Ion Iliescu’s journey, from a young Communist to the leader of Post-Communist Romania
On Monday the 23rd of January, the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of History had the honor to organize an event that was attended by the former President of Romania from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2004, Ion Iliescu. At this event there was a dialogue between Mr. Iliescu and the faculty’s dean, Adrian Cioroianu. The subject of the dialogue was student life in the 1950’s, a topic that is also discussed in Mr. Iliescu’s autobiographic book, “Destinul unui om de stânga. Amintiri” (“The Destiny of a Leftist Person. Memories”).
The dialogue with Mr. Iliescu started with a short introduction by the dean, in which he gave his perspective on the former president as an “authentic Leftist Man” and also explained why he had invited Mr. Iliescu for a meeting with the students and other attendees. After this introduction, Mr. Iliescu spoke about his memories and experiences: surving the bombings of World War 2 as a child, being the son of a communist leader and how it was to be a student in a communist country. He went on to speak about his experiences as a young politician, not afraid to speak his mind, even if his words were critical of the Ceaușescu regime
Alexandru Iliescu, Ion Iliescu’s father, was one of the first leaders of the Romanian Communist Party. When Mr. Iliescu was a child, his father left for USSR, only to become a political prisoner upon his return to Romania. The bad treatment he received as a prisoner seriously affected his health and his health further deteriorated after his time in prison, after he got stripped from his leading stature in the Communist Party. Alexandru Iliescu died in 1945, at only 44 years old, leaving Ion Iliescu only with his stepmother and with a hard life ahead.
At 15 years old, Ion Iliescu struggled to get enlisted into a theoretical high school (which would enable him to go to university); his father’s political record made it difficult for him to follow his ambitions. However, because of his mathematics skills, one of Iliescu’s teachers at the technological high school saw his potential and helped him move to the theoretical Spiru Haret High School. From that point Mr. Iliescu starts the story of his student years, at the Bucharest Polytechnic Institute and also as a foreign student at the Energy Institute of the Moscow University.
Iliescu went on to tell about his time as a leader of students’ associations, in Romania and abroad, in countries that varied from France to North Korea. He described the experiences he had visiting international conferences, and the political issues that were discussed there, for example the Cold War or decolonization.
The episode of his political experience started with Mr. Iliescu describing his role as one of the leaders in the youth organizations. Building on this role, step by step, he managed to become a member of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965. At one point, he served as the head of the Central Committee’s Department of Propaganda, and then later he served as Minister for Youth-related Issues between 1967 and 1971.
A particularly interesting anecdote that Mr. Iliescu shared concerned his return by airplane from a state visit to North Korea in 1971. During the flight back Mr. Iliescu spoke out against Elena Ceaușescu’s admiration of the North Korean people. He told her that he went to North Korea some years earlier, with the son of Sierra Leone’s president, who made a truthful observation about the North-Korean people; he was „in awe with the work capacity of the North Koreans, but he wouldn’t like his people, even though they are illiterate, to have such a lack of identity”. Mrs. Ceaușescu mocked Iliescu’s opinion and, after their arrival in Romania, accused Mr. Iliescu of ”intelectualism” and released him from his functions in the Central Committee.
After losing his position in the Central Committe, Mr. Iliescu was appointed as vice-president of the Timiș County Council (1971–1974), and later as president of the Iași Council (1974–1979). Between 1979 and 1984 he became director of the National Council of Hydrology, in this position he contested Nicolae Ceaușescu’s idea of a channel between Bucharest and the Danube River. Consequently, because of his opposition, he was released from this position. As a next episode in his career, he took charge of the Editura Tehnică publishing house
This was also the point where Mr. Iliescu ended his lecture, thus not discussing the next step in his career: becoming the president of Romania. In this way sensitive subjects from the post-communist period and controversies from his time as president were avoided; topics such as the mineriads or Iliescu’s relationship with King Michael were not discussed.
During the following Q&A students. Ph.D.’s, researchers and other attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions to Mr. Iliescu, some even correcting him about his remarks on the past of some of the former president’s family members.
Even though the conference did not cover the most interesting period of his political career, it answered many questions about Mr. Iliescu’s development and formation as a person and also as a political person. It made me realise that Mr. Iliescu was an idealist, an authentic leftist as Dean Cioroianu said. The conference also left me with the question: why did the Romanian people want to change the communist regime, but at the same time choose a leader that had a background as Communist Party member and has a great sympathy towards communist values?