In the centre of the city of Bucharest stands a vast neoclassical palace. One could be forgiven for thinking the building has been around for centuries, but this is not actually the case. It was in fact built in the 1980s on the orders of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Today, it is a highly visible reminder of one of the most oppressive communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Born in a small village of Scornicești in southern Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu was one of nine children in a family dominated by an overbearing and abusive father. After running away to Bucharest aged eleven, Ceaușescu began work as an apprentice shoemaker for a man called Alexandru Săndulescu. Săndulescu was a fanatical communist, and it wasn’t long before Ceaușescu was heavily involved in the communist cause. Being a member of the Communist Party in Romania in the 1930s was illegal, and Ceaușescu soon found himself regularly in and out of prison.
When the Second World War broke out and Romania sided with Nazi Germany, Ceaușescu spent most of the war locked away in various internment camps. It was in one of these camps that he met the man who would become postwar Romania’s first communist leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. The two men got on well, and after the communists seized control of the country in 1947, Ceaușescu quickly rose through the party ranks until he was second in command in the new government.
Gheorghiu-Dej died on the 19th of March 1965. Three days later, Ceaușescu was elected general secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the country. He would stay in this position for the next twenty-four years.
Initially, Ceaușescu was seen as the most liberal of the Soviet Bloc leaders. He refused to participate in the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and even made a speech condemning the action. He also relaxed press freedoms at a time when other Warsaw Pact countries were cracking down on dissenting voices. He even went as far as ending active participation in the Pact, though Romania would continue to be a member until the end of the 1980s.
Unlike his counterparts in the rest of the Warsaw Pact, Ceaușescu’s bold ambition was for Romania to become a world power and not shut itself off from the rest of the world. Romania was the first Soviet Bloc country to recognise the legitimacy of West Germany; it joined the International Monetary Fund; it had an open policy of friendship towards the United States and even entered into trading agreements with the European Economic Community. This made Romania unique among the Eastern Bloc countries, all of which remained hostile to the West right up until the end of the 1980s.
Sadly, Ceaușescu’s relaxed attitude to press freedom and his distancing his country from the totalitarianism of other Warsaw Pact countries was not to last. By the mid-1970s, an increasingly authoritarian Ceaușescu began to rely more and more on one of the most fearsome secret police forces in the world – the Securitate. The Securitate were charged with stamping out all forms of dissent in Romania, and they took to the job with relish.
The Securitate set about sewing division among the populace, turning neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend, family member against family member. Midnight arrests and confessions obtained through torture were commonplace; opponents of the regime were assassinated; almost every phone in the country was tapped and a vast network of informants kept everybody looking over their shoulders. Any serious attempt to build a resistance movement proved impossible.
The Securitate were utterly ruthless. When, for example, a miner’s strike brought the country to a halt in 1977, it was noted that many of the miners’ union leaders soon began dying early. It was later revealed that the Securitate had subjected the leaders to five-minute chest X-rays which encouraged the growth of cancers. By the end of the 1970s, Romania was one of the most oppressive states in the world.
Ceaușescu used a massive earthquake that caused huge amounts of damage to Bucharest in 1977 as an excuse to carry out one of the most destructive remodelings of a city in peacetime ever undertaken. No lover of Bucharest’s charming cobbled streets and wealth of grand public and ecclesiastical buildings, the dictator envisioned a modern city to rival Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang with wide sweeping boulevards and rows of uniform apartment blocks.
To achieve his goal, Ceaușescu ordered the demolition of a huge area of the city centre. This involved the levelling of the Văcărești hill and the moving of an ancient monastery that had stood on it since the 16th Century, alongside the bulldozing of whole neighbourhoods, in particular the historic and beautiful Uranus district at the heart of the city centre. Down came some of Bucharest’s most alluring churches and monasteries along with ancient ruins, sports stadiums, theatres, army barracks, hospitals, schools and hundreds of dwellings.
In their place, the dictator built depressing rows of concrete apartment buildings, dreary public buildings that were a shadow of those they replaced, an enormous, tree-lined boulevard that cut straight through the heart of the historic city and a colossal palace at the centre of it all. This gigantic building – the heaviest in the world – was to be the beating heart of Ceaușescu’s new Bucharest, with 1,100 rooms, many opulently and expensively decorated with the finest materials while people outside queued up for hours to buy basic essentials.
