Ceaşescu’s regime was notable for a number of reasons, none of them especially positive, but one which distinguished it from most other regimes in Eastern Europe between 45 and 89 was the policy of “Systematisation”. This basically involved uprooting villagers and placing them in purpose built “agro-industrial centres”, basically large concrete apartment blocks built around a central monolithic civic centre. In towns and cities, the old centres were often destroyed to make way for these new civic centres. My own town, for example, has this ridiculous windswept vast concrete plaza in its centre, surrounded by ugly modern concrete blocks. It’s a bit like Coventry except that in least in Coventry they had the excuse that the entire town had bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe. In Romania they had to artificially create the conditions for rebuilding in the new image (i.e. by knocking all the old towns down.) In Bucharest they destroyed vast swathes of the old town, to international condemnation, to build the “Palace of the People”, Ceaşescu’s greatest folly, which according to my book is now the second biggest building in the world (after the Pentagon).
The purpose of all this destruction and architectural criminality was to (and I quote) “wipe out radically the major differences between towns and villages; to bring the working and living conditions of the working people in the countryside closer to those in the towns”. The apartment buildings were to ensure that “the community fully dominates and controls the individual” and will therefore create Romania’s “new socialist man”. Wading past the communist slogans, I think this means that by forcing people out the communities that generations had created and sustained, systematisation would create new and harmonious super communities where workers and peasants would live cheek by jowl and fully come together for the glory of Romania.
Since 89 of course, many people have been moving back in the opposite direction, out of the towns and back into the countryside, which is among the most fertile in Europe (although not, for the last 50 years or so, among the most productive). I’m struck by the similarities between a policy which deigned to impose “community’ from the top down (when community is something that has always succeeded organically and from the bottom up, as it were), and the desire by another modern-day regime to impose democracy from the top down, when like community, democracy is something which has always come from below. The second biggest and the biggest building in the world are linked by more than just size.
To get back to the travelogue section, there are some towns in Romania that seemingly escaped systematisation – either because they were too isolated or unimportant for the process to have yet begun when it was abandoned. Two towns near here fit into this category – Székelyudvarhely and Gyergyószentmiklós (Odorheiu Secuiesc and Gheorgeni in Romanian), but so remote and poor were they that they’re still not exactly attractive – particularly the latter. Other more important towns seem to have survived by having their new civic centres built outside the old heart. Sighişoara for example retained its gorgeous old medieval heart, as for the most part did Braşov, and I’m led to believe, Sibiu and Cluj also (though I’ve not visited either of those towns yet). This means that these towns have really attractive centres which would melt any tourist’s heart, but also have some incredibly grim and depressing looking suburbs. Braşov in particular seems to be a study in contrasts. It’s a stunning and really interesting Baroque Saxon town, with small streets, a great main square and some very interesting churches, surrounded by some of the most suicidally awful looking apartments, factories and general grimness.
So, systematisation. - A bad thing. I could have said it in five words, clearly, but as ever, I chose to do so in many more. The next time a management consultant comes to your workplace and challenges you to systematise your workplace (and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the word gets reinvented and thrust into service for this purpose), bear in mind that thus far in history systematisation has been a method of oppression and an abject failure. Then tell them where to stick it.