Ceausescu - Back from the Dead

Two decades later, the former dictator of Romania is as popular as ever

One would hope that when a politician dies they would end up locked away in hell forever along with bankers, lawyers, and other like-minded souls. The scariest scenario one could imagine is that such individuals somehow rise from the depths of darkness to haunt us once again. Well in Romania, the country of Count Dracula, anything is possible.

Twenty one years after his death Romania once again is talking about Nicholae Ceausescu. His family succeeded in having his remains exhumed in July so as to verify that it's really him that lies buried in the Ghencea military cemetery in west Bucharest.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu during the "trial" on Dec. 25, 1989

In December 1989 the dictator and his wife were executed, but the 20 years since then have embellished memories. As incredible at it may seem, a poll conducted after the exhumation revealed that 41% of Romanians today would once again vote for Ceausescu; moreover, half of those questioned felt that he was a good leader and that it was a mistake to ban the Communist Party. Meanwhile, some 87% have been following with interest the exhumation and its results; indeed, it has become one of the key themes of the summer.

Nicholae Ceausescu's daughter, Zoia Ceausescu, had initiated the process seven years ago and even sued the defence ministry in 2005, saying she had doubts that her parents were in the cemetery. She subsequently died of cancer the following year and her brother, Valentin Ceausescu, then took up the case.

There have been many myths over the years surrounding the final resting place of Ceausescu and his wife. Since official documents surrounding the burial of the executed couple don't exist (only an amateur video) and the names of two officers initially marked the graves, conspiracy theories naturally abounded. These range from the graves being empty to the bodies being spirited off by supporters and replaced by anonymous victims of Romania's anti-communist revolt. Much of the mystery surrounding the resting place of the ex-dictator and his wife also can be traced back to the fact that after their execution their bodies were briefly misplaced.

Despite the exhumation's high profile officials aren't treating the matter as a top priority, thus it will take up to six months to scientifically determine the true identity of the remains. Even so, the exhumation has already provided some concrete results: for one, the graves aren't empty. Meanwhile the son-in-law of Ceausescu, Mircea Oprean, who witnessed the exhumation, saw a belt and hat worn by Ceausescu as well as a coat and bullet-ridden pants. From this he acknowledges that it was most likely the remains were that of the former dictator.

Rediscovering the so called "Golden Epoch" of Romania

There have always been those who look back with nostalgia and sentimentality to the rule of Ceausescu; every year hard-core followers bring flowers to his grave and light candles. Since the financial crisis and the introduction of austerity measures, however, there have been more and more people who have "rediscovered" the so called "Golden Epoch" of Romania under Ceausescu's rule. After twenty years it appears that many Romanians have forgotten about the terror and the fact that Ceausescu had introduced more drastic austerity measures than the ones now being imposed on Romania today. As one person recalls how life was a few days before the revolution: "five eggs per person per month, 100 grams of butter, half a kilogram of sugar, and half a liter of cooking oil. Half a loaf of bread per day, and six kilograms of meat per year - on May Day, on National Day in August, and on New Year."

Obviously, it's not the personality cult but a sense of security what most people lament for most when reminiscing about Ceausescu. Nevertheless, there are many elements within Romanian society and its political culture which have survived the decades since the fall of communism and which therefore makes the comeback of Ceausescu all the more easier. Nationalism, respect for a totalitarian approach, nepotism, and political clientelism all survived in varying degrees and have thus made it difficult for many Romanians to see the darker side of the Ceausescu era.

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the financial crisis of 2008 has given new life to such sentimentality for the past

Yet it's not only in Romania where such nostalgia exists. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the financial crisis of 2008 has given new life to such sentimentality for the past. This is especially apparent in those countries where the regime wasn't as outwardly oppressive, such as in Hungary. In fact, what appears to be common throughout the region was the undercurrent which drove the changes in the first place.

Contrary to the romantic version of events which prevails, the walls tumbled down not because people were primarily interested in democracy and political freedom, but were driven toward change by a desire for material goods and the freedom to travel. Images of Hungarians stuffed into their Bolshevik firecrackers (i.e., the trabant, a poor excuse for a car) dragging their half-dead grandmothers along with them on shopping sprees to Mariahilfestrasse in Vienna (dubbed at the time Magyarhilfestrasse) only to return with refrigerators and televisions precariously strapped to the roof (minus those grandmothers who had died along the way) best illustrates what opening the borders between east and west in 1989 was all about.

If the communist regimes of the East Bloc would have been able to somehow guarantee this - economic freedom and the ability to travel - while maintain a firm hold on political power, the red star of socialism would still be prominent in Central and Eastern Europe today. China provides a perfect example of this. As in Europe, it also was exposed to the winds of change in 1989, but its leaders ended up taking a different approach. Nowadays, Tiananmen Square and human rights are rarely heard; instead, GDP growth is what people are concerned about when talking about the Middle Kingdom.

Without a doubt, nostalgia for the past in Central and Eastern Europe is not uniform. In Hungary, for instance, while many turned out for the funeral of the dictator Janos Kadar in 1989, since then very few would like to see him back on the throne in the same way that Romanians would vote for Ceausescu. Still, it can't be denied that below the surface there is a longing for a time when things seemed more simple and secure. Then again, those who long for those days were also much younger; somehow it's always better being young in the past as opposed to the present or the future.

In the end there is no easy solution to this enigma. Only when the generations which possess fond memories of the past are themselves six feet under can a proper change in attitude toward what once was take place. Then the likes of Ceausescu will forever stay where they are. (John Horvath)