Romania has been ruled by a communist dictatorship since the early Cold War period until the fall of Ceausescu in December 1989. The monarchy had been basically put aside by a military authoritarian government in the 1930s. The latter took the side of Hitler’s Third Reich during WWII. Eventually, towards the closing of the war, Stalin’s Red Army irresistibly wiped out all opponents in Eastern Europe, including Romania. A Stalinist regime, characterized by forced collectivization, mass arrest and persecution of many social categories, as well as political opponents, was put in place soon after the end of WWII, with the backing of the invading Soviet forces. A similar scenario was encountered in almost every Nation captured by the Soviet Union after WWII.
Following a struggle between rival exponents of the Communist Party of Romania, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej emerged as a dictator in those early years, and managed to stay in the pilot’s seat until his death in 1965, thus surviving the confusion in the USSR following the death of Stalin in 1953, and for the full length of weather-cocking Khrushchev’s tenancy of power. Among the most infamous creations of this period was the Securitate, the equivalent of USSR KGB, or the East-German Stasi (or the Third Reich’s Gestapo…). Actually, publications by the former Romanian Securitate official Ion Pacepa, who defected to the US in the late 1970s, have documented the intimate relationship of the Securitate with KGB, in some of the most delicate and long-reaching disinformation operations carried out in the West.
Besides that, in order to preserve the statu quo, political opponents, non-communist scientists, artists, exponents of the Romanian Christian churches, and many other target categories and individuals were subject to attentive and constant controls within Romanian borders. These controls were often followed by arrest, long detention in labor camps and prisons, and in several instances by execution, or mysterious ‘deaths in prison’, cowardly attributed to fancy causes.
A surviving tangible symbol of what is possibly the darkest chapter of the monstrous communist dictatorship in Romania is represented by the Sighet Prison, in the northern region of Targu Mures, on todays border with the Ukraine. Turned into a memorial, this is much visited by Romanians and foreign visitors as well. This is described in this chapter.
A big country with vast natural resources and access to the Black Sea, Romania had the potential of a big economy. But as Sir Winston Churchill once said, communists would run quickly out of sand in the Sahara. Industrialization and mass production was carried out at the price of an increasing international debt. The state was everywhere, it employed every worker, but the state had debts. As a result, wages, services and living conditions started to decline significantly with respect to free economies over the years.
Following the death of Gheorghiu-Dej, the relatively young and energetic Nicolae Ceausescu conquered power. He would reign over Romania together with his wife Elena, until the demise of communism in Romania and in Europe. For Romania, the Ceausescu era differed to some extent from the previous chapter of the Cold War. Profiting from the struggle for supremacy in the communist universe between China and the USSR, Romania escaped the orbit of any major communist state, and tried a new way on his own, establishing tight economic and political links with the West. This was somewhat similar to what Tito had tried in Yugoslavia.
Sealing the renovated international image of the Romanian ‘People’s Republic’, president Nixon and Ford payed a visit to Ceausescu in the 1970s, the first and last US presidents to do so, and Ceausescu’s ride on Queen Elizabeth II’s golden coach in London is a popular image even today. The Romanian dictator visited the White House. However, in a move to balance international debt, a growing share of the Romanian rich domestic production was sold to foreign countries. Correspondingly, life conditions in Romania went lower and lower.
Two interesting collections exist in Romania offering a glimpse on the everyday life of the Romanian people, the ‘Museum of the Communist Consumer’ in Timisoara, and the ‘Museum of Communism’ in Hunedoara. Both are covered in this post.
The situation spiraled at the beginning of the 1980s, when the Ceausescus started to behave more like Olympic gods than ‘usual’ communist dictators. The growing cult of personality of Nicolae and Elena as geniuses in economics, politics, science, art, … is witnessed by statues, emblems with the faces of the ‘royal couple’, kitschy communist paraphernalia which were more typical to Stalin’s last years, and not to other countries in the Eastern Bloc – there were no statues of Honecker in the DDR, nor of Kadar in Hungary, despite the hardcore communist regime affecting both countries. Meanwhile, the living conditions in the country hit an all-time low, with a real famine hitting large shares of the population. The sharp contrast with the Hollywood living style exhibited by the Ceausescus widened the distance between the autocratic government and the Romanian people. Strict control and intrusion in private life by the state, increased all along Ceausescu’s era, became even more paranoid, to try preventing any subversive action by the population.
