Our yearly team gathering, when my colleagues come together to spend a week discussing team organization and strategy, has always been in the Basel office. Given that we are spread over four countries and two continents, it is actually the most central place for us to meet, especially to talk to some of the core engineering teams with whom we work. Although this is convenient for me since I don’t have to travel, the truth is, considering my past lives as a peripatetic consultant, I wouldn’t mind occasionally traveling to some place new.
This year, we managed to move away from Basel and hold the gathering in our Bucharest office. After visiting Romania numerous times when we lived in eastern Hungary so long ago, I finally managed to visit its capital. And it is a wonder what the passing of time can do.
When we first visited Romania, places like Timișoara were already up-and-coming as new tech hubs, tapping into the highly-educated population and exploiting the low salaries. However it was a world of extremes. Traveling through Transylvania at the time was like taking a trip one-hundred years back in time. A person was more likely to pass a horse on the road in some places than a car. At the same time, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and the like were setting up shop in urban centers, giving outlet to a generation of new, tech-savvy, and forward-looking geeks.
At the time, it was mind-bending to understand these contrasts and to be honest, I am not sure if we ever really fully did. My colleague, Alexandru, assured me that though Transylvania is still underdeveloped, the days of passing horses on those country roads is coming to an end. And spending a week in Bucharest, seeing nearly everything under construction, it was clear that things are still changing. The usual (tech) suspects are there along with game studios like EA as well as hardware research labs with their office towers at the perimeter of the city. Move a bit more to the city center and between alternating glorious late nineteenth century buildings and stark seventies communist blocks, one finds the obligatory hipster hangouts to cater to the tech community: microbreweries, industrial shabby-chic restaurants, and beard care boutiques.
One can’t help but worry a bit that something authentically Romanian is being lost in this rapid transformation. Given Romania’s very dark history of dictatorship, ending less than thirty years ago, is there perhaps even more reason for the younger generation to look forward, memories of authoritarianism chasing them away from anything tied to those times? And is it pretentious of me having grown up in a liberal democracy to even suggest that an embrace of western modernity should not be what the Romanian people desire?
Coming from a long-established western democracy, it is easy to look down one’s long nose at the old manifestations of former communist rule, shaking one’s head with a kind of condescending pity. Yet even in that one also sees contrasts. Although I am fairly confident in the triumph of democracy over dictatorial socialism, I find myself strangely drawn to monuments of these times. Be it grotesque socialist-realist statues, crumbling housing blocks, or expansive vanity projects, I look to these monuments to try and understand an era where I have no frame of reference.
And yes, if I am being honest, there is a kind of historical voyeuristic titillation as well.
Our Bucharest colleagues took us to the ultimate communist Romanian vanity project: the Palace of the Parliament. It was the pet project of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Originally called the House of the Republic, it was planned to house all organs of the communist government. It is the second-largest administrative building in the world (behind the Pentagon), but easily the most extravagant, taking the “totalitarian kitsch” style to a whole new level.
Sculpted marble, luxurious carpets, opulent crystal chandeliers, brass light fixtures, carved hardwoods: it was hard to not be bowed over by the audacious lavishness. But after passing through a few corridors, we actually started the tour in the bowels of the building. Below stories of sumptuous office and meeting space, we stood in eerie, dim light below gargantuan air handlers on bare dirt floors next to the foundations of the building, where we learned its history.
Feeling envious of other capital city projects in other dictatorships, such as Pyongyang’s city planning, Ceaușescu wanted his own splendid capital, and leveled seven square kilometers of Bucharest’s historic old city, including monasteries, the original National Archives, dozens of factories, and forcibly relocated forty-thousand people to create the space for it. At the height of construction it is estimated that about one-hundred thousand people worked on the site in three shifts. Much of the army and countless “volunteers” worked on the building, costing thousands of lives directly due to the working conditions, which were understandably harsh considering the colossal 365,000 square meter (four million square foot) building was substantially complete in only five years.
The true tragedy however were the indirect costs. Ignoring what his cult of personality said about him, Ceaușescu was trained as a cobbler and wasn’t quite the brilliant statesman and administrator that any country would need. Financial mismanagement and rampant nepotism led to crushing foreign debts in the early eighties, which a paranoid Ceaușescu was eager to eliminate in order to assert the independence of the nation. To do so, he began exporting almost all of Romania’s agricultural and industrial production to pay down the debt, leading to food rationing as well as heating, gas, and electricity blackouts. As his people froze and starved, he spent an estimated three billion euros on his parliament apparently unaware that the same money could easily buy food for his citizens.
On the roof of the hulking monstrosity, overlooking the city, we tried to come to grips with these contrasts: the triumph of the will on the backs (and graves) of the people. Beautifully ornate construction against wiping away a good part of a city’s history and a good number of its citizens. We were left wondering: what should a person feel?
Maybe in the end, the answer is not to feel anything at all. Maybe all one can do is try to understand.
As we looked over Bucharest, struggling to find the correct words to express ourselves, our US colleagues made some well-meaning but awkward comments about the horrors that communism wrought, with the unfortunate, self-satisfied implication of democracy’s superiority. My colleague Alexandru thought about this for a moment, hand to his chin. He finally replied, “It’s true, we have had to live with the legacy of communism’s horrors. But only late twentieth century, western, liberal capitalism could have given the world David Hasselhof’s cover of Hooked on a Feeling.”