I have never had any desire to visit North Korea, but staring up at the sheer massiveness of Romania’s Palace of the Parliament gave me an eerie sense that I was close to the heart of that hermit state. The building is a rough approximation of the inherent madness and outsized egoism that symbolizes dictatorial regimes at their most extreme degree. Something about this towering monument to megalomania gave me the feeling that I might as well have been in Pyongyang, rather than Bucharest. The difference was that I could snap a photo from where I stood without fear of being arrested.
I could have not done the same thing during the 1980’s, when the Palace was under construction. At that time Romania was in the iron grip of what might be called Ceausescuism, a cult of personality centered around the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and to a lesser extent his wife, Elena. The couple and their acolytes set out to reshape the Romanian capital in the image of Pyongyang, following a visit to the North Korean capital in 1978. Some say this visit was what finally sent Nicolae over the edge, tipping him into insanity. Pyongyang offered Ceausescu a grotesquely grandiose vision of the future that he could bend to his will. There is little doubt that the visit had an effect on him and an even greater effect on Bucharest which can still be seen today. How could it not be?
An Impenetrable Palace – More Than Meets The Eye
It would seem that the Palace of Parliament cannot be missed, even if you tried, but there really is more to the building than meets the eye. The structure stands 86 meters high, but it extends even deeper underground, burrowing another 92 meters into the rich Wallachian soil. Twelve stories can be seen, but there are at least another eight underground, maybe more, hidden from view. It has never been disclosed just how deep Ceausescu’s paranoia and suspicion demanded that construction workers dig, It is known that the depths house a nuclear bunker, a fearful dictator’s last resort. He was preparing the country for all eventualities, but it was really built only to save himself and his family. Standing outside the palace on a beautiful spring morning, I contemplated its size for some minutes. I was on a visit with my new friend Tim, who had convinced me after we first met in Bulgaria that this was the must see communist-era attraction in Eastern Europe.
It was interesting to go through security at the entrance. I really wondered what all the bother was about. The palace was built to survive almost anything. Our guide had the typical dark and handsome Latin features so prominent in many Romanians. He also had a flair for the dramatic when he spoke. He peppered his words with a special zest. It became obvious to me that the Romanians were passionate people. I felt as though I had discovered a rustic slice of Italy on the edge of the Balkans. Unfortunately his opening had little to do with the Palace, more a monologue about the ancient historical roots of the Romanian people in the land they called home. It felt odd hearing about the greatness of Romania and their connection to the Roman Empire in the halls of such an architectural atrocity as the Palace of Parliament.
The Anti-People’s Palace – Treasure House Of A Madman
If anything, Ceausescu wanted the Palace built in order to obliterate the past, a brave new world where nothing from the past is worth saving. It had done that quite well, bulldozing one-sixth of Bucharest and leading to the destruction of historic neighborhoods, churches and monasteries, all to be replaced by a mind blowing behemoth of unfathomable proportions. Tragically this also meant the uprooting of approximately 40,000 people, many of them with little warning. Even worse were the reported 3,000 lives lost during the construction. In a ghastly irony, the building was known for some time as The People’s House (Casa Poporului), a place “the people” could not or would not ever want to visit.
Our guide showed us what the people, rather than Ceausescu, had actually built. He took us through several different rooms, but anyone of them would have been quite enough. We saw a room that looked to be larger than a football pitch, with a rug that must have been woven by an army of peasants. It was setup to host a conference for what looked like an entire town. There were chandeliers galore (reputedly the building contains 3,500 tons of crystal within its walls), brocade and silk curtains, gold leaf decorative f and enough marble to exhaust a thousand quarries. The place was difficult to fathom. It has 1,100 rooms, only 400 of which are currently in use. Nearly every component or material used in its construction came from somewhere in Romania. No part of the country was spared the theft of its natural and cultural wealth, all to be held in the treasure house of a madman, who coincidentally got to see very little of it.
Decadent Designs – The Unfinished Palace
The Palace was still unfinished when the Ceausescus were executed after a show trial on Christmas Day in 1989. It never has been completed and probably never will be. One of the main reasons it took longer to build than originally planned had to do with the bizarre whims of Nicolae Ceausescu. The guide told us several revealing anecdotes about Ceausescu and the Palace. The most memorable of these concerned a marble staircase we walked up and down on the tour. The staircase had to be rebuilt three times because Ceausescu did not like the dimensions of each step. He wanted a step that fit perfectly under his foot, just like he wanted a nation he could keep under his heel. He got his wish, but before the job was completed on the palace or the nation, he and his wife were dead. His legacy was a nation in tatters, left with an unfinished monstrosity in the heart of Bucharest that has turned out to be just as hollow and empty as Ceausescu’s grand designs.