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As a Student, Drury Biology Professor Watched the Iron Curtain Fall in Romania

Ioana Popescu remembers the last days of 1989 vividly; it was an exhilirating, yet confusing time, she says
Romania
The Neo-Rennaisance Peles Castle near Sinaia was built between 1873 and 1914 as a residence for King Carol I. (Photo credit: CIA World Factbook, www.cia.gov)

Welcome to Around the World, Here at Home. I’m Jennifer Davidson. Today, we travel to southeastern Europe, to a land the Roman Empire conquered nearly 2000 years ago.  It was home to the prince who inspired the character Count Dracula, and it boasts of rugged mountains and a coastline along the Black Sea:  Romania.  We hear from Drury University biology professor Ioana Popescu, who was a college student in the capital of Bucharest when the Iron Curtain of communism fell, and president Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed.

“Everything was very, very confusing,” Popescu said. “First of all, we knew a little bit of what was happening in the Czech Republic—not enough. We had no idea what was happening with the Berlin Wall.”

The only news about the breakages in the Communist bloc came from illegal news outlets, like BBC World News-Romania, or Free Europe Radio.

Popescu says she gets “goosebumps” just thinking about it. She was a college student in Bucharest, the capital city.

In Timisoara, a large Romanian city, a pastor had led a protest against the government – which led to his imprisonment.  To crack down on this uprising, President Ceausescu arranged a pro-Communist party rally in downtown Bucharest on December 21, 1989 – which is exactly where young Ioana Popescu was walking on that day.

“And I could hear things happening. You could see people in big gatherings, brought by Communist leaders, to this demonstration,” she recalls.

By the time she got home, she learned on TV that someone in the middle of that pro-Ceausescu demonstration had actually gone against the party line and shouted, “Down with Ceausescu!”

“So, putting it in perspective, Romania was Socialist-Communist since 1947.  We’re talking about two generations—a big chunk of time when  you couldn’t even conceive of someone saying aloud – at a pro-Communist demonstration—of someone saying ‘Down with Communism, Down with Ceausescu.’ So, that day was actually a very confusing day for everybody. People died,” Popescu said.

The next day, December 22, she says she felt like it was the happiest day of her life—because she and other young Romanians thought it was the beginning of a bright, prosperous future.

Life in Romania wasn’t all that bad, Popescu said, until the late 1980s, when Ceausescu “tightened the belt too much” in an effort to pay off international debt.

“Because of that, we had winters way too cold indoors. Hospitals were way too cold. You couldn’t find simple foods like butter and meat,” Popescu said.

So, on Decmeber 22, 1989, Romanians were in the streets celebrating that Ceaucescu and his wife were out.

The president and his wife were rushed through a hasty trial, and were executed four days later, as the country watched on national TV on December 26, 1989.

“When that happened, I’m sure people were thrilled in one way. But I don’t think that was the way to deal with it,” Popescu said.

Soon after, a TV personality said in a broadcast that the country shouldn’t be so excited – that it would take 20 years before the country really saw prosperity.

“And we couldn’t believe it. We were like, ‘What are you talking about? We’ve been waiting for almost 50 years! Right?  And sure enough, we’ve been waiting for more than 20 years, and there are lots of good things happening in Romania, and there are lots of challenges,” Popescu said.

She said both of her parents were drafted to be members of the Community Party in Romania—an obligation to the state a citizen did not refuse.

While religion was present—Orthodox Christianity—it was always tightly controlled by the government.  Mentions of religion were illegal on state-run media.

“Christianity was deep-seeded in Romania, way before Communism. And I watched a documentary one time saying that the Communists knew to play their cards well—they couldn’t completely go against religion. But the joke was that when you confessed to the priest, you’d better be careful what you say, because the Community Party have the priests in their pockets,” Popescu said.

She remembers as a child that the priest would often pray for the Communist party leaders, she said.

Popescu remembers that she was in charge of dying Easter eggs red.

She heard about graduate school, and applied for a Ph.D. program in plant population genetics at the University of Cincinnati.  When she moved to the USA in 1994, she didn’t intend to stay here – she hoped that Romania would stabilize and become a place where she, as a biologist, could work and thrive.

“Once you live in America for a while, it’s very difficult to leave,” Popescu said. “I would love to be able to move back home at some point in time, if I could afford it. It doesn’t look very promising yet for a biologist,” Popescu said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love [life in America], and I am enjoying the opportunities I’m getting,” Popescu said.

Dr. Ioana Popescu, originally from Romania, is a professor of biology at Drury University in Springfield.  This has been Around the World, Here at Home. I’m Jennifer Davidson.