The Romanian Revolution and the last days of communism

December 1989. The Romanian Revolution. 1104 dead people and 3352 injured, the Romanian Athenaeum, the Art Museum of Bucharest and the Central University Library burned down, millions of bullets, terrorists shooting from all directions, tanks, tabs, electronic and psychological warfare, children and young people shot on the streets. That was left behind and forever written in the Romanian history pages. Romania was the only country in Eastern Europe that has gone through a violent revolution on the path to democracy. Before the Romanian revolution, all the other Eastern European states had passed in a peaceful way to democracy.

How everything started

The first warning that the Romanians drew was the strike in November 1987 in Brasov of the truck factory workers from The Red Flag. The 4000 protesters were not satisfied with the wages and with the fact that they were not supplied with food, electricity, water or heat inside the factory. The workers refused to work under such conditions.

They left the factory and headed to the centre of the city chanting: “Thieves! We want our money!”; “We want our Sunday back!” Later, protesters were joined by residents of Brasov and economic demands were turned into anticommunism chants “Down with Ceausescu,” “Down with the despot.” Unfortunately protesters were under the surveillance of infiltrated secret agents of the Romanian Security. Consequently, after being suppressed, the strikers were arrested, tortured and even killed. Protesters have been called thugs or enemies of the state.

The fearful State Police, the exaggerated security, Ceausescu’s economic policy, Ceausescu’s megalomaniac constructions and the austerity of the regime are some of the reasons that made the population unhappy with the communist period.

Therefore in 1989 Romania was a powder keg because of the internal situation and the major political changes taking place in Eastern Europe.

Protests, demonstrations and street battles that took place in December 1989 led eventually to the end of the communist regime.

Today in Timisoara, tomorrow throughout the whole country!

The starting point of the Romanian Revolution was the protest of the reformed pastor Laszlo Tokes and his parishioners against the measures the Romanian Government took to reform the Church. Same as the protests in Brasov, parishioners are increasingly joined by many Romanians, who started chanting “Freedom” in front of the parish house of Laszlo Tokes. The protest turned into a riot and from the moment they started marching on the streets of Timisoara on December 16, the Romanian Revolution began.

On December 17 the first violent repression occurred and it ended with human deaths. “Although he was informed on what was happening in Timisoara, Ceausescu decided to go on a visit to Iran, convinced that the incidents were minor and that they could be suppressed as easily as those in Brasov,” says historian Ruxandra Cesereanu .

On December 18 the Army and The Communist Police occupied Timisoara, but the crowd in Timisoara was stubborn to resist against their threats. Elena Ceausescu, left alone at the helm of the country, sends Prime Minister Dascalescu to negotiate with the protesters. Negotiations failed. People gathered in Timisoara’s Opera Square still claim Ceasusescu’s government resignation. In front of the unstoppable mass the army “betrays” the Romanian president and joins the protesters’ cause. On December 20, 1989 Timisoara becomes the first city free of communism in Romania.

“On December 21, Ceausescu, fully unaware of the real situation, organized a big meeting in Bucharest, in order to openly blame the so-called “Hungarian hooligans” from Timisoara. The meeting turned against him and the crowd started chanting anti-Ceausescu slogans <<Down with the dictator>>, <<Down with the killer!>>, <<We are the people, down with the dictator!>>,“ says Ruxandra Cesereanu.

“We all felt a tension, we had a feeling that we should help the Romanians in Timisoara, but there was no cohesion between people, we were not organized. No one dared to become a leader and organize us in order to bust the communists in Timisoara,” says Gabriel Hartopanu, a man who took part in the Revolution in Bucharest.

On the same day, revolutionary movements began in the largest cities of Romania like Cluj, Sibiu, Brasov, Arad and Targu-Mures. Although authorities opened fire against demonstrators, the Romanians could not be defeated or stopped.

Bucharest wants freedom

The day after, on December 22, the population of Bucharest got out on the streets to protest against the communist regime. Army had to withdraw to their barracks.

People began to gather in the big squares of the city. Henchman, with white helmets and shields forming a shield bearer and tanks, surrounded the crowds. “When I arrived there a shiver of fear came down my spine, seeing the hustle and bustle behind the henchmen. We started talking to them, telling them “You also have children, siblings, parents”, trying to draw the henchmen on our side,” recalls Gabriel Hartopanu .

“I remember a woman who came with a bouquet of carnations and gave a flower to each henchman. There were moments when we knelt in front of them in order to convince them that we didn’t want to fight with them,” says Egmont Puscasu who also participated to the demonstrations in the University Square in Bucharest.

