From 1965 to 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania with grotesque self-aggrandizement and comic incompetence. He marketed himself as a man of the people and preserved his power with pomp and propaganda, but his theatrics could hide his ineptitude for only so long. In his youth, Ceausescu demonstrated little promise. Poorly educated, he struggled throughout his life to avoid grammar and spelling mistakes. A severe speech impediment hampered his ability to communicate, and at 5’2” his puny, awkward body made him the butt of jokes.
Shamelessly sycophantic, Ceausescu compensated for his handicaps by making powerful friends. During the 1950s he depended on the goodwill of Gheorghiu-Dej, the secretary-general of the Romanian Communist Party. Despite the frequent failure of his projects, Ceausescu earned promotion after promotion by championing Dej’s positions. In 1954 he became secretary to the Central Committee, where he oversaw all appointments within the party. This job gave Ceausescu a base from which to build power. Ceausescu’s hostility toward the Soviets also contributed to his rise. After Dej’s death in 1965, Ceausescu won the leadership of the party because no other candidate would stand up to the U.S.S.R. Once mocked for his stature and stammer, Ceausescu now used his bravado to become the most powerful man in Romania.
Ceausescu quickly disposed of political opponents, surrounding himself with yes men who assented to his caprices. In Machiavellian fashion, he pushed his enemies to the background, making a show of his magnanimity in sparing their lives.
To solidify his authority, Ceausescu became a constant presence in the country. He embarked on a series of whirlwind tours, about eighteen a year. Each stop featured motorcades with flower-draped cars, ovations, and balcony appearances.
In 1968 Ceausescu became a hero in Romania and the West when he condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Romanians swelled with pride as Ceausescu touted the importance of national sovereignty. In the West, leaders salivated at the thought of a Communist ally. Soon de Gaulle, Nixon, and Thatcher poured into Romania to salute the dictator. With this reception, Ceausescu’s cult of personality rose to meteoric heights, and Romanians began calling him “Genius of the Carpathians.”
As his power ballooned, so did his ego. Wielding a scepter at his inauguration, he made himself the first president of Romania. When Salvador Dalí sent the dictator a telegram congratulating him on “introducing the presidential scepter,” the Romanian papers, oblivious to the irony, reprinted Dalí’s note the next day.
Despite his near deification, Ceausescu never lost his need for validation. He cheated at chess, even against his own son. When he hunted (Ceausescu owned the largest hunting estate in the world), his gamekeepers would drug bears for him, sometimes shooting them, to make Ceausescu appear to be a mighty hunter.
Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, also reveled in undeserved accolades. Although she flunked out of school at fourteen, Elena ran the main chemistry laboratory in Romania. Referring to herself as Comrade-Academician-Doctor-Engineer, she ordered Romania’s finest scientists to sign her name to their research. The ruse worked, as both the New York Academy of Sciences and the Royal Institute of Chemistry honored her achievements in the sciences.
If possible, Elena’s egomania exceeded her husband’s. She forbade her sisters-in-law from wearing jewelry or clothing that “might show her up.” She berated photographers for taking unflattering pictures of her. She commissioned poems that paid her homage, and she participated in pageants that dramatized the Ceausescus receiving praise from fabled Romanian heroes such as Dracula.
As he aged, Ceausescu’s paranoia took over. While staying in Buckingham Palace in 1978, Ceausescu, in addition to swiping trinkets from the palace, believed that the British had bugged his room. He would talk politics only in the gardens. Petrified of infection, he washed his hands with rubbing alcohol after touching the queen. He even required a food-taster before he would eat palace food.
In the 1980s Ceausescu’s policy of self-aggrandizement was his undoing. While Romania’s economy sputtered, he pursued a path of excess. When Romanians waited in bread lines three blocks long, he fed his bears the finest meat and corn; and in his greatest affront to the public, Ceausescu ordered the construction of the People’s Palace, a lasting monument to his grandeur. The project resulted in the demolition of almost one quarter of Bucharest. Finally, the self-glorification that had kept Ceausescu in power began to alienate Romanians.
As Communist governments faltered across Europe, Ceausescu’s old tricks could not stem the tide. Victimized for too long, the people saw through his charade; Ceausescu, like Dorothy’s wizard, lost his magic. The revolution began.
Marshall Botvinick is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.