Twenty Years After the Fall of a Tyrant

Romania's tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu ran one of Europe's most ruthlessly repressive dictatorships until 1989 when he and his wife Elena were overthrown by their captive subjects and executed on television. The country had been so thoroughly brutalized by its own government that it was still an emergency room case even years after its communist rulers were dispatched. Unlike some formerly Eastern bloc countries, its reputation still hasn't recovered entirely even though it belongs to the European Union and NATO.

Ceausescu and his wife. One of Europe's most brutal tyrants.

Ceausescu and his wife. One of Europe's most brutal tyrants.

"Last time I was in Romania," independent foreign correspondent Michael Yon said to me in an email, "it was terrible. It was like hell."

"The featureless plain filled with cardboard and scrap-metal squatters' settlements as awful as many I had seen in Africa, Asia, and Latin America," Robert D. Kaplan wrote in his outstanding book Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus about his journey in the year 2000 from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. Romania, he wrote at the time, despite its location in Europe, was a Third World country. "The train [from Hungary] began to move," he wrote. "My face was glued to the window. An elevated hot water pipe caught my eye. Where the pipe's shiny new metal and fiberglass insulation ended and rusted metal and rags began—the same point where mounds of trash and corrugated shacks began to appear, where cratered roads suddenly replaced paved ones—marked Romania."

The country doesn't look anything like the Third World anymore. It would not be in the European Union if it did. I was slightly surprised, though, by how many scars from the communist era were still visible when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me and three of my colleagues to visit near the end of 2009.

Some Western Europeans seemed to lose a bit of confidence in themselves and their civilization after the near-apocalyptic traumas of the two world wars, but Romanians, like others in Eastern Europe, have emerged from a third and much more recent trauma in a different emotional state. Bogdan Aurescu, Romania's Secretary of State for Strategic Affairs, spoke for most of his countrymen as he explained it.

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Read the entire article on the Michael J. Totten website.

Date posted: April 15, 2010