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The mystery of the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe remains unsolved even 20 years later, buried in the secret communist archives. Was it a genuine triumph of democracy or a clever plot orchestrated from the Kremlin to avoid a real triumph of democracy?
The events in Romania were the most dramatic of all: the street battles which left over a thousand dead, the hastily arranged trial and execution of the communist tyrant Nicolae Caeusescu, and a National Salvation Committee emerging as the new democratic government. However, the top secret archival documents from the Soviet Bloc suggest that the National Salvation Committee and its leader, Ion Iliescu, were secretly backed by the Soviet Union and even requested a Soviet military intervention during the revolution.
What does this mean?
Our guests today are:
Adam Burakowski, the author of Carpathian Genius. The Dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu 1965-1989 and co-author of 1989 – Autumn of Nations (a book that compares the process of communism’s fall in different states of Central and Eastern Europe. He received a Ph.D. from the Warsaw-based Institute of Political Studies of Polish Academy of Sciences.
Vladimir Bukovsky, a former leading Soviet dissident, author of To Build a Castle and Judgment in Moscow.
Pavel Stroilov, a historian who smuggled a vast secret archive of the Gorbachev era out of Russia.
Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest official ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc. His first book, Red Horizons, was republished in 27 languages. In March 2010, The Washington Post recommended it to be included on the list of books that should be read in schools. A commemorative edition of Red Horizons was just issued in Romania to mark 20 years since Ceausescu was executed at the end of a trial where most of the accusations came out of this book. In April 2010, Pacepa’s latest book, Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination, was prominently displayed at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians held in Washington D.C., as a “superb new paradigmatic work” and a “must read” for “everyone interested in the assassination of President Kennedy.”
Robert Buchar, an associate professor and author of the Cinematography Program at Columbia College in Chicago. A political refugee from former Czechoslovakia, he is the producer of the documentary, Velvet Hangover, which is about Czech New Wave filmmakers, how they survived the period of “normalization” and their reflections on the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989. He is the author of the new book, And Reality be Damned… Undoing America: What The Media Didn’t Tell You About the End of the Cold War and Fall of Communism in Europe. The book is based on a documentary feature he is currently working on, The Collapse of Communism: The Untold Story.
FP: Adam Burakowski, let me begin with you.
What can you tell us about the events in Romania in the 1989 revolution?
Burakowski: The fall of Ceauşescu was unavoidable once Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and new political trends appeared in Moscow, and then all over the Soviet empire. The style of leadership of the Romanian dictator – his omnipresent megalomania, government-fueled personality cult, manifested at numerous state celebrations with fake enthusiasm of the masses – all that was incompatible with the just emerged idea of the face-lifting of communism in the so-called perestroika. Ceauşescu had significantly contributed to damaging the image of communism, and at that moment of time, his rule in Romania really did not pay off for Kremlin.
The Soviets made many attempts to get rid of him in a peaceful way. As early as in 1985, Bucharest speculated as to who could be nominated to replace Ceauşescu. Even in the highest echelons of power, names were mentioned of Ceauşescu’s son Nicu, prime-minister Constantin Dăscălescu and others, including the then not too prominent director of one of the publishing houses in the Romanian capital, Ion Iliescu. In May 1987, during his visit to Bucharest, Gorbachev himself tried to incite the reformist sentiments among apparatchiks, but he failed.
The 14th Party Congress in November 1989 marked the last unsuccessful attempt at removing Ceauşescu from power in a legal and peaceful way. The leader was reelected with a unanimous vote and it became clear, that he would not retire without a heavy fight. When the revolution began in Timişoara, Ceauşescu was not surprised. He was awaiting it and thought he was prepared to face it. But then a part of his closest collaborators betrayed him, misleading him about the real situation in the country – a fact that could suggest some secret agreements made before.
The document that I published in “Revista 22” and then in “Adevărul” does not prove Iliescu’s ties to the Kremlin before December 1989. It seems that the request for military intervention was his own, a spontaneous idea. Unlike other apparently similar situations from history, when a request for Russia’s military help came from another country, it was in fact planned and orchestrated by the Russians themselves – suffice it to mention Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and also Poland in 1972 (the Targowica Confederation). It doesn’t seem to have been the case with Iliescu. He seems to have just felt insecure and turned to a power, which he considered friendly and willing to help. It does not exclude, however, his possible earlier contacts with Soviet officials.
