Margo Rejmer

Illustration by Gianna Meola

The Tomb of the Romanian God

For a long time, Nicolae Ceaușescu felt the compelling need to do his dear nation a great favour—something that might keep them awake at night contemplating the genius of their leader. As early as the 1970s, he came up with an idea: to build a palace. A large one. The largest in Europe. It would be a gift to the people from their beloved ruler.

And here it is. A building with the qualities of a black hole, raised against human needs and human scale. The Palace of Parliament, or, if anyone prefers, the People's House. I feel sick at the mere thought of going there. When I walk along the fence to reach the only entrance, I have the impression that I'm walking on a treadmill.

The guide at the People's House expresses her approval for the building. She suggests that the group, of which I am an anonymous part, admire and wonder; she counters disbelieving looks with a smile of a satiated cat. She lists the amount of gold used to cover the walls, tells us which order of nuns embroidered the patterns on the curtains, and how many kilometres of fabric were used. What matters are the girth, width, weight, and size—the greatness of the Romanian nation.

Today the People's House, this pyramid of Ceaușescu's greed, a marble barn built for his pride and madness that was meant to be a palace of pure gold but turned out to be a luxury tomb, is the greatest tourist attraction in Bucharest. Crowds from the world over marvel at how surprisingly simple it is to destroy thousands of homes, several Orthodox churches, a few schools and hospitals, and to build a mansion inspired by the architecture of the moon.

The guide won't let us know about any harm that occurred, won't let us know about, let's say, destruction. These details she keeps to herself. The official narrative of the People's House, included in the entrance price, is an epic of numbers, materials, square kilometres of mirrors, and the ordeal of cleaning the palace carpets. For the sake of the guided tour we must assume that there was no Ceaușescu, no communism, no destroyed districts, that Romania has always been a democracy, and that the People's House was actually built by Roman emperor Trajan in the second century AD, as his summer residence. "Any questions?"

I would like to know how many people died during the construction of the People's House. The guide seems a little offended, but then it passes and she answers: "Ten thousand."

That seems far too many for me, and I express my doubt.

But the guide still claims that the figure is accurate.

I'm astonished.

Then she says that if a hundred thousand people worked on the construction, it's quite logical that ten thousand died. In order to convince me, she adds that many workers were buried in the concrete, because the pace of the works was so frantic that no-one had time to carry the bodies away. Because, from the moment of putting the first spade in the ground, the builders worked in three shifts, twenty-four hours a day.

—It means that the People's House is a giant cemetery—I say.

—But why do you think so?—the guide wonders politely.—People also died during the construction of the Pyramid of Cheops, and so what? The Egyptians have such beautiful pyramids now. Nobody will take them away from them.

I reply that it happened four-and-a-half-thousand years ago.

—Sure—says the guide.—You see, so long ago! And does anyone remember those who died? Does anyone commemorate them? Nobody does. People forget. And everyone will forget about those who died when the People's House was built. Nothing will stop Romanians from enjoying such an architectural wonder.

"No more questions," the guide decides, and leads us further.

But someone else would like to know about what lies underneath the People's House. It is said that below there's another little city, an atomic bunker and a road leading to the outskirts of Bucharest.

—I don't know anything about that—the guide shakes her head.—I mean, there are rumours, but why talk about rumours? Please, buy a tour of the underground, my colleagues will tell you everything.

Then she stands straight to announce that the fun is over.

—I'm pleased to communicate—she communicates—that during today's trip, you saw just five percent of the building.

When the guide nods goodbye for the last time, one of the tourists approaches her and says in Romanian:

—It's a scandal!

The guide replies with something I don't understand, runs down the stairs and stands next to a security guard, with whom she immediately begins to talk. I try to ask her how she likes her work at the People's House, but she eyes me with suspicion:

—Are you writing an article?

I nod.

—Please don't mention my name.

During the construction of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, sixteen people were killed. The People's House is an enterprise so absurd in its scale that everyone who talks about it will give a random number of victims and swear that it's true.

Ten thousand killed, guesses the guide.

Historian Alexandru-Murad Miranov mentions a thousand victims.

Valentin Mandache, a guide to Bucharest, claims that a hundred people died.

Finally, Andrei Pandele, photographer and architect who worked on the construction, talks about a few dozen.

