Posts Tagged ‘ Communism ’

Conflicts of Ostalgie: Budapest’s Statue Park

After World War II, the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and military consolidation of Central and Eastern Europe was enforced through a highly visible ideological campaign.  Symbols of change and progress were constructed in the form of buildings, bridges, and towers adorned with the Red Star of Communism.  Posters of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin ushering in a utopian future hung in classrooms and factories, while statues of triumphant workers reflected that under the Soviet regime, art was used as a tool to educate the masses about the rewards of a collective society.  Other propagandistic monuments honoring the Soviet Army’s triumph over Nazi fascism were seen in every park and city square throughout Russia and the Soviet bloc countries in the post-war era.  These public works were blatantly symbolic of a new future.

Entrance to Budapest's Statue Park

The fate of these monuments in the post-Communist era, that is, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 fall of Communism, differed in each country of Central and East Europe.  Focusing on the monuments of one place, Budapest, one can examine the collective memory of Hungarians through memorialization of their recent history.  This former Soviet bloc country has dealt with the symbols of its Communist past in the form of an open-air sculpture museum called Statue Park. Many Hungarians have found this to be a useful though problematic solution for what to do with their Soviet era statues, which reflects collective memory of Hungary’s unique history during the Communist period.

Propaganda Poster of Comrade Rakosi

Hungary is a special example on which to focus because of its history during Communism, which began with practically a dictatorship and ended with relatively good living conditions in comparison to neighboring countries. Mátyás Rákosi, the chief secretary of the Communist Party during the Stalinist period, exercised totalitarian rule over the country and ruthlessly persecuted innocent people deemed to be “state enemies” with his special police force.  No other leader was trusted more by Stalin, and Rákosi developed a cult of personality with his images and statues spread throughout the country to remind everyone of his “wisdom”.

With a failing economy, poor living conditions, and virtually no freedom of speech, student demonstrators attempted to regain control of their own government with both large and small demands during the 1956 Revolution. In addition to demanding the removal of the Soviet troops and insisting on the right to free press, Hungarian revolutionaries insisted upon many symbolic changes, such as the replacement of the Soviet military uniforms with the old Hungarian style uniforms, the restoration of national holidays, and the coat of arms switched back to tradition.  Visible symbols are extremely meaningful and as in the words of George Schöpflin, the ‘use of flags, monuments and ceremonies is not a superfluous extravagance, but a central component of identity creation and maintenance”.  Although the Revolution worked for a short time, within weeks the Soviet Army regrouped and returned to control Hungary with a vengeance.  Many of the demonstrators were killed or injured, and after the Soviet Union regained control, thousands were imprisoned for having participated in the rebellion, and over two hundred people received the death penalty.  Until the fall of Communism in 1991, the records of this Revolution were hidden in Hungary and Hungarians were not permitted by the government to mention the events that took place in 1956.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

By the mid-1960s, life in Hungary improved with János Kádár as prime minister. He conducted a great deal of counterrevolutionary terror in the beginning years of his political office, but he also reorganized and reformed the Communist government.  In contrast to Rákosi, Kádár worked under the motto of “who is not against us is with us” and populations of other communist countries looked at developments in Hungary with envy.  He produced a set of economic reforms and allowed peasants to own private plots of land and to sell their products at uncontrolled prices in an open market.  The country’s economy thrived and Hungary had many goods and amenities not available in neighboring countries.  Greater value was placed on public opinion and human rights improved.  Often the period under Kádár with its mix of ideologies is referred to as “goulash communism” which is a witty pun on the national dish with many ingredients.

This unique communist history of Hungary influenced the debates that emerged over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments that still spread throughout the capital city Budapest in 1991. Statue Park, one solution to the Soviet monument problem, is a physical manifestation of the mixed feelings Hungarians have towards their communist past. Budapest’s post-Communist city authorities were divided over the question of what to do with the most visible symbols of the old Soviet regime.  Numerous statues and monuments stood throughout the city honoring both Soviet and Hungarian Communist leaders and many suggestions were proposed for how to handle these symbols”.  One group campaigned to have all of the statues removed in order to cleanse the city of Communist traces.  A more extremist group threatened to blow up the statues if they were not taken away.  Yet another group thought the statues should remain in their respective places as reminders of Hungary’s experience with the Communism, which helped to shape its history.  There were many residents of Budapest who did not care one way or another.

