Book

My first book, Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania (currently in production with Indiana University Press) explores the fraught relationship between heritage-making and statecraft. Focusing on Romania from 1945 to 2016, I analyze the socialist state’s attempt to create its own heritage, as well as the legacy of that project.

Tree growing on the balcony of an abandoned house, Old Town, Bucharest. Photo by Emanuela Grama, May 17, 2016.

Contrary to arguments that the socialist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe aimed to erase the pre-war history of the socialist cities, I show that the communist state in Romania sought to exploit the past for its own benefit.

The book traces the transformation of a central district, the Old Town, from a socially and ethnically diverse place in the early 20th century, into an epitome of national history under socialism, and then, starting in the 2000s, into the historic center of a European capital. Under socialism, politicians and professionals used the district’s historic buildings, especially the ruins of a medieval palace that archeologists discovered in the 1950s, to emphasize the city’s Romanian past and erase its ethnically diverse history.

The Old Court palace, whose ruins were found during the archaeological digs in downtown Bucharest in the 1950s and 1960s. The palace was reconstructed in the early 1970s, and opened as a museum in 1972. Photo by Emanuela Grama, May 2016.

 Since the collapse of socialism, the cultural and economic value of the Old Town has become highly contested. Bucharest’s middle class has regarded the district as a site of tempting transgressions. Its poor residents have decried their semi-decrepit homes, while entrepreneurs and politicians have viewed it as a source of easy money. Such arguments point to negotiations about the meanings of class, political participation, and ethnic and economic belonging in postsocialist Romania—acountry with a rising social polarization, and whose citizens have lost their trust in the government.

Urban contrasts. Delerict house covered by a canvas with nostalgic images of interwar Bucharest. Photo by Emanuela Grama, May 11, 2016.

An archival and ethnographic research of the changing meanings of the Old Town reveals the fundamentally dual nature of heritage: behind every search for the essence of an idealized past lie strategies of differentiation that can lead to further marginalization and exclusion.