Motto: Simt enorm si vaz monstruos./I feel enormously; I see monstrously.
(I.L. Caragiale, Romanian playwright, 1852-1912)
I recently stumbled upon a number of youtube videos featuring Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989), the character that poisoned by childhood and made it into something I don’t quite care to remember. I was following a link on Facebook posted by a group of Ceausescu nostalgic followers, that bizarre category of compatriots of mine who still persist in their belief that the man who is responsible for 20 years of sustained genocide against his people, is one of the most important leaders of postwar Romania.
They are the forgetful, the defeated, that thin layer of population who did not have to deal with the breadlines, and the monthly meat, sugar, flour, vegetable oil, dairy, eggs monthly ration cards. They are the ones who choose to cling to the indoctrination, who claim that they did not know about the labor camps, the prisons, the torture, the political executions. They narrow their eyes at you when you remind them of the four to five hours per day when there was no electricity, hot (or sometimes even cold) water, and shake their heads in denial. No, that part they don’t remember. And, anyway, why do you remember it? You were only a child, weren’t you? To them, you, not they, are the oddity, the one who clings to the past. Let’s remember the good parts, they tell you, and go on to list all the “benefits” of living during Ceausescu’s “Golden Era:” no unemployment, no poverty, anyone could afford food, entertainment, vacations, international respect for Romania, public order and discipline, and many, many others that I simply don’t care to remember now. Because they are all irrelevant. When you lived, like my family and I did, dominated by fear that you were constantly followed and that your words were recorded and reported, that you would not be able to feed your family because you weren’t a party member and thus lacked access to the special “party supply stores,” or that each school year your mother may not be assigned a teaching job although she had a college degree and was one of the most respected teachers her town, when all of the above were your reality, none of the “benefits” outweighed the misery.
But, to return to the youtube videos featuring some of Ceausescu’s speeches (one cannot help but wonder, knowing the North Korean authorities’ deep fear of the Internet, what would have Ceausescu thought of the digital era), there is one of him talking in 1983 (or so I believe) at one of the Romanian Communist Party congresses. I was too little at the time to care about his speeches, so his demeanor in this video took me by surprise. The Ceausescu I remember from the late 1980s was stiff in public, having a hard time delivering any coherent idea without his eyes glued to the paper in front of him. He was a statue of fear, or that is how I remember him. My memory may be altered now by more than two decades of information I read about that time in Romania’s history, although I do remember my grandfather’s admiration for Gorbachev and his oratorical talent in comparison to Ceausescu’s “wooden tongue.” But in this video, Ceausescu not only lifts his eyes from the paper on numerous occasions during the speech, but he even takes the liberty to completely veer away from the text (most probably the work of a ghost writer) and make jokes on his own. He talks about how capitalism will only return to Romania when pigs fly, but then he adds that with the marvels of modern genetics flying pigs might still be possible, while a capitalist Romania is not. He looks elegant, almost distinguished, in a black suit and with an assorted necktie. He laughs and seems somewhat surprised and uncomfortable when, after one of his incendiary paragraphs accompanied by his signature repeated wave of the left arm, the audience jumps up on its feet and begins chanting and clapping rhythmically in the manner that I still vividly remember from my childhood: Ceausescu-heroism/Romania-communism, Ceausescu-heroism/Romania-communism, Ceausescu-heroism/Romania-communism… Ceausescu and the people/Fatherland and our flag, Ceausescu and the people/Fatherland and our flag…
The dictator in the youtube video may be the one those older than me regret nowadays. The one they pine for and remember as a great leader. For me, defender of Romania’s interests or not, genius or idiot, enlightened democrat or satrap, he remains a nightmarish monster.
I was 14 when Nicolae Ceausescu was executed on Christmas Day in 1989. The decision of the makeshift military tribunal was widely criticized by international fora and mass media, but I think it was the right one. Ceausescu died the same way he killed millions of Romanians: after a summary, and probably, unfair and partial judgment. A few days before, on December 18, I had abruptly and painfully come into political consciousness when Radio Free Europe broadcasted an audio tape from Timisoara, in Western Romania, were the anti-communist demonstrations had started on the 14. After a background noise of a mass of people vociferating, yelling slogans and curses against Ceausescu, there is a male voice screaming “Shoot, you cowards, shoot!” followed almost immediately by the unmistakable sound of shooting machine guns. I still often think of that man, whose name I never found out.
I don’t remember much from that post-revolution first week of non-stop live broadcast by the Romanian Television. But I do remember this one journalist, Ioan Grigorescu (1930-2011) saying that we may have eliminated Ceausescu from Romania’s history, but he will stay with us for the rest of our lives. I am not sure that I understood exactly what Grigorescu meant back then, but I do now. My life and my entire worldview have been shaped by those first years I spent under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. Because of them I feel reality enormously. I see it monstrously. I possess a strange six sense (some may call it a third eye) that, unfortunately, makes me see beyond material things, makes me feel like I perpetually live under the effect of Neo’s red pill without ever having had the choice to take it.
It goes, of course, without saying that I don’t regret my miserable “gift.” Over time, it allowed me to be quick about reading between the lines, about seeing through walls, and about identifying indoctrination, although it does occasionally make me feel lonely. And I owe it all to Nicolae Ceausescu, the inept dictator of my childhood, the anti-hero of the dystopia that shaped me, the necessary evil that prepared me for life.