Paul Brummell, British Ambassador to Romania

Paul Brummell

Head of Soft Power and External Affairs Department, Communication Directorate

Part of UK in Romania

15th December 2014

Romanian Revolution through British Eyes/ Bernard Marshall: ‘Two days of the Romanian Christmas Revolution in December 1989’ (Chapter II)

Continued from 12 December

People gathered in the street
Bucharest ’89, during the first days of the Revolution

Friday, December 22nd, Alecu Russo Diplomatic quarters

08.00 am

Eleanor had not yet turned up. I was finishing breakfast and wondering in the quietness of morning whether it was all over. Had the police/soldiers and all the apparatus of the Police State finished the job last night, and cleared all the students from the streets?  If so, the question was whether workers and ordinary citizens would take up the battle and help the students.

08.30 am

Looking down to the street four floors below, the usual line of Dacia cars and traffic did not appear. No trams either. Then at 08.30 am my trustworthy and cheerful Eleanor appeared. She said a general strike had been called. As I left the building I saw an empty tram. Squeaking slowly forward it had a large tatty cardboard sign in the driver’s window with big letters announcing “STRIKE”. And now a group of thirty to forty fresh young faces walked cheerily and singing passed my home into town.

An older man came up to my open window of my car when I stopped, and dropping a small film canister into my hand asked me if I could get it developed. (I believe I handed it to someone in the Embassy, but regret I never found out what was on that film – there was just so much going on)

09.00 am

The Embassy Romanian guards opened the gates. Many local staff had now come back. Helicopters were again flying over the city but this time dropping leaflets on Piața Romană. At the Ambassador’s morning meeting we reviewed different accounts that had been reaching us overnight. The military helicopter dropping leaflets over Piața Romană was puzzling. Though signed by the military commander, a copy of the leaflet we had got hold of carried no threats. It simply asked people to stay calm and be patient.Then we got news that city’s military commander had shot himself.

10.30 am

The Ambassador decided at 10.30 am it was time to make contact with his friend Punch, the American Ambassador and asked me to go with him in the blue Jaguar. With flag flying we headed down our side street but had to slow quickly as we ran into lots of people. They were all now cheering and started to clap when they saw the Union Jack. We gave them our thumbs up in return. Getting closer to the American Embassy the students heading to Magheru and Palace Square were now giving us a “V for Victory” sign all with massive smiles on their faces.

We dashed up the stairs to the office of the American Ambassador. He never expected to be thrown into such a situation and welcomed us into his plush study with his political counsellor. He said there were stories coming in of Armoured Personnel Carriers carrying students with Romanian flags. And of tanks with Christmas trees showing from their barrels!  No one knew what had happened to Ceaușescu or where he was. General Stanculescu, one of the most senior generals we knew, had apparently placed a plaster caste around his leg and declared himself unfit for duty. It seemed the Army had now changed sides and were supporting the demonstrators. Evacuation was discussed and put on hold.

11.00 am

Wasting little time we sped back to the Embassy. And we could see from Strada Jules Michelet these APCs laden with students heading for the Square. More students passed the Embassy gates including a pretty and tall dark haired girl who in good English asked me if we had a megaphone. We shake hands with many young smiling students through the shut iron gates. So many people seemed to speak such fine English. I said I would ask if the Americans had any speakers and suggested she try to come back at 11.30 am.

With ever more positive news coming in by the moment, our kindly and unassuming Ambassador felt the time had come to see for himself what was happening on Palace Square. We both walked out now and soon found ourselves in a stream of happy young people all heading the same way.

11.15 am

Out on Magheru all Party books had been thrown from a bookshop with broken windows onto a pile and set ablaze. Green APCs rolled by with smiling soldiers on top and students waving flags on the side. One even carried a small Christmas tree with fruit hanging from its main gun barrel (This was the quick and clever retort to the President’s odd declaration that things would never change ‘until fir trees would carry pears”). One or two tanks, moved slowly to Palace Square. When we got to there we saw masses of people now mixing together, looking delighted and not believing fully what had happened. (It was now just after 11.00 am. We think the helicopter carrying off Ceaușescu and his wife had flown from the Party building there an hour or two earlier). It looked like the Revolution was over!

Back on Magheru we met the Ambassador’s two children, both students. Others from the Embassy were now joining the head of a group of students now marching to take over the all important TV station next. When they got back they told us they were amongst the first few people into the building.


All now back at the Embassy watched with fascination as the new Romanian TV presented ‘the new provisional government’. These first pictures showed Mr. Ion Illiescu (future President) with a young professor Petre Roman (to become Prime Minister). There was a poet and a writer or two, all dressed quite awkwardly standing alongside the new flag, with the hole cut in it! Interestingly just behind them also stood the French Ambassador, Jean- Marie Le Breton and the blue scarfed and locally popular Dutch Ambassador, Coen Stork.


I had a ticket for an Austrian airlines flight that afternoon to spend Christmas in Vienna. I asked the Ambassador if I might now be able to catch my plane after all. The Revolution to me seemed to be over. I raced home and my chubby Eleanor now greeted me, handing me Christmas presents she had got and even apologising that she had not packed one in time for Peter my brother! (I owe a lot to her organising me!) We gave each other a heartfelt and farewell celebratory hug. Even the Miliman downstairs with his unused gin shook my hand. I packed quickly and had an office car take me to Otopeni airport at 16.00.

My happy driver pointed to long lines of people hurrying on foot and overloaded cars, trucks and buses from the suburbs. It was a completely new to see so many out on the streets and with such happy smiles – you could almost feel a new weightlessness of freedom and no fear.

16.30 – 18.00

The Otopeni departure hall was cold and filled with tired, bemused and familiar faces of diplomatic wives and children. The hall quickly emptied as the last Air France and Lufthansa flights took off. My plane took off at last, at 18.00. My diary notes that we took off only after some ‘Romanian Revolution officials’ and young students had boarded to inspect and check on our Romanian passengers. As the plane finally took off heading West and rose into the sky, I looked out of the window from my warm and comfortable seat. I noticed two fires below coming from the direction of Sighișoara and other small blobs of fire dotted elsewhere over the country. For just a moment I wondered: ‘Were they celebratory bonfires, or buildings burning?’ But I had little idea this might have represented another and violent final phase of the Revolution. The airport was in fact closed down within an hour of us taking off and with the death of eighteen young soldiers at Otopeni later that night.

I spent just over a week in a Christmassy Vienna with my brother Peter and his wife Simone, watching TV and reading about the captured Ceaușescu. A message from our Embassy in Vienna told me the Ambassador had asked for my urgent return to Bucharest. I was thankful to have missed the extraordinary violence of the Revolution that took place over Christmas. The Embassy staff were often in danger and trapped in their homes for days. The Ambassador’s wife and her two children for example had to be rescued after a night and day spent sheltering in their basement while their Residence above was machine gunned to bits. It was located right by the Television building. At the height of the violence the Foreign Office granted permission to close the Embassy. As soon as it was practicable to move around dangerous streets, the whole staff with wives and children went first to our, and then onto the U.S. Embassy, where an armed detachment of American Marines protected the Mission. After spending a night on chairs, sofas and the floor most headed out on Christmas day from the American Embassy in a diplomatic car convoy to our Embassy in Sofia.

I flew back from Vienna to rejoin the Ambassador and his rapidly expanding staff on 03 January 1990. Within a few weeks Bucharest held its first open air pop concert. All Embassy staff and diplomats were invited. We now mixed with thousands of happy Bucharest citizens and students chanting to the music, holding candles in the dark. As the concert ended, the last group on stage decided to finish with, ‘Let it be” by the Beatles.  With everyone singing, “And when I find myself in times of trouble…there will be an answer, let it be, let it be!”, it was very moving. We could breathe and feel the new Romania that the “beautiful people“ had made.

(I cannot confirm all happened exactly as I have written above. It is based on two pages of my 1989 diary, a few documents and a vivid memory of that time 25 years ago).

By Bernard Marshall

Embassy staff between 1989 and 1991

Disclaimer: This account does not represent the view of the Her Majesty’s British Government, but is a personal recollection of the December 1989 events in Romania.

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