Drac's comeback

International | He's not just a Halloween thing; Dracula the populist is enjoying a resurgence as Romania struggles to find its place in the post-communist world

Issue: "America votes 1998," Oct. 31, 1998

in Snagov, Romania - The setting is literary enough. Chill autumn air has settled at the base of the Transylvanian Mountains, foretelling the onset of a cruel Carpathian winter. The black-clad peasants are bundled up against the October wind, while each of their heavy draft horses wears a bright red tassel-a charm against the Evil Eye. The peasants squint at strangers suspiciously and offer no greeting as they rumble by in carts and on foot. One crone mumbles to her husband and crosses herself. The shores of Lake Snagov in southern Romania are nearly deserted; it is as if the shadow cast by the lifeless, ruined monastery on the lake's small island has drunk the life-blood of generations of Romanians. For it is here the bones of Vlad Tepes-Vlad the Impaler, Dracu-la, or Son of the Dragon-are buried. But the words of the Gypsy youth break the spell. "Seventy dollars. U.S.," he says in passable English, as he smokes a particularly vile-smelling Eastern European brand of cigarette. "Or you could rent a rowboat. But that would take you too long. Three hours, each way. And you don't know the way. So seventy dollars." He wears knockoff Levis, faux Air Jordans, and some sort of poorly manufactured, Eastern European sweater. He does his best to look friendly and reasonable, and not like the highwayman he is. Seventy dollars, U.S., is nearly a month's wages for the average worker in Romania. The service he is offering to provide is a 15-minute ride in a small, open boat with an ancient outboard motor. Christian Florea, a Bucharest-born tourist guide, begins shouting at the youth in quick, rising Romanian. Just as the conversation seems to be nearing physical blows, Mr. Florea says in English, "He'll take thirty. But not in lei (the nearly useless Romanian currency). Dollars." Done-the safety-conscious youth shifts his cigarette to the side of his mouth as he walks out on the dock with a liter-can of gasoline, which he pours optimistically into the outboard motor. He starts it with one yank, and motions for us to board. "He makes a good living doing this," says the guide, Mr. Florea. "I think the boat is not his, but he rents it. He makes many trips to the island. And not just for tourists. Romanians, especially, are becoming more interested in Vlad Tepes. He is a national hero. People now are wondering, where is a leader like him?" If there is one truth in the Dracula myth, it's that old despots die hard (and not for long) in these mountains. Vlad Tepes survived multiple imprisonments, and each time he emerged to gather armies and make a violent grab for power. And if Romania seems to lag behind other Eastern European states in adjusting to the post-Communist world, it's because the Communists have only recently left. After the videotaped killing of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, Communism remained as a dark, political undead. "Make no mistake," says Mr. Florea, "In 1989, there was no revolution. It was a coup. One Communist took over from another." That's not how it was presented to the world at the time, but most observers now agree with Mr. Florea. In the late 1980s, the second-tier Communists under Nicolae Ceausescu seized power and executed the dictator of 25 years, along with his wife, after a secret trial. But his successor, Ion Iliescu, was no democratic reformer. He had served as Ceausescu's right-hand man in the 1970s and was in line to take over when Ceausescu stepped down. The execution of the dictator was not insurrection; it was merely insurance. "What the Communists didn't count on was the powderkeg they were sitting on," explains Mr. Florea. "Only one party was legal in Romania-but the other parties, parties outlawed for 50 years, reformed in half a day." When the new government moved to consolidate its power, a surprising amount of resistance emerged from the universities. Thousands of students began to gather in the squares and piazzas of Bucharest, protesting the legitimacy of the new regime. Mr. Iliescu denounced them as golan-hooligans-and the students responded by singing a "Hymn of the Hooligans." "I was a hooligan," Mr. Florea says proudly. "The government tried to say that we were there only to take drugs, to have sex. But that was a lie. We were there because we wanted to show the government for frauds. They were the same old Communists." They responded with the same old methods, at least. Out-of-work miners were brought in, and they beat up anyone suspected of being a protester. And the ill-reformed Communists retained power for another half-dozen years. No real elections were held until 1996, when the opposition took over, inheriting colossal problems. Inflation was-and is-the heaviest burden for reformers. In 1997, the government abolished price controls, which sent prices skyward and the economy down the tubes. It now takes 10,000 Romanian lei to equal a dollar, for example. And it's in this atmosphere that interest in Vlad Tepes has risen anew. But to set the record straight, Vlad Tepes was not a vampire. Though that, perhaps, is one of the nicest things that can be said of the 15th-century warrior prince. It was Irish writer Bram Stoker who permanently linked Dracula's name with vampirism in 1897 with his book of the