This is primarily the story of a loathed dictator and his wife and the country that overcame them. But it is also something of a reminder that revolutions do not often turn out as expected.
An exploration of Bucharest will reveal that at one time it was obviously quite an attractive city. Unfortunately, all of these attractive buildings pre-date the reign of the Communists in Romania:
The George Enescu Museum:
The Triumphal Arch:
The architectural legacy of the Communists looks more like this… And, really, this serves as an apt metaphor for what they did to Romania and its people as well:
By December of 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu, the son of a peasant, had crippled Romania economically, socially and morally. Having bankrupted the country paying off foreign debts to bolster his political independence, he was forced to export almost everything the country made, creating desperate shortages. Ration books and heating, lighting and hot water cuts were the daily norm.
As his 23 million people sank into poverty, Ceausescu strengthened the Securitate, the brutal secret police force of Romania equivalent to Russia’s KGB or East Germany’s Stasi, to keep them in check. At least 700,000 people are believed to have informed for the Securitate, which bugged countless apartments, spied on every Romanian who had contact with foreigners, and ensured that no coherent dissident movement ever emerged.
Perhaps Ceausescu’s grandest excess though was the construction of the Palace of Parliament…
Previously known as the “Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism”, this 3.5km boulevard – now named Unirii – leads directly to the Palace of Parliament. It was intentionally built a half-meter wider than Paris’ Champs-Elysees and is lined with fountains down the middle – one for each of Romania’s counties:
Although the Palace of Parliament is the official name now, Ceausescu named it the House of the Republic (Casa Republicii) and many Romanians refer to it as the People’s House (Casa Poporului).
Here are some interesting “oh by the ways” about the Palace of Parliament:
– Construction started in 1983. While the building was intended to house all four major state institutions (the Central Committee, the Presidency of the Republic, the state ministries and the Supreme Court), Ceausescu intended the palace to be his personal residence and the government was to operate in it.
– One sixth of Bucharest was bulldozed to accommodate the monstrous building and its surroundings. It stands 85m tall and has a surface area of 330,000 sq m.
– It is the world’s second-largest building in surface area (after the Pentagon) and the third-largest in volume.
– More than 700 architects and three shifts of 20,000 workers labored on it for 24 hours a day for five years.
– It has 12 levels of floors and 3,100 furnished rooms. Two of its 60-plus galleries are 150m long and 18m wide. Forty of its 64 reception halls are 600 sq m. Union Hall is 3,000 sq m in size.
– In the 1980s, when lit, the building consumed a day’s electricity supply for the whole of Bucharest in four hours.
A view of the Palace of Parliament from the side:
More than a symbol of Ceausescu’s communist vision, it stands today as a reminder of the price Romania paid to satisfy the egotistical whims of Nicolae and his wife, Elena. While people starved and industry collapsed, Ceausescu embarked on building the world’s second-largest building at an estimated cost of just under $5 billion.
These apartments across from the Palace of Parliament were granted to Communist Party elites:
THE 1989 ROMANIAN REVOLUTION
In late 1989, as the world watched the collapse of one communist regime after another, it seemed only a matter of time before Romania’s turn would come…
The spark that ignited Romania came on 15 December 1989, when Father Laszlo Tokes, who had campaigned for human rights and better treatment for Romania’s Hungarian minority, publicly condemned the dictator from his church in the Romanian city of Timisoara.
This prompted the Reformed Church of Romania to remove him from his post and he was to be exiled to a remote village for having given an interview to a foreign television crew that was smuggled into the country. Instead, hundreds of loyal parishioners formed a protective ring around his church. Attempts by police to disperse them with water cannon only caused others to join their ranks and the protest spread. Police attempts to arrest the demonstrating parishioners failed and within days the unrest had spread across the city.
Eyewitnesses spoke of 10,000 people rampaging through the streets of the city ripping down portraits of President Nicolae Ceausescu and smashing cars and shops.
Ceausescu decided that this challenge to his authority had to be crushed.
Trainloads of troops were dispatched to crush the rebellion and, under his direct orders, security forces were instructed to kill all protesters. Conscripts who refused were summarily executed. At least 115 were killed as tanks were deployed in the city and troops opened fire on civilians. Some of the wounded were executed in hospitals.
As news circulated of the atrocities, events migrated to Bucharest…
This square, which was named Palace Square at the time and is now named Revolution Square, is where the Romanian Revolution came about:
A day after ordering security forces to use deadly force against protesters in the western city of Timisoara, Ceausescu felt confident enough to leave for an official visit to Iran. But when he returned on 20 December, he found Romania in chaos.
