I’ve always had the feeling that talking about communism is rather taboo in Romania. The academic year would always end before we reached 1947 in history class. As such, I am reluctant to dive into such a sensitive subject. But here I stand, after reading an interview from a dear family friend that was a political prisoner in the early 1950s, understanding that such things have to be shared so that they do not happen again. By no means do I claim to understand or ever be able to understand what happened in my country before I was born, but I am able to take further the memory of those who do.
The Danube is the biggest river in Europe. If flows from Germany to the Black Sea which makes it a rather important route for maritime transport between the Black Sea and the North Sea. The river forms a delta in Romania which was considered historically hard to navigate. With the general geographic idea settled, it is time to introduce the grand project of constructing the Danube-Black Sea canal.
Serious talks about the construction of the canal started in 1829, initiated by the DDSG (Donau-Dampfschiffahrts-Gesellschaft), which argued that it would be prosperous for the development of maritime transportation on the last 100km of the Danube. The idea of economic prosperity brought around by the canal was kept alive in the heart of Central Europe until finally being materialized in 1949.
Communism was installed in Romania in 1947 with more reluctance that it is usually believed. Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, believed that the best way to ensure its success was to stop anybody who even remotely opposed it. The mentorship relationship with Stalin was a determinant in his policy, and it is believed that Stalin himself suggested the start of the construction of the Canal by drawing a red line between Cernavodă and Năvodari. Combining the two, Gheorghiu-Dej named the construction of the canal “the grave of Romanian bourgeoise”.
Finding the middle ground between imprisonment and economic prosperity through maritime transport, labor camps were created in the site of the canal. Filled with Romanian intellectuals, peasants who were not willing to give out their land, and numerous members of the clergy, the number of political prisoners as a percentage of the workers for the canal rose from 19.7% to over 80% in just three years.
Little food, the harsh Romanian winter, and the miserable working conditions brought around the death of thousands. Numbers vary with sources, but regardless, it created much pain and suffering. In a period of post-war famine and poverty, Romania was not prepared technologically and economically for taking on such an ambitious project. The techniques used to dig the canal were plain rudimentary. With shovels, axes and any other materials that the Soviet Union handed in, the construction of the canal was in effect, what Dej planned from the start: a communal grave.
The February of 1953, brought around the death of Stalin and a complete shift in the Romanian-Soviet relationships. Thus, the work was suspended for 23 years, and Gheorghiu Dej started following a semi-autonomous policy. Unfortunately, this was not the end of labor camps and unjust imprisonment, strict supervision of the population being the instrument of choice for regime stability until Dej’s death in 1965.
A sequence of reforms and political tumult followed in the Romanian Communist Party ( Partidul Comunist Român/PCR), which ultimately resulted in the instauration of the Ceausescu dictatorship. A situation which was at first seen as a small step forward ended up being two backwards. The oppression slowly escalated until the fall of communism in December 1989.
During 1973, a proposed plan from PCR to finish the construction of the canal was accepted. The canal became fully functioning in May 1984. Its cost was 2.2 billion dollars and a spot of blood in Romanian history.
“Dupa cum veti vedea, nu este vorba de un simplu canal, unde curge apa si pe unde se fac transporturi ieftine, ci este vorba de un complex de lucrari menite sa transforme total aceasta regiune care va fi scaldata de acest canal”
(“As you will see, it is not just a canal that will bring cheap transportation. It is a complex work with the intent of fully transforming the region in which this water flows” )
-Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, in ministry meeting, 25.09.2018-
The canal not only changed the region of Southern Dobrogea, but it changed the whole country. It was a weapon in a relentless war against free thinking and opposition. Instead of only the flow of shifting the flow of the Danube, it changed the flow of the downward spiral in which Romania was to enter for 42 years. Today, the 100km canal is in need of further restoration that has an estimated cost of another 1.5billion dollars, and no projects seem to have been initiated for any reparations. In 2015, it reported a considerable profit and was expected to experience further growth. Maritime transportation is still one of the cheapest ways of shipping goods, but at the rate of technological advancements, it is hard to say it is still sustainable in the long term.
An idea that could have been so economically beneficial during XXth century Europe managed to become a terror instrument in an unwanted regime. Like many instances throughout economic history, human sacrifice seemed to have defined the image of what could have been an ambitious project. As such, the Danube-Black Sea canal did not deliver as promised. The region was not flooded by economic prosperity and industrialization, but flooded with the blood of those who had the courage to oppose. Like all the other communist projects in Romania, the walls of the canal are a ruin and a scar of a forced industrialization era.