There is a type of despicable person that, as one learns more about them, one finds even more reasons to loathe them. Not even the smallest part of their lives seems free from the internal corruption they exude, and whatever they touch becomes tainted. Of recent historical figures, I feel that way most strongly about Imelda Marcos. But old Nick is certainly in the running. David Quammen, in his recent book, Monster of God (on what he calls 'alpha predators' and the rest of us call 'man-eaters'), gives an unusual perspective on old Nick's loathsomeness: Romania from the bears' point of view.
What proved helpful for Romania's bear population was not so much the lofty ideals of sustainable management as the realities of Communist autocracy. After the war, things were different in the mountains. Common people had no guns. Common people were afraid of the central government, its regulations, and its means of enforcement. Bear hunting became a prestigious privilege reserved mainly to the nomenclatura, the Party elite. [...] The history books don't say whether Gheorghiu-Dej, an urban agitator in the proletarian vein, fancied bear hunting personally, although there is a record of his hosting Nikita Khrushchev to a hard-drinking, bear-killing junket up in the Harghita district. Nicolae Ceaucescu, similarly, had shown no interest in woodland shooting sports during his earlier years. But in the late 1960s, while Ceaucescu solidified his position as supreme leader of both the Party and the country, he did discover a zeal for hunting -- or, more accurately, for the sort of pampered travesty of hunting that only a despot gets to experience and only a delusional egoist would enjoy.Truth to power, baby! Quammen continues:
Beginning in the late 1960s, Ceaucescu made himself the hunter in chief of Romanian forests as well as the commander in chief of the military. He arrogated hundreds of hunting areas -- the best of them, so far as large game is concerned -- to his personal use. Forest managers at the district level, and the hunting wardens who worked for them, and the gamekeepers who reported to the wardens, came to realize that any estimable animal emerging within their purview was an animal the Conducator might want to kill. They recognized that pandering to his blood lust, to his lazy greed for trophies, was good professional politics. One district competed against another for his visits, offering big bears and rack-heavy stags as easy targets for his pricey imported rifles. For a typical hunt, Ceaucescu would fly in by helicopter and land on a cleared pad within the hunting area itself. From there he'd be taken by rough-terrain vehicle (in earlier years he favored Jeeps, then a Russian make, the Gaz, and still later a rattletrap Romanian imitation, the Aro) along forest roads, to a point very near the spot where hungry bears or rutting red deer were expected to appear. He would walk the short distance to a strategically placed high seat -- in a tight little draw that served as a game corridor, say, or along a stream, where the gurgling water would cover noises made by a hunter. Usually he was accompanied by at least one security officer, who would carry his weapons and ammunition, and a forestry official from the district office. Many other Forest Department personnel would have been involved in preparing for his visit, but they were kept at a distance during the actual hunt. In the high seat, he had little patience for waiting and watching. His attention span, according to a witness who worked with him often, was five minutes. But for this brand of hunting, patience wasn't necessary. Bears came to the feeding troughs; red deer stags congregated in response to hormonal imperatives and the attraction of hinds; or, in some cases, both bears and wild boars were pushed toward a high seat in organized drives involving dozens of beaters. Ceaucescu took his shots, admired his kills, posed for photographs, and then departed. The report of his short attention span comes from Vasile Crisan, a forestry official who later published a memoir, in German, the title of which translates as Ceaucescu: Hunter or Butcher?
During the twenty-five years of his reign, according to Crisan's tally, Nicolae Ceaucescu shot about four hundred bears. In the earlier years, he sometimes hosted shooting parties at which guests were welcome to kill game -- deer, boar, even some of those precious bears. On a day's hunt in 1974, Ceaucescu himself shot twenty-two bears and his guests another eleven. In later years he more jealously kept the bears for himself. Between 1983 and his death in 1989, Crisan reports, Ceaucescu bagged 130. His most notable fit of excess occurred in the autumn of 1983 when, during a single day, aided by four separate game drives toward his position, Ceaucescu personally shot twenty-four bears. That slaughter occurred in a hunting area called Cusma, within the Bistrita district, not far from a luxurious hunting lodge known as Dealul Negru (the Black Hill), which had been built expressly for Ceaucescu and his wife. Informed that the 1983 bear crop was bounteous at Cusma, Ceaucescu announced his intention to visit. This triggered a scramble of kowtowing preparations. The high seats were repaired. The forest roads were improved. The bears were fed -- generously, with two tons of fruit and two hundred kilograms of bear chow poured into the area each day for six weeks. The hunting lodge, Dealul Negru, was made spiffy. The local Party office recruited four hundred citizens to serve as beaters, and from among the local police and the Securitate came a hundred more. Ceaucescu arrived by helicopter on the morning of the hunt, October 15. The plan was to split the beaters into three groups, for three separate drives, and then marshal them all into a giant sweep of the forest for a climactic fourth. Crisan describes how the day unfolded, with Ceaucescu blasting at bears, killing bears, wounding bears as they fled toward his position in one high seat and then another. After the first drive, in which he killed three medium-sized animals and injured two but missed two others that ran back into the forest, Ceaucescu complained petulantly about the arrangements. God forbid that two bears out of seven should escape -- or if God wouldn't forbid it, the Conducator would. Next year, he commanded, there should be a fence along here, dammit, to channel the animals inexorably toward the high seat. Yes yes, the district director promised, next year there would be a fence. After the second and third drives, having killed seven more bears, Ceaucescu was still unsatisfied. The fourth drive began, the big one, with hundreds of beaters moving down brushy hillsides toward a valley. The security men carried semi-automatic rifles; the foresters had small-gauge shotguns; they all shouted, fired into the air, setting up a din. Vasile Crisan took refuge on a high seat, from where he could watch without too much danger of being mistaken by Ceaucescu for a bear. As the beaters pushed within a couple of hundred yards of the firing line, they came virtually shoulder to shoulder. "The bears were running in every direction, trying to escape," Crisan writes. "But it was useless, it was impossible." Bears fell dead, bears fell wounded, and amid the chaos Crisan couldn't tell just how many; but few if any seemed to be escaping. Ceaucescu blazed away with a pair of Holland & Holland .375s, a minion beside him reloading one rifle while he fired the other. When the shooting and the hollering stopped, the forest workers started dragging in carcasses. Twenty-four dead bears were lugged back to the hunting lodge (where Elena could admire them) and laid out in two rows, framed with freshly cut brush, like trout on a platter garnished with parsley. Ceaucescu posed for photos. "We, the foresters, gathered at a certain distance," Crisan recalls, adding the tight-lipped understatement, "Contrasting feelings governed us." He had devoted much of his life to hunting, but he labels this sorry episode the Massacre of Bistrita.You know, as I read this, I thought to myself, what a splendid opportunity for a 'hunting accident'! Oh well.