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30 Years Later, 3 Lessons From The Fall Of Romanian Communism


When communism collapsed across Eastern Europe in 1989, the process was swift and surprisingly peaceful. Decades of terror and tyranny came to a sudden end with hardly a shot fired: governments stepped down, borders opened, walls fell.

One country, however, proved to be the exception. Thirty years ago this week, citizens of Romania were being killed by the hundreds as they took to the streets to demand liberty from their brutal communist regime. Unrest that had begun December 16 in the southwestern city of Timişoara soon spread throughout Romania, fueled by the news that protesters were being gunned down by secret police.

The dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, returning from an overseas trip with his wife Elena, tried to quell the growing chaos in a speech from his balcony in Bucharest on December 21. As he looked out over the usual mass of compulsory adoration—the people in neat rows bearing Marxist slogans and portraits of the Ceauşescus—the aging despot had hardly begun to speak before he was interrupted by a growing chorus of boos, hisses, whistles, and shrieks.

It was both unprecedented and unthinkable. Television cameras momentarily broadcast Ceausescu’s astonished face live across the nation, before quickly cutting away. For the first time, the people had seen his vulnerability. It was the beginning of the end.

The Ceauşescus fled Bucharest the following day and were caught by their own people on a rural Romanian roadside. On Christmas Day—a holiday that had long been suppressed by Ceauşescu’s atheist regime—the dictator and his wife were put on trial by a kangaroo military court. They were quickly found guilty, marched out to the courtyard, and summarily shot.

My Introduction to Romania

I first set foot in Romania five years later, a young high school graduate on my first long trip away from home. When I arrived, Ion Iliescu—the rebranded communist who had seized control in the chaos following Ceauşescu’s fall—was still president. The fresh scars of communism were obvious: cities filled with ugly, gray concrete structures; ragged children begging on street corners; a dearth of commerce, beauty, and civic life.

As I spent more time in Romania—a year living there in 1997 and two subsequent decades as head of an orphan care nongovernmental organization—I began to discern communism’s less-visible scars. They are pervasive and devastating, especially for society’s most vulnerable. While many perceive conservatism to be uncompassionate, I’ve become an even firmer believer in American-style liberty and capitalism precisely because of my nonprofit work among abandoned children in Romania.

What I’ve learned is this: there is a grim symmetry between the promises of Marxism and its real-world results. Simply put, Marxist ideology promises specific virtues, but it delivers their polar opposites. (No communist comes to power promising bread lines and prison camps, I assure you.) The result is human suffering that should grieve any person of compassion. Allow me to tell you just three of the long-term societal harms I have witnessed.

1. Marxism Promises Belonging But Delivers Isolation

The desire to belong to something larger than oneself is universally human. Marxism appeals to this desire by preaching collectivization, with the rights of the individual subordinated to society as a whole. It sounds good and righteous on paper, especially to those craving a sense of larger meaning for their lives. Shouldn’t we set our own individual interests aside for the greater good?

Yet what the communists in Romania delivered was a total destruction of cohesive community. Not only did they bulldoze villages—forcefully relocating peasants to miserable block apartments in the cities—they also figuratively bulldozed Romanians’ sense of trust and reliance upon one another.

Informal community associations are always a threat to communist governments, which can allow no loyalty higher than the party, and Romania was no different. Spies and informants infiltrated nearly every relationship and every gathering. Those willing to denounce their close friends and family earned special favors.

With no one to trust, Romanians became deeply isolated from one another. This ingrained sense of mutual mistrust continues to be a major obstacle in bringing Romanians together to solve societal problems.

2. Marxism Promises Equality But Delivers Scarcity—for Everyone But the Elites

Besides being collectivist, Marxism is first and foremost an ideology of envy. Wealth and prosperity are zero-sum, and we’re all in competition for it. Anyone who has more than I do is clearly taking something from me. Government should ensure that we’re all equal, not just in opportunity but in outcome.

