Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy

Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy

by Sheilah Kast, Jim Rosapepe


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781890862657
Publisher: Bancroft Press
Publication date: 11/09/2009
Pages: 409
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sheilah Kast is an award-winning journalist well known to viewers of PBS, ABC, and CNN, and to listeners of NPR. For ABC, she reported on the collapse of Communism from Moscow and Tbilisi and covered Hillary Clinton's first trip to Eastern Europe. She hosts AARP's weekly newsmaker cable TV show, Inside E Street, as well as her own daily magazine show on WYPR, the public radio affiliate in Maryland.

Jim Rosapepe represented the United States as ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001, bringing to the job experience in American government and business, as well as in the former Communist world. Since returning to Maryland, where he is a state senator, he has served on the boards of various investment funds and companies active in Europe and the former Soviet Union. He has written on economic and security issues for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Harvard International Review. Jim and Sheilah have been married for twenty-six years, and live in College Park, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

Dracula is Dead

How ROMANIANS Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy
By Sheilah Kast Jim Rosapepe

Bancroft Press

Copyright © 2009 Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-890862-65-7

Chapter One

Listening to Romanians

Short of knocking on doors or chatting at the supermarket, a town meeting is the best way to learn what's on the minds of ordinary people, and to make clear to them you care about their concerns, not just those of the big shots-the ones the Romanians call "the big potatoes."

Jim hatched a plan for a series of town meetings with ordinary Romanians around the country. We had a sign made for one of the embassy vans that said, "America Listening to Romanians." In a society only a decade removed from a police state, the sign might have been interpreted as an unfortunate reminder of sadder days. But the fact that our van pulled into school yards and village squares in broad daylight bespoke the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

Most days on the road, we took part in seven or eight events, from informal walking tours of markets to question and answer sessions in dusty villages. Few of these communities had ever been visited by a U.S. ambassador. Unlike Romanian officials, we controlled no highway funds or farm subsidies, so our visits weren't important in any material sense. But the U.S. ambassador is a minor celebrity in Romania. A poll taken near the end of Jim's term reported that about two-thirds of Romanians, including half of all peasants, knew his name.

People turned out for our town meetings. The crowds ranged from dozens to hundreds. Typically, we'd conduct these sessions in a community hall or village square. The mayor would introduce us, and Jim would make a few opening remarks. Usually, he'd open with, "Buna ziua, Radauti!" ("Hello, [insert name of town]"). Sheilah, not thinking Jim would actually do it, had suggested this, parroting "Good morning, Vietnam!" But it turned out to be his biggest applause line. Jim would thank everyone for coming, and then ask the crowd a little about themselves.

"How many children are here? Raise your hands." Hands pop up followed by applause.

"How many parents?" Hands shoot up, with more applause.

"How many grandparents?" More applause.

"How many great-grandparents?" Fewer hands, but much smiling and applause.

Then Jim would ask if any of them had ever been to the United States. Occasionally, a few hands would go up.

"Do you have friends or relatives in the U.S.?" he'd ask. In almost every town, no matter how small or isolated, a few people would raise their hands. So he'd ask, where?

"Toronto," came the first reply in one town.

"Great. How about in the United States?"


"That's great, too," Jim replied. "Anyone else know people who live in the United States?"


Jim surrendered. Much to the chagrin of our Canadian friends, some of the folks in small-town Romania were a little hazy on the border between our countries. But on with the show. Jim would say we were there to learn about "your town and your concerns and to answer your questions." Jim would relate a little of what he'd seen in Romania. Generally, it was an upbeat message about progress and hope for the future.

Early in his first trip, without thinking too hard about it, Jim decided to mention the European Union and Romania's hope that it would soon be invited to join. The crowd exploded in tumultuous applause. Interesting. So he mentioned the EU in the next few towns that day. Same response. No fool, he made it a standard part of his introduction.

More important, that experience made the whole tour worthwhile. We learned in those villages what we never would have learned in Bucharest-about the EU, and most important, about Romania.

At least in Romania, the EU is not just a free-trade zone or job-creation project for retired European politicians and bureaucrats. To poor Romanian peasants, it's a vision of what they had too little of in the last century or any other: peace and prosperity.

When Eastern European peasants give an American ambassador an ovation simply for mentioning that their country will join the EU, it's clear they have a vision of what they want to make of their country, and it gives an insight into how they've done it in the twenty years since the fall of Communism in 1989.

Chapter Two

The Romania You Don't Know

Name almost any country in the world, and you're conducting an instant Rorschach test.

China? Crowded, bustling, exotic.

Haiti? Poor, dangerous.

