Newswise — Twenty years ago, history beckoned to Dr. David Michelson.
Michelson, then 14, was living with his family in Bucharest, Romania. His father, a historian, was studying in Romania on a Fulbright scholarship. In 1989, communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu still ruled Romania. But the nation was mired in poverty, and other nations in the Eastern Bloc – Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany – were casting off oppressive regimes. When Romanians took to the streets in protest in late December, Michelson’s father took him out to see history unfold first-hand.
“That was basically what made us go out,” says Michelson, assistant professor of history at The University of Alabama. “My mother really wasn’t keen on my father taking me and dragging me around. But she knew history was happening, and I was 14, and I was determined to go along, partly because I was naïve about how dangerous it was.”
Michelson and his family watched the Romanian revolt take place in Bucharest from Dec. 21 to Dec. 24, when he and his family were evacuated to Bulgaria. Both before the revolt and after, the family collected historical items, such as communist propaganda destroyed in the revolt; some of their collection is in a display on the second floor entrance to Gorgas Library on the UA campus.
The revolt, according to a BBC account, began on Dec. 15, 1989, in the city of Timisoara, with protests against the arrest of an ethnic Hungarian pastor. Michelson says he and his family were aware of the events in Europe before December, including the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, and they were wondering if the movement would spread to Romania.
“The Eastern Bloc television was controlled, so you couldn’t get Western channels,” he says. “But we listened to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America and the BBC, so we could get updates on what was happening in other countries, particularly East Germany.”
The protests spread to Bucharest, the capital, on Dec. 21, when demonstrators turned a pro-Ceausescu rally into an anti-regime protest. Ceausescu was overthrown on Dec. 22, and he and his wife, Elena, were executed Christmas Day. Even 20 years after the events, historians still aren’t clear on what happened. In a recent public lecture on the UA campus, Michelson’s father, Dr. Paul E. Michelson of Huntington University, stressed the courage and role of religious people and students, but emphasized that the “backstory” of the Romanian events of 1989 remains murky.
“Did it originate in the countryside?” asks Dr. Margaret Peacock, UA assistant professor of history at UA and an expert on the Soviet Union. “Did it originate as a popular movement? Did it originate with people who were willing to take up the mantle at the right time? Who knows?”
Michelson recalls going out into the streets with his father once the protests started, then going in before dark.
“There was this big demonstration, a planned mass rally with Ceausescu,” Michelson says. “It was disrupted and then there were street protests. So that same day, we walked around the street protests. Then my father and I left, and after dark there was violence. Then the next day everything seemed to be fine, so we went out again. It began on the 21st and the 22nd of December.”
Michelson had a working knowledge of Romanian, so even at his young age, he could interpret what was happening. In some instances, his father got involved – he took a picture of a man stomping on a pro-Ceausescu sign. At one point, the Michelsons also could observe the events with a friend, whose apartment looked over the main square where the protests were taking place.
“It was mainly college-age students who were on the streets,” says Michelson, who today specializes in the history of late antiquity and early Christianity. “There were other people. They had slogans such as ‘Down with communism,’ and there were pro-liberty slogans mainly focused on the Ceausescus themselves. Some of the pro-Ceausescu posters would have been carried in the pro-Ceausescu demonstrations, and then they were trampled during the counter-demonstrations.”
The Michelsons also had connections with intellectuals in Romania, so they could follow events with people who longed for the regime’s downfall.
“My parents had been going to Romania since the early 1970s, so they had friends they knew and could trust. Some of them had been persecuted by the regime,” Michelson says. “We could talk with them about it. My father knew most of the other Romanian historians and intellectuals, many of whom have since written their own retrospectives.”
The Michelsons even saw Ceausescu’s helicopter take off from Bucharest in the dictator’s failed attempt to flee on Dec. 22. As rival forces of Romanian soldiers and secret police battled it out in the streets during Dec. 22-24, the Michelsons and other Americans were gathered at the American Embassy to prepare for evacuation out of Romania. The fighting including a pitched battle over the national television station that littered the yard of the American school, where Michelson and his brother were students, with shells. Following a harrowing night in the embassy, on Dec. 24 all but a few essential Embassy personnel were huddled into cars for the trip to Bulgaria.
“That was probably the scariest point,” he says. “When the fighting got really heavy, they called all of us into the American embassy. We spent the night there, and the embassy was under fire most of the night. I was very grateful to the small contingent of Marines for guarding the embassy. They brought a lot of the NATO countries to our embassy, probably because ours had the most protection.
“Eventually, we all got into our cars. My brother and I lay down on the floorboards, and my parents covered us up with blankets. Then they drove us out of the city and out of the country in a convoy. The convoy had a Romanian military escort, but driving out of the city it struck us that we were a really big moving target. They evacuated us to Bulgaria; which was the closest place to leave the country.”
The Michelsons were allowed to return to Romania on Jan. 12, 1990. There they found a different country – still impoverished, but with a burgeoning spirit of change.
“Psychologically and spiritually, you could tell a difference in the way people felt,” Michelson says. “The oppression of the regime had to some degree been lifted. Economically and materially, people were just as bad off as they had been, though the borders opened up. It was clearly emotional for Romanians whom we knew who had lived before the communist takeover, especially Romanians who had been young adults or children during World War II and had pre-communist memories. They’d talk about how they’d been waiting for this and didn’t imagine they would get to see the fall of communist Romania in their lifetime.”
Images from the events of 1989 remain with Michelson to this day. His father lectures on the events of 1989, and they influenced Michelson to pursue researching and teaching history as well. Seeing history, tinged with violence, take place before your eyes leaves a lasting impression.
“To see that sort of violence unfold was unforgettable,” he says. “I remember there was a specific time after the revolution when we saw a woman being chased and beaten by a mob, and there was another time before the revolution when I saw a man being loaded into an armored police vehicle at gunpoint. Those were all formative experience for thinking about how human beings live together in society.”
The history department is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.