Some reflections regarding the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania in December 1989
Before speaking about the Romanian revolution of 1989. I’ll say a few words about harassment and other forms of coercive behaviour such as teasing and bullying.
It’s a good idea to understand the power dynamics that may be at play, whenever a person is subjected to coercive behaviour of any kind.
Of particular interest are situations where a person refuses to put up with such behaviour.
I’ve thought about these things because, over the years, I’ve presented workshops about how best to deal with teasing and bullying of children in schools. Each time I’ve prepared for such a workshop, I’ve learned some new things about the underlying power dynamics.
Thus it happens that I’ve recently come to understand that, if a school board is going to implement an anti-bullying program, as a way to deal with bullying, by way of example, then there needs to be a suitable protocol in place. This will ensure that when a child says that she or he is being bullied at school, the situation is addressed at once in line with a standard, agreed-upon, widely communicated procedure.
Otherwise, the bullying continues and may escalate with traumatic – and, indeed, tragic – consequences for the person who is being targeted along with tragic consequences for others. In many but not all cases, bullying is built around a series of cumulative events whose effects (and in many cases intensity) increase over time.
What bullying can lead to
Bullying can lead to suicide. It can also lead to tragic consequences where a person previously targeted retaliates by shooting people as occurred, for example, in Ottawa on April 6, 1999 in what is known as the OC Transpo Massacre.
An excerpt from an April 1, 2019 CityNews article about the Ottawa shooting reads:
Most of the recommendations were quickly adopted[;] however, it took many years for the provinces to update their legislation to require employers to take preventative measures against workplace harassment and violence.
Quebec was the first, amending in 2004 its Act Respecting Labour Standards to ensure employees have the right to a working environment that is free from psychological harassment. Employers were also required to introduce measures to prevent such harassment. Manitoba and Saskatchewan followed in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Ontario’s Bill 168, which was an amendment to the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, came into force in 2010. Under the legislation, employers are, among other things, required to determine the risks of workplace harassment and violence, and develop policies for investigating employee complaints and incidents.
In 2016, Bill 132, otherwise known as the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, came into force. The new legislation expanded the definition of workplace harassment to include sexual harassment. It also broadened employer responsibilities to conduct investigations into incidents and complaints of workplace harassment.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act was additionally amended to empower inspectors to require an employer to commission a report made by an unbiased person into a harassment incident or complaint. As well, the Limitations Act was amended to permit the prosecution of cases that occurred prior to the introduction of the Act.
With the laws and regulations in place, implementation is now key. We can only hope that instances of workplace violence and harassment are addressed early enough that similar future tragedies are averted.
Observational studies of children at play
At a previous post about observational studies of children at play, I’ve noted that:
A power differential [in a given case of bullying at school] may favour the bully, or it may favour the would-be intervenor, depending on the circumstances. Some children are keen to intervene when they see bullying happening. If a school (or any other institution) ignores bullying, the would-be intervenor may be hesitant to intervene because the school or institution may not be there to support such an intervention. The intervenor would also be subject to retaliation, by the person who’s engaging in the bullying.
On the other hand, if a school or institution has a protocol in place for dealing with bullying – if it has, in other words, a viable anti-bullying program in place – then the would-be intervenor will be more at ease about stepping forward and confronting the bully – either directly, or by privately informing a person in authority, such as a teacher, that a particular individual has been bullying some other student or students.
When there’s an effective anti-bullying program in place, the power differential is on the side of the intervenor; it is no longer a situation where the person who bullies is likely to have the edge in power, and in a position to retaliate, against intervenors.
What is true of schoolyard bullying is also true of bullying elsewhere.
Governor of New York
In previous posts, I’ve described cases where heads of school boards in Ontario have engaged in longstanding instances of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation against subordinates, trustees, and in some cases members of the public. In one case, a provincial investigation reported that senior leadership at the Peel District School Board had systematically resisted the attempts by parents and school trustees to address longstanding anti-Black racism at the board.
When heads of school boards in Ontario act as bullies, and refuse to desist when told to stop, then the Ministry of Education has to step in to straighten things out. Otherwise utter chaos ensues. In cases I’ve outlined at previous posts, it’s at the acute stage of chaos and dysfunction that the Ministry has intervened.