Italy? Food, wine, churches.

These are all stereotypes based on what's shown on television, what's learned in elementary school, and what's heard from friends who have visited.

Mention Romania to most Americans and the Rorschach results are predictable: Dracula, orphaned kids, dictatorship. A few Olympics fans may mention gymnastics and Nadia Comaneci, the great Olympic champion, and some tennis players will remember Ilie Nastase or Ion Tiriac. But that's about it.

We know this because, over the last decade, we've talked about Romania with thousands of Americans, some who have visited and most who have not.

What's striking about Americans' snapshot of Romania, except for the one held by sports fans, is that it's negative-not hostile, just negative.

Dracula, orphans, dictatorship.

OK. Americans are hostile to dictators, but not to their victims.

Dracula is a curiosity.

Orphans are objects of sympathy, as so many Americans have demonstrated.

Strobe Talbott, who reported for Time magazine in the 1980s, told us that, when he visited Romania during those years, he was only half-kidding when he warned other foreign reporters, as Dante advised in The Inferno, "Ye who enter, abandon all hope."

Sounds like a great place for a summer vacation.

Of course, the snapshot is wrong.

In fact, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Romania is a vigorously democratic country with well-educated young people, remarkable foreign language skills, a rapidly modernizing economy, a fascinating history that bridges east and west, hospitality that borders on the manic, strong religious faith, and ethnic relations that are a model for more troubled regions. And Romanians love Americans.

The real Romania is what we saw during our time there and since. That is what our book is about. It draws on the experience of our daily lives, direct involvement with major players in its transition from Communism, and interviews with extraordinary people, young and old.

We visited orphanages, and the many places Dracula seems to have slept. We also visited Romanians who lost their homes to the Communist regime and those who got from it their first chance to go to college.

In many ways, Romania is the new Italy. It's a relatively large European nation; with nearly twenty-two million people, it's the seventh-largest country in the European Union. It's Latin, with Roman ruins, government corruption, world-class creativity, a zest for life, and vivacious, attractive people. Driven by the ambition of its people and the EU, Romania's economy grew rapidly, as Italy's did in the decades after World War II, until the worldwide recession of 2009.

It's true that Dracula, fictional though he may be, is from Transylvania, the western region of Romania that borders Hungary. It's true, too, that, because of President Nicolae Ceausescu's catastrophic economic and natal policies, Romania's orphanages were grim and overflowing when Communism imploded in 1989. And it's true that the personal dictatorship of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, in contrast to nations run by faceless Communist leaders, branded Romania in Western eyes.

But there was much more to Romania, even before Ceausescu was overthrown.

Unlike those of its neighbors in the Balkans, Romania's language and culture are Latin. They call themselves Romanian for a reason. Theirs is one of the five Romance languages and, like the others, they trace their roots to the Roman Empire. In the second century, Emperor Trajan conquered the native Dacian population of what's now Romania. Showing the ethnic equanimity that reflects their better angels, Romanians later named their national car the Dacia, and their founding heroes are both Trajan and Decebal, the defeated king of the Dacians. What other country honors equally the losers as well as the winners of their founding struggle?

In the early twentieth century, Bucharest, Romania's capital city, was the boom town of southeast Europe. Called "the Paris of the East," it boasted art nouveau architecture that's still visible today. Greek, Turkish, Jewish, Armenian, and American business people flocked to Romania, making it the biggest oil producer in Europe and the fifth-largest grain exporter in the world. Romania's Queen Marie was the Princess Diana of her day, such a celebrity she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade when she visited New York in 1926. Artists like Brâncusi were known the world over.

Like Italy's, Romania's political geography was split for centuries between Germanic culture (Austria in both cases) and Mediterranean influences (the Normans and Spanish in southern Italy; the Ottoman Turks in southern and eastern Romania, as well as Greeks and Byzantines).

Because of changing borders and immigration, Romania has ethnic and religious diversity on a grand scale. Its Hungarian minority, a million and a half people, is the largest in Europe, but most Americans have never heard of them because they live in peace with their Romanian neighbors. Germans were another big ethnic minority-hundreds of thousands traced their ancestors to thirteenth-century settlers-until most of them left in the late twentieth century through negotiated exits, not ethnic cleansing.

Nearly half of Romania's eight hundred thousand Jews were murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. Most of the rest left the country as the Germans did in the 1970s and '80s, with exit visas sold by Ceausescu. Today, almost five percent of Israel is Romanian.

Unitarianism was founded in Romania. Many of the Americans we encountered in Transylvania were Unitarians visiting their sister congregations in Hungarian villages.

