On Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were shot by a military firing squad. Ceausescu was the last of the Central European dictators to be swept from power in that momentous year when Communism was overthrown in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland. It was the end of the cold war.
The difference between the revolution in Romania and the other Central European countries was that it happened peacefully in the other countries. In Romania there was real chaos and thousands were killed in the crossfire.
The problem is that many Romanians today believe that their revolution wasn’t a “real” one. They say it was a “Coup d’etat” — a seizure of power by a small clique of Communists, military leaders and KGB agents. They feel betrayed by the revolution, let down by the fact that the post-1989 governments have failed to improve the economy or lift the population out of the mire of poverty.
When I was at school in Scotland my history teacher said that the word revolution means to turn something round. The speed of a car’s engine in measured in revolutions per minute. When a country has a revolution, he said, it simply means there is a violent and chaotic change of government. That was it; no mention of things being any better, just different. I also learned that a coup d’etat is when the army seize control of the key government institutions and install a new government. The difference between a coup and a revolution is that the people are involved in a revolution — the mob — and there is a lot of chaos and uncertainty. A coup is a quick and precise seizure of power, people wake up the next day to a new government.
When I studied history at Liverpool University I read about all the destruction and chaos that had followed the French and Russian revolutions. In both countries the result of revolution was terror, dictatorship, starvation, war, poverty and many decades of political instability. (Imagine how advanced Russia would be today had it not been for their 1917 revolution.) And if we’re talking about fake revolutions, what about the English revolution of 1688? That didn’t involve the mob. It was just a backroom deal between king and parliament
There is no doubt in my mind that Romania’s change of government in 1989 was a revolution — even if it was stage managed and the mob were manipulated. It has all the ingredients of a classic revolution: a complete change of the political system; an angry mob; several days of violent chaos and uncertainty; and a shadowy clique of power brokers arguing about who will take over. They overthrew a seemingly all-powerful regime with party members, secret policemen and informers everywhere. And Romania now has a democratic system, however unsatisfactory it may be.
If I had been to school in a Communist country I would have been taught that a revolution is a new beginning, the moment when the shackles of capitalism, slavery and exploitation were thrown off and “the people” took charge of their own destiny; followed by a period of strong social and economic development. For Communists, the “revolution” is the big promise: it’s the turning point, the moment when things start to improve, a spontaneous uprising by the people. And by seizing control of the media, education (and, crucially, the teaching of history) who can argue with that?
What seems to have happened in Romania is that their so-called “intellectuals” — many of whom were educated under Communism — have decided they were betrayed by the 1989 revolution as it didn’t usher in the prosperity and stability they were expecting (Romania has been ruled by a incompetent bunch of ex-Communist crooks ever since 1989). So they want their money back and claim noisily that it wasn’t a “real” revolution. Like most ex-Communists, Romanians love a good conspiracy theory and this is the best one: the 1989 revolution was organised by shadowy local leaders hand in hand with international intelligence agencies. This explanation also enables Romanians to blame others (the plotters, the Russians) for their current ills, a bit like the Scots blame the English for all their troubles. But any psychologist can tell you that blaming others is a way of avoiding responsibility and facing up to your own problems.
I think it’s a real shame that Romanians are not proud of their great achievement in 1989. That was the year I started journalism and my first article was an interview with a Romanian exile who said there is no way that the Communist Party in her country could be overthrown. But a week later it happened. It was confusing and unsatisfactory in that the wrong people ended up in charge, but that’s not the point. They got rid of one of Europe’s worst dictators and they should be very proud of that. I certainly am.
Rupert Wolfe Murray was a journalist with Scotland on Sunday and BBC Radio Scotland in 1989. He came to Romania with The Observer Newspaper in January 1990 and made a film called “After the Revolution” with Laurentiu Calciu. He currently lives in Bucharest and doesn’t have a TV.