Ceausescu, Elena (1916–1989)
Ceausescu, Elena (1916–1989)
Rumanian political leader who was co-leader of Rumania for almost two decades along with her husband Nicolae Ceausescu. Name variations: Ceauçescu. Pronunciation: Chaow-u-SESH-coo or Shaow-CHESS-coo. Born Elena Petrescu on January 7, 1916, in the village of Petresti near Scornicesti in the Oltenia region; executed along with husband on December 25, 1989; married Nicolae Ceausescu, president of Rumania (1974–1989), in 1944; children: two sons, Nicolae (popularly known as Nicu, d. 1996) and Valentin (adopted); and daughter Zoia Ceausescu.
Member of central committee of Rumanian Communist Party (1965–89); received numerous Rumanian and foreign decorations and honorary degrees; arrested along with her husband (December 1989); found guilty of several offenses by an improvised political tribunal and executed along with him (December 25, 1989).
One of the most powerful women in Eastern Europe during the final decades of Communist rule, Elena Ceausescu was a key member of a regime of corruption and clan rule that left Rumania with a legacy of economic, social and moral devastation. Unlike many of the Communist leaders of the region who grew up in urban bourgeois homes, she was born into grinding rural poverty on January 7, 1916. Elena Petrescu was a poor student at school, attending classes for only four years and barely becoming literate. Like many thousands of young Rumanians in the 1930s, she moved to the capital city of Bucharest in order to find work and be less of a burden on her impoverished family. Elena found employment as an unskilled worker at Bucharest's Jacquard textile factory, where in 1939 she met a young Communist militant named Nicolae Ceausescu. Two years younger than Elena, he was a slender and handsome young man from a background similar to hers, as he too had been born in an impoverished village. Both were active Communists, and, the year they met, Elena was elected "Queen of Labor" by her politically active fellow workers. Little is know of her activities during the war years, but later, during his trial after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime, her brother-in-law accused her of consorting with German officers, a story that may or may not be true and cannot be corroborated.
The collapse of the pro-German government in Rumania in 1944 and the liberation of the country by Soviet forces presented tremendous career opportunities for the country's small Communist movement. In 1944, Nicolae Ceausescu married Elena Petrescu, but they did not immediately become a political team. Instead, she concentrated on raising a family and advancing her husband's political career. She gave birth to a son Nicolae (known as Nicu), and a daughter Zoia Ceausescu , and in 1946 the Ceausescus also adopted a small boy, Valentin, whose parents could not support him because of a local famine in the province of Moldavia. Determined to play a role in the Communization of Rumania, Elena got a job in the Foreign Ministry in the 1940s, but her performance of her tasks—selecting and clipping foreign newspapers—left much to be desired since her knowledge of foreign languages was rudimentary at best. Although she continued to receive a salary, she often did not show up at work, and her supervisors did not mind her absence in view of the poor quality of her job performance.
Refusing to be discouraged by her ineffectiveness at the Foreign Ministry, Elena Ceausescu attended night classes in chemistry at the University of Bucharest; there was, however, never any evidence that she completed a course of study. Given her scanty educational background (her formal education had ended after four years of dismal performance in primary school), it is unlikely that she acquired much knowledge of chemistry. During the 1950s and 1960s, her husband's political career prospered dramatically, and in March 1965 he effectively became the leading political figure in Rumania with his accession to the post of first secretary of the country's ruling Communist Party. A year earlier, in 1964, Elena had become director of the Central Chemical Research Institute. Although she knew virtually nothing about chemistry, she received a doctoral degree on the basis of a dissertation that had actually been written by members of the institute who had to bow to the formidable political power of the Ceausescus.
At first, the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu gave the impression of taking serious steps toward political and economic liberalization. The United States and other Western nations were pleased by what appeared to be Rumania's relative independence of the Soviet Union, which included endorsement of the idea of polycentrism in the Communist world and refusal to participate in such Moscow-dominated policies as the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush a liberal Communist movement in the bud. Nicolae enjoyed considerable popularity as well with his own people during these years. Although they lacked political freedom, Rumanians could look forward to lives centered around economic security and modest increases in their standard of living, which were in most cases significantly higher than those of the pre-1945 era for average workers and farmers. For many Rumanians during these years, Nicolae Ceausescu was a national hero, bringing international respect as well as domestic prosperity to his nation.
