In the autumn of 1989, I began working for BBC Radio 4 as reporter and producer on the new Eurofile series. I visited Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, Czechoslovakia and Germany, my feet hardly touching the ground, Europe spinning on a plate, one revolution after another, making BBC documentaries and writing my personal experiences of each country in private journals. Then Romania erupted. The Romanian Revolution changed my life and after my first trip in January 1990 I forged a deep love for this blighted and beautiful country, which I have visited many times since, those first impressions as a young journalist and journal-writer maturing and deepening with each visit, from Cluj to Timişoara, Bucharest to Braşov, reading its literature, seduced by its arts, crafts, blouses, architecture and natural wonders, and appalled by the horrors the country has endured. I have longed to create a Romanian Riveter for several years, to share with you my many literary discoveries, but was stalled each time by bureaucracy and funding, and then Covid-19. The fact that we have produced this magazine now, during a pandemic, is a huge triumph over adversity and thanks to the indefatigable teamwork of many gifted and generous editors and contributors and our guest editor, Tudor Crețu, who secured the funding. Recently, I sought out my diary from that dark winter of 1989–1990, curious to revisit my youthful impressions of the Romanian Revolution thirty years ago. Here are a few extracts. Romania is a very different country today but this is what I saw then, in personal raw, unedited thoughts, a privileged witness, a young Western reporter stepping into the unknown.
23rd December 1989 – London
What an amazing time. Our first BBC Radio Eurofile series began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, our last with the fall of Ceauşescu and the opening of the Brandenburg Gate. These past two months have been the most extraordinary of my life – and I have been a witness! Maybe it has not sunk in yet; maybe it is simply because it feels right for me to there. I have been involved, I have been able to make some contribution and to learn from others. Yesterday the detested Ceauşescu was toppled. I feel revulsion when I think of him, read of his brutality. The one country I thought would never change. Maybe one day I will go to Romania. The whole of Europe is shivering, rippling, shuddering with enthusiasm, joy and fear. It is the most wonderful time to be alive. Milestones every day.
25th December 1989 – Cornwall, home
And a couple of days later Ceauşescu was executed!!! What else, though, could you do with the man? … But even I am shocked at the speed of change in Romania.
29th January 1990 – Hotel Modern, Bucharest
I’m in Romania, a weird and wonderful experience I never thought would happen, one of a handful of BBC journalists here to document the revolution. It’s midnight but I’ve been up since 4.30 a.m. so won’t write much but I could write pages already. Everything about being in this city is unfamiliar, dark, passive oppression, few redeeming features. Very, very poor, everything brown, grey and filthy, barely nothing in shop windows. But there are numerous people on the streets, demonstrating or simply hanging about. People are milling everywhere – especially in the hotel lobbies to change money or to act as interpreters or to help in some way. Everybody is willing to talk. Romanians who speak English cling to us, tell us what they hope for and believe. Is it because they have been bottled up for so long?
30th January 1990
Today I met a range of people who tested my powers of deduction. Employees at Romanian Radio and at the State Tourist Office. All of them had been part of the system, but what does this mean: are they Securitate? Had they been secretly harbouring dissident opinions all along? Can they really change their mind-set at a moment’s notice? This question is at the heart of the dilemma of post-Ceauşescu society. The National Salvation Front no longer has the support of the popu- lation; it has revealed communist and authoritarian tendencies; the opposition is ineffective; hundreds of Securitate are still running free; is the army entirely trustworthy? This is a dangerous society for us and for Romanians – it is impossible that there could have been a complete purge after only one month.
After one day I am already accustomed to Bucharest. It is very poor, ugly, gloomy, grim. People don’t smile because there is nothing to smile about. I thought Warsaw was an unhappy place but it seems bustling and prosperous by comparison with Bucharest. Bucharest can boast magnificent and megalomaniacal buildings, almost French in style, but they are the backdrop for the poverty of the streets. Unlike lovely Prague there is nothing endearing about Bucharest.
I popped into a supermarket today. Everything, absolutely everything, is scarce and what you do see – shelf upon shelf of jars of beans, maybe some milk, wizened apples, carrots and lettuce – is sad and unstimulating.
In the evenings Bucharest is even more like a war zone. The rare street lights – only on the main boulevards – are dimmed and the rest of the city is in darkness. The other night my BBC colleagues and I walked to the restaurant through shell-pocked streets, the buildings burned and gutted from the fighting – the National Library was almost burned down – stumbling over the pitted streets and bumping into soldiers. There are soldiers all over the place, dressed in 1950s green uniforms with tinpot helmets and machine guns. And there are tanks parked in front of certain strategic buildings … At certain points on the main boulevard that C. forged through the city centre there are bedraggled shrines to the dead of the revolution. Candles, dried flowers, wreaths, letters and people weeping. A reminder, again, of the horrors of only one month ago.
