out of his building. But it is no longer his building. Or is it?
Romanians once chased Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu from the house built in their name. But it seems to me that they have yet to finally exorcise those ghosts. We know that specters can’t live in the light, that they can only linger in shade and shadow. A museum of modern history in this place telling told the full story of his time would be one way of shining such a light. Using the vast acreage of the People’s House as a living public space for the arts, sports, commerce, and cafés, would also bring real life back into this moribund monument.
Maybe then, the Palace of the Parliament could finally become one with the House of the People.
What should fill the great unfurnished House of the People?
Earlier in the week of my visit to Eastern Europe, I’d had a memorable meal inside the grounds of the Prague Castle. We ate and drank in a centuries-old room, within the shadow of the Castle’s cathedral, close enough for the president to smell the dumplings, and within walking distance of parliament. That any visitor could sup and eat deep inside the seat of the new Republic’s power—and of every version of power that had preceded it for centuries—seemed reassuringly democratic. Yet here in Romania, in the so-called House of the People, all one could buy was a coffee or a bottle of water, a bar of chocolate or a pastry. Nowhere within the House’s vast spaces there was even a chair for the public to sit and enjoy such basic refreshments.
The House still seems to consist of four sides facing inwards, when they could be aspects of a country looking out. The House and its many rooms could be occupied by the parliament and by the people with both representing their hopes and aspirations. Here are my daydreams of what I would do, if I were king:
A: The basement could be used as an underground museum of the Ceausescu era and its many ambiguous memories. No country can bury its past, and every family must store its memories in the attic or in the basement, in safekeeping for future generations.
B: The building’s rooftop is known as the exit point of the Ceausescus from the capital, the place where the old Romania took flight. Where better to start a series of green rooftop gardens that look to the future, to a cleaner, healthier country.
C: Divide the four sides, representing the Romanian people and their aspirations:
— A living cultural space for exhibitions, debates, and an exchange of ideas such as Dominica’s idea of tracing those who had been moved forcibly to clear the way for the House and its boulevard and surrounding buildings. Their stories and photos could line the walls of some of the vast corridors. Other museums could include Romanian culture and heritage, and occasional exhibitions could concentrate on specific events in Romanian history such as the Mineriad. The intellectual life of any country needs a public space. This place, more than most has lived through the dangers inherent in the writing on the wall “WE WORK, WE DON’T THINK!”
— A wing dedicated to sport and leisure. A football stadium was buried to act as the foundation for this place. Sport too has suffered from the rampant corruption of Ceausescu era and its rush-to-capitalism aftermath. This has been apparent in the recent investigations and prosecutions within Romanian football, including former international Gheorghe Popescu. Time for sport to be resurrected and brought above ground once again. Why not have 5-a-side competitions for children in these vast empty spaces, cafes with chess tables, squash courts, and gymnastic exhibitions?
— A side dedicated to commerce. A tasteful shopping center would attract tourists to help pay for other activities. I was offered little in the way of commercial interest as a tourist. I bought a bottle of water and spent $10 (XX liu) on the tour. I would have readily spent another $20 in a modern history museum that told the story of the Ceausescu regime in news photos and videos. I would have bought a DVD that documented the story of Romania.
— The parliament and senate should be given to one side of the house, and debates open to the public, so all politicians are forced to work in close and transparent proximity to the people. The house was built with public money and the people’s blood. A House of Parliament that operates openly within the People’s House would disrupt the legacy of political elitism that Ceausescu left his country. The House represents a triumph of political mendacity in its present state of hollowness at the heart of this once-beautiful capital. To take back their empty house would be the ultimate victory for all Romanians.