It’s hot as balls in Romania right now, and the current scandal that everyone’s talking about is the recent revelations about Liviu Dragnea, the unofficial emperor of Romania. It’s not so much just that he’s up to his eyeballs in corrupt practices, but that he’s been laundering millions of dollars while on “fishing trips” in Brazil.
I’ve got nothing new to add other than that the recent ANAF raid on the media outlet that published the damning documents about Dragnea is starting to feel uncomfortably third-world kleptocrat-ish. I mean, yes, Romania has been heading down the democracy toilet bowl for a while, but when you’re siccing the tax authorities on media outlets you don’t like, that’s really not good.
Initially, I thought I’d add some colorful background on Valentin Stefan Dragnea, Liviu’s idiot kid who blew 80,000 euros souping up a Volkswagen Golf(!), but other than the fact that it is supremely fitting that Dragnea and Son have received millions in government funds to operate a gigantic CAFO pig farm (video here), I realized that it’s just another story of corruption in Romanian politics, and therefore boring.
No, today I wanted to talk about the Dragnea family member that no one remembers: Marin Dragnea, Liviu’s uncle and a true old-school Communist bastard.
Marin Dragnea was one of three key men who, perhaps more than anyone else, are responsible for making modern Romania what is it today.
The Tudor Vladimirescu Division
Long before anyone in Romania knew how World War 2 would shake out, the idiotic king spent years battling with a fascist “marshal” to see who could suck up to Nazi Germany the best. While that was going on, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin came up with an innovative idea.
In 1943, Stalin collected together a few Romanians who were captured prisoners of war to create a military group named the Tudor Vladimirescu Division. The Vladimirescu Division (named after this guy) was officially part of the Soviet army, and all members had to swear loyalty to Stalin and the Soviet Union.
In 1944, Marin Dragnea, then a sergeant in the Romanian Army, traveled to Moscow to join the Vladimirescu Division (later, he would tell people that he had been a captured POW from the Battle of Stalingrad) shortly before Romania switched sides and allied itself with the Soviet Union. The Soviets, in short order, then invaded Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania, eventually sweeping westward all the way to Germany.
By the end of the war, Marin Dragnea was a colonel, and later in life he would be decorated multiple times by both the Soviet Union (one of just 58 men to receive the “Victory” medal for his participation in the Vladimirescu Division) and Russia (which awarded him two medals in 2015 for his “liberation” of Romania during WW2).
But it is his actions in 1956 that most interest me today.
The Revolution That Almost Was
The Communist world went through some major changes in 1956. For one, Stalin was now dead (he died in 1953), and the new head of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, was busy cleaning house.
In February of 1956, he gave his infamous secret speech that led to what was later called the Khrushchev thaw. Khruschev began mending fences with powers like Yugoslavia (whose leader, Tito, had a visceral hatred for Stalin) and developing warmer relations with countries like Romania.
As I already wrote about, 1956 was an interesting year for Romania. The country, now firmly under the leadership of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (GGD), insisted that the Soviets withdraw all troops and equipment from Romania at the end of the year, which they (very surprisingly) did.
Clearly, GGD and the Communists were feeling pretty confident in 1956. One reason for all that confidence was that they had successfully crushed a revolution in their own country, a story that’s largely been forgotten by absolutely everybody.
Romanians and Hungarians often quarrel even today, but there are deep historical ties between Hungary and western Romania, so it’s not so surprising that the 1956 uprising in Budapest became a source of inspiration for many in Romania.
Just as the 1956 Hungarian revolution began with unhappy university students, so too did Romanian students in several cities begin to agitate for reforms, most notably in Timisoara and Bucharest.
Within days of the protests breaking out in Budapest, students began organizing in Romanian universities to hold similar protests. A list of demands was published, some of which seem quaint today:
- If both Romania and the Soviet Union are both Communist, why isn’t Bessarabia (today’s RM) given back to Romania, especially since it is historically Romanian?
- Why do villagers have to make children’s coffins from old fence posts when Romania has a substantial timber industry?
- Why do people in Romania, an agricultural country, have to buy bread using ration cards?
- Why is artificial (sugar added) wine being imported from Bulgaria?
- Why can’t you find fish for sale in the market?
- Why are electrical meters being sold to Vietnam below the cost of even the packaging?
- Why is methane (gas) being provided to Hungary to be used in factories that are designed to process natural gas?
According to what I’ve read, these questions were chosen precisely because they didn’t involve strictly political issues, not because students were overly worried about electrical meters or Bulgarian wine.
Initially, it looked like the Communist leadership might actually sit down and speak to the protesters. But a number of geopolitical factors led the Communists to take a really hard line, culminating in a brutal crackdown in Timisoara on October 30-31, 1956 and a second one in Bucharest on November 5.
Freedom’s Last Gasp
Looking back now, it’s pretty clear that the students were not very united. Some were upset that Russian language classes were mandatory in schools. Others were angry that Bessarabia and Bucovina (today’s RM and southern Ukraine) were part of the Soviet Union. Others wanted to reduce Soviet influence in Romania but were still largely in favor of Communism. And one student in Timisoara named Ioan Holdender was upset because the climate was too tense to risk telling political jokes.
Initially, the protests in Timisoara were scheduled to take place on November 5, but a number of factors led to the date being changed to October 30. But on October 29, Israel invaded Egypt, and the world watched as the West, which had done nothing to support the Hungarian Revolution, quickly intervened in the Suez Crisis. Despite this development, the momentum was building and so the student-led protest in Timisoara was held on October 30 anyway.
On the first night of the protests, at least 3,000 students were arrested in Timisoara, yet the students in Bucharest (partly due to a news blackout) were still proceeding with a November 5 meeting. On November 4, the Soviets occupied Budapest, and Romania sent in thousands of troops to Bucharest later that same night, arresting everyone in sight.
Arrested students were expelled from their schools for life, and many of them were jailed as “enemy elements.” Later, the leaders of the protests were publicly shamed in solemn ceremonies. No other similar student-led protests ever took place again until December 1989.
Arrest Them All!
In 1948, a Jewish man and his family owned a factory in Timisoara that made jam. But the newly-Communist state nationalized the factory, and the man was reduced to doing poorly-paid manual jobs to feed his family.
In 1953, his son, Ioan Holdender, started his first year at the Timisoara Polytechnic University. He also became a member of the UTM, the Young Workers Union. Three years later, he was deeply frustrated by life under the Communist government.
On the fateful day, October 30, 1956, Ioan gathered with fellow students in from of the Mechanical Engineering building on Mihai Viteazu Boulevard in preparation to march downtown. Some student leaders began giving speeches, and the crowd became electrified.
One student leader began calling on Holdender to address the crowd, and Holdender began advocating for freedom of speech. The students began shouting, “Revolution! Revolution! Long Live Holi!” (his nickname), and Holdender was chosen to give an interview with a local newspaper (called the “Red Flag”) about the students’ demands.
Meanwhile, Marin Dragnea was a ranking officer of the Army’s 38th Corp based in Timisoara. The government called out the army to repress the protests, and Marin Dragnea led his troops into Timisoara to round up some 2,500 students on October 30, 1956, one of which was Ioan Holdender. On the following night, an additional 500 students were arrested, and the protests immediately ground to a halt.
According to Colonel Eftimie Ionescu, who knew Dragnea in 1956, this is what happened:
During the days of the Hungarian Revolution, some events of public disorder were happening in Timisoara. General Dragnea called the student leaders into an office and told them, “You need to cease this activity at once! We will not tolerate chaos and disorder in this city.”
The students began booing him and using inappropriate words for citizens to address party and government officials.
Then Dragnea said, “Arrest them all!” They were placed on trucks and taken to the barracks in Becicherec.
In his memoir, Ioan Holdender adds this detail:
Once we got to the Becicherec barracks, we were lined up and told to face the wall. The guards wanted us to confess that we had been in contact with American parachutists. You have to remember that these officers who were interrogating us really believed that it was true.
Holdender and his fellow students were clearly not spies, but interestingly enough, we know today that there were damn good reasons for the Communist government to be worried about the CIA parachuting in people to destabilize the government.
A short while later, Holdender was let out of jail when the Communist bigwigs in Bucharest decided to hush up the entire affair. The 1956 Hungarian affair had garnered considerable negative press for the Soviets, and the last thing Romania wanted was for Moscow to intervene in a similar way in Romania.
Cast out of university, Holdender was stigmatized and excluded from society. Later, he got involved in an abusive relationship with an army general who was obsessed with tennis (don’t ask), but he left the country for good in 1959 when he moved to Vienna, Austria.
At the time, Israel was paying the Communist government 100 dollars for every Jewish citizen that they allowed to emigrate, but Holdender and his family had to renounce their Romanian citizenship to get permission to leave, something that pained him deeply for the rest of his life.
In Austria, Holdender enrolled at the prestigious State Conservatory where his talent as an opera singer was developed. Later, in recognition of his long career, he became the conductor of the Vienna Opera in 1992, a position he held for 18 years.
Marin Dragnea was promoted to the rank of major general for his role in quashing the Timisoara uprising. By the time of the 1989 Revolution, he was retired at the rank of lieutenant general.
In Bucharest in August 1956, a rising member of the Communist Party was given six different plum positions all at once, with grand titles like “Secretary of the Central Committee of the Youth Communist Union”. But the one title that ended up being of key importance was Secretary of the Young Workers Union (UTM).
Effectively, this 26-year-old man was the most powerful young Communist in the country in 1956.
At the same time that students were organizing in Timisoara, a similar movement was underway in Bucharest. Many of the protesting students were members of the UTM, a kind of “light” version of the Communist Party for young adults. But precisely because the UTM was for students who were less enthralled with Communism, it ended up functioning as a breeding ground for the 1956 protesters.
On November 5, the Secretary (head) of the UTM met with the student leaders in Bucharest, supposedly to listen to their demands. Although the students left the meeting thinking that the UTM Secretary had given them a fair hearing, that same night, the UTM Secretary met with other members of a secret military committee. The committee then decided to call in the secret police and the UTM student leaders were arrested.
With the Secretary’s active participation, the students were convicted without a trial and given sentences ranging from 6 months to 8 years. In his official report on the matter, the UTM Secretary described the students as “hooligans and thugs.”
He would later use those exact same words in 1990 to describe a student-led protest that was demanding that former Communist officials be barred from holding office.
When calling the students “hooligans and thugs” failed to disperse the 1990 protests, the former UTM Secretary then summoned thousands of coal miners in from the countryside to start cracking skulls. At least one person died and hundreds were wounded, and the European Court of Human Rights later ruled the Romanian state liable for more than $1 million in damages.
The UTM Secretary in 1956 who had been instrumental in crushing the student protests was Ion Iliescu. He later became the President of Romania and the founding father of the PSD party, currently led by Liviu Dragnea.
In his autobiography, Iliescu made absolutely no mention of the events of 1956 or his role in them.
In 1956, a man named Victor Anastasie Stanculescu held the rank of major in the Army’s 38th Corps in Timisoara. He was the direct supervisor of Marin Dragnea.
Following Dragnea’s crackdown and mass arrests of the student protestors, Ion Iliescu traveled to Timisoara to handle the prosecution of the arrested students, once again convicting them without a trial.
Iliescu also met with Stanculescu, and together they wrote up the official report of the events, placing the blame squarely on the students.
Afterward, Stanculescu continued to have a long and successful career in the Romanian army, promoted to post of Deputy Defense Minister, partly as a reward for being Ceausescu’s money launderer, regularly funneling untold millions out of the country.
The Threads Converge
By mid-December 1989, the university student-led protests in Timisoara were growing. On December 17, thousands of protestors began to loot Communist party buildings.
