and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu escaped Romania when he
was 19 years old. He left a country where the state controlled
everything, and food shortages were common. "We lived in a socialist
utopia where people marched, sang and praised their leaders
-- on an empty stomach," recalls Codrescu. Thirteen years after
the revolution that brought down the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu
and introduced rugged capitalism, Codrescu returns with FRONTLINE/World
to explore a nation struggling with its new freedoms.
is my native country faring?" Codrescu asks. "I'm here to take
Codrescu rediscovers a beautiful country of 22 million ethnically
diverse people, blessed with a natural bounty of mountains,
rivers and rich soil. But, as Romanians like to say, they have
been cursed with bad leaders. Perhaps for that reason, the country
lags behind most of the former Soviet Bloc on the road to prosperity.
Though many people earn less than $100, but still, Codrescu
finds the stores well stocked and the restaurants full of well-dressed
Exploring the contradictions of postcommunist life, Codrescu
seeks out a fellow poet, Mircea Dinescu, who became a symbol
of the revolution. In December 1989, when the communist regime
was crumbling, Dinescu was a dissident poet under house arrest.
When the dictator fled, Dinescu was rushed to the state television
station to announce to the country that the revolution had succeeded.
Now, Dinescu owns a country estate on the Danube River. He is
a publisher and a television personality, a bon vivant and patron of
the arts. "I put away my revolutionary jacket," he tells Codrescu.
"I became a capitalist."
Dinescu recalls the days when poetry was a way to communicate
and inspire in a country silenced by censorship. "If there's
one thing we gained from the revolution, it's freedom of speech,"
he says. "But liberty can breed monsters."
Free speech is a new concept in Romania, yet many have taken
to it with the fervor of converts. One example is the popular
hip-hop band Parazitii -- The Parasites -- whom Codrescu meets
in their underground recording studio. The band was one of the
first to challenge postcommunist norms with gritty songs about
sex, drugs and life on Bucharest's mean streets. Like their
counterparts in the United States, they intend to be heard and
to make money in the process. They call it "the Romanian Dream."
For a tour of Bucharest, Codrescu enlists the help of a successful
entrepreneur named Nicolae Marinescu. Marinescu brings him to
a favorite nightspot called Club Dracula, where they encounter
the Romania that Westerners know from their nightmares -- the
Romania of debonair vampires in their cave lairs. Count Dracula
may be just a Western myth, but in Romania the myth coexists
with the real history of Vlad the Impaler, the diabolic 15th-century
ruler who inspired the fictional character. Marinescu thinks
of Dracula as a symbol of Romania's rebirth; Codrescu is mortified
by the kitschy Dracula revival.
Romanian capitalism has distributed opportunity unevenly. And
Marinescu's main business can be seen either as a way of providing
opportunity to those who lack it or as a form of exploitation.
Marinescu operates an academy where he trains young women as
exotic dancers for export to wealthy countries like Italy and
Japan. These women tell Codrescu that without leaving Romania
to make money, they would stand no chance of making a success
of their lives.
Free-market capitalism offers a harsh reality to many older
Romanians, who are struggling to survive on pensions. Codrescu
finds a long line of people outside church on Saint Anthony's
Day, hoping for a miracle. "We pray to die," one woman cries.
"After working hard your whole life, to live in misery, this
is not fair in a civilized world."
The man who says he has the answers to Romania's problems is
Vadim Tudor. A charismatic senator and newspaper publisher,
Tudor heads the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party, which
has become the leading opposition party in the country. His
dark horse candidacy in the 2000 presidential election shocked
the nation when he finished second, with one-third of the vote.
Tudor is a populist, who has gained support through vicious
attacks on corrupt politicians and businessmen as well as on
national minorities like Hungarians, Jews and Gypsies. "I have
a big mouth," Tudor concedes. "But I am not violent."
Codrescu meets Tudor at Bran Castle, the famous Transylvanian
fortress often associated with Dracula. "Dracula was a cruel
man, but a good leader," insists Tudor, who plans to run for
president again in 2004. "I am not a dictator, but I think at
this moment Romania needs someone with an iron hand."
Though Tudor and his supporters continue to disparage Gypsies
and to use them as scapegoats, Codrescu finds that there is
a revival of Gypsy culture in the new Romania. The Gypsy music
known as manele is particularly popular, especially when
performed by a 4-foot 7-inch pop star known as the Miracle Child.
Codrescu leaves Romania with deep ambiguity about his homeland's
future. He is impressed by its vitality, yearning and creativity.
But the country's recurring pessimism seems to crop up everywhere,
as when Codrescu visits a famous Gypsy fortune teller who claims
to have advised Elena Ceausescu, the dictator's wife, to flee
only days before her execution. Codrescu asks her to predict
Romania's future, and she draws the black card that heralds
realize that postcommunism is a long convalescence," Codrescu
concludes. "It has to run its course."