Archive for the ‘Securitate’ Tag

Death of the Dictator: The Romanian Revolution of December 1989   Leave a comment

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The Rebellion in Timisoara and the Revolution in Bucharest had not just taken Ceausescu and his ruling clique by surprise, but the whole world outside Romania, including journalists and news media. John Simpson flew to Belgrade on 22 December and drove the short distance to the Romanian border with three other BBC crew, plus a French reporter and his photographer, in convoy. When they arrived at the border, they expected to be met by Securitate, since they were a long way from Bucharest:

We braked sharply. Three men stood motionless in our headlights, not even blinking. They formed a weird tableau in the dark. I assumed they were part of a Securitate roadblock and braced myself for a bullet. Nothing happened. They held flags over their heads and their hands, grasping the wooden staffs, remained intertwined. There was something strange about the flags: the Communist emblem in the centre had been roughly hacked out of them. These were not Securitate men, they were revolutionaries. The three unsmiling peasants, their lined faces as white as the painted tree trunks in the headlights, and heard that the mutilated flag was the symbol of their revolution. Word had radiated out from Bucharest until it had reached even this obscure place, four hundred miles away. They did not speak to us. They merely watched us uncomprehendingly as we circled round them, filming. We climbed back into our cars and drove off, leaving them still standing there in the darkness… In the nearby villages, unlit except for the statutory forty watt light bulb per dwelling, people turned out to cheer us and dance in the light of our camera.

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The journalists drove on to Timisoara, arriving there at eleven o’clock, finding the town in total darkness and hysterical crowds on the streets. Groups of people emerged from the shadows, demanding to see their accreditation before waving them on to the next batch of guardians of the street, often only ten yards further on. Mass delusion had set in, with the self-appointed roadblocks telling them to turn their lights of, as the Air Force was threatening to bomb the town. At first they complied, but soon the claim seemed implausible. They switched their lights back on, and people shouted at them, but took no action. Some claimed that the Securitate had poisoned the water. They drove fast through Timisoara, glad to leave its hallucinations behind. The serious action now lay ahead in Bucharest.

At first, the focus of the revolution in Bucharest was the Central Committee building. The insurgents had fought their way into Ceausescu’s office, with its ante-room leading out onto the balcony, and took it over as their headquarters. None of them knew each other; they had been brought together by their courage, and were an unlikely bunch of revolutionaries: among them an ordinary soldier who could scarcely write, a cinema stunt man, a sculptor, a couple of would-be politicians, a hostess from the InterContinental Hotel, a witty and worldly-wise sociologist who was hoping to write an account of the group dynamics of creating a revolution, and Adrian Donea, a taxi driver who had started his career as a designer but had switched to driving a taxi because there was more money in it.

The Army was extremely anxious to take over the revolution in its early stages and restore order. It was several days later that John Simpson spoke to one of the soldiers who had been involved from these early stages, taking the whole thing very seriously:

I first found out that the Army had gone over to the side of the people by listening to the radio. Our commanders ordered us to go into action. We were the very first soldiers to take up position here at the Central Committee building. I was very moved when the people embraced us and chanted: ‘The Army is with us! You are our sons, our brothers. You must help us!’

Simpson and his BBC crew arrived in Bucharest at dawn on Saturday 24 December, Christmas Eve. The Army, having declared for the revolution, was rumbling its tanks into the city centre to protect it.

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By Christmas morning the fighting in Bucharest was over. The revolution was accomplished and the counter-revolution had been defeated. It had taken three days. The Square (pictured below) was a depressing sight. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were skewed around the middle of it, and exhausted soldiers lay on them in a muddle of uniforms. The dome of the University Library was a smoking skeleton the windows blackened by fire. The ground below was covered with black ashes from the books that had been burned. Every frontage in the Square had been splattered by pointless gunfire. The old Royal Palace was a terrible sight, the grand rooms a mess of charred beams and burned furniture. Fire was still licking the walls and the roof of the block of flats opposite the Central Committee building. These were the flats where the senior officers of the Securitate lived, and they had been built with the thought of possible counter-subversion in mind. The windows of the expensive shops which had sold chocolate and jewellery had been smashed by rifle fire.

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It was the first Christmas many Romanians had been permitted to celebrate. This was a society where even Father Christmas had been forbidden. Now there were decorations everywhere, and people were still dragging Christmas trees home that evening. On television there was an announcement that there was a new national flag, just the country’s blue, yellow and red. It was accompanied on-screen by Christmas decorations, a bowl filled with ornaments, just the usual balls of coloured glass that would have been part of the fixtures and fittings of any Western European TV studio, but in Romania they were a symbol of revolution.

