By Andreea Iulia Scridon
On Christmas Day in 1989, the President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his wife, Elena, were executed. In an unprecedented effort to pay off national debt, the dictator had subjected the population to famine and poverty, while increasing national surveillance using an extensive network of informers. Following uprisings which spread throughout the country in a matter of days, a newly organised kangaroo court sentenced the couple to death on four charges, including genocide. The execution was broadcast that day, making the Romanian Revolution the first event of its kind to be televised.
I was born in Romania several years after the Romanian Revolution. Due to the somewhat anarchic post-revolutionary financial and political situation, my parents, like many other Romanians, chose to emigrate, a decision that would radically impact my life. Even living beyond Romania’s borders, my heritage was often perceived as problematic, both on a personal level, at school, and on a larger scale, in media coverage, particularly as large Romanian and other Eastern European communities are cited as a reason for many people in the UK voting to leave the EU.
Speaking as a member of the Romanian Diaspora, there is something to be learned from every hardship: today we consider ourselves lucky to be able to go wherever we want, study what we want and express our opinions freely.
In December 2019, I sat down with four members of a nuclear family from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, who told me their stories of the Romanian Revolution. The individuals interviewed have expressed their desire to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topics discussed.
Where were you then? What was your life like?
How old was I? I was 47 years old. I worked at the industrial constructions ‘trust’ [the Communist equivalent of a company] as a legal adviser. That day, I was in the kitchen, waiting for my husband to come home with the pig. He got it from a village outside of Cluj. Then on the way back, with a dead pig in his trunk, he met these factory workers at the train station, headed by Stoica, a Party activist. Laughs. They were going towards town, in the car: nephew wanted to buy himself some cigarettes. They were at the head of the column with the pig in the back, so that was going pretty slowly. Lots of people on the street, some of them even died. They picked up this desperate girl and dropped her off.
So, waiting for them to get in, I open the window, and see some guys popping a champagne bottle open and screaming that Ceaușescu had left. Both their fathers were in the secret police, and yet they were the happiest about it all.
I wasn’t interested in what I saw on TV. That wasn’t my memory. Then, I heard some popping noises from the cemetery. We were meant to go to the funeral of a friend’s father, but we didn’t when we heard that. But it was just a recording of army exercises, scaring people.
What was the general atmosphere like?
I don’t remember. Initially, it seemed true, but then I realised that something wasn’t right. And it didn’t seem to me like it was a revolution. Anyway, I knew the people who came to power after that very well. They were all in the Party. Why wasn’t the new government run by someone who had been a dissident? Anyway, they’d told Ceaușescu who would be after him, two years before they killed him. Ceaușescu didn’t want to believe they would betray him, the secret police and the people in his house. He was too severe.
But I didn’t like it at all and that trial was a simulacrum. It wasn’t a trial at all. They didn’t respect a single legal procedure. What evidence did they have? A file of three pages? That he ‘undermined’ the national economy? Where, what, how? And the lawyer was a pig and a half: when your client is sentenced to death, you have the professional obligation of requesting appeal. They shouldn’t have killed him. They should have isolated him somewhere. He was ill anyway.
How did you react to it all?
I didn’t. Didn’t seem like much. Only after I found out. Agitation on TV later, all sorts of declarations: poisoned fountains, terrorists. They picked up a former classmate of mine who was just waiting for a train on the platform at the train station. They arrested him and brought him to court. Luckily, another colleague of mine recognised him crying in his office. But if it hadn’t been for that mutual acquaintance, he’d have ended up in jail, perfectly innocent.
Did you ever think of what the Revolution would mean for you personally?
No, I didn’t think about it. And it didn’t mean anything. It was just a ripple of legality at first, an appearance.
Where were you? What did your life look like?
I was 22 years old, exactly how old you are now. I was in my fourth year of university; it was winter vacation. I was sitting in the living room crocheting a sweater, one with stripes. I know it exactly. I was on the couch, watching TV, there was some special on…and then all of sudden, I guess someone in Bucharest took control of the Romanian television. Some angry people. And they started showing films from the streets, people running from here to there, occupying some building of political importance. I remember Ceaușescu falling over and everyone turning their heads at a 45-degree angle to look down at him. That was something rushed and very, very…wild. They could have put him in jail, but there was no point in killing him as if we were in the Middle Ages. Then, they said it was a coup d’état, strong suspicions about the Russians wanting to get rid of Ceaușescu because he had been very independent and kept Romania very independent from Russia. And then you couldn’t get away from the TV because they were showing something all the time: continuous activity, days on end, many people dead.
How did you react?
Well, everyone was scared; you thought you might be shot.
I left in 99. I was already 30 years old; all the jobs still belonged to the state and they gave you so little money that you could barely do anything. It was just enough for pocket money: cigarettes and candy. And we had to get out of our parents’ house.
What was that initial feeling like?
A feeling of excitement, a sense of pride, the population rising up against the shit that was all around. People were starting to talk about a guy named Călin Nemeș; he’d been in my high school, a few years older than me. A difficult student in the sense that he was always complaining about something. It wasn’t good to have a big mouth then.
Then, I heard that he was there in front of the Continental Hotel, where it all took place. There were a lot of soldiers, sent by the government to keep the protests back. And Călin Nemeș went up to them, took off his coat, then his shirt. ‘If you’re cowards, shoot me,’ he told them.
And did they shoot him?
Yes. But he didn’t die. He committed suicide later, in his house. He was already married, on the street next to ours. And he had a little girl and he hung himself in his attic. Mmm. He had a voice. Very courageous. He didn’t even care about his own life. Big heart, full of passion. An artist, an intellectual, and a special person that thought all the time.
Did you ever think of what it would mean for you personally?
I didn’t think about it; it wasn’t a personal thing for me, but general joy.
Where were you then? What did your life look like?
I was a student in my fifth year of medical school, so I was 23. I was feeling prosperous, things were going well: school and relationships; my parents were well, healthy; my grandparents still alive.
That evening, around seven or eight, we were watching TV. And plain and simple, they just changed the channel, which never happened. And then some people showed up, four or five of them, wearing sweaters, and they just… eliminated the other guys. One of them was Iliescu, the other Voican Voiculescu…Who else? And they said something like… ‘We’re free!’
How did you react?
We were in the living room, and we were like, ‘what?!’ I was sitting on the sofa, in the middle. People reacted somewhat cautiously, given that we had heard of turmoil for some days then. I don’t remember the discussions I had with either my friends or family, but I do remember the feeling I had: it was winter, it was cold, it was a sensation of death… and I liked Ceaușescu’s trial least of all. I cannot say that I liked the Communist Regime, but I especially didn’t like the way it played out. I also remember being somewhat traumatised by the fact that people had interrupted his speech. He kept saying something like ‘calm down’. His wife appeared and they both looked out at the masses with a horrified look on their faces, then they went inside, booed. ‘Please calm down,’ he kept saying. And the shooting traumatised me. All of us in the family disapproved of the Ceaușescu trial. How they took his blood pressure, a thin arm…a masquerade, you see. A crass mess, although a lot of people were very happy about it.
What was that feeling like?
There was a rumour going around: ‘Young people, let’s go to town.’ And our parents told us: ‘Don’t go, stay home.’ And I remember that I heard the sound of gunshots from the bathroom window, coming from the centre of town. Quite awful. Then we started to hear about some young people who died––Lucian Matiș, I didn’t know him personally, but he was an artist, people knew about him. The cutest one of them and, I think, the youngest. Then, we heard of others. Even somebody from our own family, a militiaman.
Did you think of what it would mean for you personally?
I couldn’t imagine. I thought the way it happened was so ugly, I couldn’t be very happy. But in a way, of course, I did feel some joy.
It was astounding. Things changed from night to day. But the problem was they didn’t change for the better––that’s why there was that exodus of Romanians, because nothing was clear. Now, retrospectively, I think we should have had more patience. We wanted to be respected, to lead a normal life. That was the misfortune of my generation. A sacrificial generation. A lot of injustice; society turned itself arse-side up. People dumb as hell, lazy and stupid. By the time I was 45, I was making a life for myself in America. Things were starting to improve at home, but by then it was too late for me.