31st January 1990
Unusual events follow one upon another so quickly. Arrived back from my first evening in a Romanian home – the first time they had had a foreigner in their flat, previously forbidden – and there in my seedy hotel foyer stand two BBC diplomatic correspondents, Mark Brayne and Paul Reynolds, waiting to check I was OK. My editor had phoned up panicking that the situation was too volatile – for my safety or for my work? She wasn’t clear. Bucharest is in turmoil, but it is possible to function. However hard it is to work, we work. They have no idea, back home. That’s why we’re here.
Today was lovely. My first BBC feature is being formed: ‘Education Before and After the Dictator’ (people can’t bear to mention his actual name). Met English academic Georgiana, now my guide and interpreter. I could write a book about her. She speaks fluent if old-fashioned English, is like a champagne bottle uncorked. Warm and cheerful and happy to help. The prestige of the BBC, or is it me? She writes textbooks for English learning and teaches at Bucharest University. A gifted woman who has never lost her love of teaching and of English. She is moved by the new freedom and there were often tears in her eyes.
We visited two grammar schools and spoke with teenagers – they were so excited. They were unanimous about how they hated ‘HIM’ and how happy they are now. What energy they had! How well they spoke English! Foreign-language teaching escaped the strictures of the regime to a certain extent – except that there were too few classes – and children often started learning English at the age of nine. They are hungry for knowledge and we stood in front of the class to tell them about England, America and pop music! But the classrooms have no heating, little light; they need books and contact with the outside world. The pupils suggested that English schools might adopt Romanian schools – something must be done to help or they will lose this energy and goodwill. The situation here is so unstable.
Georgiana gave me a long list of books, mostly text books to buy back home to send to her, which will cost a fortune. She has no idea of the price of books. She works from ancient Practical English magazines, with stories about black cab drivers and having tea with the Queen.
Visited Georgiana and lugubrious husband Dan tonight in their concrete-block flat (in my rental Dacia car, anarchic, appalling roads, no road signs). Their address: District Nr … Street Nr … Block Nr …. Stairway Nr … Floor Nr … Flat Nr. No names, just numbers. All the buildings away from the central boulevards of Bucharest are concrete blocks, identical and ugly. An inhuman environment. Their flat is small but full of books. A tray of farm apples and carrots were on display and little else. G. collects art and pottery, by friends, from different parts of Romania. So this evening I had my first plum brandy and my first contact with Romanian art. G. insisted on giving me a book on miniatures and some ceramics. It was overwhelming. These people have so little and I was given so much.
1st February 1990
Kafkaesque day. Monolithic bureaucracies, apathy. Ugly office buildings where men sit behind a desk with a couple of pieces of paper on them, a telephone and a newspaper. Subactivity. Sub-motivation. The confusion of Romania entered my blood today, as did the mud on the streets (plastered with it) and the pollution in the air. There was no water in the hotel, telephone lines were cut off … I wandered the streets looking for an architect who could speak English to talk about the systemisation of the villages – my BBC story number two. People are very kind, want to help, but this extreme kindness was like a millstone round my neck. It got me nowhere. My one interview today was with a charismatic man from the Education Ministry. He spoke about the utopian new society. He is a member of the ‘Group for Social Dialogue’, which I believe will play an important role in the renovation of this society.
My dinner: a jar of cherries in alcohol and a fresh pear.
They’re playing the Lambada downstairs in the hotel tonight! It’s a party! Live music, food, wine, women dressed and flirting lots of bright make-up and dyed hair. Georgiana says the Romanians love entertaining … but under ‘his rule’ they were discouraged from mixing, everyone was suspicious of everyone else. The tragedy of this country becomes more apparent by the day; the constant revelations break your heart. Today, we drove to a demolished village outside Bucharest to record people talking about the systemisation of the villages – Romanians forcibly evicted from their farms and villages by HIM to live in concrete blocks in the city, in order for HIM to centralise power, build monoliths and make the populace more productive. But these people are peasant farmers, they are idle, they miss their cattle and chickens. It has ruined their lives.
I drive, Georgiana keeps up a constant patter, without taking a breath. In the car, I have learned the whole history of Romania and together we have updated and revised her English-language textbooks for post-Ceauşescu publication. Thanks to me the word ‘video’ will appear in Romanian school textbooks for the first time!
5th February 1990 – Otopeni Airport
Leaving Romania is a hideous experience. Airport crawling with soldiers, incompetent baggage checks. Bureaucracy, bureaucracy and very, very slow. And why the hell am I carrying a bottle of plum brandy and two jars of strawberry jam back home? Courtesy of Georgiana, of course. If I had taken everything I’d been given – crafts, cake, farm apples, cheese – I would have been more loaded up than when I arrived. What irony. Such kindness. Overwhelming. My colleagues and I are regarded as ambassadors from another world – a privilege and responsibility. I am carrying with me personal letters to various authorities in Britain requesting books, schools, food and aid for universities and villages.
Finally, an episode of beautiful Romanian bureaucracy when I returned my Dacia rent-a-car to the Tourist Office. I’d just filled it up with petrol (a feat in itself) and I was told not only that I’d returned the wrong car but that I hadn’t filled it up with petrol. Then they insisted that the milometer showed too few miles: so, had I been driving backwards all that time?
By Rosie Goldsmith
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.