Romania’s communist regime (1947 - 1989) was one of the most difficult periods in our country’s modern history, with long-lasting effects on people’s everyday lives even until today. A lot of the things that you will see and experience while visiting Romania are a consequence of the communist regime's social and economic policies, and especially because of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship.
The 1989 anticommunist revolution was an important moment in Romania’s history. Unfortunately, our country was the only one among the communist block of Eastern Europe where the communist regime was overthrown through violence, with many deaths and victims as a result.
Your understanding of Romanian culture and life will be complete after doing a communism tour of Bucharest or in Romania, with a knowledgeable guide able to give you accurate historical information. Besides visiting important communist attractions such as the Palace of Parliament, you can also discover what ordinary life was like during those times by doing a communism walking tour of Bucharest or visiting a time-capsule communist museum.
Table of contents
Read our article to get an idea of how life during Romania’s communist regime was like, Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, major communist landmarks, attractions and tours you should visit if you’re interested in this subject.
King Michael I and Romania's 1st communist PM Petru Groza
1. Communist party comes to power (1944-1947)
In 1944 King Michael I of Romania organized a coup d’état to overthrow the pro-Nazi government of Ion Antonescu. This enabled the Red Army’s advance on the Eastern front and is said to have shortened WWII by six months. During the political instability caused by the coup, the Romanian Communist Party (then Romanian Workers’ Party) led by Petru Groza, a minor and illegal party during the interwar period, obtained ideological endorsement and increasing support thanks to propaganda and Soviet military presence in the country.
During 1945-1947, with the involvement and pressure of the USSR – while the Allies closed their eyes (in agreement with Europe’s division agreed at the 1945 Yalta Conference), the Communist Party obtained key position within the state and ultimately assumed power in Romania, forcing King Michael almost at gunpoint into exile in December 1947. The democratic Kingdom of Romania was officially ‘over’ on 30 December 1947 when the People’s Republic of Romania was proclaimed (not part of the Soviet Union, mind you).
2. Transformation of Romanian society (1948-1965)
After the communist party came to power in Romania, a profound transformation process began. Political opponents, aristocrats, businessmen and intellectuals were persecuted and imprisoned, their wealth and private property confiscated. The private economy was nationalized: banks and large businesses now belonged to the state, private enterprises were banned, the land of ‘boyars’ confiscated and put into collective farming. A massive industrialization process began and huge factories were built which forced people to move from rural areas to cities (hence the communist apartment buildings).
Gheorghiu-Dej (center) with USSR's leader Nikita Kruschev (right). Nicolae Ceausescu on Dej's left
Soon enough, all forms of opposition were eliminated and power resided solely in with the Communist Party. History books were rewritten and the party’s propaganda apparatus was busy at work. With the Soviet military still in the country, Romanians were effectively prisoners with no choice. The Communist Party’s first secretary, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, was running the show through various frontmen until 1955 when he became the country’s Prime Minister. Seeing that his ‘leadership’ and the drastic changes in Romanian society were going smoothly, in 1958 the USSR agreed to withdraw its army from Romania - a premiere among countries forming the Eastern European communist block.
3. Nicolae Ceausescu’s rise to power (1965-1971)
Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965 and was succeeded by his young protégée Nicolae Ceausescu. Uneducated and coming from a poor peasant family with 10 children, he climbed the ranks of the Party and to everyone’s astonishment, publicly spoke against some of the policies and the cult of personality of his predecessor.
The first part of Ceausescu’s rule looked like a period of relative liberalization as he wanted to build the image of an independent communist leader, distancing himself from Moscow. Ceausescu publicly opposed the military intervention to crush the Prague Spring rebellion in 1968, which opened up diplomatic relations with Western Europe and the United States. French president Charles de Gaulle visited Bucharest in 1968 and US president Richard Nixon followed in 1969, Ceausescu returning the visit in Washington in 1970. Another premiere among the communist countries of Europe!
Romania was the only communist country to receive a visit from a US president
Internally, things seemed to go well too: foreign movies were shown in cinemas and books were once again translated, the reputation of several historians and writers was reinstated and the mandatory Soviet school literature was replaced with Romanian authors. The 1965 constitution even encouraged entrepreneurship and the Party started allocating funds to build flats so everyone could own a house. People had jobs, security and a sense of equal opportunities and treatment - the 'Golden Age' as this period was known.
4. Ceausescu’s dictatorship begins (1971-1989)
Ceausescu’s policies and views swiftly change course after he visits the People's Republic of China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia in 1971. Deeply impressed with the cult of personality built around these countries’ leaders, Ceausescu issued the July Theses, a speech that proclaimed a new cultural revolution in Romania with nationalistic tendencies. The strict guidelines of socialism were reinstated and the internal security agency known as Securitate became even more powerful and feared. This marked the beginning of Ceausescu’s dictatorship and personality cult. Mass indoctrination, state propaganda and huge ‘celebratory’ events became the norm.
The Ceausescu couple and their personality cult
His wife, Elena Ceausescu, was promoted in high offices and soon became the second most powerful authority in the country. She had no formal education and besides vanity and grandiose titles had very little to contribute. Many say she was responsible for more than half of the bad decisions Ceausescu made, often times interrupting meetings on whims and overturning decisions with no justification.
Blinded by megalomania, the Romanian dictator started massive industrial projects such as the House of People (Palace of Parliament) and the Danube - Black Sea Waterway. Meanwhile, Romanian society was crumbling under the devastating effects of unsustainable economic policies: agricultural and industrial outputs were decided based on unrealistic 5-year plans and everyone was lying to ‘achieve’ them.
In the early 1980s living standards started to degrade as Ceausescu was obsessed with paying off all of Romania’s external debt. All production was repurposed for exports and the Party introduced rationing of food and common goods. People had to queue for bread, meat, fruits and gasoline while hot water, electricity and national television was available only for a couple of hours a day. Heating during winter was unheard of. Meanwhile, the propaganda and parades for the “Genius of the Carpathians” were pushing people to their limits…
100,000 protested against communism in Timisoara
5. The December 1989 anticommunist revolution
Unhappy with Ceausescu’s austerity measures, Romanians started showing small signs of civil unrest through strikes and anti-communist manifestos, but these were quickly suppressed by the Party and feared Securitate. However in December 1989 while Ceausescu was on an official visit to Iran, local resentment escalated into a full-blown anticommunist protest in Timisoara. The military used force and although workers were brought in from the rest of the country to stop the revolution ‘naturally’ – they ended up joining the protest. The authorities finally lost control and Timisoara was proclaimed a free city on December 20, 1989. The anticommunist revolution in Timisoara was the spark that ignited protests in the rest of the country.
Ceausescu's last speech - watch him at 1:15 surprised as the crowds begin to shout
Ceausescu accused foreign interference and organized a support rally in Bucharest on December 21 in what is now called Piata Revolutiei (Revolution Square). This turned out to be a disaster: people interrupted the dictator’s speech and protested against the regime, which took the Ceausescu couple by surprise. They tried to flee Bucharest by helicopter but were captured in Targoviste and briskly sentenced to death by an improvised military tribunal on charges of genocide, damage to the national economy and abuse of power. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed through shooting on Christmas Day 1989.
The Army was called in to stop the anticommunist revolution
Meanwhile, the protests in Bucharest and other cities took a violent turn: the army opened fire on the population with tanks marching through the streets. Widespread panic, chaos and violence ensued for the following days. Romania was the only country of the Soviet Block to free itself from communist rule through a violent revolution. By the latest estimates, more than 3,000 people died during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and more than 5,000 were injured. In less than 10 days, 42 years of communist regime, the Romanian dictator and an entire state organization came to an end.
6. Communist attractions to visit in Romania
If you’re planning to visit Romania and are interested to learn more about our country’s communist times, there are several important and representative communist attractions you can visit, and ways to experience what life was like in those times.
If you’re looking for tours about communism in Romania keep in mind that finding knowledgeable guides that give you accurate historical information and stories (among so much disinformation or even lack of interest!) is more important than actually visiting a sight. We work with trained historic guides and can help you plan your trip – just contact us!
- The Palace of Parliament
Arguably the most iconic communist landmark in Bucharest and Romania, the Palace of Parliament is a colossal 330,000-sq-metre building with more than 3,000 rooms. Initially called “The People’s House” the building was ordered by Ceausescu after visiting North Korea. Construction started in 1984 and today the Palace of Parliament is the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
Led by 28-years-old architect Anca Petrescu, 700 architects and almost 100,000 people worked on designing and building this massive structure. To make space for it, Ceausescu ordered the demolition of 2.7 square miles of Bucharest’s old city center. The finest materials and decorations of Romanian origins were used for its huge halls, corridors, meeting rooms and offices.
Official tours inside the Parliament Palace talk only about the building so if you want to find out facts about Romania’s communist regime consider booking our complete communism tour of Bucharest with a knowledgeable guide that will take you inside the Palace and also visiting Ceausescu’s House.
Start from: Bucharest
- Ceausescu’s House (Vila Primaverii)
During Gheorghiu-Dej’s regime, the residents of Primaverii Boulevard (an up-scale residential neighborhood of Bucharest) were kicked out of their homes to be replaced with influential party members. New villas were also built including one for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Measuring more than 5,000 square meters, the mansion known as Vila Primaverii was finished in the mid-1960s and is a perfect representation of the defiant opulence of communist leaders.
It has more than 80 rooms, a pool, a winter garden and even a private cinema. From the silk-covered walls and African ivory sculptures to the lavish tapestries and handmade fine porcelains, the mansion is an eclectic blend of Eastern and Western decorations. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu with their 3 children lived here between 1965 and 1989. The mansion opened to visitors in 2016 but the official tour does not offer any insights into Ceausescu’s private life and daily routine – so consider our Bucharest communism tour above.
If you want to see how the lives of ordinary people looked like – in complete contrast to that of Ceausescu, book this communist time-capsule experience to visit an apartment with well-preserved objects, decorations and facts of life from those times.
- Revolution Square in Bucharest
On December 21 1989, Ceausescu organized a huge rally of about 100,000 people in Revolution (then “Palace”) Square in a desperate effort to end the anti-communist movement. It was the dictator’s last public speech as the anticommunist revolution started before his eyes. The square was renamed after 1989 to honor the fallen heroes of the revolution.
Revolution Square is an important communist attraction in Bucharest and home to the former Royal Palace (now the National Museum of Art of Romania), the Romanian Athenaeum, the Athénée Palace Hotel (where all stories of espionage originate from) and the Monument of Rebirth, a memorial for the victims of 1989 revolution. Book our communist walking tour to learn more about these sights
- Union Square in Timisoara
Union Square in Timisoara houses the Opera to the North and the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral to the South, two of the city’s most important landmarks. But apart from being a beautiful representation of Baroque architecture, the Union Square is also the place where the 1989 anticommunism revolution began and where hundreds of people were killed by the military trying to stop the protests. Some buildings still have bullet holes.
If you’re going to Timisoara also consider visiting the Communist Consumer Museum located in Scârț Bar to see a collection of items from communist times
- The Military Garrison at Târgoviște
As the people they summoned to Palace Square started to boo them and chant anticommunism slogans, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu tried to flee the country by helicopter but were captured in the city of Targoviste, about 47 miles from Bucharest. After a quick trial, on Christmas Day they were both executed through shooting.
The military garrison where this happened was turned into a communist museum where guides explain the significance of this bloody event in Romanian history. The bullet holes and body outlines are still visible on the wall where the two were executed, and you can also enter the small room where the trial took place.
- Victims of Communism Memorial
The now bright and yellow building in Sighetu Marmatiei in Maramures, North-Western Romania, was one of the darkest and most feared communist prison where the regime’s political opponents and dissidents were tortured and killed, especially during the first years of communism.
After the 1989 Revolution, the Victims of Communism Memorial Museum was set up and each cell was turned into a museum room with photos, personal belongings of the prisoners and chilling stories of the lives and torture they had to endure. A sad but powerful visiting experience that shows the dark side of Romania’s communist history.
- Transfagarasan Road aka Ceaușescu's Folly
Built at the height of Ceausescu’s power between 1970-1974, Transfagarasan Highway is a winding mountain road crossing Fagaras Mts, the highest in Romania, to connect the historical regions of Transylvania and Wallachia. Despite the technical difficulty of building a road going from plains to 2,200m altitude, Ceausescu ordered it to ensure quick military access across the mountains in case of a Soviet invasion.
Built at great human cost and using dynamite to blast the mountains, Transfagarasan Road is now one of Romania’s top attractions and offers impressive views of Transylvania.