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The Romanian Revolution Didn't End 25 Years Ago

When you can say "it's been a quarter-century" about something, it's not surprising that it feels like a lifetime ago. But during the most violent uprising of 1989, I can only remember peace. On the 22nd of December in Blaj, not a soul stirred. I remember looking out the window and all I could see was a ghost town. It seemed as thought even the stray dogs knew that it wasn't a good time to be out in the open. I think we all expected the army to come in. We heard about the uprising and deaths in Timisoara, we knew that Bucharest was in full revolt, and there was little information beyond that. I don't know why I don't remember anything on TV that day - maybe the antenna was broken and we had no signal.

I was secretely excited by the thought of seeing a real-live tank rumble past. And anyway, in my mind, the soldiers were the good guys. We also kept waiting to hear the gunfire that would signal that the revolution had arrived to Blaj, but there too, I was disappointed. Except at one point in the afternoon. We heard a shot from the direction of the train station and we all thought, "this is it, the Revolution!" But that really was it, the one solitary shot in Blaj. We later found out it was a negligent discharge by a reservist tasked with guarding the train station. Nobody was hurt. But his friends probably never let him live that one down.

And then there was peace. It's hard to believe that a child could understand what it means to escape the yoke of a totalitarian regime, but I knew. My younger siblings all knew. I think that every living thing in Romania knew that the bogeyman whose portrait hung in every classroom, office, and public space in the country was a bogeyman no more.

The next few days were a whirlwind. We'd moved to our grandma's house temporarily and the TV there worked well enough. We saw the crowds that stormed the palace. We heard about dog food for the first time (Ceausescu fed his dogs with dog food, not scraps and bones the way other people fed their dogs). Images of dead, naked, people plastered the screen.  We now know most of those were just random dead bodies from the morgue. They all had autopsy stitches from their navel to their chest and the people watching just didn't know any better. But it served the Iliescu faction very well to keep the confusion going with talks of 'terrorists' killing civilians. I guess the USA had to learn it from somewhere...

And then, the tyrant was caught and his reign was officially over. The trial was televised into every home in the country, the OJ trial had nothing on it. I remember my surprise at how aged and grandfatherly Ceausescu looked. All of his portraits showed him a good twenty years younger, wrinkle-free, bright-eyed, watching benevolently over 'his people.' The bastard.

Thinking back to it now it's obvious the entire thing was a sham. Old and delusional though he was, killing him kept him from fingering all the underlings who bore just as much responsibility for the state of Romania. A Ceausecu testimony might've been the one good thing he'd ever done for his country. It's often said his IMF debt repayment policy of the '80s was a great accomplishment as Romania was the only debt-free country entering the '90s. But at what cost? Was it worth being the only country in Europe more akin to a third-world country? Was it worth starving and terrorizing a population of 20 million people? I'm really asking here, because if you're capable of praising him for repaying the national debt, you should also be able to justify his methods.

The execution was so sudden that even then, in some sense, it was somewhat anti-climactic. A quarter-century of dictatorship snuffed out in a volley of AK-47 bullets. And it's still the best Christmas I ever had.

All of a sudden, people who'd stayed away from my dissident parents were our best friends. My father was 'elected' mayor. People who (we later found out) informed on my parents were now ardent anti-communists. As it turns out, everyone actually hated Ceausescu and they'd finally found the courage to speak out against the injustice of the past twenty-plus years. Yeah, I guess it's easy to be bitter even now. I'm proud of my parents for their willingness to sign Doinea Cornea's letters, for their inflexibility in the face of the Communist Party, and for their brave stand against the tyranny of the cowardly and apathetic masses, but mostly, for instilling into all of us (without meaning to, I'm sure) the greatest value of all: 'the duty to perpetual revolution'.

"I believe in life and in people, I feel obliged to advocate their highest ideals as long as I believe them to be true, since shrinking from that would be a cowardly evasion of duty. I also see myself compelled to revolt against ideals I believe to be false, since recoiling from this rebellion would be a form of treason. This is the meaning of perpetual revolution." - From Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz

And now, as every year on this date, I can't help thinking of the people who died on the streets in 1989. The official narrative honours them as victims of anti-communist struggle. But in truth, they were the first victims of the new regime. One that was to terrorize the country for another twenty-five years. This is why we have to remember them. They didn't die to appease an already dying monster, they died because they believed Romania could be better. Had to be better. It's up to each of us to live up to those expectations regardless of the bogeymen who lead us. The revolution didn't end twenty-five years ago. As long as we believe in life and in people and we continue to revolt against the ideals we know to be false, the revolution is now.


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