Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cult of Personality

Once upon a time, there was a dim-witted, insecure, egomaniacal despot who completely destroyed his country's economy by promoting ultranationalistic policies that worked against the interests of the misinformed people who lived there. I am, of course, referring to Nicolae Ceauşescu (pronounced "Chow-chess-cue"), the dictator who ruled Romania from 1965 until 1989. For much of this period, Ceauşescu also subscribed to the single-minded belief that the only fake news that anyone could trust was that which his own administration had a hand in producing. He is the propaganda poster-boy for totalitarianism.

Nicolae "the Dick" Ceauşescu was the third of ten children, born in a small farming village outside of Bucharest in the winter of 1918. His homeland had been ravaged by the marauding armies of the First World War, and throughout his childhood, when he was just a wee dictator tot, the only life he knew was one of extreme poverty. Meanwhile, in nearby Russia, the Bolsheviks had only recently taken over, but Communism had yet to really catch on in the same way in Rumania (or even Roumania, if you prefer), whose borders and spelling were in a state of flux throughout this period.

Ceauşescu himself showed little interest in matters of reading, writing and world geography. After fourth grade, he was all like, "Screw this. I'm out of here... Later, nerds!" I'm paraphrasing, but this exodus unceremoniously marked the end of his formal education. Now free from the drag of elementary school, at the wise age of eleven, he moved in with his sister in Bucharest so that he could finally get a real job at a factory like all of the other kids.

Isn't that how it goes? As soon as one kid gets a dangerous, exploitative job at a factory, pretty soon they all want a taste of that sweet, sweet child labor. His sister also taught him how to repair shoes, which was how he earned a living through most of his teenage years. In his off-time, however, Nicolae was also an aspiring Communist, and when he was eighteen years old, he was arrested for distributing commie propaganda and for getting into physical altercations with police on behalf of striking workers.

Eager to make a name for himself, Ceauşescu endured several stints in prison on a number of related charges. At one particular forced-labor camp, his cellmate was a guy named Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Old Georgie-Boy mentored his young pupil in the ways of being a good Communist. He may have even taught him a thing or two about how to read and write. Meanwhile, the guards beat Ceauşescu so severely that it left him with a permanent stutter, which may have contributed to the insecurities that plagued him as a leader. More on that later. In 1944, Nicolae escaped from prison and was given safe haven by the Union of Communist Youth. Distinguishing himself as a real go-getter, armed only with that fourth-grade education and a willingness to throw punches as needed, he served as their secretary for the next year and a half.

In 1947, Ceauşescu married Elena Petrescu, who shared Nicolae's fondness for functional illiteracy, as she too had dropped out after elementary school to find work in the city. The two lovebirds had actually met back in 1939, but due to his frequent visits to prison as a "Communist agitator," this made planning a wedding rather difficult. And what goes with concrete grey, anyway?

However, by 1947, the Communist Party had effectively taken over the Romanian government, and once Ceauşescu no longer feared forced labor and imprisonment, he got married. I'll leave it to you to make your own joke. As a rising star in that country's political scene, party leaders appointed Ceauşescu to be the new Minister of Agriculture, a title that he held until 1950. He was then given the rank of Major General and was appointed Deputy Minister of the Romanian Armed Forces, despite not having any military background whatsoever and looking like the bad guy from the Police Academy movies whenever he stepped into his ill-fitting uniform.

In 1952, his old jail-buddy Gheorghiu-Dej then became the leader of the Communist Party in Romania, which effectively also made him the head of state... because there ain't no party like the Communist Party. Seriously, by this point, due in large part to Romania's shared border with the Soviet Union, communism was kind of the only game in town. Remembering his protégé from prison, Gheorghiu-Dej greased the way for Ceauşescu's own rise to power within the party ranks.

When Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965, Ceauşescu sidestepped much of the commotion caused by political in-fighting and quietly assumed control of the Romanian Communist Party as a compromise between quarreling factions. Shortly thereafter, he appointed himself to be the nation's first President, and mirroring the politics of the Soviet Union at that time, Ceauşescu promised the people of Romania a friendlier, more modern Communist state. Now with 20% less political imprisonment!

For a while, people were indeed granted more freedom to travel, experience other cultures and purchase imported goods, including entertainment products from the West like movies and music. That isn't to say that the Iron Curtain had been replaced by hippie beads exactly, but restrictions on personal liberties were somewhat relaxed with the expressed purpose of improving the standard of living of the people who lived there.

But then in 1971, Ceauşescu took a trip to North Korea... and when two wacky dictators get together, you had better be ready for some hijinks. This whole event is so batshit crazy that you really should just watch the clip. Seriously. And after watching this, I can't help but wonder if Dennis Rodman was expecting a similar reception.

I'm amazed that they even let him past the metal detector.
The guy is practically Robocop.

Nicolae Ceauşescu was so impressed by the whole thing that he must have started wondering why he couldn't expect an insanely choreographed display of Romanian patriotism when he got back home. Where were his giant murals? Where was his mythology? He decided that it was time for a new Romania, and this was probably the only time in modern history that anyone has ever gone to North Korea and then returned home to say, "You know, I wish my country was more like that."

According to historian Peter Gross, Ceauşescu's new directives called for "stronger revolutionary propaganda in all reaches of society, especially in schools and the entertainment and cultural world." The Romanian secret police force, known as the Securitate, helped enforce these policies.

All telecommunications to the outside world as well as many phone calls within the country were monitored. Typewriter ribbons of alleged conspirators against the state were also confiscated. Neighbors became distrustful of neighbors, because nobody knew who was on the payroll as an informant.

Although Romanians were technically allowed to apply for exit visas during this period, this was a process that usually took about four years, during which time their livelihoods could be completely destroyed by the Securitate. This, combined with the knowledge of what would likely happen to family members left behind, served as nearly fail-safe deterrents for defection.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Ceauşescu wanted absolute independence from all foreign influences, as he claimed that this was what was best for the Romanian people, and he achieved this by instituting Orwellian policies upon them. According to Gross, "It was not just words such as democracy, progress, justice, socialism, the people, and truth that took on meanings of their own, devoid of reality. The value attached to other words, sentences and whole works took on the kind of unreal or duplicitous meanings that permeated all human relations." 

Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, seen here teaching children how to smile.

In real life, however, Ceauşescu showed that he didn't really understand Communism too well after all when he decided to clear out a bunch of apartments where poor people lived so that he could begin construction on an absurdly gargantuan Parliamentary Palace, which ended up being the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. From his perspective, it apparently seemed like labor and capital well spent.


At the same time, Ceauşescu also wanted to balance his country's budget and pay all outstanding foreign debts while adopting a strictly isolationist trade policy. These combined factors effectively crushed the Romanian economy in a big bad way. Meanwhile, much of the country's agricultural products, which was their main industry at the time, were being shipped off to the Soviet Union as their own people starved.

Ceauşescu insulated his fragile ego from criticism by building a cult of personality around himself. He wasn't just a hunter, for example, he was the best hunter who ever lived. Never mind that the animals he shot had all been drugged first and that nobody was allowed to shoot anything bigger. There's that insecurity, which seems to be a trademark of dictators.

Come to think of it, he also had small hands... or maybe it
just seemed that way because they were always balled into fists.

Social theorist David Berry notes, "All ideology was effectively filtered through press and television, but it was in the latter that the state managed to create a fantastical image of society. Television was a medium that produced and 'stage-managed' one of the greatest and most grotesque spectacles of theatre and it projected a carnivalesque atmosphere of happiness, gaiety, collective fulfillment and participation in the creation of Ceauşescu's image of the socialist man." 

By 1989, there were thirty-six state-controlled newspapers operating in Romania, as well as nine radio stations and one television channel that broadcast only three hours per day, supposedly because Ceauşescu "did not want to tire the population" by having them stay up late watching television. Because of the theatrical absurdity of the state-controlled media, in the late 1980s, it was estimated that only twenty-two percent of the population watched Romanian TV and only forty-three percent read Romanian newspapers. However, according to Berry, approximately sixty-nine percent of all Romanians listened to the radio, which Ceauşescu had foolishly deemed to be "not as important" as these other forms of media. In actuality, though, in December 1989, Radio Free Europe helped incite a revolution. 

Truth dollars? That sounds legit.

In the westernmost city of Timisoara, Romanians heard news reports on Hungarian radio, which was broadcast from just across the border, that Reverend Laszlo Tokes of the Reformed Church had been evicted from his place of worship for speaking out against the Romanian authorities in his sermons. This brought several hundred people to his church to support him in protest. By December 15, that number had grown to over a thousand, and the conflict between them and the Securitate quickly turned violent. Over the next two days, what began as a revolt marked the beginning of an all-out revolution. Meanwhile, the Romanian media remained silent about the events that were taking place in Timisoara, just as news anchors had not informed the Romanian people of the student uprising at Tiananmen Square or the events that had taken place in several of the other recently fallen Communist states in the region. 

By December 18, Timisoara's main post office was closed indefinitely and all links to the outside world were severed. Two days later, almost immediately after Ceauşescu had returned from a state visit to Iran (because it's always fun to trade tips on how to run an oppressive regime), he went on national television to condemn the uprising, hypocritically referring to the demonstrators as "fascists." On the afternoon of December 21, he ordered the citizens of Bucharest to leave their homes and places of work to attend a televised rally at the Palace Square as a show of support for the Communist government. 

Before a crowd of several hundred thousand, after a few minutes, Ceauşescu's speech could no longer be heard over the shouting of the angry mob. The television feed was soon interrupted, but protestors then assumed control of the cameras and resumed the broadcast so that the Romanian people could see the conflict that was unfolding on the streets of Bucharest. Their despotic ruler of twenty-four years, as well as Elena, the idiot intellectual – who some say was even more despised than he – were forced to evacuate the scene by helicopter.  

Later that day, television and radio "journalists," still under state control, announced that Minister of Defense General Vasile Milea had committed suicide, even though it was widely suspected that Ceauşescu had had him executed for not following orders. This provided the catalyst for the Romanian army to unite with the protestors in bringing down the national government. 

On December 22, as Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu attempted to escape from the city, protestors – now with the support of the army – took over Channel 1 in Bucharest and made the public acutely aware of the events that were transpiring within their borders. Petre Popescu, one of Romania's most-watched television news anchors, went on the air and announced that, "For 25 years we [at Romanian television] have lied." He then promised that, "From now on we will tell the truth," and "Whoever wishes can come to us and speak freely." 

For the next couple of weeks, people lined up outside the studio for the opportunity to speak out against the government that had wronged them for all those years. Meanwhile, the Ceauşescus were captured and held in custody until their two-hour trial in a kangaroo court on December 25, immediately after which they were executed. On December 27, footage of their execution was broadcast on Romanian television, although some skeptics remain convinced that their execution at the hands of the firing squad was likely faked, furthering suspicions that the Ceauşescus were actually victims of a coup that had been carried out under the cover of widespread revolution. 

Either way, in a matter of less than a week, Romanian television had gone from heavily censored, pro-state propaganda to the gruesome televised execution of their two most hated public figures. I'd call that a pretty big change. 

Once a revolution has taken place in the minds of the people, not even the will of a brutal, manipulative dictator can prevent it from manifesting in reality. 


  1. Please could you tell me the name of the person who wrote this?
    It’s amazing

    1. I'm glad you liked it. My name is Zach Sands. I wrote all of these articles.


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