Christmas might be associated with nativities, but in the context of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, it came with a butchering. As a couple, they ruled Romania with heavy doses of megalomania (“A man like me comes along only once every five hundred years”), deception and plunder in what was aptly described as socialism in one family. Other less flattering comments refer to “the communist Dracula”, one who drew blood and resources from the Romanian state with relish and habit.
A figure like Ceauşescu was much in keeping with the cult of personality that came to dominate communist states after the end of the Second World War. People’s revolutions, as often happens, were supplanted by cadres of rapacious, scrapping bureaucrats, despite the official call for “creative Marxism”. But the Ceauşescus had to always better their rivals, be the big couple on the stage. Elena, an accomplished charlatan, managed to con her way into an assortment of international scientific academies. Honorary doctorates flowed; articles, and her doctorate, were ghost written. As with most acts of charlatanry, those duped were, in many ways, as revolting as the duper.
However grand the projects purported to be – and some were, in a kitschy, flimsy way grand – the sense of the hollow was inescapable. These were efforts of fluff, encounters with the banal. At its core was a base, insatiable kleptomania, a form of sanctified thieving. On a small scale, word got around that the Romanian delegations under Ceauşescu would make off with trinkets. (This point was relayed to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II by French president Giscard d’Estaing.)
As with other regimes of repression, the Ceauşescu system was premised on vigilant mass surveillance over its citizens, crowned by the blood soaked efforts of the secret police force known as the Securitate. It was part of a strategy of turning the country into one of informants and tenured paranoids on the make. The instinct was part tribal, feudal in its assumptions and demonstrated the inconsistencies about Marxist historical revolution. The results were vast distortions of wealth: the politburo living in clover, with Ceauşescu living the best; others permitted the ordinary pleasures of one 40-watt bulb per room.
These contradictions, as dialecticians would say, were brought into stark relief during the 1980s. Even as the People’s Palace was being constructed at enormous cost, austerity measures were imposed. Extensive food and energy shortages began biting. In December 1989, the wheels of the regime were coming off at pace, though it would be a mistake to describe what followed as a mass “people’s revolt”.
It began in curious circumstances in Timişoara, deemed the most of liberal of cities: a protest by László Tőkés, a pastor in the Romanian Reformed Church. On December 15, 1989, Tőkés, a known advocate for Romania’s Hungarians in Transylvania, was set to be exiled for granting an interview to a foreign television crew brought into country under clandestine circumstances. Hundreds of irate parishioners gathered around the church. Numbers swelled and water cannon was deployed.
The incident propelled a series of events, including an initial effort to crush the Timişoara uprising, that eventually led to the capture of the fleeing Ceauşescus by a military unit and their gruesome fate ten days later. In the meantime, the revolt became committee property, that of the National Salvation Front. Tőkés noted with irony how, had he not been a member of the Hungarian minority, “I would be a Václav Havel or a Lech Wałęsa”. During the time, wild rumours circulated that “terrorists” from Russia, Israel, Iraq, Libya and even the Central Intelligence Agency, had made a deal to back the old regime.
What resists easy explanation is how long such a figure might have survived. But Ceauşescu feared coups with good reason, and prepared for them. True, he, along with his wife, eventually ended up being gunned down by a three-man execution squad, subjected to the same rules of evidence he had found so appealing. Ceauşescu could also show awareness for one with vast limitations. Lacking a worldview of any depth, he could still worry Moscow and the Soviet bloc while courting China, and entice US presidents, notably Richard Nixon, to visit Bucharest.
One such meeting on December 4, 1973 between Nixon and Ceauşescu notes the Romanian leader expounding on the “different accent” imposed on “the world scene.” He made sure to impress Nixon that he approved of the president’s shift to China. “The whole world greeting the visit you paid to China and the normalization of the relations with China.”
The notes of the meeting show a figure aware, wise to the chess pieces and the canny struggle for power. Romania, he noted, “was still encountering difficulties from the part of the Soviet Union.” Pressure from Moscow regarding integrating Eastern European states within the bloc was gathering pressure. “Bulgaria was already being treated as the seventeenth republic of the USSR.”
Nixon also obliges in brown nosing acknowledgment, expressing the importance of understanding détente, taking a mild swipe at European leaders. “So when the United States does develop different relations with the USSR, some European leaders object to what they call détente because this could mean a condominium between the superpowers at the expense of others.”
The roots set down in Romanian democracy were shallow, made shallower by it arising from a murder. In the aftermath of the revolution, and the recreation of the National Peasants’ Party, Valentin Gabrielescu had this to say: “Same brothel, different whores.” Efforts were made to distance subsequent governments from the legacy. The Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship of Romania, chaired by Vladimir Tismăneanu, supplied the heavy artillery for President Traian Băsescu’s attack on the Ceauşescu legacy in 2006.
Since then, admission to the European Union, a six-month presidency of it, and the move of Romanian officials into various positions of security (Mircea Geoană becoming deputy secretary general of NATO) suggest a degree of integration that the Soviets could only have dreamed of.
But the same conditions that enabled Ceauşescu to flourish have not quite abated, and the bulk of EU membership still regard Romania with a touch of suspicion, susceptible to old habits of oligarchy and corruption. To prove the point, the head of Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, remains saddled with a prison sentence for paying two party members for bogus jobs from state agency funds after attempts to appeal his conviction failed. As Romanian minister for European affairs George Ciamba has remarked with irritation, “Political correctness now means you can be tougher on fellow Europeans.”