In A Nutshell
Ionel Boyeru never thought he was destined for fame. A captain in the Romanian army during the Communist years, he was the sort of man who probably wouldn’t leave much of a trace on world history. But history had other plans. On Christmas Day 1989, Boyeru volunteered for a top secret mission. It was only after stepping forward that he discovered what that mission was. Boyeru had just volunteered to kill his own boss, the brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His actions would mark a turning point in Eastern Europe’s post-Communist transition.
The Whole Bushel
On December 21, 1989, Romanian army captain Ionel Boyeru was called upon by his superiors to take an oath of loyalty. At the time, Romania was in crisis. Riots in the western city of Timișoara had spread across the country and were engulfing the capital, Bucharest. For the first time in the Soviet era, the public was turning against its hated ruling class. Fearful of a general revolution, the army requested that every soldier sign a statement swearing loyalty to the country’s brutal dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.
A former party functionary, Ceausescu had risen to become the worst dictator in the whole of Europe. At a time when prosperity was spreading across the continent, his policies were increasing malnutrition. Every year, thousands froze to death during long and bitter winters while he and his wife lived like royalty. Thousands more rotted in his brutal jails, or slowly starved in Romania’s horrendous orphanages. His secret police ensured no freedom, no individuality, no hope.
Then in mid-December 1989, the first riots came. Like any good dictator, Ceausescu used the army to unthinkingly crush them. It was like throwing a match onto gasoline. Suddenly, all the resentment that had been bottled up for decades boiled over. Protests gripped every major city. People took to the streets. By the time Boyeru signed his oath of loyalty, revolution was in the air.
Only a day later, Ceausescu and his wife were forced to flee Bucharest by helicopter. Like millions of Romanians caught up in events, Boyeru had no idea where they were. Unbeknownst to the wider population, the Ceausescus had been detained by the military, which now had to decide what to do with the deposed dictator. In a hastily assembled meeting, it was agreed the couple should be executed on TV. It was a decision that would put Boyeru on a collision course with history.
On the morning of Christmas Day, 1989, Boyeru and two other men volunteered for a top secret mission. Flown by helicopter to a remote location, it was only when they entered the makeshift courtroom that they realized their mission was to act as executioners. Within 10 minutes of arriving, Boyeru had been handed a machine gun and sent outside to do his duty.
In later years, Boyeru would recall some strange details of that fateful day. Like how one of the army colonels had thoughtfully provided the diabetic Ceausescu with an insulin dose, despite knowing he was about to execute him. Or how Ceausescu smelled overpoweringly of cologne, while his wife simply stank. These were the details that stayed with Boyeru over the decades.
The Ceausescus’ deaths were almost painfully unglamorous. Lined up beside a toilet block in the snow, they just had time to scream obscenities before the three soldiers opened fire. According to Boyeru, one of his colleagues froze. The other forgot to set his gun to automatic, only squeezing off two shots. It was Boyeru’s spray of 26 bullets which killed the couple, and it was an execution that was caught on camera and would be broadcast around the world.
Boyeru later said he thought it would be the first of two executions. As he stepped out into the courtyard, he’d noticed a large mounted machine gun pointed at him. The moment he shot the dictator dead, he expected to feel bullets thud into his own back, as the Romanian army mopped up its own witnesses. Instead, he was flown back to base, where he drank himself into a deep sleep.
Today, Boyeru is open about his role in Ceausescu’s death. But it’s not a role he plays with pride. The burden of being the man who killed Europe’s worst living dictator was enough to destroy his marriage and leave him in a state of extreme paranoia. In an interview with the Guardian 25 years later, he admitted he was still nervous about possible consequences. Like so many ordinary men who changed history, it seemed that Boyeru was destined to suffer for it.