The needless destruction of Bucharest was carried out between 1983 and 1988. By the end of the program, what had been known as ‘the Little Paris of the East’ had been wiped off the face of the earth. Some of the city’s churches were mercifully saved by digging out their foundations and rolling them on rails to new locations, but most are now sadly hidden behind drab concrete apartment blocks, removed from their cultural and historical context.
While all this destruction was taking place, the country’s finances were in meltdown. Ceaușescu had borrowed huge sums from foreign banks to fund an oil refinery building program that was no way near completion nor profitable by the time the loans needed paying back.
Rather than defaulting on the loans, Ceaușescu decided he would pay them back as quickly as possible. To achieve this, he introduced a crippling austerity program that included exporting almost everything the country produced including food and industrial products. This led to hardship across the country as food prices soared. Queues for household goods became an everyday occurrence, and discontent grew across the country. The Securitate had its work cut out crushing dissent, and many people were arrested, tortured and murdered in the austerity years of the 1980s.
As the decade ground on and the harsh austerity regime led to frequent power cuts, fuel shortages and an escalation in poverty while vast sums were being ploughed into the needless destruction and remodelling of cities such as Bucharest, it was inevitable that something would eventually snap.
The spark that lit the flame occurred in the town of Timisoara. A small protest against the eviction of a dissident Hungarian pastor from his church-owned flat quickly escalated into a huge anti-government demonstration. Ceaușescu allowed the police, the armed forces and the Securitate to open fire on the crowds and many men, women and children were killed or injured.
When dissenting voices began to be heard across the country about the Timisoara massacre and who was ultimately to blame for it, Ceaușescu realised he had made an error. He held an open-air meeting in Bucharest three days after the massacre, blaming anti-Romanian troublemakers for the uprising. The crowd was having none of it, and what was meant to be a pro-Ceaușescu rally soon turned into an anti-Ceaușescu demonstration as the crowd began to boo and shout abuse at the stunned dictator. Realising he was in very real danger of being lynched, Ceaușescu ducked into a nearby government building as Bucharest exploded into riots.
The next day, with protests breaking out across the country, one of Romania’s senior military leaders, Vasile Milea, committed suicide. The rumour that he had actually been assassinated on the orders of Ceaușescu spread through the military like wildfire. The dictator’s previously loyal armed forces turned on him, now siding with the protesters. With no hope of regaining control, and with an angry mob encircling the Romanian parliament, Ceaușescu and his wife Elena made a dramatic rooftop escape by helicopter. However, after the Romanian army threatened to take the helicopter down with a surface-to-air missile, the couple were forced to land and they were quickly taken into custody. A show trial was hastily arranged for the following day - the 25th of December.
The trial of the Ceaușescus was swift and the verdict was a forgone conclusion. The Ceaușescus were charged with carrying out genocide in Timișoara, with embezzling millions in secret bank accounts and with causing extensive damage to public property during the revolution. Throughout the one-hour trial, Ceaușescu refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court. The court sentenced the dictator and his wife to death.
The soldiers who had been drafted in to carry out the death sentence didn’t waste any time. Nicolae and Elsa were marched outside straight after their sentences were handed down. As Ceaușescu sang The Internationale and Elsa shrieked and swore at the assembled firing squad, the soldiers opened fire, peppering the couple with bullets from their automatic weapons. The couple slumped to the ground. Nicolai Ceaușescu’s reign of terror was at an end.
Nicolae and Elsa Ceaușescu were the last people to be executed by the Romanian state. The death penalty, along with the regime he had ruled over for twenty-four years was abolished in the great wave of revolutions and reforms that swept across central and eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. Today, Romania is a fully functioning democracy, a member of NATO and of the European Union. Go to Romania today and you’ll struggle to see signs that this was once one of the most brutally oppressive regimes in the world. But head to the centre of Bucharest and the gigantic palace that is now the country’s parliament ensures the legacy of the man who once ruled the country with an iron fist will endure in stone for many centuries to come.