Romania during Ceausescu’s Dictatorship
What made thousands of Romanians risk their lives in 1989 in their fight against the communist regime? In order to understand this, a short presentation of the life in Romania in the period preceding the Revolution is necessary.
Political freedom was not allowed in Romania during the communist regime. Neither was freedom for press or speech. The television programme lasted only two hours every day and was full of political propaganda. The personality cult of president Ceausescu was omnipresent. The TV and radio programmes and the newspapers were full of comments about how good president Ceausescu was, what a genius he was, how the entire world spun around him and how the entire Romanian people loved their president. This kind of propaganda was present even in schools, where children learnt songs that glorified president Ceausescu.
The cultural life was strangled by the political regime.
It was almost impossible to find a good thing to see on TV. The censorship was present even in music. The communist authorities rejected different kinds of music (rock, for example), not necessarily for political reasons; they just did not like them. Consequently, they were very rare in TV or radio programmes.
The history was falsified in schools and newspapers. One direction of falsifying history was to increase the role of the communist party and president Ceausescu in some historical events. Old books were not available in libraries, exactly for the reason of hiding the past.
Even literature was censored. Writers whose works were not “politically correct” from the communist point of view were not allowed to print their books. Translations from other languages were very few, and of course, only “politically correct” works were translated.
Because of the strict control over everything that was printed there was a shortage of good books to read or good movies to see, even about themes not related with politics.
Even the classic Romanian writers were forbidden. For example, the communist authorities accepted Mihai Eminescu, a poet from the 19th century, as the main Romanian poet. His opera was taught in schools. However, parts of his writings were not available, because they did not comply with the politics of the government. Eminescu was not clever enough to foresee the benefits of communism (in his time the Communist Party didn’t exist in Romania).
The economic situation was getting worse and worse. A system of fake reporting was developed in the economy.
The propaganda spoke only about the great results of the Romanian economy. In the real life people were faced with a shortage of many products. In order to buy some milk, for example, you had to queue at the grocery for 1-2 hours early in the morning. The price was low, but only those people who woke up early in the morning and were ready to waste one or two hours could get milk – this is how the communist system works. However, the situation was different for people with connections – the communist nomenclature – for whom it was easy to obtain things not available for ordinary citizens.
However, there were shortages that upset even the communist nomenclature – for example, electricity was cut off quite often, for saving reasons.
The state controlled the entire economy. All major plants were state-owned, as in all communist countries. Every year the government issued a plan that was detailed for every economic branch separately and established how much should be produced. Every plant had its own production plan and had to report its results. But they could not report that they had not accomplished the plan - it would have been against the official propaganda that said that the Romanian economy was prosperous. The result was fake reporting.
For example, let’s say that according to the plan, a plant had to produce 1,000 cars. The real production was 500, but they reported 1,200. The newspapers would write: “Look at this factory, how effective it is; it produces even more than it was planned.” And the plant manager was promoted for his good results.
Because of the fake reporting system even the government missed reliable data in order to take right decisions. The result was the worsening of Romania’s economy.
However, the propaganda sustained that the Romanian people were very happy to have such a good ruler like Nicolae Ceausescu. The whole system was based on his personal power. The members of the Ceausescu family held high positions in the government. His wife, Elena, was declared as a very important scholar by the propaganda. She was head of the National Council for Science. One of Ceausescu’s brothers (Ilie) was a general in the Army. Another one (Nicolae Andruta) was a general in the secret police (the Securitate). His son, Nicu, was the head of the Communist Party in Sibiu County. Ceausescu’s words were considered more important even than the communist dogma. For propaganda, what Ceausescu said was more important even than what Karl Marx had said.
When elections were organised, the official results were that the government received 99% of the votes. The Communist Party was the only one allowed to exist. Even if for a place in the Parliament there were two or more candidates, all were supporters of the government. Their programme was identical: how good president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were (by the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the high-ranking party officials were obliged to make reference not only to the president but also his wife in their speeches).
An effective way of keeping control of the society was through jobs. Any person who wanted a good job had to be a Communist Party member. As a result, many people joined the Communist Party for opportunistic reasons, without believing in the communist ideology. This could be seen during the Romanian Revolution, when members of the Communist Party could be found among the people who fought against the regime.
Of the whole 23 million people, 3 million were members of the Communist Party.
As Romania had a state-owned economy, almost all jobs were under government control. In a free-market economy, a person in conflict with his boss has the chance to find a better job somewhere else. In communism, the government rules everything. A person who is on the “black list” of the authorities has no chance to find a good job, irrespective of his or her professional results. It was not necessary to criticise the government openly in order to see your name on the “black list”. It was enough to avoid participating in demonstrations in favour of the regime (sometimes the Communist Party organised mass rallies to prove to the outside world what a strong support it had among Romanian people).
When Gorbachev started the liberalisation politics in the Soviet Union, the Romanian mass media did not even mention about it. The Romanian newspapers were acting as nothing special was happening in the Soviet Union.
A Romanian joke from communist times: God decided to allow Napoleon to return to Earth. Napoleon visited three countries: the USA, the Soviet Union and Romania. After his visit in the USA he was asked: what did you like best in America? He answered: The Army. If I had had an Army like the American one, I wouldn’t have lost the battle at Waterloo. After his visit in the Soviet Union, he was asked the same question. He answered: I liked the KGB (the Soviet secret police) best. If I had had a secret police like KGB, I wouldn’t have lost the battle at Waterloo. After the visit in Romania, his answer was: the best thing in Romania is the press. If I had had a press like the Romanian one, nobody would have noticed that I had lost the battle at Waterloo.
Only in 1989 some articles were published in the Romanian press saying that some countries (that were not mentioned) were not following the correct path of socialism. Nothing could be found in the Romanian press about the fall of the Berlin wall, for example.
However, people were informed about the changes in Eastern Europe through western radio stations that were broadcasting in Romanian. Radio Free Europe (sponsored by US government) or the BBC London Romanian programme had a lot of audience in Romania at that time, as official media had no credibility. In the border regions like Timisoara (a city near the Hungarian and Yugoslavian borders) people were watching the TV programmes of the neighbouring countries. In Timisoara, the Yugoslavian and Hungarian programmes were very popular and they provided information about the political situation in communist countries. The Yugoslavian TV had also programmes in Romanian for the Romanian minority in Voivodina. Such programmes were not very political, but people were able to see something else than the official propaganda.
In 1989 the wind of change started to blow in all Eastern Europe. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria allowed the right of people to choose their rulers through democratic elections. It was obvious that the Soviet Army was no longer a danger for democratic changes.
In 1956 the Soviet Army put down the Hungarian Revolution and in 1968 it stopped the democratic evolution in Czechoslovakia. The Romanians were afraid that if a movement for democracy started in Romania, the Soviet Army would not allow it.
After Gorbachev had started the reforms, more and more people in Romania had the courage to criticise the regime openly. In 1987 in Brasov (a city in Southern Transylvania) the workers protested against their living conditions. The authorities put an end to the protest in one day and the leaders were arrested. However, the number of the intellectuals criticising the regime increased and the Romanians were familiar with their names (mainly through Radio Free Europe). Doina Cornea, Mircea Dinescu, Dan Petrescu, Silviu Brucan, Laszlo Tokes, Petre Mihai Bacanu were some of the people who openly disagreed with the politics of the government.
The official propaganda claimed that everybody appreciated Ceausescu’s regime. Nothing was published in the press about the dissidents - not even for blaming them. It was as if they did not exist.
In Romania there was a law that forbade propaganda against socialism. However, the regime tried to avoid using it. To apply that law meant to admit that there really was an opposition against the regime, and this was what the government wanted to avoid.
For example, Petre Mihai Bacanu, a journalist who was involved in the publishing of an illegal newspaper, was sentenced to prison, officially not for political reasons but for illegal economic activities.