Aftershocks: Nicolae Ceauşescu and the Romanian Communist Regime’s Responses to the 1977 Earthquake

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In March 1977 an exceptionally strong earthquake struck Romania ruled by the communist president and dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his regime. The policies and actions implemented and undertaken in the days, weeks, and year that followed were forms of aftershocks. The Ceauşescu regime modeled the 1977 earthquake recovery on previous disaster relief efforts, but escalated them to a scale not seen before. The earthquake served as an accelerant for some of the regime’s severe and extreme 1980s policies and efforts. The regime learned from those earthquake disaster response efforts what it could ask of itself and its citizenry. The repressive 1980s policies, such as austerity, were built on incremental steps, many of which the regime took in the wake of the 1977 earthquake. This dissertation examines the Ceauşescu regime’s policies specifically implemented in the name of earthquake recovery that appropriated assets and extracted labor from, imposed restrictions on, and limited resources for the Romanian population. The earthquake killed more than 1,500 people, injured 11,000, and displaced more than 120,000; its damage was estimated at two billion dollars. Those losses challenged the regime at a scale it had not previously experienced. I examine the regime’s efforts from the moments after the earthquake struck. Its actions went beyond typical post-disaster efforts to assist survivors, recover victims, and clean-up debris. First, alongside first-responders, the regime deployed its secret police, the Securitate, in asset recovery and foreign assistance solicitation operations. Second, the regime capitalized on Romanians’ benevolence and expanded initiatives that extracted significant labor and cash from workers and citizens. Third, because Nicolae Ceauşescu perceived the earthquake’s aftermath as panic- and chaos-producing, he ordered incremental actions that culminated in the end to all seismic structural integrity assessments and cosmetic repairs to thousands of residential buildings damaged by the earthquake. Essentially, he chose to protect the public’s safety. That policy’s legacy is felt today, as thousands of buildings in Romania’s capital have been condemned as likely to collapse at the next significant earthquake. Finally, the 1977 earthquake occurred at the half-way point in Ceauşescu’s tenure and served as a catalyst for the repressive policies of the 1980s, in particular the destruction of a large neighborhood and surrounds to construct the new massive administrative center in Bucharest, the Civic Center Project (Centrul Civic), and its centerpiece, the House of the People (Casa Poporului), the world’s second largest administrative building.

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  • 01/28/2019
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