Fond memories of a hated tyrant

Romania: Democracy has brought hard times to this country and some are beginning to wonder whether life under Nicolae Ceausescu was so bad after all.

April 23, 1999|By TOBY SMITH | TOBY SMITH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUCHAREST, Romania -- One way to find out what people are thinking is to visit the dead.

At Ghencea Civil Cemetery, in the southeastern corner of the capital, dozens of Romanians each day pause and pay their respects at the grave of the longtime Communist tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu.

"I owe everything to him," says Minatiu Ananie, 68. Tiny candles and plump wreaths adorn the earth around the grave. A hammer-and-sickle banner hangs across the headstone.

"When he was alive, I had a home and a working place," says Ananie, wearing a bird's-nest fur hat and mud-splattered pants and coat. "Now it's much worse. He gave you a job, but these days they're throwing you out."

Only a decade ago, Romanians cheered resoundingly at television images of the executions by firing squad of Ceausescu and his harsh, vain wife, Elena. The event became the focal point of a revolution that helped summon democracy for Romania's 23 million people.

How can they mourn him now? Could Ugandans shed tears for Idi Amin? A recent poll showed that half of Romanians believe life was better during the 41 years that this Balkan country was a marionette state with strings pulled by Moscow.

Small, stammering, nearly illiterate, Ceausescu was unlikely hero material. He was born in 1918 to a violent, alcoholic father and a mother who thought so little of her son that she gave his first name to another child who followed. He worked as a cobbler, then became a Communist Party hack and outmaneuvered others to take power in 1965.

For a while he was considered a "good Communist" in the West for taking stands at variance with the Kremlin -- as during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But he became megalomaniacal and suspicious, and his countrymen paid dearly for his personality cult.

He razed hundreds of historic villages to build communal housing. He tore down churches and neighborhoods in Bucharest to construct a hideous, wedding-cake palace, the second-largest building in the world after the Pentagon. He had history books rewritten to mythologize his deeds. Secret police silenced dissent.

To pay off foreign debt and make Romania independent, Ceausescu shut off heat, hot water and electricity for home use and allowed deliveries of food to dwindle. Romanians, he scoffed, were too fat anyway. He and his self-indulgent wife ate from groaning buffet tables.

So despised were the Ceausescus that their burial site was supposed to have remained secret, ostensibly to prevent its despoliation by body-snatchers. The graves were humbly marked with simple wooden crosses bearing pseudonyms of two reserve colonels.

Later, Nicolae's marker was replaced with a handsome engraved headstone and his real name. Elena, however, still has a rickety wooden cross with her name scribbled in Magic Marker. The body of their son, Nicu, a playboy and drunkard who died in 1996 of cirrhosis of the liver, lies nearby.

It is here where Minatiu Ananie stops twice a week to reflect and meditate.

"I had everything when Ceausescu was alive," he says, stroking the gray stubble on his jaw. "Retirees had a beer and a newspaper in their hands every day. I haven't had a beer in two months. I can't afford one. I only read the newspaper on the bus when I look over someone's shoulder."

For several years, Ananie was a driver for Casa Scinteii, the giant fortress that once housed all the Communist newspapers in Bucharest. Retired now, he receives a pension of 600,000 lei a month, less than $60. "If it wasn't for Ceausescu, I wouldn't get anything," he says.

It's true, admits Ananie, that Ceausescu banned abortions and let the elderly die rather than permit them to undergo surgery. Nevertheless, he insists, "he cared about people, young people especially. The crime rate is higher now than in his time. Romanians thought there would be gold in the streets when he went, but now they realize how great he was. The day he died, I heard it on the radio. I stopped my truck and cried."

On the other side of Bucharest is the Cemetery of the Young Heroes of the Revolution. A 50-ish woman tidies flowers -- wild carnations, mostly -- that surround one among the almost 300 white marble headstones lined up in neat rows.

Ioana Barbu and her husband, Ion, come almost every day since their son died -- Dec. 24, 1989, one day before Nicolae Ceausescu's death. "The revolution has not turned out the way I thought it would," she says.

A photograph shows Mihai Barbu as a young man with brooding eyes and a pompadour. He was 19 when stray bullets cut him down. An army paratrooper, Mihai had been called to defend the country's television station in Bucharest during the revolution that month that killed more than 1,000 people.

Mrs. Barbu has brought her godchild, a winsome young girl in a Woody Woodpecker T-shirt. She was born a year after the revolution. She is Mihaela, named for Mihai.

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