This week we saw a glimpse of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, who traveled to Singapore with his own personal toilet (to prevent others from assessing his diet). There had always been crazy dictators like him, and his own grandfather Kim II Sung was frequently compared to the erstwhile Romanian dictator Nikolae Ceauşescu.
Ceauşescu was plain bizarre in many of his obsessions — in order to increase the population, he banned abortion for women under forty (later forty-five) with fewer than four children. There were compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age to prevent abortions and doctors in low birth rate districts had their salaries reduced. He only wore new clothes to prevent himself from being poisoned, and traveled with his own bedsheets, even to the Buckingham Palace. He granted his wife Elena who had flunked out of school due to plagiarism a PhD and made her the nation’s chief scientist. His British dog Corbu was made a colonel in the Romanian Army, and enjoyed rides around the Romanian capital Bucharest in his own limousine and dog biscuits flown from London in a diplomatic bag.
The West was always blind to such faults, mostly because Ceauşescu ruled his country rather independently from Moscow. After Romania formally recognized West Germany in January 1967, Nixon became the first American president to visit a Communist country when he went to Romania. Further boons followed, when Romania became the first Warsaw Pact state to enter GATT, the World Bank and the IMF, and to receive trading preferences from US and European Community. The Economist even called him, “the De Gaulle of Eastern Europe.”
Meanwhile, internally, the country was faltering. His natalist policies led to back alley abortions, and deaths from abortions rose. In 23 years following the ban, at least ten thousand women died from abortion, and infant mortality rate was so high that births were not officially recorded until the child had survived its fourth week. State orphanages turned into dumping grounds for 100,000 unwanted children, many of them disabled. After Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody revolt in 1989, British photographer Mike Abrahams traveled across Romania to record the toll that the dictator’s policies took.
He was at the Mental Hospital at Cula (above), where there were 2 doctors, 7 assistants and 15 nurses for 220 beds, and patients had to share beds, medicine and a single syringe. He went to the Carbosin Plant at Copsa Mica, responsible for industrial pollution and poisoning of local communities. He documented the Gradinari hospital for the disabled, near Bucharest (below), and institutions and orphanages (topmost) in which there were upward of 100,000 children. His photos, published in the Independent magazine, caused an uproar and moved hundreds of western families to adopt orphans and the new Romanian authorities to reform (albeit slowly).