By the early 1970s, however, there were increasingly negative forces at work, not the least of which involved the growing megalomania of both Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Elena was sharing power with her husband by this time and, flushed with success, the couple became increasingly convinced that they could do no wrong. On a trip to the Far East in May 1971, a glimpse of the Chinese Communist and North Korean dictatorships clearly whetted their appetites for power. Elena was strongly impressed by the example of Jiang Qing , Mao Zedong's widow. On their return to Rumania, a personality cult was increasingly imposed on Rumania. Nicolae became known as the Conducator, supreme leader, and was praised to the sky by sycophants in the party and media. Elena, too, was the object of ever-increasing flattery by craven journalists and court poets, one of which, Virgil Teodorescu, composed a dithyramb praising her:
Her face is lit up by eyes that look far into the distance
Being a beautiful gift of diligent nature,
And the gentle energy radiating from her features,
Is a perpetual model for the arts.
In addition to the personality cult, the Ceausescus imposed a clan oligarchy on Rumania in which over 30 members of Nicolae and Elena's families received titles and perquisites of power. These individuals included Elena's son Nicu, who by 1982 had become a candidate member of the ruling political executive committee of the central committee of the Communist Party. Daughter Zoia, with a doctorate in mathematics, quickly advanced to the post of secretary general of the Communist Party. Adopted son Valentin remained largely aloof from politics, becoming a student of nuclear physics. Elena's brother Gheorghe Petrescu, on the other hand, served for two decades until his death in 1987 on the central committee of the Communist Party as well as on numerous other government ministries and councils, thus becoming entitled to luxurious living quarters and other material rewards the Rumanian masses could only dream of. The boundless corruption of the family resulted in the awarding of high state posts to Nicolae's brothers Florea, Ilie, Ion, Nicolae Andruta and Marin. Large sums of money—perhaps totaling as much as $1 billion—were believed to have been deposited in Swiss and other foreign banks by the Ceausescu clan during the decades they dominated Rumania.
Elena Ceausescu's power increased dramatically in the early 1970s, particularly after she became a member of the ruling political executive committee of the party's central committee in June 1973. From this point on, it can be said that along with her husband she was co-ruler of Rumania. Elena became virtual dictator of Rumania's scientific community in 1979 when she received the post of president of the National Council for Science and Technology. In March 1980, her power received full public recognition when she was appointed a first deputy prime minister. Numerous other posts bestowed on her and her family simply ratified an already existing power reality, namely that the Ceausescu clan had total domination over Rumania, an arrangement that proved tremendously rewarding, materially as well as psychologically, to a small but insatiably greedy oligarchy. Ordinary members of the Communist Party received far fewer perks, mainly in the area of preferential treatment with housing and certain food staples. The key to the regime's hold on power was the Securitate, a massive system of secret police and informers whose eyes and ears kept the population frightened, fragmented and submissive.
The Ceausescus lived in one of Bucharest's elite neighborhoods in the Villa Primavera, a handsome 40-room building set among fir trees. Inside, however, the visitor was overwhelmed with an excess of silver, porcelain and crystal chandeliers. Furniture was gilded, elaborately carved and inlaid, the wallpaper was silk, and the bathrooms glittered with exquisite marble and gold fixtures. The couple's elaborate and huge closets bulged with a great excess of clothing. Elena owned hundreds of pairs of expensive shoes, some with diamond-encrusted heels designed by Charles Jourdan; several of her closets contained dozens of couture gowns and mink coats. A large number of palaces throughout the country, 21 in all, formerly owned by the royal family of Rumania were reserved for Nicolae and Elena. There were also 41 residential villas and 20 hunting lodges that were maintained for the exclusive use of the Ceausescu clan and their guests. Unlike some other Communist states, where the luxuries enjoyed by the ruling elites was kept secret, in Rumania the sumptuous lifestyle of the Ceausescus was regularly presented to the public through the media to create an image of uncrowned royalty. Toward the end of his regime, Nicolae, who sometimes appeared at state ceremonies with scepter in hand, was granted among other titles that of "Genius of the Carpathians."
