By Rupert Wolfe Murray
Romanians are sensitive about their revolution, so what gives me — a foreigner — the right to comment on it?
In 1989 I was a journalist in Scotland covering the revolution and I came to Romania in January 1990 and stayed — for 17 years.
I’ve always been interested in how Communism was overthrown and now the EU is funding a documentary film about my perspective on Romania 30 years after the revolution.
Was it a revolution?
The anger you can still find today about this issue seems to revolve around the view that the whole thing was a fake.
Many educated Romanians I come across say, “it wasn’t a real revolution. It was a coup d’etat. We were manipulated.” This seems to be particularly true in Bucharest, but not in Timisoara where the whole thing kicked off as a genuine workers’ revolt.
The basis for this “we were cheated” view seems to be that Romanians were expecting the revolution to usher in levels of wealth and development that would be equivalent to what you can find in Western Europe.
I believe this viewpoint is based on the Communist education that the older generation of Romanians went through — and passed on to their children. According to the Leninist view, a revolution marks the point when a Communist nation rejects the corrupt, exploitative old ways and starts on a new journey based on equality for all. It’s a great story and you can see the graphics that supported it on the old banknotes, flags, banners and books: strong workers and peasants standing proud under a rising sun.
But the Communist’s “happy ending” revolution story was based on a lie:
If you take the Russian definition — a workers’ revolt — their own revolution in 1917 was one of the biggest fakes in history: the only reason it happened was because Tsarist Russia had been weakened by the First World War and the Germans arranged a sealed train that transported Lenin and his ruthless gang from Switzerland to St Petersburg. The workers were used as a force to overwhelm the authorities and then to justify 70 years of terror.
Even though Romanian intellectuals know that Communism resulted in high levels of suspicion, corruption and economic stagnation, many still believe a revolution should result in positive progress — as if it’s some sort of electoral promise — and now they’re stuck with a society that is mired in corruption and poverty.
It’s as if they bought a TV or washing machine and now want to take it back to the shop because it doesn’t work. But revolutions only come with a promise – not with a warranty.
The French and Russian Revolutions
My own view of a revolution is based on a statement that one of my high school history teachers made:
“A revolution is simply a violent change of regime. The word also means to turn something round. It’s used to measure the speed of a car’s engine — revolutions per minute — in other words how many times does the engine turn round.”
If you look up the word revolution in the dictionary you get the same meaning. Google says it’s simply “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order.” No mention of a governing programme or of things getting better. In fact, my study of history at university showed that the French and Russian revolutions resulted in many years of war, famine and economic devastation. In British culture and history, a revolution is a disaster that should be avoided at all costs.
The Russians were behind it
A lot of Romanians seem to believe that the whole thing was cooked up by the Russians, who didn’t like Ceausescu and so they replaced him with Iliescu.
There is some evidence to back this up and I know one British journalist who saw a lot of Russians here in late 1989. But even if this were true, it doesn’t change the fact that it was a mass, popular, violent, chaotic change of regime. I’ve just been talking to someone in Timisoara who was a student at the time; he was on the bus to a disco when he joined the protest outside the house of the Hungarian priest — Laszlo Tokes – whose individual protest started the whole thing. My guy was thrown in jail, many others were shot dead, but the real crunch was when the Timisoara workers came out; then it spread to Bucharest and it was Game Over for Ceausescu.
It certainly wasn’t a military coup d’etat. A coup is a violent but usually quite well organised power-grab that doesn’t involve the kind of crowds, and chaos, that took place in Romania during December 1989.
The other thing that’s undeniable is that Romania’s revolution ushered in capitalism — even though it has resulted in high levels of corruption, poverty and authoritarian thinking in the public sector. In other words it was a change of system, not a well-oiled military coup that just changed the leadership.
Romanians should take credit for their revolution
The worst thing about the rejection of the revolution is that it removes the credit for what was an incredible act of bravery. Even if the whole thing was stage-managed by the Russians, a lot of Romanians risked their lives for their nation’s freedom when it wasn’t clear if their gambit would pay off.
Romania has shown a lot of courage over the years — like standing up to the offshore fund that wants to poison the region around Rosia Montana with cyanide — and it seems wrong to deny that this courage also resulted in the overthrowing of one of Eastern Europe’s most brutal dictators.
I know a lot of left-wing British people who would love to have had a decent revolution in our history, based on the assumption that it would have led to radical change. My view is that Romanians should appreciate theirs for the act of courage that it undoubtedly was.
Also, there have been massive changes in Romania. Not only do they have food in the shops, heating in the homes and lights in the streets but people can travel freely now and that, arguably, justifies the change of regime.
Rupert Wolfe Murray first came to Romania in 1986. He came back as a journalist for Scotland on Sunday in January 1990 and with the filmmaker Laurentiu Calciu filmed made the film “After the Revolution.” Their next film – 30 Years Since the Romanian Revolution – is being produced by Mihai Dragolea and will be launched on the European Commission’s website in December 2019.