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Inside the Ridiculous Palace of a Tyrant

It's been 25 years since Romanian president Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by their disgruntled citizens.
All photos by Henry Wismayer

The footage looks yellow and grainy now, but the impact is undiminished. The old man, straight-backed and defiant. Elena, Romania's despised Lady Macbeth, shouting "Shame, shame on you!" as the soldiers who once answered to her husband wrench her hands behind her back. Then cut to the bodies, thrown backward on collapsed knees, blood pooling around their pale corpses.

A video showing the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu


It's Monday morning in Bucharest, and I'm watching this video 25 years after Nicolae Ceaușescu—the illiterate misanthrope turned all-powerful dictator—was executed alongside his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day, 1989. The barracks in Targoviste, where a hail of firing-squad bullets put an end to his rule after a summary trial, opened as a tourist attraction last year. But in order to get inside the mind of a monster, there is a more obvious place to go. It's probably one of the most obvious buildings in all of Europe.

An hour later, I'm standing at the back of a small crowd as tour guide Elena—far less hatchet-faced than her famous namesake—leads us through a long red-carpeted hallway lined with Corinthian columns. It's the start of our guided walkabout through the People's Palace, the enormous building that was Ceaușescu's grand pet project. Today, it ranks among Bucharest's most popular tourist destinations.

The vital stats are staggering: 12 stories high (with eight more beneath ground), 84 acres of floor-space spread across 1,100 rooms. Costing an estimated $4 billion, it's the most expensive admin building in history, and the second largest after the Pentagon. But while the Pentagon's 17 miles of corridors teem with some 26,000 personnel bent on national defense, the Palace, which today houses Romania's national Parliament, echoes with unused rooms.

General tourist's curiosity aside, I have a personal reason for wanting to visit Ceaușescu's folly. I was still in primary school at the time of his execution. But somehow, some place, perhaps through a stolen glimpse of the morning papers, the image of the bodies was seared into my mind: the last of the 20th century's European despots reduced to a bloodied and crumpled heap on the floor.


To my young, innocent eyes it seemed the end of an illusion, the realization that the horrible stuff you read in The Usborne Book of the Second World War, which all seemed comfortingly remote and long ago, was still happening now, and probably always would be.

In the months that followed, the parlous Romania the Ceaușescus left behind, a basket-case country of economic hardship and dancing bears, hung around in the news. In 1967, the regime's infamous Decree 770 had banned contraception and abortion in an attempt to boost the population.

Thousands of impoverished families, unable to support growing broods, were forced to hand their children over to the state's care. Having bankrupted the country's meager exchequer to build his palace, Ceaușescu's squalid and criminally under-resourced "orphanages" provoked global outrage in the wake of his death.

Now, visiting the country for the first time, I could see where the nation's wealth had been concentrated while these tens of thousands of children endured a half-life. For this: the cumbersome and over-zealous dream of a madman.

We shuffle on in Elena's wake, from room to cavernous room. There's a "press room" the size of a soccer field, containing nothing but an antique video camera poised ready for interviews, a circular conference room below a giant five-ton crystal chandelier, and a great glass-ceilinged ballroom where Ceaușescu intended to woo foreign dignitaries.


But aside from the scale there's not much to get excited about. An architectural mish-mash of rococo, Byzantine, baroque, all channeled through a blunt communist aesthetic via the conflicting visions of 700 architects, the end result feels more austere than grandiose. They should take architecture students here to show how the overuse of a single material (in this case, one million cubic meters of marble) can backfire.

The devil lives on in the details. Obsessed with exerting Romania's nationhood, Ceaușescu prescribed that every brick and frill of the building should be native-made. For the brocades on the wall, Elena tells us, silk worms were imported from Asia so that the thread could be claimed as indigenous.

Yet for all the micro-management, his efforts look timeworn now. Those native-made carpets are fraying at the edges, the elevators look like they've been lifted from a 1960s council estate, hundreds of blown light-bulbs sit unchanged in their crystal chandeliers. Outside, I'd noticed, only the central third of the hedgerows were shorn, as if the groundkeeper had done that bit, shrugged, then clocked out for a bottle of Ursus.

It's an air of neglect that speaks volumes about the contempt with which the building's creator is held today. Elena, for one, feels no need to airbrush Ceaușescu's legacy. "He didn't care about the people of Romania," she says bitterly, as we traipse along. "He was only about himself."


From the entrance hallway, past inscrutable guardsmen holding ceremonial sabers, we climb the monumental staircase, which was rumored to have been constructed and dismantled seven times as Ceaușescu toyed with its orientation. Then we enter a huge beige conference hall where my imagination—fueled by received images of the despot mid-oratory—automatically conjures the acre of seats full of people in uniforms clapping wildly at their glorious leader's every proclamation.

And the self-styled "Genius of the Carpathians" would have milked it, no doubt, for his vanity was legend. Like his buddy, North Korea's Kim Il-sung, he was the embodiment of the small-man complex. Upon taking power in 1965, his face was crudely inserted into images of the struggle against fascism. Later portraits were touched up so that he never seemed to age. It's easy to hypothesize that this Palace was nothing more than a colossal act of compensation.

Across the conference room, through large double doors, we exit onto the colonnaded balcony from which he'd intended to give public addresses to his cowed nation. From here you can see his Parisian vision for the Romanian capital unfold at your feet. On either side of Unification Boulevard are the geometric lines of the redevelopment that accompanied the Palace's construction. Much of the historic quarter, including dozens of centuries-old churches, was razed. Forty thousand people were turfed from their old tenements as whole blocks were demolished with a wave of Ceaușescu's finger.


It was against this backdrop that the crown slipped. On the 21st of December, on another balcony a little under a mile north of here, he stepped out to address the people. The Berlin Wall had been felled a month before. Unrest, erupting in the western city of Timisoara, had spread across the country.

When the crowd heckled, he shrank, looked like a bewildered old man. With Elena, he took their one remaining bodyguard and fled in a hijacked car. Later captured, they were immediately subjected to a summary trial. The verdict—a death sentence for both—was ordered to be carried out there and then. And the Ceaușescus, stunned, yelling defiance, were dragged outside to meet their end.

So Nicolae never got to make his speech from this balcony. By the time paratroopers threw him against the barracks wall on Christmas Day 1989, the Palace was only 70 percent completed. "He never got to see it finished," Elena says happily, as we head for the exit.

And in her voice is a note of triumph that says more about his legacy than this mountain of marble ever will.

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