Born January 26, 1918, Nicolae Ceaușescu was the third son of a large proletariat (or peasant, take your pick) family. Having dropped out of elementary school, Nico’s early experiences included an apprenticeship as a shoemaker and at least one job working in a textile factory where he met his revolutionary sweetheart and future wife Elena. Both were members of the Communist Party and active in the “liberation” of Romanian culture and politics.
Together, the power couple moved swiftly up the ranks of the Communist Party. After the end of World War II, during which Romania was allied with Nazi Germany, Nicolae remained active in politics, now working to impose Soviet-style communism in Romania. In a relatively short amount of time, Nicolae became the Minister of Agriculture, Deputy Minister of the Armed Forces, and, the heir apparent to the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Upon Gheorghe’s death in 1965, Nicolae became the equivalent of what we in the western world would call the Prime Minister of Romania. He was the most powerful person in Romania. Here is where the story gets interesting.
Upon taking office, PM Ceaușescu began his reign with a promise to help his people in their pursuit of happiness, communist-style, and “elevate the nation to the highest peaks of socialism.” But there was one problem – stopping the Soviets from raiding the fertile fields of the “breadbasket” of Eastern Europe for their own centralized purposes. Was he the only one who could save Romania from the Russians? He thought so. The Romanians weren’t so sure.
His reputation preceded him. He was a greedy, insensitive egotist who had no problems satisfying his and his wife’s needs for an extravagant lifestyle filled with expensive villas, fast cars and, in the case of his wife Elena, a “sweet tooth” for fashion, furs, and jewels. The burden of their extravagant “pursuit of happiness” had always been placed on the economic backs of the Romanian public. Still, there was something about him…
Nicolae fancied himself, though he had no formal training, as a master of economics and he often boasted of his skills as a negotiator of the highest caliber. So pervasive was this myth that he became known throughout the world as the “Genius of the Carpathians.” But wait, there’s more.
In 1966, he banned all abortion and contraception. This led to an unprecedented number of children placed in orphanages, often under deplorable situations. And, in 1968 he refused to participate in and condemned the Soviet invasion to quell the uprising in Czechoslovakia This period marked the height of the Ceaușescus’ popularity. It was all downhill from there.
In 1971, Nicolae visited China, North Korea, and VietNam. He was so taken by the highly nationalistic, authoritarian, and militaristic ideology of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, Juche, and to a lesser extent the ongoing Cultural Revolution madness of Mao Zedong (we don’t know what he thought of Viet Nam) that he vowed to build what he referred to as a European North Korea. The pace quickened.
Upon his return, “Leader” as he was now known, began holding lavish, garish, white dove laden you know the type exorbitant military marching band and all parades in his honor. In 1973, Elena became a member of the party Executive Committee. In 1974, Nicolae was elected (sort of) as President. Elena became a self-proclaimed scientist and began publishing numerous “scholarly” books she did not write. Nicolae began to circulate official photographs of himself holding a silver scepter as a sign of his ascendancy. By this time analysts estimated that no less than 40 members of the Ceaușescu family held positions of authority within the state or party apparatus.
As their cult of personality grew, so did the national debt. After the good times generated by oil embargos ended, Nicolae continued to build Romania’s economic well-being on the belief that the world oil markets would continue to deliver extraordinary returns. They didn’t and with the fall of oil prices, came even harder times for the already deep in debt Romania. Nicolae started blaming the Roma (gypsies) for Romania’s mounting problems. He declared the Romani one of a growing list of “co-inhabiting nationalities” and stripped them of all political power.
To pay down the foreign debt, Nicolae started exporting everyday basic goods, like food, out of Romania without a plan to replenish or replace necessities, like food, for his struggling people. He increasingly placed harsher and harsher austerity measures eventually creating chronic shortages and rationing of virtually everything one might find at their local supermarket. The once so-called Breadbasket of the Balkans was slowly starving to death.
In what could only be described as a “Marie Antoinette” moment, the ever oblivious to her people’s suffering Elena did not blame the “outsiders” she blamed the Romanian people for their own plight, cruelly overheard to have said “The worms never get satisfied, regardless of how much food you give them,” in response to yet another of the many food shortages created by the misguided, to say the least, economic policies of the Regime. Then, things got worse.
During the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Russia, where anti-communist/socialist reforms such perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) began to transform Russia into a more “Western” type of government, the Ceaușescus who now resembled in acts and deeds royalty as opposed to the first couple of an iron curtain, Stalinist country, “doubled down” on his despotic, and by now clearly delusional vision to make Romania great again. As the already frayed relationship between Moscow and Bucharest deteriorated, Gorbachev, who was no fan to begin with, routinely referred to Nicolae as the Romanian “führer”. Romania’s isolation from its Warsaw Pact allies continued when, incensed by the Polish government’s inability to prevent the Solidarity union’s imminent takeover, he called for the invasion of Poland while accusing the Warsaw Pact nations of abandoning communism. The alienation would continue, but not for too much longer. He held his last rally on December 21, 1989 until he was booed off the stage by his no longer adoring fan base. The resulting rebellion spread quickly.
On Christmas Day, 1989 after attempting to flee by helicopter, Nicolae and Elena were arrested and turned over to the army for trial, or, at least to be tried before what looked like a court. It was in fact a hastily arranged mock trial that predictably, didn’t end well. Later that same day, their execution by firing squad was shown on Romanian TV. A reality TV presidential moment if there ever was one. Now, a tweet from our sponsor.
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