Photo: John Stathis

Reliving revolutionary days in Timișoara

It's great to be here again and take part in the celebratory “Timișoara, European Capital of Culture 2023” events plus see the tourism sites. But I also feel compelled to write about another living-memory matter that strongly relates to this splendid city, for it was here where the Romanian Revolution first broke out, and which, as the world knows, led to the eventual overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and the Communist Party in that dramatic December 1989.

Of course, any hard evidence of the conflict itself has long since been cleared up, but there are plenty of reminders and tributes dotted around the city from that distinct, historical time. Many central signposts say it all. Therefore, no visit is complete without a respectful look into the local Memorialul Revolutiei, or Museum of the Revolution, which comes highly recommended.

The inspiring Revoluția Română is also known as the “Christmas Revolution”, because those brief but horrific days of civil unrest peaked on Christmas Day itself with the showcase trial and execution of long-term ruler Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. Although this was a triumph for the country, finally bringing to a turbulent end 42 years of communist rule, it also resulted in more than a thousand deaths and thousands more casualties.

In April 1965, Ceaușescu had become the country’s leader. To begin with, Romania experienced a positive image abroad, and in 1978 he and his wife were invited to Buckingham Palace by the British Royal Family. However, repression intensified from that time onwards, as social and economic unrest had been gripping Romania for some time, especially during the austerity years of the 1980s. Some of these measures were designed by Ceaușescu in part to repay the country’s foreign debts.

The 1989 event itself initially began when the Hungarian minority in Timișoara (which is known as Temesvár in Hungarian) and the surrounding Banat county area responded to an attempt by the communist government to evict popular Hungarian Reformed Church pastor László Tőkés from his position. Some Romanians supported the Hungarians’ protest, which then became seen as an opportunity to depose the hated dictator and his despised secret police, the Securitate. This was one of the largest and most feared forces in the Eastern Bloc, and for decades had violently suppressed popular dissent. Now, on this gamechanger occasion, its men suddenly became outnumbered and incapable of stopping the looming revolution.

For Ceaușescu, it had not been enough to be a ruler, and he created a personality cult for himself, as inspired during a state visit to North Korea in June 1971. He hosted lavish shows and events in stadiums or on streets in various cities to glorify himself, his wife and the Communist Party alike. There were several megalomaniac projects, such as the construction of the grandiose  “People’s Palace”. Today it is the Palace of the Parliament, and the biggest palace in the world. Then there was the adjacent “Centrul Civic” and a never-completed museum dedicated to himself and communism. This building is now the headquarters of Casa Radio. These bombastic schemes drained the already dire economy. Thousands of Bucharest residents were evicted from their homes, which were then demolished to make room for the vast structures that were supposed “gifts” from the people to their great leader. Unfortunately though, the “gifts”  became fenced off to keep the Ceaușescus safe from the angry populace.


Timișoara uprising

Why did his government want to evict the well-known Pastor Tőkés, sparking the protest by the Hungarian minority on 16 December 1989? In July that year during an interview with Hungarian television, Tőkés had criticised the regime’s Systematisation Policy, a social engineering program, and complained that local people did not even know their basic human rights. As he described it later, the interview then spread all around Romania and had a profound effect on Romanians and Hungarians alike. The Securitate could not ignore such a daring statement, and the government accused him of inciting ethnic hatred.

Mayor Petru Mot (l) and László Tőkés

The local bishop reluctantly acted on a demand by the government and removed Tőkés from his post, thereby depriving him of the apartment to which he was entitled as a pastor. The bishop proposed to relocate him to the nearby countryside but parishioners gathered around Tőkés’ home to protect him from eviction, and many passers-by spontaneously joined in. The crowd would not disperse and the Mayor, Petre Moț, made remarks suggesting that he had overturned the decision to evict Tőkés. But when Moț declined to confirm this in writing, the agitated crowd chanted anti-communist slogans. Police and Securitate forces showed up, the news spread and this is now seen as the initial spark of the revolution that ultimately heralded in a new era of freedom.

Some protesters attempted to burn down the building that housed the Communist Party district committee. The Securitate responded with tear gas and water cannons, while police went on the rampage beating up and arresting rioters. Those who escaped regrouped around the Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral in central Timișoara and started a protest march around the city, again confronted by the security forces.

Riots and protests resumed the following day, 17 December. People broke into the district committee building and threw out of the windows party documents, propaganda brochures, and other symbols of communist power such as Ceaușescu’s writings.

The situation was growing out of control, and when the army appeared on the streets it was an ominous sign that orders had come from the top, presumably from Ceaușescu himself. Still the troops failed to re-establish order and finally tanks were called in.

During that evening, there was sporadic shooting around the otherwise serene central Piața Libertății (Liberty Square), the Opera House, Decebal Bridge, Calea Lipovei (Lipovei Avenue) and Calea Girocului (Girocului Avenue). Tanks and trucks blocked access into the city while helicopters hovered overhead. Some areas now looked like war-zones.

On 18 December the city centre was again guarded by soldiers and Securitate agents in plain clothes. Perhaps unexpectedly, Ceaușescu departed for a state visit to Iran, leaving the duty of crushing the revolt to his wife and subordinates. Mayor Moț ordered a party gathering at the university to condemn the vandalism and declare martial law, prohibiting people from going about in groups larger than two.

Defying the curfew, a group of 30 young men headed to the Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral where they waved a Romanian flag from which they had removed the Romanian communist coat of arms, leaving a hole in the middle, in similar vein to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Expecting to be fired upon, they sang “Deșteaptă-te, române!” (Awaken thee, Romanian!”), an earlier patriotic song that had been banned since 1947 but then partially revived by the Ceaușescu regime once he considered  himself as a nationalist. Ethnic Hungarian protesters chanted “Români, veniți cu noi!” (“Romanians, come with us”), to convey that the protest was for all citizens, and not just an ethnic minority issue. They were, indeed, fired upon; killing some and seriously injuring others.

On 19 December, local Communist Party functionary Radu Bălan and Colonel-General Ștefan Gușă visited striking workers in the city’s factories but failed to get them back to work. On 20 December, massive columns of workers entered the city and about 100,000 protesters occupied the splendid Piața Operei (Opera Square – today it is better known as Piața Victoriei, Victory Square). They shouted anti-government slogans: “Noi suntem poporul!” (“We are the people!”), “Armata e cu noi!” (“The army is on our side!”), and “Nu vă fie frică, Ceaușescu pică!” (“Have no fear, Ceaușescu is falling!”

Meanwhile, the Secretary to the Central Committee, Emil Bobu, and Prime Minister Constantin Dăscălescu were ordered by Elena Ceaușescu to resolve the situation by any means. They met with a delegation of protesters and agreed to free the majority of those arrested. However, they refused to comply with the protesters’ main demand, that Nicolae Ceaușescu resign. But at least some progress with releasing prisoners was unexpectedly achieved.

The next day, 21 December, at the height of winter, trains loaded with workers from factories in nearby Oltenia province arrived in Timișoara, sent by the regime to repress the mass protests. But after a brief encounter they ended up joining the revolt. One worker explained, “Yesterday our factory boss and a party official rounded us up in the yard, handed us wooden clubs and told us that Hungarians and ’hooligans’ alike were obliterating Timișoara, and that it is our loyal duty to go there and sort them out. But when there, we all finally realised this was not the case.”

Upon Ceaușescu’s return from Iran late on 20 December, the situation was out of control. Belatedly, he gave a televised speech from inside the Central Committee Building, blaming the Timișoara situation on “interference of foreign forces in Romania’s internal affairs” and an “external aggression on Romania’s sovereignty.”

The rest of the country, which had been kept in the dark by the national media, eventually learned of the situation from Western radio stations such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and by word of mouth. A mass meeting was to be staged for 21 December, which official media said would be a “spontaneous movement of support for Ceaușescu,” emulating the 1968 speech in which he had condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces.

Revolution spreads

Early that 21 December, Ceaușescu addressed a crowd of some 100,000 people from the balcony of the Central Committee building to denounce the Timișoara uprising. Party officials took great pains to make it appear to the public that Ceaușescu was still immensely popular. Several bus-loads of workers, under threat of being sacked from their jobs, arrived in Bucharest’s Piața Palatului (Palace Square, now Piața Revoluției – Revolution Square) were given red flags, banners and large pictures of Ceaușescu. They were increased by bystanders who were rounded up on Calea Victoriei.

The speech was typical of Ceaușescu. Making use of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, he delivered a litany of achievements by the “socialist revolution” and Romanian “multi-laterally developed socialist society”. Naturally, he continually blamed Timișoara for everything. However, Ceaușescu was very out of touch with the people and completely misread the crowd’s mood. The people remained unimpressed and unresponsive, and only a few applauded. About two minutes into the speech, some in the crowd began to boo and insult him, a reaction unthinkable for most of his time in power. Workers from a Bucharest power plant started chanting “Ti-mi-șoa-ra! Ti-mi-șoa-ra!”, which was soon picked up by others. Ceaușescu raised his right hand in hopes of silencing the crowd; and his stunned expression remains one of the defining moments of the entire occasion. He tried to placate the heckling by offering to raise workers’ salaries by 200 lei per month, but it was clear that a revolution was brewing right before him.