All these estimates are refuted by the emptiness of the archives. There are no documents which will provide an answer. It's said that they were lost during the revolution. Someone tells me about trucks carrying the files away. Someone else mentions Mercedes with trunks full of paper. Somebody saw fires on the outskirts of Bucharest, in which the old regime was burned. In the new Romania, truth is a scarce and illicitly sold commodity, yet there's not much demand for it.

Construction of the People's House is just one of many elements in the great metamorphosis of Bucharest. The city seems too low and too bourgeois for the leader. With long-standing Orthodox churches, which serve no purpose, with vast monasteries—also useless—and with a labyrinth of dark, narrow streets—completely impractical. Old villas, overgrown with vines, annoy Ceaușescu as well. The capital is for tower blocks.

Moreover, the leader has already seen some of the world, and he especially liked China and North Korea: vast spaces, lots of air, stretches of concrete; the might of a city with tiny humans among it. Humans, or perhaps ants. Ceaușescu is impressed by his Asian allies, who sweep entire districts off the earth and replace them with truly beautiful constructions. In a 1971 film documenting the visit of the Romanian leader to Pyongyang, a pastel human mass waves and sparkles with colour, conducted by the invisible hand of Kim Il-Sung. The emptiness of the city is filled with tiny hopping beings, which, from the perspective of a balcony, appear to be mere colourful dust. From this moment on, Ceaușescu wants to have his own ants, his own anthills, and his own concrete glade where the ants will dance for him.

—Silly people say that someone like you is born once in five hundred years—says an annoyed Elena Ceaușescu, Mother of the Nation and Wife of the Dawn.—What do they know? Someone like you is born just once in the history of humankind.

Nicolae agrees with his wife. They're a very harmonious couple.

A question remains—how to build a new Bucharest, when the old one is still there and doesn't want to disappear? And then, in 1977, six years after the first visit to North Korea, an enormous earthquake occurs, heaven-sent for Ceaușescu.

It's a March evening, when tremors of a 7.2 magnitude on the Richter scale spread through Bucharest, destroying a few hundred buildings. The walls of houses fold, as if someone were playing giant dominoes, and over one thousand four hundred people die under piles of rubble and sand in the capital alone.

Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Sun of Hope, is shining at that time on Africa, where he introduces world peace during a meeting with the president of Nigeria. The first reports announce Armageddon: Bucharest reduced to a rubble-covered desert. Ceaușescu immediately boards a plane, and because the capital's airport is closed, he lands at a military airport nearby ("A great hero, he wasn't afraid of anything, he got straight on the plane and arrived here," explained an elderly man to me on the train). Newspapers show photographs in which The Father of the Nation, wearing a casual shirt, delves into the spread guts of the wounded city. Fear overwhelms him for many reasons. Fate, which brought this honourable man into the world, has allowed him to escape death, but what will happen when the Romanian ground shakes again?

Ceaușescu has his ways of dealing with enemies: for example, he hires a special food taster, who tries anything that is about to disappear into the leader's mouth. The taster's task is to fall dead, sacrificially, if enemy imperialism has poisoned something on the plate.

Ceaușescu also has his ways to fight bacteria: everything that touches his body—long johns or a vest—is delivered to him in vacuum-packed wrapping and placed on the dictator only once.

But there is no method against an earthquake. Ceaușescu can't plant a surveillance bug there or send it to a labour camp.

This is the reason why the leader asks Japanese experts to examine Romanian ground and point exactly to which area of Bucharest is the safest. The experts measure and assess, and eventually they indicate the central district of the city, Uranus.

Yes, Uranus will be just right. In his need to show the world and all who walk upon it that there's no messing about with Ceaușescu, he decides to destroy over nine thousand three hundred buildings, and to cram the fifty-seven thousand families that will be left homeless wherever there's a bit of free space. Here, a new Bucharest will rise, with a colossal palace, government buildings, and a wide Victory of Socialism Boulevard. Out of necessity, wider and longer than the Champs Élysées. By four whole metres.

After all, everyone will soon forget that the Uranus district, located on a hill, was one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the city. That it was full of storied villas from the late nineteenth century, with iron fittings on their balconies and gates, staircases paved with exotic wood and facades of Italian stone.

Ceaușescu not only destroys houses and hospitals, but also monasteries and temples, including nineteen Orthodox churches, six synagogues, and three Protestant churches. He even razes Văcăresti monastery to the ground—Bucharest's greatest treasure, according to Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, British traveller and art expert.

The giant earthquake, it transpires, was just a prelude to greater destruction.

Those who live at ground zero are often given just one evening to pack their belongings and move somewhere else. Hordes of dogs from abandoned houses roam the streets—the packs of homeless dogs crowding Bucharest today are the exiles' offspring.

The authorities understand human tragedy, and they take care of their people: the dispossessed receive new apartments, usually poky flats in workers' blocks on the outskirts of the city, for example the Militari district, consisting of narrow, ten-storey labyrinths. If someone's lucky, has connections and envelopes full of money, they can exchange a ruined villa for a two-room flat. The sick, helpless, and elderly have no chance of that: according to the regulations, everyone's share amounts to seven square metres. This means that four-person families land in tiny, twenty-something-metre dwellings with a kitchen and a bathroom.

People's hands shake when they sign the agreements: I agree to the demolition of my house. I agree to be moved. Yes, I received a compensation. A symbolic one. Just a little bit more than nothing.

The inhabitants of the district, who've been walking back and forth to the Immigration Office trying to get passports, are made an offer they can't refuse: the document in exchange for their worldly possessions. The majority choose emigration without further thought.

Elderly people, uprooted from places they've known since childhood, perish in their new flats on the ninth or tenth floor of a concrete estate. An obligatory move means losing touch with friends and neighbours, because people become spread all over Bucharest. Nobody records the numbers who commit suicide or die of heart attacks in their tiny new apartments. And if someone causes a problem or makes a fuss, the Securitate finds ways to silence them forever.

The rubble desert grows, and Ceaușescu applies a small-step method: each time he meets up with advisors and politicians, he informs them that he has decided to expand the area of the Citizen Centre just a little.

—But excuse me—mentions one of the architects.—My house is close to the new border of the Centre.

—Please don't worry—Ceaușescu assures him.—Nothing bad will happen to it.

Two days later, the architect comes back from work and sees ruins. He dies from a heart attack on the spot.

Romanians love this story. Whenever I discuss the palace with them, I hear it repeated.

The People's House has to be a gigantic enterprise that meets the scale of unlimited Romanian possibilities. It's clear from the very start: the building that will add splendour to Ceaușescu's regime must be so vast that it will be visible from every corner of Bucharest. Let the whole world gasp in admiration.

I look at Bucharest from the top floor of the History Faculty: roofs like zigzags, large and small, towers of classical palaces next to the onion-like domes of Orthodox churches, geometric top floors of modernist houses, and collapsing, shapeless, communist-era monstrosities—the youngest and yet the most aged. Chaos. Forms that have declared war against each other and battle fiercely.

—Have you been to Belgrade?—asks historian Alexandru-Murad Miranov, whom I meet in order to find out the story of the People's House.

I nod.

—They also treated themselves to an excess: the church of Saint Sava, one of the biggest in Europe.

—It's not finished yet—I say.—It's empty inside, only the wind blows there.

The House of the Republic isn't finished either. I got used to this name; this is how it was referred to at the beginning, when they announced the contest for the project of the new Citizen Centre.

This is where gossip, anecdote, and urban legend begin. There are no documents or notes that preserve how Ceaușescu and his court developed the idea. Quite simply, selected architects were informed that their dear leader would like to modify the city centre. Some of the buildings should be destroyed. Change, a lot of change. You are cordially invited to share your ideas.

The fish soon took the bait, and Ceaușescu was presented with eighteen models. The dictator walked among them and shook his head. It seemed that the project closest to his heart was designed by Cezar Lăzărescu, a renowned architect, who managed to convince his peers to give up.

But then she appears on the stage: Anca Petrescu, twenty-eight years old at the time, barely a graduate of the Architecture Faculty.

It is said that Petrescu alone built a huge diorama of her project, equipped with miniature carpets, chandeliers, and furniture. Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu's eyes immediately lit up at the sight. Petrescu won hands down, partly due to the fact that the dictatorial couple couldn't read the maps and plans presented by the famous architects, while her project was like a dollhouse, an enormous cake-shaped mock-up.

