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BOOK MARK : Elena Ceausescu Shopped at Cartier as Romanians Endured Hardship

July 14, 1991|Edward Behr | Edward Behr, a Newsweek correspondent, is also the author of "Hirohito: Behind the Myth." In December , 1989, Romanians revolted against the Ceausescus, "criminal, paranoid rulers on a grand scale." The author describes how the Romanian leaders lost their realm and their lives. An excerpt

How could Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu have failed to recognize the artificial smiles of their admirers, or that, in the long run, out of sheer frustrated rage, the Romanian compulsion to kiss the hand would be superseded by a savage compulsion to bite it? How could they have agreed to endless prime-time television coverage of their daily ceremonial rounds, usually extending to a full two hours, while ordinary Romanians tried to warm themselves in front of their TV sets in the penumbra of 40-watt bulbs?

Did the Ceausescus ever pause to wonder what ordinary people really thought of them, compelled as they were to "freeze" in the streets four times a day for 30 minutes at a time to allow the nine-car Ceausescu cortege to proceed from the Spring Palace to the center of Bucharest and back, at a time when gasoline was restricted to 30 liters a month or private cars banned altogether? And what kind of insecurity was it that compelled the Ceausescus to go to such lengths to prove to their people that they deserved such adulation?

All personality cults are grotesque, but this one involved a sadomasochistic twist, for as conditions inside Romania worsened, Romanians not only had to endure new privations but also had to praise those responsible for inflicting them in increasingly fulsome terms.

For all the wealth of psychological explanations and character dissection that followed the death of the Ceausescus, a sense of bewilderment prevails in Romanian circles. Not only absolute but also relative power corrupts, and even in democratic societies, where politicians are supposed to remain aware of such pitfalls, most of our political leaders live in a world of such privilege, so divorced from ordinary day-to-day preoccupations, that they tend to forget how the other half lives. The Ceausescus went much further: Their feudal behavior was reminiscent of the brutally high-handed treatment of Romanian peasants in the days preceding independence.

One senior State Department official, accompanying Ceausescu on his last visit to the United States in October, 1987, under the Jimmy Carter presidency, and observing him at close quarters, said he conveyed, irresistibly, the aura of a Latin American dictator, a caudillo, rather than that of a communist leader. By this time, Ceausescu had lost whatever shrewd peasant common sense he once had, walking out of a dinner in New Orleans because the cardinal also present insisted on an invocation before the meal. The gesture caused much adverse publicity and reflected Ceausescu's absurdly inflated self-importance. "He imposed his ideas arrogantly and stupidly, with no trace of the kind of sensitivity a visiting president should have displayed," William H. Luers, the State Department official of ambassadorial rank who accompanied the couple throughout, said.

Ceausescu was equally absurd in overreacting to a jocular statement by the then mayor of New York, Edward I. Koch, who visited him on his last afternoon in New York after a group of Hungarian exiles had demonstrated outside his hotel. "Mr. President," Koch told him in lieu of an apology, "last night some friends of mine were down there demonstrating against you, and they tell me you don't give freedom of religion and cultural freedom to your Hungarians living in Transylvania. Is that right, Mr. President?"

As Ambassador Luers recalled, "Ceausescu went white, turned to me, and said, 'What does the State Department have to say about this? How dare he talk to me like that?' and I said, 'Well, the federal government has its policies, and the mayor has his say.' " Incensed by what he regarded as Koch's lack of respect, Ceausescu gave orders that the presidential party should leave for home immediately. He was unable to do so, however: Elena Ceausescu was closeted shopping inside Cartier, where she stayed for 3 1/2 hours--until, in fact, the schedule called for them to leave.

One clue to the Ceausescu personality-cult phenomenon undoubtedly lay in the past. Nearly five centuries of Turkish and Phanariot rule encouraged the tradition of subservience to authority, and some of the adulatory prose in the Romanian press referring to Ceausescu could have been lifted verbatim from Romanian editorials of the 1930s and early 1940s praising the virtues of King Carol II and the first conducator, Marshall Antonescu, in almost equally nauseating terms.

At first, embarrassed Romanian officials excused the more extreme manifestations of the Ceausescu cult by stressing the strong religious sentiments of the rural population and the lack of sophistication of many of the newly literate Romanians. By the 1970s, the ridiculous catch phrases--"Genius of the Carpathians," "Source of our light, " the "Danube of thought," "Builder of the outstanding state in the millennia-old existence of the Romanian people," "Creator of the epoch of unprecedented renewel," "Treasure of wisdom and charisma"--had become the norm.

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