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The statue of Michael the Brave

On 28 November 1968, on his second visit to Alba Iulia, Nicolae Ceaușescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, attended the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Prince Michael the Brave. The sculpture was ordered with the aim of promoting a message of unity: in the mid-1960s, in light of Romania’s fragmented history, the unity and continuity of the Romanian people had become favourite themes of historical writing. Michael the Brave was ignored for several decades before he was rediscovered by the Communist regime which attributed to him a national project specific to the nineteenth century that could not have been conceived during his lifetime in the late 1500s.

Unlike other European countries governed by Communist regimes, Romania and Albania did not undergo a process of de-Stalinization after the death of I.V. Stalin in 1953. Instead of freedom Romanians were offered nationalism. The period 1964-1971 was the most successful for the Communist regime in Romania and the leaders of the Romanian Communist Party discovered that they could make full use of the nationalistic feelings of the population. In contrast to the 1950s, during this period much national culture was recovered and historical publications increasingly emphasized Romanian values.

Revolutionary writers delved into the past, foregrounding the achievements of Dacian kings and the medieval voivodes of the Romanian principalities. Ceaușescu was reflected in all of them; represented as their rightful heir. The Dacian kings Burebista and Decebal, rulers of Wallachia and Moldova, such as Mircea the Old, Stephen the Great and Michael the Brave, as well as modern heroes such as Avram Iancu and Alexandru-Ioan Cuza, were all rediscovered by the historiography of the Communist regime. Among these historical figures, Prince Michael the Brave was perceived to be a symbol of Romanian unity, and a favourite hero of Ceaușescu, because he had “united” Romanians and was murdered by foreigners.

Under these conditions it is little wonder that during the celebration of fifty years since the unification of Transylvania with Romania on 28 November 1968, during the second visit to Alba Iulia by Nicolae Ceaușescu, the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Michael the Brave was scheduled. The event aimed to remember the “unification” of Transylvania with Romania as well as the triumphant entry of the voivode Michael into Alba Iulia, on 1 November 1599. The statue was erected in front of the Princes’ Palace and was personally inaugurated by Ceaușescu. He was accompanied by other members of the party and government, including Ion Gheorghe Maurer, Paul Niculescu-Mizil, Ștefan Voitec, János Fazekas and Ion Iliescu. The sculptor Oscar Han (1891-1976) had debuted as artist before he was twenty and during the interwar period made several accomplished works of art that earned him the position of favourite artist of the Royal House of Romania. In 1968, Oscar Han was already a senior figure having a long artistic career behind him during which he created numerous works of art throughout the country. Commissioning him to create the statue of Michael the Brave the Communist leaders of Romania aimed to convey to the public a message of national unity and solidarity with the power of the Romanian state.

According to local newspaper Unirea, Oscar Han had been preoccupied with the idea of a statue of Michael the Brave for decades, drawing many sketches. The result was a statue made of bronze with an imposing height of almost eight and a half meters standing on a three-meter-high base. The body of the horse was poured at the “23 August” Factory (formerly called Malaxa and nowadays Faur SA). The prince’s clothing was produced at Workshop of Art Fund in Bucharest. The sculpture emanates an attitude of magnificence, with the mace raised to the sky representing the “culminating moment of his glory”, according to Oscar Han.

Michael the Brave, Prince of Wallachia was viewed by his contemporaries as a momentary conqueror of Transylvania and of Moldova, and for 250 years he was hardly remarked upon in historical writing. The few notes written about him in that period are far from complimentary. The Moldovan chroniclers and the representatives of the Transylvanian School (Romanian intellectuals from eighteenth century Transylvania) voiced a critical view regarding his military campaigns, estimating that “they caused much bloodshed among Christians” (Miron Costin). Historians started to write in positive terms about Michael the Brave only in 1837 when Aaron Florian published a history of Wallachia. The lasting consecration of Michael the Brave as a national hero was achieved by another historian, Nicolae Bălcescu, around the mid-nineteenth century. During the first two decades after the Second World War, the voivode Michael was again “forgotten”, only to be rediscovered in the mid-1960s. The authorities erroneously gave him the role of precursor of modern Romania and attributed to him a nineteenth-century national project that the ruler of Wallachia could not himself have conceived of in 1600.

The history of each people has its founding myths, which are given an important role in the actions of state building. The unifying myth of Michael the Brave is one such myth. The Wallachian ruler did not unite the Romanians during his lifetime, but he achieved it long after his death in 1859 and in 1918: both unifications (in 1859 with the creation of the United Principalities of Wallachia and Moldova) were achieved under the symbol of Michael the Brave. (S. A.)