—The truth is that she stayed with the project because she had the patience of a saint—adds Miranov.—Ceaușescu and his wife were like children: fussy and slow-witted. They grumbled about the project all the time. They wanted something else, but couldn't explain what that was. Ceaușescu said some solitary words, waved his hands, nobody could understand him, but Petrescu just nodded and kept doing her job. She led a team of one hundred architects, and the final vision was nominally hers, but in fact belonged to the dictator and his wife.

The People's House project expanded to impossibility: it grew longer, wider, taller, and eventually became the largest administration building in Europe—second in the world after the American Pentagon. Yes! This is what the Ceaușescus meant. It had to be huge.

And it is: two hundred and seventy metres from one side, two hundred and forty from the other, eighty-six metres tall. Ninety-two metres underground. Five thousand one hundred rooms, twelve floors, hundreds of kilometres of corridors, meandering like labyrinths. Under the ground there was a four-level bunker, a network of tunnels and a private subway line, so that the dictator could visit government buildings or leave the city. Ideal for escape in case of a revolt. Well, if you happen to be a lucky dictator.

As I walk down Kogălniceanu Street after my conversation with Mironov, the Mordor of Bucharest heaves into view from between tenement houses—massive, a deaf and blind monstrosity, with hundreds of small black windows, never-ending swirls of kitschy ornaments, a horror melting in murky air, an enormous octopus observing the city. During the day, the People's House resembles a giant tumour that swallowed the city's tissue. When it's illuminated at night—which doesn't happen daily—it looks like a spaceship.

Yet, for many Romanians it's an invisible building. Even though one can see it from the further districts of Bucharest, some city dwellers still haven't come to terms with its existence.

—I've never been there and I never will—says fifty-eight-year-old Maria Popescu, a secretary at a company that installs surveillance systems. She actually has a different name, but asks me not to mention it in my article.—I hate Ceaușescu and I hate the system in which I lived. The Victory of Socialism Boulevard was supposed to be a giant prison yard, but I never walk there and I don't know anyone who would. When I have to go to that area, I choose a route on which I don't have to see it. For me the building doesn't exist.

—Of course, I am proud of it—says forty-eight-year-old Mr Cristi, owner of a second-hand clothing shop chain.—It's beautiful! And great! There's nothing like this anywhere in the world. You can say various things about Ceaușescu, but with this building, he showed the true greatness of our country.

(The conversation with Mr Cristi is food for thought. When I ask him about the inconveniences of life in the 1980s, he replies:

—There weren't any.

—But—I wonder—the flats weren't heated enough, and there were queues for food.

—Well, maybe someone's flat was colder, but these were sporadic cases. There was as much food as anyone wanted.

—They say that the temperature in a flat could be no higher than sixteen degrees, and the shops lacked meat, sugar, flour, butter, even potatoes.

—Where do you know that from?

—I've read it in books, and heard it from many Romanians.

—It's not true, they lied to you.

"They lied to you" is a chorus repeated in many conversations, just like "please don't mention my name.")

In the 1980s, in the Golden Era, as the construction of the People's House continues, Romanians focus on daily survival. Meanwhile, twenty thousand men work twenty-four hours a day, in three shifts. Time is running out. It is said that when a builder is killed, they sometimes leave the body on the building site, covering it with concrete, so that the works aren't delayed. It's easy to disappear in Bucharest; death gets lost in the files. It is said that, if the authorities wish, it's not hard to make someone disappear on the way to the construction site. This could be, let's say, an idler, a deserter, or a saboteur.

Those who worked on the People's House building site remember well how agreeable it was to steal from. People took away tonnes of marble, tonnes of plaster—they carried away anything they could. The more material was brought from all over Romania, the more they took away. Nobody was able to guard such an enormous stockpile on such a vast area. Hence Ceaușescu and his wife visit the building site at least four times a week—they supervise, advise, offer opinions, and disapprove. They can't wait.

Romanians can't wait either, but rather for Ceaușescu's death. When the dictator is shot on the tenth day of the revolution, December 25, 1989, crowds storm the People's House to admire the wonders collected by the vampire in his castle on the hill. They want to see the castle burn.