In December 1991 the General Assembly of Budapest reached a decision.  Each individual district of Budapest would decide for itself which of the statues were to be removed and which would remain in place.   This process exemplified the new democracy in Hungary.  If a district opted to have the statues removed, they would not be destroyed; rather, they would be relocated to Statue Park, the new sculpture park on the outskirts of the Budapest. The cost of relocation was estimated at an exorbitant $616,000 due to the sheer size and massive weight of the Soviet style public sculptures.  However, Budapest city authorities predicted that these costs would be recovered by the financial gains of a sculpture park that could tap into the huge foreign tourist boom that the city was experiencing since the fall of Communism.

Ariel View of the Design of Statue Park

A competition called for designs for Statue Park, and the Hungarian architect Arkos Eleod was chosen democratically through a juried selection process.  Eleod’s intention was to create a park both politically and artistically neutral, neither celebrating nor condemning Communism.  His purpose was to acknowledge the statues as part of the history of Hungary.  Eleod did not want to create a park to express his own anti-propaganda message, as he did not want to erase the original meanings of the sculptures.   Although Western critics have unfairly labeled Eleod’s park a “theme park,” Statue Park was intended to be and succeeds at being an open-air museum that thoughtfully commemorates a significant aspect of modern Hungarian history.

Statue Park, built on a half-acre of land in southern Budapest, opened to visitors in 1993.  Despite its name, the open-air museum contains more than just statues.  It consists of a wide variety of monuments from the Communist period, most dating from after the 1956 Revolution. Of the forty-one sculptures in the space, seventeen are statues or busts, thirteen are memorial plaques and the remaining eleven are metal or stone monuments.   Situated near the entrance of the Park are the sculpted boots from the Stalin monument that the 1956 revolutionaries demanded to be removed and ultimately chopped down at the knees.  For several days after the Revolution, Stalin’s disembodied boots symbolically stood on their pedestal, as they do today near the entrance of Statue Park.

Stalin's Boots Through the Entrance of Statue Park

The carefully designed Statue Park assigns these re-located massive statues new meanings.   Considerable attention was given to the organization of the Park so that it would avoid looking like a dumping ground for old memorials.  The design and layout contains many references to the Soviet period.  Statues of Marx and Lenin stand within an imposing façade at the entrance.  The red brick structure mocks Neoclassical Socialist Realist architecture, a style that aimed to make Russia “a natural successor to classical architecture but on its own legitimate terms”.   The Park itself is arranged with figure eight-shaped pathways that radiate off one central straight pathway.  The statues and monuments are displayed around these figure-eights. In the center of the Park, there is a flowerbed that forms the shape of a Soviet star.  Whichever direction visitors walk, they are led back to the same starting point.  The central pathway that abruptly leads to a brick wall is essentially a dead end. This obstacle, along with the whole layout, according to historian Duncan Light, represents the “dead end” that Communism represented for Hungary.

Based on Western museum models, Statue Park is owned by the city of Budapest but operated by a private company.  The company charges a small admission fee and manages the modest souvenir shop. The shop sells t-shirts with anti-Communist slogans, lighters depicting Lenin’s face, CDs of Communist music, as well as assorted candles, postcards, and posters.  One poster, as a spoof on the cartoon South Park, features Communist figures Lenin and Stalin standing in what is labeled “East Park”.  Such clever merchandise tempts the many Western visitors to the Park.  Yet the souvenirs are not the only reason tourists come to Statue Park. Many foreign visitors come to this unusual tourist attraction to gain a deeper understanding of Budapest’s history.  Their seriousness is revealed by the fact that they must seek out a bus to travel about 30 minutes from the city center to get to the Park, located in an out-of-the-way district of the city bordering a working class, industrial suburb.

