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Excerpt: “Red Hands”

(From left to right: Zoia, Nicolae, Elena, and Valentin Ceausescu)

It had taken an earthquake for me to see Ceausescu greed as it really was, and I knew how bad these excesses would look to my countrymen.”

Writer’s introduction to the subject matter of Red Hands: As the world looks away, Romania becomes a nation overwhelmed by a myth of Romanian exceptionalism. The dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are furious when their son Valentin falls in love with Iordana Borila, a fellow member of the very privileged Nomenklatura class and the daughter of the head of the Central Committee’s opposition party. The Romanian Romeo and Juliet marry and have a child, while Romanians suffer increasing degrees of censorship, torture, and starvation.

The inevitable bloody revolution explodes in December of 1989. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are executed on December 25th after a mock trial by crowds calling for the death of all Ceausescus, including their only grandchild. Iordana chooses to turn her back on her life of luxurious excess, slips out of Bucharest in a harrowing escape, and hides out on the coast of Maine with her son–under assumed names. 

Red Hands is a non-fiction novel based on 800 hours of discussion with Iordana. As much as she loathed sharing the tale of her own complicity, she could not bear her story’s erasure, allowing her homeland’s horrific fate to be repeated. She died in 2017. 

I’d been in the main palace a few times, but never like this, unescorted. As we approached, I could see policemen and soldiers swarming the grounds. 

One of them stopped us, glanced at Valentin, and nodded. “Comrade Valentin is coming in a yellow Dacia,” he said into a radio as we were waved ahead through the solid green wall of the electric gate. 

This gate was heavy, with a small arch in it. The driveway that appeared when it swung open was porous and bright white, possibly coral from the Caribbean. 

Immediately inside the gate was a stone monitoring post, where a man screened messages and talked quickly to us. I could see the small pistol under his coat. 

“Is Mama Mare all right? Where is she?” Valentin asked him. 

“We’ve moved her into your parents’ house. We thought it was safer.” 

A circular driveway curved around a fountain surrounded by rosebushes and immaculately clipped grass. Skidding to a stop, we ran to the main entrance and climbed the gold-carpeted stairs through two Corinthian columns that ascended in stone. After we hit the platform, we entered the foyer sealed by glass double-doors. Despite columns and big rooms and mirrors and chandeliers, this modern stone palace was a bleak stuccoed rectangle. 

“Mama Mare!” 

Standing on the Persian carpet, we immediately saw Valentin’s grandmother crumpled onto a couch covered with gray, beige, and pale green silk brocade, and ran to help her. 

“I’m tired,” Mama Mare, Elena’s mother, said. 

“Don’t worry,” Valentin said. He kissed her and stroked her hair. “We’ll take care of you.” Her nurse appeared with some lemonade for the old lady to drink, and I looked around at the black concert grand piano in the reception room. A black-and-white photograph of Nicolae, its glass cracked, lay on the top. 

A small fountain gurgled to the left of Mama Mare. Behind it were the shards of two three-foot turquoise Sevres vases worth at least $30,000 each. Paintings everywhere were askew; one of a peasant woman by Grigorescu swung from its side. Some crystal was broken, but the famous garbage-truck-sized chandeliers Elena had fallen in love with during visits to Versailles were intact and as ugly as ever. Matching gold and crystal sconces lined the walls. The floor spreading before us was of overdone marquetry. The rooms ahead looked as if Elena had sneezed gold everywhere, on the chandeliers, in the bathrooms and on the fixtures–everywhere, even woven into the upholstery of chairs, which were covered so thoroughly you couldn’t recognize their style beyond the fact that they were poorly wrought state copies of furniture from Venice to the Taj Mahal. 

We went into Valentin’s old room, where one window was cracked. The decor was frightening, everything Florentine-esque with a lot of wood carving. Silk wall coverings changed color from room to room, but listlessly, artlessly matching the same brocade pattern of upholstery and lead-heavy drapes festooned with thick gold tassels and fringe. 

“Dana, over here.” 

In Valentin’s study was a statue of a small boy playing a violin. Gold brocade armchairs blazed from the two corners around chests of drawers with carved acanthus pulls. A French or Dutch tapestry hung on the wall behind his desk; a silver water pitcher with a plate beneath it sat on it. 

His bathroom was pink with polished gold. “I don’t know why,” he said. 

The other bathrooms had gold cleaning utensils, fixtures, and tiles. One had two gold toilet brushes. Why two? 

It was deadly quiet. We moved along. 

As I walked through the corridor, I saw perhaps thirty family pictures and oil paintings showing the Ceausescus with Valentin, Nicu, and Zoia but no husbands or wives. We walked past the kitchens where the taste testers worked, and where the Ceausescus’ food was electromagnetically scanned each day. What would the long lines of people waiting for food say if they saw this? How could anyone sleep here amid this plunder? Every object in the house had a sticker with an inventory number scrawled on it. 

“Let’s go,” I said. “We can take Mama Mare with us.” 

“No, she’s better off here with her nurse. We should check the rest for damage.” 

We walked into the natatorium, where Italian mosaics of fish and godlike human figures shimmered on the walls. The recreational pavilion continued through a door to a shower, sauna, and weight room, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the swimming pool, lit from beneath and glowing now, the umbilicus of the pool-cleaner moving like a snake inside it. 

In a room off to the side was an infirmary where Nicolae and Elena had the only state-of-the-art medical equipment and disposable needles in the country, as well as a private dental office, just as there were in all their other villas. 

There were also quarters for the Ceausescus’ black Labradors’ private veterinarian, who had to attend to the dogs twenty-four hours a day. These dogs traveled in their own separate limousines to all official functions and slept on divans with the sheets changed daily. Poor Dr Tudoran—his every movement was recorded by the guards. He took to drinking, developed an ulcer, and slowly lost his mind. 

We went down to the basement past the bar and looked into the plush, fawn-colored movie theater covered in brocade. 

In a storage room built like a bunker, we saw stacks of leopard skins and tusks from Idi Amin; gold and silver presentation platters, pitchers, tea sets, loving cups; priceless marble statuary; Turkish and Persian carpets; Ottoman chalices encrusted with jewels; Chinese lacquered furniture and antique porcelain; crystal; Delft pottery; and paintings from all over the world. 

It had taken an earthquake for me to see Ceausescu greed as it really was, and I knew how bad these excesses would look to my countrymen. I felt ashamed even to be looking at them. How could this staggering greed not infect my husband?.

Colin W. Sargent, Ph.D., a former United States Navy pilot, is the founding editor and publisher of Portland Monthly. A lecturer at the College of William & Mary, he is the author of the novels Museum of Human Beings, The Boston Castrato, Flying Dark, and Red Hands.

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