Memories of Communist Romania: Madeleine Simon Interviews Ion Mihai Pacepa

What follows is not my writing. It is an interview conducted by my daughter Madeleine Simon with Ion Mihai Pacepa for Madeleine's eighth grade Global Studies Class at her Los Angeles school. Her class assignment was to do a report on a particular foreign country and to interview someone from the country. Madeleine's choice was Romania.

Normally, such an eighth grade assignment would not merit publication at PJ Media or anywhere other than, perhaps, the school paper. But the man Madeleine interviewed, through my help and others, is no ordinary Romanian. He is Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking intelligence official ever to defect from the former Eastern bloc (also the author of many books, including the best-selling Red Horizons, and a contributor to PJ Media). Mr Pacepa defected from the Ceauşescu regime by walking into the American Embassy in Bonn, Germany, in July 1978.

As the reality of communism and what it was like begins to diminish from the public memory, I think you will understand why we have chosen to publish this remarkable interview here.

INTERVIEW WITH ION MIHAI PACEPA:

1. What effect does the prominent Gypsy population have on Romania as a country?

In my other life, in Romania, one of my best friends was Ion Voicu, a prominent violinist (a pupil of David Oistrakh), and at first I had no idea that he was a Gypsy. Even if I had known, I wouldn't have cared. I had many thousands of people working for me, and all I cared about was what they could do. One day, however, I suspected that Voicu was a Gypsy. It happened in the mid 1960s, when I attended a superb rendition of Paganini's “First Violin Concerto.” Voicu was recalled to the stage nine times, and the audience was still clapping frenetically when a dusky-skinned old lady wearing a flowery dress and hat jumped up from her seat in the front row and screamed with all her lungs: “Quiet! Quiet! Don't scare him!” After pausing for a moment, she burst into tears: “He’s my only son.”

Voicu returned to the stage, closed his eyes when his bow touched the string, as he usually did, and kept them closed until the last note. To a faultless technique he added a warmth that engulfed my body — and the whole concert hall with it. When Voicu played the last note of “La Campanella,” the audience exploded again. Nobody remembered the dusky-skinned old lady. Soon after that, Voicu became director of the Romanian Philharmonic, and he transformed it into a major European orchestra. During those years, I never heard anyone even suggesting that Voicu might be a Gypsy. He was just the Grand Maestro. That remained the case, until Voicu's best friend — that was me — broke with Communist Romania and began exposing its crimes. From one day to the next, the Romanian government suddenly remembered that Voicu was a Gypsy, and it began wielding that weapon of the emotions called racism, which had so successfully been used by Nazism and Communism. The Gypsy Voicu was replaced as director of the Romanian Philharmonic, and he disappeared into anonymity. After Communism collapsed in Romania, one of Voicu's sons, Mădălin (also a musician), became a member of the Romanian Parliament and dedicated his life to defending Romania's Gypsy community.

Romania always had a Gypsy minority, just as it had Jewish, German and Hungarian minorities, but no one cared. The Gypsies were all Romanians, just as American Jews and American Germans are all Americans. Things suddenly changed in 1939, when the Nazis took over Romania. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gypsies were sent to concentration camps, where most perished. After the Communists replaced the Nazis at the country's helm, they began expelling the Jews, the Germans and the Gypsies — or even selling some of them for hard currency. (I suggest you glance through The Ransom of the Jews, written by a good friend of mine, Radu Ioanid, a director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum; I helped him document that book, and I wrote its Postface.)

I am glad you care about Gypsies.They need all the help they can get. Racism is a powerful virus, and it may take a while before the Romanian Gypsies become just Romanians again. Meanwhile, I ask you to stop in front of a mirror and smile. You are so lucky to be born in this unbelievable country, where no one cares about your race or religion. I’ve been in the United States for 34 years, and because I was 50 when I changed languages, I still speak English with a thick accent (have you ever heard former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speak on TV?), but when I go into a store or a restaurant, no one asks me where I’m from. I am just another American — and I am so proud of that!

2. How would you describe the Romanian education system?

When I went to school, the Kingdom of Romania had a superb education system. It was based on the French system (Romania's capital, Bucharest, was called Le Petit Paris), and it created generations of impressive intellectuals. Things began changing in 1948, after the Communists overthrew the king and replaced the French education system with one imported from Moscow. From one day to the next, Marconi was no longer the father of the radio. Now Russian physicist Alexander Popov invented the electromagnetic radio waves. The former Marconi Street, where Romania's Broadcasting Company was headquartered, became Popov Street. Romania's education system followed step. In Romanian schoolbooks, the pictures of Voltaire and Diderot, the father of the French Enlightment and the co-founder of the famous Encyclopédie, were replaced by those of Stalin and of his Romanian equivalent, Gheorghiu-Dej, and later Ceausescu. The schools remained good, but the students learned the wrong things. They were quite difficult years.

