Bucharest After 1947: Freedom and Fear of the Night


On 30 December 1947, King Michael I was forced to abdicate, and the history of the Romanian kingdom ended. The founding of a republic was announced. One diarist noted that people rejoiced and danced in front of the royal palace, “shouting enthusiasm for the new regime under the watchful eye of official film cameras” (Bentoiu 2007: 269). The scene was to be a picture of the inauthenticity of the new order, imposed by force, but presented as an expression of the will of the people.


The public sphere was annexed by the regime and subjected to theatricalization: any spontaneous manifestations, shows, or public meetings were banned, and at the same time great effort was put into the organization of official celebrations. House facades, fences, and public buildings were covered with decorations and propaganda slogans. Hanna Świda-Ziemba, a Polish sociologist, calls this period “one great public life” (Świda-Ziemba 1998: 179). This defines the appropriation of both the public and private spheres by the party-state apparatus, which was recorded in a great number of personal sources, among which personal journals appear particularly interesting. 


The soundscape of Stalinism that emerges from the notes and memories seems to be contrasting: a loud, overwhelming echo of this great public life with its megaphones, meetings, and festivals on the one hand and the muffled sounds of private life on the other. This is also how I could describe the dominant impression of today’s researcher, an impression undoubtedly resulting from the peculiar nature of the sources. Both individual testimonies (especially diaries) and official images (in the press or movies) express the tension caused by the contraction of the private sphere and the expansion of the great public life. All sources seem to show a sharpening of the boundaries between public and private, individual and collective, allowed and forbidden. This impression also applies to such phenomena as light and darkness, silence and noise, day and night, and seems to find a parallel in the very construction of the world built by the Stalinist propaganda. In this construction we can find a binary visual and sonic element: a bright day as a metaphor for a happy future (with a sun motif used by the communist-dominated coalition as its logo in the 1948 election) and a gloomy night, associated with the dark reign of capitalism from which Romania emerged but under which the West was still mired (Brzostek 2015: 241). The sounds of the day are joyful in this image (voices of children, cheers of encouraging collective effort, mass songs), and the sounds of the night are dangerous and scattered (screams and signals associated with crime).[6] This harsh, in fact Manichean, way of presenting the world evolved into sharp propaganda and political tools that, in turn, produced mental impressions that are clear in the analysis of accounts of Stalinist messaging. 


This mental image of the sounds of the night is the complete opposite of Sitwell’s exoticizing (in this case orientalizing) narrative of the 1930s in which the night is saturated with the sounds of nostalgic music accompanying reverie, wine, and sweet melancholy. His was a "noon" night, dense with smells and sounds, reminiscent of a night for lovers. His impression was, of course, the perception of a stranger to the city, one who inscribed Bucharest with his own world of references and desires. It is not difficult to contrast this with the testimonies of city residents from the interwar years – people who spent not only summers but also winters there and experienced both the charming moments in restaurant gardens as well as poverty and unemployment. However, Sitwell’s vision of the Bucharest night is important, above all because no similar impression has been found from the years of Stalinism, neither in official propaganda nor private testimonies. Sitwell’s narrative thus belongs to the Western discourse of exoticizing Romania, which has a long tradition. This discourse was rejected and invalidated by the post-war regime, which treated it as quasi-colonial imagery. It was replaced with pro-Soviet imagery, in fact propaganda, the direction of which was defined in 1945 by the outstanding writer Mihail Sadoveanu in the famous (in Romania) article “Ex Oriente Lux.” In Sadoveanu’s text, “the light from the East” fell on the dark Romanian land, worn-out from capitalism. But the statement about this light was, above all, a sign of reorientation of the perspective of the Romanian elite, traditionally attached to the image of the West as a role model. After 1948, the official mass media equated the West with gloomy darkness.


In local communist propaganda, the Bucharest night had become a period of rest for working people, regenerating themselves to perform the important tasks of the next day, and a time of vigilance of the party and state apparatus, protecting the society against hostile diversion. After all, night was the time for spies and pests; it was a cover for the enemy. Therefore, employees of strategic enterprises and institutions were mobilized to perform periodically as night guards at workplaces. And thanks to this, we have the testimony of Pericle Martinescu, who, as a journalist, had to be on duty in November 1948 in the offices of the Press Directorate. It was then that Martinescu wrote down his impression of an unusual, cleansing silence. The night seemed beautiful to him, calm, devoid of noise. “There are no meetings, you can’t see people, you can’t hear slogans, everything is wonderful” (Martinescu 1997: 83). So, the night had the power to relieve the pressure of the great public life; it was a time free of megaphones and full of empty rooms. Elsewhere in Martinescu’s notes, the “freedom of the night” returns, which he felt when he was leaving a concert, ending with the rhythmic chant of “Stalin-Stalin” (Martinescu 1997: 90).


This image of nocturnal freedom becomes more evocative when we recall the countless duties of party activists, especially the meetings that sometimes extended into the night, annexing it, as it were, introducing it to the sphere appropriated by official life. This phenomenon is also relevant to Anna Bentoiu’s recollection of the sounds of the night. It evokes the sounds of car engines, which made nights restless; these were the sounds of the service cars of government officials returning from their meetings as well as the cars of the political police used for night arrests. “We heard the noise of tires on the pavement and fell asleep again, hugging tighter together” (Bentoiu 2006: 137-138). Here, the night is not associated with freedom, as in Martinescu’s writings, but, on the contrary, it takes on a sinister dimension, imbued with the obsessions and practices of the apparatus of power. The fear of noises in the night from the staircase, which could mean the police were invading, is reflected in the writings of Sorana Gurian (1950: 17). And Voinescu (2013: 110) writes in March 1948: “House searches, people taking, at night. You can expect anything. We are in your hands, God.”


Thus, the night both liberated one from the great public life, becoming a domain of authenticity, her silence a rest from falsehood, while also bringing a space of fear from which people escaped into intimacy. It seems that regarding soundscapes, Stalinism exacerbated the division between day and night to the same extent that it reinforced the division between the intimate sphere and the great public life.