Fragments of a drifting monograph
- At first, Victoria was a nameless military project. The place, a Carpathian highland (a mountain summit, the Gîrdoman) covered in forests down to the foot of the mountain and criss-crossed by abundant wild rivers that descended towards a prairie covered with tall grass and dog rose before flowing into the river Olt. The villages were strewn along the banks, they were “down” or “up”, they had meadows and forests and ponds up in the mountains. Beyond them, the forests were almost untraveled. Industry was nonexistent. The population worked the land and raised livestock. The landscape was alpine.
The project was a powder factory for ammunition. The location had been strategically chosen. Inside the military “safety area”. The site could be concealed by the dense forest. It needed a lot of water and cover. In winter and summer. It also needed a workforce and, in order to shelter it and have it put down roots, the war ministry was going to plan a new settlement. The winds, groundwater and deposits were studied. The expropriations, water drainage slopes, explosion shock waves and frost lines were calculated.
Work on the factory began in 1939. It was coordinated by a commission of Romanian military engineers, the technology was French and the manager was German. The workers came from the nearby villages, but around 800 Russian and Serbian war prisoners were also brought in. They cleared the ground, made the first roads, built the railway and redirected the waters of seven valleys towards the factory. Many of them laid down their lives. If Romania hadn’t been on the losing side of World War Two, the city would have been raised west of the factory, towards the Ucea River. It would have been a mountain city, a resort that would have stretched all the way down to the plateau where the solar farm is today.Construction stopped in ’44. Romania had lost the war. Part of the equipment was sent to Siberia. Then it was sent back. During the Sovietization period that followed, Romania became part of Stalin’s external expansion and arms racing project, so work on the Ucea powder factory resumed in ’48. It would produce powder, nitrogen and oxygen in ’54. The Ucea factory became the Sovromchim Mill. The city was first called The Ucea Colony, and was raised on the left bank of the river with the same name, on soft rock, between the existing railway and the Corbisor brook.
The founding act was written in Russian and contained a functional description of the planning of the Ucea Colony. The subsequent official texts were different; they recounted and glorified the heroic youth of the proletarian city of Victoria, “the first scion of the people’s power”. The city where the New Man had been born. A model city of exemplary youthfulness. Etched into the national landscape as a unique place, where happiness was a given.
The recipe for this happiness was presented as a steady and relentless collective mobilization on the building site (or in the factory), an appetite for sacrifice and self-obliteration. An enthusiastic adhesion and submission to the values of the dominant ideology. A fusion with and within a paradise-like landscape. Ultimately, eternal youth.
Almost at the same time as the city’s construction from concrete, the bureaucratic state endeavored to design and structure the social community of those who would give the city meaning and life. It created institutions of learning and cultural socialization. It watched over the population’s demography and fertility. It prescribed a series of permitted or forbidden social practices. It decided what was right and what was wrong, what to believe in, what to hope for, what was beautiful and what was not. It organized and monitored everything that moved inside the city. It tied the population down and controlled its mobility and imagination.
From their different social positions and roles, all of the inhabitants experienced the premises of a utopian city. They lived the history of a utopia and its decline.
- I’m 6 years old. It’s June. End of the school year. At the workers’ club, they’re handing out the academic awards, grade by grade. I’m in first grade. I’m enrolled in the German section, although I can’t speak a word of German. My teacher’s name is Erika Scheiner. She’s from Sibiu. She’s 18. I’m in the room with my mother. I haven’t received an award, or a crown. I get mentioned. I’m perplexed /disconcerted. Much later, my mother told me what happened when we went home. “I sat in the green chair, do you remember? You came into my arms and we stayed there. You didn’t say a word. I didn’t say a word either. But I understood what was on your mind.” For the first time, I was seeing the world outside of me, (ordered, hierarchic, festive but also hostile to any anomaly, repetitive, searching), the world beyond a child’s universe. The way it looked at you and you looked at it. I decided to close my eyes.I’m 11 years old. And have the body of a boy. I graduated from the 5th grade. The Romanian section. My mother gave me 10 lei and sent me to the photographer’s. Alone. I’m dressed in my “pioneer” uniform. I’m wearing white tights, a short pleated skirt with a belt bearing the national emblem, a white shirt with a “pioneer” tie with a hem in the three colors of the flag. My hair is braided into two pigtails, I’m wearing a headband and, over it, a flower crown that I’m bearing the way Jesus bore his cross. I am the same as the others.
I’m 18 years old. It’s June. I graduated from the industrial high school. The mathematics-mechanics section. I’m standing inside the Ucea train station. I’m leaving to take my university admission exam. On the platform there are three priests in black robes. Three heavy signs. I’m hurrying to find a cracked window, to break the power of the sign. The fast train is entering the station. At the last moment I’m catching sight, between the bars, of a storage room window. It’s broken. I’m getting on the train. And will never return.
Where was I?
- Utopia, this nowhere territory is defined paradoxically by a place, a space it demarcates and it occupies. The isolation of an imaginary world is specific to each utopia. A prison-like universe, as Cioran says, where “le mal n’effleure pas, où l’on bénit le travail et où personne ne craint la mort”1. At first sight, Victoria speaks of an ideal, homogeneous society, devoid of conflict, where private and institutional initiatives converge miraculously; a society with no religious residue, no archives, no worries about tomorrow. A place that no one leaves.From a little archeological research in the secret archives of the CNSAS (if they were still needed) and especially from the reenactment, with the help of Victoria’s inhabitants, of the communist era, a completely different utopia is revealed. One that was placed outside of the city, beyond the national borders, in the constellation of “abroad”.
The bureaucratic state was obsessed with “fugitives”. With those who intended to or only dreamed of leaving Victoria and the country. Suspicion was chronic. A whole system of surveillance of the population was dedicated to this “concern”. Each gesture, each word, each action, each facial expression, each contact was carefully scrutinized, in case it could constitute a clue related to an escape over the borders. There, where presumably milk and honey flows. Where men could have long hair and drive a Mercedes and women could swallow contraceptive pills and love freely.
Beyond the generalized surveillance technology, we notice here how widespread among the inhabitants of Victoria was the dream of “running away” from a place that was meant to embody and preserve a successful, complete utopia that no one left.
This dream that longs for the abroad and the foreign is no less utopic. As René Schérer2 remarked: any utopia contains a nomadic perspective. Neglecting a closed-off space, the utopia introduces a dimension of becoming, of projection unto “elsewhere”. After all, a utopia does not confine and does not limit itself to an imaginary space. The spirit of a utopia is a wandering one.