Now the schools are re-normalized, but it may take a new generation of teachers before Romania's education system returns to its former excellence. European Union statistics now assign Romania’s education system the 74th place in the world.

3. How did you rise to your unusual positions in the Romanian government?

With unusual education. Father, who had started his life as a tinsmith in his father's shop, was determined to see that his only child would never need to touch a hammer, and he spent every spare penny he earned on my education. At the age of seven I could play the Kreutzer sonata on my violin, at twelve I was showing off Berlioz's idée fixe at the musical evenings I would organize for my fellow students, and at sixteen I was lecturing on Marcel Proust's In Remembrance of Things Past.

It is said that in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the 1950s, when I became an engineer, I was much better educated than most of my colleagues. The rest is history.

4. What was the exact position that you held, and what type of work did you do on a daily basis?

In the 1950s I was assigned to West Germany as a spy under cover as a diplomat. During the next twenty years I managed Romania's industrial espionage, which was charged with modernizing the Romanian economy. In other words, I was the unseen czar of Romanian industry. In 1978, when I left Romania for good, I was head of Romania’s Presidential House — the equivalent in the U.S. of being the White House chief of staff and director of the CIA, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.

5. When and why did you defect to the United States?

Let me quote from a letter I wrote to my daughter, Dana, who remained a virtual prisoner in Romania. My letter was published in the French newspaper Le Monde in the 1980s, and it was broadcast over and over by Radio Free Europe at that time; it has recently been republished in Prisoner of Conscience, a book by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).

My beloved Dana,

... Orders to "silence" people abroad, especially critics of the cult of personality, began to come more and more often, and the foreign intelligence service was slowly being transformed into a huge governmental terrorist organization. ... In 1978 I got the order to organize the killing of Noel Bernard, the director of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian program, who had infuriated Ceausescu with his commentaries. It was late July when I got this order, and when I ultimately had to decide between being a good father and being a political criminal. Knowing you, Dana, I was firmly convinced that you would prefer no father to one who was an assassin.

On Christmas Day 1989, Romania's tyrant, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed at the end of a trial whose accusations had come almost word for word out of my book Red Horizons (subsequently republished in 27 countries). The bullets were still flying over Bucharest when Congressman Frank Wolf landed there to free Dana. On January 6, 1990, Dana became the first Romanian to arrive in Washington after the fall of Ceausescu. She is now a proud American, is working for a university, and has become a recognized expert in national and international advertising.

6. Would you consider Romania very similar to the other countries that had been part of the Soviet Union? If so, in what ways? If not, in which ways and why?

No. Romania is not very similar to the other countries that were once Soviet satellites. The 1989 fall of the Kremlin’s East European viceroys was so peaceful that it enriched our vocabulary with the expression “velvet” revolutions. The exception was Romania, where the upheaval cost 1,104 dead and 3,352 wounded.

In the 1970s, when I was Romania’s national security adviser, I accompanied our prime minister on a visit to Pope Paul VI, who asked if he could grant us one wish, what it would be. “Change our geographical location,” the clever prime minister replied. Indeed, Romania was the only East European country not sharing a border with the West, and Ceausescu, the wily Communist leader who had seized the scepter in 1965, had compounded the damage with decades of news blackouts. Even when the Berlin Wall collapsed in November 1989, Romania was still so isolated that within two weeks Ceausescu succeeded in pulling off a grandiose Communist Party Congress that, to the fanfare of trumpets, re-elected him and his illiterate wife as the country’s “benevolent” rulers.

Real estate agents always say there are three important things to consider in their profession: location, location, and location. Location has played an important role in the evolution of post-Communist Romania. The closer any former Communist country lay to the West, the more Westernized it has become.

