The Free Tour – An Ambassador For Bucharest: The Heart of Romania’s Revolution (Travels In Eastern Europe #19)

Hardly anything in the world is free anymore. Everything and everyone seems to have a price. Capitalism has brought wealth and prosperity to the world. Conversely, it has also brought about the monetization of nearly every aspect of life. This is especially true when it comes to travel. Try to think about taking a trip without spending any money. It is almost impossible. For those looking to do European travel on the cheap, Eastern Europe has been the place to go for the last twenty-five years. It was never a region without money, though it certainly had less of it before the Iron Curtain fell. A nation such as Romania, which was beset by poverty when communism collapsed, may not be rich by European standards today, but capitalism has triumphed. The stores are filled with consumer goods and chain stores have penetrated all the cities. There is no going back to the days of centrally controlled economies or imposed five year plans. The impulse for greed is too great.

Our guide on the free tour of Bucharest

Our guide on the free tour of Bucharest

The Land With A Little Bit Of Everything – Including Free Of Charge
For travelers from the western world, places like Romania still offer great value. Food, drink, lodging and transport are available at bargain prices. A two week stay costs less than a week long visit almost anywhere in Western Europe. Call it a Romanian two for the price of one deal. The country needs such value based tourism to help boost economic growth. Fortunately, it is well endowed with attractions. Romania has a little bit of everything, a stretch of coastline along the Black Sea, soaring mountains in the myth laden land of Transylvania, castles crowning hilltops and an eclectic capital city. It was in the latter that I found myself with a traveling companion, Tim, who was on a multi-month journey across Europe.  He was the one who introduced me to an idea that I found fascinating, the Free Tour. Across many cities in Eastern Europe, local guides, often students, gave tours of their hometown taking visitors to places famous and obscure. In addition, visitors would meet and hang out with a local. There was no cost, except for a voluntary donation. It was a bit shocking that in a nation with the second lowest per capita income in the European Union such a free service was being offered.

The Free Tour was given rave reviews by Tim who had just recently been the only participant on a tour in Sarajevo. He got a unique perspective on that ill-fated city from a guide who had lived through much of the tumult. Tim had no idea what the Bucharest free tour might entail, but since there was no cost, I was more than glad to join him and give it a try. We were to meet our guide at 17:00, at the front of Parcul Unrii, in the heart of Bucharest. Sure enough at the appointed time a dark haired, bespectacled Romanian male greeted us with a warm smile. His name was Mihaii. He was a local student who led several of these tours each week. Tim and I were the only participants, which wasn’t really that surprising since it was early spring. The slate grey sky was threatening rain, but only a few random drops intermittently landed on us. After a brief introduction to the history of Bucharest and some information about the ominous Palace of the Parliament looming at the opposite end of Bulevardul Unirii, we began to walk down the streets and alleyways of old Bucharest.

Balcony where Nicolae Ceaucescu gave his final speech

Balcony where Nicolae Ceausescu gave his final speech

A Balcony In Bucharest – The Best Thing About Freedom
Mihaii was more than just a guide. He was also an informal ambassador of the city, part of a new generation that had grown up without the suspicion and narrow mindedness engendered by the Ceausescu regime. Mihaii’s generation was pro-European, western in outlook and had a cautious optimism that Romanian’s entry into the European Union would bring prosperity. Meeting someone like him was worth taking the tour. Thirty years before, the idea of a Romanian university student walking two Americans around the city center would have been enough to cause the immediate arrest of all involved. What we were doing would have been seen as revolutionary in the 1980’s, now it was a sign of freedom and openness. The tales he told us and the sites we saw while strolling through streets of old Bucharest was fascinating. Yet it was a site associated with the Revolutionary upheaval of 1989 that was the most extraordinary of all.

The tour ended where many say post-communist Romania began, in what is now known as Revolutionary Square. We were looking up at the balcony of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building, which was formerly the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Mihai told us about Nicolae Ceausescu’s final speech that took place there on December 21, 1989. After hundreds were killed in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, Ceausescu decided to use an annual speech to show that he still enjoyed popular support. With 80,000 people packed into the square he began to drone on with the usual glorified banalities. Much of the crowd had been bused in for the speech. Workers were told they would lose their jobs if they did not cheer, clap and wave placards. After a few minutes the crowd began to jeer and boo. Video of the speech shows a bewildered and increasingly nervous Ceausescu. He then tries to change tack by promising raises, but the incensed crowd grows unruly. The jeers rise to threatening levels, it is obvious that Ceausescu has lost support from the masses. It is an incredible scene, as he begins to comprehend the disaffection and hatred directed toward him. A security guard finally ushers Ceausescu away. Four days later, he and his wife were executed by firing squad.

The final madness - Nicolae Ceaucesacu giving his final speech in Bucharest

The final madness – Nicolae Ceausescu giving his final speech in Bucharest

A Free Tour Of Freedom – Revolutionary Consequences
Mihai had been born after the fall of Ceausescu, but knew the story well. He talked about the people who had been killed in the revolution for the hope that things would change. They did and they didn’t. When I remarked that the fall of Ceausescu was a great event for Romania. Mihai said yes it was, but he was only one person. Almost everyone else associated with Ceausescu, those who had spent decades enriching themselves and impoverishing the country were never prosecuted. Many ended up in other positions of power. Romania was still plagued by corruption and cronyism. Had things really changed? The ultimate answer was yes. How else could we be standing in Revolutionary Square listening to a man who was part of Romania’s newest and most hopeful generation give a free tour that was ultimately about freedom.

Welcome To Bucharest – Hand Over Fist: A Flower Seller & A Monument To Megalomania (Travels In Eastern Europe #17)

Following the “tres leu” taxi fiasco Tim and I were back to where we had started. We swore off Bucharest taxis because of the risk involved. Our issue at the moment was how to find our hotel with an address, almost zero directions and a very poor map. We stood on the sidewalk peering at our guidebook map for some time. From this map we could generally see where we needed to go, but only the largest streets and boulevards were marked.  After a few minutes we came to a decision which can best be summed up as “help!” We began looking around for someone, anyone who might be able to assist us. It hardly mattered whether they spoke English or not, desperation breeds flexibility. Our taxi driver, “trei leu” friend, was still standing by his car, waiting on a naive passenger to fleece. We both thought it would have been hilarious to ask him for directions, but decided against it for obvious reasons.

Tim and the Bucharest flower seller

Tim and the Bucharest flower seller

No Sense Of Direction – Mixed Messages
On the nearest street corner we did notice a woman selling flowers who looked kind and helpful. We approached her with the hotel address in hand. She smiled politely then studied the address for a long period of time. The look on her face was one of perplexity. Attempts to explain our situation only added to the confusion. We pointed up and down the boulevard, at another nearby street and finally tried to persuade her to point us in any direction. She spoke no English, but tried hard to understand our mixed messages. Finally she raised a finger, as if to say I know what you need. Then she reached in to her pockets and pulled out some lei. She was trying to give us money, but for what. We both started vigorously shaking our heads from side to side. We did not need any money.

Suddenly we realized what she was trying to do, give us money for a taxi. She pointed at a nearby taxi. We began laughing and the flower seller did the same. The irony was incredible.  Of the first two people we had met in Bucharest, one tried to scam us, while the other wanted to give us money. We were finally able to make our flower seller friend understand that we did not want to take a taxi or need any money. She was able to somehow get us headed in the right direction. Before leaving we snapped a photo of her smiling. The craziness and confusion had alleviated our angst. It is incredible how just one person can make a city seem welcoming.

