Ceaușescu, Nicolae (Romania)
Nicolae Ceauşescu was the Communist leader of Romania from 1965 until 1989. An opponent of excessive intervention from the Soviet Union, he led a more independent foreign policy than many Eastern Bloc nations. However, disastrous domestic policies led to widespread poverty and starvation while Ceauşescu’s regime, with the aid of the secret police, became ever more oppressive. He was executed following a revolution in Dec. 1989.
Ceauşescu was born on 26 Jan. 1918 in Scorniceşti in Oltenia, southwest Romania. He was the third of 10 children and at the age of 11 he was employed as a shoemaker’s apprentice in Bucharest. By the age of 14 he was a member of the Romanian Workers’ Party and the illegal Union of Communist Youth and a year later he had joined the Romanian Communist Party. In 1933 he was arrested for the first time for his political activities and in 1935 he was exiled from Bucharest, though he remained in the city to continue undercover activities. In 1936 he was sentenced to 2 years in prison.
In 1939 Ceauşescu married Elena Petrescu, a fellow communist with whom he would have three children, but in 1940 he was again sent to prison, escaping 4 years later. During this period he shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who would become Romania’s Communist leader in 1952. Following his escape Ceauşescu became Secretary of the Union of Communist Youth and, following the Communists’ rise to power in 1947, served as Minister of Agriculture until 1950. He then spent 4 years as Deputy Minister of the Armed Forces before being elected on to the party’s Central Committee.
When Gheorghiu-Dej died in March 1965, Ceauşescu was his natural successor as First Secretary of the party. 2 years later he became Chairman of the State Council and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Effectively head of state, he would create the post of President for himself in 1974. Ceauşescu’s independent foreign policy initially boosted his popularity. He was highly critical of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and had little involvement in Warsaw Pact activities. In addition, he pursued trade with the West (with Romania enjoying most favoured nation trading status with the US for many years) and established diplomatic relations with West Germany. In later years he was critical of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and broke an Eastern Bloc boycott, allowing the Romanian team to attend the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
However, his approach to home affairs was more hardline. He established the Securitate, a secret police force of around 60,000 loyal to Ceauşescu. Opposition was put down ruthlessly and the media forced to endure severe constraints. In 1966 he pushed through a series of reforms outlawing abortion and contraception, making divorce more difficult and imposing punitive taxes on childless couples.
In the 1970s, influenced by meetings with China’s Mao Zedong and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, Ceauşescu set about establishing a cult of the personality. He re-enforced this through nepotism, most notably by the promotion of his wife, Elena. In 1975, on the back of an almost entirely manufactured set of qualifications, she was made director of the Institute of Chemistry of the Romanian Academy. Cabinet positions followed and by the time of her death she was the second most powerful person in the country. Her brother was given influential roles in the trade union movement while Ceauşescu’s brothers were placed in charge of the armed forces, the intelligence service and the Ministry of Agriculture. His son, Nicu, who was groomed as his successor, was made head of a county government in 1987.
Financial mismanagement during the 1970s led to a huge foreign debt which Ceauşescu set about clearing in the 1980s with disastrous results. Rates of agricultural and industrial production were increased but the results were sent en masse for export. Bread rationing was introduced in the early 1980s, followed by rationing of other basic food provisions and energy. The economy went into freefall, starvation became a genuine threat and many citizens died owing to the lack of medical provisions.
Against this background, the Ceauşescus continued with their own lavish lifestyles. Grandiose parties were given in their palaces and food was hoarded while the public starved. In 1984 Ceauşescu cleared 10,000 hectares of land near Bucharest to build Victory of Socialism Boulevard, which was planned to eclipse the Champs Elysees in Paris. He also devised an ill-conceived plan to destroy 7,000 out of around 13,000 villages and relocate the population to urban apartments in the 10 years following 1984. By the end of the 1980s Romania had one of Eastern Europe’s lowest standards of living and one of its highest rates of infant mortality.
Riots broke out in the southwestern town of Timisoara on 16 Dec. 1989 and Ceauşescu responded by ordering the shooting and killing of dozens of protesters. The protests then spread to Bucharest. On 21 Dec., captured by television cameras, Ceauşescu was drowned out by calls for change as he tried to give a speech. The army turned against him and the following day he and Elena fled the city. They were captured by the army and there followed a 3 day long secret trial by a military court. Charged with genocide and other crimes against the people, the Ceauşescus refused to acknowledge the legality of the court. On 25 Dec. 1989 Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu were convicted and executed by firing squad.