For many years, he was a Communist dictator the West could agree with: he first decade in power was marked by an open policy towards the West, and independence from the Soviet Union’s policies. Nicolae Ceausescu presented himself as a reforming communist in his highly publicized (and eccentric, of which more will be said later) state visits to the US, France, UK and Spain. Under him, Romania was the first European communist state to recognize West Germany, the first to join the International Monetary Fund, and the first to receive a US President (Nixon in 1973).
Above was the picture of Ceausescu together with French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing in Bucharest. When when Ceausescu’s Communist Party officials saw the topmost photo, they were horrified to find out that not only did their revered leader appear short compared to towering d’Estaing, but Giscard was also wearing a hat. Ceausescu, who was carrying his, looked like he was begging. The images were doctored for the official party daily, adding a few extra centimetres to Ceausescu and putting a hat on his head. Except no one remember to airbrush out the hat in his hands. When the mistake was spotted, police were sent across the country charged with securing every copy of the paper and its front-page image of the dictator with two hats. (Ceausescu like many dicators was touchy about his height. At group portrait sessions of the communist parties, the members had to respect a certain hierarchy and no one of the group was allowed to surpass Ceausescu in height. They either had to knee or the photos had to be tempered).
Such was a chaotic Romania under Ceausescu. In 1978, he ordered a new entrance to metro filled up within twelve hours after it was dug just to have a better background for one of his speeches. Although he was feted from the White House to China’s Great Hall of the People, but Ceausescu was so paranoid that foreigners would poison his clothes that he started wearing only clothes that had been under surveillance in a specially constructed warehouse, and each item of clothing would be worn only once, and then burned. To Buckingham Palace, he took his own sheets, and paranoid that he would catch a fatal disease from shaking hands, he washed his hands with alcohol after shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand.
Like Caligula before him, he made his black Labrador Corbu a colonel in the Romanian Army. Corbu was driven through Bucharest in a limousine; it had its own motorcade, and mansion. The dog being a present from British Liberal Party leader David Steel, the Romanian ambassador in London was under official orders to go to Sainsbury’s every week to buy British dog biscuits which were then sent back in the diplomatic bag.
Perhaps the crowning eccentricity of Ceausescu was his idea to build the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s largest, most expensive and heaviest administrative building. The old city of Bucharest was lain waste by the construction of this and the Boulevard of Socialist Victory leading to the Parliament. Both were never finished. He ordered that typewriters be registered, noting that they were in possession of citizens who pose a “danger to public order or state security”.
Ceauşescu’s government was overthrown in a December 1989 military coup, and he was shot following a televised two-hour session by a kangaroo court, ending two decades of his farcical rule.