Just imagine what could have happened, if the Soviets had not rejected Iliescu’s plea. A total disaster, not only for Romania, but for other communist countries as well.
FP: How would it have been a disaster for Romania and other communist countries? What do you mean? Any why do you think the Soviets rejected Iliesu’s plea?
Burakowski: A possible Soviet military intervention would have demolished the “peaceful” image of the Soviet Union and perestroika. Please have in mind that the Brezhnev Doctrine was officially denied and a new trend was launched. It was the so-called Sinatra Doctrine which excluded any military intervention in any country of the Soviet Bloc and it was published in late October 1989, i.e. two months before Iliescu’s plea. It does not really matter if the Soviets had intervened in favor of the “good” National Salvation Front or “bad” Ceauşescu – it would have significantly damaged the image of all the changes in Central and Eastern Europe.
In addition to that, it could have created a “martyr” legend of the Romanian dictator, which could have caused enormous confusion all over the Soviet Bloc, including among the inhabitants, who would have then understood the political transformation even less than they understood at that time. Disinformation would have flourished even more than it did.
Despite all of the mentioned above, we could not even imagine how many people would have lost their lives if the Soviets had fulfilled what Iliescu wanted and intervened in Romania with the troops.
On the other hand, Iliescu and his people managed to survive and keep the power in their hands without any military help. On December 25, the Ceauşescu couple was executed and the shootings in all the cities ceased. There was no need of military intervention and it seems that the Soviets were conscious of that fact. That is why they rejected the plea.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, what do you bring to the table about all of this and what is your take on Adam Burakowski’s comments and interpretations?
Stroilov: The document Adam refers to is a real eye-opener in many respects. Yes, it certainly ruins whatever reputation Iliescu once had as a democrat and a patriot; but there is more to it.
Amid all that turmoil in Romania, on December 24, 1989, State Secretary Baker suddenly announced on television that the United States would have no objections if the Soviet troops enter Romania to help the rebels. Until recently, I thought this was just another of those Baker’s blunders – after all, he was famous for many irresponsible, foolish and pompous statements. Today, however, we can see what was behind it. Undoubtedly, the conspirators realized the Soviets would not intervene to help them without a green light being given by the West. So they talked both to the Soviets and to the Americans, trying to present the potential Soviet invasion as an internationally endorsed peace-making mission. Amazingly, Moscow did not buy it, but Washington did.
Why did the Soviets refuse? I don’t think they were particularly worried about the Western reaction, or faithful to their ‘Sinatra doctrine’. The latter was all in Gorbachev’s propaganda department. In other places, in other circumstances, Gorby’s troops had no problem killing people in the name of socialism: Georgia in 1989, Azerbaidjan in 1990, Lithuania in 1991, etc. But this particular operation – the ‘velvet revolution’ in Eastern Europe – was a different matter.
The whole idea was to keep the hand of Moscow hidden. In the documents I have copied from Soviet archives, you can see how that plan was worked out. One records the speech made by Gorbachev at the Politburo meeting on October 6, 1988, where he said that socialism is in a profound crisis, so all the communist regimes had to introduce Perestroika-style reforms in order to survive. Then he says:
A number of countries have followed our example, or even preceded us on the road of deep reforms. Others, such as the GDR, Romania or North Korea, still fail to recognize the need for such reforms – but the reasons for that are rather political, since the present leadership is unwilling to change anything. In reality, all those countries need change. We don’t say this publicly, lest we are accused of an attempt to impose Perestroika on the friends, but the fact is: there are clear signs of a forthcoming crisis, so radical reforms are required all over the socialist world. In this sense, the factor of personalities becomes of huge significance. […] Those who stubbornly refuse to follow the call of the times only push the illness deep inside and greatly aggravate its future course.
