As a journalist in the 1980s I covered many of the events described in this book. It was more than just a story for me. My family had fled Hungary and, a tiny child, I was a refugee from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’. From my earliest memories people around me were speaking as though the all-powerful Soviet empire which had transformed our lives would be there for ever. It turned out to be far weaker than everybody supposed. I am lucky that I was there at some of the crucial points as it fell, amid the excitement and drama that I describe here.
London, December 2008.
Târgovite, Romania, Monday 25 December 1989.
AT 11 . 45 A.M. TWO MILITARY HELICOPTERS landed outside the army barracks in Târgovite, a bleak steel town 120 kilometres north of Bucharest built in the brutalist style favoured by Communist dictators from Stalin onwards. From the larger aircraft emerged six army generals in immaculate uniforms weighed down by gold braid and medals. They were followed by three lower-ranking officers attached to the Romanian General Staff, along with a group of four civilians.
One man, clearly in charge, began to bark orders as soon as the delegation touched down after its thirty-minute flight from the capital. He was silver-haired, fifty-three-year-old General Victor Stnculescu, representative of the newly formed National Salvation Front government that had yet to win complete control over Romania. That morning he had been given an urgent task that required some delicacy and plenty of ruthlessness: he was told to organise the trial of Nicolae Ceauescu, Romanian dictator for almost a quarter of a century, and his wife Elena. Three days earlier, amidst jubilant scenes of revolutionary fervour, the couple had been forced to flee their capital. They had been captured within a few hours and were held at the Târgovite barracks while their fate was decided in Bucharest. Forces loyal to Ceauescu - the Securitate secret police - were still fighting to reinstate him as President. The uncertain revolutionary government finally decided it had to act speedily to bring the Ceauescus to justice and to show Romanians who was now in charge of the country.
Stanculescu was chosen as the fixer. A tall, elegant man, he was known as a smooth and subtle operator. In the old regime, until 22 December, he had been Deputy Minister of Defence, a long-time friend of the ruling family, regular dinner companion at the Presidential Palace and one of the chief sycophants of the Ceausescu court. But he was quick to see the wind change and was among the first senior army officers in Romania to pledge loyalty to the revolution. Along with his political flair for timing he was also a meticulous organiser. He had brought with him from Bucharest the judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers needed for a trial. Stanculescu had also attended to other details. In the second helicopter, he had placed a specially selected team of paratroopers from a crack regiment, handpicked earlier in the morning to act as a firing squad. Before the legal proceedings began the General had already selected the spot where the execution would take place - along one side of the wall in the barracks’ square.1
A ‘court room’ had been hastily prepared in a shabby lecture hall with rust-coloured walls. Five plastic-covered tables served as the bench. A dock had been set up with two tables and chairs in a corner. The squalid surroundings may have lacked the dignity usually thought necessary for such a momentous event, but from Stanculescu’s point of view they served their purpose. When the delegation from Bucharest arrived in the room just after midday the accused were already sitting down, flanked by two guards. Three days earlier Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu had been the most feared and hated couple in the country. They had the power of life and death over twenty-three million Romanians. They ran the most brutal police state in Europe. Domestic television and the press hailed them each day as virtual demigods. Now they were simply a querulous and confused old couple, exhausted, nervous, bickering together gently. They were dressed in the same clothes they wore when they made their escape from the capital - he in a black woollen coat over a crumpled grey suit, looking older than his seventy-one years. Elena, a year older, was wearing a fawn-coloured fur-collared coat, with a blue silk headscarf covering her grey hair.
That morning in Bucharest, the prominent lawyer Nicu Teodorescu was having Christmas breakfast with his family when he was telephoned by an aide to the new President, Ion Iliescu, and asked by the National Salvation Front to be the Ceausescus’ defence counsel. He replied that it ‘would be an interesting challenge’. After thinking it through for a few moments he agreed. The first time he met the couple was in the Târgoviste ‘court room’ when he was given ten minutes to consult with his clients. The interview did not go well. With so little time to prepare any defence he tried to explain to them that their best hope of avoiding the death sentence was to plead insanity. The idea was brushed aside gruffly. ‘When I suggested it,’ said Teodorescu, ‘Elena in particular said it was an outrageous set-up. They felt deeply insulted . . . They rejected my help after that.’2
The ‘trial’ began at around 1 p.m. There were five military judges, all generals in uniform, and two military prosecutors. It was public in the sense that a junior officer filmed the event, but he was ordered only to show the defendants. At no point were the judges, prosecutors or defence counsel recorded on film. It lasted fifty-five minutes. The ousted dictator snarled throughout most of the proceedings. On occasions he angrily picked up his black astrakhan cap from the table in front of him and threw it back down again as if to emphasise a point. She was far less demonstrative, looking straight in front of her most of the time. Occasionally they would hold hands and whisper to each other, always addressing each other as ‘my dear’.
There was no written evidence produced against them and no witnesses were called. From the beginning the ex-President rejected the court’s right to try him. ‘I recognise only the Grand National Assembly and the representatives of the working class,’ he said repeatedly. ‘I will sign nothing. I will say nothing. I refuse to answer those who have fomented this
. I am not the accused. I am the President of the republic. I am your commander-in-chief. The National Treason Front in Bucharest . . . usurped power.’
The charges were read out by the prosecutor. Ceausescu’s bravado remained consistent throughout:
PROSECUTOR: These are the crimes we charge against you and ask this tribunal to sentence both of you to death.
2. Organising armed action against the people and the State.
3. The destruction of public assets and buildings.
4. Sabotage of the national economy.
5. Attempting to flee the country with funds of more than US$ 1 billion, deposited in foreign banks.
Have you heard this, accused? Please stand up.
CEAUSESCU: (remains seated) Everything that has been said is a lie. I do not recognise this tribunal.
PROSECUTOR: Do you know you have been dismissed from your position as . . . President of the country? Are the accused aware they face trial as two ordinary citizens?
CEAUSESCU: I do not answer those who, with the assistance of foreign organisations, carried out this coup. The people will fight against these traitors.
PROSECUTOR: Why did you take these measures of bringing the Romanian people to this state of humiliation today . . . Why did you starve this nation you represented?
CEAUSESCU : I refuse to answer questions. I do not recognise you. Everything you allege is a lie . . . I can tell you that never in Romania’s history has there been such progress. We have built schools, ensured there are doctors, ensured there is everything for a dignified life.
PROSECUTOR: Tell us about the money that was transferred to Swiss banks?
CEAUSESCU: I do not answer the questions of a gang which carried out a coup.
Elena was restrained, remaining mostly silent except when the prosecutor asked: ‘We in Romania could not obtain meat. What about the golden scales your daughter used to weigh meat she got from abroad?’ She exclaimed loudly, ‘How can you say such a thing?’ At one point Ceausescu said, ‘Let’s get this over with’ and looked at his watch.3
The court had a recess of just five minutes to consider its verdict and sentence. Ceausescu refused to rise when the judges returned. While the death sentences were read out - along with the confiscation of all their property - neither the president of the court nor the prosecution looked directly at the couple. Asked if they wanted to appeal, they remained silent. Under Romanian law death sentences could be carried out no earlier than ten days after they were promulgated, whether there was an appeal or not. But Teodorescu did not raise this in court. Possibly, the Ceausescus, though they had sent unnumbered people to their deaths, were not aware of this technicality of the law. But it was not a day for legal niceties.a
Justice was summary, squalid and clumsy. Inside the court room, the Ceausescus’ hands were tied behind their backs with rope. Nicolae was dignified and fairly brave in his last few minutes. ‘Whoever staged this coup can shoot anyone they want,’ he said. ‘The traitors will answer for their treason. Romania will live and learn of your treachery. It is better to fight with glory than to live as a slave.’ Elena wept, and was shrill to the end. Almost in hysterics, she shouted, ‘Don’t tie us up. It’s a shame, a disgrace. I brought you up like a mother. Why are you doing this?’ They were escorted forty metres along a corridor into the courtyard of the barracks. As they were being led along, one of the soldiers who had tied their hands said, ‘You’re in big trouble now.’ Elena snarled back at him: ‘Go fuck your mother.’ Nicolae began singing the first few bars of theInternationale
. They seemed to have no idea they were to be executed immediately - until they were outside in the courtyard. Then they looked terrified. ‘Stop it Nicu,’ she shouted. ‘Look they are going to kill us like dogs. I don’t believe this.’ Her last words were ‘If you are going to kill us, kill us together.’4
The firing squad had been made ready around halfway through the trial. Eight paratroopers had originally been selected by Stanculescu and were flown from Bucharest. They did not know what their mission was until they arrived at Târgoviste. Now three were chosen to perform the deed: Dorin Cârlan, Octavian Gheorghiu and Ionel Boeru. Armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, they were standing by a flower bed waiting for the couple when they reached the courtyard. The executioners’ orders were not to fire at Nicolae above chest level. He had to be recognisable in pictures taken after his death. No similar orders were given regarding Elena. The firing squad marched the Ceausescus to a wall, he on the right, she on the left, a pathetic-looking elderly couple. ‘She said they wanted to die together so we lined them up, took six paces back and simply opened fire. No one ordered us to start, we were just told to get it over with,’ Gheorghiu said later. ‘I put seven bullets into him and emptied the rest of the magazine into her head.’ He buckled backwards on his knees. She slumped sideways.5
Chaos ensued. Almost the entire complement of the base had watched the execution. Once the firing squad had completed its business, everyone in the courtyard with a weapon began shooting with abandon at the dead bodies until the barracks commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Mares, ordered them to stop. For many years afterwards there were impact holes of over a hundred bullets along one of the walls in the courtyard and window frames more than ten feet above ground.
The corpses were wrapped in tent cloth. They were taken to the capital by helicopter, guarded by the paratroopers who had executed them. They were unloaded on to a playing field at the Steaua Bucharest football team’s practice ground, in a south-western suburb of the city. In a macabre twist, their bodies were mysteriously mislaid at some point that evening. Frantic army search parties scoured the area all night before finding them the next morning near a shed within the stadium grounds. What happened to the corpses during those few hours remains a mystery. The next day they were buried at the nearby Ghencea cemetery. In death they were laid fifty metres apart, separated by a pathway, and given new names. Plain wooden crosses were found and hastily painted over in simple lettering with false identities - Popa Dan for the feared dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Enescu Vasile for his wife.
THE WORKERS’ STATE
They ran to us shouting,
A cut finger doesn’t hurt.’
But they felt pain.
They lost faith.
Adam Wazyk, ‘Poem for Adults’
THREE YEARS AFTER the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the German Democratic Republic’s ruling regime devised an unorthodox but lucrative business scheme to earn convertible currency from the West. It started trading in human beings. Officials from the East offered to release political prisoners to West Germany in return for a fee. The traffic began on a small scale, a handful at a time. The first few were prominent dissidents, ‘troublemakers’ whom the East Germans did not mind packing off into exile. Within a few years it became a well-oiled business with an infrastructure of its own. A few days before each sale the prisoners were taken to a special, highly secret, jail in Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz) run by the GDR’s intelligence service, the Stasi. A fleet of buses had been built by a West German contractor just for the purpose of ferrying this precious cargo. The vehicles were fitted with revolving number plates - East German for the return trip from the prison to the border and Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) registrations for the time they were in West Germany. Around twice a week groups of ten or so would be driven, early in the morning, to a border post near the city of Jena, where, unusually, they would be waved through by guards without any document searches. They would be in the FRG by lunchtime, on the road to Hanover.1