The Slow and Painful End of Communism: A Look Back, 25 Years Later

In Romania today, the people have gained democracy but they have yet to enjoy the benefits of what a system constructed on freedom can bring. As much as the country has changed, it is still struggling to pick up the economic, political and social remnants of communism in order that it may discard them once and for all. 

By Georgiana Constantin l April 21, 2015

The Internal Affairs Ministry Building (on the left), once the Romanian Communist Party Headquarters, in Bucharest’s Revolution Square is the location from which Nicolae Ceausescu made his last public appearance and gave his last speech on December 21, 1989

It’s been 25years since the Romanian Revolution. Having lived through it myself, albeit at a very young age (I was only 8 months old), time will not permit me to have actual memories of it.  I am quite aware of the complex and sometimes mixed feelings my compatriots experience when recalling that period. I was there, my family was there. I heard the stories. I lived through the transition.

Some remember it as a victory of the people, while others look at it as an end to a period of innocence. Some remember the sacrifice, while others focus on what was gained. Some are disappointed with the outcome, others celebrate it. Some understand it, others are confused by the very thought of it.

Christmas Day, 1989 was a fateful date in the history of Romania – an Eastern European Soviet satellite. December 25th marked the end of a despotic regime and the beginning of hope.

This was the only televised Revolution in history, and, Romania was the only communist country to end the reign of its despotic regime by killing its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Radio Romania International recalls, “Early in the morning, over 100 thousand people gathered in front of the Romanian Communist Party’s headquarters in downtown Bucharest, although the rally was blocked by militia, Securitate and army forces. Ceausescu tried, unsuccessfully though, to speak to the crowd from the building’s balcony. People started chanting anti-Ceausescu slogans and hooting the dictator. Protesters took over the Palace Square and forced their entry into the Central Committee’s headquarters, while the dictator and his wife fled the building on board a helicopter.” The army soon joined forces with the revolutionaries (December 22nd) and the National Salvation Front took power. Hundreds were killed when forces loyal to the established regime started fighting back, however, the speedy token trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu put an end to any endeavor to bring back the failed system.

How do people remember this period in their history though?

For my family, as for many others, it all centered on disbelief and confusion combined with hope for the future.

The day when the Revolution started in Bucharest my father, who is an Orthodox priest, and my mother, a cello player in the national philharmonic, both went to work, unsuspecting of the gravity of the situation and the events yet to come. They were both sent home and told: “Have you not heard? A revolution is taking place!”

No, they hadn’t heard. The only source of information on the events of the day was Radio Free Europe, an illegal radio station Romanians only could listen to in complete privacy, away from the threat of curious neighbors who might sell them out to the Secret Police. Other stations would not risk upsetting the established order.

That day, they went home, turned on their black and white TV set and, to their surprise, for the first time, Ceausescu was on not as supreme leader, but as a criminal about to be brought to justice.

At first they could not believe it. Then, as the people started shouting, “We have caught him! We have caught the wretch!” they suddenly realized everything had changed. In an instant, a new era had dawned. They were happy and hopeful. This meant a new and brighter future for their child, for me. The West was going to embrace us as their own and the shadows of the past would be forgotten.

Many felt the same way as the Revolution was underway. And some kept their hope alive years after the event.

Reality set in a different manner though. In many ways it was not the change the people were hoping for. Many of the old communist leaders had remained in power long after the revolution and simply changed the names of the political parties they ran. Real change in Romania is slowly taking place, but to this day the past has not completely disappeared from the memory or lives of the people.

Apparently “an INSCOP survey shows that almost 80% of […] Romanians do not know the truth about the events of December 1989. More than one-third of them believe that what happened then was the will of the people, who could no longer bear the oppression of the communist regime. Another one-third of the Romanians, however, believe that it was actually a coup d’etat, staged by people who wanted to oust Ceausescu, while 20.9% say that the events were the consequence of the big powers’ decision to dismantle the communist system in Eastern Europe.”

So, many of the occurrences of that momentous experience are still shrouded in mystery. The memories of the sacrifice and loss are not ones which might ever be erased from the hearts and minds of the people who lived through them.

Change and progress may be slow, but at least they are now taking place. The Romanian Revolution was a bloody end to the historical year that started the process of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Much of Europe’s destiny changed then, and, the legacy of that period is visible today in the newly found, often celebrated and sometimes unfamiliar freedom gained by the people who fought against despotic regimes.

As for the circumstances in Romania today, one may observe that, while the people have gained democracy, they have yet to enjoy the benefits of what a system constructed on freedom can bring. There has been a constant and disheartening exodus of the country’s younger generation. Many have migrated in the hope of making their fortune in a country that might already have a free and equal system in place. For, as much as Romania has changed, it is still struggling to pick up the economic, political and social remnants of communism in order that it may discard them once and for all. In the meantime, transition is a painfully slow process that discourages many from trusting their country with their own futures.

However, even in the middle of such turbulent times, more and more young people are starting to sense the value of what their country can offer. Some will leave and get their education elsewhere so that they may return and be of service to the further development of a promising nation.

Recent years have seen a slight improvement in the number of young expatriates returning home and wholeheartedly embracing the role of “change bringers.”

And so, just as it is with any system, Romania is witnessing a very slow yet decisive rebirth of hope. “Vox populi” is only now starting to emerge as a phenomenon untainted by the trauma of past deprivation. It is just now starting to make sense of the opportunities this relatively new concept of freedom has to offer. It has only now found that it has the potential to be “vox Dei.”

Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied International, European and Romanian law at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest and received her Masters from the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.