Accessibility links

Breaking News

Behind The Facade Of The Ceausescu Regime

Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech in Bucharest on December 21, 1989. He would be executed a few days later.
Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech in Bucharest on December 21, 1989. He would be executed a few days later.
As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when many regarded Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu as an open-minded Marxist, a nationalist communist, even a proponent of socialism with a human face. Ceausescu himself cultivated this image at times.

Even some Romanian intellectuals and technocrats bought into this demagoguery, while some observers in the West regarded him as a sort of East European David standing up to the awesome Soviet Goliath.

Even now, there are historical revisionists in Romania -- including former Romanian Communist Party official Paul Niculescu-Mizil -- who are trying to remake this died-in-the-wool Stalinist as some sort of liberal reformer.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania -- of which I serve as chairman -- explodes the myth of Ceausescu as a proponent of democratic socialism. That document, which was the basis for President Traian Basescu's 2006 condemnation of the communist regime as illegitimate and criminal, demonstrates, beyond any reasonable doubt, the cynically duplicitous nature of Ceausescu's allegedly patriotic line.

Pledged Break With The Past

Ceausescu came to power in March 1965. From the outset, he pledged a break with the rigid domestic policies of his predecessor and patron, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. At the same time, he made a point of continuing Gheorghiu-Dej's autonomous foreign policy, skillfully navigating between Leonid Brezhnev's USSR and Mao Zedong's China while improving relations with the West. Ceausescu talked endlessly about political and economic reforms; socialist realism was jettisoned as the privileged aesthetic doctrine; and numerous translations of Western literature were published.

Bucharest seemed to be changing for the better.

But Ceausescu quickly changed course. In July 1965, at the 9th Romanian Communist Party Congress, he had criticized the concentration of power in the hands of one person and insisted on the need to separate high state and party positions. But at the December 1967 party congress, veteran party militant Chivu Stoica resigned as State Council chairman and nominated Ceausescu to replace him.

Despite the official calls for "creative Marxism," Ceausescu and his associates emphasized the need to foster the communist party's "leading role" -- its indisputable monopoly on power. The propaganda machine presented Ceausescu as the main architect of both domestic and foreign policies, a visionary, and guarantor of a Romanian path to socialism.

Ceausescu's cult of personality was born during the years when he claimed to be a reformer.

In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek replaced Antonin Novotny as first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and Ceausescu expressed support for the new leader. In March 1968, he refused to attend the Dresden Conference of Warsaw Pact leaders at which Czech reforms were criticized. And on various occasions he expressed solidarity with the Czechoslovak political changes.

Nothing Was Said

In April 1968, a plenum of the RCP Central Committee rehabilitated victims of the Stalinist purges in the USSR in the 1930s, as well as some of the most prominent communists killed or persecuted under Gheorghiu-Dej. However, nothing was said about the destruction of democratic political parties, the liquidation of the socialist movement, the mass atrocities against the peasantry, and the annihilation of the country's intellectual elite.

For Ceausescu, the rehabilitation process had the dual purpose of delegitimizing rivals within the top party leadership while boosting his own image as a champion of "socialist legality."

In reality, however, Ceausescu's Securitate continued to operate as a terrorist organization, and censorship remained as repressive as ever. Ion Iliescu, who was the Communist Youth Union first secretary and youth minister, supervised systematic campaigns to neutralize rebellious attitudes among the young writers. Students who raised their voices for freedom were promptly reprimanded.

Current revisionist storytelling notwithstanding, Ceausescu's support for Dubcek's liberalization was a political masquerade. He merely pretended to be an anti-Stalinist and a national communist. In fact, none of the important documents of the Prague Spring were published in Romania.

'Only Madmen'

When Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, Ceausescu delivered an angry speech against the "intervention." But his indignation was short-lived. Just a few weeks later he declared "only madmen could question the vitality of socialism in Romania." This statement became the official justification for the politically motivated use of psychiatry against dissidents.

Ceausescu cynically used the crushing of the Prague Spring as an excuse to enhance his own personality cult. He insisted on imposing a unified domestic front to counter any supposed Soviet attack. He created a self-serving mythology in which he was the fearless hero, the symbol of the unity of party and nation.

Ceausescu was a diehard Bolshevik. He and his comrades never meant to liberalize or democratize the Romanian political system.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland and, since 2006, he has been chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. He is a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Romania and Moldova Service. The views presented in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.