In response to:

The Revolt of the Romanians from the February 1, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

We have read with great interest the article “The Revolt of the Romanians” by Pavel Campeanu published in The New York Review of February 1, 1990, and we were pleased to learn that he also is the anonymous author of “Birth and Death in Romania,” a thoughtful and harrowing account of the hardships of living under the Ceausescu regime, published in the October 23, 1986, issue of The New York Review. The events of the dramatic last few weeks in Romania, and particularly the indiscriminate violence against the population unleashed by the Securitate on behalf of the deposed dictator, as a result of which thousands died, explains why Mr. Campeanu had to withhold his authorship of the courageous 1986 indictment of the Ceausescu regime.

Mr. Campeanu’s new article about the fall of Ceausescu contains valuable information about, and some shrewd insights into, the psychology of one of the worst dictators of our time. What Mr. Campeanu has to say about Ceausescu’s character—based on first-hand knowledge, since both he and Ceausescu were political prisoners for anti-Nazi activities during World War II, sharing a cell for some time and then being inmates in the same Special Penitentiary near Timisoara for two years—is of great interest and might serve for a more extensive moral portrait of a Communist tyrant.

The overall picture of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania offered by Mr. Campeanu remains, however, incomplete: it has little to say about the background against which one should attempt to understand Ceausescu historically, including the grotesque but ultimately horrifying “cult of personality” he was able to organize.

Very briefly, we would like to point out that Mr. Campeanu’s account, while rich in facts (hence its undeniable narrative qualities and dramatism), does not present an analysis of these facts or suggest a broad historical-political framework for such an analysis. After all, Ceausescu did not emerge out of the blue: his rise to prominence can be understood only against the background of the Romanian communist political culture, with its unrepentant Stalinist features: the cult of the leader, a conspiratorial mentality, fanaticism and anti-intellectualism, and, more than anything else, an endemic deficit of legitimacy. In the absence of such a framework, a reader who is not aware of the post-war history of Romania might come to the conclusion that the Ceausescu phenomenon was an aberration, a tragic accident, or, metaphorically speaking, the successful highjacking of a society by a ruthless individual and his small clique of henchmen. Actually, according to Mr. Campeanu, the accession to power of Ceausescu—the actual “highjacking” took place later, when his position was secure—was due to his ability to dissemble, to hide his real hateful character. Mr. Campeanu writes: “The vicious side of [Ceausescu’s] character, which was so clear to us young political prisoners, he somehow managed to hide from others, including Gheorghiu-Dej, the future leader of the Romanian Communist party and of the country…. In March 1965, before his death, Gheorghiu-Dej appointed Ceausescu as his successor.”

This is Mr. Campeanu’s only mention of Gheorghiu-Dej, the Stalinist Romanian leader for nearly two decades, under whose harsh rule hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were sent to the Romanian gulags (including the pharaonic Danube-Black Sea Canal, where tens of thousands lost their lives during the 1950s). Gheorghiu-Dej, who ruthlessly eliminated his rivals (Ana Pauker, Teohari Georgescu, Vasile Luca) or savagely murdered them (Lucretiu Patrascanu), and who rejected the de-Stalinization initiated by the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (1956), was actually the originator of “national Communism” in Romania, as a means to preserve the Stalinist structure of the party and its rule. Profiting from the Sino-Soviet split, it was Gheorghiu-Dej who started the nationalistic policies which Ceausescu continued, acquiring the reputation of an anti-Kremlin maverick. It was also Gheorghiu-Dej who, in his opposition to the Russians, and in order to acquire a measure of badly needed popularity, started the quasi-liberalization of the mid-1960s, from which Ceausescu profited to consolidate his power until 1971, the year when he felt secure enough to launch his own version of a Chinese-style mini-cultural revolution. What should be clear is that Ceausescu (whether he managed to fool Gheorghiu-Dej about his character or not), inherited an effective Stalinist system of government, which was in the process of changing its “international” (read pro-Soviet) orientation for a “national” one. As Mr. Campeanu certainly knows, it was Nicolae Ceausescu who, as a Politburo member and as Central Committee secretary in charge of personnel affairs (1955–1965), presided over the ruthless anti-intellectual witchhunts in the late 1950s. It was also he who displayed unique cruelty in suppressing peasant rebellions during the forced collectivization of Romanian agriculture. In other words, these features of Ceausescu’s political make-up were well-known even before his appointment as party leader in March 1965. As soon as he became Secretary General, in typical Stalinist style, Ceausescu started purging the party of Gheorghiu-Dej’s supporters and promoted his own men, increasingly his own family and clan, to achieve absolute power after 1971.

