The Bear Slayer

During his quarter century of dictatorial rule Nicolae Ceausescu treated the brown bears of Romania almost as badly as he treated the people. Only his gamekeepers saw the grisly reality

In the mountains of eastern Romania, along a scary two-lane highway winding north toward the city of Brasov, sits an institution called Muzeul Cinegetic al Carpatilor. Loosely translated: the Carpathian Hunting Museum. It's no magnet for international tourists, and you won't find it mentioned in even the better guidebooks. Its holdings, and the style of their presentation, are neither so varied nor so informative as what you'd see in a good museum of natural history. Reduced to essentials, apart from context, it's little more than a warehouse of skulls and pelts. But for anyone interested in landscape and memory, in the complicated relations between human beings and other dangerous beasts, in Romanian history, and in the life and death of that country's most infamous autocrat, this place merits a visit.

The nearest town is Posada, itself too small to appear on national maps. From an industrial city called Ploiesti, in the lowlands just north of Bucharest, you'll snake and climb along the Prahova River toward its source. The highway is a gantlet of soot-farting trucks, lane closures for repair, horse carts looming unexpectedly, and impatient drivers who pass blindly on switchback turns, as though the possibility of a head-on crash were an abstraction that they've never troubled to consider. In other words, it's an average Romanian road. If you attend to your driving as carefully as you should, you might easily miss the museum's sign. Stay alert, plunge out of the traffic flow into curbside parking, and sigh with relief when you're there.

Cinegetic is an important term in Romania, especially among those charged with managing wildlife. Vanatoare is the straightforward word for hunting, whereas cinegetic (possibly derived from the French adjective cynégétique) carries high-flown scientific nuances, suggesting the use of hunting as a tool in a sophisticated program of game management. The national traditions and protocols associated with hunting are ancient, deeply embraced, and peculiarly European, though the European patterns have their still more peculiar Romanian variants. The Romanian Forest Department (Regia Nationala a Padurilor) prides itself on a high degree of cinegetic expertise. And the woods are full of creatures considered game: boar, red deer, roe deer, lynx, wolves, and an extraordinary number of bears. The native bear species is Ursus arctos, conspecific with the grizzlies of North America and the brown bears of Scandinavia and northern Asia. It's known here informally as ursul brun. For a combination of reasons, some ecological, some historical, Romania harbors a far larger population of brown bears than any other European country west of Russia. That unusual abundance is reflected at Muzeul Cinegetic.

The museum is a boxy steel-and-glass building that looks out of place on the grounds of the old mountain estate of the Bibescos, a princely family prominent during the late phase of the Romanian monarchy, which ended amid the upheavals following World War II. One section of the museum features ornate hunting gear and opulent rustic decor from that milieu, including tapestries, antique firearms, signal horns, powder horns, a pearl-handled sword, a set of hunting knives with deer-foot handles, a silver jewel box in the shape of an ostrich, and a bronze sculpture of Saint George killing his dragon, which in this rendering closely resembles the living "dragons" of the island of Komodo. The rest of the museum is filled with mounted heads, skulls, stuffed animals, antlers, horns, boar tusks, and big furs spread-eagled on the walls.

The stolid silence of the trophies, and the dearth of explanatory legends in Romanian or any other language, are offset on the day of my visit by a young woman in a cream-colored sweater and scarf who, presiding as guide, pours forth commentary in singsong schoolroom English. Although her outfit seems casual, her manner is official. The museum was created in 1996, she says. This is a black goat, she says, gesturing at a chamois. And these Carpathian stags—she motions toward a wall festooned with forty-some skull-and-rack mounts of red deer—all of them, they rated gold medals. To earn a gold medal, she explains, requires more than 220 CIC points. (CIC is the acronym for Conseil International de la Chasse et de la Conservation du Gibier, a European body, roughly equivalent to the Boone and Crockett Club in North America, that maintains a record book on trophy animals. Its point system, based on a series of measurements and judgments applicable to skulls and skins, is the means by which competitive hunters keep score.) Here's a stag that received 261.25 points, the young woman says, a world record when it was killed, in 1980. We step past a lynx pelt on the floor. We admire an array of fallow-deer antlers. We move from the mouflon (Ovis orientalis, an exotic bighorn sheep) to the dainty roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) to the stocky and pugnacious wild boar (Sus scrofa), this last represented in various forms: a head, a full body, three pelts on the wall, and two dozen sets of tusks mounted on wooden plaques. A large boar, the young woman says, can attain 250 kilograms (550 pounds). Most of the record-book animals here, she adds in a tone of ambivalent pride, were shot by Nicolae Ceausescu.

She doesn't need to tell me who he was. And yet Ceausescu's name is conspicuously absent from this national shrine of blood-sport mementos. CIC scores are posted beside many of the trophies, but no information as to who killed what. That comes only verbally, from the woman in the sweater-and-scarf uniform. Yes, Ceausescu. Yes, Ceausescu again. This one, too, Ceausescu. And we have many more Ceausescu trophies in storage, she brags—or (it's hard to tell quite which) admits. I keep hearing his name; I can almost feel his presence, despite the absence of photos, commentary, or any other sort of attribution. Ceausescu—he's everywhere and he's nowhere. It's a post-Communist museum filled with discomfiting evidence of, on the one hand, the country's wildlife treasures and, on the other hand, the extent to which those treasures were pillaged for decades during the Communist era by one pernicious pipsqueak who fancied himself a great hunter. No wonder the young woman sounds conflicted. The whole place is uneasily balanced between remembering and forgetting.

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania for twenty-five years, with ever-increasing harshness and megalomania, eventually treating it as his personal kingdom. Like some other such tyrants, he was an inherently uninteresting man whose life story ascended to drama only by way of woeful consequentiality and evil. He came from humble origins (the son of a drunken farmer, he was a shoemaker's apprentice in Bucharest at age eleven), showed no early promise or flair, and made his political contacts in prison, during the years when Communists were persecuted as criminal agitators. He managed eventually to get hold of power and then—a deft manipulator of people and situations—he gradually tightened his grip. One of his former minions, a director of foreign intelligence who defected to the West, described him to a reporter as a man of "native intelligence, phenomenal memory, and iron will," although other portraits are less flattering.

During his early years as chief of state, Ceausescu seemed progressive, at least in comparison with most Communist bosses of the time. He was always more nationalist than Marxist, a Romanian leader in the homegrown style that unites a whole rogues' gallery of fascists, Christian vanguardists, and anti-Semites. He distanced himself from the Soviet Union, reduced his participation in the Warsaw Pact, and criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. Moves like that made him, for a while, the favorite Commie potentate among the Western democracies. Richard Nixon came calling in 1969, in his first visit as President to any Communist state, and posed with his arm thrown cordially over Ceausescu's shoulder. In 1978 George McGovern rated Ceausescu "among the world's leading proponents of arms control." In 1983 Vice President George Bush called Ceausescu "one of Europe's good Communists," though by that time the Romanian's brutal side was manifest. He was never a democrat.

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