Through the Keyhole of the Dictator Who Tried to Build Europe's North Korea

By James O Malley on at

North Korea today is an international oddity. The so-called Hermit Kingdom lives on as the last real bastion of Communism. It’s pretty much the closest place on Earth to a living hell. A place where the government demands absolute compliance and where the national pastime is struggling to survive. You’d have to be mad to think it was inspirational, right?

Here’s something unexpected, then. The ominous looking photo of an enormous palace above wasn’t taken in North Korea - but is actually a photo of somewhere much closer to home. It’s the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania, and was built during the 1980s. It’s the second largest civilian building in the world.

It was built for by Nicolae Ceausescu, the President of Romania between 1965 and 1989, and it was after a visit to Pyongyang in 1971 that he decided, far from being a warning, that the Kim family was an inspiration. Here’s some footage from the trip:

Something about the ten of thousands of people dancing in creepily perfect synchronisation while professing their love of the dear leader must have really struck a nerve with Nicolae, and he set about transforming Romania into the EuroDisney to North Korea’s Disneyland. The Palace above actually reflects the paranoid leadership of the Kims and the Ceausescus rather well: It extends 90m underground into a nuclear bunker, and was deliberately built with no air conditioning, to prevent any potential assassins spreading poison throughout the building.

Though today Pyongyang is still under the yoke of the Kim regime, it is a different story in Bucharest: The country is now a modern democracy. And what this means is that Ceausescu’s astonishing and bizarre past is available for us to gawk at close up.

Last month the Ceausescu family home just outside the centre of Bucharest was opened for tourists for the first time since the revolution in 1989. So I decided to go along to see just how an extravagant dictator liked to live.

At Home with the Ceausescus

In the villages, many Romanians remained peasants, having to get by through subsistence farming, while in the cities people lived modestly. The big problem, apparently, wasn’t lack of cash - the people had plenty of banknotes in their wallets - but was a complete lack of things to buy. As was common in many Communist countries at the time, what this meant was that people became accustomed to having to queue up outside shops for hours for basic essentials.

Looking at the Ceausescus’ residence though, it appears they didn’t have these same worries.

When you first step into the mansion in 2016, you’re handed plastic bags to put over your shoes, as everything around you looks really, really expensive.

Each of Nicolae and Elena’s many living rooms (or “reception” rooms, as posh people say) was loaded with expensive, gold-covered furniture. Let’s take a closer look at that chandelier (or one of the many like it inside the house):

It’s a little bit more ostentatious than you’d get at IKEA.

Here’s a different reception room:

In 2009 it was reported that an astonishing 42% of Romanians live without indoor plumbing. But as you might imagine, that wasn’t a problem for the Ceausescus - who instead had a literal golden bathroom:

Yep, gold. Because communism is about equality, right? Note the twin sinks and the gold-tiled bath.

Oh, and look up - there’s a gold-dome in the roof too for good measure. I’m pretty sure even Kim Jong Il would have thought this was a bit too much.

And here’s Nicolae and Elena’s his ‘n’ hers dressing gowns, presumably for when they just wanted to lounge casually. Or at least, as casually as you can when literally everything you touch is priceless.

Curiously perhaps, though Ceausescu was essentially an absolute ruler, who was a de facto King (he even wanted one of his sons to take over when he died), his, umm, throne was slightly less grand.

It’s slightly weird to stand in the room where you know that a dictator used to poo.

Here’s Nicolae’s desk, complete with glass thingy that was apparently a gift from Charles de Gaulle.

It was at this point during the tour I was on that another person referred to Ceausescu as a “dictator”. The tour guide curtly told him “We don’t use that word here. We call him the President, because it is more objective”.

Though I couldn’t help but wonder if he just loved Ceausescu a little bit.

The room above, would you believe, is in fact not a room but a walk-in closet - mostly for storing Elena Ceausescu’s clothes. Ceausescu appointed her head of the Academy of Sciences, and she got to direct all of the scientific research in the country. She ended up with numerous scientific papers attributed to her. There was just one problem: She was basically illiterate. But it was all part of an attempt to build up the couple’s personality cult.

Amazingly this photo above isn’t the torture room (though Ceausescu and his regime did torture tens of thousands of people), but this is the spa room.

Despite this opulence, the Ceausescu family TV seems pretty basic, even for its time. I mean, you can probably feel pretty smug that you have a better TV than a maniacal dictator did, right?

Oh, but they did have an entire cinema room in the basement...

Cineworld it ain’t - with rows of plush seating and fabric walls to help the acoustics. Like the Romanian people who would secretly watch pirated western films, Ceausescu was apparently a big fan of American cinema too.

And of course, what dictator’s house isn’t complete without a large swimming pool - surrounded by murals? (The water has now been replaced with a photography exhibition).

Ceausescu was also an animal lover, of sorts. In the garden at the centre of his house he kept peacocks, for some reason. The peacocks today are the descendents of the ones raised by the dictator himself. Sensing a scoop, I asked what happened to the parent peacocks in the revolution - and after pressing him, the tour guide claimed that Nicolae’s ‘cocks had died naturally, and had not been killed in 1989.

Unhappy Ending

Unfortunately for the Ceausescus, it turns out that living in a lavish home that’s so garish it’d give Laurence Llewelyn Bowen second thoughts isn’t such a great idea when you’re paying for it by pissing away money that could otherwise help ordinary Romanians. On December 17th 1989, just over a month after the Berlin Wall fell protests kicked off in Romania, the end result of which saw the army switch sides and decide to imprison Nicolae and Elena in a military base in Targoviste, a city about an hour outside of Bucharest.

It was here that a “trial” was held, before the couple were taken out and shot… on Christmas Day. Amazingly the base is now open to the public as a tourist attraction, meaning that everyone can have the same awkward dilemma that I had of figuring out whether or not it is appropriate to smile while standing on the site where a monstrous dictator was shot in the relatively recent past. Yep - the bullet holes you can see in the wall there were made by the bullets fired at him and Elena.

So that’s how a dictator used to live, and thankfully those days are over now. But while Romania is now an increasingly affluent and modern state, the country that inspired it is, somehow, still going. Maybe one day we’ll be about to visit and explore the Kim residence too?