In the Square people had been camping out all night round fires of rubbish. At first they had sung their new revolutionary songs, cooking whatever food they could find. It was like the field of some great battle after the fighting was over. Suddenly and terrifyingly there was a wild burst of shooting from a wing of the Central Committee building nearby. In the panic people flung themselves to the ground or ran through the camp fires looking for cover. The soldiers had discovered a small group of Securitate hiding out in one of the first floor rooms. They were captured and taken away for questioning, which consisting of searching them for Securitate documents. Those who were found in possession of these were taken down to the cellars and shot in the back of the head,their bodies taken away in trucks before dawn on each of the following mornings. This was also the fate of the three black labradors, two of them gifts to the Ceausescu family from HM the Queen, which had had the misfortune to be discovered in the Central Committee building, abandoned by their fleeing owners.

There was a kind of revolutionary insanity in the air. Sudden myths swept through the revolutionaries’ camps: Two of Ceausescu’s doubles had been sighted; Ceausescu had escaped and was in China/Iran/East Germany/Albania; Securitate paratroopers had been dropped on Timisoara; that Colonel Gaddafi had sent troops to support the counter-revolutionaries, etc… These myths could be self-defeating. The revolutionaries found the flat where a Securitate sniper had been hiding. It was empty, but a few minutes later a man in a fur hat slipped out of a side entrance and calmly got into his car. It refused to start, he was spotted and pulled out. The crowd treated him roughly, someone punching him in the face. They discovered a pistol on him, but he remained perfectly calm, though his face moved quickly round the circle of faces, searching out the people he had to convince. When they looked through his pockets they failed to find any Securitate documents. He explained coolly that he was an ordinary policeman, off duty, and that he had kept his gun with him to help in the search for Securitate snipers. The crowd liked that, and he gave them some advice about where to search for the snipers in the building. They were, in any case, expecting to find Libyans. They clapped him on the back and went back with him to his car. It still wouldn’t start, so they pushed it for him. As they waved him off, John Simpson suggested to one of the self-appointed commanders of the group that they had let the real sniper get away. He laughed, and said that he thought Simpson was right, adding, but you’ve seen these people; how could I change their minds? What heightened the atmosphere of paranoia in Romania during those first days of the revolution, was that the Securitate really were everywhere.

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Above: A still from the BBC coverage of the tunnels underneath the Central Committee building. Adrian Donea, the taxi driver who became a leading revolutionary, holds a gun to the head of a suspected Securitate man who they have arrested. The tunnels went on for miles under the city, and were stocked with supplies for a long siege.

That Christmas morning, it was bitterly cold. Outside the Central Committee building a hundred or more people were queuing for a free hand out of bread and a watery light brown soup. Each person who received a ration began wolfing it down then and there. Behind them the queue bunched up and the process slowed.  Those waiting shouted angrily, but those eating didn’t stop. Inside the building, Ceausescu’s office was as big as a football pitch. Until two days before he had sat at the enormous desk in the far corner while his ministers std in the circular pattern in the middle of the carpet and called over their business to him. Now there was even more calling over of business: The crew had taken over the admiral’s cabin and there was points were emphasised with revolvers or Kalashnikovs. This was the heart of the powerfully anti-Communist emotions which had welled up and overthrown Ceausescu. There were still Securitate men still at large inside the maze of tunnels under the building. It was also true that a group of special agents had been detailed to infiltrate the revolutionaries in case of a coup.

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Above: Ceausecu’s office in the Central Committee building, under new management. The desk with the typewriter on it is his desk.; so is the choice of paintings. Behind the fierce characters with guns is the door leading to his private apartment. 

Meanwhile, Vaughan Smith, a freelance photographer who had also worked in Afghanistan, had followed the trail of the infamous couple for days after their helicopter had lifted off from the roof of the Central Committee building, meeting and interviewing the people who had come across them on their way to arrest and execution.  The helicopter pilot, Lt-Col Vasile Malutanu (pictured below), explained how he had rescued the Ceausescus and the others in their party from the jammed lift in the building, flying them the short distance to their villa by the lake at Snagov.