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Statue Park, while unique in many ways within Central and Eastern Europe, is not the only park of its kind in former Communist countries.  Both Russia and Lithuania have placed their respective Communist statues in parks as well. Neither the Russian nor the Lithuanian park functions as an outdoor museum, and the Russian park does not appear to be as well planned as Statue Park.  In Moscow, Russian officials placed some Communist-era monuments in a park named ‘Graveyard for Fallen Monuments’.   Here, a few Communist statues are haphazardly displayed among hundreds of other monuments that have little to do with the politics of the Soviet era, many perhaps commissioned during Lenin’s public art campaign in 1918.  All the statues have been removed from their original locations and dispersed throughout a grassy field.  This carefree atmosphere detracts from the Communist statues, which are inexplicably placed next to sculptures of cats, Ghandi, and other subjects.  The seemingly arbitrarily chosen and arranged statues suggest to visitors that Russia is brushing over its Communist history.

The Lithuanians have taken a more methodical approach with their outdoor statue display called Grutas Park.  Coined “Stalin World” by the locals, the park presents Lithuania’s Soviet-era statues along a beautifully landscaped path surrounded by lush trees and a lake. In addition to this open-air display and an outdoor gallery, Grutas Park is also host to an amusement park, a playground, a campsite, and even a zoo.  In this context, the Communist statues become part of a “Disneyesque” entertainment park, which in turn diminishes the seriousness of the Lithuanian effort to memorialize its history.

Grutas Park, Lithuania

James Young studies the ever-evolving relationship between a state and its memorials.  He writes that, “on the one hand, official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest.  On the Other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions”.   Although speaking of Holocaust memorials, these sentiments are true for the memorials in Statue Park.  The Communist authorities created the Soviet-era statues in Statue Park for propagandistic reasons.  In post-Communist Hungary, new meanings are assigned to these “leftovers” that reflect the new independent state.  Statue Park, the carefully constructed site of these statues, acts as a memorial in itself.  As Young explains, “New generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings” .  Statue Park allows for a location for this act of collective identity construction.  As a place to reflect, the park shows Hungarian’s mixed feelings of the country’s recent past.

A preliminary interpretation of Budapest’s Statue Park asserts that the creation of such a park reflects Hungary’s confidence in the post-Communist era.  The Park suggests that the country is accepting of its past and wants to remember this critical period in its history.  Despite Hungary’s initial debate over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments throughout Budapest, there was surprisingly little protest over the construction of Statue Park.  This acceptance of the Park reflects the country’s history of “goulash communism”, which was a mix of ideologies and not communism in the strictest sense. Although Hungary had a harsh dictator for the Stalinist era, by the mid-1960s life in the country improved in comparison to neighboring countries.  With this history of political extremities, collective memory of communism in Hungary reflects mixed sentiments, as shown in Statue Park.    The National History Museum in Budapest, another popular tourist destination, seems to take a similar stance of acceptance of communism, but one that is also tempered with historical amnesia.  Opened in 1996, the museum contains a gallery that includes patriotic posters, a statue of Stalin, and displays on the gradual collapse of Communism over many decades.   The artifacts are presented as symbols of how Hungary overcame Communism but with little mention of the hardships the country endured.

Upon further consideration, Statue Park also represents how Hungarians are uneasy with their communist history.  The Park was built on the outskirts of Budapest, so that only the most dedicated of tourists will visit.  The statues were removed from the most prominent locations around the city to the periphery.  Although the park was carefully designed, the location alone shows that Hungarians are not entirely accepting of their communist past. Although the economic situation in Hungary prospered after the mid-1960s and many consumer goods were available that were non-existent in neighboring countries, people did not have the freedom of expression of a democratic society.  For example, people were not allowed to speak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 throughout the communist years or they would be considered subversive.

