Why you should care
Because power always has limits.
Elena Ceaușescu’s last moments were as pathetic as one could imagine. Bundled in drab winter clothing, she was shoved around by armed guards inside a cold, empty building. Her husband, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was powerless to help — he was being manhandled too. Soon, they would be executed by a firing squad alongside each other in a courtyard. On Christmas Day.
Elena Ceaușescu’s end was a far cry from the near-absolute power she’d enjoyed as Romania’s first lady just weeks earlier. Being married to the Communist autocrat — whose socialist regime ruled the country from 1965 until his execution in 1989 amid a popular revolt — had its benefits, even beyond the extravagant furs and designer outfits she flaunted as her country descended into economic ruin.
While the world is no stranger to larger-than-life first ladies, from the United States’ Florence Harding to Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe, none were quite like Elena. The peasant with minimal education schemed her way to the upper echelons of national governance. In Elena’s later years, fawning official media hailed her as the benevolent “Mother of the Nation,” her likeness broadcast virtually everywhere alongside her husband’s.
“Perhaps in no other totalitarian system with a cult of the leading lady did adulatory practices reach such proportions as in Romania,” writes Annemarie Sorescu-Marinković, a researcher at the Institute for Balkan Studies, in a 2017 paper about Elena’s cult of personality. “Practically, the two presidential spouses enjoyed two parallel worship structures.”
Before the 1970s, Elena kept a low public profile as her husband focused on consolidating power. That began to change following a 1971 state visit to China, where a personality cult had already emerged around Mao Zedong. There, historians believe, Elena became enamored by the Chinese ruler’s wife, Jiang Qing, who wielded considerable political influence in the Middle Kingdom.
Back home, the foundation for a cult of leadership around Nicolae had already been laid, says independent researcher Manuela Marin. In addition to rallying the Romanian public, he began consolidating his regime by appointing associates and allies to key positions. Then the propaganda machine kicked into gear: Nicolae’s image began appearing everywhere as he was praised for boldly leading his nation toward a prosperous future. “These people understood that in order to preserve their positions, they have to please the leader,” says Marin, who has written about communist Romania’s cult of personality.
As the propaganda machine grew more efficient, Elena began her own ascent, starting with a series of Communist Party appointments in the ’70s. That she had “earned” a Ph.D. in chemistry years earlier — presumably after Nicolae pulled some party strings — helped pave her way into the Romanian Academy, and she received a flurry of scholarly honors under Nicolae’s rule. Years later, it emerged that her work had been done by other researchers.
By the mid-1980s, after Elena had been appointed first deputy prime minister, she was being referred to in the local Communist Party rag as “comrade academician doctor engineer Elena Ceaușescu, brilliant politician and patriotic scholar of broad international renown.” Collecting honorary degrees from foreign institutions — those that agreed to confer them, that is — became a staple of her visits abroad. So was small-time thievery: During a state visit to France in early 1978, the couple reportedly raided their official accommodations. That led France’s then president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, to warn Queen Elizabeth II ahead of the Ceaușescus’ visit to Britain months later to lock down the valuables at Buckingham Palace.
While Nicolae was popular throughout the 1960s and ’70s thanks to Romania’s relatively robust economic performance, his image began to suffer following the introduction of a disastrous austerity policy. Aimed at repaying some $21 billion in public debt incurred by Romania during the ’70s, the policy led to food rationing and widespread electricity shortages. Millions of Romanians stood in line for staples like bread and froze in poorly heated apartments during the winter. All the while, the clunky state propaganda machine continued pumping out increasingly adulatory praise of the couple.
Much of the Romanian population became convinced, especially after the couple’s execution, there had been one mastermind behind it all: “Everyone thought Elena Ceaușescu was to blame,” Marin says.
She despised the Romanian people right back. According to a firsthand account of the Ceaușescu regime by a top intelligence official who fled to the West, Elena is said to have complained: “The worms never get satisfied, regardless of how much food you give them.”
In the end, she went out kicking and screaming — literally. Unlike other anti-communist revolutions across Eastern Europe, which unfolded gradually, Romania’s erupted within days. Protests spread from the provinces to the capital on Dec. 22, 1989, forcing the couple to flee Bucharest before they were apprehended, put on trial and executed. One popular account has Elena cursing the guards in her last minutes, while Nicolae sang “The Internationale.”
Today, the couple’s fate remains a warning to seemingly invincible dictators around the world. Few Romanians these days mourn their loss; instead, they’re haunted by memories of freezing in their own homes during the winter — deeply ironic, perhaps, considering that the Ceaușescus died bundled in heavy coats.