NEW YORK – Nicolae Ceausescu liked to hunt bear. With his retinue, he would retreat to a lodge in Transylvania and sally forth, locked and loaded. He was accustomed to good fortune, for his huntsmen took precautions. They would chain some poor beast to a tree, drug it to keep it still, and conceal themselves around the blind from which the Great Man would shoot.
One day, they did their job haphazardly. Ceausescu took aim, then fell backward when the bear, inadequately sedated, reared on its hind legs as if to attack. His shot flew into the treetops, even as three bullets entered the bear’s heart from the snipers who guaranteed the dictator’s marksmanship. This day, I was told by a forester who claimed to have witnessed the incident, Ceausescu did not acknowledge the applause of his retainers.
This could be the story of the Romanian revolution, 20 years ago. The bear is the country’s enslaved people. They rise up from slumber. The emperor, alarmed, fires wildly and misses his mark. The sharpshooters hidden in the forest take aim and fire, only this time their target is not the bear, but Ceausescu himself.
Just as the glory of the French Revolution ended in the Terror, so Eastern Europe’s miracle year of 1989 ended in blood. Elsewhere, communist regimes seemed almost to run from power. The people who deposed them celebrated largely painless victories. Not so in Romania. There, the country’s communist masters ordered the security forces to fire on the people. They obeyed. A civil war was fought, albeit briefly. Revolution transmuted into a crypto-coup d’état.