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They had arrived at Snagov around 12.30, the staff there knowing nothing of the morning’s events in Bucharest. The chief of security at the villa, Sergeant-Major Lalescu, heard the helicopter’s engines and went out nervously to meet them:

Elena and Nicolae Ceaucescu got out of the helicopter and started running. They ran along the path to the back of the house and went up to their apartment on the first floor. There they went searching through all the cupboards, emptied the drawers and turned over the mattresses. They put everything into two big blue bags. On the top I could see blankets and loaves of bread. I’ve got no idea what was under them. Then they made a couple of calls.

The first of these calls was to the military base at Otatoi, where they could catch a plane to take them out of the country. The other was to a Party secretary in the mountains of the north. It took them three-quarters of an hour for them to pack the bags and make the phone-calls before they hurried back to the waiting helicopter. By this time, the two unwanted passengers, Emil Bobu the prime minister and his deputy, had headed off by car, leaving the Ceausescus and their bodyguards, including General Neagoe. The pilot, Lt-Col Malutanu, had been in contact with his superior officers at Otatoi. They had told him that they had refused Ceausescu’s request for a helicopter escort, but he agreed to follow Ceausescu’s orders:

The bodyguards were very nervous. They kept their machine-pistols pointed at me. On my headphones I could hear my commanding officer saying, ‘Vasile, listen to the radio – this is the revolution!’ After that, Ceausescu ordered me to cut all radio contact with my base. I wanted to persuade him to let us land so he could be captured, but I was on my own, cut off from the world. I deliberately flew into the range of air traffic control radar so they could track our helicopter.

Malutanu was ordered to fly to Pitesti, but protested that he did not have enough fuel, that they were being tracked and that if he didn’t put down, the anti-aircraft defences would shoot them down. None of this was true, but Ceausescu had little choice. They landed next to a country road, but the fleeing president did not want to leave the helicopter, so the pilot pushed him out. As he prepared to take off again, Ceausescu asked him why he was abandoning the cause like this. What cause? he replied. The bodyguards commandeered two cars, one belonging to a local doctor, Nicolae Deca, and the other to a forestry official who had been watching the helicopter land from a nearby farmhouse. Neagoe got into the doctor’s red Dacia with the Ceausescus, and the other bodyguard, Ivan Martin, drove off in the other car, after telling the Ceausescus he would follow them. In fact, he was deserting them, and drove off in the other direction, back towards Bucharest. Dr Deca, a stout man in his mid-fifties was extremely scared, especially as Neagroe was pointing a gun at him, but he was able to make a shred assessment of his passengers:

They were completely dumbfounded by the situation they were in. There was disbelief written all over their faces. I think they were terrified and close to despair. They seemed to get smaller and smaller as they sat in the car. We continued down the next road… Ceausescu asked me if I knew what had happened. I replied that I had been on duty at the hospital all night and had no idea. He said, ‘there was a coup’, and lapsed into silence. Later he turned to me and said, ‘we’re going to organise the resistance. Are you coming with us?’ …I ended up by saying, ‘Anyway I’m not even a Party member.’ That seemed to come as a real blow to him. He went white and refused to say any more.

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Above: BBC crew member, Tira,  with Dr Deca, who later came under suspicion of having been a Securitate supporter; no doubt it was untrue, but in the hysterical atmosphere of the time the fact that he had been forced to drive the Ceausescus was used as evidence against him. 

Ceausescu probably thought the Army had seized power. He had always been afraid of that, and had been particularly anxious about Soviet control over his high command, ever since his resistance to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Later, he seems to have believed that Gorbachev was planning to overthrow him. The idea of a mass rebellion by the ordinary people of the country doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Having initially been told by Marian that he was taking his passengers to the militia headquarters in Gaesti,  Neagoe now told Dr Deca to turn in the direction of Tergoviste.  Deca told them that the car was breaking down and pulled over when he saw a friend washing his car by the side of the road, to ask him for help. Neagoe told this man, Nikolae Petrisor, to get into his car and take the three of them with him. Throughout the journey, Elena Ceausescu held a gun to the back of his neck. Her husband asked him if there was a good place for them to hide, possibly in a village. Petrisor replied that, by now, everyone knew the couple was in the locality. General Neagoe suggested going to a steel works at Tergoviste, because he knew the security people there. On the outskirts, they ran into a group of workers who were on strike. They recognised Ceausescu and started throwing stones at the car. Elena told her husband to take of his coat and they hunched down in the seats and hid their faces. A little further on, Neagoe got out to check directions, but some children recognised them and Elena told Petrisor to drive on, leaving the general on the roadside.

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Above: Nikolae Petrisor and the car in which he drove the Ceausecus to eventual capture and imprisonment.

