Soundscapes of Stalinism

Acoustical Experiences in Bucharest in the 1940s and 1950s

Błażej Brzostek

In the summer of 1957, the 74-year-old French aristocrat and officer Guy de Courson de la Villeneuve flew to Bucharest. He was invited to the celebration for the anniversary of the French military mission in Romania, which in 1917 helped to modernize the Romanian army. The invitation itself testified to a certain political thaw in Bucharest, which allowed for limited and symbolic but important contacts with the West after ten years of almost complete closure of the country by the ruling communists. Guy de Courson had seen Bucharest forty years earlier. He remembered the capital of the kingdom as a city of four hundred thousand, with a fairly compact downtown that displayed the prosperity of the bourgeoisie and the vast low suburbs. Now he was returning to the capital of the communist state, which had been subjected to a social revolution for a decade, growing as an industrial center with nearly a million more people than in 1917. As he approached the city, he saw a sea of light. But looking at the city during the day erased the image of a great metropolis. The silence in public places stands out to de Courson. He describes the people on café terraces as being silent or talking softly, which he attributes to the fear of spies. The city’s main street, Calea Victoriei, which he remembers as full of people talking boisterously and gathering in lively groups, is now filled with a “gloomy, almost silent” crowd.[1] The ambulant sellers, so characteristic of former Bucharest, are gone (Grandhomme 2000: esp. 250, 289). All this gives the streets a different mood and a different sound than the newly-returned de Courson had recalled. The sound impressions were, therefore, primarily related to the change that occurred.[2]


During the same period, 1956-1957, foreigners began to visit Bucharest, and reports appeared in the international press about Romania as a rediscovered and surprisingly “Latin” socialist republic about which little was known. There was, however, the old interwar cliché of a “little Paris” and a “merry city,” which these reports confronted with their assessments of the atmosphere of Bucharest at the time. A Swiss journalist stated that the description of Bucharest as a merry city was out of date and that “laughter is not the tendency of the people of Bucharest” (Heer 1956: 1). Here, the journalist’s sound impression – especially of silence, calm, and lack of mirth – referred to the contrast between a portrayal conjured by his imagination and reality.