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Encyclopedia > Romanian Revolution
People on the streets of Bucharest

The Romanian Revolution of 1989 was a week-long series of riots and protests in late December of 1989 that overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The increasingly violent riots culminated a cursory trial and the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife Elena. The revolution took place as other Eastern European nations were transitioning peacefully to democracy; Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country to violently overthrow its Communist regime.


Before the revolution

See main article Communist Romania

As in neighboring countries, by 1989 the bulk of the Romanian populace were dissatisfied with the Communist regime. Ceauşescu's economic and development policies (including grandiose construction projects and an austerity program to enable Romania to pay back its entire national debt) were generally blamed for the country's acute shortages and widespread, increasing poverty; furthermore, the secret police (Securitate) had become so ubiquitous as to make Romania essentially a police state.


On December 16 a protest broke out in Timişoara as a result of an attempt by the government to evict a dissident Hungarian Methodist priest, László Tőkés, who had recently spoken out against the regime and was charged with inciting ethnic hatred. At the behest of the government, his bishop had removed him from his post, thereby depriving him of the right to his apartment, which was a perquisite of the position. For some time, his parishioners had gathered around his apartment to protect him from harrassment and eviction. Many passers-by, including religious Romanian students, not knowing the details and being told by supporters that this is an action of state against religion, spontaneously decided to join the demonstration.

As it became clear that the crowd would not disperse, the mayor, Petre Moţ, promised not to evict Tőkés, but the crowd had grown impatient—because Petre Moţ refused to make official papers to counter the eviction—and started to demonstrate and shout. The police and Securitate forces appeared. By 7:30 pm, the protest had become general, and the original cause became largely irrelevant. Some of the protestors tried to burn down the building that housed the District Comittee of the Communist Party of Romania (CPR). The Securitate responded with tear gas and water jets, while the police beat up rioters and arrested many of them. Around 9:00 p.m. the rioters withdrew, regrouped around the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral and started going around the city, but again they were confronted by the security forces.

Tanks on the streets of Timişoara

Riots and protests resumed the following day, December 17. The rioters broke into the District Committee, and threw into the street Party documents, propaganda brochures, Ceauşescu's writings, and other things. The rioters again intended to burn the building, and started to make a fire, but were stopped this time by army soldiers. The presence of the army meant that orders had come from the highest level, presumably from Ceauşescu himself. The army failed to establish order, but succeeded in making Timişoara a living hell: shooting, death, injuries, fights and the burning of cars, Transport Auto Blindat (TAB) armored personnel carriers, tanks and shops. After 8:00 p.m., from Piaţa Libertăţii (Liberty Square) to the Opera there was wild shooting, including in the zones of Decebal bridge, Calea Lipovei (Lipovei Way) and Calea Girocului (Girocului Way). Tanks, trucks and TABs blocked the entries to the city whilst helicopters continued reconaissance flights. After midnight the protests calmed down. Ion Coman, Ilie Matei and Ştefan Guşă inspected the city, which looked like it was in the aftermath of a war: everywhere destruction, ash and blood.

On the morning of December 18, the center of Timişoara was guarded by soldiers and plain-clothes Securitate. Mayor Moţ convoked a Party meeting at the University to condemn the vandalism of the previous days and declared martial law, prohibiting people from going about in groups larger than two people. Despite the danger, a group of 30 young men headed for the Cathedral, where they stopped and waved a flag from which they had removed the Romanian Communist coat of arms. Knowing that they would be fired upon, they started to sing "Deşteaptă-te, române!", an earlier national anthem that had been banned since 1947. They were, indeed, fired upon; some died, some were seriously injured, others escaped.

On December 19, Radu Bălan and Ştefan Guşă visited the workers in factories, but were unable to make them resume work. On December 20, workers entered the city in massive columns. 100,000 protesters occupied Piaţa Operei (Opera Square - today Piaţa Victoriei; Victory Square), and started to chant anti-government protests: "Noi suntem poporul!" ("We are the people!"), "Armata e cu noi!" ("The army is with us!"), "Nu vă fie frică, Ceauşescu pică!" ("Have no fear, Ceauşescu will fall"). Meanwhile, Emil Bobu and Constantin Dăscălescu were sent by Elena Ceauşescu (Nicolae Ceauşescu being at that time in Iran), to meet with a delegation of the protesters; however, they refused to comply with the protestors' demands and the situation remained essentially the same; the next day trains with workers from factories in Oltenia arrived in Timişoara to join the protests. One worker explained: "Yesterday, our factory boss and the Party official rounded us up in the yard, gave us a stick and told us that in Timişoara the Hungarians and the hooligans devastated the city and we have to go there and crush this revolt. But now I realize that this is not true."


The events in Timişoara were widely reported by the popular Voice of America radio and by students returning home for Christmas holidays.

There are several conflicting views on the events in Bucharest that led to the fall of Ceauşescu in 1989. One view is that a portion of the Romanian Communist Party CPEx (Political Executive Council) tried and failed to bring about a scenario similar to that in the rest of the Eastern bloc Communist countries, where the Communist leadership would resign en masse, allowing a new government to come about peacefully. Another view is that a group of officers successfully conspired against Ceauşescu. Several officers have claimed that they conspired against Ceauşescu, but evidence beyond their own claims is scant, at best. The latter view is buttressed by a series of interviews given 2003–2004 by former Securitate Lieutenant Colonel Dumitru Burlan, Ceauşescu's long-time bodyguard. The two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In November 1989, Ceauşescu had visited Mikhail Gorbachev, who asked him to resign. Ceauşescu refused. The question of a possible resignation arose again on 17 December 1989, when Ceauşescu assembled the CPEx (Political Executive Council) to decide upon the necessary measures to quash the Timişoara uprising. Although minutes were taken, and were presented at the trial of several CPEx members, the surviving stenograma (minutes) at the time of the trial were frustratingly incomplete: pages were missing, including the discussion of a possible resignation.

According to the testimony of CPEx members Paul Niculescu-Mizil and Ion Dinca during their trial, at this meeting, just like in Bulgaria and East Germany, two of the members of CPEx disagreed with the use of force to suppress the uprising, and Ceauşescu offered his resignation, asking the members of CPEx to elect another leader. But other members of CPEx, including Gheorghe Oprea and Constantin Dascalescu asked Ceauşescu not to resign, and instead to sack those two who opposed his decisions. Later that day, Ceauşescu left Romania to visit Iran, leaving the task of resolving the uprising of Timişoara to his wife and others.

On 20 December 1989 Ceauşescu returned to Romania to find that the situation had only worsened. At 19:00 on 20 December, he gave a televised speech from a TV studio inside the Central Committee Building, in which he labeled the people protesting in Timişoara as enemies of the Socialist Revolution. [1] (http://www.jurnalul.ro/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=18132) [2] (http://www.cafeneaua.com/node/view/614)

According to one of the recent insider memoirs, following the Timişoara uprising, a group of conspiring generals in Securitate used the opportunity to launch a coup in Bucharest. The coup, prepared since 1982, was originally planned for the New Year feasts, but was spontaneously replanned to take advantage of the good moment. Their leader, Victor Stanculescu, was close to Ceauşescu and is said to have convinced him to hold the mass rally in front of the Central Committee building, in a plaza that was prepared with remotely controlled automatic guns. During Ceauşescu's talk, the remotely controlled automatic guns were set to fire randomly over the crowd while agitators would use loudspeakers to instigate the crowd with anti-Ceauşescu slogans.

On the morning of December 21, Ceauşescu addressed a mass assembly of a hundred thousand people to condemn the uprising of Timişoara, speaking from the balcony of the Central Committee building. During Ceauşescu's usual "wooden language" speech about the achievements of the "socialist revolution" and Romanian "multi-lateral developed society" the people remained apathetic, and only the front rows supported Ceauşescu with cheers and applause. His miscomprehension of the events and incapacity to handle the situation were further demonstrated when he promised to raise the salaries of workers by 100 Lei (about 4 US dollars at the time) per month and praised the achievements of the Socialist Revolution when a social revolution was taking shape right in front of him.

