How Citizens Get Rid of Their Tyrants I: Nicolae Ceaușescu
How a citizenry rose up and retook their nation from a cruel, oppressive leader (and his profligate wife)
Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena ruled over Romania for a quarter century. They had the power to dictate the lives of its 23 million citizens any way they wanted, without fear of any bad consequences against them. In December 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and one Eastern European country after another were having revolutions like it’s the latest fad. But Ceaușescu’s power remained as intact as ever.
Or so he thought. Everything fell apart in just five days. In the final days of the 1980s, the Ceaușescus were about to have their worst Christmas ever.
To begin with, Ceaușescu was popular. He appeared to be a liberal, lifted press censorship and even encouraged private enterprise. What really set him apart, though, was his determination to set Romania free from Soviet imperialism. Romania would be socialist, but it would not be under the USSR’s thumb. This was significant because most other Eastern European governments were under constant political pressure and interference from the USSR.
For this, Western powers pegged him as an “anti-Russian Communist” and fell over themselves to celebrate him. Remember that this is in the context of the Cold War, and Western leaders relished the idea of a Warsaw Pact country thumbing its nose at the Russians. President Nixon invited Ceaușescu to Washington in 1970; later Carter and Bush would lavish praise on him, the latter calling him a “good Communist”.
However, something changed in Ceaușescu in 1971. What happened was he was invited to visit China and North Korea, and the god-like personality cult Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung enjoyed appeared to have shaken him to his soul. In Pyongyang, he was greeted with thousands of people lining the streets waving at the motorcade he rode in (see Youtube video). When he returned to Romania, he decided that the Romanians, who obviously loved him, needed to be a bit more obvious in their demonstrations of that love.
Soon those massive parades in China and North Korea started becoming a thing on the boulevards of Bucharest, celebrating Ceaușescu as a great man, that Romanians were lucky to have as a leader. Tear-jerkingly inspiring stories about Ceaușescu’s humble peasant upbringing were fashioned (read: rewritten), and murals began popping up in the countryside showing that he was a man of the people. Later when Ceaușescu was in his 70s, those murals would continue to depict him as a strapping 40-year-old.
Ceaușescu loved speeches. But he was not a natural; among other things, he had a stammer. So before any of his speeches could be broadcasted, an editor at the TV station had to first spend hours editing out his stammers, long pauses, and weird facial contortions. He also loved the attention given by foreign leaders, but being a relatively short man (1.68 m), his photographers had to find angles that conceal his height difference with those foreign leaders.
Elena is no less vain a person. Like Nicolae, she dropped out from school early, and never displayed any academic aptitude. Yet, her pride was such that she wanted the accolades from the scientific community. She built up a fake persona of being a brilliant scientist in order to collect honorary degrees from universities. (Oxford and Cambridge declined to give it when the Ceaușescus visited England.) Nicolae made Elena the head of the Romania’s most important chemical research laboratory. Scientific inventions, journals, and conference lectures had to bear her name in the first place in order for it to be published, even though she could not possibly have understood its contents. “She didn’t even know the chemical formula for water,” complained an exasperated scientist.
Elena accumulated greater power as time went on. After 1980, whenever Nicolae is away from the country, Elena is understood to be in charge of the country. It was said that he can be afraid of her when she throws a tantrum; he would start to stammer and sweat if he is late for a meal with her.
Almost true to cliché, the Ceaușescus come with expensive tastes. Fur coats. Shoes to rival Imelda. Luxury cars. Speedboats. And most expensive of all are the 40 stately villas sprinkled across Romania, some of which they used only once every ten years. The villas have chandeliers and stain glass, because Elena loved them. Some have a mini-theatre, for the Ceaușescus to enjoy a film every now and then.
Their favourite film was The Great Gatsby.
All these seem like petty criticisms of a pair of highly insecure former peasants who had done well for themselves by fighting their way to the highest echelons of power. Who could begrudge their resolution to hold on to such power?
If only that was all of it. In fact, the Ceaușescus’ tight grip on power came with a heavy dose of oppression on its long-suffering citizens.
Ceaușescu’s greatest imprint on Romania was the transformation of the Securitate (the secret police) into a hammer of oppression designed to keep the Romanians in check. They induced widespread fear into the populace through rumours, arrests, and torture, sometimes to death. You could lose your freedom because the most insignificant thing you did or said was interpreted as something against Ceaușescu. This was compounded by the widespread rumour that 1 in 4 people in the country were employed by the Securitate, which means you could not trust your neighbours, friends, even family. (Securitate deliberately started this rumour.) Secret microphones were planted, telephones were bugged, patrols were posted to follow and observe ordinary people. Privacy ceased to exist. You had to watch your every word, every step, and be careful that your thoughts don’t betray you. Many thousands of detainees died from barbaric torture from Securitate agents; one particularly creative one involved subjecting a detainee to long exposures of X-rays to induce cancer. In this atmosphere, it was impossible to form opposition groups, and so almost none existed.
Ceaușescu’s oppression can sometimes be very weird. One fine day he decided that he hates yoga. So Securitate were sent to beat up a medical student who practiced it. She obeyed, but she was still followed by the secret police 24 hours a day after that. Would you practice yoga if you heard that this happened? Didn’t think so. Yoga disappeared from Romania until the 1990s.
Abortion was banned for women under 40 (later revised upwards to 45 years of age). This was done to increase Romania’s population. However, it didn’t produce enough visible results, so next, women were forced to undergo medical examinations every 1–3 months. Women were literally taken from work by armed police to attend clinics, where they would be examined and questioned. Evidence of miscarriage raised suspicion, and fertile women who were not producing babies were interrogated.
The ban on abortion ultimately forced hundreds of thousands of women to go underground to get their pregnancies terminated (dramatised in the tautly-directed Cannes Palme D’or-winning film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days). Sadly, a thousand women would die every year from bungled abortions. Another consequence was an explosion in orphans and the state orphanages opened to take them in, as women gave up children they never wanted or couldn’t afford to have.
Another one of Ceaușescu’s odd decisions is the economically unsound policy to make sure Romania is completely free of foreign debt. Ceaușescu saw it as yet another way to make clear Romania’s independence from foreign powers. What this meant in practice was that more than 75% of food produced in Romania was exported, leaving not enough for the people who grew and manufactured them. In the 1980s, long ration lines became common: people spending precious hours of the day queueing to get food so that they don’t starve.
Same with the energy industry: the colossal amount exported abroad meant rationing electricity. Streets were not lit at night. Bucharest, once the “Paris of the Balkans”, lost its nightlife: no cinemas, not even bars or cafes. Electrical heating was permitted for only 2 hours each day. Romanians had a joke back then: “What’s colder than water? Hot water.” Less funny was the fact that people died of cold in their homes. Oil consumption was to be reduced in agriculture by breeding horses so that they can replace tractors.
One more major eccentric policy was systemisation. Ceaușescu had this idea to reorganise the human and urban geography of the nation, bulldozing villages and moving peasants into larger town centres, and tearing down and rebuilding its cities — all to make Romania conform to socialist ideals, whatever that meant to Ceaușescu. Bucharest especially suffered, with up to one-fifth of its buildings torn down in order to be rebuilt (all this in just five years!). Residents were forcibly relocated. Churches and historic monuments were lost. In one section of Bucharest, Ceaușescu commissioned what would become the largest Parliament building in the world, the Palace of the Parliament, a building so huge (1,400 rooms!) that even today, three decades later, hundreds of rooms remain unfinished and unused.
Like North Korea, Romania tried very hard to isolate its country, but in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell, and exciting revolutions were popping up across Eastern Europe, Romanians were able to hear of such things, and wondered about their own country.
Ceaușescu, however, carried on as if nothing had changed.
When the rebellion came, it was not from top-down, but bottom-up.
It started as a result of what is otherwise a fairly routine bit of Securitate persecution, of a young Hungarian pastor in the western city of Timișoara. The locals got angry with his treatment (he was fired, evicted, and beaten up in front of his pregnant wife and son), and turned up in droves to stand in support with him.
Soon, it was as if the whole of Timișoara showed up. Thousands of people, spontaneously, in a country that had until then lost the muscle memory of protest. Shouts of “Down with Ceaușescu, down with tyranny!” rang in the streets. The people rioted across the town centre, ransacking the Communist Party headquarters. The police and Securitate tried to contain the crowd, but when they couldn’t, a furious Ceaușescu shouted at his officials to unleash gunfire. They did. 60 died. But rumours spread across Romania of a worse massacre — 4,000 dead, 20,000 dead. Yet official media didn’t mention a peep about Timișoara, which only made the crazy rumours of wanton massacre more credible.
Ceaușescu, aloof till the end, thanks to his complete encirclement of brown-nosers, still thought he had the love of the people. And that was why he decided that the best way to calm things down, was to have one of his usual mass rallies in Bucharest. Workers were bussed in from all across the capital. They were given placards, Ceaușescu’s portraits, and flags to wave at him. Random passers-by were dragged in to embiggen the crowd further. And then Ceaușescu appeared on the balcony and spoke, expecting the crowd to accept and applaud, as they had always done.
To his utter shock, the people began chanting “Timișoara!”, and then they started boo-ing him, a reaction he had never encountered and never imagined could happen to him. His mouth froze, open. Confusion. People running behind him. All that was caught on public television, and immortalised on Youtube
Then the live broadcast of the rally (now demonstration) was cut. The Romanian Revolution had begun. People in their homes who saw the broadcast came down to the streets to join the demonstrators. “Was it really true?” they asked. Are they seriously going to challenge Ceaușescu, finally? Riots broke out across the capital. Securitate troops and police fired. But the military soldiers refused to participate, joining on the side of the people.
Rioters broke into the building where the Ceaușescus were, overpowered the armed guards and took weapons. Panicked, the Ceaușescus took flight from the rooftop in a helicopter. But the helicopter pilot knew the leader’s power had disappeared, because he’d already seen the size of the protesting crowds from his high vantage point. He dropped the power couple off at a village and abandoned them. Hours later, they were found, arrested, and handed to the army. The military officers took them to a rural army barracks and sat and waited.
For a few days Ceaușescu hovered between defiance and despair, sometimes talking as if he still commanded authority, when clearly he was a prisoner. Sometimes he tried bribing the soldiers (a million US dollars, one of their villas, etc) to let him leave, but the soldiers didn’t believe he could make good with those promises. The Ceaușescus complained about the smelly toilet. The single bed was too small for both of them. Meals and drinks were spartan, but they didn’t eat anyway, fearing poison.
And then on Monday, Christmas Day, their fates were sealed. Some hours ago, the new hastily-formed revolutionary government in Bucharest decided that Ceaușescu must die to end the prolonged threat of a civil war. So a few generals and law officials descended upon the barracks where the Ceaușescus were kept, and setup a makeshift court in one of the halls. The Ceaușescus, still wearing the clothes they wore when they fled Bucharest three days ago, were brought in. The trial of Ceaușescu began. It was over less than an hour later, and the verdict and sentence were pre-planned.
Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were pronounced guilty of, among other things, genocide. The sentence was death by firing squad.
The formerly powerful couple protested testily as their hands were tied behind their backs with thick rope. They were led out of the room. One of the soldiers taunts Elena, and she tells him to “go fuck your mother”. Yet, it had not really sunk in that they were to be executed, not until they turned the corner and saw the courtyard, with a line of paratroopers holding AK-47 automatic rifles positioned opposite a wall. Then they finally felt the fear. Elena’s last words were: “Look they are going to kill us like dogs. I don’t believe this. If you are going to kill us, kill us together!”
Shots blasted out from the automatic rifles.
Elena falls to the side, her legs splayed, her face blasted by bullets, a line of blood flowing down away from her head. Nicolae was slumped backwards on his legs. A doctor goes up to the body. Before he plants a stethoscope on the former dictator to confirm his death, he was asked to pull up the dead man’s eyes-wide-shocked face, showing it to the camera.
All these were to be broadcasted on national television, the next day.