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New Europe

Day Sixty-two: Bucharest

Braşov to Bucharest 
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Emil, my fount of information on the 16.15 from Braşov to Bucharest.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe Athenee Palace, now over ninety years old, has had a racy past. Comfortable and respectable as she is now, I rather yearn for the inter-war years when, according to one guidebook, 'the hotel became notorious for being a den of iniquity', or the 1950s when, according to another, she was reborn as an intelligence factory, 'with bugged rooms and tapped phones to reinforce the reports of informers and prostitutes'.

I can't help feeling I'm missing something as I head from my well-behaved hotel for a well-behaved hour at the National Art Museum. It's a five-minute walk from the hotel on Piata Revolutiei, Revolution Square, and was once the royal palace. It's elegant enough, and wouldn't look at all out of place off the Champs-Elysées, but this is Bucharest and it faces square onto what was once the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, from whose rooftop Ceausescu was helicoptered out of the city and executed, along with his wife, on Christmas Day 1989.

The communists knew how to build palaces. The National Art Museum could fit into a back room of the vast edifice from which Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania. A team of 20,000 labourers and 700 architects and engineers worked all day and all night for five years to provide him with one of the largest administrative buildings in the world, second only to the Pentagon.

The Art Museum is almost deserted. A pity, as there's some fine work here. I stand for quite a while before Brueghel's powerful 'Slaughter of the Innocents'. It's a timeless depiction of bullying oppression, pre-dating all the dark brutality of Europe's last hundred years.

It set me wondering where Nicolae Ceausescu would feature in the rogues' gallery of the twentieth century?

I look for some answers on a guided tour of Ceausescu's Bucharest with Bogdan Moncea, an endlessly obliging and patient man who runs the highly successful Castel Studios just outside the city, where, amongst others, the film Cold Mountain was shot.

He reminds me that in the early years Ceausescu was seen as one of the decent communists, someone the West could do business with. His opposition to the Soviet repression of the Czech uprising in 1968 was seen as proof that communism in Eastern Europe was not so monolithic after all. Romania, under Ceausescu, was seen to be pursuing a national communism, and not just dancing to Moscow's tune. Added to which, Romania was a country of great economic potential, with a world-class aeronautics industry, reserves of oil and gas and, above all, a thriving agricultural sector.

But Ceausescu, a man with little formal education (according to Bogdan, he had only four years' schooling and could barely read or write), was more impressed by the achievements of the East. Taking Stalin's USSR, North Korea and China as his models, he embarked on a hugely expensive, ill-directed industrialisation programme, sacrificing a rich and profitable farming sector.

'In the forties and fifties we were the second food producer of Europe, after the French. Forty years later people were starving on the streets.'

Far from taking the blame for any failure, Ceausescu increasingly saw himself as the only saviour of the country. The man who embodied the Romanian nation, its people and its tradition.

In short, he went mad.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-two: Bucharest
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Bucharest
  • Book page no: 148

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