This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
Nicolae Ceaușescu was the first and last president of the Socialist Republic of Romania. Although there are some stories about Ceaușescu being a sweetheart – giving the people houses they toiled for their entire lives and teaching them the virtue of patience through the art of queuing – it's safe to call him a dictator. Not in the least because some of the ideas Ceaușescu put into practice for his country wrecked several generations beyond his communist regime.
One of those ideas was Decree no. 770, issued in 1966 and enforced until 1989. Because the government wanted Romania's birthrate to soar, this decree banned women from having abortions. Following its enforcement, approximately 10,000 women (an unofficial number) are said to have died because of illegal abortions. It also resulted in the birth of about 2 million children, who have since been known as "Generation Decree". Some of those kids ended up in orphanages.
In 1993, photographer Elisabeth Blanchet visited one of those orphanages. She formed a bond with the staff and the children there, and so she kept going back to Romania regularly. In 2006, she decided to work on a project that would involve all the children she's met through the years. She searched for the people she had photographed when they were little, and retook their photos. I spoke to Elisabeth about what came to be Ceaușescu's Orphans, 20 Years Later.
VICE: How did the idea for your latest project come about?
Elisabeth Blanchet: A friend and I started a non-profit in the 1990s, called Action Orphelins. We would always go to the same orphanage in Popricani, close to Iași. We travelled there three or four times a year from 1993 to 1998, to try to make the orphans' living conditions a little better. Clean their bedrooms, fix hot water and the showers – that sort of thing. And we paid people to try to find the kids' relatives in similar institutions. I shot many portraits of the children during those years, mostly because I'd come to care about them. Most of those photos were in black and white and shot on film.
Then in 2006, I was working for Time Out and the editors and I wanted to do a positive piece on Romania, who were preparing to join the European Union. We planned on following someone who would come to look for work in the United Kingdom. I got in touch with my friend Dan, an orphan himself, who worked as a caretaker for the Popricani orphanage and asked him to help me find characters.
What was seeing Dan again like?
Emotional. It was in December 2006, seven or eight years after we had last met. He showed me a dictionary I'd brought him years before, which he still had. That meeting got me wondering what happened to the rest of the children I had met. These kids had been an important part of my life for a while. That's how I decided to track them down and photograph them now, as adults.
How did you find them?
Well, I have Dan to thank for that. We relied on searching from one connection to the next and spreading the word. Most of them had stayed in touch with each other throughout the years, so that helped.
What was your experience of the orphanage like?
I came from such a privileged country and I was shocked by the lack of affection these kids had to endure. They slept in huge, filthy dorms that smelt of urine. Sometimes three of them were forced to share the same bed. Some smaller children were bullied by the older kids in the orphanage. It was tough.
What was dealing with Romanian institutions such as orphanages like at the time?
It was all pretty complicated and it was very hard to realise any plans. People from different organisations didn't see eye to eye but wouldn't get involved in other people's business either. There was a lot of competition between the orphanages, because some received more money than others. It was difficult to set things in motion because everything was also highly politicised.
What kind of reactions did your project generate?
People were touched by the stories. I think this work could really mean something to younger generations, who might not know much about Ceaușescu's regime and how many lives it destroyed. It draws attention to Ceaușescu's mania about raising the birth rate, and can help both foreigners and Romanians understand this very dark past.
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