That concerns us very directly. We may have abandoned the rights of the ‘Big Brother’ of the socialist world, but we cannot abandon our role of its leader. Objectively, it shall always belong to the Soviet Union, as the strongest country of socialism and the birthplace of the October Revolution.
While ruling out any military solutions, Gorbachev wanted the Politburo to work out a clear strategy in case of a serious crisis, so as to keep East Europe under control without a military intervention. This task was given to a special commission chaired by Alexander Yakovlev. Several other documents indicate that the commission kept working in the early months of 1989, but alas – its final recommendations and the subsequent Politburo decision are shrouded in secrecy. Yet, the subsequent events speak for themselves.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the coup against Caeusescu in 1989 was secretly directed from Moscow. It is known that at least some of the key figures in the National Salvation Committee (such as Gen. Militaru or Silviu Brucan) had been secretly in touch with the Soviets for years. After the revolution, the new government took a very pro-Soviet line, especially in confidential negotiations with Moscow (in public, they pretended to be more independent).
For instance, there was the question of Moldova – the part of Romania annexed by the USSR under the Soviet-German pact of 1939. Iliescu confidentially assured Moscow that he would not do anything that could undermine the position of Moldova as an integral part of the USSR, but asked Gorbachev to excuse him if his public statements suggest a more independent approach. Another document suggests that Iliescu’s government wanted to establish new ‘strategic’ links between the USSR and Eastern Europe to replace the collapsed Warsaw Pact.
According to the transcript, in May 1990 Gorbachev said to the Bulgarian communist leader Lilov: ‘[Iliescu] takes balanced, reasonable positions, he is prepared for constructive collaboration. However, I think we should not make the closeness of our approaches too public.’
It is also revealing that both Iliescu and Gorbachev are still in complete denial about all these matters. They even deny that they knew each other before 1989, although they were at university together in the 1950s. After Adam’s document was published, Gorbachev specifically came to Romania, on Iliescu’s request, to deny he was asked to send troops in 1989. Likewise, late Alexander Yakovlev always maintained that the Politburo had no discussions or decisions concerning Eastern Europe in 1989 – none whatsoever (it was not then known that Yakovlev himself was in charge of working out those decisions).
So, we are not talking about different interpretations of events – the evidence is overwhelming, while all the main participants are in total denial. After all, about a thousand people were killed is those events – so it would take a lot of courage for Gorbachev, or Iliescu, or Baker to tell the whole truth and accept their share of responsibility.
FP: Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, what is your reading of what Adam Burakowski and Pavel Stroilov are telling us here in our discussion?
Pacepa: First, I want to congratulate Dr. Jamie Glazov for organizing this symposium on Communist Romania’s move to democracy, which was a unique event and contains important lessons. The 1989 fall of the Kremlin’s viceroys in Eastern Europe was generally so peaceful that it enriched our political vocabulary with the expression “velvet” revolution. The only exception was in my native Romania, where the change was bloody: 1,104 dead and 3,352 wounded.
I also want to express my respect for Mr. Stroilov’s commitment to exposing the unseen face of the Kremlin. I have strong evidence to agree with his conclusion that Moscow had a hidden hand in overthrowing Ceausescu as well.
The so-called Romanian revolution of 1989 was in reality a popular rebellion stolen by a handful of Communists educated in Moscow, who tried to preserve Romania in the Soviet fold. In the 1970s, when I was Ceausescu’s national security adviser, I supervised a super-secret intelligence unit, the U.M.0920/A, tasked with counterespionage against the Soviet Union. It was unique in the Soviet bloc. The fear that the Kremlin wanted his scalp was Ceausescu’s Achilles heal. U.M.0920/A had somewhat over 1,000 officers. It was housed in a large building located on Rabat Street, near Ceausescu’s residence, and was listed as the “Institute for Marketing,” a cover organization created and run by the DIE for that specific purpose. After I broke with Communism I publicly exposed U.M 920/A, which was renamed UM0110 and got a new boss, Gen. Victor Necolicioiu.
