Monday, February 18, 2008

December 16th, 1989

On Friday of last week I went to a presentation given by Dorel Jurcovan, a man who experienced the Romanian Revolution first-hand. He talked a bit about life during the last days of communism and showed a video about the Revolution from 1990.

Dorel giving his talk

It was very interesting to hear the story from someone who actually took part in the events. Dorel was involved in the first protest, which began on December 16th 1989 in Timişoara, setting in motion Ceauşescu's fall from power. His participation was rather incidental, as it was for the thousands of others who were there that day. No one woke up that morning knowing that there would be a huge public outburst. As for Dorel, it was just another dismal day under the iron fist--until he heard that something was happening in the big square downtown. Curious, he decided to go down to see what was going on. Once he got there, he got swept up in the hysteria, suddenly finding himself up in the balcony of the Opera House. From there he had an unrestricted view of the massive, throbbing crowd and he could hear their chants of "Down with Ceauşescu, down with communism!"

The square where it all happened (The Opera is at the far end of the square)

The mob in front of the Opera. Notice the people up in the balcony

This sort of public gathering was unprecedented; under Ceauşescu even something as unassuming as 5 men gathering for a game of bridge was considered "subversive." So, needless to say, what happened in Timişoara was the equivalent of a four-alarm fire. The army was called in, and they began firing on the crowd. Bullet holes can still be seen today in a building that now houses a McDonald's. Many were shot, others were treated with severe brutality. The army desperately sought out the leaders of the uprising, but there were none. It was not a premeditated event, but simply the precipitous culmination of a people's collective frustrations.

Dorel vividly remembers the intensity of it all. He said it was almost too much to process at once. The daunting images still pierce his brain to this day: pools of blood on the groud, mutilated bodies, wounded people stacked in the trunks of cars with their feet dangling outside, soldiers shooting on the street, or pointing their guns at him. It was amidst this chaotic scene that something peculiar started to happen. Some of the soldiers stopped firing and started chant with the crowd. Apparently they too were fed up with the regime. This was a sign that the ground was truly crumbling under Ceauşescu's feet.

The video Dorel showed was very interesting. It was produced by an Irish news station (and, as far as I know, was never broadcast in Romania). The Irish journalist actually came to Romania and freely spoke with Romanian citizens, something that never would have been possible under Communism. The video put a lot of things into context for me. I had heard things about the Revolution before, but largely in vague bits and pieces. It was also good because it gave an idea of people's reactions to the Revolution immediately after it happened. Suddenly, things were different, and people expressed their hopes for the future (even if after time those hopes were not all fulfilled).

Word of the bloody events in Timişoara spread to other cities. In a land with controlled radio and newspapers, word usually spread slowly, or not at all. But, one help in getting the word out was the fact that Timişoara went into lock-down and all university students were sent home, to their respective cities and towns. What happened on the 16th soon inspired waves of protests throughout Romania, culminating in a protest in Bucharest on the 22nd that threw Ceauşescu from power.

Why did the Revolution spark off when it did, and why in Timişoara? Dorel offered some interesting insights. He gave some idea of the daily frustrations that people had to face. For example, he related a story about waking up at 5 am to wait in line for 10 hours for meat (each family was allowed only a pound or two per person every month) only to find out that the meat had not been delivered, and no one knew when it might come. He had no choice but to do the same thing again the next day, hoping that the meat would arrive (and when it did come, it was mainly fat and bone). He demonstrated the equivalent of one person's daily ration of butter by cutting up a block of butter (good for one month) into 3o small pieces, not even big enough to butter a slice of toast. He talked about the lack of electricity--no lights in the streets, no lights in the apartment stairwells (and no windows), and no lights at night in the apartments themselves. Flashlights weren't really an option since batteries weren't readily available. Dorel was lucky enough to have a car, from which he took the battery at night so that he could wire-up a make-shift lighting system using bits of wire and spare auto bulbs. Buying gasoline for the car was another thing; people were allotted only a few liters per month. These frustrations were nothing compared to the more ethereal terrors of the Ceauşescu period. People lived in fear, having to be conscious of everything they said or did. Securitate, the secret police, were lurking at every corner and no one could ever be sure who to trust. Phone calls were monitored, and one had to be especially wary about being seen talking to a foreigner. In theory, you could travel feely, but, in practice, obtaining permission to do so was quite another thing. In fact, Dorel and his family were blacklisted from travel abroad (even to other Communist countries) because it was discovered that he was teaching his daughter English.

A daily ration of butter. With this, you were expected cook, bake and butter your toast

All of this was too much to take; having to deal with these sorts of things on a daily basis caused popular discontent to well-up under the surface until it finally erupted on that December day in Timişoara. While other communist countries in the Soviet bloc had undergone some degree of de-Stalinization and reform, the Ceauşescu regime maintained a hard-line. His strict, delusional obsession with eliminating national debt brought about an oppressive austerity program, which resulted in the food and resource shortages mentioned above. The time was ripe; the populace was fed-up, disgusted and not willing to be to be silenced any longer. General unrest had swelled to such a point that fear was no longer enough to keep people's mouths shut.

Laszlo Tokes, an outspoken Hungarian priest, provided the pretext for the events of December 16th. He had been using his pulpit to criticize the Communist regime. A known dissident, the government had been watching him for a while. Frightened for his life, Tokes essentially went into hiding in his home. After a while, the church decided it would be best if Tokes was removed from Timişoara and relocated to another Parish. His parishoners, of course, protested the idea, petitioned the bishop, and even tried to spread word of his plight to Hungary and beyond. On December 15th, a bold group formed outside his home to show their support and willingness to protect him. As Dorel related, Tokes's home was nearby a trolley stop, so the people who were gathering there conveniently made the excuse that they were simply waiting to pick up the next trolley. And, being a conspicuous event in a high-traffic area, the group continued to draw in curious onlookers, who joined in the action or at least spread word of what was happening. Soon hundreds had gathered to 'wait for the trolley.' What began as a protest of the harassment of one man quickly became a vehicle for protesting general frustrations, and a spirit of riot quickly ensued. Chants of "Save Tokes" eventually evolved into "we want freedom" or "down with Ceauşescu, down with communism!" From there, the crowd spread to the main square, and continued to gain momentum. The following days were enveloped in sheer bedlam.

The situation with Laszlo Tokes just happened to be the pin that burst the bubble, releasing everyone's pent-up aggravations. Conceivably, these events could have happened anywhere. But, they happened on that day in Timişoara. Perhaps part of the reason is that Timişoara is a university town located on the Western side of Romania. As Dorel pointed out, even though there weren’t really any Romanian TV broadcasts at the time, inhabitants of Timişoara were able to tune into several Serbian and Hungarian TV and radio stations. Thus, people in the area were generally better informed about the events taking place in Eastern Europe at the time, which perhaps inspired them to take action as well. All they needed was a spark to light the fire.

After hearing Dorel speak, and seeing the images from the video, walking through downtown Timişoara isn’t quite the same. It’s a powerful feeling to stop and imagine what took place on those same bustling streets almost 20 years ago.

If you're interested, here's a BBC article about the Revolution

**I don't pretend to be an expert on the Romanian Revolution. Nearly everything I've heard has been second-hand, so please let me know if I have any of the facts confused.


Jack Nork said...

Mike, Thanks for taking the time to put this blog post together.

John said...

Really interesting Mike.


Cameron Wright said...

Good job Mike!

After hearing Dorel speak, it makes me want to teach History again :)