Old Bucharest - Central University Library

Old Bucharest – Central University Library (Credit: Ștefan Jurcă)

Paris Of The East – An Old, Grand Ghost
After a few wrong turns we were able to find our hotel. It was located close to Carol Park (Parcul Carol), which is home to the Nation’s Heroes Memorial, Romania’s version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After we settled in, I decided to go for a run to get my first look at Bucharest. I did not have many preconceived notions about the city before I arrived. Most of what I knew about Bucharest and Romania came to me from Robert Kaplan’s famous geopolitical travelogue Balkan Ghosts and reading 1990’s era travel guides I had purchased at clearance book sales. For a place that was no one’s idea of a major tourist destination, including in Romania, it had once enjoyed an exalted status.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bucharest was known as the Paris of the East, a charming, amorous city of inspired architecture filled with people speaking a Romance language. It was a rough approximation of the French capital, as close as one could get to it at the time for Eastern Europe.  Bucharest’s mysterious, exotic reputation also came from having once been a stop on the famous Orient Express railway line. All of this old world grandeur made it sound like an appealing destination. The reality that initially confronted me was much different.

A Vision Of Madness - Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

A Vision Of Madness – Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

The Looming Legacy – A Sterile Space
I hoped Bucharest would be better then what we had seen on our ride into the city. Its outer areas had been a dusty urban conurbation that looked dirty, congested and decidedly lacking in charm. There was the usual tower apartment blocks that loomed as a menacing architectural memory of the grim development strategy of the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. These soul destroying, concrete structures pockmarked the skyline. They looked like the kind of places where a sense of community goes to die. There was no escaping Ceaucescu’s legacy in Bucharest. It was what had brought me to the city. I traveled there with my new found friend Tim because he was going to visit the Palace of Parliament, that communist era monstrosity that had gained worldwide fame as a monument to one man’s megalomania. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. I rearranged my entire Eastern European trip to see it. The Palace was one of the most famous symbols of the Communist era anywhere in the world.

Though I would be visiting the Palace the next day, I could not control my urge to take a quick look at the building. I found a much better map which helped me figure out how to find my way there. All I really needed to do was run for about ten minutes to where the parliament was located. Then I could spend the rest of an hour running laps on the sidewalk around it. My first impression was one of awe, at the unbelievable massiveness of the structure. This became clearer each time I ran all the way around it. It took a good fifteen minutes to make a single lap. An expansive space surrounded the Palace. Some might call it a yawning void. It took up a huge area, but all around it was a sort of sterile emptiness. Nothing about the palace or its immediate surroundings was human in scale. The entire complex seemed as though it had come from another world and truth be told, it had. That world began to disappear in the winter of 1989 with the execution of the Ceaucescu’s, but their legacy still loomed over Romania much lie the Palace towered over Bucharest.

Going Mental – Psyched Out: Ion Tiriac & the 1972 Davis Cup Final (Part One)

He referred to himself as “the best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis.” This unvarnished self-assessment came straight from the lips of Ion Tiriac, one of the greatest strategists in the history of tennis. Tiriac, a Romanian from the old Saxon city of Brasov, was a player of marginal talent whose success had little to do with technique or physical ability. Instead Tiriac relied upon his wits and razor sharp intellect. This was a man who could speak eight languages. He put his smarts to good use in the field of tennis. His superior tactical knowledge resulted in one singles and forty-six doubles titles on the men’s pro tour, including a 1970 French Open Doubles championship with his tempestuous countryman Ilie Nastase. They had an on-again, off-again friendship reflective of their emotionally charged temperaments.

Tiriac’s post-playing career met with even greater success. He facilitated the rise of Boris Becker, coaching the German wunderkind to multiple Wimbledon titles.  In the realm of sports management and business he would be wildly successful, using his many connections in Eastern Europe to make a fortune after the Iron Curtain crumbled. Tiriac is now said to be a billionaire. Yet for all of his considerable achievements, he was unable to bring about victory in the most famous match of his career, the fourth rubber of the 1972 Davis Cup Final against American Stan Smith. In one of the most infamous tennis matches ever played Tiriac lost a golden opportunity to win the Cup for his homeland of Romania. It would have been the first Davis Cup championship won by any Eastern European nation, but it was not to be, despite the best efforts of Tiriac and his countrymen to cheat, cajole and connive their way to victory.