According to information obtained by U.M. 0920/A, in August 1969, two years after Ceausescu had condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and a few days after he had invited President Richard Nixon to visit Romania against Moscow’s wish, the Kremlin launched operation Dnestr. Its task was to replace Ceausescu with a Communist more loyal to Moscow. The Kremlin was afraid that Ceausescu’s trumpeted independence from Moscow might exacerbate popular demand in the Soviet Republic of Moldavia for reunification with Romania, and start an uncontrollable wave of nationalist fervor in the other Soviet republics. The Kremlin also feared that the Romanians’ hatred of Ceausescu might turn their minds toward hating Communism itself. The launching of Dnestr was preceded by the extraordinary cancellation of a widely publicized visit that General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Aleksey Kosygin had been scheduled to make to Romania.
In my second book, The Kremlin’s Legacy, published in 1993, I detailed operation Dnestr. In an updated Romanian edition of Red Horizons, published in June 2010 to celebrate 20 years since Ceausescu was executed, I dedicated some 60 pages to Dnestr. Here is a very short synopsis of what I knew about that operation until 1978, when I broke with Communism.
As part of Dnestr, the KGB and the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) persuaded three ranking party activists and seven officers in the Romanian Securitate and the army to join a palace coup against Ceausescu when the time was ripe. The most important party activist was Ion Iliescu, a Politburo member who had matured politically in Moscow and bore the middle name Ilich, given to him by his father, who had placed his whole life in the service of the Comintern and who had idolized Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. (Iliescu’s 1972 recruitment was recorded on tape, as described in The Kremlin’s Legacy.) The most important of the seven generals was Nicolae Militaru, deputy minister of defense. (His 1978 recruitment, recorded on tape, was described in Red Horizons, published in 1988).
None of the persons discovered by U.M. 0920/A as having been recruited by Moscow under its Dnestr operation was ever tried for espionage. Concerned not to anger the Kremlin, Ceausescu ordered that each case be individually “neutralized” without incurring Moscow’s wrath. Ion Ilich Iliescu was released from his position at the top of the Communist Party and moved to a regional post. General Militaru was forced to retire. All, however, remained under constant surveillance by U.M.920/A.
In 1978 I broke with Communism, and I do not know what happened with Dnestr. But the similarities between its provisions and the December 1989 events were remarkable. Only a few hours after the Romanian uprising forced Ceausescu to flee in his helicopter, retired general Nicolae Militaru showed up at the Bucharest television station, now in the hands of the rebels, and appointed himself chief of the country’s armed and security forces. During the night of December 22, Ion Ilich Iliescu created the National Salvation Front stipulated in Dnestr, and appointed himself to head it. At 2:00 p.m. on December 23, Romanian television announced that the National Salvation Front had asked the Soviet Union for military help, invoking the pretext that “unidentified foreign terrorists” in Romania were trying to reinstate Ceausescu. That was exactly what Dnestr had called for: to find a pretext for Soviet military intervention, which would occur, should the coup not succeed on its own.
The Soviet Embassy promptly entered the picture, publicly stating that the lives of its personnel were endangered. In Moscow, a few hours later, the Soviet television newscast “Vremya” confirmed that Ceausescu was being supported by “foreign mercenaries,” and that the Kremlin had already told Iliescu that it would provide the military help he had requested. Misinformed and uninspired, as it has been during all those years when it praised Ceausescu to the sky, the United States Department of State immediately avowed that Washington would take a sympathetic view of Soviet military intervention in Romania.
In the end the Kremlin was spared both the political and the financial cost of a military adventure in Romania. On that same December 23, Iliescu announced that Ceausescu had been arrested the previous day, and a spokesman for the National Salvation Front promised that he would be given a public trial. Nevertheless two days later, on Christmas Day, 1989, Romanian television came on the air with the news that the Ceausescu couple had been already tried, sentenced to death and executed by a military firing squad that same day. The Western media speculated that Ceausescu was immediately killed to prevent him from exposing Moscow’s hand in the December events. I can only confirm that, before 1978, when I broke with Ceausescu, I reported to him all the details of the Dnestr operation. So did my boss of those days, Gen. Nicolae Doicaru, who was found dead soon after Ceausescu was killed. Doicaru’s family got his body back in a sealed coffin.