same name. The boat arrives at weedy, barely distinguishable landing on the lake island. The Gypsy kid shuts off the motor, asks his passengers to tie the bowline to the dock, and he waits in the boat, smoking. Mr. Florea, a 35-year-old who received his tourism training from the Ceausescu regime, warns that the island's caretakers, a nun named Mother Melania and a Romanian Orthodox priest, are touchy about Dracula. "Vlad was the victim of the first negative PR campaign," he says. "Political opponents, mainly foreign merchants unhappy with his protectionism, used the new art of printing to spread rumors about Vlad." As he leads through the brushy trail to the monastery, he merrily recites Vlad's legacy-which goes a long way to explain exactly why those merchants were unhappy. "Vlad was concerned that his people were not involved enough in manufacturing," Mr. Florea says. "So he decreed that any foreign merchant caught within the borders of [the Transylvanian province of] Wallachia with any foreign manufactured item was to be put to death." And Vlad's nickname-Tepes the Impaler-was well-earned. A death sentence, of course, meant most likely death by impaling. Perfected as a tool of intimidation as well as punishment by Vlad, impaling meant having a pike inserted in such a way as to avoid piercing vital organs as it was passed through the body, to emerge either through the back or chest. Victims often took hours to die. Vlad had spent much of his youth as a hostage of the Ottoman Empire, to the court of Muhammed II, Sultan of Turkey (medieval kingdoms often exchanged such hostages to insure the peaceful intentions of their neighbors). He studied the language and customs of the Turks, even participated in military exercises with his "hosts." So when he came to power in 1456 at the age of 25, the Sultan believed he would be an ally. "But Vlad saw himself as a defender of Christendom," Mr. Florea explains. "So he bided his time and gathered his army. He paid his tribute for two years, then he was ready." That third year, when the Sultan's envoys arrived at court to ask about the tribute, Vlad scolded them for not uncovering their heads before a "Christian" king, as he styled himself. He had their turbans nailed to their heads, Mr. Florea explains, since they were so fond of them. For good measure, he then impaled them. The inevitable invasion of Turkish forces came within weeks. The Sultan moved across the border into Wallachia with nearly 250,000 Muslim troops. He found a scorched earth. On both sides of the road to the Wallachian capital city, Tirgoviste, crops and villages had been destroyed, and wells had been poisoned. Vlad's 12 regiments of cavalry troops donned costumes and "devil masks" and constantly harassed the flanks and rear of the Sultan's army. The Sultan complained of "the unseen Moloch" that haunted his advance. By the time he reached Tirgoviste, his troops were demoralized, hungry, and terrified. They had seen hundreds of their comrades impaled along the road. And when they opened the deserted gates of the silent capital city, they saw a city peopled by corpses. Vlad had killed more than 20,000 Turkish prisoners and left their bodies in lifelike poses throughout the deserted city. The Sultan turned his army around and marched home, saying he could never win against a king who would do this to his fellow human beings. These stories aren't PR, by the way. They are part of the official biography of Vlad Tepes, compiled by the Romanian Military History Commission. In its 1996 study titled "The Emperor of the East," Vlad is lauded as a leader of the resistance to the Ottomans. A faded Byzantine fresco watches over the door of the 11th-century monastery. Above, a bell tower looms, with an Eastern Orthodox cross glowing in the sunset. Leafy willows shade everything else. Mother Melania is waiting at the door, looking not much newer than the monastery. Father Poenaru is away, she says in Romanian. She leads the visitors inside, anyway. The monastery is dark and cool, all stone and silver leaf, ornate and old-worldly. Mr. Florea crosses himself at the entrance (that's the Orthodox custom) and goes in. Mother Melania has paused at a portrait hanging on the wall-the portrait of a medieval nobleman with a thin, cruel mouth and dark, arrogant features. This is Vlad Tepes. And below the portrait, beneath a stone slab, are the purported bones of the Impaler. Mother Melania waits patiently; after a few moments, the guide says, "Well, that's all there is to see." The old nun glances at the small table of sale items-rosaries, small printed icons of St. Michael and the Madonna. She doesn't seem surprised when the visitors pass out of the building without buying anything. "It's not much, but it could be more one day," Mr. Florea says of the site. "I think it has great tourism potential. With some investors...." In fact, the Romanian government announced last July it was seeking outside money for a theme park to be called "Dracula-Land" (no kidding) either here, or near the town of Bran (where Dracula's castle remains). Tourism minister Dorin Anton says "The project will help develop the whole region where it is based." "But if that happens," Mr. Florea says stubbornly, "I want them to be sure to tell the story of the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes. I don't want everyone to continue to get the wrong idea about him."

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