Posts Tagged ‘ Romania ’

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…

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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.

Tribute to Dan Perjovschi

Last week traveling through Romania (hence the lull in writing), I had the good fortune of stumbling upon an exhibition by one of my favorite artists- Dan Perjovschi. The exhibition, entitled Chestii tripartite (Printed stuff), was held at The City Museum of Art, in Cluj-Napoca, a large university city in Transylvania. Dan Perjovschi was born in Sibiu, Romania in 1961 and currently lives and works in Bucharest. He transformed the medium of drawing, using it to create installation and performances. The drawings, simple in form, communicate volumes about global and local issues and present a political commentary in response to current events. Dan’s wife, Lia, is also an artist, mainly focusing on performance art and they often work together. Between the installations and the performances, viewers need to be in the right city at the right time to see the work. Dan has exhibited all around the world, including Portugal, Germany, the United States, Romania, Kosovo…etc.

Installation at MOMA (2007)

In the summer of 2007, I stood in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, transfixed by the drawings that took over the atrium walls. Everyone stood with heads tilted back, staring at the drawings stretching a few stories high. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard of Dan Perjovschi, and I was newly interested in East Europe at the time. Immediately I realized that there was something inherently different about his outlook on the world from the typical Western-centric perspective of which I am accustomed. The “political cartoons” touched on a diverse set of issues, including the US military, globalization, identity, fashion trends, global warming, and art politics. The collage of images provided an installation that transformed the usually sterile museum walls and the space as a whole, drawing the viewer into the artwork.

Judging from his cartoon-inspired drawings today, one might not guess that Dan was classically trained in fine arts in Romania. During the Ceausescu dictatorship, he was identified at a young age as possessing a special talent for art, and he began the state-run art school at the age of 10. However, Dan was quickly disillusioned with the restrictions of state art, and he did not feel that he could fully express himself with the medium of painting and the subject matter chosen for him. Drawing and performance later became his means for fully expressing himself in response to social and political issues. Censorship was very strict for artists in Romania under Ceausescu, and Dan states that “self-censorship ruled” as artists were forced to comply. Desperate for freedom of expression in the 1980s, Dan covered his whole apartment in white paper and drew all over, and he said it was as if he were “living in his own drawings.” One can notice the influence of this repressive time on the format of his later work. Dan’s installations, like the one in MOMA, takes on similar collage form, and the viewer is truly invited into the mind of the artist. Dan spent two weeks drawing on MOMA’s walls, and visitors to the museum could actually watch the artist at work.

Although I checked to see if the Perjovschis had any exhibit in Bucharest before embarking on my university trip, I did not think to check the museums in the city of Cluj-Napoca. I could not believe my luck when I walked by the city museum only a few hours before heading back to Krakow to discover that I was just in time to see a retrospective of Dan Perjovschi one hour before the museum closed. As the title suggests, the exhibition was a collection of Dan’s printed work- mostly books and catalogues of his site-specific sketches. Although I was somewhat disappointed that this exhibition did not include a new installation, the show provided an invaluable opportunity for me to review his work from the past decade. I could flip through books and compare the drawings he made in different places in different years. The information is hard to obtain in the United States and I felt completely overwhelmed to see evidence of so much work in one place by such a prolific artist.

If you ever have the opportunity to see some of Dan Perjovschi’s work in person, I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Coming from a country that seems to be pretty cynical in general, Dan’s drawings are extremely insightful and witty. He provides a unique perspective on today’s world, and I think that the 2007 show in MOMA is a huge part of the reason I am studying East Europe today.

Download Dan’s Newspaper of Work from the 2007 MOMA Exhibition Here

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