Communist Relics in Bucharest

Most travel agencies selling trips to Romania agree on the fact that Bucharest is surely not the best this big Country in the easternmost part of Europe has to offer in terms of archaeological or historical significance, nature or art.

Actually the town, originally founded in the 15th century, is today mostly made of modern buildings – meaning it was extensively redesigned and rebuilt in the 1980s. This happened as a result of a huge earthquake in 1977, killing thousands in Bucharest and destroying or damaging many buildings. The earthquake, and the will of the most famous Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, triggered the realization of an incredible architectural master plan, centered on the huge House of the Republic – the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon – which in turn called for the demolition of a good 30% of the existing buildings in Bucharest, including churches and many historical highlights.

This conspicuous palace stands out as one of the world’s most imposing examples of communist architecture, thus making for an interesting destination for those interested in the ‘heritage of Communism’ in Europe. Well, the Palace of the Parliament – as it is called today – is so imposing that everybody coming to Bucharest will probably spot it and pay a visit.

But Bucharest has more to offer for those interested in the traces of the luckily bygone era of communist leadership.

Opened to the public in 2016, the private residence of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Helena, both executed on Christmas day in 1989 during the quick but very violent revolution which led to the end of communism in Romania, can be fully visited today as a museum. Built soon after Ceausescu took control of the already established communist regime in 1965, it is an interesting example of eclectic architecture from the 1960s, designed by the Israeli architect Aron Grimberg-Solari. All the original furniture is on display, and many items belonging to the most hated couple in Romanian history can be admired as well.

As usual in communist Countries in Europe, before 1989 the National Military Museum received much attention, growing up to host a collection of weapons, tanks and aircraft of considerable size. The place, located close to central Bucharest, is surely worth a visit especially for those looking for unusual Soviet weaponry!

Another easy-to-find communist-themed site is the Palace of the Free Press, the only imposing building in Stalinist style in Bucharest, built in the early 1950s for the propaganda-press. A big statue of Lenin used to seat prominently ahead of the façade. It was removed in 1990, to celebrate the end of the dictatorship. Many emblems of communism – hammers, sickles and stars – decorate the walls of this now mostly unused relic.

Finally, the very central palace of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which since the 1950s until 1989 was occupied by the Romanian Communist Party, is a distinctive example of rationalist architecture from the late 1930s, with much to tell about Cold War history. It was from a balcony of this palace that Nicolae Ceausescu gave his famous last speech, just days before he was arrested and shot (see this post).

This post is about all these sights. Photographs were taken in June 2017.

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Sights

House of the Republic – now Palace of the Parliament

No words can describe the size and bulkiness of this building. Together with the Bulevardul Unirii – the boulevard leading to the front façade – with its residential and ancillary office buildings clustered around the palace, each the size of a big shopping mall,  the ensemble is really unique even for the usual pomp of communist Countries. Everything here was built in the 1980s on the design of the young Anca Petrescu, who at that time was in her thirties.

From the boulevard to the square ahead of the façade you can easily spend some time trying to find a good way to photograph this building.

The façade is not flat, and this makes it not excessively imposing inspite of the real width and height. Furthermore, a terraced garden, gently ascending from the street level to that of the front entrance above, somewhat reduces the perceived height of the building.

Access for the public is from the northern side. From there the palace is possibly more imposing, for the façade comes down abruptly to the street level, differently from the front.

The inside is by far the least convincing part of the design. Here you clearly perceive the ‘megalomaniac’ attitude of the Ceausescu, who asked for a building with more than 600 rooms, for which no realistic function could be imagined at that time – nor can be guessed today. You can see a succession of halls in diverse styles, some of which may find a place in an old railway station, some in a congress center, others in a luxury hotel, some in Buckingham Palace, a few in a church, and so on… A collection of stately rooms, some of them really immense, all lacking any focal point – a throne, a dinner table, a work of art. As a matter of fact, this severely oversized building is used today only for a minimal part as a governmental building. Most of the rooms are used for congresses, marriages, company meetings and international summits. But you clearly feel the place is basically uninhabited, and except for the crowds of tourists, mostly unused.

As a part of the tour you can get access to the balcony on the front façade, from which you can enjoy a nice view of the city, and in particular of the perspective created by the boulevard ahead of the palace.

