Systematization: A Settlement Strategy

Romania Table of Contents

Romania's extremely uneven development became increasingly problematic. From an ideological standpoint, the growing disparity between rural and urban life was unacceptable. And uncontrolled rural-urban migration placed considerable strain on the cities, and left the countryside with an agricultural work force composed increasingly of women, the elderly, and children.

The government responded in 1972 with a program for rural resettlement aimed at stemming the tide to the cities by extending modern facilities into the countryside, where a network of new industrial enterprises was to be established. With the ultimate goal of a "multilaterally developed socialist society," this ambitious program, called "systematization," was to dramatically change the face of rural Romania. Officially initiated in 1974, the program called for doubling the number of cities by 1990. Some 550 villages were selected to receive money and materials necessary for their conversion to urban industrial centers. The program called for investments in schools, medical clinics, new housing, and new industry.

At the same time, plans were made for the remainder of the country's 13,000 villages. Here the traditional settlement pattern presented obstacles to plans for modernization. The majority of these villages had fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, and many had fewer than 500, while plans for rural resettlement set the optimal village population at 3,000--the number of inhabitants necessary to warrant expenditures for housing and services. Accordingly, villages with few prospects for growth were labeled "irrational" and "nonviable." In the 1970s, some 3,000 villages in this category were to be minimally serviced and gradually phased out, and others were scheduled to be forcibly dissolved and relocated. The rural population would then be concentrated in the "viable" villages, where plans for modernization and industrialization could be more effectively implemented and investments in infrastructure more profitably used.

Although systematization plans were drawn up for virtually every locality, implementation proceeded slowly, presumably because of lack of funds. The determination of the Ceausescu regime to pay off the foreign debt deprived the country of investment capital. Even before the debt crisis, little money had been allocated for the systematization program. Construction in rural areas declined sharply after peaking in 1960. In 1979 only 10 percent of all new housing was built in the countryside, and in the 1980s even less progress was made. Official projections had predicted that by 1985 Romania's population would have reached 25 million, of which 65 percent would live in urban places, with the increase in urbanization a result of the systematization program. In fact population had grown to only 23 million by 1987, and of that number only 51 percent lived in urban places. Thus, despite predictions that 365 new towns would be created by 1980 and another 500 by 1985, no new towns were declared during that time.

The mid-1980s brought renewed commitment to systematization. Some villages on the outskirts of Bucharest were destroyed, ostensibly to make way for projects such as the Bucharest-Danube Canal and airport expansion. Meanwhile about eight square kilometers in the heart of Bucharest were destroyed, leveling some of the nation's finest architectural heritage. Monasteries, ancient churches, and historic buildings were razed, and some 40,000 people were forced to leave their homes with only a twenty-four-hour notice. This was done to clear a path for the Victory of Socialism Boulevard, which would include a public square where half a million people could assemble and a mammoth Palace of Government glorifying Ceausescu's rule.

Although lack of capital appeared to limit the renewed interest in systematization primarily to the Bucharest area, plans for nationwide rural resettlement were merely postponed and not canceled. The number of villages scheduled to be destroyed, whether gradually by forced depopulation or more abruptly by razing, rose from the 3,000 initially proposed in 1974 to between 7,000 and 8,000 in 1988. The citizens resented the rural resettlement program for its drastic social and cultural consequences and for the huge financial burden that even its limited implementation had already imposed.

An especially controversial aspect of systematization was the theory that concentrating the rural population would promote more efficient use of agricultural land. New housing in rural areas after 1974 was subject to strict regulations. Villages were to be structured like towns, with construction of housing concentrated within specified perimeters. The buildings had to be at least two stories high, and surrounding lots were restricted to 250 meters. Private lots for agriculture were to be moved outside the settlement perimeter, diminishing the ability of the village populations to produce their own food, as they were required by law to do after 1981. Moreover, because private plots produced much of the nation's fruits, vegetables, and meat, full implementation of systematization would have jeopardized the food supply for the entire country.

The international community, particularly Hungary and West Germany, criticized systematization as a blatant attempt to forcibly assimilate national minorities. Each village escaping systematization was to have a civic center, often referred to as a "Song to Romania House of Culture." These institutions promised to be useful tools for indoctrination and mobilization and were apparently intended to replace churches as the focal point of community life. By 1989 many churches had already been destroyed, and no plans for rebuilding were evident. The destruction of churches and villages not only severed cultural and historic links to the past, but also threatened community bonds and group autonomy. Much of the international criticism of systematization deplored the investment in such a grandiose scheme amidst rapidly deteriorating living conditions, which had been on a downward spiral since the 1970s. The Victory of Socialism Boulevard was replete with irony as the 1980s witnessed serious food shortages and an energy crisis that prolonged the disparity between urban and rural Romania.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress