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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Romanian Reflections
Helen Womack

Nicolae Ceauşescu

Christmas 1989 was one of the holidays I managed to spend at home in Yorkshire. My job as a journalist often took me away and my family valued it if I was with them for the decorating of the tree, the opening of the presents.

On Christmas Day, we switched on the TV and heard the news that Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu had been tried by a military court in Romania, put up against a wall and shot. The Securitate, Ceaucescu’s vicious secret police, were still sniping from the sewers and there were gun battles at the airport.

“I hope to goodness you don’t have to go to Bucharest,” said my Dad.

“I might have to,” I replied.

I’d recently joined The Independent as one of their specialists on Eastern Europe. But I was still at home on Boxing Day for Mum’s mince pies.

A day or two later, a call did come from the office and I flew to Budapest, from where I took a train to Bucharest. I was frightened. It was good not to have to land and go straight into action but to have a slower entry into the country, enabling me to judge the situation somewhat through the train window.

By the time I arrived, the shooting had stopped. Other colleagues had been heroic; I was mopping up.

The editors now wanted the human interest stories—the accounts of poor Romanians queuing for their ration of chickens’ feet; the shocking revelations coming out of the country’s orphanages. The West had called Ceauşescu the “maverick of the East bloc, implying some independence from Moscow, but it turned out his regime was the most brutal of all.

I had been working in the Soviet Union, where Perestroika was in full swing, so I was used to dealing with confident, talkative Russians. It came as a shock to see how cowed and fearful the Romanians were. In addition, there was the language barrier.

Luckily, I found a family of ethnic Germans who took me under their wing. The eldest daughter and her brother helped with contacts and showed me round Bucharest, speaking to me in German.

The girl gave me a gift of a hand-knitted dress. I believe some months afterwards the family moved to Germany, which was the dream of most ethnic Germans in Romania at that time.

The Presidential couple is received by Queen Elisabeth II at Buckingham Palace in June 1978

I went out news gathering each day —demonstrations, student meetings and the like—and in the evening filed a report to London. All foreign journalists had to share one telex machine and there was always a long queue to use it. Mindful of the queue, I typed as fast as I could, barely noticing that there was no key cap over the letter T, just a metal spike. The letter T crops up rather often in texts. By the time I’d finished typing, my left index finger was ripped to shreds and bleeding, an occupational hazard of covering revolutions.

The highlight of my assignment to Bucharest was gaining access to Ceauşescu’s residence. This was not the giant, ugly, white House of the Republic, but a smaller villa where he lived. Guides told us he had 365 pairs of curtains, a set for every day of the year. And for his wife, Elena, fresh orchids were flown in regularly from Singapore.

What struck me most was the juxtaposition of priceless items, such as Chinese vases, with cheap plastic souvenirs. I particularly remember a tasteless toy hedgehog on Ceauşescu’s desk.

At one point, I realised the guides had gone on ahead, leaving me alone in the bedroom of the dictator’s daughter, Zoia. In her wardrobe, I saw rows of silk shirts and bell-bottomed trousers. I rifled through her drawers, finding letters, contraceptive pills and another hedgehog.

The temptation to pocket something was almost overwhelming but I resisted, which was lucky because we were searched on the way out.

I was having the time of my life when word came through from London that Andreas Whittam Smith, co-founder and editor of The Independent, was so transfixed by the Romanian story that he was coming out to Bucharest to see things for himself. This is the last thing a working journalist usually needs, a “state visit” by the editor, who gets in the way and requires entertaining.

But the boss was great. He mucked in and worked with me. Together, we got an interview with the new Romanian Prime Minister, Petre Roman. And when he left, Andreas kindly found a seat for me on the plane too.

My stint in Romania was a short interlude. By April 1990, I was back in Moscow, where I would stay for a decade. The East bloc satellites had spun off into their own space. The collapsing Soviet Union remained the big story.

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