At the beginning of the 1990s, opinions appear that the colossus has to be quickly demolished or sold—nobody wants to have anything in common with it. Opponents of the palace have no doubt that it's the product of a sick mind, and so it should be destroyed. But to destroy something which cost around one-and-three-quarter-billion dollars—that would be foolish. Romanians realise that an edifice built with such effort should stay in place—even as a symbol of their sacrifice.

And meanwhile, soon after the revolution, media mogul Rupert Murdoch announces that he's interested in purchasing the People's House for a billion dollars.

Not enough, decide the Romanians.

The Japanese government offers an even larger sum.

But the Romanians refuse.

The palace is ours, they eventually decide, and the authorities decree that work should be completed. In 1996, they launch a contest for developing the area around the People's House. Those empty wastelands which Ceaușescu hadn't managed to build over.

Architects from thirty-three countries present two hundred and thirty-five projects, while an international jury considers them carefully. The winner is the German entry, whose creators want to make the edifice friendlier to the people. The monumental fence is to be demolished. The colossus should be surrounded with buildings that will balance its magnitude. Behind it, a wall of skyscrapers should be raised.

The jury nods in approval: this is what Bucharest wants.

The project is welcomed with an ovation, and then it lands in a drawer. The contest cost ten million dollars, but it's far less than the sum needed to complete the winning concept.

—Do you have your own name for the People's House?—I ask my friends. But I realise that they don't understand what I mean.—Because for me, the People's House resembles a giant, living organism. I call it "the octopus."

—Yes, it actually looks like an octopus—they smile.—No, we don't have any names.

—In Warsaw, they have the Palace of Culture and Science in the centre—I continue.—They call it "Beijing," "syringe," "a launched rocket," or "the dream of a drunken confectioner".

The Romanians laugh and nod.

—No, we simply say the People's House. Or the House of the Republic.

—But why? Something so colossal, which grew all of a sudden in the middle of the city, has to be made familiar by language.

And then they say:

—Do you really think that we can laugh at something so monstrous?


—The People's House is too big to have a nickname. You can only call it a catastrophe. Or a tragedy. I would call it "the tragedy of my generation."

Constantin Goagea, managing editor of the Zeppelin architecture journal, sermonises me from the beginning—he says that Western journalists love to see the People's House as pure evil, and that's not fair.

But at the end of our conversation, he says:

—You're laughing at your Palace of Culture, but it's five times smaller than the People's House; it fits in your field of vision, you can live with it. But the People's House took over the entire southern part of Bucharest. It changed it forever and destroyed it. It broke the urban tissue.

Every now and then new ideas emerge, intended to make Romanians more familiar with the People's House. Six years ago, the Museum of Modern Art was located in one of the wings of the building.

—It's not a bad idea, but the People's House killed the museum, sucked all the life out of it—claims writer Silviu Dancu.—Many artists boycott the museum simply because it's in this building. People don't want to go there: firstly, because it's a giant expedition, and secondly, this building is simply depressing, it brings bad things to mind. It takes energy away. It overwhelms. It was built against human beings.

At the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art, one is welcomed by white letters on a black background: "An ugly house of gods, and a witness of innumerable crimes which consumed innocent lives." The museum director deliberately lowered the ceilings in the rooms to make them cosier, but even on Saturdays you can count the amount of visitors on two hands.

As a board in the People's House says, it could at any time be introduced as the eighth Wonder of the Modern World—the contest goes on.

President Traian Băsescu does his best to make the People's House a symbol of democracy, not communism. He always talks about it in superlatives, stressing that it's a work of individuals which shows the power of the community.

—Once I was taught that I should be proud of it—recalls my friend Andreea.—And I was! Of course I was. Now it disgusts me. I can't do anything with it, I can only ignore it.

Sometimes I wonder how it's possible to ignore something whose scale exceeds anything my senses are used to. When I ride by taxi from the Piata Alba Iulia roundabout, the People's House already waits patiently in front of me. It is infinite, unyielding, and tireless, like a wall against which the head of the city butts. When another wave of earthquakes comes and turns the oldest and most beautiful buildings in Bucharest to dust, the People's House will have a moment of hiccupping, nothing more. They say that it could even survive a nuclear attack; an army of experts and seismologists took care of the building's immortality.

Just like the pharaohs, Nicolae Ceaușescu once believed that he was a god.

translated from the Polish by Olga Drenda