How Romanians Got Cheated Out of a Revolution

I’ve already confessed to exactly where I was and what I was doing in December 1989 when Romania had their revolution. I was drunk, surly and in a foul mood and when my friend ran to me, breathless, saying they had just shot Nicolae Ceausescu on television, my reply was “Who? Never heard of him.”

In the intervening years, I’ve spoken to lots of people who were in Romania at the time of the revolution, from (people who were, at the time) young children to older adults. There are a handful of videos on YouTube you can see, shot during the revolution.

I even had the amazing opportunity to speak to the man who photographed the only known images of the revolution right here in Cluj, including where the bodies fell that now are marked by nine black stalpi on the corner of P-ta Unirii.

I used to live in Timisoara and I saw where the half-track ran over the body of a young, female university student. I saw the bullet holes in the front of the opera theater. And I’ve attended several public December 1989 commemorations in whichever city I was living in at the time.

And of course, just like in almost every city, my town has a December X 1989 Street, in Cluj’s case a rather busy and important thoroughfare.

And yet, for all that, what I found was that for the majority of Romanians there never was a revolution at all.

Yes of course things changed. Every single Romanian reading this sure as heck didn’t have a computer in 1989, nor probably even a washing machine, large color TV, your own control over air and water temperature and chicken tenders down at the mall.

But the Romanian Revolution of 1989 was something akin to magic for most people. There were a few days of uncertainty, a few days of putting the kids to sleep in the bathtub to avoid possible shrapnel, a few days of air sirens and tanks rumbling around and then presto, bingo it was over.

And almost overnight, a group of new bosses, the same as the old bosses, and then the rusty old steam engine of participatory capitalism started heading out of the station.

The exact mechanisms of how all of this exactly played out, and who might’ve had pre-existing agreements with whom, which foreign governments were involved and all of that I will leave to earnest debate.

But what is very clear is that the whole thing got kicked off by a very meddlesome priest.

Quite simply put, Tőkés László is an ethnic Hungarian, born and raised in Romania who was a priest in a small Calvinist sect that’s very “old school” and conservative. Both Laszlo and his followers all have one thing in common: whether it’s about religious rules or anything else, they’re extremely stubborn.

In 1989, Laszlo’s preaching finally angered the Securitate enough to start leaning on him and instead of giving up and backing down, he resisted and his cluster of followers did too. The government ramped up the repression and it did nothing but further entrench his followers to resist – giving a large group of people all assembled together a little backbone.

Then it spread throughout Timisoara, including most definitely the university students, who are the mostly unsung heroes in this story as well. Timisoara was then, is now, and probably forever will be one tough little ferocious place. Once those tens of thousands of university students poured into the streets and faced down a few tanks, the fire was lit and a few days later it was all over.

But for your average villager or even for many city dwellers, it wasn’t much more than a lot of shouting and rumbling and then buna dimineata now you’ve got a new government.

And so, by and large, a lot of things went on the same as always. You get out there and pick the potatoes. You boil your mamaliga and you watch the nightly news. You collect your government food tickets and you ride the same damned ROCAR tin can of a bus home. School is still school, right down to the same grumpy old domnul portar who guards the gate and decides who gets in or out.

What changed? Before products were scarce and money was relatively plentiful. Now products are everywhere and nobody’s got an extra 50 bani in their pocket. A few people got a fat slice of pie but for most people it’s still the same old ride on the same old merry-go-round.

And what’s to be done? Return to the “old ways” somehow? I’ve certainly heard that opinion expressed more than once. Or furiously study books on marketing and Human Resources so you can scramble for your piece of the pie? Sell your soul for a dishearteningly low salary to work for an international soulless corporate firm so you can buy a meniu at the Mec once in a while?

What, exactly, was revolted against in 1989? I mean besides that “things were bad”? Okay the Securitate were awful and you couldn’t go around saying whatever you wanted. But what was the revolution for, other than to say “this government sucks, let’s try another”? Or was it even that?

Was this revolution a fight for independence from a foreign government? Was it for equal distribution of land to the poor? Was it to stop the government from continuing to fight a war somewhere? Was it for a flourishing, participatory democracy? Those are reasons many revolutions occur.

When it was going on, in the minds especially of those university students, I wonder what was going on inside their heads. Were they thinking, “Sweet, now we can have a fair representative government both on the local and national level”? Or was it more like “Sweet, now instead of my aunt in Germany sending us chocolate, soon we can buy all the chocolate we want”?

I rather imagine it was a little bit of both.

Normally when you speak of revolutions, you speak of them being fought. In the American Revolution, the Americans fought the British. In the Algerian Revolution, the Algerians fought the French.

But in 1989 most Romanians didn’t fight anybody. A particularly somnolent person could’ve slept through the whole thing. A few fought it and then it was over. No, this was a revolution that was granted to the people from on high, the “powers that be”.

And since the average Romanian didn’t have to do anything, and was instead handed the revolution on a platter like some kind of bloody Christmas gift, it robbed the Romanian people of understanding the idea of working together to get what you want.

Instead, from the Sighisoara Medieval Festival to every day conversations I hear in Romania, there is a steady stream of “oh things are so bad in Romania and here is proof, X Y and Z”. There are literally three guys on Twitter who pump out 20-30 thoughts like this each and every day. If you know any Romanians (or are one), I’m sure you know plenty of people like this.

Are there problems here? Sure. But what is only becoming even acceptable right now in mainstream Romanian thought is the other side of the equation – okay there’s a problem but what do we do about it?

That’s exactly why I participated in Let’s Do It, Romania! earlier this year. It was absolutely fabulous to see thousands of Romanians literally put the equation together that yes little old me, I can make a positive difference. Did it bring world peace and harmony and yummy rainbow dust? No. But it was a concrete thing, a real thing, an actual literal hands on actual garbage and actually doing something about it.

Romania obviously holds a deep and special place in my heart. But for the people in this country to ever live in the country they want, it’s going to require actual action. If there is to be any kind of a revolution to a better way of life, it’s going to require actual work.

I’m not advocating bloodshed here – don’t misunderstand me. I mean the quiet, every day revolutionary acts of doing the right thing. Una ciudad limpia es la tarea de todos and if you live in this country then guess what? How things are in Romania is completely up to you.

I’m not a citizen. I can’t vote here. All I can do is point out hey this is a great country to let’s remember that and make it great. What makes a country wonderful isn’t remembering how wonderful it was in the past but making it wonderful each and every day.

I’m restricted to sidelines here as a cheerleader, shaking my virtual pom-poms and saying, “Go Team, you can do it!” But it’s up to all of you to play the actual game here.


UPDATE: This article is now in Romanian language aici.

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