After that they tried to take refuge in a nunnery, but the nuns refused, hardly surprising given Ceausescu’s persecution of the churches. Even a hotel for Communist Party officials told them there was no room. Finally, their unwilling driver, Nikolae Petrisor, turned into the driveway of an agricultural institute just outside Tergoviste, where he knew the staff. It was 3 p.m. The director of the institute, Victor Seinescu, was watching the reports on the TV, including the latest one that the Ceausescus had been arrested in Tergoviste. Seinescu had been a member of the Communist Party, but had been thrown out a decade earlier. Suddenly, Petrisor burst into the room and announced, I’ve got the Ceausescus in the back of my car! The director told Petrisor to bring them in, which he did. Seinescu then got on the phone to his boss, who told him to hang on until the police got there. They arrived at 3.20 p.m. and took the couple to the old cavalry school near the railway station which had become an army barracks. This was where the Ceausescus were held for the next two days and nights.

On Christmas Eve the Securitate troops finally worked out where the Ceausescus were being held, and took up positions around the base. Soon after darkness fell they opened fire. You can still see the bullet marks on the front and sides of the headquarters building: there are several hundred of them. The captured couple were hurried out and put for safety into an armoured personnel carrier, which parked in as sheltered a place as possible. They spent the night there and the following morning they were driven back to the headquarters building and taken to a room which was used as a lecture room. The tables ad chairs had been arranged to form a rudimentary court, with a dock formed by two desks and chairs in one corner. A prominent lawyer in his late fifties, Nicu Teodorescu, was sent from Bucharest the ninety miles to Tergoviste by military escort, to represent the Ceausescus. He arrived to find them already sitting in the makeshift courtroom. There were five judges, all senior army officers in uniform, two prosecutors, a junior to help Teodorescu with the defence and a young officer with a video camera, whose job it was to record the proceedings but not show any of the participants except for the defendants themselves. There were no witnesses. The couple had been examined by a doctor and he had pronounced them fit to stand trial. Teodorescu told them their only hope was to plead insanity. Not surprisingly, they were deeply insulted by this suggestion.

001On the left is the still from the official video of them at their court-martial for crimes against their own people. Nicolae places his hand on Elena’s. It was probably less from affection than from a desire to stop her getting into an unprofitable argument with their accusers, but they always showed their affection for each other.

They refused to accept the legality of the military tribunal. After a hasty trial, their end was shabby and terrible. The Ceausescus’ hands were tied behind their backs. Elena wept, but then swore at the soldier tying her up. They were led down the corridor and out onto the yard of the barracks. The Ceausescus apparently had no idea that they were to be executed immediately. On the parade ground, fifty yards away, they could see the helicopter which had brought two members of the National Salvation Front from Bucharest to attend the trial. Assuming that they were to be taken somewhere in it, the Ceausescus headed towards it. Lt-Col. Mares gently but firmly directed them down another path that led to the yard. The entire complement of the base, soldiers and civilians, had been drawn up in a large semi-circle to watch. The television cameraman who had filmed the trial had some difficulty with his equipment, and failed to record anything except the last few seconds of the execution. Nevertheless, pictures of their bodies were shown on Romanian television and throughout the world soon afterwards.

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By Christmas Night, the Romanian television staff hadn’t slept in a bed for three nights. One of them, a woman in her fifties, fell asleep while speaking to the co-ordinators of the satellite in Geneva. Ten minutes before the BBC link to London was due, the Romanian announcer began reading a statement live on air. Everyone in the control room was standing, silent and shocked. The list of charges for which the Ceausescus were to be tried – the murder of sixty thousand people, sabotaging the national economy and corruption – had just been read out. The newsreader continued:

For these serious crimes committed against the Romanian people and Romania, the accused, Nicolae Ceausescu and Elena Ceausescu, were sentenced to death and confiscation. The sentences were final and were carried out.

The tired men and women of Romanian Television broke into spontaneous applause. John Simpson threw away most of what he had written and rapidly sketched out a portrait of a man and woman corrupted by absolute power. With a minute to go to the BBC’s satellite broadcast, he finished, sat back and looked down. He had written Ceausescu’s obituary with the pen he had been ‘given’ in their private apartment, which had been presented to the dictator by the British Labour Party, though they later denied having any record of its presentation.

