nicolas ceausescu

I Can’t Help But Think Of Romania

I can’t help but think of Romania.

I lived in Romania for two years as a missionary, from 2004-06. I grew to love that country deeply. It’s been long-burdened by its communist past; it wasn’t just a form of government, but rather a mindset that was fused into the fibers of the country. There’s no more stark a symbol of that than the block apartment buildings that fill the cities. They’re concrete from skin to marrow and each one seems intent on keeping the populace in its place.

There’s a city in the west called Hunedoara. The countryside leading to it is out of some fairy tale. There’s even a storybook castle on one side of the city. But surrounding the city is a ring of abandoned, crumbling industrial wasteland.

I remember the train rides that lead from city to city. Some of the trains were more advanced than any train I’ve seen in the United States. Others were rickety steel boxes on wheels, the floors covered in sunflower seeds and spittle. Train rides ranged from a couple hours to 8 and 13 hour train rides. As often as I rode the trains, and even for that long, I was glued to the windows, watching the country go past. It’s beautiful.

The people were warm, always – always – offering more, even when they’d already given. Especially when it came to food. They offered, sometimes, what seemed to be just about all they had. They are a generous people. I even miss the times when we were shouted at, kicked out, threatened, chocked, and spat on. I walked the streets in the fall in Sibiu, an old fortress city. I trudged through Bucharest in the winter, where the streets go unpaved. I ran down steps, two at a time, to catch the subway more times than I can count. I ran through rainstorms on the way home, soaked to the bone. I miss it all.

Some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, and some of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, I saw and I had there.
Some of the worst things I’ve ever seen happened there, too. It wasn’t uncommon to see a child wandering the streets. Some were beggars, whose first words taught by their parents were asking for money. For some kids, it was literally all they knew how to say, and they didn’t even know what it meant. I once saw a kid, no more than 8, huffing silver paint out of a plastic bag because it took his mind off of being so hungry all the time.

The weight of communism, even decades removed, still smothered this whole place. It hung around the necks of everyone there, even those who hadn’t yet been born. Everywhere I went, people told me stories of where they were during the Christmas Revolution of 1989. 

Nicolae Ceausescu was the dictator of Romania at the time. He was vain, and cruel, and petty. Run of the mill communist dictator in the Stalin mold. Starvation and scarcity were the norm. Children, even those with parents, went hungry. To make a political point, Ceausescu cut off supplies from an entire city in the west, Timisoara. Of course, this caused more unrest than order. In a speech in what is now called Revolution Square, he spoke from a municipal building’s balcony, and tried to placate the people. But they shouted him down. Even Ceausescu loyalists (paid plants, mostly) were overpowered by the crowd’s chants. It was deafening. They stormed the building and the revolution began.

Ceausescu and his Deputy Prime Minister wife, Elena, fled, but were soon caught and convicted. The military who had served Ceausescu, and usually acted on his command, knew which way the wind was blowing, and they held a tribunal. It was quick and unanimous, and the Ceausescus were found guilty of, among other things, genocide.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed by firing squad at a secret military installation. On Christmas day, on live television. They filmed their dead faces so that the people could know that they were really dead and gone.

A beautiful country was ransacked and oppressed by its leaders. For power, for profit, for ego. The country suffered, and eventually revolted. Romania still bears the weight of that suffering, deep in its mind and soul. Just like the concrete block apartments: skin to marrow. When last I saw the building from which Ceausescu spoke in Revolution Square, there were still bullet holes in the walls, far above reach.

Romania is a beautiful country, because of its land and its people, and despite its authoritarian past. Though knives may be removed easily enough, wounds are often stubborn to heal.

So. 

As Donald Trump, a man-child who is as vain as he is insecure, and as vengeful as he is delusional, seeks to establish himself as an infallible leader… as he orders scientific data be deleted… as he calls facts fake, and propaganda real… as he flippantly talks about committing war crimes in Iraq… as he seeks to defund arts programs and social safety nets… as he makes his press secretary tell flagrant lies about petty, obvious things like the size of his inauguration crowd… as he seeks to exhaust our capacity to think critically, and speak truth to power… as he seeks to dismantle constitutional rights, and strip the country itself in order to make money… as he continually displays signs of serious mental illness… as he proves to be not just a buffoon, but a real lunatic… I can’t help but think of Romania.

And as I think of all the inevitable harm that will come to people as a direct result of Trump’s actions, and the people that will most likely die from his orders – or possibly die in defiance of his orders – I can’t help but think of Romania.

I can’t help but think of Romania because what happened there, and in countless countries around the world and throughout history, can happen here. It is happening here, right now.

Literature, scripture, and history itself have all warned us about a guy like this. And here he is.

If you don’t like political posts, I understand. I don’t like them. Who does? But I will not be shy about this guy. Not to you, not to my representatives, and not to any Congressman/woman who seems to have dropped their spine on the way to work. 

I’m mad and I’ll stay mad until this guy is no longer in charge of the nuclear codes. What happened in Romania can happen here. Serious damage was done by a two-bit dictator from eastern Europe, and Romania hasn’t yet healed in full. Imagine how long it’ll take for the United States to heal from its own president, whose capabilities far surpass Ceausescu’s. Imagine the damage Trump can inflict, the damage he seeks to inflict. 

Tell me I’m wrong.

We’re only six days into the Trump presidency. This is an American Dictatorship unfolding in real time.

ROMANIA. Bucharest. December 22, 1989. Bucharest’s residents protect themselves from the crossfire between an army tank and pro-Ceausescu troops during clashes in the Republican square.

On December 22, 1989, my mind was still full of memories of covering the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was ready to celebrate Christmas with my family, but the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu changed my plans.

My boss and I were watching Ceausescu leave Bucharest by helicopter live on TV. I rushed to the airport and was lucky to board a flight chartered by the Medecins du Monde humanitarian organisation.

We landed at in Bulgaria and took a taxi to the Romanian border. Luckily the border was not closed and I hitch-hiked a ride to the capital on a truck. At noon I simply took the metro to arrive in downtown Bucharest in the middle of heavy gunfire. No helmet, no bullet proof jacket, only the enthusiasm of youth and the joy of witnessing a historical event: a revolution.

With my 300 mm 2.8 and an extender, I shot residents protecting themselves in the crossfire between an army tank and pro-Ceausescu troops during clashes in Republican square. No time for more pictures, just enough time to process and send a lone colour print to reach Sunday newspaper deadlines.

There were only two phone lines at the hotel, and scores of reporters arriving to file their stories. I kept the phone line open and did not hang up for 10 days in order to transmit pictures and stories.

The picture made the front page of most international papers. It was not the best picture of the revolution but one of the first colour pictures to hit the media market. It reminds me how hard it was to get around with cases of heavy equipment (80 kg of gear including an enlarger, photo paper, a transmitter, a typewriter).

Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

ROMANIA. Bucharest. 1989. In an example of acute historical irony, this anticommunist civilian uses an AK-47 to hunt down secret police during the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s oppressive communist dictator.

The Romanian Revolution was a period of violent civil unrest in December 1989 and part of the Revolutions of 1989 that occurred in several countries. The Romanian Revolution started in the city of Timișoara and soon spread throughout the country, ultimately culminating in the show trial and execution of longtime Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the end of 42 years of Communist rule in Romania. It was also the last removal of a Communist regime in a Warsaw Pact country during the events of 1989, and the only one that violently overthrew a country’s government and executed its leader.

Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty

Anti-Communist rebellion, aiming to overthrow the government of President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu. Romania, Bucharest. December 1989.

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December 22nd 1989: Fall of Romanian Communism

On this day in 1989, the communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania was toppled. Ceausescu, born in 1918, became a prominent figure in Romania’s worker movement, and increasingly aligned with the communists. However, as the Communist party was banned during the 1930s, Ceausescu was arrested and sent to the brutal Doftana Prison. While in prison, he met the communist revolutionary Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a relationship with proved formative in the radicalisation of his politics. In 1944, when the Soviet Union invaded Romania, Ceausescu seized the opportunity to escape from prison. Upon Romania’s fall to communism, Ceausescu, aided by the new leader Gheorghiu-Dej, steadily rose through the party ranks. Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965, and Ceausescu emerged as his successor as first secretary of the Communist Party. The two decades of Ceausescu’s rule were marked by attempts to develop closer ties with the West, rising debt levels, a split from the Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, and repression of dissidents. Certain aspects of his leadership, most notably his assertion of Romanian independence from the Soviet Union, initially won popular favour. However, the rule of Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who served as deputy prime minister, became increasingly unpopular with the Romanian people, whose standard of living dropped precipitously during the years of communist leadership. In November 1987, protesting workers stormed the Communist Party headquarters in Brasov, destroying a portrait of Ceausescu. In December 1989, a mass revolt toppled the communist regime, aided by the military, and prompted by his ordering his security forces to fire on anti-government protestors. The revolution was followed by a show trial, and the execution of Ceausescu and his wife on December 25th.

The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest made the BBC list of ’seven unknown architectural wonders’. Dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu wanted to have this neoclassical building in the center of the city. One-fifth of old Bucharest was razed, including most of the historical and breathtaking districts of the Romanian capital. And now it’s there…

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December 25, 1989: Comrades Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of Romania are sentenced to death by masked “judges” following a fascist-led military coup. The lifelong communist militants, both from poor peasant backgrounds, are murdered by the pro-imperialist Council of National Salvation and buried in an unmarked grave.

Top three photos: When supporters discovered the Ceausescus’ unmarked grave, a makeshift headstone and memorial was erected. The grave became a rallying point for opponents of capitalist restoration.

Bottom photos: In 2010, the government agreed to their children’s request to confirm the identity of the remains and be reburied in a proper grave.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Romania’s favorite American was America’s least favorite character.

5 Things You Only Know if You Grew Up in a Communist Regime

#5. It Was Dallas’ J.R. Ewing Who First Introduced Us to Freedom

[Dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu was so serious about using Dallas to portray the evils of capitalism that he even paid Larry Hagman, the actor who portrayed J.R., for the right to plaster his grinning mug on a giant propaganda portrait splayed across the side of a central apartment building in Bucharest. That way, all the people would see the ugly American at his ugliest, every single day.

That was the theory, anyway. In reality, we watched Dallas and fell in love with everything it showed us. Instead of recoiling in disgust over proof of American greed, we marveled at all the cool stuff Americans had – even the peripheral characters that were supposedly “poor” or “exploited.” And the mere idea that people could come from nothing and actually become rich? That blew our minds completely

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1st MayStadium, in Scornicesti, Romania.

Scornicesti was the home town of communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. He wanted to make a "model-town” out of Scornicesti, which was actually more like a village, with a population of aprox. 10.000. So he built new flats, tearing down the old houses along the main road, and he also built a large stadium(for a small town), with a seating capacity of 30.000. It was one of the most modern stadiums in the country, at that time. He also created a team, recruiting some of the best Romanian players of that moment, some of them having to play there, against their own will. Of course, after the fall of his regime, in ‘89, the team was dissolved, and the stadium abandoned. The main stand is home now for a few homeless people.

Image via Getty

Today in Book News: The instantly recognizable man with the immaculate white moustache was a novelist, but he was also a journalist, a political agitator and a celebrity with a reach unlike any writer since Mark Twain. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died Thursday at the age of 87, presidents, authors, actors and pop stars made public statements. Colombia, his native country, declared three days of mourning

Also today: Exiled Romanian poet Nina Cassian has died at 89 in New York City, where she’d lived since secret police under the Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu found her poems mocking the regime.  Hillary Clinton has picked a title for her memoir: Hard Choices, and Gary Shteyngart retires from blurbing.

Read more here.