Judt on Ceausescu and His Downfall

I’ve been rationing my posts from the eminently quotable Judt in order to excerpt this whole section on Nicolae Ceauşescu (illustrated with my own photos from 1984) from Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 622-626:

[I]t seems clear that in December 1989 one faction within the ruling Romanian Workers’ Party did indeed decide that its best chance of survival lay in forcibly removing the ruling coterie around Nicolae Ceauşescu. Romania, of course, was not a typical Communist state. If Czechoslovakia was the most western of the Communist satellite countries, Romania was the most ‘oriental’. Under Ceauşescu, Communism had degenerated from national Leninism to a sort of neo-Stalinist satrapy, where Byzantine levels of nepotism and inefficiency were propped in place by a tentacular secret police.

Compared with Dej’s vicious dictatorship of the Fifties, Ceauşescu’s regime got by with relatively little overt brutality; but the rare hints of public protest—strikes in the Jiu mining valley in August 1977, for example, or a decade later at the Red Star tractor works in Braşov—were violently and effectively suppressed. Moreover, Ceauşescu could count not only on a cowed population but also upon a remarkable lack of foreign criticism for his actions at home: eight months after imprisoning the strike leaders in the Jiu Valley (and murdering their leaders) the Romanian dictator was visiting the United States as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. By taking his distance from Moscow—we have seen how Romania abstained from the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia—Ceauşescu bought himself freedom of maneuver and even foreign acclaim, particularly in the early stages of the ‘new’ Cold War of the 1980s. Because the Romanian leader was happy to criticize the Russians (and send his gymnasts to the Los Angeles Olympics), Americans and others kept quiet about his domestic crimes.* (*At least until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, after which the West had no further use for an anti-Soviet maverick.)

Romanians, however, paid a terrible price for Ceauşescu’s privileged status. In 1966, to increase the population—a traditional ‘Romanianist’ obsession—he prohibited abortion for women under forty with fewer than four children (in 1986 the age barrier was raised to forty-five). In 1984 the minimum marriage age for women was reduced to fifteen. Compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age were introduced to prevent abortions, which were permitted, if at all, only in the presence of a Party representative. Doctors in districts with a declining birth rate had their salaries cut.

Stork nest, Rasinari, 1984The population did not increase, but the death rate from abortions far exceeded that of any other European country: as the only available form of birth control, illegal abortions were widely performed, often under the most appalling and dangerous conditions. Over the ensuing twenty-three years the 1966 law resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women. The real infant mortality rate was so high that after 1985 births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week—the apotheosis of Communist control of knowledge. By the time Ceauşescu was overthrown the death rate of new-born babies was twenty-five per thousand and there were upward of 100,000 institutionalized children.

The setting for this national tragedy was an economy that was deliberately turned backward, from subsistence into destitution. In the early Eighties, Ceauşescu decided to enhance his country’s international standing still further by paying down Romania’s huge foreign debts. The agencies of international capitalism—starting with the International Monetary Fund—were delighted and could not praise the Romanian dictator enough. Bucharest was granted a complete rescheduling of its external debt. To payoff his Western creditors, Ceauşescu applied unrelenting and unprecedented pressure upon domestic consumption.

In contrast to Communist rulers elsewhere, unrestrainedly borrowing abroad to bribe their subjects with well-stocked shelves, the Romanian Conducator set about exporting every available domestically-produced commodity. Romanians were forced to use 40-watt bulbs at home (when electricity was available) so that energy could be exported to Italy and Germany. Meat, sugar, flour, butter, eggs, and much more were strictly rationed. To ratchet up productivity, fixed quotas were introduced for obligatory public labour on Sundays and holidays (the corvée, as it was known in ancien régime France).

Horsecart in Sibiu, 1984Petrol usage was cut to the minimum: in 1986 a program of horse-breeding to substitute for motorized vehicles was introduced. Horse-drawn carts became the main means of transport and the harvest was brought in by scythe and sickle. This was something truly new: all socialist systems depended upon the centralized control of systemically induced shortages, but in Romania an economy based on over-investment in unwanted industrial hardware was successfully switched into one based on pre-industrial agrarian subsistence.

Plowing with oxen in the western mountains of Romania, 1984Ceauşescu’s policies had a certain ghoulish logic. Romania did indeed payoff its international creditors, albeit at the cost of reducing its population to penury. But there was more to Ceauşescu’s rule, in his last years, than just crazy economics. The better to control the country’s rural population—and increase still further the pressure on peasant farmers to produce food for export—the regime inaugurated a proposed ‘systematization’ [sistematizare] of the Romanian countryside. Half of the country’s 13,000 villages (disproportionately selected from minority communities) were to be forcibly razed, their residents transferred into 558 ‘agro-towns’. Had Ceauşescu been granted the time to carry through this project it would utterly have destroyed what little remained of the country’s social fabric.

The rural ‘systemization’ project was driven forward by the Romanian dictator’s mounting megalomania. Under Ceauşescu the Leninist impulse to control, centralize and plan every detail of daily life graduated into an obsession with homogeneity and grandeur surpassing even the ambitions of Stalin himself. The enduring physical incarnation of this monomaniacal urge was to be the country’s capital, scheduled for an imperial make-over on a scale unprecedented since Nero. This project for the ‘renovation’ of Bucharest was to be aborted by the coup of December 1989; but enough was done for Ceauşescu’s ambition to be indelibly etched into the fabric of the contemporary city. A historic district of central Bucharest the size of Venice was completely flattened. Forty thousand buildings and dozens of churches and other monuments were razed to make space for a new ‘House of the People’ and the five-kilometer-long, 150-meter-wide Victory of Socialism Boulevard.

The whole undertaking was mere façade. Behind the gleaming white frontages of the boulevard were run up the familiar dirty, grim, pre-cast concrete blocks. But the façade itself was aggressively, humiliatingly, unrelentingly uniform, a visual encapsulation of totalitarian rule. The House of the People, designed by a twenty-five-year-old architect (Anca Petrescu) as Ceauşescu’s personal palace, was indescribably and uniquely ugly even by the standards of its genre. Grotesque, cruel and tasteless it was above all big (three times the size of the Palace of Versailles …). Fronted by a vast hemicycle space that can hold half a million people, its reception area the size of a football pitch, Ceauşescu’s palace was (and remains) a monstrous lapidary metaphor for unconstrained tyranny, Romania’s very own contribution to totalitarian urbanism.

Woodcutter’s pantheon, Maramures, 1984Romanian Communism in its last years sat uneasily athwart the intersection of brutality and parody. Portraits of the Party leader and his wife were everywhere; his praise was sung in dithyrambic terms that might have embarrassed even Stalin himself (though not perhaps North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, with whom the Romanian leader was sometimes compared). A short list of the epithets officially-approved by Ceauşescu for use in accounts of his achievements would include: The Architect; The Creed-shaper; The Wise Helmsman; The Tallest Mast; The Nimbus of Victory; The Visionary; The Titan; The Son of the Sun; A Danube of Thought; and The Genius of the Carpathians.

What Ceauşescu’s sycophantic colleagues really thought of all this they were not saying. But it is clear that by November 1989—when, after sixty-seven standing ovations, he was re-elected Secretary General of the Party and proudly declared that there were to be no reforms—a number of them had begun to regard him as a liability: remote and out of touch not just with the mood of the times but with the rising level of desperation among his own subjects. But so long as he had the backing of the secret police, the Securitate, Ceauşescu appeared untouchable.

Timisoara cathedral, 1984Appropriately enough, then, it was the Securitate who precipitated the regime’s fall when, in December 1989, they tried to remove a popular Hungarian Protestant pastor, Lázslo Tökés, in the western city of Timisoara. The Hungarian minority, a special object of prejudice and repression under Ceauşescu’s rule, had been encouraged by developments just across the border in Hungary and were all the more resentful at the continuing abuses to which they were subject at home. Tökés became a symbol and focus for their frustrations and, when the regime targeted him on December 15th, the church in which he had taken refuge was surrounded by parishioners holding an all-night vigil in his support.

The following day, as the vigil turned unexpectedly into a demonstration against the regime, the police and the army were brought out to shoot into the crowd. Exaggerated reports of the ‘massacre’ were carried on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and spread around the country. To quell the unprecedented protests, which had now spread from Timisoara to Bucharest itself, Ceauşescu returned from an official visit to Iran. On December 21st he appeared on a balcony at Party headquarters with the intention of making a speech denouncing the ‘minority’ of ‘troublemakers’—and was heckled into shocked and stunned silence. The following day, after making a second unsuccessful attempt to address the gathering crowds, Ceauşescu and his wife fled from the roof of the Party building in a helicopter.

At this point the balance of power swung sharply away from the regime. At first the army had appeared to back the dictator, occupying the streets of the capital and firing on demonstrators who tried to seize the national television studios. But from December 22nd the soldiers, now directed by a ‘National Salvation Front’ (NSF) that took over the television building, switched sides and found themselves pitted against heavily armed Securitate troops. Meanwhile the Ceauşescus were caught, arrested and summarily tried. Found guilty of ‘crimes against the state’ they were hastily executed on Christmas Day, 1989.* (*The trial and execution by firing squad were filmed for television, but not shown until two days later.)

The NSF converted itself into a provisional ruling council and—after renaming the country simply ‘Romania’—appointed its own leader Ion Iliescu as President. Iliescu, like his colleagues in the Front, was a former Communist who had broken with Ceauşescu some years before and who could claim some slight credibility as a ‘reformer’ if only by virtue of his student acquaintance with the young Mikhail Gorbachev. But Iliescu’s real qualification to lead a post-Ceauşescu Romania was his ability to control the armed forces, especially the Securitate, whose last hold-outs abandoned their struggle on December 27th. Indeed, beyond authorizing on January 3rd 1990 the re-establishment of political parties, the new President did very little to dismantle the institutions of the old regime.

As later events would show, the apparatus that had ruled under Ceauşescu remained remarkably intact, shedding only the Ceauşescu family itself and their more egregiously incriminated associates. Rumours of thousands killed during the protests and battles of December proved exaggerated—the figure was closer to one hundred—and it became clear that for all the courage and enthusiasm of the huge crowds in Timisoara, Bucharest and other cities the real struggle had been between the ‘realists’ around Iliescu and the old guard in Ceauşescu’s entourage. The victory of the former ensured for Romania a smooth—indeed suspiciously smooth—exit out of Communism.

The absurdities of late-era Ceauşescu were swept away, but the police, the bureaucracy and much of the Party remained intact and in place. The names were changed—the Securitate was officially abolished—but not their ingrained assumptions and practices: Iliescu did nothing to prevent riots in Tirgu Mures on March 19th, where eight people were killed and some three hundred wounded in orchestrated attacks on the local Hungarian minority. Moreover, after his National Salvation Front won an overwhelming majority in the elections of May 1990 (having earlier promised not to contest them), and he himself was formally re-elected President, Iliescu did not hesitate in June to bus miners in to Bucharest to beat up student protesters: twenty-one demonstrators were killed and some 650 injured. Romania still had a very long road to travel.

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