Mr. Campeanu ignores these systemic antecedents to Ceausescu’s rule. A man with Ceausescu’s despicable character, but also with a long Party career, could not have come to power, and have exerted power unchallenged for over two decades, without a well-functioning Stalinist system, a system capable of temporary tactical retreats (as was the quasi-liberalization of the mid-1960s) without losing its grip on the levers of power or its totalitarian inner logic. Far from inventing the repressive mechanism, Ceausescu carried it to its nightmarish extreme.

As for the recent anti-Ceausescu popular revolution (which was more profoundly an anti-Communist revolution), we think that Mr. Campeanu’s account is factually correct but that it lays too much emphasis on certain internal events which “precipitated the downfall of Ceausescu” (such as the March 1989 open letter signed by six former party officials, the unorganized activities of dissident intellectuals, or the November Party Congress—which was actually a non-event), while paying too little attention to the international situation, specifically to the downfall of hard-line regimes in all the neighboring countries as a result of popular uprisings, certainly a contagious example, and most importantly, to the Soviet renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine, which made it clear to the Romanians that, for the first time after World War II, they were free to rebel without fear of a foreign intervention. Paradoxically, even though Ceausescu became famous in the West as an anti-Soviet maverick, his horrendous regime was in fact protected, particularly during the Brezhnev years, but also thereafter, by the possibility of a Soviet intervention. Only during the last two or three years of utter desperation was a Soviet intervention—thought to be the only way to remove Ceausescu from power—contemplated with some ambiguous, rather bitter hope by some Romanians. Fortunately, such an intervention, which would have been a catastrophe for the national psyche of the Romanian people, was neither possible (from the point of view of the Russians) nor necessary.

Matei Calinescu, Comparative Literature, Indiana University
Thomas G. Pavel, French and Comparative Literature, Princeton University
Vladimir Tismaneanu, Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
Dorin Tudoran, Editor, Agora, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Pavel Campeanu replies:

First, I’d like to thank the four signers of the letter for taking interest in my recent article and commenting on it. In view of present conditions in Romania, my response is shorter than I would have liked. Their favorable comments notwithstanding, they regret 1) that I did not put my analysis within a “broad historical-political framework” and 2) that I did not deal with the “systemic antecedents of Ceausescu’s rule.”
These two criticisms are perfectly justified and I have no disagreements with the additional background supplied by these correspondents. The article did not address—and did not intend to address—either of these two themes. When I was writing the article in December 1989 my main concern was to explain why other Eastern European countries were able to transform themselves through political means, whereas the Romanians had to pay dearly in human lives and material destruction. The answer lies less in the general nature of Stalinism (which pervaded the country) than in the particular brand of Stalinism that the Romanian autocrat imposed upon the social organization of the country.

Between June and December 1989 the disintegration of neo-Stalinism in Eastern Europe reached an unprecedented stage with unimaginable speed. Europe seemed to have entered the final stage of de-Stalinization. Elsewhere, de-Stalinization was carried out without violence, but in Romania violence was the direct result of one man, who was by historical accident, at the moment of the uprising, the absolute ruler over society. Would there have been as many deaths if instead of Ceausescu Romania had been ruled by a Jaruzelski, a Kadar, or a Husak? This is why I concentrated on the links between the personality of the tyrant, the nature of his power, and the bloody repressions of December 1989.

These three factors far outweighed any consideration for the systemic antecedents of the Ceausescu dictatorship. Since my first book published in the United states (The Syncretic Society, M.E. Sharpe, 1980), I have raised questions about the systemic nature of Stalinist social organization; but aside from this general theoretical issue, the central problem in my article was not how Ceausescu’s dictatorship came about but how the violence during Christmas, when I was drawing up my analysis, threatened to precipitate Romania either into civil war or foreign military occupation.

As the January 26 letter from my compatriots across the ocean suggests, we are no longer troubled by such fears. As far as I understand, our theoretical approaches are not incompatible or opposed to one another, but are simply different. When current tensions are relaxed enough to allow us to claim our own past, the time will come for reflections on this complex moment of our history that will be far broader and more diverse than the brief analysis undertaken during the tragic events of December.

This Issue

April 12, 1990