We got a good glimpse of the complexities of Christianity in Romania when Pope John Paul II came to Bucharest in May 1999, the first visit of a Roman Catholic pontiff to an Orthodox country since the Schism of 1054. His trip had to be negotiated with the Orthodox Church, as well as with the Greek Catholic Church. The latter follows the rituals of the Orthodox, including allowing priests to marry, but pledges allegiance to Rome. The Greek Catholics, or Uniates, were created when Orthodox bishops, faced with pressure from Austria's Roman Catholic emperor in the seventeenth century, decided to switch rather than fight.

Then there was the king. To Americans whose founding fathers earned their title by firing the king of England, Romania's recruitment of a twenty-seven-year-old German prince to become their king in the 1860s seems a little odd. But the role of his heir, twenty-two-year-old King Michael, in switching Romania from Nazi Germany's side to America's in 1944, was historic. The fact that King Michael, after years in exile (some of them earning a living as a test pilot), has lived to see the restoration of democracy, if not a constitutional monarchy, in Romania is stunning, if not unique.

When we were in Romania, the heads of both houses in the parliament, the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and the leader of the organized (though now small) Jewish community were all men in their eighties. Like King Michael, each of them had been professionally active before Communism. During Communism's forty-two-year run in Romania, these leaders survived in different ways: the senate president was a forced laborer on the Danube canal, the patriarch a rising leader in a compromised church, and the leader of the Jewish community a practicing physician. While we were there, a miners' union leader protested a seventeen-year prison sentence for attempting to overthrow the newly democratic government. The chair of the House noted dryly that he had survived his seventeen-year imprisonment (1947-64) and figured this guy would, too.

Part of the reason the American snapshot of Romania is negative is that in the last decade of Communism, the 1980s, the reality inside Romania was undeniably negative. To pay off the country's foreign debt, Ceausescu exported food and rationed electricity. The people's standard of living plummeted. To maintain control, the totalitarian state tightened its grip. While Solidarity was organizing in Poland, Goulash Communism was opening up the Hungarian economy, and glasnost was becoming the watchword in Gorbachev's Soviet Union, in Romania, the Securitate, the nation's secret police, maintained rigid control.

The result was that Romania came out of Communism in 1989 in much worse shape than other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The economy, which had been bigger than Greece's before World War II, was now one-sixth its size. There was no Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa to symbolize democratic aspirations, unify anti-Communist forces, or win the enthusiasm of the leaders and publics of Western Europe and the United States.

Romanians, including some who now live in America, compounded the problem. In our experience, they are much more likely than Americans, Poles, Chinese, Hungarians, and just about everyone else we've ever met to talk their country down. They don't speak much about Dracula or orphans. But corruption, disorganization, and lack of respect outside Romania-these are their complaints, and they are not unfounded. When he was hospitalized, a friend told us his mother was confused, trying to figure out how big a bribe to give each Romanian staffer (doctor, nurse, technician) to make sure they'd take proper care of him.

During World War II, the great American anthropologist Dr. Ruth Benedict was asked by the U.S. government to write a profile of Romanian culture. In words which could have been written today, she said:

"The entire openness of all Romanians about corruption is more striking than the admitted venality ... [The Romanian] prides himself on insight more than on what most other European nations define as virtue. He accepts the fact that people will try to 'get theirs' and sees no reason at all why that should sour him on life."

Romanians don't like the corruption around them, but often seem resigned to it while talking about it incessantly.

As for disorganization, one diplomatic colleague told us, "Like my own people, I find the Romanians stronger on spontaneity than discipline. And as the Italian ambassador to Romania, I myself am caught between two spontaneities!" Now, twenty years after the collapse of Communism, Romania's spontaneity has paid off, just as Italy's did in the twenty years after World War II.

Democracy, while flawed, is alive and well in Romania. Even while we were living there, politicians' major concerns were fundraising, press coverage, and poll ratings.

Twenty years ago, Ceausescu's giant state companies were overstaffed. When Communism finally fell, millions of workers were moved out-people who, as Romanians told us, "had sacrificed to build Communism, [and] were now sacrificing to destroy it." Without much help from the West, Romania muddled through.

They privatized their apartments, with the result that Romania today has a rate of home-ownership much higher than the U.S.-95 percent, compared to 68 percent in the U.S.-with much less mortgage debt.

They returned plots of land to millions of families who had owned them before Communism. Thus, for years after the fall, most families would feed themselves from what they raised, even if they lived in cities.