Ceausescu then dispatched Stanculescu to Timisoara to quash the protests. Using familiar tactics from 1956, i.e. swarming an area with soldiers and then executing mass arrests followed by transport to the nearest army barracks, Stanculescu was “successful” once again in crushing democracy. Estimates vary wildly, but approximately 100 people were killed by the army and thousands arrested in Timisoara during this period.
Ceausescu then ordered Stanculescu back to Bucharest on the evening of December 21 in order to do the same thing against the growing protests in the capital.
On the next morning, December 22, Stanculescu met with Ceausescu and other top leaders, and discovered, to his surprise, that he had been promoted to Minister of Defense after the former minister, Vasile Milea, had allegedly committed suicide just hours earlier (there are suspicions that he was killed).
At 1:30 in the afternoon, Stanculescu issued Order 38 which recalled all troops to return to their barracks. Despite this, the army (supposedly led by rogue commanders) continued to fight the protestors until December 27.
Roughly simultaneously as Stanculescu issuing Order 38, Ceausescu and his wife fled Bucharest by helicopter, allegedly at the urging of Stanculescu, after crowds had begun to boo Ceausescu while he was giving a speech from the Communist Party headquarters. Ceausescu and his wife were extracted from the rooftop literally at the last minute after the building was overrun by protestors.
The Ceausescus were taken to Snagov where they transferred to a smaller helicopter that could only hold four passengers. While on the ground, the pilot had received a phone call saying that there was a revolution happening and that he was on his own.
After they took off, the pilot then began flying erratically, lying to Ceausescu and saying the maneuvers were to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Panicked, Ceausescu ordered the pilot to land the helicopter, which they did in a field next to a country road.
Ceasescu’s bodyguards then flagged down a passing car which then transported the group to an agricultural school in Targoviste. Once Ceausescu and his group entered the school, the school’s director locked them in a room and called the police, who arrived shortly afterward and placed Ceausescu, his wife, and their bodyguards under arrest.
Back in Bucharest, Stanculescu was busying cobbling together the National Salvation Front (FSN), and one of his first calls was to Ion Iliescu. Some sources say the FSN had existed prior to December 1989, but the official story is that the FSN was a group of high-ranking dissident Communist officials that only came together at the last minute.
Whatever the circumstances, Ion Iliescu was quickly designated as the leader of the FSN. After Ceausescu was arrested in Targoviste, Iliescu went on state media (TV and radio) to announce that the FSN was now in power.
Two days later, on December 24, Iliescu and the FSN held a brief, two-hour “trial” of both Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, charging them with thousands of murders during the course of their reign. Once the FSN tribunal found them guilty, they were taken out in the courtyard and shot on live television.
The order to fire was given by General Stanculescu.
După munca și rasplata
After the Revolution, Stanculescu was put on trial and convicted of first-degree murder for his role in repressing the 1989 protests in Timisoara. His military rank was later downgraded, which severely reduced his monthly pension payments.
In 2003, his wife Elena, age 68, killed herself by throwing herself off the balcony of their home. Shortly before doing so, she wrote a note which said:
Eight years of human misery. Motorola? Timisoara? Who amongst those who are here today were there in our position? Everyone is called a hero now, but what would they have done if [my husband] hadn’t been there? I am filled with disgust and hate. Enough. I can’t take it anymore. I curse all of you.
Stanculescu spent five years behind bars and was released in 2014. He died of natural causes two years later at age 88.
As of this writing, Ion Iliescu is still alive, going on television as recently as February of this year to blame the largest protests in post-89 history as the work of “foreign organizations.”
In 1994, still retired, Marin Dragnea was promoted to the rank of three-star general. Six years later, he was promoted to a four-star general. Marin Dragnea was awarded the Star of Romania in 2000 and decorated again in 2004 with an upgrade to “Great Officer” for his actions during WW2, the decoration stating that “he faithfully lived up to the glorious traditions of the Romanian Army”.
As of this writing, he is still alive and drawing a large government pension.