Although they did not communicate with each other or make plans, people remained in position waiting for something to happen. “We felt that we were united at last. No one was giving up, nobody was shaking. No one ran away. We were encouraging each other, without speaking, without communicating. Everyone was silent. The tanks could pass over us, we were not afraid. I felt that finally we will gain our freedom back,” says Egmont.

Romanians demanded their right to freedom. “Romanian young people didn’t know what freedom meant. After 45 years of communist oppression, Romania finally was reborn from its ashes,” says historian Ruxandra Cesereanu.

Although the crowd did not act in any way, fire trucks sprayed water on the people gathered in the centre of Bucharest and tanks started to fire tracers, in order to disperse the crowd.

Moreover, on December 22, workers from industrial sites started to get out on the streets. “They were calling people to join them:  <<Come on! The time has come, come with us! >>. They had no placards or weapons. There was only a mass of people protesting against the regime,” remembers Gabriel Hartopanu. “If workers hadn’t gotten out on the streets on December 22, I do not believe that so many people, enough to start a Revolution, would have gathered in central Bucharest,” goes on Gabriel Hartopanu.

The Ceausescus escape

When workers entered the Central Square, Ceausescu’s helicopter took off from the Central Comitee building. Many historians, including Ruxandra Cesereanu, think that it wasn’t just a  coincidence between the moment when the masses of workers enterted the square and Ceausescu’s escape. “I don’t think it was just an accident,” says Cesareanu.

After Ceausescu’s escape, the Army fraternized with the people. There were moments of calm and euphoria between 12 and 6 pm on 22 December. Trucks full with juice, water, bread, salami arrived for the people gathered in the Central Square. From now on a new regime was set up and the National Salvation Front (NSF) was formed, the body that ruled the country until new elections took place in Romania.

At 19 o’clock a rumor started that there are terrorists in the crowd. “The rumor came from the people. It was born the idea that Ceausescu would have created a league made up of orphans trained to protect him if he was in danger, who were now in the square and came to kill us.  So the madness began. There were shots everywhere. Guns were shared to everyone and everybody was shooting everybody,” says Puscasu Egmont.

Unleashed crowds invaded Central Committee and communist official’s offices were vandalized. Car ambulances came from the crowd and raise hundreds of bodies lying on the pavement.

Ceausescu’s Trial

Only on December 24 the National Salvation Front Council, the political party that was in charge after Ceausescu’s escape, ordered the ceasing of the shootings, forcing people to surrender their weapons.

The Ceausescu couple was caught at Targoviste. The day after, inside a military unit, took place Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s trial. In the opinion of Romanian political analysts, including Vladimir Tismaneanu, “the trial was a sham, a masquerade and a political assassination.”

The presidential couple is sentenced to death and executed on Christmas Day by shooting. “The trial was deliberately arranged by the new established government so that Ceausescu was found guilty for the disaster in Romania, not the communism,” says Tismaneanu.

Egmont Puşcaşu, one of the men that took part in the Revolution in Bucharest, thought during the revolution that the execution of Ceausescus was necessary. But he does not believe this anymore. “Now I don’t agree with the execution of the Ceausescu couple. At that time I was a child, I was glad because the death of Ceausescu stopped all the crimes. And now, over the years, learning and finding out more things, I disagree with it, because everyone, no matter what, deserves a fair trial,” says Puscasu.

The death angels that invaded Bucharest

When it comes to the rumors about the “terrorists” responsible for the massacre that started in Bucharest, Tismaneanu says that the first person to speak about “terrorist actions” was Nicolae Ceausescu. He was referring to the external plot against Romania staged by USA and the USSR, who wanted to change the regime in Romania but also maintaining Romania under the Russian influence.

Even Ion Iliescu, the interim president after Ceausescu’s death, portrays the so-called terrorists in a BBC interview: “Specially trained terrorists were organized in bands to fight the masses and to defend the dictator. They were fanatical individuals acting with unprecedented cruelty, shooting people and causing military casualties.”

However many historians, including Dennis Deletant, support the theory that “terrorists” were only a psychosis maintained by the newly installed National Salvation Front and that in reality they didn’t exist.

“Amplifying the panic with the “terrorists” rumor, Iliescu’s team was able to take over the Power easier and faster,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu.

The Revolution should not be judged only by the political changes it implied but also by the means that helped Romania escape from the yoke of communism. One must not ignore the fact that behind those chaotic days of December hundreds of lives were sacrificed so that Romania and its people would enjoy freedom in all its forms.

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