COVER

LIFESTYLE OF A DESPOT

THE GOLDEN DAYS OF NICOLAE CEAUŞESCU

ANDREW BILSKI January 8 1990
COVER

LIFESTYLE OF A DESPOT

THE GOLDEN DAYS OF NICOLAE CEAUŞESCU

ANDREW BILSKI January 8 1990

LIFESTYLE OF A DESPOT

COVER

THE GOLDEN DAYS OF NICOLAE CEAUŞESCU

The reign of terror that ended last week after 24 years had earned Nicolae Ceauşescu the nickname of Vampirescu, an allusion to the Count Dracula legend of Transylvania. Last November, against the tide of democratic reform sweeping the rest of Eastern Europe, Romania’s Communist party congress re-elected Ceauşescu, 71, as its leader for a sixth consecutive term. But last week, as the same tide swept through Romania, few mourned the sudden and violent end of his despotic rule—especially amid allegations about his macabre private life and disclosures of his extravagant personal tastes. “Oh, what wonderful news,” said a Bucharest radio announcer after the report that the new provisional government had executed Ceau§escu and his wife, Elena. Added the announcer: “The Antichrist died on Christmas.”

Notorious: Born in 1918 in the rural village of Scornice§ti, Ceauçescu was the third of 10 children. After attending only four years of elementary school, he became an apprentice to a shoemaker. At 14, Ceau§escu got involved in the country’s burgeoning workers’ movement and soon after joined the outlawed Communist party. Romania’s Fascist regime arrested him in 1936 and sent him to the notorious Doftana Prison in Bra§ov.

There, he shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who later became postwar Romania’s first supreme Communist ruler. Ceau§escu became Gheorghiu-Dej’s political heir, rising quickly through the party ranks and succeeding his mentor upon his death in 1965.

Throughout his reign, Ceau§escu was a maverick force in Eastern Bloc politics. He helped President Richard Nixon plan his groundbreaking visit to China in 1972 and was warmly received by President Jimmy Carter in Washington in 1978 and by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa in 1985. As well, Ceau§escu’s regime sold gasoline and meat to the NATO allies. Although Romania is a nominal member of the Warsaw Pact, Ceau§escu refused to join its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He also denounced the 1979 Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and barred Soviet troops from Romania.

But there was also a dark side to the increasingly eccentric leader. Ceauçescu created a bizarre cult of personality in Romania—pic-

tures of himself and his wife were on display across the country—and he imposed a ruinous economic policy on his 23 million subjects. Obsessed with eliminating a $21-billion debt in the early 1980s, he began exporting the bulk of Romanian-produced goods—even food. Meat, electricity and gasoline were severely rationed throughout the country. To save energy, Ceauçescu reduced television programming to

two hours nightly, the first of which was devoted to praising his accomplishments.

Torture: Ceau§escu’s firm grip on power was assured by the Securitate, his dreaded secret police. Securitate agents, many of whom were reportedly recruited from orphanages, indoctrinated, trained and organized into antiterrorist units, ruthlessly repressed dissent. Romanian TV monitored in Vienna last week showed what announcers called a former Securitate “torture chamber” in Timisoara. “It’s terrifying what we see in this torture room,” a commentator said. “Calcinated bodies, pieces of hairy scalps, blood and tortured bodies lying on the floor. These are nightmarish images.”

Ceau§escu’s reign was a family affair, with about 40 relatives enjoying high positions. Elena Ceaucescu acquired numerous party and government posts and became the second-

most powerful person in Romania. The Ceau§escus’ son Nicu was the Communist party secretary in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. Their daughter, Zoia Elena, was the director of the Institute of Mathematics in Bucharest. And while many Romanians lived in poverty, the Ceau§escus surrounded themselves with luxury. The dictator and his wife lived in a sprawling 40-room mansion with a swimming pool, a

boxing ring and volleyball and tennis courts. Journalists touring the compound last week saw rooms crammed with valuable paintings and closets stuffed with expensive Westernmade clothing. And the West German newspaper Bild Zeitung said that Ceauçescu had a huge collection of pornographic films and claimed that he enjoyed watching home movies of family sex orgies.

The new government last week announced the arrests of several family members, bringing the once-omnipotent Ceau§escu dynasty to an ignoble end. But after a quarter-century of repression, many Romanians expressed qualms about the future. “We don’t know what to do,” said Bucharest student Johanna Franz. “We must now learn how to be free.”

ANDREW BILSKI