All in all, in my view this palace is much more interesting from the outside, where you can appreciate the size and good proportion of the master plan, and the interesting particulars of the late-classicist communist style. The inside is where you perceive most the unsuitability of the palace for any practical function. You may be stricken by the number and proportion of the rooms and the plenty of high quality materials used for construction and decoration, but you may also get bored soon by the endless sequence of unused – and unusable – halls, corridors and flights of stairs.

Getting there and moving around

For a western tourist taxi is the most efficient and cost-effective way for moving around in Bucharest. Depending on where you are taken first – the north entrance or the front façade – you may choose to take a walk around the building, or a part of it, before or after your tour of the inside. Visiting inside is only possible through a guided tour. Reservation is totally recommended, for this is probably the most visited attraction in town. Furthermore, if you are put in a waiting list you may be forced to stay close to the ticket office in the basement for more than you might want, with nothing to see and do. You can make a reservation through their website or ask your hotel to do it for you. A day in advance may be enough, for entries are at high frequency. Security with metal detector is part of the treatment. For taking pictures inside you need to buy a permit at a small fee. The visit inside takes really long – more than an hour – and it may turn out very boring especially for children, for there are no ‘highlights’ inside.

Palatul Primaverii – The Private Residence of the Ceausescu in Bucharest

The name of the residence translates into ‘Spring Palace’. It was built in the mid-1960s when Nicolae Ceausescu came to power. It was intended from the beginning as a private residence for the dictator, his wife and their three children. Differently from the Palace of the Republic, it is not absurdly sized especially for todays standard, about the size of an average Hollywood villa.

From a historical standpoint this place is very interesting, for as an official residence of the president of Romania, it hosted meetings with leaders and politicians of many foreign Countries, most notably Richard Nixon, the first American president to pay a state visit to Romania. Furthermore, this house has a lot of typical ‘Cold War style’ features. It was not publicized at all inside Romania, where only a restricted group knew of its existence before the revolution in 1989-90. Coming close was made impossible by a guarded perimeter with a few checkpoints all around a large area of the town, where embassies and notable members of the Communist Party had their residences. Inside there are an underground bunker for protection and an access to a network of tunnels leading to the palace of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and other decision centers in Bucharest. The villa was taken during the revolution, but anything was left basically as it was – the intruders, who in 1989 were suffering from a famine plus from heat, electricity and water starvation, took away all the food.

The eclectic style of the building, integrally designed by the same architect, is also an interesting specimen of luxury architecture from the 1960s.

On the ground floor, the first rooms are the studio of the dictator, where most important meetings were held, with the walls covered with wooden panels. Then an ancillary room with a chess table, a central lobby with a fountain and stairs leading to the upper floor and to the basement, a large drawing room and a dining room can be visited close by. On the same floor are also the private rooms of one of the two sons of the Ceausescu couple. From the main drawing room it is possible to reach an inner garden with peacocks – not the original exemplars, but Nicolae loved these birds, which used to live here also before 1990.

In the basement it is possible to find a winery and a nice middle-ages-themed, count-Dracula-style canteen with a fireplace. A private movie theater seating about 30 is part of this area. The projectors in the back – Philips, not from the Eastern Bloc… – together with an archive of rare movies have been carefully cataloged, and are now part of the inventory, similarly to every item in the house.

Nicolae Ceausescu was born to a family of workers, and was a shoemaker in his youth. After he came to power he progressively adopted a more and more luxurious lifestyle, but he could never relinquish his very humble origins. The room he reportedly favored most in his fancy villa, and where he liked to spend most of the time, was a passage in the basement, with some simple chairs, a small table, and a very small light close to the roof. Some speculate this was the setting which mostly resembled the house he had lived in as a kid. Another explanation may be a secret armored door in this room, giving direct access to the bunker…

The bunker with a crisis room is where Ceausescu operated in the tumultuous days of December 1989. He finally decided to try to reestablish power with a speech which turned out to be his famous last public appearance, a few days before he was arrested and executed. Here was the entrance to the network of tunnels leading to other palaces in Bucharest – today it has been bricked up. A walk along a service corridor in the underground allows to have a glance to the many service rooms in this area – including a laundry, a room for an independent power supply system and much more.