In reality, what Marxism delivers, in Romania and elsewhere, is scarcity. Lacking the necessary motivation of self-advancement that fuels most human achievement, the communist economies in Eastern Europe faltered. While the entire Soviet bloc suffered economically, prompting Gorbachev to promote the reforms that quickly snowballed into revolutions, Romania’s suffering was especially severe.

Middle-class Romanian friends my own age can distinctly remember the first time they caught a glimpse of a banana or an orange (one friend didn’t know what to do with the banana, so he ate it along with the peel). Other friends have shared their memories of standing for hours in line every week to receive meager food rations. While I lived in Romania in those early post-communist years, I learned to do without grocery stores, fruit in the winter, or reliable hot water. If all citizens were equal under communism, they were equally impoverished.

But the truth is that they weren’t equal. There was a path to wealth and prosperity open only to a very few: the elites in the Communist Party. While Romanians came close to the brink of starvation, and while half a million children were robbed of their childhoods in orphanages, Ceauşescu built himself the largest palace in the world, grotesque and staggeringly opulent.

It was from the balcony of this palace that he delivered his final speech, laced with tributes to socialism and “the working people.” This is the hypocrisy that Marxism never fails to deliver.

3. Marxism Promises Dignity and Compassion But Delivers Degradation and Cruelty

Everywhere communism has reared its head, it portrays itself as the advocate for the worker, the defender of the common man against the rapacious bourgeoisie. Young people who consider themselves compassionate toward the downtrodden are typically drawn to leftist ideologies.

In the real world, however, I have seen communism foster nothing but cruelty, selfishness, and a lack of empathy. These outcomes are the natural and bitter fruit of an ideology that isolates people from each other, casting them as rivals for the same scarce goods.

In Romania, even to this day, it is rare to find public officials, either elected or appointed, who see their positions as anything other than a platform for self-advancement and enrichment through corruption. (While many will see the United States as increasingly fitting that description—with good reason!—our public corruption is still far less than that of a nation like Romania.) Marxism’s “one for all” dogma quickly morphs into “every man for himself.”

The weak and the vulnerable are the first to suffer. One common feature of communist nations has been a legacy of inhumane state-run orphanages.

Romania is infamous for its hellish orphanages, but its chaotic revolution simply allowed Western journalists to enter and discover what was happening everywhere throughout the Soviet bloc. Even today, while conditions for abandoned children have undeniably improved, the communist mentality and lack of empathy among government officialdom continues to make our work to advocate for children difficult.

Marxism vs. Communism vs. Socialism

Finally, a word about terms: I have repeatedly used the word “Marxism” to encompass both socialism and communism, both of which are stages of Marxist theory. However, in speaking with Romanian friends about their system of government under Ceauşescu, some have objected to my usage of the term “communism.”

“No, no, we weren’t a communist nation, even though we were run by the Communist Party,” one friend told me. “Romania was a socialist country. They told us this over and over, in schools and everywhere. We were working toward communism, but we hadn’t achieved it yet.” Indeed, in rewatching Ceauşescu’s final speech, I counted a total of eight mentions of “socialism” or “socialist Romania,” with nary a mention of communism.

Terminological niceties aside, it’s clear that younger Americans are growing increasingly comfortable with ideologies on the Marxist spectrum. Even the term “communism” doesn’t seem to carry with it the stigma that “fascism” does, despite being an equally savage and murderous form of tyranny.

To any American inclined to believe the false promises of Marxism rather than the historical reality, to anyone who believes this ideology is in any way humane or compassionate, I offer this warning. I have witnessed the ugliness, the poverty, and the despair it leaves behind. I have spoken to those who suffered in Marxist prisons and have seen the memorials to those who died in the streets seeking freedom.

I have spent my adult life working to alleviate the damage done to vulnerable children—the damage still being inflicted every day—by the evil legacy of communism. We don’t want this here. Pray God it never comes.

This article has been updated since posting.