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Revolution in Romania

By Mircea Munteanu

The end of the Cold War in Romania, 1989

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To those interested in the history of contemporary Eastern Europe, the period imediatly after the 1989 events in Eastern Europe offered a great opportunity to analyze the rise, establishment and fall of communist governments. The ability to study documents from both Western and the former Communist-world archives has allowed for the formation of better theories and a more complete understanding of the history and inner-workings of the dictatorships controlling so many lives for more than half a century.

The following document, excerpted from Serban Sandulescu’s book December ’89: The Coup D’Etat Confiscated the Romanian Revolution, contains the Romanian minutes of the conversation between Nicolae Ceausescu and Mikhail Gorbachev on 4 December 1989, only 12 days before the start of the Romanian Revolution and 20 days before the Romanian dictator’s execution.

The document not only gives historians a glimpse into the last days of what has been called the last Romanian “absolutist monarchy,” but also provides a window into the Kremlin’s attitude towards the situation in Romania on the eve of the December 1989 events. The break in the relationship between Ceausescu and the Kremlin leadership, created purposely by Ceausescu over the years, by the late 1980s had effectively isolated Romania from the reforms instituted in the Soviet Union by Gorbachev. By December 1989—following the transition from power of the Communist Parties in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the toppling of Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov—the bankruptcy of the communist ideology in Eastern Europe should have been clear to anyone, including Ceausescu. The minutes of the conversation between Gorbachev and the Romanian leader, however, make clear is that Ceausescu was so far removed from reality that he believed it possible to overturn the “velvet revolutions” that had taken place in the previous months. Advocating military intervention across the East Bloc, Ceausescu, the “defender” of Czechoslovak independence in 1968, had came full circle by 1989.

But intervention was out of the question. Fortified in his confidence in US President George Bush following the 2-3 December 1989 Malta summit, Gorbachev rejected the idea of military intervention. Later, the Soviet government would outright reject the possibility that Soviet troops be used on the behalf of the Romanian dictator, or the revolutionary forces. Following the Romanian coup d’etat, Washington made clear that it no longer viewed Soviet actions in Eastern Europe as necessarily a cause of instability. The US–Soviet talks, along with Gorbachev’s unwillingness to use force to maintain communist regimes, proved that the Brezhnev Doctrine was dead. Illustrative of the new international situation, Gorbachev, throughout the conversation with Ceausescu, never alludes to the meeting with Bush and to any decisions that were taken in Malta regarding the future of Communism in Europe.

It is also interesting to note that throughout the discussions between Gorbachev and Ceausescu, the later never suggested that he needed either help from Soviet troops or Soviet support for himself. He seemed more concerned about remaining the only communist dictator in power in the region, seemingly unconcerned as to how the wave of revolutions might effect his country. Hence, the revolution in Timisoara, Cluj, Bucharest, and all other major Romanian cities in December 1989 surprised both Ceausescu and, it seems, the communist reformers that took over power on 22 December without much resistance from the old regime. Events unfolded so fast that even today it is still unclear what exactly happened between 22 and 25 December, from Ceausescu’s flight to his execution. Romanian archival sources, especially concerning the dictator’s last years, days and hours are scarce and documents are only selectively declassified. Despite availability of documents on Romania’s involvement in certain Cold War crises, such as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring, and on the early years of the Securitate secret police, the bulk of the records of the Romanian Communist Party and Ceausescu’s regime files remain classified. A full opening of the Romanian Archives would allow for a more complete history of the communist regime and a more complete history of the region.