It was the defining revolution of our time, a darkly satisfying affair that opened with the dictator's moment of comic stupefaction when the crowd presumed to boo him, reached its height as the wild-eyed, newly liberated crowds stormed the Centra l Committee building, waving flags with holes where the Communist insignia had been and chanting songs about Nicolae Ceausescu being no more, and closed with the spectacle of the tyrant and his Lady Macbeth wife lying dead in the snow at Tirgoviste.
No velvet revolution here: this sprang from an ancient, autochthonous affinity for violence. From the first confrontation in Timisoara on 16 December to the executions on Christmas Day, these were 10 days which sated the world's appetite for drama and revenge.
And yet it wasn't just a popular insurrection, pure and simple. Within hours of the capture of the Central Committee building as the crowds bayed in the square outside and Ceausescu's office was taken over by a romantic gaggle of revolutionaries - film-makers, sculptors, actresses, petty crooks, and a former circus stunt-man who was almost acclaimed president - a meeting was being held in a small, windowless room elsewhere in the building at which the real leaders of the new Romania were sorting out thecountry's future.
There was nothing romantic about these men. All were former communists, and most had been high-ranking officials under Ceausescu. What united them was the fact that they had become disaffected, and wanted to get rid of him. Several had strong links with Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, and wanted to create his kind of perestroika communism in Romania.
Recently, I travelled with a film crew to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to interview Gorbachev's former lieutenant, Eduard Shevardnadze. He looked tired, puffy-faced, and his familiar white quiff was wilting. It felt very strange to see a man of this international distinction in such distant, small-time surroundings; rather like finding that Douglas Hurd had become governor general of your Caribbean holiday island, or meeting Valery Giscard d'Estaing in a mayor's parlour in the Auvergne.
Shevardnadze explained how Ceausescu represented a serious stumbling-block to Gorbachev's plans for a new Europe. Like Erich Honecker in East Germany and Milos Jakes in Czechoslovakia, only worse.
"All these leaders had to go," he said meaningfully, and described how Gorbachev and Ceausescu had had such a violent row not long before the revolution that the security men almost had to be called in.
So had the KGB been involved in Ceausescu's overthrow?
"You can't always tell with an organisation as secretive as that," Shevardnadze said. "It's possible; but to organise everything that happened in Romania was beyond the KGB's capacity. This was a real expression of popular protest against the regime."
Still, there was certainly a great deal of KGB activity in Romania that December. Virgil Magureanu, the former dissident who is now head of the SRI, the cleaned-up Romanian intelligence organisation which took over from the Securitate, invited us into his headquarters in Bucharest to talk about it.
"It was clear at the time," Magureanu said, "that the Soviet special services, the KGB, put a great deal of effort not just into finding out what was going on in Romania, but also in carrying out `diversions' against the former regime."
Some of these people came in disguised as tourists, he said, and drove around in Russian cars; though he felt that this had been rather unprofessional of them.
Whatever the "diversions" they carried out - he wouldn't elaborate - there were certainly several conspiracies among the Romanian armed forces, and even in the Securitate itself, to overthrow Ceausescu; and the Russians were told about the most importantone early on.
The central figure was General Nicolae Militaru, who was briefly to become defence minister after the revolution. Nowadays he lives on his small and scarcely adequate service pension in a rambling house in one of the best Art Deco suburbs of Bucharest. Trained at the Frunze military academy in Russia, where Soviet intelligence recruited a great many agents among the Eastern European cadets, Militaru began plotting actively against Ceausescu in 1984.
Three years later he felt ready to approach the Russians. He visited the Soviet consul in the Romanian port of Constanta and asked him what Moscow's response would be if Ceausescu were to be overthrown. The consul left the room to consult Moscow. When h e returned, he was smiling: "Comrade Militaru, the Soviet Union does not interfere in the domestic affairs of Romania."
"I realised," Militaru told us, "that the message was, do whatever you think you need to." Together with Ion Iliescu and other disaffected, pro-Gorbachev figures, he formed the National Salvation Front, and sent a manifesto in its name to Radio Free Europe in the spring of 1989. The intention was to stage a bloodless coup against Ceausescu in February 1990. The conspirators would disable his bodyguards with tranquillizer guns, arrest him and put him on trial.