That night the mild weather which had made the revolution possible came to an end. It froze, then snowed hard. Later on Christmas night the television station showed an edited version of the Ceausescu’s trial, and of their bodies lying in the snow. People all over the world competed with each other to condemn the couple: even those – especially those – who had given them gifts. No one wanted to think of the ghastly museum in Bucharest which housed the trophies from his good relations with the outside world: with, in pride of place, the insignia of an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath which the British government had insisted that the Queen should give him (against her will) in 1978. The museum was shut. It must have been a relief to a good many politicians and civil servants who watched their televisions in Western Europe that night that it was impossible to provide pictures of the honours they had showered on him little more than a decade before.

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The Ceausescus’ bodies were flown back by helicopter to Bucharest and the next day, the day of St Stephen the Martyr, 26 December, they were taken to a cemetery on the outskirts of the capital where they were buried a hundred metres apart, with rough wooden crosses marking the graves. With them was buried the socialist republic of Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania had turned from a Marxist-Leninist state into an expression of the personality of its leader, more like Mussolini’s Italy, rather than an ideological entity. Unlike in Prague, there was no Dubcek, no Good King Wenceslas to step back into his own footsteps on the Feast of Stephen. With the leader’s death, the socialist facade in Romania crumbled away almost immediately and left scarcely a trace behind itself. Apart from the borrowing of a few words from Russian and a few props and symbols, it was, to all intents and purposes, a fascist state. As writer and sociologist, a gypsy by birth, commented to John Simpson as they walked down the marble staircase at the Central Committee building:

We Romanians will always suffer as a result of Ceausescu. He made everyone afraid of everybody else, and he made it impossible for any of us to take our own decisions, to think or act for ourselves. Ceausescu is inside every one of us, and we haven’t killed him yet. If we had given him a proper trial, we might have dealt with him. Now we can’t. That is his revenge on all of us.

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Above: Ceausescu in one of his many games rooms

John Simpson’s obituary concluded:

The Ceausescus were evil and vicious. An entire nation was imprisoned, went hungry, and lived in the half-light because of them. Yet their lives and deaths weren’t small or squalid. Nicolae Ceausescu was a tragic hero along the lines that some grand, out of date Shakespearian scholar… would have recognised. It was the heroic Ceausescu, the man who stood on his balcony and defied the Russians when they invaded Czechoslovakia, whom the Western world praised and rewarded… the single tragic fault that turned noble defiance into savagery… was Ceausescu’s vanity… fed by an assumption that he was invulnerable.

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Above: The Securitate commanders of Timisoara on trial. The similarity with Nuremberg was deliberate

At the beginning of 1989 the Iron Curtain still divided Europe, as it had done for more than forty years. By the end of the year, the leaders of every Eastern European nation except Bulgaria, which soon followed suit, had been ousted by popular uprisings; in every case the will of the people had prevailed and, except in Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. With dizzying speed, the Soviet Union’s European empire, the buffer zone ruthlessly built up by Stalin and maintained with brutal force when necessary by his successors, had collapsed like a house of cards. Truly, 1989 was an annus mirabilis. 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publications.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

   

 

The Fall of Herod the Great: Twenty-Five Years on from The Romanian Revolution.   Leave a comment

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The Last Stalinist

At the end of the events of 1989, there was one last, grim, twist. The only Eastern European nation still ruled by an old-school Communist was Romania. The tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu had run the country with a rod of iron since 1965, turning it into a police state. The Securitate, the secret police, terrorised the people into submission while Ceausecu imposed his Stalinist will over the nation and its economy.  At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow the day after Gorbachev returned from the Malta summit with President Bush, Ceausescu was the sole Eastern European Communist boss still in office since the last Warsaw Pact summit, only five months before. Gorbachev spoke of eliminating the Cold War, while Ceausescu said the West was out to liquidate socialism. He called for the building up of the Warsaw Pact  against the common danger of NATO. The other Eastern European heads of government ignored him. They went on to support a Czech resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of 1968 which Ceausescu refused to sign. After a frank exchange of opinions with Gorbachev, the Romanian leader flew home in a bad temper.

Two weeks later the Securitate opened fire on protestors who had gathered in the traditionally dissident Transylvanian city of Timisoara in western Romania. For several days the shootings continued, but still people came out onto the streets in ever-growing numbers.  On 21 December, Ceausescu gave a prepared speech from the balcony of his presidential palace in Bucharest to a huge, specially assembled crowd. He intended to show he still had the supporters to restore order, and it was carried live on television. But Romanians had had enough of him.