Even after the Ministry steps in, it’s of interest to follow such stories in the years that follow. Making lasting changes – which may require drastic and difficult changes in culture – in how school boards go about their day to day work may turn out to be a lengthy process, in which a level of suspense may arise.
The suspense concerns the question of what comes next. Will things start to run on an even keel, or is a recurrence of chaos inevitable? And if a recurrence is inevitable, why is that the case, and what is going on – for example, do school boards by their very nature prompt bullying, and what is going on in the wider society?
In a recent case, which many people have been following, the governor of New York was forced to resign as a consequence of accusations regarding his behaviour at work. Andrew Cuomo was ousted because of credible reports of sexual harassment accompanied by strategies of retaliation against women who voiced objections.
Will his case lead to a reduction of workplace sexual harassment in general? Will anti-harassment legislation now in place make a difference in years to follow? It remains to be seen.
Similar cases have occurred in Canada such as the resignation of Canada’s previous governor general following reports of bullying at Rideau Hall. A previous post notes:
A Jan. 21, 2021 CBC article is entitled: “Independent firm completes review into claims of ‘toxic’ environment at Rideau Hall: Sources briefed on the report say it’s scathing.”
Initial attempts to address the alleged bullying were not successful, as noted in a Jan. 26, 2021 CBC article entitled: “Complaints against Payette include reports of physical contact: sources: Allegations of unwelcome physical contact shared with independent firm reviewing conduct, sources say.”
“A large number of staff went on leave or left their jobs at Rideau Hall altogether,” the article notes, “because they felt there was no other option, the sources said. Former employees claim they told human resources, the ombudsman and their union about the treatment informally, but no action was taken.”
By way of a subsequent update, a Jan. 27, 2021 CTV article is entitled: “Allegations of screaming, public humiliation in governor general’s office: report.”
Statistics related to workplace harassment are outlined in an Aug. 13, 2021 Human Rights Reporter article entitled: “1 in 4 women dealing with sexualized behaviours at work: Trades, transportation most problematic sectors.”
An excerpt reads:
While workplaces in Canada must comply with anti-harassment and discrimination laws, 32 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had not received any information from their employer on how to report sexual harassment and sexual assault.
An extract from a blurb at the Toronto Public Library website reads:
The Romanian Revolution of 1989 was the most spectacularly violent and remains today the most controversial of all the East European upheavals of that year. Despite (or perhaps because of) the media attention the revolution received, it remains shrouded in mystery. How did the seemingly impregnable Ceaușescu regime come to be toppled so swiftly and how did Ion Iliescu and the National Salvation Front come to power?
The study highlights a case where a head of state, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, had since 1965 been engaging in coercive behaviour toward the entirety of a country’s population as was the standard practice for communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In this case, a revolution put a stop to the standard practice.
Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena Ceaușescu were executed on Dec. 25, 1989, by firing squad immediately after a hastily conducted trial, which in the words of Siani-Davies, “nearly all independent observers have agreed … was little more than a kangaroo court” (p. 138).
Nicolae Ceaușescu and Elena Ceaușescu, along with two officials and two bodyguards, had escaped by helicopter around noon on Dec. 22, 1989 from the roof of the central committee building in Bucharest around the time when a crowd of demonstrators rushed the doors and was streaming inside.
The crowd’s entry into the building was made possible because earlier in the day, in a decision crucial for the revolution, troops had been withdrawn from the front of the building, thereby moving Ceaușescu’s security forces out of direct confrontation with the demonstrators.
We are speaking of events of thirty-two years ago as of today’s date. Among other events from 1989 is the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan as a timeline at a history site developed by Alex Copp, an undergraduate student at Western University in London, Ontario, notes:
February 15, 1989: The Soviet Union announces the departure of its last troops. Civil war continues as the Mujahideen push to overthrow Najibullah, who is eventually toppled in 1992.
An excerpt from an Aug. 17, 2021 New York Times article about intelligence estimates regarding how quickly the Taliban would regain control of Afghanistan highlights additional history from the 1990s:
A historical analysis provided to Congress concluded that the Taliban had learned lessons from their takeover of the country in the 1990s. This time, the report said, the militant group would first secure border crossings, commandeer provincial capitals and seize swaths of the country’s north before moving in on Kabul, a prediction that proved accurate.
Language that power speaks
The Romanian Revolution (2005) outlines the power dynamics – and the dynamics of language usage – that drove events during and after the Romanian revolution.
As noted at previous posts, it’s been my anecdotal experience that sometimes power speaks its own language, whereby in is out, up is down, and large is small. Another way to say the same thing is to say that sometimes power makes up its own rules about how to behave.
Language usage and framing played a central role in the events that comprised the Romanian revolution. Each person involved in the events, as well as those watching from afar in other countries, has made observations about what those events entailed.
Some of these observations contradict each other. Peter Siani-Davies excels at sorting out the varied points of view, based on assessment of the available evidence. Footnotes are listed at the foot of the pages; the notes are precise and easy to follow. The concluding chapter sums up, in a manner clear and easy to follow, what the author has learned from sorting things out. The bibliography lists books and articles as well as film, television, and internet sources.
I mention the footnotes given my interest in ensuring that I know what sources an author is referring to. I steer clear of accounts that lack credible citations, as is the case with some reports including some newspaper articles and YouTube videos, regarding the Romanian revolution or any other topic.
The revolution began in Timișoara
The book features imagery, at times based on rumours, suggesting what participants were thinking and experiencing during events which began with a confrontation between the Ceaușescu regime and László Tőkés, a pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church, in the town of Timișoara in the far west of the country.
Tőkés, facing eviction from Timișoara by local authorities who viewed him as a troublemaker, was holed up in a church off a small square near the centre of Timișoara. On the last Sunday service before the planned eviction, he appealed to his parishioners to gather outside the church on the morning of December 15, 1989 to witness the event. The authorities, wary of a demonstration, urged the priest to retract the request but he refused.
On the morning in question, “some thirty to forty mostly elderly retired members of the congregation gathered outside the nondescript turn-of-the-century block that houses the Hungarian Reformed Church and the residence of its pastor to observe events and offer Tőkés their moral support” (p. 58).
The small gathering outside the church launched the revolution. Crowded trams passing the square near the church spread word about the events outside the church throughout the city. People turned up to see first-hand what was going on. What began as thirty to forty mostly elderly church members supporting their pastor swelled into a sizeable crowd, which in the restricted space outside the church appeared even more numerous than it was.
The crowd at the square was the starting point for demonstrations that spread across the country, by which time the pastor’s confrontation with authorities was no longer the driving force.
“Indeed,” notes Siani-Davies (p. 60), “there had been a perceptible change in atmosphere as the protest broadened in scope and the slogans chanted by the crowd took on a politicized edge. Earlier calls for bread and meat were now replaced with ‘Down with Ceaușescu,’ ‘Down with tyranny,’ and the all-pervasive ‘Freedom.'”
By the early evening of December 15, the crowd had grown to such proportions that it blocked passage of the trams on their way through the square by the church. Incited by impromptu orators, the predominantly Romanian and youthful protesters in the crowd began to break the windows of nearby shops. By this point, the protest was no longer about Tőkés.
An except (pp. 60-1) from the account of events in Timișoara on the next day, December 16, notes:
Turning their backs on Tőkés and leaving a long trail of damage in their wake, groups of demonstrators then began to drift toward the center of town, with one of the largest heading for the county Party headquarters. Unable to enter the deserted building, because the door was barred, the protesters turned their attention instead to nearby shops, setting fire to the tomes of Ceaușescu, looted from a bookstore, before the appearance of riot troops prompted them to turn tail and run into the night.
