The Dogs of Bucharest


It’s midnight and two dogs are digging up the grounds of the old Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest. They scamper over as I pass by doggy smiles on their faces, as if to say ‘look what we’re doing.’

Nicolae Ceau ºescu

Wild dogs are everywhere in this city they’re its most distinctive feature. Old family pets, or progeny thereof released when Communist leader Nicolae Ceau ºescu had a chunk of the city demolished, making 100,000 people homeless the dogs were let loose, formed into packs and, in the early 1990s, they took over.

The problem has never been properly tackled in this fascinating, filthy city. Every street seems to have two or three of them, just hanging out, allowing you to be there, under sufferance. As they say of sharks, they’ll only attack you if they really feel like it.

Seven thousand Bucharestians were treated for dogbite last year. In January, a wild dog bit the President of the Japanese-Romanian Friendship Society while he was walking in Piata Romana, one of the city’s main squares. The dog bit through an artery and he bled to death, in the centre of Bucharest.

But they are mostly harmless and they soften the edges of a harsh city place of tragedy and triumph that it bears out British writer Saki’s remark that the area ‘produces more history than it can locally consume.’

When Romania emerged from the nightmare of Ceau ºescu’s reign, it slipped into a less lethal but still corrosive decade of institutionalised corruption on a scale beyond that of any other post-communist nation, save for mother Russia. Any publisher looking for a cover image for a posthumous re-issue of the much-lamented JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society could do worse than a photo of central Bucharest, where private prosperity and public squalor meet in a manner that most people associate with Africa rather than Europe.

Beneath the grime is a beautiful, if mucked about, city with a trove of medieval, belle epoque, and art deco architecture. Even the communist 1950s and 1960s concrete has been rendered in a more Italianate style than elsewhere. But the concrete was cheap, and the smog has soaked it black. The city fills with dust and grime a proportion of it, I presume, asbestos and when it rains, mud flows into the broken asphalt and makes whole streets impassable.

Amid this scumble is the new Romania, the Standard East European Post-Communist State, only more so. One could give this social model its own acronym SEEPCS so regular are its features.

The SEEPCS involves five distinct social classes:

1) Western expatriates from the banking and corporate sector, whose dollar/sterling/euro salaries give them a wealth beyond that of almost all the natives.

2) The local wealthy a mixture of ex-apparatchiks (who morphed into business leaders overnight), a second generation of much younger, honest entrepreneurs, and a third group of organised criminals who emerged from communist, black market activity.

3) The virtually null set of the middle class.

4) The vast majority, who live on around AUD$100 a week.

5) The destitute principally the old, many of whom lost their savings in pyramid-style get-rich schemes in the 1990s.

These class divisions result in a de facto division of urban areas. Expat/wealthy areas spring up around the Hilton/Marriott/Radisson hotels and small neighbourhoods designed to service their needs congregate around thesm.

As the old joke goes: Under capitalism man exploits man; under communism it is the reverse. Under communism, the secret police prevented Romanians from entering shops where luxuries (such as meat) could be had. Under capitalism, prices and exchange rates do the trick.

SEEPCS also have a rapid hi-tech turnover amid the collapse of infrastructure. Thus, the gypsy woman selling eggs from a basket outside the Metro has a mobile phone. But the Metro station itself is falling apart literally. The concrete staircase has crumbled to the degree that it’s impassable.

And there’s a fetishism for unattainable lifestyles that’s hardly unique to Eastern Europe, but in SEEPCS like Romania the separation between the Californian visions of hard-bodied lotus land available on cable TV, and the dun, exhausting reality is categorical.

The flipside to this fantasy is the popularity of US gangsta style the clothes, the bling, the rap, the salving antidote to frustration and powerlessness far beyond its typical Western demographic.

This fantasy is also fuelled by an expansion of the sex industry to the degree that it starts transforming the totality of gender relations. It’s difficult to get Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Ruined Maid’ out of your head when you see the pretty, painted girls moving among their tired, pale, minimum-wage sisters. ‘High class girls’ muttered the taxi driver, as we saw two sleekly dressed teenagers clack-clack out of an expat haunt. They were probably daughters of a Citibank executive, but like the driver, I assumed they were hookers.

Romanian Street Children

This sort of East European, post-communist gothic oversimplifies a more complex and mundane reality, but no too much. Sure, Romanians go to supermarkets, watch the local version of Neighbours, and wash their cars on the weekend, but corruption and the sex industry are two elements the Government is focusing on in a frantic effort to get the country into shape for its planned entry into the European Union in 2007.

Many now think it is unlikely not because of the sex industry, but because of corruption within the judiciary, many of whom are ex-communist apparatchiks who ran the place in the 1990s. Without substantial reform, so the story goes, Romania will become the Lagos of the EU, giving organised crime a base within the walls.

Most suspect the real reason is that Romania is in the too-hard basket, and the EU would like to avoid spending the money they know they would need to spend on it.

Part of the reason Romania is such a mess is that after World War II, it got neither a liberalising, market-socialist government, nor a torpid Brezhnevite one it got Ceau ºescu , whose minor 1960s liberalisation and much-praised independent foreign policy were merely preludes to his search for an alternative model for the development of ‘new socialist man.’

Ceau ºescu found it in North Korea’s Juche stalinism. Applying it in Romania involved paying off accumulated International Monetary Fund debt by food export thus starving the population while waging a campaign to abolish the village society of the country’s two million Hungarians and collect them into large high rise agricultural cities. His crowning effort was the demolition of a quarter of old Bucharest to build the gigantic ‘Palace of the People’ to glorify the cult of his personality.

Aside from Albania, nothing as crazy as this happened anywhere else in the region, and it’s not something a society just gets over. Oppression and suffering acquire an extra dimension when they are farcical as well as tragic Ceacescu’s last decade was not just hard and lethal, it was also ludicrous and futile.

Many want to forget and move on not least, much of the political class, which has been trying to avoid any sort of official reckoning. But others want to kick over the traces, and they’ve finally prevailed an inquiry into the activities of the Securitate, the secret police, began last week. It wil
l be a long one the organisation blackmailed up to a third of the population into being informers, and has kilometres of documents in archive.

What this inquiry will do to society is anyone’s guess, but many worry that it may overshadow the drive to get into the EU and out of the past.

It’s impossible to know, on such a brief acquaintance, how much its traumatic past accounts for current features of Romanian society a slowness to trust, an abrasive and even bitter quality to everyday life. There have been books, analysis, history, memoirs but nothing central. No truth and reconciliation commission.

Nothing but the dogs, of course the only subjects Ceau ºescu ever set free who treat the city as a garden, who sleep with the beggars, who eye you off in the middle of the street, and do not step back.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.