Elena Ceauşescu

Behind every great man, there's supposed to be a great woman. If that's the case, then behind every dictator, there's a wife with a bottomless charge card and Kelly bags full of ambition. Ferdinand Marcos had his Imelda, Juan Perón had his Evita, and Nicolae Ceauşescu's helpmate in iniquity was his wife Elena, Mother of the Nation and erstwhile world-class chemist.

Born in 1919 in the southern Romanian village of Petreşti, Elena had an unremarkable childhood marred by the villagers' disapproval of the inn her father kept. Her educational record was as ill-starred: a surviving report card of hers from 1929 indicates that she could hardly spell her own name and her best subject was handicraft. In reference to her waddling gait, other children nicknamed her Pasarica, or Little Bird, the Romanian equivalent of calling someone Pussy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elena took herself off to the capital Bucharest as soon as she was able, and - as subsequent Communist mythology would have it - met her future husband at a 1939 rally for May Day, the international labour movement's biggest holiday. A photograph of the happy couple at the rally would take pride of place in every provincial Communist museum, even though their heads appear to have been superimposed on other people's bodies and some of the demonstrators are saluting a different kind of rally entirely.

Other versions suggest that Nicolae caught sight of Elena in Petreşti on his way to one of the several periods of imprisonment he experienced under the royal dictatorship, or, more prosaically, that they were introduced by Elena's Communist brother. Romanian cynics aren't averse to wondering precisely how Elena supported herself as a poor, single immigrant to Bucharest.

Ceauşescu married Elena in 1945, and was the lieutenant of Romania's Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej when he purged the party along Stalinist lines in the early 1950s. As the decade went on, Dej placed advancement through the party ranks in Ceauşescu's hands, providing his protégé with enough of a patronage base to eliminate his rivals for the succession after Dej's death in 1965.

Nicolae squeezed Elena on to the Politburo in 1972, the year after their official visit to China had left her greatly impressed by the power wielded by Mao's wife Jiang Qing and her offensive against pre-revolutionary culture, which would also become a bugbear of Elena's. This was her first political appointment: she had spent the 1960s riding on Ceauşescu's coat-tails and carving out a career in chemistry which would have raised a few eyebrows among her schoolmistresses.

Elena piggybacked on the work of her subordinates at the Institute for Chemical Research to set herself up as a spurious expert in the stereospecific polymerisation of isoprene. She became director of the Institute in 1975, entitling her to an ex officio cabinet seat with responsibility for science and technology. Her Politburo membership, meanwhile, allowed her the final say in party appointments, an error of judgement which would play a significant part in Ceauşescu's downfall.

Ceauşescu feigned independence from the USSR, presenting himself as the 'good Communist' the West had been waiting for. Navigating between blocs was classic Romanian diplomatic fare, but it won his regime acclaim from somewhat surprising circles, including the UK's prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry which elected Elena a member.

The lavish Ceauşescu lifestyle, as Romanians discovered after the couple were ousted in 1989, would almost have made the Arab prince who named his three yachts Tits, Nipples and Nipples II look restrained. Nicolae and Elena enjoyed over forty official residences where the gilded furniture came to resemble a massively over-budget pantomime set, a yacht of their own and a train in which they never rode. Alarmed at the CIA's often-ludicrous plots to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba, Ceauşescu started a special farm which was to produce all the food the couple did not import.

Even more questionable than her taste in interior design was her particular style of urban planning. The Ceauşescus bulldozed most of old Bucharest to make way for the gigantic House of the Republic, intended as Ceauşescu's monument for millenia to come. Not to be left out, Elena ordered up a House of Science to sit opposite the building, although neither had been completed by the time of the 1989 coup.

Elena's building projects, her dubious career or her penchant for cashmere and fine jewellery would make the pretentious arriviste almost laughable if they had not been accompanied by her devastating attitude to motherhood. Ceauşescu, almost a nationalist with a Communist veneer, had prohibited contraception and abortion only a year after he became First Secretary.

Elena, who combined her highly demanding programme of chemical research with her chairmanship of the National Women's Council, was in the forefront of encouraging women to have as many babies as possible, a policy which resulted in many of the unwanted children being abandoned in the unsanitary orphanages which attracted international condemnation during the 1980s. Rumours at the time suggested that Ceauşescu recruited his secret police, the feared Securitate, from the orphanages.

In December 1989, the spirit of revolution which had brought down the Berlin Wall spread to the Transylvanian city of Timişoara, where large-scale demonstrations broke out and were joined by a number of unsettled soldiers. Before departing on a three-day state visit to Iran, Ceauşescu had ordered the demonstrators to be repressed by force, a command which the responsible general Vasile Milea failed to carry out. When Milea was found dead in mysterious circumstances, soldiers and demonstrators in Bucharest moved on the Politburo headquarters where the Ceauşescus were awaiting events.

The couple escaped from Bucharest to their Snagov residence by helicopter, but their pilot refused to take them on from Snagov and they were reduced to hitching a lift to Tirgovişte, where they were arrested by army rebels. After a makeshift trial, in which Elena claimed that they had 'sacrificed all our lives to the people', they were executed by firing squad on December 25, 1989. The millions they had reportedly squirrelled away in foreign bank accounts remain unlocated.

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