You may have heard of a family with dynastic pretensions that ruled a nation as if it were private property; where the press was gagged to Orwellian consequences of both brain-freeze and absurdity; where ministers spy against Cabinet rivals and plot the downfall of opponents; where the mother ordered heavy-handed reprisals on citizens protesting government incompetence and corruption; and where the son, in charge of Youth Affairs, was known for whispered scandals of rape. Yes, I’m talking of Nicolae Ceausescu, his wife Elena and his son Nicu, who ran Romania as a more-Stalinist-than-Stalin totalitarian state for over two decades until the Iron Curtain fell.
They are on my mind because of Oxford don Patrick McGuinness’s semi-autobiographical novel The Last Hundred Days (long-listed for the 2011 Booker) which, set in 1989 Bucharest, tells the story of the sudden and simultaneously not-so-sudden collapse of a regime that tried to hold on despite the viral spread of Perestroika through Prague, Berlin and Warsaw; a regime so paranoid that Ambika Soni and Kapil Sibal (the self-styled arbiters of taste and decorum in traditional and new media, respectively) would have fit right in.
The novel is itself undoubtedly worth a read because though the Romanian state TV clip of Ceausescu’s last speech (viewable, O ye post-History youthlings, on YouTube) is one of the most WTF visuals of a dictator losing his grip in a Hogwarts-like puff of smoke, it does not immerse you into the anxiety, boredom and terror of everyday life in a brutally repressive state in the way a novel can. In the clip, you see Ceausescu addressing crowds of supporters trucked in from towns outside of Bucharest (reminds you of our own mass-rally addressing netas) from his monstrosity of a palace; he’s trying to demonstrate his continued popularity following a massacre of protestors in Timisoara, bordering the rapidly-disintegrating Yugoslavia, when suddenly that same imported crowd starts jeering him and chanting “Timisoara!” In the clip, Ceausescu stops mid-sentence and blinks uncomprehendingly for eons of moments, until a burly staffer whisks him off. (There’s also a video of his and Elena’s 90-minute trial and summary execution.) Yes, his stunned disbelief makes for a compelling video.
The book, on the other hand, makes this moment the cathartic climax to a surreal journey into a city where biannual purges at the University see heads of departments demoted to floor-swabbing (“The old joke, that it was in the janitorial strata of Romania’s universities that you found the real intellectuals, was, like all good communist bloc jokes, less an exaggeration of reality than a shortcut to it”); where, due to Ceausescu’s diktats, abortions and miscarriages are crimes against a State trying to increase its population; where industrial saws are hidden within the river bordering Yugoslavia so that swimmers trying to illegally emigrate meet a gruesome end; where, the morning after the fall of the Berlin Wall the Scinteia’s front page headline reads, “Romania’s new tractor successfully launched at the Albanian Agricultural Fair” (the paper’s motto is “One Nation, One Paper”, to which a vendor cynically adds “One Reader”); where, in the final days, graffiti on a museum wall reads “Death to the Vampire and his Bitch” (as events gather momentum, Ceausescu is jeered as “Dracula”, a 15th century ruler of Transylvania — now a part of Romania — and fictional vampire); and where the long queues at provision shops stocked with dubious goods from North Korea and Bulgaria contrast with the “Party’s leisure parks” where capitalism’s finest consumables are freely available, but only to Ceausescu’s cronies. Read this book, and suddenly that two-minute YouTube clip makes all the sense in the world.
Referencing Ceausescu may make sense when you consider the echo of 1989 that 2011 has been. Not just in the Arab world, but even in Vladimir Putin’s Soviet-retro Russia, where this week’s announcement of a presidential election challenger hints that the Kremlin kleptocracy may feel that Putin’s liability now outweighs his utility; and perhaps soon in parts of Europe, outraged by German bullying on fiscal discipline.
In India have we already seen the effect? In the way that Ceausescu made way for Ion Illiescu, a former member of his regime who saw his chance and with impeccable timing revolted, and to which Professor Leo O’Heix in The Last Hundred Days says “New brothels, same old whores…”, have the scandals and protests of 2011 changed anything in our country? Look at the facts: DMK recently managed to get first daughter Kanimozhi out of Tihar jail; Mamata Banerjee forced the government to suspend its order on allowing Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail; and Sharad Pawar has firmly rejected the Congress President’s pet legislation on food security. Quite clearly, there has been a regime change within the UPA: the allies have taken over, and perhaps we will see the remaining term of this government as a sort of quasi-Third Front government though still headed by an avuncular if ineffectual Congress prime minister.
Or perhaps we’ll hear something similar to what Ceausescu said before he was executed: “This is nonsense: the Romanian people love us and will not stand for this coup.” Famous last words indeed.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai