Nicolae Ceausescu liked to hunt bears. With his retinue, he would retreat to a lodge in Transylvania and sally forth, locked and loaded. He was accustomed to good fortune, for his huntsmen took precautions. They would chain some poor beast to a tree, drug it to keep it still and conceal themselves around the blind from which the great man would shoot.
One day, they did their job haphazardly. Ceausescu took aim, and then fell backward when the bear, inadequately sedated, reared on its hind legs as if to attack. His shot flew into the treetops, even as three bullets entered the bear’s heart from the snipers who guaranteed the dictator’s marksmanship. I was told by a forester who claimed to have witnessed the incident that Ceausescu did not acknowledge the applause of his retainers.
This could be the story of the Romanian revolution, 20 years ago. The bear is the country’s enslaved people. They rise up from slumber. The emperor, alarmed, fires wildly and misses his mark. The sharpshooters hidden in the forest take aim and fire, only this time their target is not the bear, but Ceausescu himself. Twenty years ago on Friday — on Christmas Day — Ceausescu and his wife were executed by a firing squad consisting of elite paratroopers.
Just as the glory of the French Revolution ended in the Reign of Terror, so Eastern Europe’s miracle year of 1989 ended in blood. Elsewhere, Communist regimes seemed almost to run from power. The people who deposed them celebrated largely painless victories. Not so in Romania. There, the country’s Communist masters ordered the security forces to fire on the people, and the officers obeyed. A civil war was fought, albeit briefly. Revolution transmuted into a crypto-coup d’etat.
It began in mid-December in the gritty industrial town of Timisoara, close to the Hungarian border. When Ceausescu ordered the military to stage a show of force against those who dared to oppose him, commanders took him literally. They put on a parade, complete with a marching band. Farce quickly turned to tragedy in the face of the dictator’s rage. “I meant tanks, you fool!” he yelled to General Iulian Vlad, threatening to put him in front of a firing squad if he did not comply. That night, roughly 100 Romanian citizens died in the streets and hundreds more were wounded.
The rest is well-known history. On the morning of Dec. 21, Ceausescu stepped onto the balcony of the Central Committee in the heart of Bucharest to address the people. Cadres of state workers assembled, as was customary, to cheer on cue. But something went wrong. From the rear of the huge crowd came shouts: “Ti-mi-soara!
Ti-mi-soara!” Then came the fateful call, shouted by perhaps one or two people but soon picked up by others: “Down with Ceausescu!”
Never had Ceausescu heard anything like it. His face sagged. Flustered, he stopped speaking, waved his arms in timid bewilderment — the weak and ineffectual gestures of an imposter. This moment of truth lasted only a few seconds, but it was enough. He stood revealed. Everyone on the square and everyone watching on national television saw clearly. The emperor had no clothes.
By the next day, rebellion had spread to all major cities. Ceausescu and his wife, the infamous Elena, fled from the roof of the Central Committee aboard a white helicopter as crowds stormed the building. Fighting erupted between the army, siding with the people, and elements of the secret police loyal to Ceausescu. Snipers shot from the rooftops, and tanks blasted away in what today is Revolution Square, setting the national library ablaze. After a three-day chase, the dictator and his wife were captured, tried and summarily executed by a “people’s court.”
Revolutions are probably never as they seem, but Romania’s was especially ambiguous. For at the moment of Ceausescu’s speech, it became in effect two revolutions — one that played out publicly in the streets and the other a deep and behind-the-scenes struggle for power among elites.
I sensed this arriving in Bucharest on Dec. 26, 1989. Visiting the television station, seized by a new provisional government called the National Salvation Front, I found an odd melange of revolutionary leaders. I could understand the poets, students, dissidents and allegedly disaffected government officials. But General Stefan Gruse, the army chief of staff who commanded the troops in Timisoara? The newly appointed president, Ion Iliescu, who was Ceausescu’s former chief propagandist?
Perhaps the most incongruous presence was General Victor Stanculescu, Ceausescu’s favorite who only days before had reportedly organized their evacuation from the rooftop of the Central Committee. Other reports credited him with subsequently organizing both their trial and a firing squad — even before the legal proceedings began.
The “trial” itself lasted less than an hour. Scarcely seven minutes after the sentence was pronounced, the executioners had already done their work. The event was videotaped, intended to be aired to an astonished nation the next day. But in the rush to execute the hated dictator, the cameraman’s power cable was yanked from the wall as the convicted couple was dragged out to an open-air courtyard. By the time that the cameraman caught up, soldiers were already shooting.
Ceausescu lay on his back, in the overcoat and suit in which he had fled, his blue-gray eyes staring vacantly at the sky. Elena had fainted and was shot where she lay.
Michael Meyer is author of “The Year That Changed the World.” © Project Syndicate