One big difference between the rest of Eastern Europe and Romania is that the latter's justice system is still being run by former Communist judges, as is the case in Russia, her neighbor. Those Romanian judges seem unable to understand that their country has now been admitted in NATO, though they allow themselves to be chauffeured around in limousines imported from the NATO countries. Last year, Romania’s Supreme Court declined to cancel a 1974 death sentence given by that two-bit Communist Dracula named Ceausescu to an American citizen, Constantin Rauta. This American “traitor” committed the “crime” of defecting to the U.S. and helping defeat the Soviet evil. In the United States, Rauta became a reputable NASA scientist, who over the past thirty years worked on important U.S. aero-space projects such as HUBBLE, KOBE, EOS and LANDSAT. He was also involved in the development of various space defense systems, making a substantial contribution to the defense of the U.S. and her NATO allies. In Romania he is still sentenced to death.

In the past five years, 6,284 people sentenced by Communist Romania for, in one way or another, helping the U.S. and NATO to demolish the Soviet empire have asked to have their sentences canceled, but only three have succeeded — because of media pressure. Over 500,000 patriots killed or terrorized by the Communists have yet to be rehabilitated. At the same time, thousands of former Securitate (Communist Romania’s security police) officers and hundreds of thousands of its informants and collaborators who wrote the bloodiest era in Romania’s history are still shielded by a veil of secrecy.

7. What do you miss most about the Romania, what do you miss the least?

Most of all I miss the innocent and pastoral Romania in which I grew up — a country where my neighbors were also my friends, and where I never had to lock the door. Unfortunately, that Romania is gone forever. What I do not miss is the currently popular holdover from Communism that government is a boon bestowed on us from on high.

8. What would you rate the Romanian health care system on a scale of 1 to 10 and why? (1 being the worst, 10 being the best).

I am not a health expert, and I cannot rate Romania's current health care system. But in 2000, a European Union report on Romania's "Health Care Systems in Transition" stated that its remnant Communist health care system was still devastating that country, whose infant mortality rate (20.5 per 1,000 in 1998) was among the highest in Europe and whose death rate in 1998 was 70% higher than the EU average.

A 2007 Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which won more than twenty international prizes and became quite popular in the U.S., provides a more recent evaluation. This film tells the heartbreaking true story of Constantin Nica, a retired Romanian engineer who had the misfortune to grow old in a country that still maintained a nightmarish government health care bureaucracy — even twenty years after its last Communist dictator was gunned down by his own people. The movie's script follows Constantin Nica, fictionalized as the gravely ill Mr. Lazarescu, as a Romanian government ambulance shuttles him from one government-owned hospital to the next. At the first three hospitals, although the doctors determine that he does need surgery, the government bureaucracy refuses to take him in because he is too old and does not have enough money to bribe the hospital personnel. Mr. Lazarescu stubbornly refuses to give up, but at the fourth hospital, the evil bureaucrats win — he dies after a delayed and botched surgery. (The real Mr. Nica was in fact dumped onto a park bench and left there to die.) Mr. Lazarescu's real enemy was not his illness, but the uncaring and authoritarian attitude so deeply ingrained in bureaucratic practice.

On January 14, 2012, the people of Bucharest took to the streets to protest Romania's still poor health care system. It may take a while, and more street demonstrations, until that Communist heritage is also liquidated.

9. How did the Romanian government change after it separated from the Soviet Union?

Post-Communist Romania has been positively transformed in unprecedented ways. The barriers the Communists spent over 40 years erecting between themselves and the rest of the world, as well as between individual Romanians, are slowly coming down. Romania's culture is reviving, and a new generation of intellectuals is now struggling to develop a new national identity. It will take a while.

Today we know how a democracy could be changed into a communist tyranny, but we are still learning how to reverse that nightmare.

10. What is the role of women in Romanian society? Are they treated equally to men, or are they considered second-class citizens?

I have not been back in Romania since I left that country in 1978, and I cannot give you an eye-witness account on how women are treated there now. But from what I read in the media, the male chauvinist society created by Communism in that country looks like a thing of the past.

11. Can you talk about civil liberties in Romania?

The difference between Ceausescu's age and today is like that between night and day. On October 13, 2011, however, Romania was temporarily disqualified to join the Schengen area (within which, citizens of member states can travel freely), because government power in Romania still had has insufficient checks and balances. Forty years of Communist isolation and 25 years of Ceausescu's efforts to transform that country into a monument to himself are not easily erased.

12. The Soviet Union was famous for suppressing religion. Is there a lack of religious freedom in Romania? Why or why not?