Like everyone else, they were taken by surprise when the uprising in Timisoara led to outright revolution in Bucharest a few days later. The plot came to nothing, but those who had planned it were organised, and that gave them a head-start when it came to taking over power.
On 22 December, a few hours after the crowd had stormed the Central Committee building and Ceausescu had got away by helicopter from the roof, following the old escape route he had always planned to take if the Russians invaded Romania, Iliescu, Militar u and several others held their meeting in a windowless room.
Iliescu was the acknowledged leader. There were two outsiders present. One was Petre Roman, the son of a famous old communist, but himself an academic who had been swept into the Central Committee building in the first wave of revolutionaries. The other
was an amateur photographer brandishing a video camera. Roman's incisive intelligence, allied to his father's name, made him instantly acceptable. As for the cameraman, things were so chaotic in the room that scarcely anyone noticed him.
We have been given the videotape he recorded, and will be broadcasting it fully for the first time. The man who gave it to us decided to get out of Romania because of the threats he was receiving.
The reason for these threats appears about half way through the tape, when someone suggests that the new government should be called the National Salvation Front. Petre Roman objects at first, saying the name sounds much too Communist. General Militaru, a gloomy presence standing behind Iliescu's chair, then blurts out the secret: it wasn't chance that had caused this particular group of people to gather here in order to decide Romania's future government. "Look, my dear chaps," he says, "the National Salvation Front has been in existence for six months."
Afterwards, Militaru never wanted to make any secret of the fact that he had plotted against Ceausescu. Others, however, tried to make him keep quiet about it. Silviu Brucan, the political scientist who had once been something of a Stalinist but had ended up in opposition to Ceausescu, poured cold water on Militaru's claims, perhaps because he had been under house arrest himself and had played no part in the plot.
As for Iliescu, his landslide victory at the polls in May 1990 gave him, and the National Salvation Front, full legitimation. For this reason, perhaps, Iliescu dislikes the suggestion that the Front first came to power through manipulation and conspiracy. "I don't think revolutions can be organised by someone outside the process itself," Iliescu told us.
"There's another suggestion, that the Romanian revolution has been confiscated by Iliescu and his friends," he went on, pointing at his chest. "It is a non-realistic, non-political and non-scientific approach to a social process."
Non-scientific", "social process": Iliescu has learnt the arts of democracy in the past five years, but he still can't entirely shake off the language of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
In many ways though, he's right. The revolution was much too big for a small group of men to hijack, and anyway the reform communism which the Front existed to promote was always a non-starter. The crowds in the square hadn't thrown Ceausescu out in order to have a milder version of Marxism-Leninism imposed on them. There was a simple, unspoken trade-off: Iliescu and his friends were allowed to rule, but they had to do so in the way the crowd wanted. And what the crowds wanted was a return to capitalism.
To an extent, that's what they now have. Romania's economy isn't particularly thriving, but the country has been transformed during the past five years. Clothes are better, there is decent food in the shops, and there are fewer beggars than there used tobe. There used to be such privation here that immediately after the revolution, I saw two 11-year-old boys looking at the oranges on display in a shop window and arguing whether they were things you played with, or things you ate.
The old sense of fear and oppression has gone completely. The "new man" who once supported Ceausescu's ludicrous, North Korean personality cult still undoubtedly exists: cynical, empty, dedicated merely to making a career for himself. Many of them, afterleaving the Party or the Securitate, are now doing well in business. The smooth, well-educated and cynical Securitate major who arrested my colleagues and me in Cluj not long before the revolution has a big Mercedes now and runs an importing company.
This was a very strange kind of revolution: plotted in the interests of a superpower that was just about to disappear, by men who were forced to turn the country back to capitalism, even though they knew scarcely anything about it, and in which the greatest beneficiaries are probably the people who did most to make the old dictatorship unendurable.
And yet everyone benefited from Ceausescu's overthrow - particularly those ecstatic crowds who came out on to the streets on 22 December 1989 and took control of their own lives for the first time.
John Simpson's investigation into the Romanian revolution will be broadcast tonight in `Newsnight' on BBC2 at 10.30pm.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies