In this post, take a pause from the “Circle of Friends” series. We headed from Bucharest to Sibiu, nearly the Geographical heart of Romania, and then back to Timișoara. Here we completed the trifecta, visiting the three most influential cities that sparked the December 1989 Revolution. They were part of the core movement against the Ceaușescu Government and suffered greatly for it. Over a thousand people died in these protests.
Our visits also offered us a chance to take a look at some recurring personal themes we have encountered. We took a big dive into the topic, one that you cannot avoid while travelling in a post-communist country: The personal stories of people who transitioned relatively recently from Soviet Communism into a capitalist economy. From Timișoara, where the Revolution started, to neighboring Sibiu where it spread, and then Bucharest where it culminated, we met some amazing people in each city. In conversations with these three people, we tried to gain a more comprehensive and personal perspective on the events leading up to the Revolution, not only in Romania, but throughout Eastern Europe.
Westerners know about the Communist Era and how it played out from the Western perspective. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan’s best quote aside, there were many influences already at play prior to his speech in June of 87, not the least of which was Mihail Gorbachev’s move toward economic restructuring (Perestroika) and more openness (Glasnost) when he gained leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985. Polish labor leader, Lech Wałęsa, and the Solidarity movement, of course, was another indication that the people behind the Iron Curtain were ready to take risks for change.
Here are three stories of Romanian history leading up to the Communist dictatorship, the life behind the Iron Curtain, and then the Revolution of December 1989, as told by people who lived through it.
(Rebecca’s notes are in italics, mine are not.)
Vuki in Timișoara
Timișoara was the bellwether of the Revolution for Romania, and helped turn the tide in a wave of anti-Communism that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
The city has multi-cultural roots and a multi-linguistic background, and that may have been the reason that it had always been open to new ideas. This vibrant city had always welcomed strangers, resisted the Ceaușescu brand of totalitarianism and cult-personality-reverence of a dictator.
It is not surprising that this southwestern city gained this distinction. Its proximity to Serbia to the south, its historic connection with Hungary to the west, and long ties to Germanic settlements in earlier times, made Timișoara a cultural crossroads. During the totalitarian regime, these influences meant that it had both legal family visits and secret connections with visitors from the outside during the Communist regime.
Called “Little Vienna” when it was still part of Austrian rule in the late 1700’s, it was recognized for its architecture, languages, science, and arts. Timișoara was also called the “City of Light,” erecting the first electric street lights in Europe in 1884. Its strong development of public-service sectors, schools, and orphanages, gave it a reputation of moral responsibility for its citizens. This, perhaps, made it less susceptible to the divisive informant-driven “securitate” system that Ceaușescu developed within the work centers, in neighborhoods, and even within families. That, nevertheless, was a crushing aspect of the totalitarian regime that infested Romania during the Communist regime. And if people were vocal enough of against the government, they sometimes “disappeared.”
During the crackdown on foreign radio or TV, a raft of antennea would spring up at night and be gone by dawn, another testament to Timișoara’s anti-authoritarian spirit and scientific know-how.
In researching the topic, Rebecca and I searched for a museum about the Revolution that she had read about in the Lonely Planet Guidebook called the “National Center for Documentation, Research, and Information about the Revolution of Timișoara 1989.” (A long, fancy name for smallish, drab building that we almost couldn’t find.) We followed our GPS to the location, but found an art school instead. A kind art student of about 18 or 20 years old led us out the back of the building, across a fenced lot of half-finished sculptures and pointed to a building behind the art institute, surrounded by weeds. She told us that sometimes the gate there was open, but not, apparently, that day. So we went back out of the art institute and followed a path between the urban landscape and finally ended up at a door that looked like an entrance.
We had met Vuki, short for Vukaşin Bukur, on a previous stop in Timișoara. Vuki is a doctoral Agronomy student finishing his PhD under my cousin, Geta. He took time out of his busy schedule preparing for his dissertation scheduled for the next week. We had learned some interesting facts about the Revolution from Vuki when we first met him, so we had asked him to meet us at the museum to help us understand how the uprising unfolded.
