The square concrete shell of a building stands alone. Its windows long gone, flowers and weeds grow from the empty frames, spilling out of the structure. Overgrown grass hides the entrance. Next door, a recently built administrative building is adorned with Romanian flare – a steep terra-cotta tile roof, dark wood embellishments around windows and doors, a small protruding window terrace adorned with flowers. The hopefulness and industriousness of the second building does its best to conceal the sad desperation of the first, its colors and friendliness beckoning you to look its way.
But the past still remains. In concrete. In shadows.
Our experience with post-Communist cities in Europe is growing every year, as we take to the lesser visited and more obscure corners of Europe.
The spiel we inevitably get on a city’s free walking tour is a version of this: Look at our beautifully rebuilt and redesigned city. Here is the old part of town that was mostly untouched/completely destroyed by the war. This plaza was a parking lot for 50 years during the Communist era. Don’t worry, now it’s been restored to the gathering place it once was. Our country and economy is still recovering from many years of harsh economic rule. You can see this in our high poverty rates and cheap currency. But we are hopeful and patriotic and we’re repainting the Communist buildings and repurposing as much as we can.
Without minimizing any individual country’s experience with Communism, it is fascinating to hear about the similarities that 50 years of Communist rule had over a group of nations.
As a kid in the United States, my memories of the fall of the Soviet Union and the revitalization of Europe are simplistic to say the least.
I recall lots of newspaper headlines about the Iron Curtain. I remember Gorbachev and Thatcher showing up on the front page. I knew in 1991 that the USSR was now back to Russia and about a dozen other independent countries. I remember that this was all good news and that the issues and strife were now solved, so to speak.
I never learned how long recovery actually took, or is taking in some places. I don’t remember hearing that the politicians that took office after the end of Communism were, in most cases, previous Communist leaders under a new party name. All the politicians of a generation were Communist, which took years to change.
The road to prosperity was slow, and for many citizens, things got worse before they got better. 50 years of rule doesn’t get reversed overnight.
One of my favorite parts about visiting this area of the world is hearing about the transformation of the past 25 years. For many capital cities, there has been extraordinary growth, a new embrace of national culture, pride in belonging to the European Union as an independent nation, and rapid modernization.
I love hearing about the revitalization of churches and town squares, the rebuilding of historic city walls, the recovery of land and artifacts, the retribution of an abandoned palace to its rightful owners.
And yes, it’s complicated. It’s always more complicated than I like to think. More complicated than a news story or a posted description on a museum wall. I get that.
For every nearly abandoned palace (see below, the Palace of the Parliament building in Bucharest, Romania currently at 50% occupancy), there is a brand new administrative building. One with a terra-cotta tiled roof. And window boxes. And hope, always hope.