Another strange ‘private passage’ is where a gallery of many portraits of the Ceausescu can be found, together with hunt trophies and hunt-related gifts from some African leaders and close friends of the Romanian dictator. Nicolae was reportedly not good as a hunter, but he liked to nourish the idea of being so, and he was often photographed with trophies he rarely caught himself. Paintings portraying the couple were already there when the Ceausescu used to live in the house.

In a wing on the top floor are the private rooms of the two other children of the Ceausescu.

In another wing are the apartments of Helena and Nicolae, with a bedroom, study, bathroom and dressing room for each of them.

The separate bedrooms were not used much, for they used to sleep in a common bedroom with a nice balcony and a view of the front garden.

There was also another common bathroom, lavishly decorated, which was reportedly used more often by the couple. The same is true for a smaller dressing room with wardrobes for both, which was typically used by the couple. Here and in the main wardrobe close by it is possible to find the many dresses belonging to the Ceausescu. The smell of old fabric here is really horrible, but the sight of their clothes adds much to the perception of this place as the ‘lion’s lair’.

In a third wing of the top floor it is possible to find possibly the most beautiful room of the house, which is basically a ‘garden-room’, with plants and a nice peacock-themed mosaic wall and fountain – a nice example of decoration from the 1960s.

Descending again to the ground floor you can continue your visit with the huge wellness area, with a sauna, Turkish bath, infra-red lamp, equipment for various wellness and beauty treatments – some of them were probably fancy in those years, but now they seem exotic and more like old-style medical stuff… There is also a barber shop.

Finally, the indoor swimming pool. This is very big and deep even for todays standard, and the zodiac-themed mosaic decoration of the walls is luminous and really gorgeous. There is direct access to the garden through a porch.

You can access the inner garden and reach the front entrance of the property walking along a nice covered passage.

All in all, this is possibly the site I liked most during my stay in Bucharest. I would surely recommend a visit for the great historical and architectural significance of the place. The place is very authentic, and you can perceive it distinctly from the many personal items scattered around the house and from the appearance of the rooms, which have come almost unaltered from the end of the 1980s.

Getting there and moving around

The Spring Palace is in the northeastern quarter of central Bucharest, in what is probably one of the nicest parts of the town, with high-level residential buildings, most of them built very recently, foreign embassies, well-kept parks and schools. If you are visiting the area of Parcul Herastrau or Parcul Bordei you may choose to come to the mansion with a nice walk. Otherwise the best way to come here is with the usual taxi. Visiting is possible only with a guide. You can opt for a regular group tour or a personal tour. The latter was my choice. You can book it in advance (one day in advance in my case) through their website. The guide was very kind and knowledgeable, and the 1.5 hour visit really interesting and full of details.

National Military Museum

This museum is composed of two main parts. The permanent exhibition in the main building covers the military history of Romania from the first settlements to the present day. For those with an interest for the complicated history of this Country, the relationship with the Ottoman and Russian Empires, the foundation of the Kingdom of Romania in the 19th century, its role in both World Wars and the advent of communism, this museum offers much valuable information. Little is said of what happened during and after the 1989 revolution. There are just scant signs in English, and the Soviet-style of the exhibition is a bit outdated. Anyway there is much stuff of interest to be checked up.

Outside to the back of this building it is possible to visit a rich collection of weapons, ranging in time, type and size. A conspicuous part is composed by cannons and howitzers, some of them mounted on railway trolleys.

There are of course more ancient cannons, from the 18th and early 19th centuries, stored very close to some torpedoes and naval mines.

A focal point of the exhibition is a 2P16 Soviet tactical missile system with movable launcher. Also on display there is what appears to be a version of a SCUD-A system in fully erected position.

On the outside there is also a collection of tanks, radio equipment, a Soviet SA-2 anti-aircraft missile and a MiG-15. Some of the cannons are ‘made in Germany’.

The ancillary buildings host a collection of uniforms, coaches and a small collection of aircraft and engines for aviation, including the reentry vehicle of the only Soyuz mission flown by a Romanian astronaut.

Taken alone, this outdoor collection is much interesting for everybody, and especially for the kids. I would recommend also a visit to the inside for more history-minded people.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is located less than a mile from the Palace of the Parliament. The neighborhood, while totally central and safe, is nothing special, so I suggest going there by taxi for saving time. Visiting of the entire complex may take 1-1.5 hours on a self-guided basis.