Triggered by the surprise fall of the wall in Berlin, an inevitable eruption started with riots in Timisoara, and quickly spread in other large towns of the Country, in the fall of 1989. This culminated in the first and last public mass opposition to Ceausescu in Bucharest, just days before Christmas 1989. A full-scale revolution was started, with people shooting in the streets, casualties and deaths. The Ceausescus fled the palace of the government in Bucharest by helicopter. They landed in Targoviste, some tens of miles north, only to be captured by the local military. They were summarily trialed an executed shortly after, on Christmas day 1989, putting and end to the communist rule in Romania.
The trial and death of the Ceausescus have been captured on a video, broadcast worldwide in many occasions as a historical document since then. Possibly less known is the fact that the location where the Ceausescus were shortly detained, trialed and executed is today a monument, which has been preserved since those days with its original 1989 appearance, and can be easily visited. A report is displayed in this post.
Photographs were taken during a visit in the summer of 2021.
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- Sighet Prison, Sighetu Marmatiei
- Museum of the Communist Consumer, Timisoara
- Museum of Communism, Hunedoara
- Ceausescu’s Trial and Shooting place, Targoviste
The Sighet Prison is located in the town of Sighetu Marmatiei, in the hilly region of Targu Mures, northern Romania, on the border with Ukraine (i.e. the USSR). The prison was built in the 19th century when this territory was part of the Austrian Empire.
Following the end of WWII, the Soviet-controlled territory of defeated Romania, just like any other future Soviet satellite country, was object of roundups against some groups, like former men from the military, religious ministers, politicians,… who amidst the lack of an established law system were arbitrarily deported to the Soviet Union. At this time, Sighet was used as a kind of transit camp for people on their way to deportation. This was mostly similar to what happened in Hohenschönhausen in Berlin (see here).
The prison then took over the primary role of a detention center for people opposing the new communist regime, and it was used as such at least until the death of Stalin in 1953. In 1955 it was converted into a standard prison for common criminals, despite only a general amnesty in the mid 1960s meant the liberation of the last political prisoners – quite similarly, the Gulag prison camp system in the USSR was dismantled by around the end of the 1950s.
In the years of Stalin, who backed a hardcore communist government in Romania, the Sighet Prison was therefore an instrument of repression, arbitrarily used against very high-profile people opposing communism, like former top members of the pre-WWII government, non-communist party leaders, professors and scientists, bishops and ministers of various Christian faiths. But also anti-communist students and less prominent figures went through this deadly installation.
The inmates in Sighet were mistreated to the point that many died there, including some prominent figures in the history of Romania.
The prison was closed in the late 1970s, to be duly re-opened as a memorial the early 1990s. The former prison building – not very big, similar to an average high-school building – has been almost totally taken over by a very rich and interesting exhibition. Today, this is a major destination for both Romanian and international visitors.
Starting from the entrance hall, you are provided with information on the detention system put in place by the communists in Romania. This was pretty extensive, with labor camps (to be found also elsewhere in central Europe, from the same Stalinist era, see here), prisons with various ‘targets’ – including the in-famous Pitesti prison, made specifically for religious people, and remarkably demolished still in the communist era, soon after the conclusion of the homonym ‘experiment’ – psychiatric hospitals used for confinement of mentally healthy people, etc.
The original gates, grates and fences, dividing the halls of the prison, are still there. The main row is on two floors, with cells aligned along both sides. Most of the cells now host informative displays, covering several specific themes.
The exhibits range from copies of documents witnessing the arbitrary arrest of many people, fake death reports with fancy causes, to collection of articles showing the careful use of the press to build up a ‘parallel reality’, in support of the moves of the government. Lists of inmates by category are also presented.
Extorted confessions of absurd crimes were among the goals of the detention of political inmates. These were obtained with torture and violence (typical to the every communist dictatorship, as accurately shown in Budapest, see here).
Some of the cells, including those where some particularly famous people died, have been preserved with their original appearance.
A rigor cell, with shackles anchored to the floor and no windows, has been left as it was. Artifacts made by the inmates are also on display.
Several cells on the top floor cover the history of communism in Europe and in Romania, with some artifacts, copies of pictures and documents.
The prison features a double courtyard, where memorial installations have been placed – a sculpture, a memorial wall, and a nice modern chapel.
All in all, a sober place, which preserves and relives sad memories, quintessential to the communist experience of this fierce country.
The town of Sighetu Marmatiei is a major center in Targu Mures, but is nothing special in itself. However, due to its strategic position, it is likely you will have chance to pass by. Access to the memorial is from a walking area in the town center. A signaled parking can be found immediately nearby, providing easy access to the site. Entrance is at a small fee. The exhibition is modern, detailed and catchy. Most explanations are in Romanian only, but free detailed booklets in several languages are included in the entrance fee. Therefore, even for non-Romanian speakers, visiting may be rewarding, and a visit may easily take 1-2 hours.
This collection is really unusual, in both its setting and arrangement. It is located in the basement and ground floor of a pub, in what appears to be a former apartment. Especially the basement – which however gets some sunlight – features some rooms like a kitchenette, a living room, a corridor, a small studio.
The content is partly the result of – possibly – the original furniture of this apartment, or a similar one, as well as – literally – thousands of everyday items, everything from the communist age.
Furthermore, the museum is ‘interactive’, meaning that you can touch everything, take items in your hands, move around everywhere, as if you were at home!
Licenses and personal documents from Romanian authorities, product labels, books, LPs, … you might spend hours digging in this incredible mass of original material.
Postcards from the communist age are especially interesting, showing popular locations in Romania, portrayed sometimes from… a different perspective. Differently from today, the subject of postcards was typically a monster apartment block in pure socialist brutalism style, newly built in the peripheral surroundings, rather than some castle or graceful Orthodox monastery in the historical district! But these were the triumphs of communism to show off…
Some souvenirs from the USSR are also on display, similar to many ‘Made in CCCP’ technology items – from a vacuum cleaner loosely resembling a rocket, to LP record players.
There are gas masks, maps of Romania – possibly from a school or public office? – and a few remarkable official emblems of the Communist Party of Romania, including an embroidered red banner, and a few big portraits of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. These also might result from the dismantlement of a public office, school, communist workers group, or similar.
The upper floor is partly a collection, partly a pub, with a nice ‘exotic’ atmosphere.
Definitely a pick for a full immersion in the everyday life in the communist age of Romania.
The location of the museum (‘Muzeul Consumatorului Comunist’ in Romanian) is slightly peripheral with respect to the large historical district of Timisoara. The location is in Strada Arhitect Laszlo Szekely 1, Timișoara. It is convenient to reach with a car, parking is possible almost everywhere around, as usual in Romania. Entrance is free. They have a Facebook page with some information here. Do not be discouraged by the front appearance, which may look sealed. Entrance is possible from the little pergola to the back of the building. Visiting may take from 30 minutes to much more, in case you decide to dig into this impressive collection.
This remarkable collection has been put in place privately by a Romanian now living mostly in Germany. The exhibition is articulated in four halls.
A first one showcases original reviews and newspapers from the communist era. Official portraits of Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu can be seen hanging on the walls, similar to official material from the Romanian communist party (the acronym ‘PCR’).
The main hall has on display reconstructions of two rooms, one from a railway workers building, and another from a general grocery store. Both have been created based on original emblems, instructional posters, propaganda posters, and various celebration items.
A third hall hosts the reconstruction of an elementary classroom. Everything original also here, and the atmosphere which has been recreated is particularly exotic and authentic – see for instance the similarity of the items on display with respect to an original Soviet school ‘preserved’ in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, here and here.
Further display cases are stuffed with original items, from medals and decorations to propaganda material.