George Orwell was prescient about 1984. The Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu and wife Elena produced TV sets with two-way transmitters – you watched the TV and it ‘watched’ you, although even they must have know it was overkill, given the legions of flesh-and-blood informers
Under the Ceaucsecu dictatorship, Romanians’ in the 1970s-80s were forced into abject poverty – only Albania may have been poorer in the Eastern bloc. People’s desperation for food and warmth was coupled with passivity enforced by the dreaded, mysterious Securitate, or secret police. In this essay, a follow-up to one earlier on the Ceaucescu couple’s personal lifestyle, I’ll describe living conditions and then the Securitate operations. These climaxed in the violent Christmas 1989 revolution, apparently faked-up by the Securitate as cover for installing their own people at the top. To this day, no-one knows what really went on.
The Liberty Center Mall in Bucharest looks like a classy Western shopping mall, with fashion brands, food, a 3D cinema and an ice skating rink. Who would guess it took over the site of one of Ceaucescu’s feeding stations for the city’s populace, dubbed “Hunger Circuses”.
The circus element was a dome on each of the five identical feeding complexes, similar to the city’s actual circus building. The dictator finished two, and three more were under way at the time of the Christmas 1989 revolution or coup, which left him riddled with AK47 bullets. Incredibly, his plan involved preventing Bucharest’s population from kitchen-cooking and family meals, in favor of regimented feeding by the state in giant soup kitchens, officially called “Agro-Alimentary Complexes”.
On Mondays, for example, everyone’s main meal would be, say, goulash; on Tuesday, cabbage rolls; and Wednesday, bean soup. Food shopping other than at the ‘circuses’ would be extinguished. New apartments wouldn’t need kitchens.
It’s unclear whether any Hunger Circus actually got to operate, or how state-sponsored meals could work during food austerity. As one interviewee recorded, perhaps in hypothetical terms, “You go there, you take your three little boxes, you go home, you heat them and eat them. The bad thing is that behind this project there was a terrible idea. Since everything can be found like this, there is no more need for markets for raw products.”
Tony Thomas: The Original Power Couple – Part One
Ceaucescu viewed his subjects like a chicken farmer calculating inputs and outputs. People needed only 3000 calories a day, times the population of 22m. He could reserve the equivalent total of grains, rice, meat, and eggs for the population, leaving the rest for export to earn hard currency to pay off foreign debt. Romania had in 1981 defaulted on these US$11 billion debts after the Iranian oil shock of 1979 and Ceaucescu was determined to never again be dictated to by the IMF. He paid off the last foreign debts a couple of months before he was overthrown. He still spent on the military and his wasteful megaprojects such as the world’s biggest administration building, today 90% mothballed.
In practice, he cut food consumption under the pretence of more healthy diets. Only a few months before his execution, Ceaucescu was lying to a Newsweek interviewer that Romanians were among the best-fed on the planet. Shop shelves were full of goods and any empty spaces were just corrections to over-stocking mistakes, he claimed.
He may have half-believed it, as his flunkies sheltered him from the country’s realities of rationing and hunger. When he travelled, farms were dressed up with fat cows, dense crops and apples wired to branches. On one visit he picked a fat corn cob, discovered it had been installed there, and just shrugged. (In similar vein, Mao Tse-tung’s flunkies even organized giant fans to make fake wheatfields wave when Mao’s train passed by).
The Romanian horror and hypocrisy was summed up in an anonymous letter broadcast by Radio Free Europe:
“I find the children yellow and sleepy, because the kindergarten food is scarce and bad. However the children ask for it so the Party takes care and gives each child a small pill to take away the appetite.”
Citizens queued from 4am just to get milk when shops opened at 7am. They queued for up to 24 hours in the hope of meat, at best maybe chicken heads, necks or feet. Retired people and children queued as place-holders while parents worked. Kids were also the eyes and ears of apartment blocks, alerting the tenants to grab their bags the minute a food truck came in view. But there could well be nothing left by the time the shop keepers had taken their first cut, the privileged had jumped the queue, and people hurried in to switch with the placeholders.