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Leonid Brezhnev made a historic visit to Romania in November 1976 (above), only too conscious that the government of Nicolae Ceausescu was being courted in the seventies by western politicians who should have known better. For a time it had been useful to them, since they erroneously believed that his independent policies were turning Romania into a Trojan horse within the Warsaw Pact. He had kept his links with Israel and China, when the rest of the Soviet bloc had severed theirs. He advocated the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and ways of relaxing tension between the two power groupings. But as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985,  Ceausescu’s usefulness to the West dropped away.

It was no secret that Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for serious infringements of human rights. For its size, Romania had the highest number of secret policemen in the entire Soviet bloc: the Securitate had almost a hundred thousand full-time members. One third of the population, it was said, were informers. Every Romanian who talked to a foreigner was required to report the conversation to the Securitate within twenty-four hours. Securitate officers had the right people’s houses under any number of pretexts and confiscate ‘illegal’ possessions.  The illicit goods Law of 1974 declared the ownership of rare metals and precious stones a state monopoly. A supposed shortage of paper meant that writers were not allowed to publish more than one book a year.

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By the mid-eighties, Ceausescu himself had become a parody of a dictator. The newspapers, radio and television were mostly devoted to his and his family’s doings. In June 1978 the Queen had been obliged, much against her own better judgement, by the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, and his Foreign Secretary, David Owen, to invite Ceausescu to Buckingham Palace. The Labour government was beset with problems at home, and anxious to prove its worth in international diplomacy in relieving the Cold War tensions between the superpowers. Elena Ceausescu, riding in State with Prince Philip along the Mall, enjoyed herself immensely.

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The Queen’s face, however, seemed to show a lack of amusement as she travelled alongside the President. However, back at the Palace, which ‘inspired’ the Romanian couple to plan their own palace in Bucharest, the Queen was both amused and annoyed by the Ceausescu’s assumption that his rooms were bugged. Every morning he would go for a walk, with all his ministers in attendance, around the gardens of the Palace in order to avoid the microphones which he supposed were everywhere. One of his other obsessions was that the Soviets might try to poison him by secreting a radioactive isotope near him, as he believed they had done with his predecessor, who had died of cancer. The Queen gave him two English-bred Labradors, who lived far better than most ordinary Romanians. They had their own limousines, which drove down the centre of lane in the main streets of Bucharest, and they were fed only the best lean steak. Government ministers were expected to address them as ‘Comrades’, and it was a not very funny joke that their master was thinking of giving them seats in the Senate.

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Western politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlooking his increasing madness and megalomania, together with his government’s treatment of his own people, because they felt that his was an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact. After meeting the dictator on his visit to Britain in June 1978,  the then leader of the Opposition commented,

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceausescu… Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding, in particular by means of numerous direct contacts leading to the development of bilateral collaboration.

In August 1978, Ceausescu won approval from the Chinese, as their premier, Hua Guo-Feng visited Romania:

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As late as 1988,  Harold Wilson (above), Britain’s PM in much of the 1960s an 1970s sent the dictator a telegram which read: You have raised the Romanian nation to a unique role in the world. By this time,  Ceausecu’s wild extravagance was making Romania’s economic situation far worse. He decided to build a boulevard through Bucharest longer than the Champs-Elysées, lined with shops and mansions. At the head of it was to be a presidential palace larger than Buckingham Palace. It was to contain more than a thousand rooms, and cost more than a billion US dollars, though most of the labour was supplied by the army. Whole regiments were deployed in building what was to be called The House of the Republic (pictured below), and was scheduled for completion in January 1990.

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He had declared that he would pay off Romania’s foreign debt by the middle of 1989, which meant a disturbing programme of austerity for the ordinary Romanians while they could see the extravagance of the building programme in front of their eyes. This was all happening in a country which had been kept short of food and consumer goods since the early 1970s.

Romania had once been called the bread-basket of the Balkans: By the end of the 1980s it was an economic ‘basket case’, exporting ninety per cent of its of its food produce. Eggs became a form of currency, changing hands perhaps a dozen times before they were actually eaten. Westerners who stayed in the foreign currency hotels of Bucharest were unto find ordinary Romanians watching hungrily through the street-level windows while they ate. In the largely Hungarian-speaking area of Transylvania, rationing was intensified to five eggs, a kilo of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of cheese per person per month. Conditions were not much better in Bucharest, and for the country as a whole the rationing was worse than it had been during the Second World War. With Ceausescu, there were scarcely any policies which he could not force on the country. The so-called systematisation of the rural areas, for instance, was something only Stalin or Mao Tse-dong had tried to introduce before him. Its origins lay, as Mao’s reorganisation of the Chinese countryside had done, in a desire to reduce the disparities of wealth and opportunity between country and town. As early as 1967 Ceausescu had announced a policy of homeginisation between the two, but the first projects were not begun until un 1979.  Poor villages were to be demolished and their inhabitants relocated in agro-industrial centres; 558 villages were selected for this process. Naturally, this was deeply unpopular, and even the Communist Party bureaucracy opposed it, with local Party secretaries using every available tactic to delay its implementation. Various Western journalists claimed to have seen or filmed this process, particularly in Transylvania, where it became mixed up with the issue of ethnic Hungarian rights. In the end, only five villages, all in the Bucharest area and all on the route of the President’s motorcade route to one of his country houses, were seriously affected. However, the policy, together with the austerity measures, represented a dangerous attack on the values of a largely agrarian society by an increasingly power-crazed dictator.