Vuki is an very interesting man. He is a grad student, finishing his dissertation next week. He is of Serbian background, though his family has been here for 200 years, they still keep their culture and language. He is amazingly “with it.” He knew of UC Davis, who Bernie Sanders is, what cities are in what states of the US, and the politics in California. His vocabulary is extensive in English–just amazing. His accent, though, is thick and hard to understand at times. We are able to carry on deep conversations and he translated for us when we were with people who only spoke Romanian. He said he started to learn English from cartoons. His favorite? Dexter’s Laboratory. Our boys would get along.
The Revolution began not as a full-blown demonstration against Communism, but initially as a protest against the treatment of a beloved priest here in Timișoara who spoke out about the treatment of the poor in the city. László Tőkés was the assistant pastor who was evicted from his apartment by the local authorities. His crime: criticism of the proposed national plan to specialize labor in each town in Romania, a move that would create enormous social disruption. On December 16, 1989, many came to his apartment to protest his eviction.
Soon, dozens turned to hundreds filling the streets. Soon there were non-religious supporters there as well, having heard about the attempted eviction of the priest. Even the Mayor decided to support him. They started to chant, “Down with Ceaușescu.” The military was called in to disseminate the crowd. When shots were fired into the crowd, it sparked a tidal wave of protest the next day across the city that the armed soldiers could not stop.
On December 19th, after nearly a hundred citizens had been killed, a general strike was called. Vuki told us a story about thousands of miners who had often been called in to brutalize protesters in previous uprisings in Romania. This time, however, the organizers of the protests were ready with an ingenious plan.
Vuki’s father worked in a transportation scheduling agency at the time. He was told about a plan to coordinate the transportation of bread and rum to the train station. “He was not exactly one of the insiders who came up with the plan, so I can’t exactly call what he did heroic.” Vuki told us. He explained that his dad was just one of the many people who were fed up with the tyrannical government and was willing to step up and do something about it. “It was more by chance than heroism,” Vuki said, “He was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
He told me that it was just as much a take-over than a revolution. “It was an inside job and a revolution from outside, all at once.” I asked him to explain.
Well, he went on, there was general unrest in the entire country. This unrest was often quelled by the miners. Miners have had a rough time, being a neglected class of workers. They have often been exploited as political pawns. Ceausescu was forced to deal with them when they went on strike. But then after he gave them political favors, they were easily manipulated into showing up at political rallies to beat back any uprisings against Ceausescu. They were often sent in trains from Oltenea and Valea Jiului.
At the same time, Ceausescu was rationing food, gasoline, and water to pay for botched investments and personal extravagant life style. The secret police were happy to allow the miners to do the dirty work, having lost confidence in the Communist government and the “Austerity Regime” from which they had suffered as well as the rest of the population.
When the resistance organizers heard that the miners were on their way to Timisoara, they arranged for tons of beer and sausage to be transported to the train station and they passed it out to the miners as they got off the train. Timisoara had old established industries in brewing (the Timisoreana beer factory) and meat processing (the Comtim farms).
“My father was working in the transportation department at Comtim farms at the time and he was responsible for fleet scheduling,” Vuki told us. At the train station, besides just simply handing out salami, sausages and beer, they organized a full blown barbeque party because Romanians really do enjoy their “mici” and beer (“mici” is a type of barbecued minced meat that goes great with beer). During those days, there were so many shortages and rationing of supplies, the miners were glad to get the food and alcohol; they consumed it right away.
Soon, full and happy, the miners who had been recruited to put down the resistance, instead reboarded the trains and were in no condition to confront the protesters.
Rebecca and I loved this story. It reminded us of wine and bread of Jesus, or the non-violent resistance methods of Ghandi. Or as my mother used to tell me when confronting someone hostile, “Kill them with kindness.”
It is agreed by nearly everyone we talked to about the Revolution that most of the military eventually sided with the protesters, or were smart enough to see that they had no possible chance of repressing the multitudes who were turning up to protest the oppressive government. At some point, they started telling the citizens that they did not plan to fight them, which encouraged the protesters even more. And so this was recognized as more of a coup d’etat than a revolution. A coup that recognized the changing will of the people and knew when to step out of the way, and then when step back in and take advantage of the situation.
Whatever the reasons for this series of events, it set off a ripple that grew into a tidal wave that changed history. Within days, Ceaușescu and his wife were executed, a temporary government was set up, (by the second layer of the same party leaders, perhaps) and Romania would be changed forever. Vuki’s dad, it seemed, had a hand in changing the world.
Adela in Sibiu
In Sibiu, we gained greater perspective on the Romanian Revolution, thanks to Adela, a tour guide who had walked with us through Fundata Valley on the ‘Info Trip” a few days earlier, sponsored by the Mountain Ecology group with Michael and Natalie. We met her on the walk then, and asked her to be our guide when we visited her historic town a couple days later.
Sibiu was a one-night stay for us at a brand new hotel. Though very clean and fancy, it totally lacked any of the charm that we enjoyed at the Citadel in Sighisoara. We had contacted Adela, and she agreed to meet us at the smaller of the two town squares. Our GPS directed us to a street at the edge of the free parking zone. Then we followed the navigation system on foot up some winding stone walkways to the “Small Square.”
To get to the old town from this side, we climbed stone stairs and passed through porticos and up some narrow cobbled streets. German architecture and lots of people walking in the square. It was where we were meeting our guide, Adela. The first half of the tour wasn’t a tour at all, it was a “stand.” We stood in one place in the smaller town square of the two, and had a very interesting history lesson.
Sibiu is right in the center of Romania and has been a cultural crossroads for centuries. During the first Hungarian Empire, it was part of the forts that protected the rest of the west from the Ottomans. (Bran was another one). The Hungarians invited the Saxons, who were builders and guild members to settle here to help the Romanian peasants keep the Ottomans at bay. They are the ones who knew how to build huge stone fortresses and carve wood and make tools. The Saxons had a strong part in the building of the city, which explains its German architecture.
There have always been many cultures and religions in this part of Transylvania. We learned a great deal and saw their reformed church (but couldn’t go because it was being restored) And we learned about guilds and journeymen and how they came here to learn a craft. There is a beautiful opera house here and lots of museums. It is a town I would recommend seeing.
Adela is a petite, smart, intense looking mother of preschooler, that has had remarkable experiences for her thirty-something years. Though small in stature, her Germanic roots give her a feisty appearance.
She worked for a time in City Hall for the then-Mayor of Sibiu, Klaus Werner Iohannis. In fact, he performed her wedding ceremony, only because she was considered a friend, she told us. Ok, getting married by the mayor is a cool thing. But this is the same Ioannis who four years ago became President of Romania. Unlike most modern Romanian politicians, he is unique in that he remains a very popular leader, and also unique in that he reflects the German background of this city in the heart of Romania.
Ioannis is credited with tightening the administration of Sibiu, restoring the its infrastructure and fighting local corruption. He took those qualities to nation’s capital as the President. He is, in contrast with the current Prime Minister, considered one of the few honest politicians in national office.
Adela gave us a quick history of Sibiu. It was established in the 12th Century and quickly became a southeastern bastion of Saxon trade, banking, and language. Later, it was designated as the capital of the Transylvanian region after it was made a part of the Habsburg Empire. Germans remained a strong cultural and linguistic force in Sibiu when it was still part of Hungary before WWI. Transylvania joined Wallacia to form Romania shortly after the war. After WWII, Romania was given to the Soviet Union by the agreement in Malta. Many of Saxon/German descent wanted to leave Romania, but could not escape. After the Romanians surrendered to the Allied Forces, the Soviets who then occupied the territory took firm control and did not let go until a satellite government loyal to Moscow was established.
When Ceaușescu became the Party Leader, although an atheist, he allowed the Greek Orthodox religion to continue because it taught the idea that the individual is not important. “It was ok to be illiterate. Orthodox religion was a perfect partner for totalitarianism. People were convinced that the individual was nothing,” Adela told us. Now, indoctrinated by the church that individuals were worthless, it was easy to control them through fear to obey the State.
At dinner with Adela, she told us more about her family’s experience before, during and after the revolution.
We found a good restaurant on the square and had a nice meal. I had roasted vegetables and broccoli as a side–so good! Adela told us about her life in Communist Romania, how her parents did not join the Communist party, so did not get subsidized apartments. But that was a lucky thing, in a way. through a cousin they bought land in town and were able to build a house–they had a yard and garden and chickens, so they had more food than many. It was in the Saxon part of town. She bought milk and cheese from a neighbor boy whose family had cows. Eventually she married that boy.
“My grandmother was a hoarder,” she told us. “ When things got tight, everyone who had the ability to raise a few farm animals had it much easier than others, even though they were in the middle of this city. Being self sufficient was a big help.”
“My mother’s dream was to become a historian.” She told us that her mother studied very hard for the entrance exam to enter the University. She took the exam and really felt that she had mastered it. When she got the results, she had failed the exam. Undeterred, she took the test a second time and thought she had even done better but failed again. Adela told us that her mother then asked to talk to the administrator about her results. She told them that she was sure of the material and asked why she did not pass. She was asked to show her Communist Party card. Her mother had to tell the administrator that she didn’t have one.
“And now you have your answer,” he told her.
“You see,” Adela told us, “The important freedom they took away was not just freedom to travel or leave the country. They took away what you could buy, what you could say, and what you could study.”
People trapped behind that curtain also harbor a resentment against the West. The “Big Three” (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) that met in Yalta to determine the future of Europe and the distribution of power post World War II made big decisions that had unforeseen consequences.
Either they were war weary to the point of inattention, or incapable of seeing through Stalin’s promise to allow free elections in proposed slice-up of eastern Europe. He famously said in a different context, “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.” And in the one-party states established by the Soviet Union after the Potsdam Agreement, this turned out to be all that mattered.
What this meant for nearly everyone we met in Romania and Bulgaria was several generations of fear, austerity and deprivation. They lost any meaningful freedoms, and and were handed harsh rules that meant exile or death if broken. They were told to rely on “Uncle Joseph.” They worked longer hours for limited supplies and rationed water and electricity. They were given promises of someday which turned into resentment. Gradually, they developed a longing for a life beyond the Iron Curtain that they heard about but could not touch. And maybe worse than all of this, they suffered a loss of trust in the State, trust in your neighbor, and ultimately in trust on oneself to have any control over your future. The dictatorship would fall, but this psychosis may take generations to heal.
Adela grew up in the shadow of this brewing revolution, but has vivid stories from her family. For her, it was less a rebellion against the restrictions of the Ceaușescu government, but more about a longing for something else.
“A friend bought my parents a reel to reel tape recorder. My father somehow obtained some bootleg tapes of jazz and other popular western music.” She told us that they hid the tapes in the floorboards in case anyone ever came to inspect their house. They would secretly take the tapes out and listen, especially on Sunday mornings, only after putting heavy blankets over the windows so that neighbors could not hear.
“I used to get up an hour earlier just to listen to US music. I used to listen constantly to listen Michael Jackson’s, ‘Billie Jean,’” she told us. “I grew up with Dire Straits and the Jackson Five.”
Once we started getting TV programs, we couldn’t get enough of them, programs like “Dallas,” “Beverly Hills,” “Twin Peaks,” and “Bay Watch.” We had a thing for anything American. Wearing jeans was a big deal. We thought what we saw on television was how America was. We thought it was always sunny. America in the 90s, it was the promised land,” she said.
“I have always had a chemistry for the United states,” Adela told us. When she had a chance to travel and work in the US, she realized that some of that glitter had tarnished. Working in the restaurant business in Southern California, she saw a different side. “ The waste I saw was incredible. Coming from a country where we had to save every little scrap of food just to survive, I couldn’t believe that people would waste so much food and other resources,” she told us. “I was also unprepared for the big diversity of the races.” It was nothing she had ever really seen before.
Moving forward, Adela presents, not a jaded perspective, but more of a realist perspective of her world here in Sibiu. She knows that most of the politicians are carryovers from the Communist Era. The Revolution was really a show put on by the secondary layer of the Communist Era. They saw the unrest happening, and helped stage the Revolution and the subsequent execution of Ceaușescu and his wife. But they acted only when they saw it was an inevitability so that they could position themselves for a capitalist government. It was a coup, not a revolution, she explained.
Although things have changed for the better, Romania is suffering from a sort of a combination-crisis of economics, opportunity, and morale. Because of this, many young people are leaving the country now that there is an opportunity to emigrate to other parts of the European Union. More than four million Romanians are estimated to have moved out of Romania, and some studies show that most of them do not plan to return to their roots. Who will build the future here?
But there is hope, she feels, when she sees the success of some honest politicians like Ioannis moving forward. “We just need to get people to participate and stop assuming that it will always continue to be corrupt,” she told us.
Adela left us just as we finished eating as she was meeting a friend. What an interesting young woman she is. She has an intense look about her and sharp, boyish features. She reminds me of Jodie Foster in her angular features and keen awareness of the world. We found our way back to the hotel. Our own election is happening today. I hope we hear good results!
Dana in Bucharest
The history of the capital, Bucharest, was anything but joyful. It reads like a political struggle of centuries between half a dozen power centers surrounding this region. The infamous Wallachian warrior, Vlad Tepeş, (the Impaler, who we would learn far more than we really were interested in, soon) dominated this region in a series of campaigns against the Ottomans in the mid 1400’s, becoming the voivode (prince) of this region when the city began to grow in size.
Several power struggles later, (and several devastating earthquakes too) the Turks had regained control but handed it over to Greek administrators, ruling it as a Greek principality for over a century. Then, after a Russian occupation in the early 1800’s brought in some sweeping changes, some stabilization, and much modernization.
This all led to the selection of Prince Carol I, a German prince, to take over after a political coup d’etat. He eventually became king of Romania until his death in 1914. The king is in high regard among most Romanians to this day. We would see German influence in architecture and culture here and throughout the south and central part of Romania, due in no small part to King Carol I.
Romania, and Bucharest in particular, had enjoyed a heyday in the late 19th Century. It was called “Little Paris” in the late 1800’s. The 20th Century, however, would pull it back into war, beginning with The Great War, WWII, and then the unfortunate Soviet Era. The ominous Ceaușescu regime unfolded into which Dana was born.
Dana told us what she remembered from before the Revolution in 1989. She remembered that they had to put blankets on the windows because you could hear shooting in many parts of the city. They never had any sweets. Once in a while, they would get some candy from Venezuela sent through Cuba. They called them “Cuban candy. “It was was one of the rare treats, but even those had to be ordered, and were scarce indeed, she told us.
This type of austerity was taking place while Ceaușescu and the elite Communist leaders enjoyed a lavish lifestyle as he hoarded the nation’s resources. He put on enormous military extravaganzas like those that Kim Jong Un displays, and opulent media celebrations with his name in lights and his portrait hung on huge banners. For the rest of the population, there was economic deprivation. While the Ceaușescus and their friends lived a jet-set lifestyle, Romania became the poorest stepchild of Europe.
According to psychologists, the Romanian people suffered from a sort of a social schizophrenia. People had one personality that they displayed at home and another one they showed in public.
For non-Communists during the Ceaușescu Regime, there was a professional “ceiling” above which one could not pass. Dana’s great-grandfather was a simple man, but very clever. He became an inventor and invented gadgets that were very useful. He spoke out against the Communist regime and he was punished severely. He was stopped from traveling. “My great-grandparents had their lands confiscated by the communists, and one of them was sent to the ‘Canal’ as punishment for speaking out against the regime. (The Danube-Black Sea Channel) People were sent there to build the channel and very often died in the process, as it was harsh, forced labor.” I noticed a glint of wistfulness in Dana’s eyes. What might have been, otherwise, I thought I saw.
Dana showed us the site at which Ceaușescu stood and delivered his final speech on December 21st, 1989 It would have been like hundreds of others he had delivered, in the Marxist/Leninist mode, praising himself and the Party for bringing prosperity to the nation.
Only this time, he grossly misread his audience while openly appealing to the fears of the people. They had heard by word of mouth, by phone or by travelers who had come from Timișoara or Sibiu. Many had heard on their hand-rigged TV or radio stations like Radio Free Europe. They knew that, for the first time, their fellow Romanians had openly defied the president and the time was right for a different reaction.
The Communist Party had staged for this speech, as always, hundreds of people in the front rows to make it appear that the dictator was still immensely popular. They had given them tall banners with pro-Ceaușescu slogans and enormous portraits of Ceaușescu, and told to chant pro-Communist slogans. Things were going as usual. For a while.
But when Ceaușescu began to talk about the “hooligans, foreign agitators, and fascist instigators,” that had stirred up trouble in Timișoara, the crowd knew that it was a lie. This time, the standard fear tactics, didn’t work. This time, for the first time, crowd began to jeer.
There is a video of this speech in which the dictator sees for the first time a reaction in the crowd that was not what he had become used to. In that one, unsettling look, one can see the beginning of the end. They began to chant “Timișoara, Timișoara,” and “Down with Ceaușescu.” The crowd slowly turns on the dictator and within minutes, chaos ensues, Ceaușescu is ushered away. Four days later, on Christmas Day 1989, Romanians were given a gift. Ceaușescu would be executed and a new government would be taking shape.
Worldwide, it was not the first Eastern European country to escape Communism. Poland had escaped the one-party system in July of that year. In August, the Berlin Wall had fallen. But this was the first violent revolution, a Communist regime overtaken by force from within. When news of this spread around the world, within months major political changes would take place. Exactly one year to the day after Ceaușescu’s execution, The Soviet Union would dissolve. A month later, East and West Germany would be reunified. Soon over a dozen countries from Armenia to Uzbekistan would be liberated to establish self government once again.
Was this, finally, the happy ending to the failure of the Potsdam Agreement to set things right after WWII? No. Whenever there is a power vacuum, another power will seek to fill the void and that power is rarely a democratically elected, egalitarian state. Some of those countries are still trying to come to grips with their independence. In Romania, nearly 30 years after the Revolution, it is still dealing with the after-effects of this dictatorship.
I had the opportunity to visit Romania in 1974, in the middle of the Ceaușescu regime. I wrote a book about that visit which the reader can read here:
While visiting my cousin then, I heard some of the sentiment against the Ceaușescu government. For example, one of the first things that they did when we arrived was to take us out to the middle of the field to tell us about the conditions there. They told us “The light bulbs have ears,” meaning that wherever there was electricity, whenever you were in a room, there was always a chance that you could be listened to or recorded. People distrusted the casual conversation, afraid that someone from the Securitate might overhear them or report them.
Later, just after the Revolution, Rebecca and I brought our boys to meet my relatives in 1994. We noticed that people were talking more openly about the problems of the government. I asked if they were no longer worried about people overhearing their conversations. My second cousin Cornel told me, “You can talk all you want. Now, no one listens!”
Another saying we have heard in many places by many people regarding the Revolution and change of power: “The Communists took off their Communist hats and put on their Capitalist hats.” Or metaphorically described another way, “The music changes but the musicians stay the same.” In other words, those who were in power stayed in power. The ones who had used Ceaușescu as a puppet to be in power were still in power. They had the insight to change the way business was done, but they stayed in charge of the commerce and they are the ones still making fortunes.
The older generation is wistful about having lost the comforts of guaranteed pensions, guaranteed jobs, and free medical care. Some are nostalgic for a more connected, close-family, rural culture. And while younger generation sees a more hopeful future in the freedom to leave the small towns, go to the university, travel ouside Romania and even change residence throughout the European Union, many sense a loss of family keenly. With wages still the lowest in Europe, many younger people are choosing to leave Romania for opportunities in western Europe.
The painful birth of this new, freer Romania in 1989, continues to suffer growing pains as it finds its way in the world.