Queue dwellers passed the time grumbling about scarcities. It could be hazardous. One man in a butter queue exploded, “The hell with Ceaucescu and everything” and suddenly two men materialized and took him away.
As sociologist Katherine Verdery put it,
“The experience of humiliation, of a destruction of dignity, was common to those who had waited for hours to accomplish (or fail to accomplish) some basic task. Being immobilized for some meagre return, during which time one could not do anything else one might find rewarding, was the ultimate experience of impotence.”
To add to the torments, piped natural gas to apartments had such low pressure that day-time cooking was impossible. Many did their cooking after 11pm or from 4am-7am, when gas pressure was better. Those relying on gas cylinders risked trampling when the replacement-cylinder truck arrived and people stole each others’ tanks. Room heating was another nightmare with indoor temperatures below 10C at home, in shops and at work, with 15,000-20,000 dying annually from cold and hunger. As the 1980s wore on, the regime through fuel austerity imposed a bizarre de-modernisation, with peasants told to use horses rather than tractors and businesses urged to use tricycles for supplies and deliveries. Fridges and washing machines were discouraged, and oil lamps brought back into use.
To Prime Minister Elena Ceaucescu, people’s distress was of no consequence. Her indoor palace garden of tropical plants involved infra-red heating sufficient for 100 apartments, I was told during a recent visit. In her limo and noticing a queue, she snarled, “Look at those worms. They’re like worms on a carrion.”
The Securitate stifled any dissent. From post-war to the early 1960s, the regime beat and killed opponents. This changed to a less-lethal system of all-pervasive secrecy and fear. A Hungarian-born dissident, Carol Kiraly, said in 1984, “The atmosphere of terror is beyond description. It permeates every aspect of everyday life. Distrust is so prevalent that no one dares to communicate to anyone.” The Securitate’s operators and informers were invisible to the public and also invisible to fellow operatives. Only those at high Securitate levels knew the bigger picture.
The most sensational disclosure in the book Red Horizons by top-level defector Ion Pacepa was that Ceaucescu organized for opponents to get lethal doses of radiation. Police might pick a man up on a traffic charge and briefly hold him in a cell at the station. No-one suspected that his cancer death six months later had been organized during that arrest.
Pacepa wrote that a portable Soviet-sourced radiation device was planted in the Romanian section of Radio Free Europe in Munich. Three directors in succession and several other people there died of cancers; no other RFE country desk had such a pattern.
After visiting China and North Korea in 1971, Ceaucescu started a personality cult of his own, with his toadies competing to idolize him as the Genius of the Carpathians, a Titan among Titans, the Oak from Scornicesti [his birthplace], All-Knowing Beloved Father, Earthly God, The Oak that Rises Above the Country and even “Prince Charming”.
On 27 January 1987, the national TV station’s two-hour and only broadcast went:
8:00 P.M. – News;
8:20 P.M. – “We praise the country’s leader!” (Poetry);
8:40 P.M.–“Brilliant theoretician and founder of communism” (Documentary dedicated to the theoretical work of Comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu);
9:00 P.M. – “We salute the supreme commander!” (Performance by the artistic brigades of the army). 10pm: Close.
To his fury, Radio Free Europe (RFE), organised by the CIA and State Department, read out smuggled anonymous letters to expose the realities of local life and the cult. To catch such authors, he organized a data base of the whole working and non-working populations’ handwriting, gleaned largely from official forms and permits.
Incredibly, the regime had a female agent installed in RFE from 1952 as personal secretary of the central news director, while the Soviet KGB had a mole there of its own. Ceaucescu in 1977 ordered three PLO mercenaries in Paris to beat RFE desk editor Monica Lovinescu into a ‘living corpse’. The thugs pretended to be delivering a telegram to her home but had to stop their bloody assault when neighbours appeared.
Another plan against RFE involved bombs disguised as books and files. In 1981 a massive bomb blast hit the RFE offices, which Stasi files later revealed to be a job paid for by Ceaucescu and implemented by Carlos the Jackal. KGB defector Oleg Kalugin however claimed the inspiration was from his Department K Counter-Intelligence.
How pervasive was the Securitate? Figures supplied to parliament after 1989 involved 39,000 full-timers supported by 486,000 informers and helpers (for example, providing houses for meetings and contacts). The total of 525,000 is one in 42 of the 23 million population, or an astounding one in 30 of adults. The Romanian Communist Party had 3.5 million members, all of whom also had a duty to help the Securitate. Despite some double-counting, this cohort would lower the ratio even further. 
I like to imagine Romanian statistics applied to my street of 90 households, maybe 300 adults. That’s ten informers up and down the street, reporting to their handlers on loose talk at the tram stop, park or supermarket, along with all our second-hand neighborly gossip about work, marriage spats and dope usage.
The per population figures compare with one in 62 involved with the Stasi in East Germany, where 93,000 full-timers were supported by 178,000 informers. Assuming similar demographics, that’s one in 44 East German adults. Romania’s system of more unpaid informers per full-time officer was obviously cheaper to run. One agent, Victor Mitran, in 1973 claimed to have inherited from his predecessor 60 informers and 500 collaborators. They were supposed to get into “socialist competition” to increase their pool of informers, leading to time-wasting and poor quality recruits.
Back to back, the Securitate files stretch 24km, compared with 80km for the Polish regime’s secret police and 100km-plus for Stasi. However, Securitate files in vast numbers went missing during the post-uprising years, with truckloads found burnt and part-buried outside Bucharest.
Securitate people had ample ability to cover their tracks, as about 40% simply kept working after 1989 for a re-branded security department. (The Communist Party itself rebranded as the ruling “Social Democrats”). The courts delayed files’ publication until 1999, a decade later than other Warsaw Pact countries, and further court obstacles arose well into the 2000s. At 2013, the National Council for the Study of the Securitate (CNSAS) had 2.3 million volumes of paper files (70%), microfilm (25%) and audio and video (5%). Opening the files created a hornet’s nest of misinformation, as files were replete with misleading and undigested material. Unlike the German and Polish opening of files, the Romanian authorities covered-up. They allowed CNSAS only about 250 workers, compared with more than 3000 in Germany and 2000 in Poland.
Older people were prominent in the files on informers because they had more time to hang around in queues and overhear gossip. Recruiting was also active among schoolchildren, who were educated to higher loyalty to the State than to their own family, whom they informed on. Secrecy extended into the internal Securitate. Agents all had false identities and operated in isolated cells, with only high-ups aware of the larger picture. Hence an agent could waste enormous time trying to recruit someone already working for someone else.
Recruits swore a powerful oath of secrecy. They took pride in becoming “infantry on an invisible front”. Their tasks were so time-consuming that real friends fell away. Agents first got to know a potential informer’s weak spots, like minor theft from the workplace, a bribe, an affair or an illegal abortion in the family. After shadowing someone all day, they would be working to midnight writing up reports.
Few women became outdoor agents because they couldn’t hang around places like bars without attracting attention. Wives of agents had a lonely life. As one put it, “Never marry one. You never know when he’s coming home, you don’t know where he’s going, who he is or even what his name is. If he gets very upset with you and grabs your arm, he’ll dislocate your shoulder because he’s in such good physical condition And they have no feelings at all.” One suspicious wife, not believing her husband’s stories (known in the trade as ‘legends’), followed her man, saw the agent and ruined the recruitment.
Ceaucescu aimed for total surveillance of the population. In the late 1960s one secret police department monitored hundreds of thousands of concealed microphones. The plan was for 10 million microphones by 1984, with every family to be checked at least once a year. Targets started with Ceaucescu’s fellow politburo members, seeking material for blackmail or enforced loyalty.
He enforced replacement of three million normal home phones with new models: choice of three styles and five colors. Users were unaware of surveillance wiring sealed into each phone’s bakelite that could be activated at any time. Sockets with further spy-wiring were installed in other rooms.
George Orwell was prescient about 1984. The regime produced TV sets with two-way transmitters – you watched the TV and it ‘watched’ what you said.
All typewriters were registered and samples of their types kept centrally for identifying document authors. Renting or lending typewriters was forbidden and machines were checked annually and after any repair.
Westerners whether in business or tourism were prime targets. The Securitate even created “Westernised” meeting places riddled with microphones, cameras and wiretaps. Not all were successful. The Sole Mio Bar was opened in Bucharest in 1969 but had to shut in a few weeks because too many people – including constructors– gossiped about its peculiarities. An entire hotel was built and staffed for spying on guests, with agents including the 30 cab drivers on the rank and loitering prostitutes. Hotel lobbies and restaurants were supplied with ceramic ashtrays and vases with mikes activated by pulling out a simple pin.
In 2017 two Securitate chiefs died. The first in August was Tudor Postelnicu, 86, Securitate head 1978-87, turned Interior Minister 1987-89 under Ceaucescu. He got four years for aggravated murder in 1990, released early on health grounds, was jailed again 1998-99, and was on trial for murder at the time of his death. In the 1989 overthrow of the regime, he ordered the massacre of Timisaura demonstrators in which 90 died.
The second death in September was of his successor in the Securitate, Iulian Vlad, who headed it during 1989 revolution. He was also 86. At a Politburo meeting on Dec. 17, 1989, Ceausescu berated Vlad, for treason for not stopping the rebellion. Soldiers had fired blanks at the Bucharest crowds, leading to an outburst from Ceausescu, recorded in the meeting’s official minutes:
“I didn’t think you would shoot with blanks! That is like a rain shower. Those who entered the party building should not leave the building alive. They’ve got to kill the hooligans!”
Elena Ceausescu, who was present, added that the protesters should be locked in the Securitate building’s basement. “Not even one should see the light again,” she said.
In choatic days after the Ceaucescus execution, Vlad claimed to have switched sides to join the revolutionaries. In the mysterious street fighting, Vlad’s night-time snipers armed with infrared sights were particularly feared. Vlad was sentenced to twelve years in 1991 for ‘favoring genocide’ and ‘aggravated murder’ but amnestied in 1994 under an age provision (60+ years).
The officers and troops had been cut off from genuine information and told that Romania was undergoing a Soviet-backed invasion supported by local ‘terrorists’ wanting to detach Transylvania from the country. However, not a single “terrorist” was ever brought to trial. The most popular theory is that Ceaucescu’s successor and former apparatchik Ion Iliescu stage-managed his coup using troops as his unwitting actors against mythical ‘terrorists’. The cost in blood was about 1000 deaths and 2000 wounded in the few days after Ceaucescu’s exit from Bucharest.
Among the horrific incidents was one squad of troops being sent to the basement of the Politburo building by one stairway to deal with pro-Ceaucescu ‘terrorists’. This was immediately after the Ceaucescus flew out by helicopter. Another squad was ordered down the opposite stairway with the same mission. They shot at each other in bloody confusion.
At the barracks outside Bucharest in the early hours of the morning of December 24, 83 conscripts called “ducklings”, 18 years old, were ordered into three trucks to the international Otopeni airport to block ‘terrorists’ from flying out with the Ceaucescus and the country’s treasury reserves. The trucks were followed by a routine passenger bus. As they entered the airport checkpoints, the four vehicles were riddled by cross-fire from heavy machine guns manned by hidden troops who had been fed the same anti-terrorist story. The corpses were meant to be secretly disposed of, but 48 bodies were just dumped by forklifts in the cargo terminal, to be found by workers arriving on Christmas Day.
“Of all the hundreds of speeches [Ceaucescu’s successor] Iliescu made and has made since then,” recalled Cordruta Cruceanu, curator of the national gallery in Bucharest, “the one that sticks in my mind was when he said: ‘In a country like Romania, it was impossible to have a revolution, so it had to be staged.’ That is the closest he has ever come to admitting what almost everybody believes, or knows, to have happened.”
Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable, 60 Years in Print, is available here.
 Verdery, Katherine: Secrets and Truth, Ethnography in the Archives of the Romanian Secret Police. Central University Press. Budapest 2014. P59
 Ion Pacepa, Red Horizons, Regnery Gateway, Washington DC , 1990 p149
 Verdery, Katherine: op cit. Kindle refce 1417/3945
 The victim was Gheorghe Ursu, an engineer, beaten to death in 1985 when critical thoughts were found in his diary