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November 1, 2001 — 12 AM

Bottom of the Heap

Travelling through Romania in September, I was struck by just how different it is from the rest of Europe — how much farther it is from the West. At times, with the horses and carts roaming by, I felt like I’d slipped many decades into the past. I had a pizza and a tall mug of beer for about a dollar. Soldiers carrying toting broad guns demanded to see my passport while I was strolling through a small town at night, while my friend Ian was hauled into a station house and interrogated for a misunderstanding with his visa. Meanwhile, beyond my sightlines thousands of children are chronically malnourished and a fervent nationalist is coming in second in presidential elections, a man who once worshipped the foul dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and who today sounds frighteningly anti-Semitic, especially considering the grotesque role Romanian state and military played in the Holocaust.

Where did it all go wrong? Certainly one could look back (and not that far) at Ceausescu, as does Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books:

Forty thousand buildings were razed to make space for the “House of the People” and the five-kilometer-long, 150-meter-wide Victory of Socialism Boulevard. The former, designed as Ceausescu’s personal palace by a twenty-five-year-old architect, Anca Petrescu, is beyond kitsch. Fronted by a formless, hemicycle space that can hold half a million people, the building is so big (its reception area is the size of a soccer field), so ugly, so heavy and cruel and tasteless, that its only possible value is metaphorical.

“Romania: Bottom of the Heap” reveals more about Ceausescu besides his architectural wrongs, but it also looks at both more recent events and the past before Communism to reveal just how Romania got to be the country the E.U. would rather forget.


Pathological narcissists, overcompensating for secretly feeling small, insignificant and weak, wear a mask of omnipotence and perfection. They are actors in a drama of their own grandiose creation, and all must admire the narcissist—or be punished. Incapable of empathy, he is cruel.

Ceausescu’s Palace, like the razing of historic Bucharest, was a foolish man’s quest for admiration and immortality. But before he could complete his magnum opus, the audience—to his great surprise—not only failed to applaud, but arose from their seats and slew the actor. Fate rewrote his last act—“Death of a Tyrant.”

Despite his crushing, grandiose vision, Ceausescu was weak after all. Like all bullies, he ruled by fear, which dissipates slowly.

Many years may pass before his psychological legacy no longer taints the freed Romanian soul.

Hugh Manatee | Aug. 29, 2004 — 9 PM

Previously: Is This What They Meant By Suspicious Behaviour?

Subsequently: Designing Life

November 2001
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