While the Ceausescus lived in ostentatious luxury, the ordinary Rumanians sank inexorably into a nightmare world of increasing hardships and privation. By the early 1980s, with the regime's decision to rapidly repay Rumania's huge foreign debt, harsh austerity measures were imposed on the nation. The suffering of the Rumanian populace had become almost intolerable by the time of the unusually harsh winter of 1985. Only one room per residence could be lit at night and the use of household electrical appliances was banned. Home heating was cut to 39–48 degrees Fahrenheit while burst water pipes left entire apartment buildings without water for weeks at a time. To add to the general misery, the driving of both private cars and taxis was banned in order to cut back on domestic petroleum consumption. All restaurants were ordered to close by 6:00 pm every night and television use was limited to two hours daily. In contrast to these privations, the regime went ahead with vast projects designed to radically change the face of Rumania. Central to these plans were industrial projects reminiscent of the Soviet Stalin era; in addition to being environmentally destructive, the new industries became increasingly inefficient, creating products for which there was no world market.
The immensely vain Elena Ceausescu, determined to be accepted both at home and abroad as nothing less than a world-class scientist, brought about the virtual destruction of the Rumanian Academy of Sciences. During the Ceausescu era, the Academy lost control of all the 50 institutes originally under its jurisdiction. By 1989, the Academy's normal membership of 230 had evaporated to a total of only 93 cowed and submissive members with an average age of over 70; for more than a decade, Elena had refused to allow the election of new members. The Academy's scientific work was crippled because the Academy was denied the foreign currency needed to subscribe to foreign scientific journals and retain membership in international scientific organizations and academies. To the end of her life, Elena Ceausescu maintained her pose as a distinguished chemist when accompanying her husband on his foreign trips, and, amazingly, foreign scientific academies and universities responded to her craving for academic respectability by bestowing on her a vast number of honorary degrees, awards and memberships. In many cases, a combination of Cold War pressures (the belief that Rumania deserved to be rewarded for its independence of Moscow), lack of moral spine and plain ignorance were responsible for such behavior on the part of respected institutions of learning.
Determined to retain power as long as possible, Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu watched their weight carefully as they grew older and took other steps designed to preserve and enhance their health. The menus at the Villa Primavera recorded the calorie count of each of their five daily meals. Elena and her husband were convinced that organically produced food would ensure them long and healthy lives. The Ceausescus also employed a foodtaster to guard against poisoning by their political enemies. Their palatial Villa Neptune on the Black Sea featured a swimming pool inlaid with fine mosaics, a sauna, massage showers, and a plenitude of bathroom scales, testifying to a belief that with the passage of time they could hold onto both their health and power. As they grew older, however, factions within the Communist upper ruling elite began to hatch plots for the removal of the Ceausescu clan from power.
Increasingly isolated from their own people, Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu lived in this fantasy world through the 1980s. The economic life of the country was in a shambles. A plan of economic and social "systematization" destroyed much of the country's village life. Huge building projects in Bucharest resulted in the destruction of many historic buildings in order to create vast spaces on which to build some of the largest buildings in the world, including a "House of the People" meant to serve as a presidential palace, as well as a "House of Science"; the latter would presumably have provided office space for Elena Ceausescu, who preferred to be addressed as "Comrade Academician Doctor Engineer."
By 1989, the regime was in a profound crisis. The Ceausescus probably could have held on to power in a stable environment, but the mood of that year was a revolutionary one. The peaceful transfer of power by the Communists in Poland during the summer of that year, the upheaval in East Germany in October and the opening up of the Berlin Wall in early November should have made clear to the Ceausescus how precarious their power was, but they did not heed the warnings. A Communist Party congress in November ritualistically reaffirmed Nicolae's dictatorship and Elena continued to control the scientific and cultural life of an exhausted nation. The collapse came suddenly. During Nicolae's ill-advised state visit to Iran, long festering minority problems erupted when many thousands of the oppressed Hungarian minority demonstrated for cultural autonomy and freer conditions. The Securitate forces, with the approval of Elena and her son Nicu, responded by savagely attacking the demonstrators. Hundreds of dead and wounded resulted from this bloody massacre, which pushed the patience of the populace to the breaking point.
Initially, it appeared that the regime would survive on the basis of terror and the vastly superior power it possessed in the Securitate and armed forces. But when a huge rally in Bucharest on December 21 designed to show public support for the regime turned into an anti-Ceausescu demonstration, Nicolae and Elena lost their nerve and fled the capital by helicopter. Betrayed, they were captured on the morning of December 22. The new government, which called itself the National Salvation Front, at first announced that there would be a public trial of the couple but then quickly reneged on its promise. A secret trial held at Tirgoviste north of Bucharest on Christmas day, December 25, 1989, resulted in a death penalty for both Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, who were found guilty on ill-specified charges of "genocide against the Rumanian people." At the trial, which was videotaped, Elena denied charges of corruption. When it became clear to her that she and her husband were to be executed, she screamed "Don't tie us up!" and as three paratroopers approached to tie her hands behind her back she said, "Children, I brought you up and raised you. Stop, my boy, you're hurting me." Her husband struggled briefly with the soldiers but said nothing as tears rolled down his cheeks. It appears that the Ceausescus were thereupon executed.
Various stories surfaced in the world press after the execution of the Ceausescus on Christmas day, 1989. The official line taken by the National Liberation Front was that the execution had to be carried out immediately after the trial's conclusion because of a serious threat from Securitate forces who, refusing to lay down their arms, might have attempted to liberate the Ceausescus and restore them to power. Later, however, it became clear that Securitate resistance had been no more than sporadic and that dramatic television footage of destruction in Bucharest misrepresented the extent of fighting in the capital. When the National Salvation Front failed to either bring Securitate "terrorists" to trial or indeed even mention them again, many grew suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the death of the Ceausescus. The question now was not whether their regime had been corrupt and repressive but whether the new Rumanian government had eliminated the hated Ceausescu clan in a planned coup d'etat, rather than as the result of a spontaneous mass uprising, and was thus in fact little more than a thinly veiled continuation of the old Communist order.
Both the nature and actions of the tribunal became increasingly suspicious in March 1990, when its presiding officer, Major General Gica Popa, shot himself in the heart; the official cause given was "a severe nervous breakdown," but not until his unexpected suicide had Popa or any of the other members of the tribunal been publicly identified as having served on it. The growing suspicions about what took place on Christmas day, 1989, gained support in April 1990, when French television broadcast both the official as well as pirated versions of the trial and execution of the Ceausescus. Major discrepancies between the two versions made it clear that several questions about the trial and execution needed to be answered by the new Rumanian government. Among them was the issue of Victor Stanculescu, one of the members of the 10-man military tribunal, who was a former Securitate general. Stanculescu admitted in 1990 that he had promised the Ceausescus a helicopter to carry them away to safety when he in fact delivered them to the hastily assembled tribunal. The behavior of both Nicolae and Elena on the trial tape makes it appear likely that reports that they had been told that the trial was a formality and after its conclusion they would be able to return to Bucharest were correct, for not until the announcement of the death verdict did they panic and cease their defiance of the tribunal.
Finally, French forensic pathologists who viewed the pirated tape noted that as soon as the dust from what appeared to have been the Ceausescus' execution had settled, military doctors appeared on the scene to be certain death had occurred. On the official tape, Elena lay over a stream of blood, yet when a doctor lifts her head it is stiff with no running blood; also, the blood on her head and on the ground could clearly be seen to have coagulated. Rigor mortis had set, suggesting that when the tape was made she had already been dead four or five hours. In contrast, Nicolae's body was less rigid and his head bobbed when lifted by the doctors; like his wife, no blood trickled from his head wounds. Experts concluded on the basis of this evidence that he was killed well after his wife. In other words, there was compelling evidence that the official Rumanian tape of the execution was a fabrication, and that both Ceausescus had been killed well before their official "execution," then their bodies were propped against the wall some hours later at which point soldiers were ordered to fire on them. The French report prompted a series of vehement denials from a representative of the state-controlled Rumanian television network, who told the Paris newspaper Libération, "the place was surrounded by Securitate who wanted to free them." Having earlier been told many different versions of the trial and execution, few chose to believe this latest Rumanian spin on an increasingly elusive truth.
In death as in life, Elena Ceausescu remained linked to a system of lies, corruption and deception. Even her final hours remained a mystery. The Ceausescus left a profoundly negative legacy to their people, a society of material impoverishment and a political culture that was morally depleted and spiritually devastated. The dynastic neo-Stalinism imposed by the Ceausescu clan had paralyzed an entire nation's civil society and traumatized its populace by the irrational sacrifices imposed during the Ceausescu era. Burdened by its history, as the 20th century came to an end Rumania faced immense difficulties as it attempted to meet the challenges of political freedom, economic competition and individual moral responsibility.
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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia