The Mother of All Problems – Elena Ceausescu: Cult of Personality (Part One)

When you live a life based on lies, that is eventually what you become.

The “mother of the nation” allegedly shouted “you’re a motherf%$#er” in her final moments. Elena Ceausescu was never filled with motherly love when it came to her fellow Romanian citizens. Along with her husband, Nicolae, she helped lead Romania to ruin during the 1970’s and 80’s. She was one-half of a power couple that defined the last decades of communism in Romania. Whatever failures are ascribed to her husband, Elena must also share a large part of the blame. Like her husband, Elena was all powerful, until one day she was not.

Funereal Find – Going To Ghencea
Visiting Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest was a must. I had come with my travel companion Tim to visit the Romanian capital on a spur of the moment decision when me for the first time at a hostel in Bulgaria a few days earlier. The idea was to see the ginormous Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world and the most visible monument to the venal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. Listening to stories about Ceausescu’s bizarre behavior was by turns fascinating and frightening. The stories intrigued us enough that we decided to visit his grave. When we did, I was shocked to find that a dignified grave in a nondescript setting among many other graves. There was neither a grandiose tomb nor an unmarked plot, instead it was so normal as to be disconcerting.

Buried beside Nicolae was his wife, Elena. This was not as surprising since they were inseparable in life and from the looks of it, also in death. They were partners in crime, amassing a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of ordinary Romanians. Oddly, Elena was the subject of a personality cult propagated just as vigorously as the one that extolled the supposedly limitless virtues of her husband. This also made her just as hated as her husband when the Romanian Revolution broke out in December 1989.

Forever together – Nicolae & Elena Ceaucescu at Ghencea Cemetery (Credit: Falcodigiada)

A Communist Love Story – Nicolae & Elena
It was said that from the time Nicolae Ceausescu first saw Elena Petrescu in Bucharest he was so smitten with her that he never looked at another woman. Elena had grown up in a Wallachian village and come to Bucharest in search of work. With only an elementary school education she was not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, neither were the communists. She was able to find a job as an assistant in a lab. This would become the genesis of later assertions that she was a master chemist.  Elena joined the communist party in 1939 as it appealed to a woman who was looking to escape the relative poverty into which she had been born. It was through communism that Elena met her husband. This was her big career move, one that would pay dividends when Romania went communist after World War II.

Elena soon procured a position as a secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even greater positions, power and prestige would come her way after Nicolae became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965. Elena’s prospects soared as Nicolae manipulated the party apparatus to benefit himself and his wife. Many believe that a trip to Red China in the early 1970’s was a decisive turn in her lust for power. It was there that she witnessed firsthand the machinations of Mao Tse Tung’s wife, Jiang Qing, also known as Madame Mao. Jiang had also been begun her rise to prominence as a secretary, in this case to her much more famous husband. During the Cultural Revolution, lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death a decade later, Jiang exercised an immense amount of power. She was highly influential in policymaking. By 1969, she had been appointed a seat in the Politburo. Soon she was surrounded by a cult of personality.

A passion for communism – Elena Petrescu at the age of 23

Red Romania – The Ceausescus Ascendent
In China, Elena had witnessed Madame Mao at the height of her powers. What Elena should have later noted was the fate of Madame Mao after her husband’s death. She fell out of favor and ended up committing suicide. There was a lesson in Jiang’s fall, but Elena, like all people who became intoxicated with power failed to heed it. Back in Romania, she attained one powerful position after another, culminating in her becoming a member of the Permanent Bureau of the Political Executive Committee. Elena now exercised more control over Romanian affairs than almost anyone else in the country, other than her husband.

At the same time her own personality cult began to grow. It reached critical mass with Elena being feted as an academic genius. For someone with an elementary school education, Elena had done very well for herself by rising through the party ranks. That was not enough for her expanding ego. She was awarded a doctorate in Chemistry. Scholarly works from her began to be published. Many at the time did not believe what amounted to patently false claims of Elena’s scientific genius. After the Ceausescu’s fall, the truth came out. These works were ghost written on behalf of Elena. No one dared to protest if they valued their life. If she turned against someone, they were doomed.

Dark ambitions – Elena Ceaucescu

Darkness Deified – Taking The Fall
Elena Ceausescu was a different kind of mother for her nation. One who was extremely vulgar and vain. She was notorious for being overtly concerned with appearances. Her rise went in lockstep with Romania’s fall. While Elena worried about such frivolous matters as published images showing her prominent nose, the country was being bled dry of resources by the Ceausescu’s policies. Unbeknownst to the population at large, the Ceausescu’s were secreting away huge sums of money in secret bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile, the shops were empty of consumer goods, the heat only worked part time in the winter and food became increasingly scarce. The entire time, no criticism could be voiced against either Nicolae or Elena.

The Ceausescu had reached the realm of near deification in public discourse. While the economy collapsed, public discontent began to simmer. Life in Romania was intolerable for almost everyone not connected to the regime. There were even murmurings of discontent among Ceausescu’s fellow cronies. The situation exploded after the military attempted to put down an uprising in the city of Timisoara. Someone was going to have to take the fall for the disaster Romania had become. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu would be the prime candidates.

Click here for: The Final Act – Elena Ceausescu: The People Had Enough (Part Two)


2 thoughts on “The Mother of All Problems – Elena Ceausescu: Cult of Personality (Part One)

  1. Thank you for writing this fascinating profile on Elena! Hungarians were also elated by their demise as many had friends or relatives living in western Romania. During the late 80s, we made several trips from Budapest into Romania to visit Hungarians and never would’ve imagined the Ceausescus would eventually be executed by the people.

  2. Rather hilariously, Mrs Ceausescu’s only academic qualification, legitimately earned that is, was a pass in knitting achieved at junior school level. The needle remained an indispensable vade mecum throughout her odious life.

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