In Romania, Ceausescu's death haunts Christmas

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania — Twenty years ago, as Romanians were celebrating their first free holiday in decades, they rejoiced at the news that dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena had been shot dead on Christmas day. It was the ultimate proof that the communist regime had crumbled irrevocably and that the late-December revolution had indeed succeeded.

But every Christmas since has brought a feeling of uneasiness — even anger at times — at how the Ceausescus were handled during their final days, after being apprehended in the small town Targoviste. Especially on this anniversary year, as the country closely revisits the events of eastern Europe’s only bloody 1989 revolution, Romanians vehemently contest the Ceausescus’ execution, which followed a one-and-a-half hour kangaroo-trial.

Many, such as retired engineer Aurel Badea, think that the hasty court proceedings were just a “masquerade” meant to eliminate the couple for the benefit of others who wanted to grab the power fast and easy. “They should have had a proper trial and then lengthy, harsh penalties,” Badea said, “in order to suffer just as much as others had suffered under their regime.”

One of the key people able to explain the decision to set up the military tribunal and then carry out the execution in such a rush and in a secret location is Ion Iliescu, who became the first leader of the revolutionary forces and then twice the president of democratic Romania. After giving many vague, stereotypical justifications over the years, this month he admitted that this episode was “quite shameful, but necessary.”

According to Iliescu, the chaos that gripped cities and towns across the country after the Ceausescus fled Bucharest by helicopter on Dec. 22, 1989, could only be stopped by taking them out of the picture. Indeed, soon after they were executed, the random street shootings that claimed more than 1,100 civilian lives during those very confusing days came to an end. (Culprits for the massacre, said to be either army personnel and/or so-called “terrorists,” have yet to be identified, found or brought to justice.)

Be that as it may, conceded 57-year-old math teacher Georgeta Pop, the situation was still mishandled. “It was the biggest mistake of the Revolution,” she said. “Of course we were all ecstatic to get rid of them, but under no circumstances should they have been killed on such a holy day!”

On this particular point, Romanians usually bow their heads, some with shame, some with an uncomfortable feeling of guilt. A very religious people, many of whom celebrate Christmas with long traditions, such as singing carols and going to church, they are not particularly proud to carry the legacy of such a crime.

“It’s a very delicate matter,” said psychologist Maria Dragomir. “Every December, Romania honors its fallen heroes of the Revolution, but many will also have a pious thought for the anti-heroes Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, exactly because of their horrible end. The fact that they were executed so monstrously on Christmas day gave them a special kind of recognition among the people, who otherwise hated them so very much.”

Dragomir pointed to a “collective feeling of guilt,” as Romanians often say “we killed them,” in reference to the Ceausescus, even though only a handful of people were actually involved. In the heat of the moment, many said they would have lynched the Ceausescus had they caught them — that’s how enraged they were at their despotic leaders of 24 years. (While Nicolae was the country’s president, Elena was deputy prime minister of the Communist Party and deeply reviled by Romanians.) So in hindsight, some have come up with other justifications for the leaders’ deaths.

Ninety-one-year-old Elena Busuiocescu said she thinks that “they earned such an ugly death on such a big day simply because they had been cursed so badly for starting to demolish churches in the late 1980s.” In an attempt to clear vast spaces for large-scale communist projects, Ceausescu had begun to bulldoze many historic buildings, among them churches, which infuriated Romanians even more than the virtual lack of any food and decent living conditions in the years leading up to the Revolution.

Along the same lines, some feel that the executions have brought a curse upon the country itself. In an editorial this week, the web publication Tricolorul, which belongs to extreme right-wing politician Corneliu Vadim Tudor, offers that Romania is in a such bad shape 20 years after the Revolution exactly because it has been unable to make amends with this horrific crime, and punish, in turn, those who perpetrated it.

Although they admit that having freedom is priceless, many Romanians are visibly worried about the state of their country, which has been mired in a deep political crisis for months and whose economy is in a bad shape. A vast majority routinely indicate in opinion polls that they miss certain elements of their life under Ceausescu’s regime, such as the security offered by the state and a certain order in which the country was functioning. And then there are those who are nostalgic for Ceausescu himself, saying that the politicians who grabbed the power after 1989 are much more ruthless than he ever actually was. Every year, a select few even stop by the Bucharest cemetery where he and his wife are buried on Christmas day, to pay homage to their memory.