LONDON — He basked as sycophants proclaimed him the "Genius of the Carpathians," but Nicolae Ceausescu will be remembered instead as the doddering tyrant whose incomprehensible belief that he could stay the same while all around him changed finally cost him his life.
Even as he carefully crafted an image of independence from his neighbors in what used to be called the Soviet Bloc, the longtime Romanian leader built a family dynasty and ruthlessly insisted on unquestioning obedience from his own subjects.
As a decade and an era ended in Eastern Europe--as 90 million people in country after country rejected one party dictatorship under the approving eye of the Kremlin--Ceausescu's only response was to suggest a military intervention to preserve the old ways.
He earned most of his once favorable Western image by refusing to join in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but by 1989 he was ready to help shoot down Solidarity supporters in Poland.
By all indications, he truly believed he could keep his impoverished nation of 23 million somehow apart from the most extraordinary year of peacetime change in Europe since "the springtime of the nations" in 1848.
And when his moment of clarity came--when an angry crowd did the unthinkable and shouted him down during another cliche-ridden speech in Bucharest last Friday--all he could do was stare slack-jawed, a bewildered old man about to run.
Not everyone was happy about the way Ceausescu, who would have been 72 next month, and his equally dictatorial wife, Elena, were said to have met their ends. The leaders of Romania's 11-day-old popular uprising had at first pledged an open trial that would have provided a clear break from the lynch law imposed for 24 years by the man they overthrew.
Instead, according to the official announcement, Romania's new leaders also resorted to a secret trial and summary executions, citing, among other reasons, the 60,000 killings for which they held his regime responsible.
Whatever he once was, Ceausescu became not so much a rigidly orthodox Communist as a cruel and calculating medieval potentate.
Critics saw his vaunted refusal to march to the Kremlin's drumbeat as mostly a sham designed to boost his stature as a world statesman and to cater to his countrymen's resentment of Moscow for annexing a large chunk of what was once Romania and turning it into the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
For years, the West applauded as Ceausescu refused to allow Soviet troops to be stationed in Romania, maintained relations with Israel, criticized the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and defied a Warsaw Pact boycott by sending his athletes to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Queen Elizabeth knighted him, and the United States extended his country most-favored-nation trade status, choosing to overlook the fact that he maintained his power at home through a cruel security apparatus rivaled only by that of North Korea's Kim Il Sung.
It was said that wherever three or more Romanians gathered, at least one was reporting to the Securitate secret police. It was estimated that at least one in every 30 citizens was either in jail, internal exile, or otherwise legally restricted in some way. His was a country in which a citizen had to apply for a police permit to own a typewriter.
The United States finally withdrew his "most favored" trade status last year, and on the day he was deposed last week, Buckingham Palace also withdrew his knighthood.
Asked if it had been a mistake not to cancel the honor sooner, the British government's Foreign Office minister in charge of Eastern Europe, William Waldegrave, said the hope at the time was "that signs of independence from the Soviet line in foreign policy might be followed by signs of independence in terms of the internal policies. I don't think that was an unreasonable hope, but it was severely disappointed."
While both the West and Ceausescu may have seen his contributions in foreign policy as more valuable than they really were, at least one of them did contribute to a breakthrough.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin credited the Romanian leader with mediating the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic 1977 peace mission to Jerusalem.
Begin said in an interview after his retirement that during a visit to Bucharest he had asked Ceausescu if he could persuade Sadat "to come visit us." Ceausescu later convinced Sadat of Begin's desire for peace with Egypt, which cleared the way for the Jerusalem visit, the Israeli leader stated.
While he refused to participate in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, there was never any danger that he would follow Alexander Dubcek's lead and try to give Romanian socialism a "human face."
On the contrary, his rule was often likened to that of the late Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin. And like Stalin, he had become the venerated object of a "cult of personality."