By David Shoup
On a gray fall day just next to Targoviste train station, I visited MB 01417, the former military barracks where the long time dictator of communist Romania met his violent end on Christmas Day, 1989. Chalk lines mark the place where Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena fell in a hail of AK-47 bullets. The crumbling wall behind is still riddled with holes. The popular uprising and subsequent chaos across Romania, particularly the shocking displays of violence in Bucharest, captured international attention that year as the last and bloodiest of the ‘89 European revolutions.
Born two years after these events, and still relatively new to Romania, I sought out the viewpoints of those who grew up in the shadow of the revolution, to gain their insights on what it means to them three decades later.
I caught up with Andrei, a first year university student in Bucharest, as he walked past MB 01417 from the station, home for a few days to visit his parents.
“What revolution?” he asked when I inquired how he reflected on 1989. “What happened here was a coup by the security police. Our first president to come after communism was himself a communist and ruled for ten years. Does that sound like a revolution to you?”
Perplexed, I returned to the capital and asked an even younger Romanian to explain what Andrei might have meant. Razvan attends a private high school in Bucharest, and for a 14 year old, his passion for history is impressive.
“I can’t say it was a street war between government troops and anti-government people like the Americans saw on CNN, but more of a war between communists over whether to keep Ceaucescu or put a new Ceaucescu in place,” Razvan told me. “All of these other communist regimes west of here had already fallen by December of ‘89. The security services knew Romania needed a change, but it had to be a change on their terms.”
Both of these viewpoints struck me as a bit fantastical. It’s easy to find 9/11 conspiracists in American highschools and universities. I needed to talk to someone my own age.
Daniella, 27, is a junior partner at an investment firm in the capital, and surprised me further when she concurred with Andrei and Razvan. Over coffee, I tried to rephrase my questions, asking her what she thought of all the protestors, many of them students, who stood their ground and died all over Bucharest that December.
“They were brave,” Daniella said. “Very brave. But they didn’t realize that what was happening was mostly orchestrated by powerful figures operating in the shadows. They needed to die so that the hasty removal and execution of Ceaucescu could be justified.”
This all struck me as borderline nihilistic, so I headed to a low key watering hole to find a drink and, with it, more perspective. Alex, 24, a film animator from Bucharest, told me he’s more interested in the events that took place after 1989, events which demonstrate the rocky road towards a capitalist liberal democracy.
“Look at the protestors versus miners violence in 1991,” he said, sitting in a popular underground bar in Bucharest frequented by Romanian artists. “These people wanted their voices to be heard that change wasn’t coming fast enough, and miners from the Jiu Valley were paid to go in and beat them to death.”
“It was super wrong,” Alex added, taking a long drag from his cigarette as he contemplated the right English word to express his disgust. “It was super unjust. The worst part is that the man who organized all of this retained power for another decade and continued to pull the strings of the ruling political party for years afterwards.”
Later in the ‘90s, both a Romanian court and a study of the violent protests by the Sandhurst Military Academy in the UK did find evidence of direct state security involvement in the 1991 killings.
Overhearing our loud conversation in English, Adrian, 40, a Harvard educated programmer from Bucharest, wandered over to offer his own thoughts. Unlike the others, Adrian is old enough to remember the events of 1989. That December thirty years ago, he found himself far out of the city during the revolution, attending a winter math olympiad getaway. He remembers his parents driving up to the camp, announcing that Ceaucescu was gone and asking that everyone stay there until the violence had ended.
“Then they turned around and drove away,” Adrian recalled. “All the while blasting the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ It was a strange time.”
Adrian said that the cynicism of the younger generation in Romania is reasonable, but that the focus ought to be diverted towards enacting gradual and consistent progressive change.
“It doesn’t really matter whether the revolution was a popular revolt or a security coup, or if it was organized by the CIA or the KGB,” Adrian said. “What matters is what’s going to happen now and on the road ahead..”
Adrian then dropped a rhetorical bomb on the two of us, by offering a radically different take on how to consider Romania’s path forward.
“These kids are talking about fighting the system and ending corruption,” Adrian said, nodding towards a visibly annoyed Alex. “Without corruption, Romania will dissolve. In many ways, this is largely a feudal state. Money is filtered from Bucharest out to the village mayors and provincial leaders. Look at the illegal logging for example. Corruption is their only motivation to carry out basic functions of government. If you try to overcome this, the system will just collapse.”
Adrian said he does support reforms, but claimed that he isn’t voting for any of the parties or candidates anytime soon.
Alex, a full generation younger than Adrian, completely disagreed. He recently voted for Theodor Paleologu in the first round of the Presidential Election, solely on the basis, he says, that he views Paleologu as the candidate with the least history of corruption.
“Voting does make a difference,” Alex insisted to me and a skeptical Adrian. “I want highways, I want higher salaries for doctors, not to mention more hospitals, and modernized hospitals at that. I want transparency in our politics. As young people, we can’t do anything about the past. What we can change now is the government.”