- - Monday, April 18, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania — The last time Alexandru Socol saw Nicolae Ceausescu was in 1989, when the communist dictator visited Mr. Socol’s factory to inspect the components it produced for hydroelectric and nuclear power plants just as Europe’s old divisions were about to be blown apart.

At the time, Mr. Socol didn’t dare complain to Ceausescu about the cold and hunger his family was enduring as Romania’s state-controlled economy was collapsing. Instead, he cursed Ceausescu in private, knowing the Securitate, or secret police, operated among the factory’s workers.

But today, as Mr. Socol and hundreds of other Romanians got their first look at Ceausescu’s newly reopened 80-room palace in Bucharest, the now-retired factory worker’s hatred for his former leader was waning.

“This house is not as luxurious as I thought it would be,” said Mr. Socol, 67. “I expected something grotesque. It’s not as big as I imagined.”

Nostalgia for the only Cold War-era communist dictator executed by this own people may strike some as odd, but Mr. Socol is one of many Romanians who are re-evaluating the country’s communist past, including their memories of the universally hated dictator and his equally reviled wife, Elena.

Older citizens like Mr. Socol often display a sneaking fondness for Romania’s economic stability in the early days of communism. For them, the past quarter-century of capitalism has brought only shuttered factories, personal insecurity and a generation of young Romanians venturing abroad in search of jobs.

“For these people, it’s easy to find refuge in communism,” said Alin Ciupala, a 47-year-old historian at Bucharest University.

Ceausescu’s palace, recently estimated to be worth about $22 million, symbolizes the renewed interest in the communist period. The cash-strapped Romanian government almost sold the palace last year, but pressure to open it to the public led officials to reconsider.

The mid-March opening attracted more than 1,000 people. The palace sells $8 tickets for general entrance and $11 for guided tours in English to pay for maintenance costs.

Government officials argue that it is inaccurate to say citizens want to go back to the days of communism.

At the inauguration of the restored palace, Vice Prime Minister Vasile Dancu said interest in the property illustrated how Romanians wanted to know more about their recent past. “We need to take in our history, with its good and its bad parts, in order to understand it,” said Mr. Dancu.

A 2014 INSCOP Research poll — the last credible survey that asked the question — found that about 60.5 percent of Romanians believed they lived better under communism.

But that nostalgia doesn’t reflect Romanians’ real political leanings, Mr. Ciupala said. Romanians don’t want to return the communists to power.

“If elections would be held on the next day after that survey was made, and the Communist Party was participating, that party wouldn’t obtain more than 1 or 2 percent of the vote,” he said.

Instead, Romanians want to regain the benefits of communism they recall fondly: secure jobs, law and order and national pride, for example. Today, Romania’s notoriously corruption-riddled economy is the second-poorest in the European Union, ahead only of its southern neighbor Bulgaria. Many of the tangible benefits promised by membership in such Western clubs as the European Union and NATO have yet to materialize.

“There are people who lived well during communism and who couldn’t find the same protection offered by communism afterward,” said Mr. Ciupala.

Untangling the past

Younger Romanians are not nostalgic about communism because they didn’t live under it, Mr. Ciupala said. But many are trying to untangle the past. For much of their lives, they’ve heard about the evils of communism while many of their elders have described the past in rosier terms.

“For many young people, the communist regime is only a page of the past that is starting to reveal itself,” he said.

Their interest is fueling a cottage industry in communism memorabilia, too.

There are tours of Ceausescu’s palace and other sites, such as the military offices where he was shot by a firing squad, and advertisements using his likeness, such as a new candy bar television ad featuring a Ceausescu re-enactor. Recent auctions of the dictator’s personal belongings, including his pen and his sword, illustrate how the communist period has taken on a cultural currency in Romania.

“The brand of Ceausescu exists, the same as the Dracula brand exists,” said Mr. Ciupala. “Romanians need to learn about how to use them in order to gain visibility and money.”

Some commercial initiatives are blocked because Ceausescu’s only surviving son, Valentin, and Valentin’s brother-in-law registered the late dictator’s name as a trademark in 2007. As a result, companies are prohibited from using the leader’s image on 45 types of products, including tobacco and cars, because the two men have refused their permission.

The trademark stipulation doesn’t apply to objects that are associated only with the dictator’s name. These are selling well, said Cristian Gavrila, 35, who is putting together Ceausescu-related collectibles for a sale Tuesday at the Romanian auction house Artmark.

Artmark’s auction, its fourth to date, will include a pair of crystal vases with the portraits of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, worth at least $680, a model of the home where Ceausescu was born for around $350, as well as a host of gifts from foreign diplomats and other institutions that the dictator amassed over his almost 25 years in power.

In past auctions, those gifts have included a limousine from the shah of Iran for $42,000 and a bronze yak presented to the Romanian boss by Mao Zedong. Artmark is also selling properties formerly owned by the Ceausescus.

Many of Artmark’s buyers are Romanians who harbor love-hate relationships with the communist era, he said.

“On the one hand, there is an emotional perspective, the feeling of hate against the regime,” said Mr. Gavrila. “But on the other hand, there is this idea of a ‘golden age’ which appears, generating nostalgia.”

About a third of his customers are foreigners who purchase communist-era items for the same reason. They don’t love communism, but they are fascinated by a political order that has passed, he said.

In the square in central Bucharest, foreign tourists are always listening to guided tours that recount the last days of communism, including Ceausescu’s final speech to an assembled crowd who heckled and jeered him as the government collapsed.

The interest in Ceausescu is huge, said 36-year-old tour guide George Trandafir.

“Foreigners ask how was life back then,” said Mr. Trandafir. “And they are shocked to find out that Romanians had only two hours of TV a day, that kids had to do their homework with gloves on [because of a lack of heat], that people couldn’t afford a color TV set, so some of them would put a piece of colored glass in front of their black-and-white TV.”

It wasn’t so bad, though, said Constantin Chelsiu, a 55-year-old mechanic who was visiting Ceausescu’s palace. Romanians might be able to watch color television now, but the programming will never match the pomp and gravity of one of Ceausescu’s speeches, he said.

“No matter if we like Ceausescu or not, he is part of our history,” said Mr. Chelsiu. “No one will ever do what he did.”

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