The Communists went to great lengths to make Marxism the only religion in every country where they seized political power. One of the first things I did on that memorable day of July 28, 1978, when I became a free man, was to fall to my knees and pray out loud, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. It took me a while. It was not easy to find the right words to express my great joy and thanks to the good Lord. In the end, all that I asked for was forgiveness for my past, freedom for my daughter, and strength for my new life. Most Romanians are religious people, and quite a few of them fell to their knees on Christmas Day in 1989, when Ceausescu was executed. Freedom of religion was one of the first things to be restored there.

13. Did economic reform really happen in the country? If so, in what areas is it having a positive effect, and in what areas is work still needed?

The Romanians have learned how to privatize commerce, but they are still struggling with the inefficient industrial mastodons built by the Communist tyrants as monuments to their own reigns. There is no simple solution to that.

Have you ever heard of the little Trabant car? It was an ugly little automobile that became famous in 1989, when thousands of East Germans crossed over to the West in it. It was a kind of a horseless cart made out of plastic-covered cardboard, which roared like a lawnmower and polluted the air worse than a whole city block full of big Western cars. A year and a half after the collapse of East Germany, in April 1991, the gigantic Trabant plant in Zwickau, which had been a monument to East German Communism, was shut down, because the Trabant was unable to compete in the free market of a united Germany. The little car that East Germans used to wait ten years to buy, then would lovingly polish and cherish, the plucky little "Trabi," became an embarrassment. Germany's junkyards are now piled high with Trabants, but they cannot be recycled because burning their plastic-covered carboard bodies would release poisonous dioxins into the air. As a last resort, German scientists are currently trying to develop a bacterium that would devour the Trabant's cardboard-and-plastic body.

The Trabant plant in Zwickau was eventually demolished, and replaced by a modern Volkswagen factory. Quite a few of the gigantic industrial complexes built by the megalomaniacal Ceausescu as monuments to his reign in Romania may eventually also prove cheaper to demolish than to modernize.

14. Since coming to America, what most positively surprised you about the country, and what has most negatively surprised you?

American freedom is what surprised me most. I have traveled all over the world. Now there is freedom in most of the civilized world, but nowhere is there our American freedom. A few years ago, on a cold German morning I let my car’s engine run for a while to warm up. In no time, a window was thrown open and an irate old lady sternly told me that it was against the law to warm up your car’s engine. In a restaurant in Germany I saw a police officer ticket a family that was eating dinner with their four-year-old kid. The officer solemnly explained that children were not allowed in the restaurant after 8 pm.

What most negatively surprised me? A 2008 Rasmussen poll showing that only 53% of Americans preferred capitalism to socialism. There seems to be a new generation of American young people who have no longer been taught real history in school, who know little if anything about the destructive power of Marxism — a sinister plague that dispossessed a third of the world's population and killed some 94 million people — and who believe that a socialist utopia would solve everything in the world.

15. What was your family life back in Romania. Did you leave people behind when you left?

In Romania I was at Ceausescu's beck and call day and night, and I did not really have a family life. I had a daughter, and all I could do was to give her the best education that country could provide. She became an excellent graphic artist, and married a talented sculptor. I had to leave them behind when I broke with Communism, but they were the first Romanians to land in the U.S. after Ceausescu was gone.

I also left behind in Romania 50 years of my life, my youthful dreams, my good friends and the graves of my parents. It was extremely painful. It still is. They say that freedom is not free. It certainly wasn't in my case.

16. Could you just give a brief summary of what your life has been like since you left Romania?

Yes: Free. You do not really know what freedom is because you were blessed to be born in the United States, and you do not know what lack of freedom means. But hundreds of millions of less fortunate people, from all over the world, dream of becoming Americans. I was lucky enough to succeed.

It was noon when the U.S. military plane that was bringing me to freedom landed at the presidential airport outside of Washington D.C., on that memorable day of July 28, 1978, and I was sitting up front in the cockpit with the pilots. It was a glorious, sunny day outside, which only magnified the fireworks popping off inside of me. I was a free man! I was in America! I knew it would not be easy to start my life over from scratch with only the clothes on my back, but I was eager to try my hand at it. I was a well educated engineer and America was, after all, the land of opportunity. Wasn’t it?

A ranking representative of the U.S. government greeted me: “You are a free man now, general. Welcome to the United States!" Many years after that memorable day, I became friends with a Holocaust survivor whose eyes always misted up whenever he told about how one of the American soldiers who liberated his concentration camp had told him: “You’re a free man now!” So are my eyes whenever I remember that memorable day of July 28, 1978, when I was told: "You are a free man now, general."