On March 1, 1990, three months after Ceausescu’s show-trial, Romania’s new government announced that the officer who presided at it, Gen. Gica Popa, had committed suicide. The government ruled out an autopsy, and did not release the general’s body to his family. Popa’s wife, who saw her husband only at his funeral, asserted that his body showed violet marks at both wrists. According to her, after the trial of Ceausescu her husband had qualms of conscience, and intended to contact the U.S. Embassy.
There is quite enough circumstantial evidence showing that the liquidation of Ceausescu was carefully prepared. Ten other generals involved in the events of December 1989 died under conditions not yet determined.
In real life, it often happens that a person may go out to find wool and come home shorn, as they say in Romania. Neither Gorbachev nor his intelligence services were able to predict that their efforts to hold Romania within the confines of glasnost and perestroika would in the end—to use a Marxist image—dig their own graves. The Romanians, freed from Ceausescu’s boot, began demolishing the barriers the Communists had spent over 40 years erecting between themselves and the rest of the world, as well as between individual Russians. Now Romania is member of NATO, and a new generation of intellectuals is struggling to give her a new national identity.
Buchar: First let me say it’s an honor for me to be invited here together with such distinguished people. The information they are bringing into the open is fascinating, but not surprising. One has to keep in mind that all of this was carefully planned for a long period of time. The name of Anatoly Golitsyn is such a taboo till today, yet he brought to the West information about the Soviets planning these changes back in 1962. Then another defector, Gen.Jan Sejna in 1968, said the same thing. But nobody in the West listened or wanted to hear it.
It looks like this mind-blowing operation was carefully planed for some thirty years. The Soviets used Ceausescu as a guinea pig to test how to create the communist leader likeable to the West. At the same time, they created a little monster, because Ceausescu’s ego became so big it crossed the point of no return. However, Moscow’s plans had contingency for all alternatives. After all, the swift execution of Ceausescu and his wife broadcasted on TV in vivid colors sent the chilling message to all “hard-line” communists across Eastern Europe that any resistance to change was futile. The situation in Romania was quite unique because Ceausescu was running the country with an iron fist as a ruthless dictator. That type of environment didn’t give much opportunity to develop any dissent like the Soviets did in some other countries – like in Czechoslovakia, for instance, where the KGB used the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ to build the echelon of new leaders for the future.
FP: Vladimir Bukovsky, what do you bring to the end of this first round?
Bukovsky: Thank you Jamie.
Let me start with a fresh Polish joke about a conversation between two pigs in a barn:
Pig #1: “You know, I cannot believe that they are feeding us and looking after us just because they are kind. They must have some ulterior motive. In the end, they will probably kill and eat us.”
Pig #2: “Oh, stop this. To hell with your conspiracy theories!”
The debate about the 1989 revolutions over the past 20 years has been developing along more or less the same lines.
A few years ago, when Iliescu was still the president, I mentioned in an interview to a Romanian newspaper that he and his ‘National Salvation Committee’ were secretly backed by Moscow. Even at that stage, the evidence was already overwhelming, so I felt free to refer to that as an established fact and did not expect any controversy. But suddenly, Iliescu went out and threatened to sue me for libel in a Romanian court. I replied I would be happy to have the evidence tested in court, but invited him to sue me in Britain – after all, we have the most draconian libel laws in the world. Iliescu calmed down and soon lost the election.
Indeed, the known facts and documents leave me in no doubt that the whole so-called 1989 revolution was simply a Soviet operation. However, even I did not suspect that Iliescu was so close to Moscow that he actually asked for a Soviet invasion. In this sense, Adam’s discovery opens a whole new dimension to the history of those events. There are, in particular, a lot of questions to be asked about the role of the West: how much did State Secretary Baker know about the Soviet backing for the revolution? Why did he join that invitation for a Soviet invasion? But one thing is now abundantly clear: Iliescu and his committee were little more than just Soviet puppets. Throughout history, it was typical for Soviet-sponsored subversives in any country to request a Soviet invasion when they lost control of events.
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