HOUSE OF THE
excerpt from The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceausescu
by John Sweeney
pp. 166-171, Hutchison, London, 1991
His mad knocking down and rebuilding of Romania became obsessional. Whole villages on the road to Snagov came down, replaced by ugly blocks of flats shoddily built, lacking power, water, working toilets and lifts. To add insult to injury, the new tenants had to pay rent on these unloved homes, whereas their old homes had been theirs by right. Unsurprisingly, people hated Ceausescu's 'systemisation' programme more than anything else. Unlike the cruelties of the dictator's social-engineering policies, where families were understandably not keen or even ashamed to air their grievances about abortions or unwanted 'irrecuperables', the knocking down of a person's home–be it in Bucharest or in the countryside–was a concrete, all-too-visible act.
One old lady whose little wooden home lay on the dictator's route to Snagov was Viorica Ionitsa. Although the nomenklatura silently opposed systemisation and did its best to slow the pace of destruction, homes that the dictator passed going to and from his villa were specially endangered. She said: 'He was always passing. The Securitate ordered us not to stand by the fence but to go inside our homes when he came by.' To keep the dictator happy, they knocked down Viorica's home, which she and her husband had built thirty-one years ago. It only had two rooms, but it was their own. This was one of sixty-four houses which were flattened in the small roadside village of Vladiceasa. Did the inhabitants protest? Viorica said: 'We were afraid. We could say nothing. An Englishman came often but it was difficult to tell him anything because there was a Securitate man dressed as a peasant around. I told the Englishman: "Look, there is the Securitate."' Who was the Englishman? 'The ambassador.' It was Hugh Arbuthnott. The conversation triggered Viorica's memories of her loss: 'Ceausescu was a very bad man. He should not have demolished my home. There was no bigger punishment.' She started to cry. Come the revolution, the peasants got their own back on the mayor of the village, who had supervised the demolition. She was stripped and the last they saw of the mayor was her running naked across the snow.
Why did he do it? Systemisation partly stemmed from the communist 'Big Brother' principle that it was easy to monitor the population when they were locked up in blocks, the better to inform one upon the other; partly because of the dictator's banal obsession with tidiness and order. He wanted the real world to match the neat rows and columns of styrofoam blocks he played God with in the attic of the Royal Palace.
Most of all, the new civic centre, with the House of the People as its centrepiece, consumed his attention. As the rise of the new openness–glasnost–under the benign hand of President Gorbachev in the Soviet Union made Ceausescu a less and less popular and necessary figure in the world, the West began to see through his foreign-policy hocus-pocus. The invitations to foreign capitals, in particular to important Western capitals, dropped to a trickle. The Frenzy, trapped at home for longer periods, just whirled round the house that would be his lasting monument faster and faster. It was as if the dictator knew, despite all the shrill protestations of the court poets and Ceausescu cultists, that he did not have long to last.
Ironically, it was the very demolition of Bucharest's city centre to make way for his monument that finally turned the West against him. A tide of anger was rising, fuelled by the brave souls who, risking the wrath of the Securitate, took photographs of the demolished buildings and sent them to the West. One such was a candlestick-maker, Petru Papurica. He worked at the Plumbuita monastery, an old royal palace on the outskirts of Bucharest, made available to the Orthodox church after another, far older and more beautiful monastery was flattened by the bulldozers. Papurica, twenty-nine, used to whistle and tell sly anti-Ceausescu jokes while he carved ornate candlesticks at his workbench; in his time off he took photographs and wrote detailed descriptions of the destruction that Ceausescu was wreaking and sent them to the West, in particular to West German news magazines, so that the world would know.
Meanwhile, the termites worked to build the House of the Republic for the glory of his name. They were egged on by one court poet, Eugen Barbu, who went out into a class of his own, according to Radio Free Europe, by praising the demolition caused by the civic centre. Barbu dedicated an article in Scinteia proclaiming the Big House as this new 'Acropolis of Ours'; moreover it was a 'revolutionary urban achievement' and he declared himself sublimely happy at 'having got rid of dilapidated yet picturesque buildings . . . expressing and generating social inequality'.
But the very function of the House of the People was just that: to make concrete the social inequality between the dictator's lowly vassals and the pomp and might of His Majesty. The architect of the House had been selected by a competition. There were a lot of interesting and arresting designs, but, to put it rather brusquely, the architect who came up with the most banal, Stalinist pastiche appealed successfully to the Ceausescus' taste. The prizewinner, after the revolution, has disappeared from view because she has been battered by much hostile criticism.