As he addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Central Commitee building, sudden movement coming from the outskirts of the mass assembly and the sound of what have variously been reported as fireworks, bombs, or guns broke the orderly manifestation into chaos. Scared, the people first tried to run away. Being told with loudspeakers that the Securitate was firing on them and that a "revolution" is going on, the people were convinced to join the "revolution". This turned into a protest demonstration and in the end a real revolution emerged.

Ceauşescu, his wife, and other spokesmen and CPEx members panicked, and finally Ceauşescu hid inside the building. The live transmission of the meeting was interrupted, but the people who watched saw enough to realise that something is going on.

The reaction of Ceauşescu couple is memorable, as they tried to calm the convulsing crowd with silly phone call appeals like "Alo, Alo" ("Hello, Hello") and Ceauşescu's wife giving him "advice" how to keep the situation stable "Vorbeşte-le, vorbeşte-le" ("Talk to them, talk to them") and to the crowd "Stati liniştiti la locurile voastre" ("Sit quiet in your places"); finally Ceauşescu allowed himself to be directed inside the Central Committee building by his underlings.

The jeers and whistles erupted into riot; the people fled the immediate location, but took to the streets, placing the capital, like Timişoara, in turmoil. Slogans were shouted against the Communist Regime and Ceauşescu: "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", "Ceauşescu cine eşti/Criminal din Scorniceşti" ("Ceauşescu, who are you?/A criminal from Scorniceşti"). The center of the city, from Piaţa Kogălniceanu to Piaţa Unirii to Piaţa Rosetti to Piaţa Romană, filled with protesters. On the statue of Mihai Viteazul on Boulevard Mihail Kogalniceanu near the University, a young man waved a tricolour with the Communist coat of arms torn out of its center.

As the hours passed, many more people took to the streets. Soon the protestors — unarmed and unorganized — were faced with soldiers, tanks, TABs, USLA troops (Unitate Specială pentru Lupta Antiteroristă, anti-terrorist special squads), and armed plain-clothes Securitate officers. The crowd was fired upon from buildings, side streets and tanks. There were many deaths, by shooting, hitting, stabbing, squashing by armored vehicles (one TAB drove into the crowd around the Intercontinental Hotel, crushing people — a French journalist, Jean Louis Calderon, was killed; a street near University Square was later named after him). Firefighters hit the demonstrators with powerful water jets and the police beat and arrested people. Protestors managed to build a defensible barricade in front of Dunărea ("Danube") restaurant, which stood until after midnight, but finally was torn apart by escalated repressive forces. Intense, continuous shooting continued until after 3:00 a.m., by which time the survivors had fled the streets.

Records of the fighting that day include footage shot from helicopters — sent to raid the area and to record evidence for anticipated reprisals — and by tourists in the high tower of the centrally located Intercontinental Hotel, next to the National Theater and across the street from the University.

Ceauşescu falls

Doubtless, in the wee hours of December 22, Ceauşescu thought he had quashed the protests. Hoevever, before 7:00 a.m., his wife Elena received the bad news that workers from many industrial platforms (large communist-era factories or groups of factories concentrated into industrial zones) were marching in columns towards the center. The police barricades that stopped access to Piaţa Universităţii (University Square) and Piaţa Palatului (Palace Square, now Piaţa Revoluţiei — Revolution Square) proved futile. By 9:30 a.m., University Square was full. Security forces (army, police and others) reappeared, but this time they defected to the protesters' side; why they did so remains a mystery. It remains a matter of dispute whether army and other leaders turned against Ceauşescu out of sincere revulsion at his policies (as many later claimed) or simply out of opportunism.

Ceauşescu's helicopter leaving

By 10 A.M., when the radio broadcast announced martial law and a ban on groups larger than 5 persons, there were hundreds of thousands of people in central Bucharest, gathering for the first time from their own initiative. (The previous day's crowd had come together because of Ceauşescu's announced intention to address them.) Ceauşescu tried to address the crowd from the balcony of the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Romania, but was met with a wave of disapproval and anger. Helicopters spread manifestos — which didn't reach the crowd, due to a wind — to tell people not to fall victim to diversions from the last days, but to go home and have a happy Christmas. The rioters forced the doors of the Central Committee building and tried to reach Ceauşescu, but he fled by helicopter; why he fled by helicopter, when he could have used the intricate tunnel system of the Central Committee building, also remains a mystery.

On the morning of December 22, some time between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., Vasile Milea, Ceauşescu's minister of defense, either commited suicide or was killed. A communique by Ceauşescu said that Milea was discovered to be traitor and that when his treason was discovered he killed himself, but even those who believe he killed himself doubt this scenario. The most widespread belief is that Milea refused to follow Ceauşescu's orders, and was killed, but other theories include the possibility that the Ceauşescu communique is a forgery, and that other conspiring generals might have killed Milea either for remaining loyal to Ceauşescu or simply as a rival. As of 2004, there has been no identification of an assassin. [3] (http://www.jurnalul.ro/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=114083)

With Ceauşescu having left the city and Milea dead, Victor Stănculescu was left as head of the army. After 11 a.m., Stănculescu ordered the troops to withdraw, and then reported that the crowd had invaded the Palace Square. Troops fraternized with the demonstrators with the consent and encouragement of their officers; again, it remains a matter of controversy whether this was sincere on the part of the officers, or a feint.

Ceauşescu and his wife Elena fled the capital by helicopter together with Emil Bobu and Tudor Postelnicu. They headed for Ceauşescu's Snagov residence, from where they fled again, this time for Târgovişte. Near Târgovişte they abandoned the helicopter, which was ordered to land by the army, the army having interdicted all use of Romanian airspace. Hitchhiking by car, eventually the Ceauşescu couple were captured by the armed forces at a road block and transported to an army barracks. On December 25, Christmas Day, the two were condemned to death by a military kangaroo court on a range of charges including genocide, and were executed by firing squad in Târgovişte. Their "trial" and execution were recorded on video tape, and was promptly released in France and other western countries; only days after Ceauşescu couple was executed was the recording of their trial (without the footage of their actual execution) released on television for the Romanian public.

The last gasp of the old regime and the consolidation of the new

After Ceauşescu fled by helicopter, the crowds in Palace Square entered a celebratory mood, perhaps even more intense than in the other former Eastern Bloc countries because of the recent violence. People cried, shouted, and gave each other gifts. The occupation of the Central Committee building continued. People threw writings of Ceauşescu, official portraits, and propaganda books out the windows, intending to burn them. They also promptly ripped off the giant letters from the roof making up the word "comunist" ("communist") in the slogan: "Trăiască Partidul Comunist Român!" ("Long live the Communist Party of Romania!"). A young woman appeared on the rooftop and waved a flag with the coat of arms torn or cut out.

Fierce fights occurred at that time at Bucharest Otopeni International Airport between troops sent one against another under claims that they are going to meet terrorists. According to a book by Ceauşescu's bodyguard, Securitate Lieutenant Colonel Dumitru Burlan, the generals who were part of the conspiracy led by general Victor Stănculescu tried to create such fictive terrorists to instigate fear, to draw the army onto the side of the plotters.

However, the victory of the new National Salvation Front (FSN) was not yet complete. Forces considered to be supporters of the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed "terrorists") opened fire on the crowd and attacked the vital points of socio-political life: the television, radio, and telephone buildings, as well as Casa Scânteii (the center of the nation's print media, which serves a similar role today under the name Casa Presei Libere, "House of the Free Press") and the post office in the district of Drumul Taberei; Piaţa Palatului (site of the Central Committee building, but also of the central library, the national art museum, and the Ateneu Român, Bucharest's leading concert hall); the university and the adjoining Piaţa Universităţii (one of the city's main intersections); Otopeni and Băneasa airports; hospitals, and the Ministry of Defence.

During the night of December 22December 23, Bucharest residents remained on the streets, especially in the attacked zones, fighting (and ultimately winning, even at the cost of many lives) a battle with an unseen and dangerous enemy. With military now on both sides, there were true battles with dead and wounded. At 9:00 p.m. on December 23, tanks and a few paratrooper units arrived to protect the Republic Palace.

The identity of the "terrorists" remained a mystery. Up to this date, no person was oficially arrested for being a "terrorist", which has raised many suspicions concerning the relationship between the "terrorists" and the new government.

Meanwhile, important messages of support came from all over the world: the U.S. (George H. W. Bush), the USSR (Mihail Gorbachev), Hungary (the Hungarian Socialist Party), the new East German government (at that time the two Germanys were not yet formally reunited), Bulgaria (Petar Mladenov, general-secretary of the Communist Party of Bulgaria), Czechoslovakia (Ladislav Adamec, leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and Vaclav Havel), China (the Minister of Foreign Affairs), France (François Mitterrand), West Germany (Hans Dietrich Genscher), NATO (Manfred Woerner), the United Kingdom (Margaret Thatcher), Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Japan (the Communist Party of Japan), and the Moldavian SSR.


In the following days moral support was supplemented by material support. Large quantities of foodstuffs, medicine, clothing, medical machinery, etc. were sent to Romania. Around the world, the press dedicated pages and whole numbers to the Romanian revolution and its heroes.

On December 24, Bucharest had the aspect of a city at war. Tanks, TABs and trucks continued to go around the city and surround trouble spots in order to protect them. At intersections near strategic objective roadblocks were formed; automatic gunfire continued in and around Piaţa Universităţii, the Gara de Nord (the city's main railroad station), and Piaţa Palatului. "Terrorism" continued until December 27.

Former Communist Party member Ion Iliescu led the short-lived post-revolution National Salvation Front party and, in 1990, became Romania's first democratically elected president.

The Revolution brought Romanian vast sympathy from the outside world. Initially, much of that sympathy inevitably went to the National Salvation Front government. Much of that sympathy was squandered during the Mineriad of June 1990 when miners and police, with Iliescu's encouragement, attacked students and intellectuals who had for several months continued protesting in Bucharest, demanding a government formed of people who had not been members of the Communist Party.

Romania After 1989

See Main Article: History of Romania since 1989

External links


  • Ştefănescu, Domniţa Cinci ani din Istoria României ("Five years in the history of Romania"), 1995. Maşina de Scris, Bucharest.
  • The series of 3 articles in the Romanian newspaper Adevărul, 2003, [4] (http://www.adevarulonline.ro) (see archives) entitled "Eu am fost sosia lui Nicolae Ceauşescu" ("I was Ceauşescu's double"). These are about Col. Dumitru Burlan, who also wrote a book Dupa 14 ani - Sosia lui Ceauşescu se destăinuie ("After 14 Years - The Double of Ceauşescu confesses"). Editura Ergorom, July 31, 2003. (All in Romanian.)
  • Viorel Patrichi, "Eu am fost sosia lui Nicolae Ceauşescu (http://www.lumeam.ro/nr12_2001/politica_si_servicii_secrete.html)" ("I was Ceauşescu's double") , Lumea Magazin Nr 12, 2001 (in Romanian)
  • Marian Oprea, "Au trecut 15 ani -- Conspiratia Securitatii" ("After 15 years -- the conspiracy of Securitate"), Lumea Magazin Nr 10, 2004 (http://www.lumeam.ro/nr10_2004/index.html): (in Romanian; link leads to table of contents, verifying that the article exists, but the article itself is not online).
  • Victor Stanculescu, "Nu va fie mila, au 2 miliarde de lei in cont (http://www.jurnalul.ro/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=14985)" "Show no mercy, have two billion lei [33 million U.S. dollars] on account") in Jurnalul Naţional) Nov 22, 2004 (in Romanian)
  • —, "Sinucidere – un termen acoperitor pentru crima" (http://www.jurnalul.ro/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=114083) ("Suicide – a term to cover up a crime") in Jurnalul Naţional (retrieved from web site December 30, 2004; no date indicated for original publication); on the death of Vasile Milea. (in Romanian)
  • The speech Nicolae Ceauşescu broadcast on December 20, 1989 to condemn the acts of Timişoara: [5] (http://www.infotim.ro/memorial89/articole/articole/art001.01.htm) (in Romanian)

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