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John Simpson, the BBC TV reporter and foreign correspondent was in Romania in the spring of 1989, where a young woman betrayed his crew to the local Securitate in Cluj. He summed up the mood at the time:

As for the woman who had reported us… it was impossible to blame her. Only a handful of Romanians had the moral courage to speak out against the conditions Ceausescu imposed on them. Once they had put their heads above the parapet they could expect to be badly treated. Most people were prepared to put up with the unrelenting hardships of everyday life in silence rather than endure that. She could not have known that we would be allowed to go free; but a regime like Ceausescu’s induces and rewards selfishness and inaction. Later, no doubt, she was embarrassed at what she had done.  But in the spring of 1989 there was no reason whatever to suppose that Ceausescu and his wife would be overthrown before the end of the year. At that time, the regime looked as if it would last forever.  

Arriving in Bucharest, they went out to film the Boulevard with the enormous, elegant and absurdly expensive House of the Republic at its end. By 1989, Ceausescu had become so obsessed with the project that he paid ninety-nine visits to it over the course of the year before his death, examining every little detail. He told the men and women in charge of building it to remember that it was to last for five hundred to a thousand years. The Ceausescu’s were influenced in their choice of interior design, as with the exterior, by their stay with the Queen in 1978. The president’s office, only completed after the dictator’s death, was more than a hundred feet long, with a huge patterned carpet. A little man with skilfully built up shoes, Ceausescu needed imposing circumstances to seem imposing himself.

Rebellion in Transylvania and Revolution in Bucharest

On 20 November 1989, the regime which Nicolae Ceaucescu had run since 1964 seemed to be coup-proof. It was a text-book example of a Marxist-Leninist state. Scientific Socialism,  Ceaucescu had explained to the Congress,  is in absolutely no danger.  They applauded him to the echo, gave him more than forty standing ovations, and re-elected him as President for a further five years. The autocracies of central and eastern Europe might be like dominoes in a circle all around Romania’s borders, but Romania itself was safe for Stalinism. Then, in mid-December in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania with a majority Hungarian-speaking population  (Temesvár in Magyar),the Securitate came to arrest a Reformed Church pastor, László Tökés, for speaking to the Western media. Many of his flock gathered around his manse to protect him. They drove off the Securitate and in the days that followed what had begun as a religious and cultural dispute became broader, as ethnic Romanians joined in. It became an uprising against the government. The tanks were summoned and many people died, but the troops were beaten off. Now the Army’s loyalty was in question, as a little local incident had turned into a full-scale rebellion, the most serious threat that the dictator had faced in a quarter of a century.

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Ceaucesu was not given the full facts about the Timisoara Rebellion. The Securitate kept some of the worst details from him, fearing that it would be blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.  As a result, the president had no real idea of the intensity of the feeling against him, or the extent of the uprising he already faced. His response to what he was told was to call a public rally in the main square of the capital. He would address it and the people would listen respectfully, as they always had done. Some of his ministers tried to suggest a television broadcast instead, but he he ignored their concerns. The Securitate sent its men to the factories and offices to instruct fifty people from each workplace to turn out or face being sacked. Loyal party members were to take up their positions at the front of the crowd, and the pleasant winter sunshine encouraged people to turn out in sufficient numbers to provide anonymity for everyone else there. The loyalists at the front held up their long red banners which spoke of Socialist progress and their leader’s heroism. Above their heads, portraits of a much younger Ceausescu were waved. They clapped in unison as Romanian TV broadcast live. As it turned out, that was a serious error of judgement.