17. What are some Romanian traditions and cultural aspects?

Traditional Romanian folklore and the beauty of her regional costumes are highly regarded in Europe, and not only there. Her folk music is also well known. The "Doina," a superb ballad, vividly expresses a variety of feelings, from bliss to love to friendship, to sorrow, to death. Icons painted on glass and colored Easter eggs are also national treasures. Friendliness is another national treasure. Most Romanians are welcoming, ready for friends and celebrations. First names, however, are usually used only for addressing children.

18. How old were you when you came to the United States?

On July 28, 1978, when I became an American, I was exactly three months short of the round age of fifty, and I more than ever regretted that I had kept postponing the fateful step for so many years.

19. Where did you grow up in Romania, and where did you live as an adult?

I was born in Romania's capital, Bucharest, and I spent the rest of my Romanian life there. The old Bucharest was a powerful cultural and musical center. No wonder it was called Le Petit Paris. In 1945, just months after WWII ended, I sold my bike to buy a ticket for the first violin concert given by a foreigner after the end of war. The foreigner was the famous violin player Yehudy Menuhin, a pupil of George Enesco, another famous violin player and composer, who was born in Romania and had once lived in Bucharest. As far as I know, Bucharest is still a cultural and musical center, and I am sure you would enjoy a visit there.

20. Do you have any general stories that really defined your experiences in Romania?

Hundreds. Here is one. On a sunny July day in the 1970s, I was walking with my boss, Romania's president Ceausescu, on the Techirghiol beach. Techirghiol is the most famous of the lakes -- called ghiol in Romanian -- containing deposits of slightly radioactive mud and hot sulphur springs believed to have miraculous therapeutic qualities, especially for arthritis, sexual impotence and infertility. For best results, the mud routine prescribed that the patient be completely naked and undergo treatment in three stages. First came a bath in the lake, which was so salty you could read a newspaper as you floated around. Next you caked mud all over you and stood in the sun to dry, with raised arms and parted legs, letting a hard crust form. Then you walked around for an hour, until your shell began to crack. Finally you took another bath in the lake and washed the mud off.

Old-fashioned in matters of health and politics alike, Ceausescu was as loyal to Techirghiol as he was to Marxism. For years he went there every July for the mudpack treatment. In the early days, he had hoped the mud would keep him from getting arthritis, and later he hoped it would cure it. Now, Ceausescu and I were pacing along the shore of the Tekirghiol lake, waiting for the mud to crack on our naked bodies. "How much last week?" Ceausescu asked me, rubbing thumb and forefinger together to make it clear he was talking money. I detected a smile under his mudpack.

"One million one hundred fifty," I answered. "In cash dollars," I added, to sweeten the pot. Ceausescu swung his head out like a snake. A dry clump fell from his Adam's apple and sank into the sand. "Is that really all?"

Marxism always depicted money as an odious instrument of capitalist exploitation and preached that in the utopian Communist society there would be no money, no prices, no wages. Until that day, however, money was still a necessary evil and, because Communist economy was unable to produce real, convertible money, it had to steal it from the West.

It was the dichotomy between the Marxist dogma that Communism should be the gravedigger of capitalism and the government-run economy's incapacity to generate real money on its own that eventually compelled Ceausescu to make my foreign intelligence service, the DIE, into Romania's largest mechanism for producing Western currency. That was, however, his most secretly kept secret. He never discussed real money with me in his office. Most walls have ears. He talked about dollars only in his garden, or on the beach.

Only when we were floating in the middle of the Techirghiol lake, where not even a bird could hear him, did Ceausescu whisper into my ear that he wanted to increase my DIE quota from $400 million to one billion dollars. No, that is not a typographical error. Of course, my DIE was far from being able to meet such a quota. On that day in July 1978 when I broke with Ceausescu, his personal DIE account held a balance of only some $400 million. It was true that his wife, Elena, had made a substantial dent in it in exchange for furs and jewelry for herself, as well as for armored cars and hunting rifles for her husband, but that did not excuse me in Ceausescu's eyes.

Unfortunately, now quite a few people in the United States are preaching that the future of our industry is all about having the government take over and run it. Fortunately, people like your father, Maddy, have the guts to stand up and defend our traditional American way, which has made the U.S. the leader of the world. I hope you will do the same.

Lt. Gen (r) Ion Mihai Pacepa

March 16, 2012

(Lenin postage stamp photographed by rook76 / Shutterstock.com.)