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Ceausescu and the bear

Little fanfare is made of Lache the bear at Romania’s premier hunting museum. The halls of the Muzeul Cinegetic in the small town of Posada outside Bucharest are lined with thousands of skulls and pelts from over a century of killing. As many as 25,000 people pass through the doors every year to view the country’s rich tradition of hunting, but the exhibits did not have any names, nor explanations of how each animal – the lynxes, wolves, stags and wild bears – have come to be here.

On one large wall Lache’s huge skin is stretched out in its full glory. Lache, like every other skinned beast here, is just another pelt. The woman working on reception doesn’t know that the bear that has hung on her walls for years is called Lache, nor that he was once been dearly loved by thousands. Nor does she know the identity of the man who shot Lache dead in 1983 to claim the world record as the killer of the biggest brown bear ever shot in the wild. That man was despotic Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, one of the vilest and longest-lasting dictators Europe has ever seen.

The hunt begins

1983 was a bad year to be Romanian, but an even worse one if you happened to be a Romanian bear. It was the darkness before the dawn, before “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” had taken shape. Solidarity might well have been organising strikes at a shipyard in Gdansk in Poland, but further east in Romania the future looked grim.

The economy was in a shambles: food rationed, queues for everything, electricity sporadic. The system was failing. But Nicolae Ceausescu was confident in his strong-handed leadership. So confident, in fact, that he had imposed a version of extreme austerity on his people: to pay off Romania’s massive foreign debt, they had their already meagre incomes cut to the bone. But this was of little concern to Ceausescu – he had bigger things on his mind.

Romania’s brutal communist dictator was a keen huntsman, and loved to head to the country’s vast mountain wildernesses armed with a rifle to take a break from the burdens of office. He had been introduced to the hobby by Ion Gheorghe Maurer, a colleague from the Central Committee and one of Ceausescu’s supporters in his “election” to head of the Communist Party in 1965. Since then, Ceausescu had transformed Romania into his personal hunting domain, which he protected jealously. In 1974 he banned foreigners from hunting in the country after a Frenchman won a trophy for shooting a bear in the mountains of Vrancea in the eastern Carpathians. Sadly for Ceausescu, he was not the most talented of hunters – an army of beaters were employed to help chase prey towards the dictator – but he was a committed one.

During the 1970s and early 1980s whilst communism slowly ate itself, Ceausescu became embroiled in a hunting power struggle with other dictators from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Libya and beyond. For each of them, bagging a world record in hunting was more than a matter of personal pride: it was proof of their country’s strength, their power to bend nature to their will.

In 1981 Field Marshal Tito, the enigmatic ruler of Yugoslavia, smashed the world record for the biggest wild brown bear killed. The news sent Ceausescu into a rage and unleashed a chain of events that would see party apparatchiks scramble to find a bigger bear for their master to kill, even going so far as to begin a programme of overfeeding bears in Harghita county in order to produce a bigger specimen. It was all to no avail: Tito’s trophy was still the biggest. The hunt continued for months until, finally, Nicolae Ceausescu came face to snout with Lache, the biggest bear in the world.

The bear who loved beer

Poiana Brasov is a little ski resort close to the Transylvanian city of Brasov, and was a holiday hotspot for Romanians in the ’80s. Every weekend the locals and tourists would climb up the mountain to a beer garden called “Ursul” – the Bear – where they would eat grilled meatballs and knock back beers.

Ursul was home to two large brown bears, the biggest and best-loved of which was Lache. Regular visitors to Ursul described how Lache had kind eyes and loved to entertain people, particularly the children who brought him treats: he became a huge attraction and thousands of people would gawp at him through his cage bars each year. Everybody gave him the remains from their plates and over time he even took on some human vices. People would sneak a glass or two of beer to him and as the years went by Lache became addicted to it. The locals to this day remember fondly how he would happily drink the equivalent of a toilet cistern full of the stuff in one sitting.

Lache’s mother had been captured in the Carpathian Mountains, home to the highest density of bears on earth, and his father was a huge circus bear. When the two were brought together to breed at a zoo in Oradea, the result was a litter of some of the largest bears seen in Romania in a century.

The cubs were taken off to help in the repopulation of the bear stock of Bihor county, but the attempt failed. They had grown used to being fed by humans and could not adapt to life in the mountains. They were brought back to the zoo in Oradea, but Lache and one of his brothers – the two most domesticated cubs – did not stay. Lache’s brother went to Buftea, Romania’s Hollywood, to become a movie star. Lache, meanwhile, was taken to Transylvania’s Poiana Brasov where, thanks to a life of beer and meatballs, he set about becoming the biggest bear in the world.

“When Lache was taken from his cage and brought to a clearing in the forest, he stood up on his hind legs and stared right towards the place where his executioner sat”

It was there that Ceausescu’s associates discovered him. No one knows exactly how the party came to Poiana Brasov and to Lache’s cage. But when they did they found a huge, sleepy, docile bear who was easily subdued. When Lache disappeared from his cage in 1983, many customers of Ursul wondered what had happened to him. Those who knew preferred to stay quiet.

According to local huntsmen and game keepers, Lache was locked in a ‘tarc’ (a small garden) in a forest in Harghita county, near the town of Borsec. He was still some way off full adulthood and was expected to grow even bigger. But things didn’t go smoothly. Lache didn’t like his new home and without the children and the laughter he was listless and withdrawn. He kept to the corner where he received his food as if missing the kids who would cheer for him in Poiana, offering him sweets, biscuits and beer – he especially missed the beer. Nothing could shake him from his black mood. The huntsmen brought him the best food; they even brought him a female companion. But Lache was not interested. At one point he refused to eat altogether, but his one-bear hunger strike did not impress the party leadership nor change his death sentence.

Ceausescu would often shoot bears from the safety of a fully protected observatory and from a distance of tens of metres after his prey had been chased towards him by beaters and tempted to come closer with food. Huge chunks of meat would be hung on a cable which was then pulled towards the top of a slope where Ceausescu was waiting. He would execute the animals with a Winchester rifle. Snipers hid in nearby trees, ready to take down any bear that looked like it might attack the leader.

But Ceausescu didn’t need a protective observatory or any snipers to deal with Lache when the time came. The rangers who tended him were convinced that the bear had been able to foresee his own death: it was clear from his sad eyes and hunger strike, they said. Eyewitnesses recalled that when Lache was taken from his cage and brought to a clearing in the forest, he stood up on his hind legs and stared right towards the place where his executioner sat, as if begging to be shot. Ceausescu raised his Winchester, a shot rang out and Lache fell dead. After the hunt, specialists from Harghita, Covasna and Brasov counties stripped the bear of his skin. Tito had been beaten.

Life after Lache

Occasionally Lache’s pelt was lent to foreign governments to be displayed in their museums: one notable excursion saw it sent to North Korea, for the enjoyment of Dear Leader King Jong Il. When it was assessed, it received 687.79 points from the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC), the global body which adjudicates on the size and quality of a huntsman’s prey. The record still stands. Lache may have had a grisly end, but his legacy lives on. One of his descendants now lives in Romania’s Zarnesti reservation. Cristi weighs 400kg, making her one of the biggest brown bears alive. At 36 she is the oldest in the area too.

After bagging Lache, Ceausescu continued hunting, inviting a succession of international hard men, including Colonel Gaddafi, to the Carpathians to find solace in killing. He became more prolific as his end neared and in 1989 he shot several dozen bears. His last hunt would take place on 10th December, 1989 when he hunted pheasants near Bucharest. Just 15 days later, on Christmas Day, the hunter became the hunted. It was Ceausescu’s turn to face the rifles as he and his wife Elena were pushed up against a wall in a military base by a group of paratroops in the town of Târgoviste and executed. He had outlived Lache by just six years.

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