Meanwhile back at the church, troops of the security forces had appeared in the vicinity of Tőkés’s church (p. 61),
but, insufficient to control the crowd, their presence instead only seems to have incited the demonstrators further. When reinforcements arrived, with the aid of fire engines, which moved up and down the boulevard drenching the protesters in cold water, the troops eventually secured control of the area, but not before a two-hour running battle had left the streets strewn with broken glass and at least one burned out vehicle. Clashes and arrests continued until the last demonstrators were dispersed sometime around 4 o’clock in the morning, but before then, in the early hours of December 17, Tőkés and his wife were seized from his church together with seven friends.  In his account of the events, Tőkés states that he was brutally beaten before being brought into the presence of lon Cumpănaşu, head of the Department of Religious Denominations, who forced him to sign a blank piece of paper effectively accepting his dismissal and eviction. Subsequently, he and his wife were taken in separate cars to Mineu, an isolated village in the county of Sălaj, which had been designated his new residence.
Footnote 24 in the excerpt refers to pp. 30-1 from Felix Corley and John Eibner, In the Eye of the Romanian Storm: The Heroic Story of Pastor Laszlo Tokes, Old Tappan, N.J., 1990. The excerpt continues:
It seems that the authorities still considered Tőkés to have been the focus of the revolt and that by removing him the problem could be cut at its roots. However, the next day was a Sunday and in the absence of work even larger crowds were to gather on the streets, many curious to see the testimony of the rioting of the night before. For, aside from being a purely emotional response, the breaking of so many windows by the crowd had an important practical significance. Traces of previous anti-Ceaușescu outbursts, such as the incidents in the autumn of 1989, had been expunged from the historical record through lack of visible markers. Unreported by the authorities, they had been destined to remain mere unsubstantiated rumors. But the wreckage left by the violence of December 16 was of such proportions that even when the authorities tried to cover the evidence, as they apparently did at the Party county headquarters, enough remained for news of the scenes of devastation to quickly spread throughout the city, bringing yet more people on the streets to see if the stories were true.
I would like to write at length about passages from this book but I need to turn to other writing projects. Enough to say that I am very impressed with this book, which I’ve read closely from cover to cover.
The book began a little slowly for me, perhaps because I was a little slow in getting up to speed as a reader. But I persevered, and by the time I got to reading about the events in Timișoara I knew this was a book that was going to command my attention.
Climate change, COVID-19, and related topics of interest
Dealing with bullying is not unlike dealing with COVID-19. Less coronavirus infections will arise, if the advice of public health experts is sound, and is followed. If the advice is ignored (or, as in the case of Sweden, the advice is dubious), then the infections will increase.
By reading The Romanian Revolution (2005) I’ve had the opportunity to look at some events – such as the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War, as well as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic – in a new light.
In the histories of the Vietnam War, decision makers have been described as getting things wrong with disastrous consequences because they depended upon formative experiences in the United States that were of no use when dealing with events in Vietnam starting in the 1950s.
As well, histories of events in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan underline that American (and in the case of Afghanistan also NATO) involvement proceeded according to similar formative experiences. Powerful decision makers saw the world as viewed solely through Western eyes.
The histories and cultures of the world regions that Western military forces were stepping into either were ignored, or were viewed in such a way that the actual histories and cultures were beyond the comprehension of policy makers and opinion leaders.
The book also underlies the inevitability of the demise of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Having visited Estonia in 1989 and 1990 before the fall of the Soviet Union and before Estonia regained its independence, I can attest that the system appeared in those years to be, indeed, exceedingly tired and worn out. I’ve discussed the subsequent history of Russia at previous posts.
When I think about how best to address climate change, in the time that may be available, it also occurs to me that formative experiences stemming from what has been called the European Enlightenment have given rise to many global projects with disastrous consequences.
I refer to the historical European drive to colonize the planet, the attempt (the attempt has been futile because nature will not put up with it) to achieve dominance over nature through technological means, and the attempt to totally decimate and assimilate (again, the attempt has failed thanks to strong resistance from many sources) Indigenous peoples worldwide.
These are historical processes directly connected to the climate crisis; the destruction of worldwide habitats also has a direct connection, as I understand, to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The histories and historiographies related to the past four hundred years are now being revised, with benefits for any reader who actually has an interest in events that have occurred in ages past.
These are some reflections that occur to me after reading The Romanian Revolution (2005). Other readers of the book may arrive at strongly differing reflections in keeping with their own formative experiences, which may differ vastly from my own.