Thirty years ago this month Romania’s communist house of cards began to fold, culminating with the execution of its hated dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife on Christmas Day in 1989. Sadly, the struggle for true democratic reform still continues in the Eastern European country.
Like many Americans, I saw the stories of the horrific conditions in Romania’s orphanages after the revolution exposed the atrocities of Ceausescu’s authoritarian policies. Wanting to build up his work force, in the 1960s Ceausescu mandated every married couple have at least one child or face higher taxes. Families with several children received special recognition, just like the Nazis celebrated large families. But most Romanians lived in poverty and couldn’t afford to raise that many children. Within a few years, orphanages started opening around the country.
Seeing the pictures of warehoused children, many of them with severe disabilities, I wanted to do something, but at the time I was in my early twenties and couldn’t afford to travel to Romania. A few years later I got my chance, as a journalist.
In November 1993, I made my first trip there with a group of American volunteers. I had presumed since communism had ended that the country was making an easy transition back to its former glory. Bucharest had once been known as the Paris of the East, with its similar Belle Epoque architecture and vibrant literary and artistic circles. I was naïve and wildly wrong.
Our plane landed on a snowy, somber grey evening at Bucharest’s Otepeni airport. By the time we reached our hotel two hours away in Alexandria, because of rationing, hot water was no longer available for the day.
The next morning we went to the orphanage, which housed about 150 children from birth to four years old. It was overwhelming to see the crowded rooms. Children starved for attention clamored around us. One young boy I held had crossed eyes. The way he looked at me, with sweet, wide-eyed curiosity, made me burst into tears.
After Ceausescu, the man who took over as the country’s president had been a longtime member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and it resulted in Romania becoming one of the least progressive of the Eastern bloc countries in adopting democratic reforms. But even with slow reforms, the new post-communist Romania was better than under repressive rule.
Under communism, “all the stores were empty and when they would have some items, there were huge queues,” a friend, Adrian Curelea, told me. “There was no freedom of expression, no freedom of movement, no citizen rights.” After communism? “It’s like you’re out in the sun after a long time in the dark,” he said.
Curelea’s daughter was four years old at the time of the revolution. Her first memories of life after communism were being able to watch cartoons on a VCR. During Ceausescu’s reign, items such as videocassette recorders were rare, expensive, and only sold on the black market. “At first I thought it was a lie,” said Andreea Curelea, “but I was truly happy when I realized we actually owned a VCR and I was no longer confined to watching the five minutes of cartoons that the national TV station would broadcast each day.”
A Stark Contrast
Throughout the 1990s, I visited Romania several times, as a journalist and then as a volunteer in the orphanages. I traveled around the country — had dinner as a guest in a home that had been taken over by the communists, displacing the family for nearly 50 years; stayed in the hotel where Ceausescu’s son barricaded himself against the military, the windows on his floor still blown out, the walls still riddled with bullets; and of course, I saw Dracula’s castle.
I also kept visiting that one boy I’d met on my first trip and determined to get his eyes fixed. After that trip, in 1997, on the way back home I stopped in Prague for a few days. The difference between the two countries was visible and startling. Unlike Romania, the Czech Republic didn’t allow a “reformed” communist to take over and embraced economic reform. Prague was thriving, bustling; you could feel the unbridled energy of the capital city.
And unlike the former Czechoslovakia’s nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” during the “Fall of Nations,” when communism collapsed throughout central and eastern Europe, Romania was the only country with a violent overthrow of its government. More than a thousand people were killed, many of them young. A few hundred of the revolutionaries are buried in the all-white marble Heroes Cemetery in Bucharest.
One Party Domination
The political party of the president who took over after Ceausescu has dominated Romanian politics the past three decades. Today, Romania still has more than a thousand state-owned companies, most of which are operating at huge losses paid for by taxpayers. The country is still the poorest of the former communist countries.
“Bureaucracy is quite harsh, which impacts small businesses tremendously. There are a lot of things to change,” said Claudiu Nasui, a member of Romania’s parliament with a newly-formed party, the Union to Save Romania.
Nasui’s parents were one of the lucky ones who escaped communist Romania, in the mid-1980s, when Ceausescu wanted to show he was opening up to the West. Claudiu was five years old when the revolution happened and remembers his mother watching it unfold on television at their home in Chicago.
After the revolution Nasui and his mother moved back to their homeland. As a young adult, he founded Liberty Café, a group that’s been meeting weekly for more than 10 years. Through Liberty Café, he met Andreea Curelea and they co-founded an NGO, the Society for Individual Liberty. Nasui became an economic advisor to Romania’s finance minister and in 2016 was asked to run for Romania’s parliament. He was elected that year at 31 years old.
I ended up adopting that young boy I visited at the Alexandria orphanage and can tell you firsthand how he lives with the effects of a totalitarian madman. His eyes have long been fixed, but he still has a vision disorder, a severe communication disorder, and general developmental disabilities due to the lack of care, nutrition, and attention usually given to infants.
In June this year, my husband and I took Marius back to Romania, his first visit there since he came to the U.S. 20 years ago. Nasui gave us a tour of Ceausescu’s palace. It’s the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, built at great cost while the dictator’s people were starving, a building so monstrous it’s sinking into the ground two-tenths of an inch every year, a reminder of the weight of the late dictator’s boots that had crushed his people. If Romania ever had a Dracula, it was Ceausescu, sucking the lifeblood out of his country.
The gargantuan building now houses Romania’s parliament. As we walked through the vast expanses of the palace, much of it unused, Nasui said, “Everything communist is big, expensive, and useless.”
Adrian Curelea has his hopes for a better Romania set on the younger generations: “New generations, unaffected by the communist mentality, who are more educated, are coming up, and I hope they will succeed in creating a political elite that will lead Romania more efficiently.”
The 2016 elections could prove to be a game changer for Romania. This decade has witnessed hundreds of thousands of citizens engaging in anti-government protests, particularly against attempts to decriminalize political corruption. In 2015 the prime minister was forced to resign. And just this past October, the Union to Save Romania and other opposition parties successfully ousted the Social Democratic government.
“The way Romania’s future will look like depends on what we manage to reform now,” said Nasui. “A good step forward is that we managed to bring down the Social Democratic government. The next step is to do well at next year’s general elections in order to get the political support we need to bring change.”
Once again, just like the 1989 revolution, it’s the young people who will save Romania.
Jody Hadlock traveled to Romania several times in the 1990s as a journalist and volunteer in Romania’s orphanages, where she met her adopted son.