Tanks were on the streets of Bucharest, the borders were closed and international condemnation of the bloodshed was near universal.
The next day (December 21) Ceausescu himself in effect brought the revolt to Bucharest, when he summoned a crowd of 100,000 to hear him denounce the Timisoara revolt on live television. But instead of the cheers he’d expected, he was booed and jeered as the crowd suddenly took up a chant of ”Timisoara! Timisoara!” The last televised image before the transmission was abruptly terminated was of Ceausescu’s shocked face shouting “Be quiet!” That moment, all agree, finished him – the facade of Ceausescu as an invincible, iron dictator collapsing in an instant.
Below is Ceausescu’s last speech. You can see him lose the crowd at the end:
This is the balcony from which Ceausescu gave his final speech as it looks today:
The demonstrators retreated to the wide boulevard (which you can see a contemporary picture of below) between University Square and Piata Romana…
…Only to be brutally crushed a couple of hours later by police gunfire and armored cars. Drenched by ice-cold water from fire hoses, the demonstrators refused to submit and instead began erecting barricades in University Square:
At 11 pm the police working alongside the Securitate, began their assault on University Square, using a tank to smash through the barricades.
By dawn the square had been cleared of the debris and the bodies of those killed removed from the site.
This is how University Square looks today:
Journalists watched tanks roll over demonstrators and soldiers shoot into crowds in University Square from their viewpoint in this adjacent hotel – the Intercontinental:
Charles T. Powers writing for the Los Angeles Times on December 30, 1989 described the Securitate as follows:
In the first three days of the battle, when fighting went on across the Palace Square in front of the Communist Party Central Committee building, the Securitate fighters were wearing black jumpsuits with a red silk stripe down the right side. They wore black berets. They used submachine guns and high-powered rifles with infra-red sniper scopes.
“They used Romanian-made, Soviet-model rifles,” an army major said. “They used small machine guns and other German, English or Italian weapons, all of the highest quality. They were very good shots. They shot only at the head.”
Today, little evidence remains of the dramatic events that took place here on 21 December 1989. Look closely and you’ll find bullet marks in some of the buildings… But other than that, one will only see these ten stone crosses commemorating those killed, left decaying on a traffic island in the middle of the busy street which passes through University Square:
Following the massacre in University Square on 21 December 1989, events shifted back to Palace Square…
The following morning (the 22nd of December), hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, and a state of emergency was announced.
Also of crucial significance on this morning, sometime around 9:30 am, Vasile Milea, Ceausescu’s minister of defense, died under suspicious circumstances. A statement released by Ceausescu declared that Milea had been sacked for treason, and that he had committed suicide after his treason was revealed.
However, the widespread opinion at the time was that Milea had hesitated to follow Ceausescu’s orders to fire on the demonstrators and had paid the ultimate price for this reluctance.
There are a variety of opinions on how Milea actually died, with his family and a number of officers believing he was gunned down in his own office by the Securitate and another group of officers believing that he really did commit suicide.
Whatever the cause, Milea’s death is believed to be the event that truly ended any chance of Ceausescu remaining in power. The rank-and-file soldiers, believing Milea had been murdered, went over almost as a whole to the side of the revolution.
At noon, amid bloody street battles and chaos, Ceausescu reappeared on the balcony of the Central Committee building to try to speak again. This second attempt was an even greater failure than the first one and Ceausescu, accompanied by his wife, Elena, were forced to flee by helicopter from the roof of the building as an angry mass of people stormed Ceausescu’s offices below.
Their departure was captured in this famous picture:
After Ceausescu fled, the crowds in Palace Square erupted into a massive street celebration. The Central Committee building was ransacked and people threw Ceauşescu’s writings, official portraits, and propaganda books out the windows, intending to burn them:
They also promptly hacked off the giant letters from the roof (see picture below) making up the word “comunist” (“communist”) in the slogan: “Trăiască Partidul Comunist Român!” (“Long live the Communist Party of Romania!”):
In the late afternoon of 22 December 1989, revolutionaries broke into the state-run Romanian TV Headquarters (The radio and state-run television would both now remain in the hands of anti-Ceausescu forces despite persistent efforts by Ceausescu loyalists to oust them) and announced on air the collapse of the government. Ion Iliescu, who by that evening had formed a group calling itself the National Salvation Front and become acting president, also drove to the television station. A stream of generals arrived to pledge their support to Iliescu and the National Salvation Front.
In 1987, a labor riot in the Romanian town of Brasov led Nicolae Ceausescu to form secret military units trained for urban warfare. The commandos were given keys to caches of arms and food, uniforms and maps of the tunnels and bunkers under government buildings. In the event of a coup, their orders were to save the party elite.
These men, in conjunction with members of the Securitate still loyal to Ceausescu, created much of 1989’s chaos.
As Ceausescu fled and the National Salvation Front took to the air, someone ordered the secret commando units that Ceausescu had formed in 1987 into action…
By Friday night, a raging toe-to-toe battle began in the heart of Bucharest between Ceausescu loyalists and the army. In a scene that seemed absurdist in its juxtaposition of frightful violence and carnival celebration, thousands of Romanians watched, cheering, from the square and the surrounding streets as the army and the Ceausescu loyalists traded hundreds of thousands of rounds of fire.
The Ceausescu loyalists and the Securitate used a network of tunnels that linked their headquarters, which faced the Central Committee building across the square, with at least a dozen large buildings in the vicinity as well as a 2.5-mile stretch which ran to the Parliament building. Additional tunnels were also discovered linking two airports and even a lake in the northern part of the city. These tunnels, some with entries hidden in cemetery burial vaults and subway systems, were outfitted with weapons, ammunition and communications gear.
These pictures of the tunnels were taken as anti-Ceausescu fighters fought to flush out the Securitate from their underground sanctuary:
Forces loyal to the old regime (spontaneously labelled “terrorists”) opened fire on crowds and attacked the television, radio, and telephone buildings as well as Palace Square, the university and the adjoining University Square, Otopeni and Băneasa airports, hospitals and even the Ministry of Defence.
Unarmed civilians ran through the field of fire to bring food to the city’s defenders. Before dawn Saturday, young people armed only with homemade bombs fought beside soldiers against a furious onslaught by members of the dreaded Securitate security forces and the little-known, elite commando unit:
Throughout the day Saturday, fighting tore through Bucharest. These dramatic pictures of anti-Ceausescu forces pinned down by pro-Ceausescu snipers, and of tanks and army and civilian riflemen returning fire toward nearby buildings where their attackers were believed entrenched give a feel for the day:
All day and night of December 22 and December 23, residents of Bucharest and army troops supporting the uprising remained on the streets, especially in the combat zones, fighting a battle with their shadowy enemy:
By December 24, Bucharest remained at war, but the tide was turning. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks continued to patrol around the city and to surround trouble spots. At intersections near strategic objectives, roadblocks were built; fighting continued in and around University Square, the Gara de Nord (the city’s main railroad station), and Palace Square.
A civilian fighter armed with an AK-47 chases Securitate agents still loyal to Ceausescu:
The center of Bucharest was nominally under army control, even though troops still had not been able to dislodge the last pro-Ceausescu snipers, some of whom were determined to fight to the death:
Meanwhile, Ceausescu accompanied by his wife, Elena, had ordered the helicopter they fled in stop at a lakeside villa so his wife could grab jewelry and then proceeded north. However, Ceausescu’s pilot pretended to have problems with the helicopter and they landed near the Romanian city of Tergoviste. The Ceausescus resorted to having a bodyguard commandeer cars on country roads on their wild dash for freedom, before finally being caught on the very same day they fled – December 22nd.
Here is a picture of Nicolae Ceausescu just after being captured:
On December 23rd and 24th, the National Salvation Front debated the couple’s fate. What ultimately carried the day was the fact that the Tergoviste commander where they were being held, had reported two attempts to rescue the Ceausescus. So, on 24 December, Ion Iliescu, signed a decree on the establishment of an Extraordinary Military Tribunal to hold a trial for the Ceausescus. The trial was hastily convened on December 25, lasted for about 2 hours, and delivered death sentences to the couple. The verdict was perhaps not a surprise given that the firing squad traveled in the same helicopters with the judges.
The execution followed immediately, on the spot, being carried out by three paratroopers.
Below you can see the highlights of the trial, the Ceausescus being dragged away for execution and the final shots of the Christmas Day firing squad… The actual moment of execution was not filmed since the cameraman was too slow, and he managed to get into the courtyard just as the shooting ended:
If you are interested, a complete transcript of the trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu (in English) can be found here.
Despite the announced death of the Ceausescus, the indiscriminate shooting continued in Bucharest, so the bullet-riddled bodies were put on display. By the next morning, the shooting started to fade away.
“Terrorist activities” continued until December 27, when they abruptly stopped. Nobody ever found out who exactly conducted them, or who ordered their termination.
Corpses of victims of the fighting lying on the floor of the Forensic Institute in Bucharest, which served as a morgue during the December 1989 Romanian Revolution:
Romanians examine the burned body of a Securitate agent:
Over 1,100 people lost their lives during the Romanian Revolution…
Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were secretly buried at Ghencea Civil Cemetery on 30 December 1989, in hastily prepared graves.
Nicolae lies in row I-35. Two crosses mark his grave – one is a stone cross with a red star and the other is a black steel cross which is inscribed with his name, date of birth and death (26 January 1918 – 24 December 1989).
Hated Elena was buried separately from him, in row H-25, directly across the cemetery and to the right. They weren’t buried together, as it was said they had done too many bad things together and should stay apart. Her name is daubed with white paint across a black metal cross.
Why was the Romanian uprising so bloody while the rest of Eastern Europe displaced the Communist monopoly on power so peacefully?
The two main reasons, as demonstrated by the rubble and blown-out buildings around Bucharest’s Palace Square, were the Securitate and the iron grip with which Ceausescu held the country.
The location of the former Securitate headquarters is not easy to track down. Part of that is due to the fact that the Securitate were housed in buildings all across the city and so there is not a central location to visit. However, another reason is that Romanians were extremely reluctant to share information about the Securitate. We experienced the same phenomenon with the Germans when we were tracking down the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin.
Below is perhaps the highest-profile of the buildings formerly connected to the Securitate… This was the headquarters of Directorate V. Securitate connected to Directorate V served as bodyguards for important government officials:
Due to its location right on Palace Square, it was ransacked and burned during the events of December 1989. However, in 2003 the Romanian Architecture Union built a contemporary glass structure inside the shell of the structure to house their headquarters.
This is how the Palace of the Republic (from which Palace Square derived its name) looked just after the Romanian Revolution… Until 1989 it was the seat of the State Council:
Now the National Art Museum, this is how the former Palace of the Republic looks today:
At the top of Palace Square was the Central University Library. This is how it looked at the end of December 1989:
Now the European Union Information Center as well as the university library, this is how the complex appears today:
Cretulescu Church (also known as Kretzulescu Church) which sits on the edge of Palace/Revolution Square was badly damaged in the 1989 Revolution. You can see it in the background of this picture taken out the window of the badly damaged Central University Library in 1989:
This is Cretulescu Church today:
In the center of Revolution Square can be found two memorials (which definitely were not there in 1989) to the dramatic events of the Romanian Revolution.
The first is a statue of a man, broken but put back together again:
Behind, you can see the former Central Committee building which now houses the Senate. Interestingly, it was discovered in 1989 after the mobs ransacked the Central Committee building, that the Romanian Communist Party had constructed a bunker three levels below the basement that was strong enough to withstand a nuclear attack.
An army major interviewed by a reporter just days after the fall of the Ceausescus described it as follows:
“It has a sophisticated air purification system and stores of food and water. There is a control room with instruments, communications equipment, covering one entire wall. There are telephones and televisions. At the moment they left, most of this equipment was destroyed. it was shot up, or ripped out.
“We also found a special room for the decontamination of men and equipment. There is an office near this and a room for sleeping, with beds and toilets. This is at the center of the bunker, with easy access from several directions.”
Naturally, this bunker was connected to several of the tunnels that I described above…
The other memorial in Revolution Square is more controversial due to its ugliness and lack of symbolism. Officially called the Rebirth Memorial, this white obelisk piercing a basket-like crown is referred to by most Romanians as the “potato of the revolution” given the shape of the crown:
Here is a video I shot from the middle of Revolution Square that provides a complete panorama of the area:
Pretty far removed from this, isn’t it?
Much of the damage done to the city by the fighting during the Romanian Revolution has been repaired or covered up. However, it is still relatively easy to spot buildings that were the scene of significant battles during that dramatic Christmas week in 1989:
This is the Bucharest of today… Prosperous and full of traffic. The events of 1989 seem a very long way off:
The excellent National Military Museum in Bucharest (Address: Str. Mircea Vulcanescu 125-127), houses a wing devoted to the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Inside you can find dramatic displays, photographs and many personal belongings donated by families of soldiers and civilians killed during the upheaval (some with visible blood and bullet holes):
Was the “Revolution” actually a coup?
Many Romanians believe it was, in fact, a group of communists opposed to Ceausescu and seeking personal gain who seized power, under the cover of the mass protests, before presenting themselves as the “National Salvation Front”.
Within a few days the so-called National Salvation Front, headed by a then little-known communist figure Ion Iliescu, had assumed power and announced the abolition of the one-party system.
But rather than carrying out thorough democratic reforms, successive Romanian governments blocked attempts to prosecute those responsible for the bloodshed of 1989; while much economic power stayed in the hands of shadowy figures from the old regime.
While supporters credit Mr Iliescu and his allies with guiding Romania towards European Union and NATO membership, their many critics at home and abroad accuse them of presiding over a kleptocracy which did its utmost to conceal what really happened in 1989.
No one questions that the National Salvation Front had roots in the second tier of the Communist Party leadership. What is debated is the extent of planning that created the National Salvation Front and the circumstances of their rise to power. For example: Did their rise to power come about with the help of plotting military generals?
Gen. Nicolae Militaru, who became Defense Minister on 22 December 1989, when Mr. Ceausescu was ousted, gave the following details to a New York Times reporter:
The former officials also said they had conspired before the uprising not only to turn the army against the Ceasescu Government, but also to neutralize and then co-opt one element of the Securitate forces.
General Militaru said he and what he called a Military Committee of Resistance including 20 generals had gained the support of about 25,000 Ministry of Internal Affairs troops. As a result, the two men said in the Adevarul interview, that element of the armed forces went into action against the Ceausescu Government on Dec. 22.
According to a book by Ceausescu’s bodyguard, Securitate Lieutenant Colonel Dumitru Burlan, the generals who were part of the conspiracy to overthrow the Ceausescus worked to create fictitious terrorism scenarios in order to induce fear and to push the army onto the side of the plotters.
Why would they raise the fear of “terrorists” and push for attacks?
Dan Voinea, a prosecutor who made the case against the Ceausescus at the provincial army base in Targoviste, describes the circumstances:
“After the arrest of the Ceausescus, the state apparatus of repression continued to fight against the protesters. In the name of defending against ‘terrorists’ this [National Salvation Front] group seized all the major institutions. They portrayed themselves as Romania’s saviors and people believed them. The people were very easily deceived and were quickly persuaded to accept these men as leaders.”
Mr Voinea is now a member of the December 21st Association, which is seeking a full inquiry into the revolution, the release of all relevant files and the prosecution of those responsible for killing and injuring thousands of protesters.
The head of the association is Teodor Maries, a former professional footballer who was one of the first to break into the Central Committee building on 22 December, just as the Ceausescu helicopter was rising from the roof.
Mr. Maries is quoted in an article in Britain’s Independent newspaper as saying:
“It is tragic and painful that we haven’t been allowed to present what really happened to the public… and that these files haven’t reached a judge’s table,” he said, opening cupboards in his Bucharest office piled high with copies of dossiers that Romanian government officials sought to hide or destroy.
Perhaps the most damning revelation of the article is the following:
Mr Maries remembers how, after the Ceausescus had escaped, he came face-to-face with Iulian Vlad, the head of the Securitate, inside the Central Committee building as gunfire crackled around Bucharest. “He said to me: ‘Come outside and I will show you the betrayal – you have overthrown the dictator and are putting the communists in power’.”
The BBC has a good article with additional details on the issues raised above that can be found here.
Some have even alleged that the Russian KGB was involved in the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu as punishment for failing to toe the line with Moscow and to place more desirable Romanian leadership in power – in the form of the members of the National Salvation Front.
So, was it a vengeful people or a communist clique that really toppled the Romanian dictator?
What happened to the Securitate?
For a number of years after the Romanian Revolution, it was generally accepted that until the very end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule, the Securitate were fiercely loyal to the government.
However, articles published in Romanian newspapers in 2005, after the post-communist leader Ion Iliescu ended his second presidential mandate, revealed that large segments of the Securitate were actually involved in Ceausescu’s fall.
And, in fact, some have suggested that the National Salvation Front was in reality a Securitate Front.
These revelations support the coup theory presented above…
So, where are the former Securitate to be found today? Many transitioned easily into the security services of today’s Romania and retired with large pensions. Others blended into civil society, taking key positions in the economy or as part of the organized-crime network that was mistaken for liberalization in the former Soviet empire by Western academics and reporters at the time.
What about those Securitate that really did remain loyal to Ceausescu?
Some escaped through the network of tunnels underneath Bucharest after destroying records and Securitate rosters that might have been used to identify them. They then made their way into Hungary and Turkey, using passports both fake and real, and disappeared.
Quite a few Securitate were apprehended by the military or captured by civilians. Some surrendered after watching the television film with the execution of the Ceausescus. But all of those captured were released – mostly by Securitate officers.
What about the relatives of the Ceausescus?
They were arrested during the 1989 Romanian Revolution, but all were eventually released.
Today, Valentin Ceausescu is the couple’s only surviving child and has been suing the Romanian government to have some of the family fortune returned to him.
Zoia Ceausescu died of lung cancer in 2006.
The playboy son of the Ceausescus, Nicu, died of liver cirrhosis in 1996 and is buried in the same Ghencea cemetery as his parents.
Still photographs of the Romanian Revolution: