In Timisoara, in December 1989, I had my first contact with death and its absurd appearance. Once you see the first corpse, nothing can surprise you anymore. So, after the first night spent in the Municipal Hospital, I wasn’t surprised to see, on December 23, on a sunny clear morning, people do their shopping while a couple of blocks further machinegun fire could be heard.
Of course shops were open, although there wasn’t much to buy. I remember the crossroads in front of the Municipal Hospital, totally empty because of the crossfire –a sniper atop one building, scared young conscripts in the courtyard of the hospital spraying the building with blind fire- while a man in a wheelchair abandoned in the middle of the street was staring calmly at the balconies above his head.
I had returned to Romania after 18 months of absence, working as a journalist for the BBC (the radio, BBC World Service). I didn’t expect to be able to enter the country. I had been practically expelled in the spring of the previous year and all I tried to do was to be in Budapest and see whether I could make some interviews with refugees from Romania who managed to cross the border into Hungary.
When, on the morning of December 22, it was announced that the regime had fallen and that there was fighting inside Romania I rented a car in Budapest and drove straight to Timisoara, the nearest city inside Romania and where everything had started.
By December 1989, Romania had become as poor and isolated as Albania. The Securitate, the secret services, had managed to infiltrate and control all layers of the society, including the church and the ethnic minorities. The regime had reached absurd limits. Ceausescu was obsessed with the country’s demography.
Contraceptives, and even condoms, were prohibited, as was abortion. Women could ask for an abortion only when they had already had four children. Regularly, there were gynaecological controls in factories, offices, and even in schools. Pregnant women were inscribed in a database and there was a regular follow-up to check whether they had had an abortion. In terms of information, all newspapers were simply purveyors of official propaganda. As for TV, there was only one national channel, which broadcast 2 (two!) hours per day, from 8 to 10 in the evening. All typewriters had to be registered with the police.
Besides the political control, there was also an economic one. Many Romanians were chronically hungry. Most basic products, like meat and oil, were rationed, and could be bought only with certain coupons that people could obtain only through their place of work, or from the local administration in case of the pensioners. The result was that unemployed people, or some minorities like the Gypsies, could never buy legally meat or cooking oil. (The regime denied that there was unemployment of any sorts.) All edible animals (cattle, fowls, pigs) were also thoroughly numbered and classified, in order to stop the peasants from slaughtering them.
For slaughtering an animal, a permit had to be obtained from the local authorities. In order to justify the lack of the most basic food products, the regime had invented the formula “scientific alimentation”, calculating how many calories a man, a woman, or a child needed per day. Also, following a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu got the idea of stopping the selling of food and simply offering the citizens communal meals at their place of work. The winter of 1989 put an end to this absurd modern-day utopia.
Protests have been scarce. The most known opponent of the regime was a frail teacher from the Transylvanian city of Cluj, Doina Cornea, who managed to send out of the country a series of letters criticising the regime and its human rights record. She was isolated and kept in house arrest, with police picketing in front of her home in order to discourage would-be visitors.
Another centre of dissent was the northern city of Iasi, where a group of young intellectuals were also writing and publishing abroad manifestos and literature that could have never been printed in the country. Among them, Luca Pitu and Dan Petrescu had become well-known names following a series of broadcasts on the waves of the American –at that time based in Munich- Radio Free Europe. (Radio Free Europe was jammed by the regime, and listening to its broadcasts was punishable.) I had been part of that group.
In Bucharest, because of the overwhelming presence of the repressive forces, such open dissent was not possible. It was thus with immense astonishment that the population heard, through Radio Free Europe, that a group of dignitaries of the regime had sent an open letter to Ceauşescu, the so-called “Letter of the Six”, in which the policies of the regime were mildly criticised.
Among these was Silviu Brucan, one of the few authentic intellectuals of the Romanian Communist party, whose relation with Ceausescu was already tense, and who for a while, in 1987, had been under house arrest, after having been expelled from the party. Still, thanks to his relations in the Securitate, notably his friendship with Iulian Vlad, the Securitate chief, Brucan could, surprisingly, spend six months in the USA in 1988, where, as he later declared, he was in contact with officials from the State Department. Brucan had also relations in Moscow, and he had been promised a sort of informal protection by the Soviet embassy in Bucharest.
In the Letter of the Six, the regime was criticized from a left-wing perspective and there was no question of a structural change. The six signatories were not contesting Communism, they were contesting Ceausescu, who, in their view, had betrayed the Communist ideals. Still, they were all interrogated by the Securitate, and from that point on kept under house arrest.
Basically, the only resistance came from small groups of intellectuals. The countryside and the workers seemed anaesthetised, and very few dared dream of changes in their socio-economic situation. Actually, the regime was what could be called an open one, which could be resumed as such: it was not an exploitation of the society by a social group or by a caste of privileged. The social promotion was open to everybody, and whoever wanted to make a carrier in the power structures could do so, provided he or she kept playing by the rules.
The excesses of the fifties were far behind. Romanians have even an expression for the period between the accession to power of the Communists after the Second World War and the thaw of the 1960s: it is the “obsessive decade”. After the thaw, after the decade of 1960, followed another two decades in which the regime built artificially an ideology, which at the time had a unique character.
It was what could be called a kind on nationalistic Communism. The main idea of this new ideology was that Romanians were a special race, which in the course of history brought some of the most important discoveries in human history. This went hand in hand with some authentic archaeological discoveries, as well as with an intellectual current that was very much in vogue at the time, discoveries which tended to show that the region between the Danube and the north of the Black and Caspian seas were most probably the region in which the horse had been domesticated by Indo-European tribes.
The Ceausescu regime had built on this a whole national ideology which got the name of “Proto-Chronism”, that is: the fact of having been at the origin of history, at the beginnings of time. Fancy theories were brought to the rescue of this. Archaeologists, linguists and historians started bringing spurious arguments to support this. They went to extreme lengths in order to prove that fire and pottery were first discovered on the territory of today’s Romania.
The coup had come from the interior of the secret services. It is still not clear what was the role of the army, or whether high officials in the hierarchy of the army knew beforehand what was going to happen. In any case, the actions of the military forces have clearly shown a total lack of coordination, which culminated in a series of clashes between armed formations that had no idea whom they had in front of them.
One such instance was the massacre in front of Bucharest’s international airport of a motorised brigade by the military who were holding the airport. 50 young conscripts were machine-gunned by their own comrades, each side thinking that they had “terrorists” in front of them (“terrorists” was the term used by the officials and by the media to designate those who supposedly took the arms to defend the Ceausescu regime and to shoot into the crowds of demonstrators).
At the time, everybody believed in the scenario of die-hard terrorists who would fight for Ceausescu until death. There were rumours of the existence of Arab, or North-Korean terrorists, ruthless and highly skilled.
I had just read Curzio Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup d’Etat and I was amazed to see how well and systematically that technique was applied by the Romanian putschists. Of course, the most important step was to take possession of the TV studios (in Malaparte’s times it had been the radio) and to start spreading rumours, calling on the population for help.
I have been in the famous hospital cemetery in Timisoara, where it was said that 4000 corpses had been dumped, and where I could count only 17 of them, most of them obviously old, coming the morgue of the hospital and not from the recent oppression. I have seen in Bucharest, where I could enter inside the TV studios, how they were calling on the population to defend them, claiming and crying out that that they were under attack from “terrorists”, whereas I could see that nobody had fired a shot against the TV.
No window was broken, no impacts of bullets on the walls, but the houses around had been ravaged by heavy fire from the soldiers who were now eating oranges in the TV courtyard. I’ve also been to the neighbourhood in Bucharest where a whole army brigade had been massacred by a special forces unit in a carefully staged operation. A severed head stayed for days on display on the reversed tank, and passers-by were extinguishing their cigarettes on the face of the dead “terrorist”.
Ceausescu’s execution took place on Christmas Day, December 25. He was shot by a firing squad together with his wife, Elena, after a speedy parody of a trial held in the presence of the man who was to become chief of the secret services after 1989, Virgil Magureanu. A short movie containing excerpts from the “trial”, as well as stills of the bodies of Ceausescu and his wife Elena were aired on the national TV.
The whole mise-en-scène functioned, at least internally. Some journalists, among whom the author of the present article, questioned the credibility of the official scenario. Still, the population felt relieved, there were practically no voices of dissent, and only a handful of witnesses questioned the need for such a speedily delivered travesty of justice. I immediately recognized that mentality of submission. I was back home.