How old were you and what were you doing?
I was 57 or 58, it seems to me, and I was working at the construction ‘trust’ as a design manager in the technology section.
Tell us about the Revolution.
And where were you on 21 December?
I went to buy a pig for Christmas from a village. And I took my nephew who had some butchering talents, shall we say, with me, and came back to Cluj. And when I get to the train station, he wants to stop to buy cigarettes. So, we stop. And on the train tracks towards the industrial zone, hordes of people were marching, with flags and placards, yelling, ‘Today in Timișoara, tomorrow everywhere!’ [A slogan that became popular during the Revolution, as uprisings began in the city of Timișoara.]
And what did you think?
Because I listened to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, I’d known about this for a few days. I was expecting something like this. Then, we got back in the car and headed forward. When we got to the Astoria Hotel, there were a couple of soldiers with machine guns and we couldn’t move forward. So, we took another road, towards the prefecture.
Were you and your nephew commenting all of this?
Of course. We were like, ‘man, they’ll get us here! They’ll shoot us! They’ll take our pig!’
There are a lot of people at the prefecture too. Then this woman stops us, wounded (blood was dripping from her head) and asks for a ride. And we give her a ride. Then, we go home. And we start to work on the pig, we had to do something about it. And we work on the pig the entire night. As we work on the pig, we listen to the sound of screams and gunshots from the centre. And when we finish the pig at 2 or 3am, I said, ‘I’ll take this guy home.’ Then, on the road, these armed guys dressed in Patriotic Guard [Communist paramilitary] uniforms and they ask us where we’re going. I told them that he cut my pig and now I’m taking him home, I took him home, then I came back. Nobody asked me anything; I went home and to bed. That was the beginning of the Revolution for us. Then, we watched TV.
Wait, how did you react?
How? With a bit of fear when we heard the gunshots in town, but after a year or so, word got out that they put out some stereos playing the sound of gunshots. Just to scare people. You understand?
And the general atmosphere?
The second day I went to work. People were scared. Walking into work that day, I bumped into our office informer. He was especially scared. Chuckles. Everyone talking: what they saw, what they did. Nobody did any work that day. Just stories. After that, Ceaușescu ran, and these guys wanted ‘the Comrade,’ meaning Comrade Iliescu. [Ion Iliescu was President of Romania from 1989 to 1996, and from 2000 to 2004. He was charged with committing crimes against humanity in 2019.]
But not you.
I didn’t want Iliescu. Or the Communists, because my family had problems. They wanted to kick me out of school.
Because you were Catholic?
No, that was before my time. They closed the school I was at, arresting the priests. I stayed home a year then.
So indirectly because you were Catholic.
You could say that. Greek-Catholic. Then the next year, the priest took care to tell dad that the Americans were coming, in 1948 that was, because of the North Atlantic Treaty. And that they’ll be here in the spring. Well, the Americans never came. Then, in 49, I went to sign up for another school, seeing that they didn’t. But I’d only just done that when they arrested my father and uncle. At that time, I didn’t know why, nobody knew anything. The reason was that they talked to some partisans who had been in our yard, because the fountain was in our yard. Some guy stopped his car there and asked, ‘are there partisans here?’ So, they locked them up too, and tortured them. Then I got an official letter that said I was in Group Two, because my parents were well off, they owned land. So that was a little digression, but that’s the reason I didn’t love the Communists.
Did you ever think of what that would mean for you personally?
I thought we would be done with the Communists and that certain things would come back. But absolutely nothing happened.
A few weeks after the Ceaușescu trial, the death penalty was abolished in Romania. 30 years later, the social and political situation of Romania is slowly improving, though common consensus today is that a proper trial would have sped up the process of post-revolutionary development towards authentic democracy.
ANDREEA IULIA SCRIDON is a writer and lilliputian influencer. Despite chronically suffering from anxiety of influence, she produces poems and fiction, and translates from Romanian to English. Fan letters may be sent to her pidge at St Anne's.
Art by Anna Covell