After another mostly sleepless night, we were on our way to a place I knew very little about- except that it was the site for one of the strangest and most ingenious rebellions I’d ever heard of!
Doftana Prison was- according to every article mentioning it, ever– known as the Romanian Bastille, and there are surprisingly few articles out there! It was built in 1895 to serve the mining industry but in the following years it became a holding ground for political prisoners. From 1921, it held many of the communist thinkers and revolutionaries who opposed the royalist regime holding Romania, though after a peasant uprising in 1907 numbers were already high inside the walls.
This was our second location on our trip but the first one associated with Dark Tourism. Every account I’ve read since returning mentions the feeling of unease, ‘bad spirit’ and goosebumps while exploring here. While I believe there are things time just cannot heal- much less erase- I stand by my initial feeling of peace and stillness that was both welcome and unexpected after an adrenaline-filled dive through a wall and hoist of bag and body into the grounds. Though even then, despite dire warnings of armed guards and dogs which were mercifully heard but not seen, the atmosphere was still oddly calm- another group were also visiting- a small family on a picnic.
Surrounded by birdsong and tiny flowers.
Seedlings can break through concrete given enough time and though the vines and brambles here may not have reached the stage of bringing the building down, they have turned this place that must have been seen and feared for miles into a thing of beauty, blending into the landscape- at least from the outside. But the building itself is falling down- with or without plants. The heavy snow of 2011 caved in part of the roof and it’s only a matter of time before it collapses in on itself. We were fortunate to visit on a dry sunny day!
My team and I went our separate ways to explore and capture own own images or thoughts and as I walked around the lower levels, I could hear footsteps above me- someone, either from my team or the family- had found a staircase. Nicola, Jonathan, Rebecca and I eventually found each other again just as I was getting a little concerned I’d wandered too far but at the time, I was content to take in my surroundings on my own terms…
The inside changed dramatically as I walked around the multilevel horseshoe shape that made up the various cell blocks. There were light areas which must have been bone-chillingly freezing in winter but warm and airy in summer, rows of damp cells barely wider than my outstretched arms, and tiny rooms that would be pitch black once the doors closed- over half of the cells here. These were reserved for prisoners with sentences longer than a year. There was no way I was risking the climb into the higher cells over the floorless chasm but you can see the doors in the picture below:
Prisoners were routinely beaten, denied food (just three kilos per person, per month and no food at all for two days every week), soaked in freezing water, and forced to work hard labour. Cell block H was deliberately kept damp all year round and of course many many prisoners died in here. You can find more information about the exact layout and system on this blog here.
While the prisoners here were kept in horrific conditions, they- with the exception of those kept in isolation- had one very small comfort- they could share ideas as well as paper (from cigarettes), charcoal and pencils (stolen, bribed or otherwise obtained) and tools for passing both between cells (improvised). With these, they wrote and published a secret and very illegal communist newspaper called “Doftana Red” (also known as “Bolsheviks Handcuffed”) from 1924 onwards. It is unknown when the last edition was published but the prison is thought to have closed in 1949- though there is some dispute about the exact year.
People say that prison makes a good school of crime and that was certainly true here- the sheer number of political prisoners walled up together ensured that the ‘lesser’ learned from the ‘greater’ both directly and indirectly! Propaganda was smuggled in, distributed and elaborated on by the more knowledgeable in the cells- ensuring that if an inmate entered with a basic knowledge of Marx, Lenin and communist philosophy, they left with an extensive one! Due in part to this radicalisation, many former prisoners- even those who entered as minor criminals- became communist leaders. These include Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu; the first communist rulers of Romania, and Max Goldstein; who organised the first terrorist attack on the Romanian senate and later died of pneumonia in Doftana. Wikipedia has very little to say about the prison itself but you can read more about the famous infamous?) prisoners kept here.
Even worse than the man-made conditions here were the ones known even today as “acts of God”. People can be bribed, get sick, come to work tired, overlook things- but the earthquakes that hit Doftana twice were merciless. I have not been able to find an exact count of the dead but around 300 prisoners were (at the very least) injured as a result of the earthquakes. The building was hit again in 1977 after it had been turned into a museum and was never rebuilt.
Circumstances are, to an extent, subjective; no matter how bad the situation, somebody is always having a worse time- but I can think of few things more terrifying than being put in a cell like the one I’m in below, with guards that may or may not resemble those of Shawshank and in the knowledge that at any time, you could find yourself trapped in falling rubble with no way out. That, to me, is horror. So, how do you keep sane in such a place? Having a uniting force- a thing to fight for. Doftana Red.
This is how they did it:
1) Prisoners obtained paper from cigarettes, smuggled pencils and charcoal, writing and editing their pieces and passing them on- which was very, very dangerous as trading contraband items got you sent to Section H- the worst block of the lightless cells.
2) Prisoners went to incredible lengths not to be detected- using ‘knocking’ codes similar to Morse, developing their own patterns of ‘shorthand’ and making tools for passing contraband items from cell to cell. A “soft horse” was a bag tied with string that could be filled and swung from cell to cell. A ‘mouse’ was a thin, piece of wood with a split that could hold pencils or paper and pass them through narrow gaps.
3) Once the edition was complete, prisoners used a combination of the waterways and the blacksmiths to get it out of the prison and into the town. Editions could be wrapped up and sent through the storm drains to meet the River Doftana, or rolled up and hidden in the hollow iron pipes on the blacksmiths carts- when the blacksmiths (who were in on it) came to fit and alter the chains of the inmates, they left taking the edition with them.
Considering the fact that one edition alone is an incredible achievement, I’m amazed that there is so little written about the goings-on here, especially over several years! After the prison closed, it was reopened as a museum and communist shrine but after the earthquake of 1977, it was abandoned and now that the cost of renovation is believed to exceed 1.2 million Euros, it looks as though the building that housed such a phenomenal human achievement is destined to become splinters and rust as the years go on.
And so after a few hours, reluctantly, we moved on. There was another location on our schedule and this one was likely to attract fans…
Next post: The castle where Vlad the Impaler didn’t live- bringing home Dark Tourism.
I’m in here so you can get an idea of the size and scale of the place: I am 5’7”, so the ceilings are high and imposing, and the cells tiny.
I tried to get a shot from outside the cell but it didn’t show the scale of it as well as I wanted. I am 5 foot 7 inches tall and the cell is about two inches wider than my outstretched arms.
View from the courtyard
Doors to the black cells.