Statue Park promotes this multi-faceted way of remembering the Soviet period, as the sculptures carry meanings from their original contexts in the streets of Budapest and assume new, more critical meanings from their placement in the Park. Some native Hungarians are perplexed and even saddened that Statue Park draws such tourist appeal.  Perhaps these are the Hungarians who wish to ignore or erase the Communist period of their history.  However, other Hungarians are attracted to the nostalgia the Park offers.  For decades, Communism was the only life they knew.   Germany has a term for this sentiment: ostalgie.  The word, which is a combination of ost for east, and nostalgie for nostalgia, describes an East German longing for items that were no longer sold after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Berlin.  Some East Berliners missed specific food brands and old television shows, which led a re-unifed Germany to cater to this market, despite the fact that these products symbolize oppression under a former Socialist regime.

With regard to Statue Park, this concept of ostalgie comes into play most overtly with the souvenir CD of Communist propaganda songs that is sold at the gift shop and played over the loud speakers in the Park itself.  The shop originally released the CD, which satirizes the Soviet era and presumably expresses disdain for that time.  Ironically, the album is loved by young Hungarians and reached number one on the Hungarian music charts.  This suggests that feelings towards Communism in Hungary are not only complex and but that the meanings of Statue Park and its merchandise are far from monolithic.

Statue Park Logo

Statue Park can be seen as an ideal way for a country like Hungary to at once remember its past and look to the future.  Statue Park symbolically overcomes the Soviet era without ignoring it completely.  The outdoor space keeps the memorials in a contained area removed from the city center.  Hungarians and foreign visitors who were once confronted constantly with the Communist statues throughout central Budapest must now make a special trip to the outskirts of the city to seek out the experience.  Tourists can make the trip, as can nostalgic, curious, or historically conscious Hungarians.  By displaying the individual memorials in a closed-off space, far from their original locations, the Park allows Hungarians to preserve their history but also put it in its place.  Although Hungarians remain ambivalent and divided about Statue Park and their own unique Communist history, they are confronting their past in ways that suit their cultural needs and political ambitions.  Statue Park, in its strategically chosen location and well-thought out design, reflects Hungary’s desire to compartmentalize its past while forging ahead with its future.

Click below for a list of my resources for this post…

statue park bibliography

Advertisements

The Lost Jewish Community of Bosnia

As I research the history of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Hercegovina for school, I would like to provide more background information for my previous post on Jakob Finci. Jews first emigrated to Bosnia and Hercegovina after they were expelled from Spain as a result of the Inquisition. They arrived in the 16th century, and spoke Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish as their local language. Their life in BiH was relatively peaceful but they were treated as second-class citizens like other “non-Muslims.” The Jews participated in trade, but they were not allowed to wear “Muslim clothing” or ride horses in town. Also, they were not allowed to carry weapons and they had to pay higher taxes than the rest of the population, which funded the local mosques.

Spanish (Sephardic) Jewish Woman in Bosnia. 1918

As Anti-Semitism became more apparent, the Jewish population relocated to Sarajevo. They received permission from the governor of the city to reside in a small quarter of about 2,000 square meters. Each received a piece of this land and a deed of property ownership. They also received permission (again at the cost of high taxes) to build a cemetery, which was how they began to establish their community. In 1833, the Jewish population was threatened with execution but they escaped this threat by paying off the high officials. In 1839, new civil rights laws were introduced and the conditions for Jews in the country improved. Again, they participated in trade and they were even allowed to run for political office.

When the Austria-Hungarian empire took over Bosnia in 1878, a new Jewish population moved to the country. Previously the Jews in Bosnia were Sephardic, but Ashkenazi Jews came at this time. Sarajevo became an important Jewish center in the region, and remained so until the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Most of the Sephardic Jews were involved in craft and trade but the Ashkenazi Jews were mostly involved in professions like medicine, law and teaching. The Ashkenazi Jews influenced many of the Sephardic Jews to pursue higher education. At one point in the 19th century, all the doctors in Sarajevo were reported to be Jewish.

In 1901, in a total population of 1,357,000 in the country, there were approximately 7,500 Jews. By 1941, there were a reported 14,000 Jews in Bosnia. At the end of World War II, there were only 4,000 Bosnian Jews still alive. They were killed by the Ustaše Party, which was the the Croatian nationalist far-right movement that ruled part of Yugoslavia under Nazi protection. Also, Bulgarian Muslims aided in their extermination.

After the Holocaust a united Jewish community was formed in 1945 that included both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Jewish population was led by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this time post-WWII, Yugoslavia was a loose federation of six republics- Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, BiH, Macedonia, and Montenegro, ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito who died in 1980. During Tito’s era, many Jews in Bosnia joined the Socialist movement. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was based in Belgrade, became a socialist organization that focused on secular causes rather than religious ones. There were about 6,000 legally registered Jewish people in all of Yugoslavia, and the community was recognized as both an ethnic and a religious group. They were not persecuted like in other communist states, but they did however end up assimilating into society and losing touch with religious beliefs. There was only one rabbi in the country at this time.

In the 1980s, there was a growing participation in the various Jewish communities. They erected close to 30 memorials around Yugoslavia to help commemorate Jews that lost their lives during World War II. When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the Joint Distribution Committee provided the community with food and supplies, and they helped to airlift over 2,000 Bosnian Jews out of the country. Many went to Israel and remained there after the war. As mentioned in the last post, the Jewish community used their neutral status during the war to organize a great deal of humanitarian relief to the people of Bosnia. The community opened a pharmacy, school, and most importantly, helped 3,000 people of all backgrounds escape the war-torn country.

Because the Jewish community was largely organized at a national level during Yugoslavia, the collapse of the country made the continuation of these organizations difficult, even without the trauma of war and emigration. Gradually the communities recreated themselves after the war. There are only 500 Jewish people left in Bosnia today spread throughout the country, but they add an important dimension to the multiethnic history of the nation.

Painting Politics: Why Edi Rama Matters

Edi Rama

A former painter turned politician, Edi Rama is the chair of the Socialist Democrat party in Albania and the capital city of Tirana’s three-term mayor.  While teaching at the Academy of Arts in Tirana, he was active during the anti-communist revolution and he co-authored a book in 1992 condemning Enver Hoxha’s regime.  The book called “Refleksione” discussed thoughts on emigration, economics and the future of Albania. Rama criticized the Democratic Party because of its corruption and more specifically, he often spoke out against Sali Berisha while abroad during his time as an internationally recognized visual artist.  Now that he is mayor of Tirana, it seems as though Rama is still struggling with the same fights today.

Albania applied for NATO membership on April 1st of last year, and submitted its application to join the EU less than a month later. It now has to receive a positive European Commission assessment of its preparedness for accession talks to be recognized as an official EU candidate.  The country’s future looked a bit brighter until the parliamentary elections on June 28, 2009. Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s right-wing Democratic Party (DP) and its coalition partners won the vote and a second term with a marginal 1.5% victory over the Socialist Party (SP), led by Edi Rama. The SP contested the election results, claiming they were manipulated, and called for a thorough investigation into the poll and a recount of votes, but Berisha rejected that demand. As a result, the SP, which won 65 of the 140 seats in parliament, has been boycotting the assembly since September, thus paralyzing the adoption of EU required laws. While the ruling DP-led coalition has a 75-seat majority in parliament, most of the bills the country must pass to make further progress on its EU integration path would require a three-fifths majority — 84 votes.  The point is that Albania’s government has not functioned since September because of this boycott and a year that could have been used to start adopting EU law was wasted.

Edi Rama's Colors

Rama has a bold style when it comes to reform, and he rid the city of many illegally constructed buildings, expanded roads, and built many parks.  Although I have not been to Albania (yet), I first learned the name Edi Rama when I read about the brightly colored buildings in the capital.  Sparking a great deal of controversy, Rama issued a decree to paint the gray communist buildings with bright, even a bit garish colors.  They bought red, blue, yellow and green, and even mauve, lilac and taupe and the city was transformed.  I like the idea of this project for many different reasons.  Even though I have not been to Tirana, I’ve spent enough time in East Europe to know that communist buildings can be a bit…gray.  Also, this project taught the residents of Tirana to share responsibility for their city.  This aesthetic and political act prompted many other social reform projects, and even livened up the art scene in Tirana, which now has an international contemporary art biennale.  In my opinion, however, the biggest success of what is now known as “Edi Rama’s Colors” is that the project gives visible evidence to social change, using the city itself as a canvas.

Despite Rama’s positive reforms and popularity, he led this boycott of parliament, which created a lasting political crisis and paralyzed the government.  He felt that the elections were fraudulent and he is unwilling to let the Socialist Party remain the opposition for another four years.  The EU, USA, Council of Europe and OSCE have tried to mediate talks between the parties, but neither side will budge.  The OSCE mission in Albania says that the country’s elections never meet international standards, although some progress was made during this last round.  In fact, in every election held in Albania since the end of the communist era in 1991, the “loser” has complained, accusing the “winner” of electoral fraud.  This election was no different.  Rama led a series of protests around the country over the past 6 months, but currently, they seem bigger and more exasperated than ever.  This weekend tens of thousands of people protested in Tirana starting on Friday, demanding a recount of the votes.  Some people are even claiming that they will not leave the square until the recount takes place.  Tents were erected, and a few hundred people (including a couple of dozen parliament members from the SP) are not giving up.  There are even talks of a possible hunger strike.

Because I am a former art student who now studies East European history and politics, I have a bit of a soft spot for Edi Rama.  He often makes comparisons between politics and conceptual art, and I appreciate his passionate and bold reforms.  However, I think that this stalemate in Albania’s parliament has lasted way too long.  I think that Edi Rama seems like the type of person who sometimes creates messes and doesn’t know how to fix them.  He must have thought the boycott of parliament would work by now, but he needs Plan B.  Are hunger strikes really the answer?  And what is the point of the OSCE monitoring elections?  The OSCE says that the elections are never up to international standards, but do they have the power to do anything about it?  Probably not.  If the elections were democratic in the first place, Berisha wouldn’t mind a recount, but most likely he knows he does not deserve to be in power.  Finally, I wonder when these politicians will think less about their own power, and more about the future for Albania.  Albania is ready to start making the necessary reforms on the path to EU membership.  First however, the country needs to wait out the several decade long bickering of archrivals Sali Berisha and Edi Rama.

Child of a Dictator

While reading the news today, I wondered…how does it feel to be the son of a former dictator, a leader so cruel that he was despised and executed?  Valentin Ceausescu, the only surviving child of Nicolae Ceausescu still lives in Bucharest today, solely bearing the burden of his family’s destruction.

Nicolae Ceausescu was perhaps the most brutal dictator of the former communist bloc.  He completely bankrupted the country for personal gain, and the 23 million citizens were extremely impoverished. The noteworthy feature of Romania’s political power in the 1980s was the cult of personality surrounding Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Following Ceausescu’s rise to power in 1965, Romanians enjoyed a short-lived period of liberalization, as the new leader sought to gain genuine popularity among his people. By 1971, however, the regime had reasserted its Stalinist legacy in all economic and cultural matters.

Nicolae Ceausescu

Meaningful reforms failed to materialize and Ceausescu maintained power with an ideological hold on intellectual and cultural life.  The media portrayed Ceausescu as a “creative” communist and political leader whose thought and direction were the source of all national accomplishments. His time as president was known as the “golden era of Ceausescu.” The media praised him as the  “guarantor of the nation’s progress and independence” and “visionary architect of the nation’s future.” In the 1980s, the personality cult was extended to other members of the Ceausescu family. Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, also held a position of prominence in political life. By the mid-1980s, Elena Ceausescu’s national prominence had grown to the point that her birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, as was her husband’s.

Elena Ceausescu

Meanwhile, Romania had a lack of basic goods, food rationing, and power cuts so that heat, electricity and hot water were luxuries.  Ceausescu even banned contraception and abortion in order to create a population boom.  Romania was full of orphanages of unwanted children and streets full of stray dogs.  Today, the name Ceausescu is associated with suffering.

Twenty years ago, Valentin Ceausescu was arrested on Christmas Day 1989, the same day that both of his parents were executed by a firing squad.  Valentin spent eight months in jail and then was released into a completely different country.  He believes, along with many other Romanians, that a group of communists conspiring against his father and seeking personal gain orchestrated the revolution, and afterwards presented themselves as the “National Salvation Front.”  The NSF repeatedly blocks information about what really happened in 1989.

How does it feel to be the child of a dictator?  I asked this question once before, when I attended a lecture by Alina Fernandez in Virginia, illegitimate daughter of Fidel Castro. Although her parents were not married, Fidel Castro is the only father she will ever have and a huge part of her upbringing.  Today she lives in Miami and is highly critical of her father’s regime, through the radio, a book, a movie, and lectures at places like my former university.  When I heard her lecture I was struck by how distantly she spoke about Fidel, devoid of any emotion and seemingly well rehearsed, as if he were only a political leader and not a dad.

Valentin Ceausescu

Valentin Ceausescu (61 years old), on the other hand, grew up in luxury but leads a quiet life in a suburb of Bucharest today.  He has no limousine or bodyguard and rarely gives interviews.  Despite trying to keep out of the limelight, I notice him in the news today.  He is suing the producers of a play about his father now onstage at the Odeon Theater in Bucharest, on the grounds that he owns the rights to the name.  The play, which opened in December, recounts the story of his father’s trial and execution.  Valentin Ceausescu argues that he owns the name “Nicolae Ceausescu” which is registered at the National Trademarks Office.  His attorney states that any book or movie with the name Ceausescu need to obtain the rights from the family.  The funny thing is that there are 35 living Romanians with the name Nicolae Ceausescu.  The producers of the play argue that the name of a historical figure cannot be the property of anyone.

I suppose Valentin is attempting to save his family’s name from further ridicule but surely this play cannot be the first time the story is retold.  Romania still bears the marks of Ceausescu’s destruction, and memories of his regime are fresh in the minds of Romanians today.  I am not sure which is the better path- to speak out critically like Alina Fernandez who is probably making a lot of money selling her upbringing in Cuba, or to keep out of the spotlight until the family needs defending, like Valentin Ceausescu.   Twenty years after the death of his parents he is still trying to protect his family legacy, despite their undeniable cruelty.  Certainly it’s not easy to be the child of a dictator…

Waste of Space

(I apologize for the lull in writing.  Just a quick post in the middle of studying for exams…)

Parliament Palace at night

A few years ago, I met a young woman from Bucharest who emigrated to Canada.  She adamantly described Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament as an eye-sore and a waste.  It turns out that her family used to live in one of the neighborhoods destroyed to build the communist monstrosity.  As a tourist in Bucharest a few months ago, I have to admit that although the Parliament Palace is ugly in the daylight in its typical Soviet-era neoclassical style, I found it rather impressive it its magnificent size.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the palace is the world’s largest civilian administrative building, most expensive administrative building, and heaviest building.  The building is 270 m by 240 m, 86 m high, and 92 m under ground and it has 1,100 rooms, 2 underground parking garages and is 12 stories tall.

According to wiki, construction of the palace by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu destroyed the historic district of Bucharest, 19 Orthodox churches, 6 Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and about 30,000 residences.  Construction began in 1983 and was intended to house all major state institutions as well as the residence of Ceauşescu himself.  Ceauşescu was known for the eratic personality cult of his totalitarian regime, and the Parliament Palace represents the way that he lived in luxery as the people of Romania were impoverished and starving.  Eventually, his government was overthrown in 1989 and he and his wife were executed.  Today, the building is not completed.

Only 1/3 of the space in the parliament building is currently used, and it costs more than 50 million euros a year to maintain.  If only 1/3 of the space is used- this means that 20,000 personal residences were destroyed without cause, not to mention the historic district and aforementioned places of worship.   Recently it was proposed that part of the building would make a great shopping center, which could bring 20,000 new jobs and millions in revenue for the city.  The shopping mall would be four times as large as Southeast Europe’s largest mall currently, Afi Palace Cotroceni, which is also in Bucharest.  However, the public is divided over whether or not to turn a historic building into a commercial center.  Although Ceauşescu was a cruel dictator, the building symbolizes a large part of Romania’s recent history that cannot be ignored.

I think the best use for the building would be to house cultural institutions- a museum, theatre, concert hall, etc. However – pragmatically speaking, the enourmous space needs to be put to use and I think a shopping center in part of the world’s second largest building (after the Pentagon) is actually a good idea.  In this economy, a mall would mean more jobs and money for the city.  When tourists visit Bucharest, they like to take pictures of the exterior of the building (notice my photo above!) but most likely few venture inside for the boring tour of the governmental headquarters.  I can imagine that many people would want to go inside to see a shopping mall in the interesting and important space and maybe have a coffee in a posh cafe that kept historic elements in the decor.   If I were in the position of the woman I met a few years back and my home was destroyed to create such an extravagent building, of course I would be resentful of the dictator that destroyed the country and my home.  However, I would be most angry that the building was so extravagent that only a third of the space is even used.  What a waste.  The building will remain an eye-sore in the center of Bucharest, and will forever be a symbolic reminder of the country’s communist past.  Its about time that the building be put to use.

Lenin’s Leftovers

Nowa Huta (meaning literally the “New Steelmill”) is the easternmost district of Krakow with over 200,000 inhabitants today.  Immediately following the communist take-over of Poland in 1945, the Party authorities encountered strong resistance from middle-class Krakowians.  In order to maintain authority, the communist government commenced building a satellite industrial town to attract people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to the region and thus creating an “ideal” town for Party propaganda.  The town was a feat of socialist realism architecture and careful urban planning.  Many important people including Fidel Castro visited Nowa Huta to see this new model.

In 1954, the Lenin Steelworks opened, and in less than 20 years the factory became the largest steel mill in Poland.  Factory workers were given a place to live and even a garage for their cars, although no one owned one and 5,000 garages remained empty.  Following the opening of the factory, Lenin made a high-profile visit to Nowa Huta and a year later a statue of him was unveiled in Strzelecki Park. The monument was moved to the Lenin Museum soon after, and thereafter mysteriously disappeared. In 1970 the decision was made to construct a new one in a highly visible central square.

Only four artists were considered, and Marian Konieczny won the commission.  Coincidentally, the artist was living in Lenin’s former flat from the time he spent in Krakow in 1912.  His depiction of Lenin was slightly bent as if walking forward, and the artist explains that the statue of Lenin, “like his ideas, are in perpetual march forward.”  Ironically enough, all factory workers were required to help pay for the construction of the massive statue from their own salaries even though no one wanted it constructed.

Forced to contribute to a highly visible symbol of a regime they despised, the residents of Nowa Huta constantly plotted on how to get rid of the statue.  In 1979 a bomb was planted at the base, with two packs of explosives each weighing 6 kilograms attached to the legs.  The prankster thought if the explosion broke the legs, the whole statue would topple.  The blast was so powerful that neighboring houses were damaged with broken windows, etc.  The only casualty was a local man who died of shock waking up by the explosion.  Despite the strength of the blast, the statue remained standing.

Later attempts to destroy the statue were also in vain, including efforts to pull down the statue as well as an arson attack.  Finally on December 10, 1989, Lenin was picked up by a giant crane, boxed up and left abandoned in storage.  Authorities held an auction for the statue, but there were no bidders.  Years later a Swedish businessman and philanthropist bought him for 100,000 Swedish crowns, and had him shipped to a museum outside of Stockholm.

After the fall of communism, these massive monuments of the old regime proved problematic in many places in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.  Highly visible, they stand representing a period of history that locals wish to forget.  Today in Nowa Huta, the former street named after Stalin has been renamed for Ronald Reagan.  These small but highly symbolic changes matter most to the residents as they forge ahead into the future.  The square near the center of Nowa Huta that formerly held the massive memorial to Lenin remains empty, but I suspect that many locals who lived in the town during a different era still vividly picture it in place.

n540922015_746000_7487

Arial view of Nowa Huta depicting the carefully planned city.

n1296581526_30200131_7739

Former sign in front of the steel mill, named for Lenin.

n540922015_1955375_4425

Protecting Lenin:  Nowa Huta, Poland

%d bloggers like this: