Nicolae Ceauşescu (January 26, 1918 – December 25, 1989) was the communist dictator of Romania from 1965 until December 1989, when a revolution and coup removed him from power. The self-called revolutionaries' representatives held a two-hour military tribunal trial and sentenced him and his wife Elena to death for crimes against the state, genocide, and "undermining the national economy. The hasty trial has been criticized as a kangaroo court. His subsequent execution marked the final act of the Revolutions of 1989.
Born in the village of Scorniceşti, Olt County, Ceauşescu moved to Bucharest at the age of 11 to become a shoemaker's apprentice. (See Ceauşescu family for descriptions of his parents and siblings.) He joined the then-illegal Communist Party of Romania in early 1932 and was first arrested, in 1933, for agitating during a strike. He was arrested again, in 1934, first for collecting signatures on a petition protesting the trial of railway workers and twice more for other similar activities. These arrests earned him the description "dangerous communist agitator" and "active distributor of communist and anti-fascist propaganda" on his police record. He then went underground, but was captured and imprisoned in 1936 for two years at Doftana Prison for anti-fascist activities.
While out of jail in 1939, he met Elena Petrescu (they married in 1946) —she would play an increasing role in his political life over the decades. He was arrested and imprisoned again in 1940. In 1943, he was transferred to Târgu Jiu internment camp where he shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, becoming his protégé. After World War II, when Romania was beginning to fall under Soviet influence, he served as secretary of the Union of Communist Youth (1944–1945).
After the Communists seized power in Romania in 1947, he headed the ministry of agriculture, then served as deputy minister of the armed forces under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej's Stalinist reign. In 1952, Gheorghiu-Dej brought him onto the Central Committee months after the party's "Muscovite faction" led by Ana Pauker had been purged. In 1954, he became a full member of the Politburo and eventually rose to occupy the second-highest position in the party hierarchy.
Initially, Ceauşescu was a popular figure in Romania, due to his independent foreign policy, challenging the supremacy of the Soviet Union in Romania. In the 1960s, he ended Romania's active participation in the Warsaw Pact (though Romania formally remained a member); he refused to take part in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, and actively and openly condemned that action. Although the Soviet Union largely tolerated Ceauşescu's recalcitrance, his seeming independence from Moscow earned Romania maverick status within the Eastern Bloc.
In 1974, Ceauşescu added "President of Romania" to his titles, further consolidating his power. He followed an independent policy in foreign relations—for example, in 1984, Romania was one of only three Communist-ruled countries (the others being the People's Republic of China, and Yugoslavia) to take part in the American-organized 1984 Summer Olympics. Also, the country was the first of the Eastern Bloc to have official relations with the European Community: an agreement including Romania in the Community's Generalised System of Preferences was signed in 1974 and an Agreement on Industrial Products was signed in 1980. However, Ceauşescu refused to implement any liberal reforms. The evolution of his regime followed the Stalinist path already traced by Gheorghiu-Dej. Their opposition to Soviet control was mainly determined by the unwillingness to proceed to de-Stalinization. The secret police (Securitate) maintained firm control over speech and the media, and tolerated no internal opposition.
Beginning in 1972, Ceauşescu instituted a program of systematisation. Promoted as a way to build a "multilaterally developed socialist society", the program of demolition, resettlement, and construction began in the countryside, but culminated with an attempt to reshape the country's capital completely. Over one fifth of central Bucharest, including churches and historic buildings, was demolished in the 1980s, in order to rebuild the city in his own style. The People's House ("Casa Poporului") in Bucharest, now the Palace of the Parliament, is the world's second largest administrative building, after The Pentagon. Ceauşescu also planned to bulldoze many villages in order to move the peasants into blocks of flats in the cities, as part of his "urbanisation" and "industrialisation" programs. An NGO project called "Sister Villages" that created bonds between European and Romanian communities may have played a role in thwarting these plans.
The government also targeted rising divorce rates and made divorce much more difficult - it was decreed that a marriage could be dissolved only in exceptional cases. By the late 1960s, the population began to swell, accompanied by rising poverty and increased homelessness (street children) in the urban areas. In turn, a new problem was created by uncontrollable child abandonment, which swelled the orphanage population (See Cighid) and facilitated a rampant AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s - created by the regime's refusal to acknowledge the existence of the disease, and its unwillingness to allow for any HIV test to be carried out.
The Theses heralded the beginning of a "mini cultural revolution" in Romania, launching a Neo-Stalinist offensive against cultural autonomy, reaffirming an ideological basis for literature that, in theory, the Party had hardly abandoned. Although presented in terms of "Socialist Humanism", the Theses in fact marked a return to the strict guidelines of Socialist Realism, and attacks on non-compliant intellectuals. Strict ideological conformity in the humanities and social sciences was demanded. Competence and aesthetics were to be replaced by ideology; professionals were to be replaced by agitators; and culture was once again to become an instrument for political-ideological propaganda.
In 1978, Ion Mihai Pacepa, a senior member of the Romanian political police (Securitate), defected to the United States. A 2-star general, he was the highest ranking defector from the Eastern Bloc in the history of the Cold War. His defection was a powerful blow against the regime, forcing Ceauşescu to overhaul the architecture of the Securitate. Pacepa's 1986 book, Red Horizons: Chronicles of a Communist Spy Chief (ISBN 0895265702), claims to expose details of Ceauşescu's regime, such as collaboration with Arab terrorists, massive espionage on American industry and elaborate efforts to rally Western political support. After Pacepa's defection, the country became more isolated and economic growth faltered. Ceauşescu's intelligence agency became subject to heavy infiltration by foreign intelligence agencies and he started to lose control of the country. He tried several reorganizations in a bid to get rid of old collaborators of Pacepa, but to no avail.
Former president Ion Iliescu deemed Pacepa "a confused man," who gathered illegal properties in Romania by using his influential position, according to an official declaration made when Pacepa asked for the return of his properties and rank. The Romanian Supreme Court disagreed (Decision No. 41/1999,) overturning Pacepa's death sentences, restoring his military rank, and ordering the restoration of his properties.
In the 1980s, Ceauşescu ordered the export of much of the country's agricultural and industrial production in order to repay its debts. The resulting domestic shortages made the everyday life of Romanian citizens a fight for survival as food rationing was introduced and heating, gas and electricity black-outs became the rule. Between 1980 and 1989, there was a steady decrease in the living standard, especially the availability and quality of food and general goods in stores. The official explanation was that the country was paying its debts and people accepted the suffering, believing it to be for a short time only and for the ultimate good.
The debt was fully paid in summer 1989, shortly before Ceauşescu was overthrown, but heavy exports continued until the revolution, which took place in December.
Some people, believing that Ceauşescu was not aware of what was going on in the country, attempted to hand him petitions and complaint letters during his many visits around the country. However, each time he got a letter, he would immediately pass it on to members of his security. Whether or not Ceauşescu ever read any of them will probably remain unknown. According to rumours of the time, people attempting to hand letters directly to Ceauşescu risked adverse consequences, courtesy of the secret police Securitate. People were strongly discouraged from addressing him and there was a general sense that things had reached an overall low.
Romanian students spontaneously joined the demonstration, which soon lost nearly all connection to its initial cause and became a more general anti-government demonstration. Regular military forces, police and Securitate fired on demonstrators on December 17, 1989. On December 18, 1989, Ceauşescu departed for a visit to Iran, leaving the duty of crushing the Timişoara revolt to his subordinates and his wife. Upon his return on the evening of December 20, the situation became even more tense, and he gave a televised speech from the TV studio inside Central Committee Building (CC Building), in which he spoke about the events at Timişoara in terms of an "interference of foreign forces in Romania's internal affairs" and an "external aggression on Romania's sovereignty".
The country, which had no information of the Timişoara events from the national media, heard about the Timişoara revolt from western radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and by word of mouth. A mass meeting was staged for the next day, December 21, which, according to the official media, was presented as a "spontaneous movement of support for Ceauşescu", emulating the 1968 meeting in which Ceauşescu had spoken against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact forces.
On December 21, the mass meeting, held in what is now Revolution Square, degenerated into chaos. The image of Ceauşescu's uncomprehending expression as the crowd began to boo him remains one of the defining moments of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. The stunned couple (the dictator had been joined by his wife), failing to control the crowds, finally took cover inside the building, where they remained until the next day. The rest of the day saw a revolt of the Bucharest population, which had assembled in University Square and confronted the police and the army on barricades. These initial events are regarded to this day as the genuine revolution. However, the unarmed rioters were no match for the military apparatus concentrated in Bucharest, which cleared the streets by midnight and arrested hundreds of people in the process.
Although the broadcast of the "support meeting" and the subsequent events on national television had been interrupted the previous day, Ceauşescu's senile reaction to the events had already become part of the country's collective memory. By the morning of December 22, the rebellion had already spread to all major cities. The suspicious death of Vasile Milea, the defence minister, was announced by the media. Immediately thereafter, Ceauşescu presided over the CPEX meeting and assumed the leadership of the army. He made an attempt to address the crowd gathered in front of the Central Committee building, but this desperate move was rejected by the rioters, who forced open the doors of the building, by now left unprotected. The Ceauşescus fled by helicopter as the result of a maybe poorly advised decision (since they would maybe have had safer refuge using existing underground tunnels) [see Dumitru Burlan].
On December 22 the army found itself without a leader: Ceauşescu (the official commander-in-chief of the army) had been sent by his (possibly conspiring) adviser Stănculescu to the countryside, and the defence minister Vasile Milea was dead. Initially some claimed that Milea was assassinated on behalf of Ceauşescu. Another possibility is that he might have refused to join the coup and been killed on that account. The still official story is that he committed suicide. Confused, the army leaders in Bucharest decided to avoid conflict and ordered their troops to fraternise with the demonstrators.
Fierce fighting occurred at that time at Bucharest Otopeni International Airport between troops sent one against another under claims that they were going to meet terrorists. There are reports of several similar events.
Ceauşescu and his wife Elena fled the capital with Emil Bobu and Manea Mănescu and headed, by helicopter, for Ceauşescu's Snagov residence, from where they fled again, this time for Târgovişte. Near Târgovişte, they abandoned the helicopter, having been ordered to land by the army, which by that time had restricted flying in Romania's air space. The Ceauşescus were held by the police, while the policemen listened to the radio. The police eventually turned over the couple to the army. On December 25, the two were sentenced to death by a military court on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide, and were executed in Târgovişte. The film crew recording the events missed the execution since the firing began too quickly.
The Ceauşescus were executed by a firing squad consisting of elite paratroop regiment soldiers Ionel Boeru, Dorin Carlan and Octavian Gheorghiu who shot them with AK-47 assault rifles. After the shooting had stopped, the bodies were covered with canvas. The hasty trial and the images of the dead Ceausescus were videotaped and the footage promptly released in numerous western countries. Footage of their trial and pictures of their corpses (but not of the execution itself) were shown the same day on television for the Romanian public.
The Ceauşescu couple's graves are located in Ghencea cemetery in Bucharest. Nicolae and Elena are buried on opposite sides of a path. The graves themselves are unassuming, but they tend to be covered in flowers and symbols of their regime. Some allege that the graves do not, in reality, contain their bodies. As of April 2007, their son Valentin has lost a lawsuit asking for investigation of the matter. The elder son Nicu Ceauşescu, died in 1996, and is buried close by in the same cemetery. According to Jurnalul Naţional, requests were made by their daughter and supporters of their political views to move them to mausoleums or churches built for the purpose of housing their remains, but such requests were denied by the government.
Throughout 1989, Ceauşescu became ever more isolated in the Communist world: in August 1989, he proposed a summit to discuss the problems of Eastern European Communism and "defend socialism" in these countries, but his proposal was turned down by the Warsaw Pact states and the People's Republic of China. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and Ceauşescu's closest comrades, GDR leader Eric Honecker resigned, and Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov, was replaced in November 1989, Ceauşescu ignored the threat to his position as the last old-style Communist leader in Eastern Europe.
Ceauşescu's official annual salary was 18,000 lei (equivalent to US$3,000 at the official exchange rate). Of this, some 5,000 lei was deposited in a bank every month for the use of his children. Nevertheless, he used to receive presents (e.g., a golden plated door handle) from countries and organisations that he was visiting, the misappropriation of which was one of the accusations against him at his trial. While he tried to keep account of his finances, his younger son Nicu was much less restrained and rumours abounded that he paid a gambling debt incurred in Las Vegas with a herd of horses belonging to the Communist Party (the herd of Jegalia, formerly administered by the Romanian Royal Cavalry).
Despite his relatively low salary for an average world leader at the time, Ceauşescu was known for his luxurious lifestyle spending vast amounts of money borrowed from the west on his own lifestyle while his people were left to reap the effects of his disastrous policies. He owned over 15 luxury palaces around Romania including a riverside villa at Snagov, a lakeside resort at Cernavodă, and a mountainside lodge at Braşov. The Primaverii Palace at Bucharest (the palace was later looted and transformed into a NATO headquarters after the revolution) had whole rooms filled with trappings of wealth. One such room was devoted to Elena's vast collections of fur coats and another room was filled with Ceauşescu's bespoke suits, tuxedos and hunting uniforms (many of which were never even worn). The palaces were no less equipped either as they were filled with priceless silk, porcelain, marble (some valuing over $1,000 per square metre), silverware, chandeliers, and carpets. The collections of wealth found outside the palaces equalled what was inside, such as a vast collection of cars including a Buick Electra given to him as a gift by U.S. President Richard Nixon, a Mercedes Benz Limousine from Mohammad Reza Pahlavi the last Shah of Iran, several Ferraris, Lamborghinis, BMWs, a Rolls Royce from Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and a custom-built Trabant from East German leader Eric Honecker. The palaces also contained large guards comparable to the ones at the Palace of Versailles, Ceauşescu's collection of 'Rocket' speedboats and large yachts such as the Snagov I and Snagov II.
Ceauşescu's security detail was relatively small, numbering only 40 people for his residences and for his whole family. His security chief was Col. Dumitru Burlan who claims that his troops had only two guns. According to Burlan, Ceauşescu was overconfident that the Romanian people loved him, and believed that he did not need protection; this explains much of the ease with which Ceauşescu was deposed and captured.
Ceauşescu is the only recipient of the Danish Order of the Elephant ever to have it revoked. This happened on December 23, 1989, when HM Queen Margrethe II ordered the insignia to be returned to Denmark, and for Ceauşescu's name to be deleted from the official records.
Ceauşescu was likewise stripped of his honorary GCB (Knight, Grand Cross of the Bath) by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom on the day before his execution. Queen Elizabeth also returned the Romanian Order Ceauşescu had bestowed upon her.
On his 70th birthday in 1988 Ceauşescu was decorated with the Karl-Marx-Orden by then Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) chief Erich Honecker; through this he was honoured for his rejection of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.
In a similar way to some EU countries, praising the crimes of totalitarian regimes and denigrating their victims is forbidden by law in Romania; this includes the Ceauşescu regime. Dinel Staicu received a 25,000 lei (approximately 9,000 United States dollars) fine for praising Ceauşescu and displaying his pictures on his private television channel (3TV Oltenia).
Ceauşescu's last days in power were dramatized in a stage musical, The Fall of Ceauşescu, written and composed by Ron Conner. It premiered at the Los Angeles Theater Center in September 1995 and was attended by Ion Iliescu, the then president of Romania who had been visiting Los Angeles at the time.
The main trait observed was a form of Romanian nationalism, one which arguably propelled Ceauşescu to power in 1965, and probably accounted for the Party leadership that was gathered around Ion Gheorghe Maurer choosing him over the more orthodox Gheorghe Apostol. Although he had previously been a careful supporter of the official lines, Ceauşescu came to embody Romanian society's wish for independence after what were broadly considered to have been years of Soviet directives and purges, during and after the SovRom fiasco. He carried this nationalist option inside the Party, manipulating it against the nominated successor Apostol. This nationalist policy was not without more timid precedent: for example, the Gheorghiu-Dej regime had overseen the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1958.
As well, it had engineered the publishing of several works that were subversive of the Russian and Soviet image, such as the final volumes of the official History of Romania, no longer glossing over the traditional points of tension with Russia and the Soviet Union (even alluding to an unlawful Soviet presence in Bessarabia). In the final years of Gheorghiu-Dej's rule more problems were brought out in the open, with the publication of a collection of Karl Marx texts that dealt with Romanian topics, showing Marx's previously-censored, politically uncomfortable views of Russia.
However, Ceauşescu was prepared to take a more decisive step in questioning Soviet policies. In the early years of his rule, he generally relaxed political pressures inside Romanian society, which led to the late 1960s and early 1970s being the most liberal decade in Communist Romania. Gaining the public's confidence, Ceauşescu took a clear stand against the 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring by Leonid Brezhnev. After a visit paid by Charles de Gaulle earlier in the same year (during which the French President gave recognition to the incipient maverick), Ceauşescu's public speech in August deeply impressed the population, not only through its themes, but also by the unique fact that it was unscripted. He immediately attracted Western sympathies and backing, which lasted, out of inertia, beyond the liberal phase of his regime; at the same time, the period brought forward the threat of armed Soviet invasion: significantly, many young men inside Romania joined the Patriotic Guards created on the spur of the moment, in order to meet the perceived threat.
Alexander Dubček's version of Socialism with a human face was never suited to Romanian communist goals. Ceauşescu found himself briefly aligned with Dubček's Czechoslovakia and Josip Broz Tito's Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The latter friendship was to last well into the 1980s, with Ceauşescu adapting the Titoist doctrine of "independent socialist development" to suit his own objectives. Romania proclaimed itself a "Socialist" (in place of "People's") Republic to show that it was fulfilling Marxist goals without Moscow's overseeing.
The system exacerbated its nationalist traits, which it progressively blended with Juche and Maoist ideals, a synthesis that may find a parallel in Hoxhaism. In 1971, the Party, which had already been completely purged of internal opposition (with the possible exception of Gheorghe Gaston Marin), approved the July Theses, expressing Ceauşescu's disdain of Western models as a whole, and the reevaluation of the recent liberalisation as bourgeois. The 1974 11th Congress tightened the grip on Romanian culture, guiding it towards Ceauşescu's nationalist principles: notably, Romanian historians were demanded to refer to Dacians as having "an unorganised State [sic]", part of a political continuum that culminated in the Socialist Republic. The regime continued its cultural dialogue with ancient forms, with Ceauşescu connecting his cult of personality to figures such as Mircea cel Bătrân (whom he styled Mircea the Great) and Mihai Viteazul; it also started adding Dacian or Roman versions to the names of cities and towns (Drobeta to Turnu Severin, Napoca to Cluj).
A new generation of committed supporters on the outside confirmed the regime's character. Ceauşescu probably never gave importance to the fact that his policies constituted a paradigm for theorists of National Bolshevism such as Jean-François Thiriart, but there was a publicised connection between him and Iosif Constantin Drăgan, an Iron Guardist Romanian-Italian émigré millionaire (Drăgan was already committed to a Dacian Protochronism that largely echoed the official cultural policy).
Nicolae Ceauşescu had a major influence on modern-day Romanian populist rhetorics. In his final years, he had begun to rehabilitate the image of pro-Nazi dictator Ion Antonescu. Although Antonescu's was never a fully official myth in Ceauşescu's time, today's xenophobic politicians such as Corneliu Vadim Tudor have coupled the images of the two leaders into their versions of a national Pantheon. The conflict with Hungary over the treatment of the Magyar minority in Romania had several unusual aspects: not only was it a vitriolic argument between two officially Socialist states (as Hungary had not yet officially embarked on the course to a free market economy), it also marked the moment when Hungary, a state behind the Iron Curtain, appealed to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for sanctions to be taken against Romania. This meant that the later 1980s were marked by a pronounced anti-Hungarian discourse, which owed more to nationalist tradition than Marxism, and the ultimate isolation of Romania on the World stage.
Nicolae Ceauşescu championed a version of the virtually defunct Non-Aligned Movement in the 1970s. While the regime was sought after as mediator of several conflicts between the Arab world and Israel throughout the decade, it moved towards supporting only the Palestine Liberation Organisation and, gradually, showing interest in an alliance with Islamism. As such, Romania was the only Socialist state to openly condemn the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The strong opposition of his regime to all forms of perestroika and glasnost placed Ceauşescu at odds with Mikhail Gorbachev. In a dramatic twist, Ceauşescu demanded that the Soviet leadership return to its previous stance, even asking for a Soviet crackdown on all Eastern Bloc liberation movements in the second half of 1989.
In November 1989, at the XIVth and last congress of the PCR, Ceauşescu condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and asked for the annulment of its consequences. In effect, this amounted to claiming back Bessarabia (most of which was then a Soviet republic and since 1991 has been an independent state) and northern Bukovina, both of which had been occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and again at the end of World War II.
Some authors allege that Ceauşescu was supported either overtly or covertly by the United States throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975 Romania gained Most favoured nation trading status; that was six years after President Richard Nixon visited the country. According to Noam Chomsky, it was partially due to Ceauşescu's divergent views on policy (such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and other ideological breaks with the Soviet Union) that Ceauşescu garnered warmer relations with some western countries.. This support, it is argued, was a major obstacle to the overthrow of Ceauşescu.
Because Romania was a Communist state, this support is frequently used by some figures to argue against conventional understandings of the Cold War. For example, in response to Robert Kaplan's allegation that Chomsky makes no distinctions between US-backed dictators and Russian-backed dictators, using the example of Ceauşescu, Chomsky argues that America backed Ceauşescu.