A dynamic and dark duo - Ion Tiriac & Ilie Nastase

A dynamic and dark duo – Ion Tiriac & Ilie Nastase

Subversion & Secretiveness – The Romanian Challenge
The morning of Sunday, October 15th dawned cold and gray as the air hung thick over Bucharest. This heavy weather was in line with the turbulent mood of the Davis Cup Final. After two drama filled days on the slow, red clay at the Club Sportiv Progresul, the United States held a surprising 2-1 lead on Romania. To gain this lead the Americans had exhibited preternatural control. The matches had been marred by bad line calls in favor of the Romanians, an intensely partisan crowd that disrupted play and outrageous antics from Tiriac in a victorious come from behind singles win over Tom Gorman in the second match. Off the court, the Americans were confined to the twelfth floor of their hotel and were shadowed by an intense security detail throughout their stay.

There were rumors of possible threats against the lives of two Jewish players on the squad, Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon. This was coming in the wake of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympic Games in Munich earlier that summer. The tense situation was compounded by the fact that the Americans were playing in a Romania that was held in the iron grip of its leader, Nicolae Ceaucescu. Oddly enough, Romania and the United States were enjoying an uptick in relations because Ceaucescu refused to follow Soviet policies. Nevertheless, he presided over one of the most draconian police states in the communist bloc. It had long been rumored that Tiriac was a member of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. There was always something dark and mysterious about Tiriac, as though he was up to illicit activities. It took subversion to thrive in Ceaucescu’s Romania. Telling the exact opposite of the truth was a basic survival instinct. Such dark arts came in handy on the tennis court for the less talented Tiriac.

Ion Tiriac - the self-confessed best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis

Ion Tiriac – the self-confessed “best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis”

Guile & Gamesmanship – Tiriac Inside The Head
As the final day of competition dawned the Americans needed only one more victory to defend their title. The first match between Smith and Tiriac would decide everything. If Tiriac could manage to pull off an upset, then Nastase would be heavily favored to defeat Gorman in the final match.  Tiriac had many things going for him. His constant stalling, arguing and subversive gamesmanship had been integral to his victory over Gorman. At one point in that match he sat down on a linesman’s platform, unhappy that a serve had been called in. He was able to force the point to be replayed. The crowd also engaged in zealous partisanship. They took to cheering when Gorman missed his first serve. Their cries of Ti-ri-ac echoed in the American team’s ears throughout the match, growing to a roar by the end of the fifth set. Tiriac came from two sets down to achieve an improbable victory. The defeat stunned the Americans, showing them that Tiriac would resort to almost any kind of behavior to win.

Coming into his match against Smith, Tiriac held one major advantage. It would be played on Smith’s least favorite surface, slow red clay. The surface effectively neutralized his attacking game, while placing a premium on strategy. Points were drawn out. Longer rallies would be to Tiriac’s advantage. Yet Smith had played two phenomenal matches in the lead up to the final day. He had always struggled on clay, but not in Bucharest. Smith had yet to surrender a set in two victories, one over Nastase in singles and a complete dismantling of the formidable Tiriac/Nastase team with the help of his partner Erik van Dillen in doubles. In the latter match, Smith and van Dillen had lost only five games. Smith’s play thus far in Bucharest was his best ever on red clay.

Ion Tiriac - working his subversive magic during the 1972 Davis Cup Final

Ion Tiriac – working his subversive magic during the 1972 Davis Cup Final

The Psychological Battle – Victory or Defeat From Within
Smith knew that Tiriac would pull out all the stops in an effort to rattle him. This was nothing new, as Tiriac had long been known for his tactical brilliance which made up for his decided lack of natural tennis talent. The Romanian was blessed with an icy, ominous demeanor that could intimidate even the most formidable opponents. In his autobiography, Nastase said that Tiriac “stays cool always, he doesn’t show his emotions, and his temper doesn’t flare up like mine. He never loses his control.” While Tiriac kept his own emotions largely under wraps many of his opponents lost control of their own. This allowed Tiriac to defeat more accomplished and talented players. The biggest question going into the match looked to be whether or not Tiriac could get inside Smith’s head. It would be a dramatic battle, more psychological than physical.

A Shared Legacy: Romanians, Hungarians, Matthias Corvinus & the Identity of Cluj

Cluj-Napoca (commonly known as Cluj), the largest city in Transylvania, holds a special place in the hearts of Romanians and Hungarians. To Romanians it is a university city. The 50,000 strong student population of Babes-Bolyai University gives the city a vibrant, pulsating energy. As one of the largest cities in Romania, it has a thriving economy that has done much better than the rest of the country. This comparative wealth has made it a magnet for the youth of Romania who are looking to get ahead and enjoy a better quality of life more in line with other European Union nations. To Hungarians, it will forever be known as Kolozsvar, once the capital of Erdely (the Hungarian name for Transylvania). Koloszvar was the urban and cultural heart of a land Hungarians see as inseparable from their history. Erdely was cut asunder from Historic Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. This left the ethnic Hungarian population of Cluj isolated deep in the heart of Transylvania. This has left them yearning for what a lost past. This longing colored relations between the Romanians and Hungarians throughout the 20th century and was the central force in Cluj’s history for nearly a century.

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

From Majority to Minority – The Hungarians of Cluj
The fact that Hungarians continued to be the majority ethnic group in Cluj long after the Treaty took effect meant they were a force to be reckoned with in the city’s economic, political and cultural life. Hungary was even able to regain their beloved Koloszvar, along with northern Transylvania, as a gift (or a bribe) from Hitler for entering World War II on the German side. This gift proved to be both ephemeral and costly. It vanished as ill-gotten gains so often do. This left Koloszvar’s Hungarian population in limbo once again. As late as 1948 Hungarians still made up 57% of Cluj’s population. With the communists taking control of post-war Romania, the Hungarian population became a distrusted ethnic group stuck in the wrong country at the worst time. Hungarians had held economic power in the city for centuries. The communists soon limited the civil rights of Cluj’s Hungarian population. Communist oppression proved overwhelming. The ethnic Hungarian populace sought refuge abroad.

Those who were unable to flee the city, suffered mightily under the policies fomented by the iron fisted dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu was deeply suspicious of all ethnic Hungarians, branding them enemies of the state. In 1974 the communists led by Ceaucescu decided to change the name of Cluj to Cluj-Napoca. Napoca being the pre-Roman name for a city that stood on the site of Cluj two thousand years before. It was a lackluster attempt to prove that Romanians predated Hungarians in Transylvania by a thousand years. Ceaucescu’s efforts to settle historical disputes with pompous decrees turned out to be short-lived. On Christmas Day 1989, Romanians as well as ethnic Hungarians cheered as he was relegated to the dustbin of history. He was arrested, quickly given a show trial where he was found guilty of crimes against his own people. Within hours he had been executed, along with his wife. As for Cluj-Napoca, nearly everyone still refers to the city as Cluj. After the fall of Ceaucescu, ethnic Hungarians sought to better their fortunes in other countries, namely Hungary. This emigration resulted in a large loss of the ethnic Hungarian population in Cluj. Presently they make up only 16% of the city’s population.

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group - in Cluj's Union Square

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group – in Cluj’s Union Square

A Shared Legacy – The Birthplace of Matthias Corvinus
The present situation is an improvement over the not so distant past. Both Romania and Hungary are members of the European Union, which acts a strong guarantor of minority rights. This, along with the city’s relative prosperity has caused tensions to wane. Acts of violence by one group against the other are now scarce. The biggest barrier to integration is a deep sense of mistrust. This is the main legacy of the Ceaucescu era. Yet there are still some Romanians who would prefer that all the Hungarians in Cluj and Transylvania move to Hungary once and for all. Conversely, Hungarian nationalists (the large majority of whom live in Hungary) want Kolozsvar and Transylvania given back to Hungary. There is little chance either group of extremists will get there way. Commonalities between the two groups are rarely emphasized in the news. Conflict and controversy sell, peaceful coexistence does not.

