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Romanian American Witness to Uprising of 1989 Teaches Students to Admire the Revolution of 1776

When Simona Hulubescu speaks of the American Revolution, she contrasts it with her own experience of a revolution that failed: the Romanian revolt that toppled the Ceaucescu regime. Hulubescu, a Global Studies Instructor for the Florida Virtual School system, was a university student in Bucharest when the revolt began in December 1989. Attending Ashbrook seminars for teachers has helped her think about the factors that make democratic movements succeed or fail; and she eagerly shares her insights with her students.

Under Ceaucescu, the Romanian Communist party elite grew rich, partly through diverting goods to the black market, while the people grew poor. Hulubescu recalls lines forming at grocery stores around 1977, as staples like cooking oil, sugar, sausages, and flour grew scarce. She also recalls traveling into the countryside with her parents, who had managed to purchase an East German Trabant (a simple car constructed mostly of plastic resin) and seeing barefoot children on the side of the road begging for bread.

Romanian demonstrators during the 1989 uprising mass in front of the headquarters of the Romanian Communist Party in Bucharest. The banner says, “Down with the Tyrant!”

In 1989 Hulubescu arrived at university primed for the spark that flared on December 15, as the congregation of a dissident Protestant pastor in Timisoara encircled his church to prevent his exile. After the government turned water cannons on these protesters, rioting spread across the country.

“It seemed to be a spontaneous revolution,” Hulubescu recalled. “Ceaucescu was making a speech in Bucharest. Instead of offering his usual slogans, he started bargaining, offering concessions. But someone among the spectators screamed ‘Down with you!’ This ignited a kind of mass psychology, with other spectators joining in.”

Student protesters massed in the central plaza of Bucharest. “The military came in and started shooting”—pushing the students into the narrow streets that radiated off from the plaza and trapping them there. “I ran with my friends, stepping over bodies without even realizing it. . . . The next day I realized my coat was heavy—it was soaked in the blood of those I stepped over, some of them probably my friends. But we came back that day to protest again.”

Student demonstrators during the 1989 Romanian uprising lie on the ground to escape from the crossfire between the pro-Ceausescu troops and anti-regime supporters.

This time, Ceaucescu’s order to fire on the protesters was disobeyed, prompting the dictator and his wife to flee. But Ceaucescu’s internal rivals intercepted and arrested them, quickly condemning them in a secret trial.

Hulubescu’s perspective on this time is informed by the job she held while at university: she worked for the national broadcasting service. At first, the government broadcast “edited sound recordings that depicted the protestors as hooligans.” As a sound technician, Hulubescu had cut and spliced tapes, so she recognized the deception.

But the message soon switched to negative commentary on Ceaucescu—followed by photos of the Ceaucescus’ bullet-ridden bodies. The new leaders claimed the hasty execution prevented further conflict. The real reason, Hulubescu said, was to silence Ceaucescu before he identified those deposing him as members of his own secret service.

“They used us to get their agenda done. They knew this was the moment, because Gorbachev had initiated perestroika and glasnost reforms, loosening Russia’s grip over the eastern European countries.”

In the 1990 elections, Hulubescu joined new student protests. “Our slogan was ‘You stole our revolution!’” These demonstrations were suppressed, Hulubescu said, with the help of miners from midwestern Romania—brought in by train, she says, by the new regime of Ion Illiescu—who attacked the protesters with hammers and axes. “I was arrested, and they searched me and found my ID showing I worked in the national broadcast service. They thought perhaps I was there to spy on the protesters, so they let me go. The others were put into cells and had cold hoses turned on them.

Damaged buildings in Bucharest’s Central Square during the Romanian Uprising of 1989.

“When you have the opportunity to remove a dictatorship, and it is captured by those who put another tyranny in its place—it’s really sad.”

Hulubescu left Romania for the US in 1998, having won a place in the U.S. green card lottery. Arriving in New York with her five-year-old daughter and six bags, she found a basement apartment and took a job as a restaurant hostess. She struggled to learn English. She did not apply for welfare payments. “I thought it would be unfair to others who really needed it.” Besides, as she tells her students today, “vocation comes from struggle. If you depend on the welfare system, you’re not going to go too far.”

Life in America offered Hulubescu many opportunities but few guarantees. “In Romania, I was given a year’s maternity leave. They didn’t offer that here. If you are raised socialist, you don’t understand that independence comes with responsibility and a price. So I started reading, trying to understand how the U.S. system came to be.” Eventually she earned a B.A. in social studies education and began teaching.

Hulubescu has attended Ashbrook’s teacher seminars since she first learned of them. Discussing primary documents helps her grasp the American view of events that shaped the lives of her parents and grandparents. Seminars on the Cold War recalled their resentment of America for allowing the Soviets to seize control of their country after World War II. Reading the dialogue between Stalin and Roosevelt in the primary documents, Hulubescu concluded that “FDR believed Stalin would keep his word to let Romanians have free elections. But Stalin merely said what FDR wanted to hear.”

Hulubescu’s admiration of the American Founders was deepened by an Ashbrook weekend colloquium at Mount Vernon.

Ashbrook weekend colloquia on George Washington held at Mount Vernon, and another on Thomas Jefferson that included a trip to Monticello, deepened Hulubescu’s knowledge of the American Founders, whom she sees as “brilliant minds coming together to plan a change in government,” in contrast to the Romanian leaders who were “simply plotting a way to gain more power for themselves.” She admires the “beautiful system of checks and balances” the Founders put in place to prevent any branch of government from growing too powerful.

Hulubescu teaches in live online sessions, frequently using excerpted primary documents. She advises students to explore Ashbrook’s Teaching American History online library. “If I finish a lesson early, I can bring the site up and share my screen so they’ll see what’s there.” When teaching the Cold War, she brings in her own experience, itself a kind of primary document from the past. The voices of those who lived through history break through “the veil of apathy” that shrouds textbooks, touching students’ imagination. These voices also preserve possibilities for a better political life during times when speech is suppressed. Hulubescu recalls a poem by Romanian writer Mihai Eminescu about what one sees when looking at the night sky. “You see light from stars that may no longer exist—they may have gone into black holes—but their light is still there.”

Above all, Hulubescu wants her students to realize that, although “you cannot control the time and the place where you are born, you can try to make your time better for all those who share that moment with you. We who are from small countries have gotten stepped on a lot. But you in the US have this wonderful political system. Why don’t you learn from it and do the best you can for those who live now?”

 

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