Nicolae Ceausescu is best remembered for his brutal demise. At a time when the various Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe were crumbling due to peaceful protest and people-power, his was the only one that collapsed into violence. Largely hated in his own country by the late 1980s, Ceausescu presided over an impoverished police state where people didn’t have enough to eat. The economy had all but collapsed and the use of blood transfusions as a state-supported policy to make up for lack of baby food left a horrendous legacy of HIV infection. The hasty execution of both him and his wife was the result.
But it didn’t start out like this. Ceausescu had once been seen as a figure of hope. He emerged from the shadows of the communist bureaucracy because of his public opposition to the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The rare sight of a Communist leader standing up to the Soviet juggernaught inspired popular support at home and abroad. Ceausescu played off both sides in the Cold War, courting both East and West for his own ends whilst simultaneously building an all-encompassing personality cult for both him and his wife.
Western companies, suffering from recession, leaped at the chance to trade with the newly emerging country that was asserting it’s independence. Massive loans were advanced to the Romanian government which they used to buy vast quantities of industrial equipment and modern technology from the West. This seventies spending spree ultimately created the seeds of Ceausescu’s violent downfall as he imposed crushing austerity on the population in the 1980s in order to pay back his lenders. The terrible human costs imposed in doing this undermined his legitimacy and created the sense of anger that was unleashed once fear of his police state collapsed in 1989.
This book, Epopee Pe Somes (The Poem of Somes), is from the early part of Ceausescu’s rule. Summer 1970 saw severe flooding in Romania with the death of over 200 people and making over 200,000 people homeless. There was significant loss to both agricutural and industrial production as a combination of heavy rain and a heat wave (that melted snow in the Carpathian mountains) led to rivers bursting their banks. This book deals with one incident in this broader natural disaster; the flooding of the county of Satu Mare by the Somes River.
Published by the Propaganda Section of the Satu Mare regional Communist Party, the book follows a fairly standard narrative structure in how it depicts the flooding. First we see images of the doomed battle against the floods as people pile sandbags in a desperate attempt to hold back the water. Then we see the flooding itself – towns, villages, factories all submerged underwater all depicted by blurred images taken in less than ideal conditions.
Boats appear on the streets and survivors wade through the floodwaters trying to find help. We are then shown images of the devastation left behind once the water recedes. The palpable human tragedy of the event is emphasised as traumatised survivors pick through the wreckage of their former lives desperately looking to salvage what they can and find some sort of shelter in aftermath of this natural disaster.
The narrative moves on. We now have the arrival of the benevolent messiah, Ceausescu, who tours the devastated area, inspecting for himself the extent of the damage. Unlike later publications where the Ceausescu personality cult consumed everything, his presence is relatively restrained and limited to a small section of the book. Here the wise leader comes to witness what has happened, sympathise with his people and direct the recovery effort. Like all such dictatorial regimes, the leader is presented as a substitute father-figure who knows how to direct his otherwise helpless children.
After Ceausescu tours the area and meets survivors, the forces of the Romanian state swing into action. Guided by the local communist party administration, they soon provide all the assistance needed. Temporary accommodation is constructed for homeless people, the army provides logistical support, aid comes from all corners of a country united in its determination to assist the flood victims.
Finally, as this is a communist regime where faith in man’s ability to overcome whatever nature throws at him and create a better future remains unquestionable, we are shown the rebuilding effort. New towns and factories are being built to replace the old. Construction cranes dot the skyline. Concrete tower blocks will replace traditional buildings.
The flood has become an opportunity to replace the past with a brighter future. Just as Ceausescu would later deliberately sweep away vast swathes of Bucharest in order to build his megalomaniacal new capital, so the flood has erased the historical baggage of the past that had held Romania back. Under Ceausescu’s wise and benevolent guidance a new and brighter future for all was on the horizon.
In the broader context, the damage caused by the flooding enabled Ceausescu to cement his leadership position. The flooding prompted increased national unity in the face of a crisis which has the effect of blunting all debate or criticism from alternative voices and prevents political challengers from emerging. Shrewd politicians can exploit events for their own advantage. By being seen to handle the crisis decisively, Ceausescu consolidated public support for his leadership which laid the foundations of the grotesque personality cult that of the 1980s.