Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime

Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena ruled the country for 24 years, from 1965 until 1989. During those years, Romania underwent several changes, and the population had to endure an endless number injustices and restrictions. Generally, historians present the Romanian Communism in two segments: one between 1965 and 1971, and one between 1971 and 1989.

During his first years as a ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu had an open policy towards Western Europe and the United States of America, which strayed from the Warsaw Pact signed during the Cold War. This period is best characterized by a relative liberalization of Romania. A new constitution was adopted in 1965, and entrepreneurship was widely encouraged. The main focus of the Communist Party seemed to be the improvement of people’s personal comfort, and large funds were allocated towards building flats so that everyone could own a private residence. In schools, Soviet authors were being removed from the curricula, with Romanian authors replacing them, and literature from around the world was promoted.

Several cultural figures were rehabilitated, such as the right-wing historian Nicolae Iorga, and Eugen Lovinescu, a modernist literary historian and novelist. The rules imposed by the Soviet Union were relaxed by the Romanian government, and the freedom of expression was allowed even to some political prisoners.

The July Theses

However, all of this changed in July 1971, after Nicolae Ceaușescu visited several communist countries, such as the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and Mongolia. Ceaușescu was deeply impressed by the personality cult of China and Korea’s leaders, and he took great interest in the idea of total national transformation.

Ceausescu's cult of personality
Ceausescu’s personality cult. Photo source: fototeca.iiccr.ro

Thus, once he returned in Romania, he issued the July Theses, a speech which marked the beginning of a cultural revolution.

Ceausescu launched an offensive against the cultural autonomy and desired to return to the strict guidelines of socialist realism by directly attacking all of its opponents. This period was characterized by an increasingly erratic personality cult, extreme nationalism, and the deterioration of foreign relations with Western Europe and the Soviet Union. All activities were strictly controlled by the Party activists, and massive campaigns of population indoctrination began.

In 1972, the members of the Ceausescu family were placed in key political positions, and Elena Ceausescu made her political debut one year later. Soon after, she became the second most powerful authority of the state.

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Rally organized for Nicolae Ceausescu in 1978. Photo source: fototeca.iiccr.ro

The national economy was also a victim of the unscientific and chaotic measures launched by the Ceausescu regime. Romania became an industrial country and made large investments in raising industrial giants which weren’t self-sufficient. Most of the factories consumed high levels of energy and had a high demand for raw materials, with the Galati steel factory becoming a symbol of this policy. The construction of massive buildings such as the House of the People and the Danube – Black Sea Waterway, correlated with an aberrant economic policy, had dramatic socio-economic consequences.

Romania recorded a drastic decline at the end of the 1980s when Ceausescu decided to pay all of the external debt of the country. This led to a severe austerity for the Romanian citizens, and to a massive decrease in living standards.

As food shortages became common, the Party introduced cards for a strict supervision of food stocks. Sugar and oil limitations differed depending on population groups: higher ratios were given to people living in the urban areas and smaller ratios were given to the rural residents. Bread was sold in limited quantity, and could only be purchased from the place where one was domiciled.

In October 1981, a restrictive decree stated that those who purchased basic food products in quantities exceeding the needs of one-month household consumption will be imprisoned for six months to five years.

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The queue for cooking oil in Bucharest, 1980s. Photo by Scott Edelman

In 1982, the Government approved a “scientific” diet program for the population. “Specialists” determined that the average daily intake of calories per person is of 2700-2800 instead of 3300, and in order for the population not to become obese, further food restrictions were imposed, and the production of surrogate foods such as soy sausages or “nechezol” – a coffee replacement made of 20% coffee and 80% chickpeas and oats – was increased. Chocolate, coffee, and fine cigars were considered luxury goods, and those who afforded them were highly appreciated.

Despite the fact that the Party took pride in its refineries, gasoline was also rationed at 20 liters/month, and a Sunday curfew was instated. Television was streamed for only two hours a day, and the news program transmitted mostly speeches of Ceausescu or of political leaders. The only sources of information about the outside world were two radio stations with headquarters abroad, Free Europe and Voice of America.

In 1988, the Communist Party adopted another decree. In public spaces – except schools and kindergartens – it was illegal to have a temperature of over 16 degrees Celsius in winter. Children were forced to study using gas lamps because the light was systematically interrupted, and it was illegal to sell light bulbs that exceeded 40 watts. When heating and hot water was rationalized, Ceaușescu encouraged the people to put on an extra coat in order to keep warm.

One of Ceaușescu’s dream was for Romania to reach a number of 20 million inhabitants. Thus, in 1966, he declared abortion illegal. As a result, between 1966 and 1989, over ten thousand women died from abortions performed in secret using improvised tools such as coat hangers. The whole phenomenon was however ignored by the Party, and instead, the title of “Heroic Mother” was awarded for women who had at least 10 children.

Despite living in these harsh conditions, criticizing the Party was close to impossible, as whoever dared speak against the Communist regime was severely punished by the Department of State Security. The Securitate was the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania, and it closely monitored all Romanian citizens, especially the ones with foreign connections. Leaving the country was also a far-away dream for most of the citizens. Those who tried it risked many years of prison and torture. Going to church was also illegal, and the trust between friends or family was basically non-existent, as anyone could have been a member of the secret police.

The downfall of Romania’s Communist Regime

On November 15th, 1987, an anti-communist riot in Brasov announced the imminent downfall of the regime. Everything started on the night of November 14th with a strike, at the enterprise of Trucks Brasov, and continued with a march in front of the Council of the Romanian Communist Party. Even though the news spread throughout the country through Radio Free Europe, the Party was quick to react. All of the protesters and workers were detained and imprisoned, and their families were terrorized.

In March 1989, the Communist Party achieved a small victory, by managing to pay off all of Romania’s external debt of $11 billion, and Nicolae Ceausescu was re-elected as secretary general of the Romanian Communist Party.

In November, several students from Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest flooded the streets in order to demand Reforms against the Ceausescu government, but they were arrested and accused of propaganda against the Socialist Party.

On December 16th, protests broke out in Timisoara, and the protesters attempted to burn down the building that housed the District Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. The secret police responded with tear gas and water jets, and by 9:00 PM, the protesters withdrew. On the following day, riots and protests resumed, when the rioters broke into the District Committee Building. After the army failed to establish order, they opened fire on the civilians and around 100 people were killed.

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Romanian demonstrators protesting against Nicolae Ceausescu. Photo source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

On December 20th, Ceausescu held a speech and condemned the events in Timisoara, accusing the protesters of being manipulated by foreign interventions, and convoked a mass meeting in his support in Bucharest.

On December 21st, protests started spreading throughout the country, and the meeting in Bucharest turned into chaos. The crowd started booing the Communist leader, and in the night a fight broke out between the protesters and the Securitate, the police, and part of the army. A national revolt broke out in the morning of December 22nd, 1989, in Bucharest. Under the immense pressure of the population, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu tried to escape from the House of the People by helicopter but were later captured. The couple was briefly tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad on December 25th, 1989.

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Civilians fighting against by the communist loyalists. Photo source: rarehistoricalphotos.com
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Demonstrators of the Romanian Revolution. Photo by Denoel Paris and other photographers.

Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime was immediately removed, and Romania was at last able to reopen its borders and embrace freedom and democracy. More than 1,100 protesters were killed in that night.

Soon after, the Communist Party dissolved and has never been revived.

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