Romania’s “televised revolution” was the most exciting event of 1989, that momentous year when country after country fell out of the crushing embrace of the Soviet Union. This week is the 25th revolution of the Romanian’s violent but successful revolution.
The fall of the Berlin Wall provided the main drama of that year and the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the other central European countries were smooth and “velvet” compared to what happened at the end of the year in Romania.
For years Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, had ploughed his own furrow, done his own thing and ignored the directives from Moscow such as: “Romania should be an agricultural economy”. He industrialised, criticised Russia for the 1968 Czech invasion, tried to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, paid off the national debt and was genuinely popular for the first few years of his reign — until paranoia and psychological terror took over.
I was just getting into journalism as the countries of Central Europe started to throw off the Soviet yoke, but I knew little about Romania and had hated it when I visited in 1986. I had just got my foot in the door at Scotland on Sunday, an Edinburgh-based Sunday paper, and I was asked to cover the Romanian revolution, propelling me from the obscure foreign news section to the front page.
On the 24th of December 1989 I wrote in Scotland on Sunday: “the intense hatred Romanian have felt towards Ceausescu is only now beginning to emerge.” I predicted that the nations “future prospects look grim” and I quoted Mircea Dinescu, a poet who was part of a chaotic group who had stormed the TV station and addressed the nation (one of the most extraordinary pieces of television I have ever seen).
Dinescu said that Romanians need to make a stand against “dinosaurian Stalinism in whose belly we will one day find the corpses of those who had the courage to express their despair.”
The Securitate (secret police) backlash against the revolution was short-lived (it ended with Ceausescu’s execution on 25th December 1989) but extremely violent. Many people were shot. For a few days it wasn’t at all clear what would happen: would Ceausescu and the fearsome Securitate survive? Would the army take over? The capitalist regime that emerged was deeply flawed but undeniably democratic.
I was burning with frustration at the time. I should have been sent to Romania as soon as the trouble started but when I suggested this to the foreign editor at Scotland on Sunday he laughed and said “we can’t afford to send you anywhere”. This seemed wrong; I had always thought my newspaper was like the “national” British publications like the Observer and Sunday Times, and it was in terms of journalism, but their circulation was smaller and they didn’t have the budget for sending people abroad. I was far too broke to be able to get my own ticket to Eastern Europe and I spent a miserable Christmas in Scotland thinking “I’m missing the story! I should be in Romania.”
I made a series of desperate calls to the “proper” newspapers in London but they weren’t interested: they’d never heard of me, they had it covered and the decision makers were on holiday. Eventually I spoke to the Travel Editor of the Observer who sent me to Romania as part of a group of journalists that had been organised, by a Romanian entrepreneur in London, to promote the ski slopes at Poiana Brasov. I flew to Bucharest in early January 1990 and was glad to see that there was still chaos on the streets and plenty to report on.
Our plane got diverted to Constanta Airport where they presumably thought we were terrorists: we spent all evening surrounded by a squad of soldiers with AK47 machine guns. Eventually we were released, taken into town and put up in an old fashioned hotel. I went for a late-night walk and noticed one of the strongest features of that period: the streets were deserted, they were barely lit and they had an eerie, mysterious atmosphere. But everywhere I went the people were open, friendly and curious — the exact opposite of how the Romanians had been in 1986 when I first visited.
At the ski-resort I did an obligatory day on the slopes and at the Hotel Alpin I was glued to their only TV set — in the lobby — where I joined the staff who were watching the trial of Ceausescu’s top four henchmen. In Brasov I came across a wedding party who were dancing with real passion to a Brazilian pop song that was being played everywhere and which became, for me, the leitmotif for the revolution: The Lambada.
I soon established myself in Bucharest and wandered around town with my host, friend and filmmaking companion: Laurentiu Calciu. Neither of us knew what was going on but I felt like a detective who noticed everything, took notes and was constantly trying to solve a puzzle. We would mix with angry crowds, go to chaotic government press conferences, hang out with the “proper” journalists, listen to them dictating their stories down the phone and learn how the western media describe a revolution.
My filmmaker friend would video people arguing politics on the streets of Bucharest, for hours on end. For a few weeks after the revolution people would gather around the Universitate area and share their hopes, confusion and fears. It was fascinating. Never before had I heard people talk so fervently about democracy, communism, capitalism, industry, agriculture and the future. I didn’t understand what they were saying but they spoke with such passion that I knew something extraordinary was going on.
We captured this moment of free expression on camera and, twenty years later, released it as a documentary film under the title “After the Revolution” (you can see the trailer here). That moment of intense and anarchic discussion — when everything was debated and analysed on the street — was soon swallowed up by those modern forums that dominate free speech: the mass media and big political parties.
People soon realised that their economy wasn’t going to collapse, they weren’t about to be sold as slaves to rich capitalist investors, they would probably keep their jobs and there was little point in endlessly arguing with each other on the streets. We all moved on. I got into aid work, worked in Bosnia for a few years and came back to Romania as an EU project manager. Now I’m a PR Consultant and travel writer and live in Bucharest.
Today, 25 years after the violent birth of a new democracy, Romania is shaping up into a strong partner in the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Despite all the corruption, confusion, media-manipulation and emigration Romania’s democracy has not only held steady — it has matured.
“The results of Romania’s presidential election” wrote Tony Barber in the Financial Times of 20th November 2014, “may turn out to be the most positive political event in Europe this year. It is encouraging for what it says about three things in central and eastern Europe: its troublesome ethnic politics, the never ending struggle against corruption and the unfolding contest between the Euro-Atlantic alliance and Russia.”
The Romanians deserve congratulations for getting rid of one of the most odious dictatorships in modern Europe and for consistently choosing the best of a bad bunch when faced with electoral choices. I am also grateful to them for being so welcoming to me personally and for always making me feel at home.