Journalist dissects Romanian revolution

Canadian-born writer delves into secret police files to unravel the story behind the uprising



The year 1989 was not a good one in the fortunes of world communism.

In mid-February, the Soviet Union announced all its troops had left Afghanistan after a failed nine-year occupation.

This was followed in late March by the Communist party's loss in the first free elections for the Soviet Parliament.

On June 4 the elders of the Chinese Communist Party decided to declare martial law and send troops to kill and disperse pro-reform demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and hundreds of other cities around the country.

On Oct. 23 Hungary moved toward multi-party democracy when the country's name was changed to the Hungarian Republic from the Hungarian People's Republic.

At the end of the first week in November the Communist government of East Germany resigned. In the following days the thousands of people started demolition of the Berlin Wall as they celebrated the beginning of the reunification of Germany.

On Nov. 10 the Bulgarian Communist party changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party and at the end of the month the Communist party of Czechoslovakia announced it would give up its monopoly of power.

And on Christmas Day, the Communist government of Romania was overthrown. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were shot by a firing squad after a brief show trial.

It is this last event and the events of the decade or so that led up to it that has consumed the attention of Arpad Szoczi, a Canadian-born author, journalist and documentary filmmaker of Hungarian heritage since they occurred.

Indeed, as an active member of Canadian and other organizations lobbying and demonstrating against the attempted ethnic cleansing by the Ceausescu regime of the ethnic Hungarian minority living in Romania's Transylvania region, Szoczi has been not only a chronicler but also an actor in this drama.

Now he has brought together his three decades of notebooks and recorded interviews, and embarked on additional research in the now available files of Romania's secret police, the Securitate, and its Hungarian counterpart to bring together the whole story of the overthrow of Ceausescu.

His book is called Timisoara: The Real Story Behind the Romanian Revolution. The book takes its name from the city in Transylvania where dissident Protestant minister Laszlo Tokes preached about the evils of the Ceausescu regime from the pulpit.

It was here in early December 1989, that thousands of ethnic Hungarians gathered and surrounded Tokes' apartment building when the army and police were ordered by Ceausescu to rid Romania of this troublesome minister.

Remarkably, despite the anti-minority propaganda generated by the regime, thousands of ethnic Romanians joined the protest to protect Tokes.

More than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds more wounded when the soldiers opened fire on Dec. 17.

Those volleys quickly reverberated around Romania. So, when on Dec. 21 Ceausescu strode on to the balcony overlooking Revolution Square to reaffirm his leadership at the head of the Communist party he quickly saw from the malevolent mood of the jeering crowd that he had lost control of the situation.

The picture of Ceausescu's face as it dawned on him that his 24 years of unchallenged rule were over is one of the abiding images from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states.

Thus Szoczi can justly argue that it was the defiance of the ethnic Hungarian Romanians and their supporters in Canada, the United States, Europe and, of course, Hungary itself that led to the collapse of the Ceausescu regime.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess here that I have a small walk-on part in Szoczi's book. He interviewed me about my time as European bureau chief for Southam News in the 1980s when I first became aware of the attempted assimilation of Hungarians into Romanian culture in Transylvania.

That interest continued when I spent a few years in the late 1980s as international affairs writer with Southam News in Ottawa and found myself the object of attention by Romanian diplomats and a Hungarian spy, code named Svenson.

Indeed, in his leave-no-stone-unturned research Szoczi even discovered the Hungarian Secret Police's voluminous file on me. The file number is 1.11.4.T-III/88/1 and I hope to obtain a copy one day.

The story Szoczi recounts is riveting. He has interviewed most of the main actors in the drama and reports their experiences in their own words. But he is not afraid to make his own judgments about the veracity of the stories if he has reason to doubt them.

Even so, the courage of many of those involved, especially the ethnic Hungarians in Romania in their daily dealings with the ubiquitous spies of the Securitate, is an inspiration.

One of Szoczi's previous works on this subject is a documentary about Michel Clair and Rejean Roy, the two Quebec activist-filmmakers whose early 1989 white-knuckle experience obtaining a clandestine interview with Tokes gave the dissident minister a profile not only in the West, but also, crucially, within Romania itself.

Their escapade is in itself a classic of espionage.

As is to be expected, there are spies and characters of questionable motives everywhere in this saga.

Our own Canadian Security and Intelligence Service makes several appearances as do, less commendably, officials from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., whose efforts to sell Candu nuclear reactors to Ceausescu never passed the smell test. Szoczi is an unrelenting terrier in his pursuit of information. My main criticism of this book is that he sometimes allows his passion to set before us all the information he has gathered to disturb the flow of the story.

Do we really need, for example, a page and a half of Szoczi's efforts to get to the bottom of what clandestine surveillance equipment the Securitate may have stolen from the American company Texas Instruments? That little section ends with the text of Szoc-zi's last email to Texas Instruments to which, so far, he has received no reply.

But even that criticism underlines the exhaustive research Szoczi conducted to put together what is undoubtedly the most authoritative account in English of a brave and honourable episode in modern history.

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