Casa Scinteii – now House of the Free Press

This is the only building designed in the style of Stalin’s classicism in Bucharest, and it looks like a cousin of the skyscrapers in Moscow and other similar towers in Europe (see this post). The name refers to ‘Scinteia’ – meaning ‘spark’ – the official propaganda newspaper of the Romanian Communist Party, which had its headquarter here. Ready by the mid-1950s, the building was placed at the end of a majestic perspective going from the triumphal arch through a park directly to the statue of Lenin – removed in 1990 – and to this building.

Today a nice modern monument has replaced Lenin, and the area, quickly reachable from the airport, is among the most sought after by international companies. Many new buildings have been built in the neighborhood, making the contrast with this partly abandoned Soviet relic even more striking.

From a distance the building looks imposing but well proportioned. At a closer look, it reveals its communist soul through many hammer and sickle insignia, together with some stars in the decoration.

Getting closer you realize that there are bushes on the roof, many shutters are stuck halfway down, the windows are covered in dust, everything indicating a state of partial disrepair. The building is probably looking for a new owner, but the excessive size and the inconvenient heritage it bears perhaps are making things more difficult.

Getting there and moving around

Located to the north of the city center, close to the expo and on the northwestern corner of Parcul Herastrau. You can reach the area with a pleasant walk from the triumphal arch of WWI (Arcul de Triumf) or through the park, or you can get directly to it with a taxi. The place is mainly closed and anyway not open to the public, but you can have a walk around freely.

Palace of the Ministry of Internal Affairs

This palace, completed in the early 1940s, hosted many institutions during its history, including the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, with the executive office of the leader of the Party. It is located in the totally central Piata Revolutiei – Revolution Square – in front of the former royal palace, now hosting the museum of fine arts.

The place was the central stage of the revolution in late 1989. The balcony on the front façade of the building is where Nicolae and Helena Ceausescu tried a final move to regain control over the Romanian people. Here they faced the public for the last time, and for the first time they were openly contested. The video recordings of that historical moment, together with the similarly famous videos of the Berlin Wall torn down, stand out as vivid symbols of the end of the communist era in Europe.

What followed the last speech was a short period of confusion, with the armed forces and the revolutionary faction shooting in the streets. The Ceausescu fled the building by helicopter, only to be arrested the following day, rapidly put on trial and executed soon after. More than one thousand lost their lives struggling to definitively push dictatorship to an end. Vivid traces of the fight can be seen on the façade of this building, in the form of bullet holes above some of the windows.

Getting there and moving around

The place is totally central, and easy to reach by walk if you are staying in one of the many international hotels in central Bucharest. Visiting inside is not possible, but you can come very close to all sides of the palace.

Places with a Soviet Flavor in Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg is one of the two ‘big cities’ in Russia which you’ll likely be touching during your visit to this great Country, and probably among the most tourist-friendly in this part of the world. There are tons of sights to see for anyone with an interest in art, architecture, history, fashion, shopping, dining, nightlife, etc. The city is very large, with a population of about 5 millions, and touring just the most famous places – like the Winter Palace, St. Isaac and the central area along the Nevsky Prospekt, as well as the Peter and Paul Fortress – will take already at least a few days.

What people from abroad – unlike Russians – are sometimes less aware of is that the Revolution in 1917 started and evolved in Saint Petersburg, which at that time was still the capital city of the Russian Empire, where the Tzar and the government resided. Here Lenin and the Bolsheviks worked in the tumultuous moments preceding and after the abdication of Nicholas II, the last of the Tzars, and here the communist-led organization of the ‘Soviet’ imposed its rule, before the governmental body moved its headquarters to Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia, soon in 1918. The prominent role the city had in the Revolution was acknowledged changing its name to Leningrad, the ‘City of Lenin’, which would stay until 1991.

So, besides the countless sites of great historical and artistic value connected with the city’s founder Peter the Great and the Tzars who succeeded to him, there are in Saint Petersburg countless places recalling the Communist Revolution and the Soviet period.

