The Secrets of Bucharest’s ‘Old Town’

Bucharest is not an historic city, but it is rich in history. The distinction turns out to be important both for our understanding of Romania, politics, and historiography more generally. Emanuela Grama uses the politics that surrounded the Old Town of Bucharest over the past century to force us to reconsider the constitution of the state, the relationship between identity and ideology, and the balance in historical development between grand narratives and incremental change. Moreover, she does all this by demonstrating that the study of history and the stuff of history are rarely if ever the same.

The big theme is arguably the most important. Grama’s explicit goal is to show how Romanian political leaders instrumentalized the notions of history and heritage in order to extract political advantages. Sometimes those advantages came in the form of freedom of movement, as when political leaders in the 1950s elevated stories about the Old Town of Bucharest in order to explain their deviation from Soviet-style architecture alongside their embrace of a more ethnically pure notion of Romanian society. The facts that the architecture of the Old Town was unrepresentative of the classical ‘Romanian’ styles and that the people who lived there had long been more diverse than the rest of the country hardly seemed to matter for the strategy to work.

The problem arises, however, when archeologists discover enough ruins amidst the rubble in the center of the city to begin giving a physical presence to the narrative. At that point, political efforts to rebuild the Old Town as a vibrant city center collide with bureaucratic politics inside the civic administration and the professional conflict between archeologists and architects. The history of the city evolves in the form of anonymous letters, memoranda, reports, and decisions, even as the grand strategy for rebuilding the city center crumbles alongside the neighborhood that was supposed to anchor it.

Grama’s narrative takes an unexpected and yet, in hindsight, oddly predictable turn in the 1970s and early 1980s, as the Romanian political leadership abandons the Old Town in order to build the giant monuments to megalomania for which the country quickly became famous. The fact that the Old Town she has painstakingly documented to be a focal point for political debate is so thoroughly eclipsed by these monstrosities explains why the Old Town is not historic in the sense of grand or important; Grama continues to pursue the history of that part of the city nonetheless.

What she finds is a microcosm of misdirection, corruption, and backroom dealing. At times she tries to imbue this welter of activity with a sense of overarching purpose. What comes across through her narrative, however, is a toxic mixture of opportunity, self-interest, and ruthlessness. Time and again politicians who have access to information use that to their personal economic advantage; time and again their victims choose to stay hidden rather than attract unwanted attention.

The result is devastating for both the neighborhood and the people who inhabit it. Tragically, many of those inhabitants have no alternative. Grama says they have no history or right to heritage in the eyes of the system that dominates their society. She is surely right from the perspective of grand narrative. But these people and this part of Bucharest do have a history and that history is worth learning. Grama does a brilliant job bringing that story to our attention and explain why we should care. Her book deserves to be widely read.

This review was originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Survival.  You can find the edited version here.

Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania. By Emanuela Grama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. Xviii + 247 pp.