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The Great Dictator stood on the balcony overlooking the Square and surveyed his people. In his black Astrakhan hat and his coat with matching collar, he looked very presidential, standing on an unseen box to make him look taller. Beside him were his wife Elena and assorted courtiers, together with his personal head of security, Neagoe, a large man in a fedora hat. Shortly, a few words from him would help change the course of Romanian history. But for the time being, each time each time the president paused, there was more clapping in unison. He waved back,  in a way that was perhaps intended to show humility, but actually made him look more imperious to most of the crowd beyond the loyal front ranks whom he was thanking for organising the rally.

Suddenly, there was a low groan from a section of the crowd, which quickly grew louder and higher and then erupted into booing, whistling and cat-calls.

018It was a total surprise to Ceausescu. He had been reading his speech in his hoarse, old man’s voice, his eyes on the sheet of paper in front of him. As the sound of the booing gradually penetrated him, he looked over to his right, where it was loudest. But he went on pumping out the bland words for a much more slowly now, not thinking what they meant, but trying to think instead about the booing. At his words faded altogether, and he stopped. It was a laughable and shocking moment: a tyrant coming face to face with the hatred of his people:  Macbeth watching the wood begin to move. He put up his right hand, trying to order the crowd to be silent, but it looked as if he was warding off the noise of the booing  and what it meant. One of the group of ministers to his right must have offered some advice, off-mike, because he waved him away angrily. Then, from the right of the screen, the head of the President’s personal bodyguard, Neagoe, came into shot, walking swiftly towards Ceausescu. He paused behind him for an instant, and the microphones picked up his voice and boomed it out over the Square:

They’re getting in.

The general headed for the big French window behind Ceausescu, holding his coat open as though he had a gun in a shoulder holster and would soon pull it out. Elena Ceausescu’s thin, harsh voice was also picked up by the microphone:

Stay calm, please.

Her instincts were right. The crowd wasn’t getting in. There was no plot, no coup. no insurrection, but simply booing, the reaction from years of repression. At that point someone at the television station decided to cut the transmission. The evidence that Ceausescu could be threatened was therefore transmitted live to every home and workplace where the television was switched on, throughout the country. He was vulnerable, after all. However, the moment swiftly passed, when it became obvious that the crowd was not breaking into the Central Committee building and that the rally was continuing, the television cut back to the President.  Ceausescu was continuing with his prepared speech as though nothing had happened, warning about the consequences of the rioting in Timisoara. But it was too late. There were thousands of people out on the streets that afternoon and evening with the same sense of burning grievance. They had realised that the regime was momentarily weakened and that it might just be overthrown if they all stuck together and kept their nerve. They chanted, we want free elections and Don’t leave the streets. They were rewarded by many more, who had been watching the live broadcast, coming out onto the streets, from all over the city, as the Securitate forces hesitated to break up the existing dissenting crowds from the rally.  A full-scale rebellion was taking shape.

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As night fell, the Securitate received orders to shoot to kill.  The crowds built barricades and set fire to cars, as street-fighting became general. The insurgents had no guns or bullets with which to answer the fire of the Securitate, but they made use of Molotov cocktails and the cover of darkness. By dawn on 22 December the outcome was clear, as the crowds had taken control of the main avenue and squares with the Securitate troops having melted away. The insurgents had demonstrated the power of numbers and determination.  The key to their eventual success now lay with the Army, who had so far refused to support the Securitate troops.  At this point the defence minister, General Vasili Milea was shot by Ceausecu’s bodyguard for refusing to pass on the orders for the Army to fire on the insurgents. When the news of this  was broadcast on the TV, the Army was infuriated, and began to change sides,  thus bringing about a revolutionary situation. Ceasescu tried to make one last appeal to the the crowds in the Square, but this time there were no plain clothes Securitate among them, and the crowd hurled stones at him, so that his bodyguard had to quickly bundle him back into the building. This time, the the insurgents did break into the building, and many of those defending it gave up their weapons to them. However, there was just enough resistance from the Securitate troops to enable the  dictator and his wife to escape by helicopter from the roof. A National Salvation Front was declared and , consisting of former Ceausescu aides and a few prominent dissidents. The Army transferred its allegiance to the new government. There was sporadic fighting between soldiers and the remaining Securitate, but by Christmas Day the fighting in Bucharest was over and the revolution had succeeded. Only the fate of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remained to be decided.

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Top left: A couple of volunteers carrying water to the pro-revolutionary troops are stranded in no-man’s land.

Top right: 22 December – a casualty of the sniping. The building in the centre of the picture is a block of where the Securitate men lived.

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Above: The poet, Mircea Dinescu, newly free, declaims to camera at the studios of Romanian Television on 22 December.

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