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The Last Days of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu

Their rise and fall in communist Romania shows how corruptible, misguided, and brutal the socialist dream became.

Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and wife Elena talk with party members during the closing ceremony of the Romanian Communist Party's 14th congress in Bucharest, on November 24, 1989, a month before their execution. (Photo by Bernard Bisson/Sygma via Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad after a hasty one-hour show trial.

The pair had fled from power in a helicopter after a popular revolt in Bucharest. The uprising was spurred by the authoritarian leader’s violent crackdown on protesters in the western city of Timișoara. Elena was also panicked, having been blamed in part for Ceausescu’s wrongdoing as his erstwhile deputy prime minister and an influential member of his administration. They needed to get away badly, but they didn’t. 

Ceausescu’s minister of defense, Vasie Milea, was ordered to open fire on protesters; he refused and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Milea was assassinated by Ceausescu. Whatever the case, the army then changed sides and aligned against the Ceausescus. Despite their temporarily finding refuge at one of Ceausescu’s palaces in Snagov, then commandeering a car from a local doctor and a second car from another random man who took them to Tirgoviste, several hours later, the army took the Ceausescus into custody. They were tried and executed shortly thereafter, on Christmas Day, 1989. Technically, Ceausescu was convicted of “genocide” on account of his order to the military in December 1989 to use live fire on protesters in Timișoara, causing an estimated 4,000 deaths.

When he sat down to hear the charges against him in front of a drumhead court-martial with his wife, Ceausescu bristled at accusations that he’d brought Romania to the brink of ruin.

“There are 3.5 million apartments and 10,000 factories,” he replied lividly. “I’m not saying another word except before the National Assembly!”

Ceausescu began his leadership three days after the death of previous leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965, with a promise to dedicate his life to his people’s happiness and “elevate the nation to the highest peaks of socialism.” What went wrong? The short answer is basically everything. Perhaps Ceausescu’s order to bulldoze 20 percent of Bucharest’s historic old city in order to build his enormous personal palace and Communist Party old boys club was an early warning sign.

The Soviet Union forced communism on Romania after the Second World War, eager to have it as an agricultural goody basket. The son of a peasant family from southern Romania whose father owned a few sheep and a small plot of land, Ceausescu rebelled against his physically abusive dad and fled at age 11 to Bucharest where he made ends meet as a shoemaker-in-training. He was arrested at 15 for getting involved in a strike and then numerous times afterwards as he supported Romania’s Communist Party, including during the Second World War, when Romania was allied with Nazi Germany. After the war and with the imposition of communism by the USSR, Ceausescu continued to work his way up the party, becoming the minister of agriculture, deputy minister of the armed forces, and eventually one step under Prime Minister Gheorghiu-Dej himself.

Who was this odd and influential man and what is his legacy? With Romania now part of the EU but still plagued by corruption and dissatisfaction, what echoes of Ceausescu and his cult of personality still remain? I set out to find an answer. 

A 32-year-old male taxi driver in the city of Brasov who preferred to go unnamed said that Ceausescu was a mix of both positive and negative. While acknowledging that he did some good, the man said Ceausescu was dishonest and egotistical and that he became filled with delusions of grandeur after his visit to North Korea. The driver said Ceausescu was greedy and always wanted more for himself, caring little about the burden it placed on the Romanian people. The education system and economy were both built around his decisions, limiting freedom and forcing workers and citizens to praise and support him at the expense of their own interests. 

In the city of Sibiu in Romania’s Transylvania region, 40-year-old hospitality worker Ionut Vladoi said he admires Ceausescu and that much of the Western perspective on him is false.

“He was a great leader. He got Romania financially independent, so much so that there is still money that he got in his time being looted from the treasury by our recent governments,” Vladoi said, adding that “he wanted to base a currency in this part of the world, that’s why they got rid of him.” 

It was unclear what evidence, if any, exists that Ceausecu planned to base a currency in Romania.

Alexandra from Valcea is a student in Sibiu in business management who says her mother had a friend growing up in school in the 1980s in the region of Targa Jiu who got in trouble because of Ceausescu. Her mother’s friend told her teacher at school that she had heard her parents criticizing Ceausescu and wondered what to do about it. They were subsequently arrested, held for several days, and repeatedly assaulted. After the incident, both parents lost their jobs and were compelled to move to a new city on short notice.

Ceausescu’s 1971 visits to China and particularly North Korea took the hardline aspect of his reign to a new level. Genuinely inspired by North Korea’s hyper-nationalistic juche ideology of self-reliance and nationalistic power—as well as by China’s Cultural Revolution and the possibility of using state power to completely remake a nation—Ceausescu returned to Romania with aspirations to transform it into a cohesive unit. He wanted to build a European North Korea, a nationalistic juggernaut built around totalitarian socialism. Parades were held in his honor, with white doves and vast seas of children in marching bands carrying massive banners reading “We thank the Party from the bottom of our hearts for our happy childhood.” 

Yet Ceausescu’s Stalinist government could not be kept afloat even with harsh penalties for dissenters, and once the military turned on him, it was too late for any exit strategy. Starting in the early 1980s, Ceausescu put in place a number of austerity measures that were intended to pay off all of Romania’s foreign debt in under a decade. Ceausescu was paranoid about Romania suffering a similar fate to Poland, which had tanked economically after struggling to climb out from under a mountain of foreign debt. 

A further reason for the austerity measures were that Ceausescu prided himself on his supposed economic genius and negotiating abilities. He did not want to lose that veneer or have Romania’s beleaguered working class and legions of subsistence-level farmers blame him for the fact that their lives were not getting much better. He was also emphatically focused on denying capitalistic Western entities the chance to get their hands on Romania—especially after his hard work during the 1960s that got Moscow’s grasping financial tendrils to retract slightly. 

The strategy of reducing foreign debt by making ordinary people’s lives harder actually worked; the problem was that it left Romanians more or less starving and under war zone conditions, with an estimated 15,000 dying per year from extreme cold, fuel shortages, and not enough food. Naturally, Ceausescu and his inner circle of party elites in Bucharest didn’t bear the brunt of his austerity policies; as for citizens who spoke up, they simply disappeared or got sense beaten into them. By 1989, when protesters began shouting in rage during Ceausescu’s speech in Bucharest, they were ready to die instead of face another winter freezing to death. Ceausescu’s denunciations of the peaceful protesters in Timișoara as “reactionary terrorists” was the final straw.

Life under Ceausescu for ordinary Romanians was defined by food shortages, political paranoia, and cold winters. While it is true that he turned Romania into an exporter by selling off its harvests for money (at the expense of the country having food to eat) and forced through thousands of factories and massive, poorly conceived economic projects, he made life much worse for most Romanians. He was so obsessed with making Romania an industrial power that he sank it into black holes of debt and introduced squalid suffering that was bad even among the Soviet countries. Up until his last days, Ceausescu appeared convinced that America and Russia were somehow conspiring against him, fomenting a coup d’etat. He simply could not face his own complicity in the crisis that had developed. Ceausescu’s reign is indicative of the danger posed by a committed ideologue who refuses to see the reality in front of his own eyes—that is, until it comes directly at him in the form of an executioner’s bullet.  

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.

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