Strangely enough in Cluj’s main square, Piati Unirai (Union Plaza) there is a statue that has proven contentious, despite the fact that it serves to emphasize a common historical figure who was both Romanian and Hungarian. This is the equestrian statue of the Great “Hungarian” King, Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus is remembered as the king who kept the Ottoman Turks at bay in the late 15th century. In addition, under his rule, Hungary became the first European state outside of Italy to experience the Renaissance. One of the most famous Corvinus historic sites, his birthplace, can be seen in Cluj.

St. Michael's Church - legacy of the Saxons

St. Michael’s Church – legacy of the Saxons

Identity Crisis – The Roots of a King
In the winter of 1443, Corvinus was born at a small guesthouse in Cluj. His father was none other than Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara to Romanians), Voivode (Governor) of Transylvania. A famed military figure who had worked his way through the ranks of the nobility to a leading position in the Kingdom of Hungary. Corvinus mother, Erzsbet Szilagyi, came from an influential Hungarian family. Now what’s interesting is that Hunyadi, who is celebrated as a national hero by Hungarians was also partly Romanian. He descended from a noble family of Wallachian origin. Wallachia was the historic heart of Romania. At the time, chronicles referred to Hunyadi as Valchus (the Wallachian). This means that Corvinus was half-Hungarian and half Romanian. Both Hunyadi and Corvinus are lauded as Hungarian national heroes, but no one much bothers to mention their Romanian blood. At the heart of Cluj’s inner town lies the Matthias Corvinus statuary group.

Ever since the Iron Curtain was swept aside there has been talk of removing the statue. The larger than life sculpture portrays Corvinus in heroic fashion, towering above the viewer. Below him are four of his leading generals (admittedly they were all Hungarian). Instead of arguing about whether the statuary group should be removed, perhaps an information board or plaque of some type should be placed close by to inform visitors, especially Cluj’s citizenry, that it’s most famous son is reflective of the city’s multi-ethnic history. Corvinus was one of the greatest kings in history. That is something everyone in Cluj should be proud of. His dual ethnicity illuminates the complex and conflicted history of the area. Cluj and Transylvania was an ethnically mixed place, it still is today.

Speaking of mixed up, the Corvinus statuary group stands in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral. This mighty Gothic structure is one of the finest examples of a medieval hall church in Europe. It is a product of the German Saxons who called the city Klausenberg. In Transylvania, the deeper one digs into history, the more complicated and diverse it gets. No one in Cluj really owns the past, instead they all share it.

Gray Men in Gray Suits – The Long Lives of Communist Leaders

Think of Leonid Brezhnev, his tenure as head of the Soviet Union makes him the leader of what I shall call the “Gray Men.” These were the leaders of the Warsaw Pact nations whose most notable achievement was how long they stayed in power. Words such as rigid, stolid, and geriatric come to mind as their defining characteristics. Those terms pretty much sum up the popular persona of Brezhnev. He looked the very essence of frosty, remote and ossified. Incredibly, Brezhnev was not even close to being the longest serving Warsaw Pact head of state. He took over as leader of the Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, staying in power until 1982 (18 years). In true communist fashion, during his final years, the Soviet state claimed the increasingly haggard Brezhnev was not suffering ill health, even though he was surrounded by a cadre of physicians. No one it seems ever got out of the Communist party alive.

Leonid Brezhnev in color

Leonid Brezhnev – One of the original Grey Men in color
(Credit: National Archives)

For the Soviets and their allies the ideas of progress and innovation, at least on a leadership level, were anathema. The lone time during the Cold War when the Soviets tried some new blood at the top resulted in the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev. And look how that turned out! It seems that the communists valued stability (read: status quo) above all else. Reform was a dirty word. Looking at the outcome of the Gorbachev era from a communist’s perspective, they certainly had a right to be fearful.  So they resisted reform, turn over at the top or anything else that might be construed as progressive. And as the Soviets went, so their satellites followed. That brings us to a group of men who can best be characterized by their long goodbyes, too long. These were leaders who wore out their welcome long ago and in some cases they never were welcomed.

The Gray Men
East Germany – The title “General Secretary” was a byword for being the leading dictator of a dictatorial government. The top leadership post in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Look out for any government that has democratic or people’s as part of its official name. That usually means they feel compelled to shoot their citizens. Walter Ulbricht held onto the top post in the GDR for over two decades 1950 – 1971 (20 years 10 months). Ulbricht survived the Stalin era, but not the Brezhnev one. He was retired “due to poor health.” In other words, he fell out of favor with the Soviets. Ironically, his inability to build a better relationship with West Germany did him in. Wasn’t the west supposed to be their enemies? Following his ouster, Ulbricht had scarcely two years of life left in him. We have to give Ulbricht some kudos though for his goatee. He looked rather suave in comparison to almost all of his fellow travelers in the Warsaw Pact. On the other hand, the powerful head of the Soviet Union’s NKVD (precursor to the KGB), Lavrenti Beria is reputed to have called Ulbricht “the greatest idiot he had ever seen.”

Poland –
Wladyslaw Gomulka was First Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party (note: United or Unity is another communist code word for we have shot or imprisoned all dissenters) from 1956 until 1970 (14 years and two months). This was the second time he had been put in charge of the country. The first was in the immediate aftermath of World War II from 1945 to 1948. He fell out of favor after that and spent his time like so many other communist leaders before and after him learning about life in prison. Riots and strikes brought Gomulka back to power and over a decade later would bring him down as well. In 1956 he took charge after a near revolution broke out in Poznan over economic conditions. Gomulka immediately raised wages, alleviated food shortages and instituted other popular measures which staved off unrest. Unfortunately what became known as “Gomulka’s thaw” suffered from a deep freeze in the 1960’s. An ill wind blew in from the east that caused him and his nation to chill out. He put into place increasingly repressive measures basically because the Soviet’s told him to do so. The man who had once been known for cultivating a “Polish Way of Socialism” was brought down when shipyard strikes turned bloody on the Baltic. This would not be the last time that shipyards played a prominent role in defying communism in Poland. Gomulka, in an ominous precursor to what would happen to Ulbricht less than six months later, was removed for “health reasons” in December 1971. The strange thing is that Gomulka lived another twelve years following his removal. Even stranger, he did have health problems. In 1970, it seems he had suffered a stroke.

Czechoslovakia – Gustav Hasek rose to the helm of Czechoslovakia following the Soviet Invasion of his country in 1968. He would rule for 14 years, 1969 – 1987 (18 years, 8 months).  He was put in charge of “Normalization.” Well if I am sure of one thing, it is that Hasek craved “Normalization.” You would to, if you had been imprisoned by both fascist and communist governments multiple times in the 1940’s and 50’s. This had included a sentence of life imprisonment for “bourgeouis nationalism.” The majority of the years Hasek spent in prison were decreed by his own party, the one he would come to lead. Of course, this being communism, where forwards was so often backwards and vice versa, Hasek was rehabilitated in 1963. This started his rise to power. Hasek’s greatest feat may well have been gaining his nation’s supreme position despite being a Slovak, in a nation dominated economically, politically and intellectually by Czechs. Then again with the post- communist breakup of the Czechoslovak state into two separate nations who’s going to remember that. For that matter who will remember Hasek. That’s what he gets for being so “normal.”

Hungary – Janos Kadar was installed by the Soviets in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He willingly carried out Soviet orders to imprison or execute all dissenters. He did this over the next couple of years without a hint of remorse. He was the most hated man in Hungary. And yet Kadar would last a remarkable three decades in power, 1956 – 1988 (31 years, 7 months). By the time he was forced into retirement (those nebulous “health reasons” yet again) Kadar had rejigged the Hungarian state into a relatively liberal economy, where travel abroad was allowed. In 1989 the Hungarians were by far, the best suited of all the Warsaw Pact nations for a transition to capitalism. How did he do it? It is said that a Hungarian can enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead without you even noticing. Kadar was a methodical magician who made haste slowly, a magician of incrementalism. He took the country one teeny, tiny step at a time, towards what became known as “Goulash Communism.” Hungary was an Eastern Bloc-oxymoron: state run socialism with western living standards.  Perhaps the best way of understanding Kadar, can be summed up by his most famous saying, “those who are not against us, are for us.”

Romania  – Nicolae Ceausescu was the opposite of Kadar. He started off relatively well regarded only to end up being one of the most reviled world leaders ever. Romania actually had a higher standard of living than Hungary during the early years of his reign. His initial moves relaxed strictures and boosted the people’s confidence in his leadership.  But then he went mad or maybe he was always mad, perhaps it just took years of absolute power surrounded by fawning acolytes to exacerbate his penchant for megalomania, stupidity and cruelty. Ceausescu was at the pinnacle of power from 1965 – 1989 (24 years, 9 months). His final decade of rule was among the worst for any developed country in European history. He obliterated several centuries worth of rich culture and architecture as an historic neighborhood was wiped away in central Bucharest to cleanse the capital for the building of his magnum opus, a sterile monstrosity known as the Palace of the Parliament. Still the world’s second largest building, it has hundreds of rooms the majority of which are of such a size that they can swallow several football pitches. Much of the country’s output went towards this and other grand projects that were fathomable only to a madman. What wasn’t expended on such “public works” went to paying off the nation’s large foreign debt. Every financial resource was marshaled towards an effort that would liberate Romania from its creditors. By 1989 the debt was down to zero. As a gift for all he had done, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were arrested for crimes against the people, given a show trial, then taken out and summarily executed on Christmas Day.

                                                                                          Leader of Bulgaria from 1954 - 1989
                         Todor Zhivkov – The Ultimate Gray Man
(Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0115-0010-066 / Schaar, Helmut / CC-BY-SA)

Bulgaria – Todor Zhivkov lasted longer than almost anyone and hardly anyone even knows his name. Then again, perhaps that’s the reason Todor Zhivkov lasted longer than anyone. Zhivkov was the ultimate gray man. He rose to power not long after Stalin’s death. From 1954 through 1989 (35 years, 8 months) Zhivkov ruled Bulgaria from the shadows not of his countrymen, but the Soviet Union. He made his nation a mere appendage of the Soviets. This brought the Bulgars oil, electricity and anonymity. Marching in lockstep with the Soviets, Zhivkov ended up creating a thirty-five year plan for his homeland, which consisted of mass industrialization and collectivization. Concrete blocks to house the rural flight sprouted all the way from the Balkan Range to the Black Sea. Zhivkov had staying power, but even he could not escape history. He lasted only one day longer after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His country was through with him, but Zhivkov was not through with life. He lived another eight years and even was acquitted for embezzling government funds. His funeral was said to be well attended, I wonder if many of them just came to see whether he was finally leaving.

Albania – Enver Hoxha we hardly knew you. Thank goodness for that, if only Albania could say the same. Hoxha created what has been termed a “hermit state.” He ruled from the next to last year of World War II up until the last decade of the Cold War, 1944 through 1985 (40 years, 6 months). During that time, he fell in and out of love with all of his allies, basically making the whole world an enemy.  His paranoia was all consuming. He pockmarked his country’s landscape with concrete bunkers that were supposed to protect his nation from a foreign invasion, but instead became love bunkers where scores of Albanians consummated their romance. The country averaged one bunker for every four of its citizens. Hoxha brings to mind one simple and brutally elusive question: Why? Perhaps it was just another form of communism, with an Albanian twist. Nobody deserves this much madness. His homeland could have hardly done worse and when his heart finally failed in 1985 that wasn’t nearly as surprising as the fact that he had a heart at all.

The regime of Enver Hoxha had 750,000 bunkers constructed in Albania to defend the country

Bunker in Albanian Alps – Hoxha’s Legacy (By Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti (Concrete Mushrooms Project)