But someone who worked on the project from the start and longed to talk about it was Petre, the civil engineer. An intelligent and sophisticated man who spoke fine English, he described the extraordinary atmosphere as they built the House. 'I was in charge of one of the work sections–the house was so big, with 15,000 workers on the site, that we were divided into different sections. I started at 7 a. m. and finished at 7.30 p.m. It was very eerie working there. The House had outside lifts, just covered cages made of steel nets. At the end of the shift, in winter darkness, there was dark inside, dark outside, apart from thousands and thousands of lights on the workers' safety helmets. Tiny spots of light spreading out across the site, people on the way home. From eighty metres above, on the top floor, they looked like ants. It was a very strange feeling. Everyone was so tired, so oppressed. We were practically robots.'
And yet: 'I loved it. There is no way I hated it. I knew that it was my money that was paying for it. I knew that we were having to forgo elemental necessities to build this House but we put so many years of our life into it we couldn't help loving it.'
Ceausescu was, Petre said, an appalling man to work for. 'Ceausescu was shown the plans, but he could not make head or tail of them. He needed to have half-scale models. He was a very simple-minded man with no technical background. It was difficult for him to estimate the scale and form of the House. He would accept and approve the plans we showed him and then would balk at what we built. For his simple mind there were differences between what he imagined and what happened in real life. Then he wanted reality changed.
'We were faced with a man who could not relate plans to real life. Ceausescu came often to the House. Once a week at the beginning, but by December 1989 he came three or four times a week, sometimes twice a day, Saturdays and Sundays included. There was a feeling as though he would never see the House finished. He tried to hurry things up, pushing things along faster than the limits of what was possible. By doing that he was destroying the time we had spent on the details–the beautiful gold work on the ceilings and so on. We were losing quality all the time.
'His behaviour was paranoid. Of course, I didn't know him personally. But I knew his acts, and they were paranoid.' And Elena? 'Her influence was worse, she was more stupid than him. At times she was absolutely unbelievable.'
Celac the interpreter had complained about the dictator's jerky body language and lack of natural coordination. Petre made a parallel complaint: 'He lacked all sense of proportion. Whenever I went to the House I was oppressed by the size. He was not a tall man. Perhaps he was trying to compensate for his physique by exaggerating the proportions of the House. For example, you needed to be two and a half metres (eight feet) tall to be in normal proportion to the doors and windows. It was madness.'
Like everyone else who came across the dictator and Elena, Petre and his colleagues felt that it was impossible to have any interchange of ideas with them: 'We couldn't talk to them. First of all, we were not asked. We were absolutely neglected. There were 15,000 people on that site. Regardless of how they worked or how badly they were fed, we still needed toilets. They didn't provide any, so the House was full of shit. It stank everywhere.
`So what happened was that there were special "shit teams" who used to clean paths to make sure that when Ceausescu, Elena and the Securitate came on a visit they wouldn't stand on anything unpleasant. One summer, I think it was a Saturday in 1987, he came to make his usual visit, inspect the work and order everybody about. We never spoke when they came into our section, but always used to listen very hard. We would be working twenty-five metres up on the ceiling of a hall and we could hear Ceausescu and Elena talk. They were the only ones who said anything. Of course, we listened to every word they said because sometimes it meant that they wanted the work done differently and we needed to know.
'But on this visit Ceausescu strayed from the specially cleaned-up path and went into a dark place where there were no lights. And we all know that you should never stray from the path.' Petre started to giggle at the memory of it; his wife too started to laugh. 'He went into the dark place and came out with one of his shoes completely covered with one of the biggest turds you ever saw in your life. The workers started to laugh, but then the Securitate looked at them so they shut up. A Securitate man rushed over and started to clean the shoe but there was so much on it was impossible. Normally, he would stand around giving orders, but this time he said nothing and just walked off to his car. With every other step you could see the tidemark the shit left on the floor. Nobody spoke. Nobody dared laugh. It was as if an atomic bomb had gone off.'
Ceausescu, who towards the end was said to be washing his hands twenty times a day in alcohol to stop infection and disease, must have been mortified. But so were the Securitate. 'They came looking for saboteurs. They wanted to know who had left the shit there. Of course, no one owned up and said it was their shit. So they called a meeting and demanded to know who the boss of that section was. It happened to be a friend of mine. They interrogated him, called him a saboteur. He said he didn't know whose shit it was. He came to this house when they let him go. He was absolutely terrified. The Securitate had instructed him not to speak about the shit or ever to talk to Ceausescu ever again.
'A few weeks later Ceausescu came up to him and asked him about some aspect of the work. But my friend had been told by the Securitate, who were watching him, not to say anything to Ceausescu. So he just stood there, silent. And Ceausescu started to get angry and said: "Come on, who are you?" He was trying to disappear, but Ceausescu followed him. After Ceausescu had asked three times, "Who are you?" he had to answer. He came here again that night, terrified. He sat with his head in his hands and said: "That shit. It's going to be the death of me."'