in the beginningThe first known documentation of Bucharest as a city was found in 1459, when it was mentioned as one of the homes of none other than Vlad the Impaler. For those who don’t recognize the reference, Vlad was the true Dracula that the legends have been based on for hundreds of years. Despite this gruesome history, Bucharest has remained an important presence in the area ever since.
Originally, the city became popular as a favorite spot for Vlad’s court when he was king of the country known as Wallachia. Perhaps because of this royal favor, the city was sacked and all but destroyed no less than three times between 1476 and 1594. It lay close to ruins until the mid-1600s, when another member of the Wallachian royal family decided to locate his court there.
Unfortunately, Prince Matei Basarab’s favor didn’t result in lasting prosperity for the city. It was sacked yet again, this time by the Transylvanians, in 1655. The next 30 years were not good to Bucharest, with famine and great plagues decimating the population.
Through the years, Bucharest came under control of the Ottoman Empire, which acted as an overlord to the country. Wallachia was a province of the empire as was its neighbor, Moldavia. These two principalities would eventually combine with Transylvania to become the nation of Romania, but that wouldn’t be until the late 1800s.
The first Russo-Turkish War (1828-29) was ended by the treaty known as the Peace of Adrianople. This agreement resulted in the Russian occupation of Bucharest. The Tsar put a General Kiseleff in charge of the city. Luckily, the general was rather a Renaissance man. He put a lot of effort into modernizing the city, including building new paved roads, adding a water and sewer system, and building both schools and hospitals throughout the city.
After the Russian army was withdrawn from the city, Russian still maintained oversight over Wallachia, although it was technically still under Ottoman rule. In 1824, the Russians and Turks jointly appointed Alexandru Chica as the Prince of Wallachia, completely bypassing the country’s internal government, the Wallachian Assembly. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with many and there was a lot of unrest during this period.
Bucharest was the center of power in Wallachia and as such, bore the brunt of the unrest. Not only were the Turks and the Russians a threat to stability but the citizens were rebelling. The Ottomans took over the city completely in 1848 to bring an end to the unrest and the city remained under Ottoman occupation until 1851.
The Crimean War began in 1853, at least in part due to atrocities committed against Christians under the Ottoman Empire. Russia were outraged at what they perceived as discrimination againt Orthodox Christians and went to war against the Ottoman Empire. France, England and Sardinia allied with the Ottomans against Russia. This war caused incredible instability across Europe as well as disrupting sea trade.
The Russians were ultimately defeated in that war and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856. The treaty put Bucharest back under Ottoman power, but allowed for more independence with its own constitution and assembly.
along came the kingThe Kingdom of Romania came into being in 1881, following the Russo-Turkish War and the countries subsequent independence from the Ottoman Empire. This constitutional monarchy was first ruled by King Carol 1 of Romania.
Just twenty years previously Bucharest had secured the coveted title of capital city of the kingdom, a hard earned victory made possible by the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia, which had joined together to form the Principality of Romania.
Late 19th century Bucharest was a booming city. One which boasted fine architecture, cutting edge art and a reputation for being rather cosmopolitan and sophisticated in all things cultural. The nickname ‘Little Paris’ was pertinent and well deserved, although this aspect of Bucharest life was to be relatively short lived.
There was trouble brewing on the horizon, largely as a result of Romania’s aggressive acquisition of neighbouring territories such as the long coveted Southern Dobrudja. However, the government’s decision to get involved in the Balkan War against the Ottomans netted them more than just a sought after prize.
Resentment over these expanding boundaries was brewing amongst Romania’s powerful neighbours. Domestically, things were becoming equally unsettled. An expanding ethnic minority population struggled with the challenges of assimilation, while Jewish citizens were facing growing anti-Semitism.
World War I triggered further changes to Bucharest’s fate. Between 1916 – 1918 the German occupation resulted in the Bucharest losing its prized capital city status to Iasi. Post-hostilities Bucharest regained its previous title, becoming the capital of Greater Romania, but any possibility of clawing back its glory days were not to be.
The 1929 economic crash led to unemployment, social unrest and industrial action which scarred Bucharest long after its financial recovery. By the mid-1930s nationalism was on the rise, along with rumours of a Jewish takeover. Both ideologies found representation in the governments of the period.
A series of tit-for-tat assassinations were to follow, beginning with Liberal Prime Minister Ion Duca, who was murdered just nineteen days after he dissolved the Iron Guard in 1933. Five years later King Carol imprisoned their leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. He was killed during an alleged escape attempt soon after, although many believe he was actually murdered as payback for other Iron Guard related killings. The cycle continued when in September 1939 the new prime minister was assassinated; an act intended to avenge Codreaunu’s untimely death.
A fatal political mistake was made when Bucharest city officials opted to support the Germans during World War II. Allies bombed the city incessantly until Royal intervention saw Romania change sides. Unfortunately the city was targeted by German bombs instead, causing severe unrest and paving the way for a Soviet-backed government to take control.
Following the gradual loss of regions to neighbouring countries the Kingdom began to dissolve. In 1940 King Carol was forced to stand down after naming general Ion Antonescu as the ruling prime minister. The end of an era came in December 1947, when King Michael 1 abdicated under orders from the Soviet Union and its allies. The monarchy was replaced by a socialist republic governed by the Romanian Communist Party.
Post WW2 Communist Era
The political landscape of Bucharest changed dramatically as World War II came to an end. Occupation by the Soviet Union allies created an opportunity for the formerly outlawed Romanian Communist Party to gain credibility and governmental power. Their stealthy approach ultimately led to a majority voice, forcing the abdication of King Michael and the establishment of the People’s Republic of Romania.
In the following two decades Romania’s communist government pushed for independence from the Soviet Union, keen to be free from this financially draining relationship. The country was ripe for change, and Nicolae Ceausescu was ready to lead the charge.
Ceausescu had the background and authority for such a role. He became head of the Communist Party in 1965, and head of state shortly after. In 1974 he took on the position of President, enjoying initial popularity both at home and internationally. Things looked promising for Romania, both economically and culturally, yet less than a decade later Ceausescu became a hated dictator, responsible for causing untold misery to his people before his totalitarian government was ousted in late 1989.
To understand why this occurred a number of important events and policy decisions must be considered.
In 1966 Ceausescu acted on his concerns over the country’s low birth rates by severely restricting access to contraception and abortion. The unmarried and childless couples were fined and/or forced to undergo physical examinations.
In 1971, after visiting North Korea and China he became smitten with their socio-political systems, believing that Romanian society could seriously benefit from adopting similar ideologies of nationalistic belief combined with government control. As a result conservation projects in Bucharest were halted and a subway system developed.
The major Bucharest earthquake of 1977 aided his plans, with many historic buildings in the city being judged unsafe and razed to the ground. No thought was given to saving or rebuilding important monuments.
Ceausescu may have improved his people’s living conditions by providing newly built apartments and facilitating a much higher weekly wage, but the majority were still relatively badly off compared to the rest of Europe. Signs of unrest were on the horizon.
While Ceausescu poured the profits from increased industrial production into his personal plans for a palatial home, his government introduced food, petrol, gas and electricity rationing. They simultaneously increased their control of the population through censorship, informant networks, bugging devices and other forms of civilian monitoring.
With much of the Eastern bloc undergoing reforms Ceausescu was pressured to make changes. He chose to ignore all criticisms, concentrating instead on further developing his vision of Bucharest as an industrial powerhouse.
In 1987 an anti-communist riot took place in Brasov, and unusually, the event was publicised through a radio station. Despite severe punishments for those involved this riot was only the first of many. Buoyed by a large population of angry young people, (ironically a group whose number was swelled massively by Ceausescu’s earlier anti-contraception mandate), revolution was inevitable.
In late December 1989 over a thousand people lost their lives in the struggle to overthrow the communist government and regain their freedom.
the turning pointThe 1989 Romanian Revolution brought an end to 42 years of Communist Party rule. Three days after escaping Bucharest on December 22nd the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, (formerly the deputy Prime Minister), were charged with crimes including genocide and misuse of power, and executed by firing squad.
Life had been difficult for most Romanian people for many years. Ceausescu’s focus on eliminating international debt while growing the domestic industrial economy meant most ordinary citizens experienced poverty, intermittent hunger and a life without such basics as a stable utility supply. Meanwhile money was being poured into funding Ceausescu’s self-promotional popularity campaigns. Bucharest residents were evicted so their homes could be demolished and the land used to build various monuments intended to serve this cause. (Many of these follies were never completed, and have since been converted for other uses.)
Although there had been the occasional rebellion through the years, notably the Jiu Valley miners’ strike (1977) and the Brasov rebellion (1987), Ceausescu seemed secure in his leadership role. However, the major changes in eastern Europe, which saw communism fall in neighbouring countries, were to prove his downfall.
In November 1989 Bucharest students openly campaigned for reform right under the nose of the Communist Party congress in Bucharest. Following an investigation into their actions they were released the following month on what was to become the first day of the revolution – 22nd December 1989.
On the previous day Ceausescu attempted to deliver a rousing speech condemning socio-political agitators. Buoyed by a bussed-in audience he spoke at length about the positives of life in Romania under communist rule. He soon discovered that the crowd were not impressed, and for once were not afraid to express their true feelings. Panicked, Ceausescu hastily offered to raise salaries and offer further financial help to students, but to no avail. The revolution was upon him.
Thousands died or were injured during the bloody week of revolutionary actions which ended Ceausescu’s dictatorship, with many fatal incidents recorded in the capital city of Bucharest. A period of civil unrest was to follow, a time when congratulatory messages arrived alongside the food, medicine and clothing which was so badly needed as the National Salvation Front laid the foundations for the political future.
Revolution brought Romanian’s freedom from a communist dictatorship, but the years that followed were not trouble free. The new government used the media to spread their own propaganda, and ruthlessly managed political unrest, their handling of the Mineriad protests being a prime example.
Post-revolution Bucharest has seen many economic and social reforms, including the introduction of a free-market currency, private ownership of land and, since 1991, the privatisation of state-owned institutions. Despite periods of further economic instability and political change Romania has continued to grow and develop as a country.
In 2007 Romania was admitted into the European Union, securing financial aid for the redevelopment of Bucharest’s architectural landscape, and along with it the opportunity to celebrate the rich history of this proud nation.