Furthermore, as this city used to be a frontline destination for people traveling for cultural interest from both within the USSR and abroad much before the end of Communism, many interesting museums were established here. Some of them still retain a typical Soviet flavor, in the choice of artifacts, exhibition style and in the management policies – you will be left unscrupulously in a queue in a freezing -20°C winter evening outside of a museum, waiting just for more hangers to be available in the cloakroom, if the rules say so!

This post is about some places in todays Saint Petersburg connected with the Revolution and the Communist era, and some museums still retaining their Soviet style. All photographs, both the good and the bad, are from mine and were taken in early 2017.

Sights

Here is a map of the sites described below. The city is huge, and the coverage of the subway system is by far less developed than that of Moscow, with stops quite afar from each other – so expect to walk really much in Saint Petersburg! You may also elect to take a taxi when needed, for you pay the distance, not the time, and it is much less expensive than in other big cities in Europe.

All attractions in this post – except perhaps the House of Soviets – are fairly central, so even when you need to walk for reaching them, you will never need to be in an unpleasant or dangerous area of the town.

Kirov’s Apartment Museum

This museum, located ten minutes north of the Peter and Paul fortress, is rather deceptive – it is located on the two top floors of a formerly luxurious apartments building from the late 19th or early 20th century, where all other apartments are privately owned today. You will need to go through the foyer of the building, where the stately and elegant appearance of the façade is soon lost to the incredibly shabby, purely Soviet style of the inside, with a small and poorly looking elevator to ease you climbing to the top of the building.

Before the Revolution these apartments, exceptionally large and modern for the time, were property of wealthy businessmen and professionals. Soon after the Revolution, when property was abolished and housing was reassigned, the second floor from the top was given to Sergey Kirov, a top ranking communist leader successfully enforcing Soviet power in Azerbaijan, a great supporter and a close friend of Stalin during his struggle for power after the death of Lenin in 1924, and later to become the leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad and supervisor of industrial production – a prominent figure in his times. Stalin ended up ordering him killed in the early Thirties – although not officially – coincidentally marking the beginning of the harshest period of communist dictatorship in Russia.

The apartment of Kirov has been preserved very well to this day. You can see a studio and living room, with hunting trophies including a polar bear, bookcases and photographs of Stalin and Lenin. The aura of the early years of Stalin has been integrally preserved, and the apartment looks like comrade Kirov had just gone out for a Party meeting! Stalin himself reportedly visited Kirov here more than once.

Other rooms in the living quarters include a dining room, a small living room, a library and a nice bedroom for children. A kitchen – with a General Electric refrigerator! -, a junk room and bathroom complete the main part of the private apartment. Two very large rooms include Kirov’s study and a sort of waiting room today turned into an exhibit of soviet-themed paintings and sculptures, mainly about Kirov. You can easily imagine Kirov receiving delegates from the factories around the smoky Leningrad of the late Twenties in this room, with the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin always carefully listening to the talk!

On the top floor, the museum offers a two-rooms reconstruction of a school, a meeting room of a youth organization, a shared apartment and a children bedroom from the years of Kirov, from the late Twenties to the early Thirties. Many interesting everyday items, as well as communist-themed flags, banners, memorabilia, some paintings and sculptures and much more can be found here.

All in all, this is one of the most evocative exhibitions on communist personalities I’ve ever seen! Visiting in a freezing winter evening also helped to relive the old Soviet atmosphere. Visit is recommended for everybody with an interest in Soviet history, and for those with a thing for living architecture, for this is a good occasion to get an insight on the standard of life of the wealthy class immediately before and after the Revolution in this region. You can take a self-guided tour, and you are given a detailed booklet in English to help yourself along the visit. Visiting may take from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on your level of interest.

Arctic and Antarctic Museum

This nice little museum is interesting both for the pretty unusual subject – polar explorations carried out by Russian and then Soviet expeditions – and for the setting and style of the exhibition. It is hosted in a former church building in a neoclassical style from the 19th century.

The exhibition maybe pretty outdated for modern standards, but it may appeal to you if you are interested in the topic more than in cheesy presentations, and if you want to experience how a Soviet-style museum looks like! The small setting is cluttered with dioramas with stuffed animals, including a polar bear, dim lighted showcases with artifacts and memorabilia from expeditions, plus ship models and some larger artifacts, like tents, polar shelters and instruments for taking measurements.