Nicolae Ceauşescu’s elevation to the leadership of Socialist Romania in 1965 evoked a certain amount of hope, both at home and abroad. He denounced the opulence and excesses of his predecessor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and continued the process of de-Stalinization which had originated in Khrushchev’s USSR. He dialed back repression, even against Romania’s churches. At the same time, he was more adamant than Dej about keeping Moscow’s influence at bay, going so far as to condemn the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In foreign affairs, too, Ceauşescu appeared to be relatively liberal. Despite belonging to the Soviet bloc, he encouraged trade with capitalist nations, going so far as to sell Romania’s gasoline products to American and NATO military forces stationed in West Germany. Intending to develop Romania’s industrial base, Ceauşescu oversaw a strategic opening to the capitalist world. Romania even attained most-favored-nation trading status with the US.
As a consequence of his openness and apparent defiance of the USSR, Ceauşescu became a favorite of the West, especially the United States. He was visited by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and paid frequent visits to the US, which he was said to have enjoyed immensely. He was also visited by Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle and received by Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, the West and Ceauşescu got along very well for a while.
Yet the source of Ceauşescu’s uniqueness was less liberalism than a grandiose and ruthlessly ambitious personality. True, Ceauşescu established a certain independence from the Soviet Union, but this was part of his pursuit of absolute sovereignty, no matter the consequences. Soon Ceauşescu started cutting ties with the West as well. A key moment was his visit to Asia, most notably North Korea, in 1971. After having noticed the way the regimes functioned there, with their cults of personality and claims of self-sufficiency, he started making changes at home. Thus, he published the July theses, which criticized “bourgeois manifestations, cosmopolitanism, decadent music, drinking alcohol in youth pubs, TV programs which promoted ideas foreign to the Romanian spirit,” and so on. And, of course, they reinforced the importance of the party and observance of its rules.
Ceauşescu’s economic opening also soured. His decision to make deals with Western capitalist nations and with international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund had been made in order to support his program of industrialization and national sovereignty. When he realized that Romania was at risk of defaulting on its loans—and becoming vulnerable to foreigners—he quickly changed policy direction and attempted to cut Romania’s foreign debts to zero. Ceauşescu burdened his country with austerity measures that sank Romania’s debt-to-GDP faster than any other state in the world—and reduced his country to penury, with the supply of food staples and consumer good dropping by half during the 1980s.
Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania was built on “neo-Stalinist” foundations—industrialization, absolute independence, and personal rule. With pharaonic power over his country, the ruler carried out some projects that still have the power to impress, leading some to call him “the last great Romanian.” He built the House of the People, The Ministry of Defense, the Marriott Hotel, the Black Sea- Danube Canal, The Romanian Academy Building, the famous Transfagarasan Road, the Bucharest subway system, and the Vidraru Dam, and rebuilt most of Bucharest in the wake of the 1977 earthquake. Yet these monuments were built in a system where many thousands of people died while constructing them, where the unwanted children born as a result of pro-natalist policies were abandoned to state institutions that treated them worse than animals, where there was no freedom of thought, and ignorance and propaganda created victims every day.
Ceauşescu manipulated Romania’s 2000-year history to fit the party’s propaganda, overstating understating, or simply ignoring events according to his wishes. Some books suggested that the Communist Party of Romania had had hundreds of thousands of members around the time of the 1945 Groza government, when other sources reported that there had only been 800-900 members. And while school textbooks carefully noted the foundation of the communist movement in 1900, the period of the monarchy went unmentioned. Because the narrative was based in actual history, it was sometimes hard to tell which facts had been manipulated, but some were too ridiculous not be seen for what they were.
The absurd propaganda, corruption, isolationism, religious repression, and consequences of pro-natalist policies led people to desperation. The grinding misery led to a revolution that ended with Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena being executed by firing squad on December 25, 1989. Ceauşescu’s regime left behind deep wounds of trauma and lost lives. Although it is now a free and continuously developing nation, Romania still suffers the aftereffects of socialism: exploitation, bribery, disrespect for the law, a lack of professionalism, and low expectations for merit recognition. Most ideas with a nationalistic tint were for the longest time linked to communism and Ceauşescu’s absurd rewriting of Romanian history. Embarrassment and feelings of inferiority on the world stage still linger. National greatness for Ceauşescu meant sacrificing the individual for the sake of “the many”—which in practice meant “the few,” that is, the Party. Nowadays, the need for personal freedom and happiness is recognized in Romania. It is up to new generations to discover the path to true greatness through a free and prosperous society.