Suddenly there were bangs that frightened the crowd. It may have been fireworks, bombs or guns, but the result was chaos. News spread that the Securitate was firing on the crowd and that a revolution was unfolding there and then.

The entire speech from the now famous balcony was being broadcast live on state television to millions nationwide, and censors attempted to cut the transmission and replace it with propaganda songs and video praising the regime. But parts of the unfolding uproar had already been broadcast, and viewers everywhere realised that something exceptial was going on. Ceaușescu, his wife and the other officials panicked. The bodyguard hustled the couple back inside the building but before they knew it, the situation was too late for Ceaușescu to rdeem.

Bucharest was flooded with protestors. The jeers and whistles erupted into a riot; the crowd stayed on the streets, placing the capital, like Timișoara, in turmoil. Wild chants broke out: “Jos dictatorul!” (“Down with the dictator”), “Moarte criminalului!” (“Death to the criminal”), “Noi suntem poporul, jos cu dictatorul!” (“We are the people, down with the dictator”), “Ceaușescu cine ești?/Criminal din Scornicești” (“Ceaușescu, who are you? A criminal from Scornicești”) and so forth.

In the early hours of 22 December the Ceaușescus made their next mistake. Instead of fleeing the city under cover of night, they waited until morning. Ceaușescu must have thought that his desperate attempts to crush the protests had succeeded, besides he apparently wanted to call another meeting for the next morning. However, before 7am, his wife Elena received news that large columns of workers from many industrial zones were heading towards the city centre of Bucharest to join the protests. The police barricades to block access to Piața Universității (University Square) and Palace Square proved redundant. By 9:30, University Square was jammed with protesters. Security forces re-entered, but this time to join the dissent.

By 10am, as the radio was broadcasting the introduction of martial law and a ban on groups larger than five persons, thousands of people merely ignored this pointless demand. Ceaușescu attempted to address the crowd again from the balcony but was met with more fury. Helicopters dropped manifestos instructing people not to fall victim to the latest “diversion attempts,” but to go home and enjoy the Christmas feast. Wind blew the manifestos off target, but those that were seen drew unfavourable comparisons to Marie Antoinette’s haughty (but questionable) “Let them eat cake”. Many people were having trouble purchasing the very basic foodstuffs, let alone providing their families with an extravagant Christmas feast.

The Ceaușescus fled into a lift and hurried to the rooftop. A group of protesters forced their way into the building, overpowering bodyguards and making their way through his office to the balcony. The lift’s electricity failed just before it reached the top floor, and Ceaușescu’s bodyguards forced it open and ushered the couple to relative safety.

At 11:20 on 22 December, Ceaușescu’s personal pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Vasile Maluțan, received instructions to collect the Ceaușescus . As he flew over Palace Square he saw it was impossible to land there. Maluțan landed his white Dauphin #203, on a nearby  terrace after a man brandishing a white net curtain from a window waved him down. The frightened  Ceaușescus rushed out and were flown off. Suddenly they became fugitives on the run to avoid retribution for their many big-time crimes, but they were duly caught at Târgoviște, 70 kilometres north-west of Bucharest, and detained at a barracks.

The Finale

On 24 December, Ion Iliescu, head of the newly formed Council of the National Salvation Front (FSN), signed a decree establishing an Extraordinary Military Tribunal, to try the Ceaușescus for genocide, damage to the national economy, abuse of power and other crimes. The trial was held on 25 December, lasted for about two hours and convicted them on all charges, delivering death sentences. Although nominally the Ceaușescus had a right of appeal, their execution followed immediately, outside in the now symbolic courtyard, carried out by three paratroopers with their service rifles.

Footage of the trial and the executed Ceaușescus was promptly released on Romanian TV and to the rest of the world. The actual moment of execution was not filmed; as the cameraman only managed to arrive on the scene when the shooting was completed.

Immediately afterwards, the revolutionary crowds everywhere grew from hostile and scary to celebratory mood, perhaps even more than in the other former Eastern Bloc countries at that historical time. The people rejoiced and were filled with joy on that particular “Christmas Day” more so than ever before. Romania has never looked back, progressing from being a repressed and impoverished communist state to a prosperous country in the EU and NATO today.

I cannot help but feel this story is still relevent today and will repeat with Dictator Putin – who will similarly tumble before his people and the world too.

Finally, check out the commendable Revolution Museum –  Memorialul Revolutiei, which aims to honour the memory of the Martyred Heroes from that distinct time.


Leave a Reply