16th December 2014
Romanian Revolution through British Eyes/Michael Atkinson: ‘Bucharest during the 1989 Revolution’
By December 1989 the situation in Romania for the population was bad. Years of erratic dictatorial rule, ever increasing privation and austerity had produced an atmosphere ripe for change. But because of the very powerful communist tyranny and repression not even the most expert and experienced diplomatic and foreign media observers foresaw the sudden overthrow of the Ceaușescu regime more than a few days in advance, if at all.
As late as October a Congress of the Romanian Communist Party had been held at which foreign journalists had only found a single delegate, who was willing to voice dissent, but only privately, in a cloakroom. Events elsewhere in Eastern Europe late in the autumn were the first harbingers, and Ceaușescu, alarmed came hurrying back early from East Berlin in the middle of the night, going straight on to visit food markets. His last minute attempt to improve supplies had no effect.
For already the first open revolt had broken out in the most unexpected quarter. In Timișoara the parishioners of an outspoken Hungarian ethnic Romanian pastor named Tokes had started to demonstrate with him against an attempt by his church authorities to rusticate him. In the week before 21 December the demonstrations had grown in size and came out in open opposition to the regime. The army opened fire in a vain attempt to end the trouble and by the 20th news of these events (ignored by the official news channels) had filtered through to Bucharest.
On the morning of the 21st I was in the Anglican Church building with the newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to discuss a carol service. When we heard the animated voices of a crowd outside we left hurriedly to return to our offices. Ceaușescu had rashly called a mass meeting on the square in front of the Communist Party headquarters to express support for him. Spontaneous jeering and whistling from a section of the crowd brought his oration to a sudden, unscheduled end. He was bundled away and only to be seen on television once more, four days later at his trial.
Having reported to London on the morning’s momentous events I visited the square where the crowd had been. The people remaining there created such an atmosphere of relief and joy that I went quickly to the Residence to bring my family to the centre to see things for themselves (my sons and daughter had come out for Christmas).We were impressed by the quiet, peaceful mood in the streets. There was no sign of any looting, except that bookshop windows had been broken and propaganda tracts, especially volumes ghost-written for Ceaușescu, were in piles burning on the street.
The only odd thing was that there were demonstrators outside a theatre on Magheru St. urging everyone to “go to the TV station to defend it”. We wondered ‘defend against who? Is this a student prank?’ This was the only hint of the battle to come. I went back to the office. Some demonstrators marched past shouting “Libertate, libertate! Help us, we are Europeans too!”. Veronica telephoned to say there were people with staves milling about near the Residence. My family went into the garden to admire the red streaks of fireworks in the sky. But the fighting there started soon afterwards and they realized that the red streaks were tracer bullets. Soon the building began to shake with the impact of heavier ammunition and Veronica and the young joined the frightened support staff in their basement sitting room.
I was trapped in the office where I stayed all night trying to find out what was happening in the city and round the TV station. The telephone to the Residence was cut and the only later news was from the French military attache who reported that the situation there “could hardly be worse”. My family told me later that our Residence itself came under particularly direct attack at breakfast time on the 22nd. Windows were broken, the glass panes on pictures were shattered and the building shook much more than on the previous night. They sheltered in the sub-basement cellar but became aware that there were intruders upstairs, firing from there at the revolutionaries at the TV station. They must have been Securitate or special forces who had entered our building stealthily.
During a low in the fighting in the early afternoon there was a knock at the outside door and my son, recognising a German accent, opened it. I shall always be grateful to the West German Minister, Christiane Geissler-Kuss. Her house nearby was more sheltered from the fighting and she had sent a member of her staff to rescue my family. She had them taken later to join other staff and dependants in our Chancery. They arrived there before I returned from a drive to the Residence to find them. Given the great insecurity (there was sporadic shooting near the Chancery) we all worked during the evening in the Registry shredding and burning confidential papers.
On the 23rd Veronica and I returned to the Residence for a brief visit. Soldiers nearby warned us not to stay long as there were snipers about. As the Residence came to sight we saw smoke drifting lazily from the roof. The attic area had been completely destroyed. The fire might have been started by tracer bullets in the roof. I had burned fiercely but slowly in the windless weather. Had it been windy the whole house would surely have been destroyed but as it was the flames and smoke destroyed many of our personal possessions including all my photographs from earlier Posts, our family letters and papers. It was very eerie to enter the ground floor with its ceiling radiating the heating from above. All the food prepared for the staff Christmas Party lay untouched in the kitchen. There had been some looting and a framed picture of myself with Ceaușescu at the presentation of my credentials had been torn in half and his side of the photograph had disappeared!
Rumours of a possible attempt by the Securitate to kidnap some diplomatic personnel had reached London and Washington and it was agreed across the Atlantic that all we Brits could take refuge in the American Embassy which was guarded by armed Marines. We were very glad and grateful to accept this hospitality which gave us some peace of mind for the night. With our temporary hosts arrangements were made for the so-called “non-essential” staff, their dependants and my family to leave for Ruse on the Bulgarian frontier. On their way to the border the convoy of cars flying our two countries’ flags were greeted by people at the roadside who waved and made “V” signs. The party reached Bulgaria safely, and with great help from the staff of the British Embassy in Sofia went on to London.
I stayed working (and whenever possible at night sleeping) in my office the next night and for several more. With the trial and execution of the Ceaușescus which we followed on television the situation calmed down and a new coalition government was formed. There was an immediate change in the atmosphere, as from night to day. For example a very high ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a courtesy call at the Chancery and stayed on for a drink in the Embassy social club. On arriving to the Ministry for the first time after Christmas I was met at the door by the Head of Protocol whose only greeting was to say with a faint smile “Well, well, well”. I think he actually meant it literally.
From then on it took a lot of work and pressure of the MFA to find a new Residence as the Pangratti St. house would take months to rebuild and a return to that address for us was out of the question. With help from the new Prime Minister Petre Roman, a new Residence was found in an area of the city unknown to our Embassy drivers as it had been out of bounds to all except senior Party leaders, the “nomenclatura”. Our next door neighbour was the Minister of Defence. I greeted him over the garden wall and said we felt safer having him living there. He replied that he felt the same about our moving in next to him!
To end, two snapshots of Bucharest immediately before and after the Revolution. First, a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco in the unheated Opera House. The fur clad audience rising to its feet to demand and get an encore of the Hebrew Slaves Chorus, sang at captives in Babylon. Second, the actress Caryl Churchill in a play in the National Theatre about life under the deposed dictator. A family showed desperate grief over a hen’s egg, broken on the floor which they tried to scrape up as valuable food…The rest of my stay in Romania was relatively peaceful although I did not know in January that the miners were going to come and ransack the house next door to our new Residence.
By Michael Atkinson
British Ambassador to Romania, 1989 – 1992
Disclaimer: This account does not represent the view of the Her Majesty’s British Government, but is a personal recollection of the December 1989 events in Romania.