And Romania promoted early retirement on a massive scale. The bad news was that workers in their fifties and even forties were forced out of work and left to live on their small pensions. The good news was that, with no debt on their homes and small plots on which to raise food, they could survive as the economy reoriented itself to the twenty-first century.


Excerpted from Dracula is Dead by Sheilah Kast Jim Rosapepe Copyright © 2009 by Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Listening to Romanians....................15
Chapter 2: The Romania You Don't Know....................18
Chapter 3: Beyond Communism....................25
Chapter 4: Living in "The Paris of the East"....................55
Chapter 5: A drive in the Country....................93
Chapter 6: The Good King....................115
Chapter 7: Inside Transylvania....................141
Chapter 8: Deep in the Heart of Romania....................197
Chapter 9: In the Mountains of Maramures....................231
Chapter 10: It's Moldavia, not Moldova....................255
Chapter 11: The Blue Danube and the Black Sea....................291
Chapter 12: Back in Europe....................315
Chapter 13: Living in the Balkans, in the Shadow of the Kremlin....................339
Chapter 14: Why Romania Works....................383

What People are Saying About This

Scott Simon

I chose fiction to convey the chaos and connections of Chicago politics. Sheilah and Jim found chaos and connections and much more while uncovering the real story of Romania—exploding the myths and filling in the rest of the story.�You'll be fascinated by what they found. (Scott Simon, Host, NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday; author, Windy City)

Cokie Roberts

What a great read!�With the eye of the journalist and the ear of the politician, Sheilah�Kast and Jim Rosapepe make their Romanian experience so absorbing that you'll want to jump on the next plane to go see for yourself.�But I refuse to believe that Dracula is really dead. (Cokie Roberts, author, syndicated columnist, and senior political analyst for ABC News and NPR)

Bill Novelli

You don't have to be Italian American to understand why�Sheilah and Jim call Romania the New Italy—Latin language, dazzling creativity, roots in the Roman Empire. They show you the Romania you don't know, the place you'll want to visit. (Bill Novelli, former CEO, AARP; and author, Fifty Plus: Give Meaning and Purpose to the Best Time of Your Life)

Nadia ComAneci

If they gave out gold medals for books, Dracula is Dead would get one. It's a fascinating, long overdue, and timely look at Romania, giving readers an unparalleled view of my country's many, many layers. (Nadia ComAneci, Olympic Champion and Gymnastics coach)

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Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing 15 days ago
Written by reporter Sheilah Kast and her husband Jim Rosapepe, the US ambassador to Romania under President Clinton, this examination and explanation of the formerly communist country offers a view of the country that goes beyond Dracula, Romanian orphanages, and dictator Ceausescu. Kast and Rosepepe specifically set out to illuminate a country, defined by Americans, if they can define it at all, by just a few small bits of history and a now out of date media focus.Organized regionally, with each chapter concentrating on a different region of the country, Kast and Rosapepe have combined a heavy emphasis on Romania's political history and the people running the country now on the national, regional, and local levels with some anecdotes about their travels through the country while Rosapepe served as the US Ambassador. They offer up not only a different look at Romania than the decayed post-Communist country so many Americans think of, but present Romania as a vibrant, changing, up and coming place full of culture and friendship.While in some sense the organization fits the book, in other ways it was somewhat confusing as there was no sense of when some of the encounters were happening as each region was so self-contained in the text. Especially in terms of the people in power and politics as it was happening, a better sense of a timeline would have been helpful. The politics overwhelmed the travelogue and regular joe bits of the book as well. And perhaps this was inevitable given Rosapepe's job and the inability to meet people as anyone other than a foreign government official but it left me thinking that the Romania presented here is not the one that any other American would experience on a visit, an experience that would have been more interesting to me. Finally, I found it distracting, despite the explanation for it in the introduction, to have the point of view and narration change so precipitously, even within the same paragraph ranging from "Sheilah saw" to "Jim saw" to "we saw." This made for choppiness in the text and it probably wasn't strictly necessary for the reader to know exactly which of the authors had which experience. Or maybe it was and the choppiness was unavoidable. Still vaguely irritating though.Over all, this was a good book about a little known to Americans, little understood country. I could have done with fewer political instances and more anecdotes but I am notoriously leery of any account of governmental politics, foreign or American. I also wish there had been more pictures of the actual people and places in Romania instead of just of Kast and Rosapepe in the country. I'll have to scour the internet for pictures of castles and churches, Bucharest and the countryside, the towns and the people. But in general, this is a book which will appeal to those who have a fascination with international politics and to those who want to know how a country decimated by Communism and a corrupt dictatorship is coming back from that heavy legacy.
Sahar19 More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is even a little interested!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago