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Interview: Former 'Newsweek' Correspondent Recalls Life And Death In Ceausescu's Romania

Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech from the balcony of the Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest on December 21, 1989.
Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu delivers his last public speech from the balcony of the Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest on December 21, 1989.
Twenty years ago today, a revolt began in the western Romanian city of Timisoara that would culminate in the toppling of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime and his execution several days later.

Michael Meyer, who was "Newsweek's" bureau chief for Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans at the time, was the last American journalist to travel to Romania and interview Ceausescu before his fall, and one of the first to arrive in Bucharest after Ceausescu's demise.

Meyer, who is the author of a recent book about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, "The Year That Changed The World," spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc about life in Romania before and after Ceausescu's fall and vividly recalled his hours-long meeting with the all-powerful dictator.

Living In A Prison

RFE/RL: You traveled quite extensively throughout Romania in preparation for your August 1989 interview with Nicolae Ceausescu. By that time, huge changes were gaining momentum in other countries of Eastern Europe. But Romania was an exception -- almost completely isolated from the outside world, in the grip of a repressive and often violent security apparatus and marred by severe food and energy shortages. I remember that in the scorching summer of 1989 one could hardly find a bottle of cold water in shops or restaurants. Did you notice any sign of boiling anger in the country?

Michael Meyer:
None whatsoever. Some of the cab drivers would listen to Radio Free Europe -- and people I was able to speak to freely, because listening to Radio Free Europe was a crime against the state -- there was some knowledge of what was going on; there was immense unhappiness with the regime.

I met a priest in a monastery in the foothills of the Carpathians; he was talking about how the stores [were empty], how people were starving, how he had to drive once a week 2 1/2 hours into Bucharest to get bread for his congregation and he'd drive back. And he talked about how people had to rise up, and he said, "Publish what I'm saying, this terrible regime that kills its people, that devours its people...tell them: 'use my name,'" and, of course, I didn't because I feared for this man's life.

One taxi driver drove me around and he told me about how his mother and his wife spent most of their day standing in line so that when a shop started selling something -- whether it was meat or apples or something else -- a line would immediately form. You didn't know what you were buying but you'd buy it anyway so you could trade it for something that you needed. He said that it was like life in a prison. And that's what Romania was.

RFE/RL: Food was the most pressing of all the worries Romanians had back then, and some were saying that the regime, however repressive, would have been more tolerable had people had a little more than their meager food rations and fewer blackouts at night. Elderly people joked bitterly that the situation reminded them of the World War II years, only with less food.

I remember [a scene in downtown Bucharest]: the American ambassador's car, gleaming black, the stars and stripes aflutter cruising past as a woman, very neatly dressed in office garb, bent over the sidewalk and scraped an egg that she had dropped on to the sidewalk, broken, into a piece of paper and carefully folded up because a broken egg was so precious that she was taking it home to cook it.

Watch: On December 21, 1989, a speech by Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu was interrupted by unprecedented heckling, followed by four days of fighting between security forces, the army, and demonstrators. On Christmas Day, Ceausescu and his wife were convicted in a secret trial and executed by firing squad. (video by Reuters)

Romania's 1989 Revolution
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RFE/RL: When, after two weeks of traveling through Romania, Ceausescu finally decided to give you the interview at his Snagov summer residence outside Bucharest, what was your first impression when you saw him? Was his a glorious appearance, worthy of the "supreme ruler" that he was?

If I could go down contributing as much to my country as Stalin contributed to his own, I'd be happy to be seen in the light of history as a modern Stalin.
In shuffled this little man in this ill-fitting suit and plastic woven slippers. He presented a moist weak palm to shake hands -- this little man that Romanians feared as the tyrant, the all-powerful, all-knowing god on earth; this bent little figure, not very well-kempt, not very well combed, looking faintly deranged.

We took our places in little chairs and the interview began. And we had some questions we asked. We talked about shortages of food. And Ceausescu said, "How can there be shortages of food?" And I said, "Well, we go into stores and we see nothing on the shelves." And Ceausescu said, "Well, that's because it's all kept in storage."

More Like Stalin, Or Hitler?

RFE/RL: His answer proves that -- in spite of some rumors at the time that the "great leader," who was 71, might not have known what was happening in the country anymore -- he was actually aware of the people's hardships and was attempting to hide the truth. Did he give you the impression that he was still in firm control of Romania or, to the contrary?

We asked him at one point whether he thought anyone would rise up against him in the way they are elsewhere, and what he thought about Tiananmen [Square protests of June 1989] and he said the Chinese authorities acted exactly as they should have -- it's the role of students to study and it's the role of the government to keep order; of course they handled it appropriately.

["Newsweek" editor in chief] Ken Auchincloss, my boss, asked, "Does it bother you to be called the last Stalinist of Europe?" And he said, "Stalin had much to recommend him, if I could go down contributing as much to my country as Stalin contributed to his own, I'd be happy to be seen in the light of history as a modern Stalin."

And we talked about the cult of personality, and he said: "Cult of personality? I am a man of my people, what cult of personality? All I do is bring good to my people. If that is a cult of personality, the world needs more such cults of personality." And soon the question-and-answer [session] sort of gave way to these long speeches, with Ceausescu waving his fist in the air and pounding on the arm of his chair.

RFE/RL: During the interview, Ceausescu and Auchincloss were seated on a dais. From where you sat, you had a better view of the "Genius of the Carpathians," as he liked to be referred to in the Romanian media. What struck you most about his appearance?

I just began taking notes, and one of the notes said "balls," and this was not editorial commentary, this was a literal observation. Ceausescu was sitting and I was looking at his testicles, resting on his seat, in his overlarge trousers, and they...they looked, like, as I wrote in my notebook, overripe tomatoes, sort of flattened, squatted there on his feet -- malignant -- them so big; him such a small dictator.

And I also made more objective notes about how this man seemed to have no humanity, he seemed to be a hollow vessel of ideas, and telling only about power and ranting on as I imagine [Swiss psychiatrist and thinker] Carl Gustav Jung looked at Hitler -- the empty vessel to be filled with the unfulfilled hopes and yearnings of a people and then warped by power. That's how I saw Ceausescu.
Nicolae Ceausescu on the cover of "Newsweek" in August 1989

RFE/RL: In your book, you evoke another tragicomic scene during the postinterview photo session that to me sounded almost like a premonition.

We told him that since this is a cover story in "Newsweek," we should show him in his most human guise and then we went out to this little dock protruded out of Lake Snagov, surrounded by little reeds.

He stood in the sunlight, [as] our photographer Peter Turnley was snap-snap-snapping away and at one point Peter touched his shoulder, to position Ceausescu in the light and this is a man who is never touched -- he offered his hand to us, but touching him is really beyond the pale -- so Peter touches him but the dictator almost loses his balance, he totters on one foot, he waves his little arms in little circles in the bright sun, and the concluding line in this chapter [in my book] is, "Would the 'Danube of Thought' [one of the glorifying titles attributed to Ceausescu] topple into the drink?"

The Stolen Revolution

RFE/RL: Unfortunately, he did not, and it would take another four months before a popular uprising in Timisoara would eventually spill into Bucharest and end with both Ceausescu and his wife being summarily executed after a mock trial on Christmas Day. By then, it had become apparent that the new power was less of a revolutionary council and more of a second party echelon taking over power from both Ceausescu and from the people who had risked their lives. You came back to Bucharest on the day of the execution, and got to meet some old acquaintances, now in revolutionary disguise.

My minder, the head of my particular security detail on the visit during the summer [eds: most likely made up of Securitate operatives], he came to me and said, "Would you like to go off to the television station?" So he took me off and we went out the door and suddenly there was a bout of shooting and he didn't even blink. I blanched!

He seemed to be very comfortable in this world. He took me to the television station, he drove right through the ring of soldiers guarding it with just a cursory nod, past the security at the doors, which had bullet holes in the windows, and up to the room where there happened to be a meeting in process of the National Salvation Front [the newly established provisional government].

There was [former communist apparatchik and future Romanian President Ion] Iliescu, there was [ex-communist dissident] Dumitru [Mazilu], and there was [General Victor] Stanculescu. He was the biggest surprise! He, of course, was the guy who [on December 22 had] ushered Ceausescu off the roof to the helicopter, and he was the fellow who [on December 25 was one of those who] organized the execution squad, and the trial that did Ceausescu in!

And then came that [deputy] foreign minister [Constantin Oancea], the man who sidled up to me when Ceausescu was entering the room for the interview [in August 1989]. I looked at him and he looked at me and he laughed and he said, "Funny to meet you here, Mr. Meyer." Then said, "The lies I told you...." And I sort of laughed and told him, "Well, I didn't believe anything you told me anyway," and we had a good laugh.

RFE/RL: Twenty years after, there is still an ongoing debate as to what extent the 1989 events were a spontaneous revolution or a coup d'etat, in which many people died needlessly. What is your opinion?

It took me a long time to piece together my impressions, but at the time I said: "Something is not adding up here. This is supposed to be a people's revolution -- it began as a people's revolution, at least as far as I could tell in Timisoara -- but it became something else once it arrived in Bucharest."

You know, these were not leaders of a people's uprising. These were an old guard, these were people who had great access, who were very comfortable moving in these circles. Clearly they were taking their lives in their hands, clearly they were taking great risks, but I did immediately begin to wonder, you know, OK, there's clearly been a changing of the guard, a turning of the tide, and Ceausescu's own people are turning against him.

It was a coup wrapped in a revolution. It was a hybrid, and it was a whiff of things to come. Just like the glory -- la gloire -- of the French Revolution turned to the terror. A lot of people needlessly lost their lives in Romania. The Romanian Revolution was a harbinger of Yugoslavia, with men of power manipulating events for their own ends.

Revolutions Of '89

When The Wall Came Down
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.

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