While the crimes carried out by Romania’s communist regime are reasonably well-documented, little is available (in English at least) about crimes carried during the communist regime. Perhaps the most famous case is what has become known as the Great Communist Bank Robbery. There is even a documentary film about the caper, which you can watch in full here (it has English subtitles).
The regime itself of course liked to pretend that crime simply did not happen in a socialist paradise (Romania was not alone in this regard: every country in the socialist bloc peddled the same line). Crime was a product of capitalism, of decadent lifestyles. Even the Great Communist Bank Robbery was used as evidence of this: it was the exception that proved the rule, the act of an isolated group of greedy criminals who had been corrupted by outside forces.
Rimaru: The Butcher of Bucharest is perhaps the first book available in English to confirm that the myth to which some people still cling to – that socialist Romania was a country free of crime – is an illusion; little more than a case of wishful thinking. The book achieves this by telling the story, in impeccably documented, gory detail, of the horrific crimes committed in Bucharest in 1970-71 by serial killer Ion Rimaru. It also offers a fascinating look at how the communist regime dealt with this kind of crime, from the methods used to track down the perpetrator to the way the press reported (or rather didn’t report) the killings: there was not one mention of the crimes in the press until Rimaru’s trial began in September 1971.
Even as late as April 1971, by which time the Militia had finally realised that they had a serial killer on their hands and that the public should be warned and mobilised to help track the culprit down, they refused to allow any details be published in the newspapers: they instead had Militia on the streets spread the word informally. The word of mouth networks on which ordinary people relied for news were of course already awash with stories of the attacks.
By the time Rimaru was caught in May 1971 he had killed four women, and raped and attacked numerous others. He had also eaten the flesh of at least one victim, and committed several acts of common and aggravated theft. Most of the attacks took place late in the evening, many just after the victims – all lone females – had stepped off public transport. (And who knew that in those days Bucharest had a vast network of night buses? Only reintroduced last year, we wonder when they were withdrawn?)
In almost all of the cases Rimaru had stalked his prey for as long as a week beforehand: those women who survived his attacks all reported having seen Rimaru at least once previously. A couple of others recognised him as a client of the canteens or shops in which they worked.
While Rimaru is of course the villain of the piece, the book also paints a very grim picture of the Militia, and of large parts of the population of Bucharest in general.
Given that it had a role in political persecution as well as investigating crime, the Militia was not trusted at all by most ordinary Romanians. In fact, to avoid having to deal with the Militia at all, people would often ignore suspicious activity, including apparent crimes. On more than one occassion this would include Rimaru’s.
In one horrific case, Rimaru was disturbed while in the process of raping a woman behind a block in the Militari district of Bucharest at around 2am one morning. Rimaru fled, leaving his injured victim semi-conscious and moaning in agony.
Yet while several residents of the block reported hearing the woman’s screams, nobody called the Militia or the ambulance service until 7.22am. The woman survived, but no thanks to the people in the block who considered dealing with the Militia to be too much trouble to help. Such stories explain – up to a point – yet do not forgive the lack of civic spirit that persists amongst many people in Bucharest to this day.
Rimaru was eventually caught as a result of good, old fashioned detective work on the part of one dilligent Militia colonel, and the story of his arrest is a tale in itself. The Securitate, which on paper was not meant to deal with criminal cases, nevertheless wanted, for all sorts of reasons, to make the arrest: to look good in the eyes of ordinary Romanians and win favour with the party top brass were not the least of them. As such, both the Securitate and the Militia sent teams to Rimaru’s residence to apprehend him. To their utter embarrassment, however, when Rimaru appeared the Securitate failed to recognise him. The Militia did, and the arrest was theirs.
Rimaru confessed while in custody to the vast majority of his crimes, and it appears that coercion – used as a matter of course at the time – was not needed. At his trial, Rimaru pleaded madness, yet while he clearly had pshychotic tendencies the detail with which he had been able to recount his crimes was evidence enough that he had been fully aware of what he was doing. He received the death penalty, and was shot at Jilava prison on October 23rd, 1971.
If the book has one weakness it is that it does not follow up the many rumours and pieces of circumstantial evidence which suggest that Rimaru’s father, Florea, was also a serial killer, and at the very least an accomplice in some of his son’s killings. There had been a series of four killings in Bucharest in 1944, and it is alleged that Rimaru senior’s fingerprints matched those found at one of the crime scenes. To further muddy the waters, Florea Rimaru died in 1972, less than a year after his son’s execution. Officially, he fell from a train. Others have suggested that the Militia had by then realised he was in fact the perpetrator of the 1944 murders, but did not have enough evidence for a conviction. The fall from the train was then ‘arranged.’
There’s a sequel to this book waiting to be written.