06 December 2004

The Romanian Revolution Was Televised

The Romanian revolution was a complex affair. It was a dramatic triumph that had the whole world for its audience, a world that keeps wondering long after the final curtain how much of what it saw was real. If I hadn't lost my normally skeptical head to the euphoria of December, I would have questioned the single most evident source of news about the revolution: television. But it was precisely television that seduced me during my visit and made me lose sight of things I already knew. I have raged enough against TV to know that the medium is eminently manipulatable. But even though I knew that the extraordinary figure of sixty-five thousand dead (used as an accusation against Ceausescu at his "trial") was considerably lower, I did not ask anyone at the time what caused such astounding discrepancy. I had seen the bodies on television, but only a few and always the same bodies. I didn't ask how such thing could be possible.

Imagine the shock and dismay of our newsmakers and our idealists--including myself--when most of these horrible events we saw with our own eyes on television turned out not to have happened at all. How could the grizzled, experienced Western journalists who are sworn to hard facts have missed the many clues and glaring contradictions that pointed to artifice? The astounding truth of the matter is that much of the glorious Romanian "revolution" was, in fact, a staged play, a revolution between quotation marks. Let me also say that for all that, there were heroes, martyrs, and true revolutionaries. A mass uprising did take place, but it was skillfully manipulated by the men who run Romania today. It could also be true that for a few glorious moments the first rebels to arrive at the television station created a free atmosphere unparalleled in the history of the country, an atmosphere in which all ideas of "taste" and "propriety" lost meaning. Whatever could be put on the screen was, whether it was a one-legged beggar with a delirious story or a rock video brought out of a secret drawer. But it couldn't have been long after, however, the young revolutionaries (if that's who they were) started becoming "responsible," and the "spontaneous" provisional government showed up with its own TV script. The television station then became the headquarters of the new government, which, as far as most people were concerned, was born out of video like Venus out of the seashell. And hats must be off to the producers of the exceedingly realistic docu-drama of the strategic military center from where, in a charged atmosphere reminiscent of Reds or Dr. Zhivago, generals with telephones on both ears shouted orders at troops on vast invisible battlefields in every part of the country.

Today I stand abashed by my naivete. Much of that Romanian "spontaneity" was as slick and scripted as a Hollywood movie. If I were in charge of the Emmys, I'd give one to the Romanian directors of December 1989. Many aspects of the televised drama remain extremely mysterious. I still do not understand Secretary of State Baker's offer to allow the Soviets to intervene on the side of the "revolutionaries." He must have known at least in outline the true shape of the Romanian situation. I cannot believe that the CIA was as taken in by the exaggerated reports of massacres and fighting from East European news agencies as the more naive press organizations were. The administration must have had reasons for going along with the hysteria of the press, in part because it distracted from the U.S. invasion of Panama but also because a deal must have been made with the Soviets, a deal that, I am sorry to say, leaves Romania where it always was: in the Soviet sphere of influence. Many people now believe--in the face of mounting evidence--that the mastermind of the Romania operation was the KGB, that the Romanian revolution was a beautifully orchestrated piece of Kremlin music conducted by Maestro Gorbachev. What's more, the operation had the full cooperation of the CIA. I recently bought a T-shirt in Washington, D.C., that says: "TOGETHER AT LAST! THE KGB & THE CIA. NOW WE ARE EVERYWHERE." Even one T-shirt can sometimes be smarter than all the news media.
SOURCE: The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (Avon Books, 1991), by Andrei Codrescu, pp. 204-206

While I agree that even one jockstrap can sometimes be smarter than all the news media, I don't think Codrescu's faith in the omnipotence of the either the KGB or the CIA is all that grounded in reality. The CIA utterly failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union (and one or two other things more recently), and the KGB's successor FSB did a lousy job of predicting Ukrainian reactions to Putin's machinations in their elections. There's a difference between planning a new stampede in a particular direction and belatedly trying to ride herd on a stampede already underway. In 1991, Codrescu predicted that Ion Iliescu's National Salvation Front would keep Romania in the Soviet orbit. Well, we know how that worked out, even though Iliescu himself has managed to hang onto power.

The Head Heeb's guest blogger Alexander has more on the most recent Romanian elections, and so does Doug Muir at Halfway down the Danube here and here and here.


Jorgon Gorgon said...

As a complete aside, do you have a link to the "KGB?CIA" shirt? I used to have one in the old DLI days in Monterey, and would love to track one down again, for myself and for my friends...

Thanks in advance!

Jorgon Gorgon said...

Ah! Sorry, my bad. I just realized that you were quoting someone else, and that quote came from 2991--which was the time I had those shirts as well...I suppose it is gone, like all good things in life...