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Walking the charming cobbled streets of modern-day Romania, John Simpson remembers the miserable spring of 1989 before Ceaucescu fell
The old lady has had a great deal more than just a face-lift, she has been born again. And for those of us who knew her in the bad old days, it’s hard to come to terms with this.
Bucharest, which was once grindingly poor, its streets empty and forbidding, now seethes with people. They no longer shuffle round in dark, gloomy, badly cut clothes. On the contrary, they wear bright colours, even in the winter. The shops are full of attractive things, and expensive cars drive past at high speed. As with every former Iron Curtain country, some people are doing very well indeed. There is quite good television now, and some rubbishy tabloids. But on balance, Romania is hugely better than it used to be.
And yet, when I came here in the Cold War days, I enjoyed it – in a masochistic sort of way. Every word you said was listened to; every step you took monitored. One person in three was supposedly on the payroll of the Securitate, the secret police.
One dark night, the rain lashing down, my producer and I crept out nervously to meet an underground human-rights activist. She had been described to us as staunchly loyal, the bravest of the brave. Maybe, but she still turned us in to the Securitate the next day.
That left us with a certain amount of explaining to do, since I was claiming to be an historian from Cambridge University. “I think,” said the cynical, witty Securitate colonel who interrogated me, “that you are not a history man at all, but a BBC correspondent.” “It’s an amazing coincidence,” I said gamely, “but there is someone with my name who works for the BBC.” “And has exactly your voice,” said the colonel; “you see, I listen to the BBC often.” “But that’s forbidden here.” “To the Securitate, nothing is forbidden,” he said, with a sinister smile.
It was Easter 1989. If you had told me that eight months later, the old dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would be overthrown, and that I would be on hand to witness it, I would have thought you were delusional. And if you had told me that Romania would one day be a member of the European Union, I would have thought you completely insane.
That spring was miserable in Romania. President Ceausescu had decided to pay back every penny his country had borrowed from the West. There were savage cuts on food supplies, on electricity, on consumer goods of all kinds. I have never seen shops so empty anywhere, before or since.
The Securitate man let us go, but warned that we would be closely followed wherever we went. We decided to take a drive to Transylvania, ostensibly to follow in the footsteps of Dracula, but actually to search for the historic villages which Ceausescu had ordered to be bulldozed. He wanted to gather the population of Romania into vast concrete collectives.
Our cameraman, who was travelling with his remarkably plucky wife to make it look as though we were two holidaying couples, got sufficient footage to make a first-class report when we got back. But we saw no sign of the destroyed villages. In fact, after the revolution, we discovered that only one village had actually been knocked down. It was on Ceausescu’s route between his favourite palace and Bucharest, and it was demolished to demonstrate to him that his orders were being obeyed. But even his diehard loyalists couldn’t bring themselves to obliterate any more villages.
We went back to Romania on the day Ceausescu stood on his balcony and heard the crowd booing. He jumped in a helicopter and flew off, but was quickly captured. A few days later, on Christmas Day, Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who was even tougher than he was, were executed by a firing squad. The Balkans are not a good place for deposed dictators. The news of the Ceausescus’ death came through 15 minutes before I had to go on air that night, and I wrote my report at breakneck speed. It was only when I had finished that I realised I had written Ceausescu’s obituary with his own pen. His housekeeper had given it to me when we interviewed her that morning.
It was a wild, violent time. Earlier that day, the BBC cameraman had spotted through his telescopic lens that Adrian, our Romanian translator, was one of a group of Securitate snipers firing down at the crowds in the street from a rooftop. I confronted him with the pictures.
“Ah,” he said without pausing, “I have been infiltrating the Securitate on behalf of the revolutionaries.” I contacted a leading revolutionary, who confirmed that this improbable story was true. Yet, as so often happens in this part of the world, I was left with the realisation that I had no understanding of what was going on. “Well,” I found myself saying, like some tetchy schoolmaster, “just don’t let me find you shooting at anyone again.”
Today I walk the cobbled streets trying to remind myself that all of this really did happen in this charming European city. This was the place I lay in the gutter with flying bullets singing in my ears; this is where I attempted to stop the tank commander firing at the National Library; and over there is the lovely 1920s hotel where we were once arrested, and then celebrated Romania’s first free Christmas in decades.
The weird thing is, you’d never dream from looking around you today that any of it happened. Nowadays you don’t have to creep into Romania pretending to be someone else. You can just turn up and have a nice holiday.
John Simpson is the BBC world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on the BBC World news channel. BBC World is available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected flights.