Obituary: Nicu Ceausesecu

As the Communist era in eastern Europe drew to a close in the late 1980s, few regimes were more brutal, obnoxious and surreal than that of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in Romania. And of all the characters who walked that nightmarish stage, few were regarded as more brutal, obnoxious and surreal than Nicu Ceausescu, the dictator's youngest child, who died yesterday in a Vienna hospital at the age of 45.

Stories abounded in Communist times of Ceausescu's almost manic indulgence in women, alcohol, fast cars, expensive clothes and jewellery, at a time when ordinary Romanians were reduced to living on scraps of meat and nettle soup in unheated, unlit apartments. Ion Pacepa, a Romanian intelligence service chief who later defected to the West, told in his memoirs of a banquet at which he saw Nicu pour Scotch over the foreign minister's head, urinate over a platter of oysters and start to rape a waitress.

He also alleged that Nicu had raped a classmate at the age of 14, acquired his first boat at 15, and turned into a drunken hooligan at 16, causing car accidents all over Bucharest. Yet some of Pacepa's episodes sound too lurid to be true, and Ceausescu's reputation as a louche and loathsome lunatic was in all probability exaggerated. In the aftermath of the December 1989 revolution, it suited Romania's post- Communist rulers to keep alive his image as a wicked degenerate who abused women and drank spectacular quantities of whisky. By demonising Ceausescu, President Ion Iliescu and his followers sought to focus public discontent on the past, conceal the shortcomings of the post-Communist government, and put distance between the late dictatorship and Romania's new rulers, many of whom had in fact been intimately associated with the Ceausescu regime.

Though the youngest of the three Ceausescu children, Nicu was groomed in the 1980s to be his father's successor, a prospect that gave rise to the quip that Romania was developing "socialism in one family". After serving as head of the Com- munist youth movement, a stepping-stone to the party leadership, he was transferred in 1987 to run the party organisation in the medieval city of Sibiu.

For the next two years, according to Sibiu residents, he belied his notoriety by working quietly to circumvent his father's grim austerity measures and provide his city with a modicum of well-being. In the last years of his life, he also claimed to have opposed his father's destruction of the old heart of Bucharest, a rampage that resulted in the construction of a grotesque palace for the Communist leadership and avenues with names such as the Boulevard of the Triumph of Socialism.

When the 1989 revolution broke out, Nicu left Sibiu for Bucharest, but his parents had already fled the capital. Shortly before their execution on Christmas Day, Nicu was arrested and charged with ordering security forces to fire on demonstrators in Sibiu, where almost 100 people had died in the uprising.

Nicu strenuously denied these accusations but, at his trial in 1990, made a joke of them in a way that illustrated the fundamental failings of his character. He apologised to the court for having an incomplete memory of the December events and said that he had been drunk at the time.

Romania's state prosecutors initially charged him with genocide, a manifestly absurd accusation, but eventually changed the indictment to "instigation of aggravated murder". Predictably, he was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, in November 1992, after the charge against him had been changed yet again to mere illegal possession of firearms and his sentence had been reduced to five years, he was quietly set free.

By this time he cut a sorry, gaunt figure, chain-smoking, his life empty of purpose, and his body racked with hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Yet although the latter disease may have been caused by years of heavy drinking, Ceausescu had only a mild form of the illness when it was first diagnosed in 1989. Friends of Nicu suspected that the disease acquired fatal dimensions only because Romania's post-Communist rulers denied him access to proper medical treatment.

It was perhaps some consolation, as his life approached its premature end, that many Romanians chose to view Nicu with pity rather than hatred. He is survived by his brother Valentin and his sister Zoia.

Nicu Ceausescu, politician: born 1951; married (marriage dissolved); died Vienna 25 September 1996.

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