Roger Hanson: Elena Ceausescu - Romanian dictator's wife and fake scientist

Elena Ceausescu and husband Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
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Elena Ceausescu and husband Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

OPINION: There are two ways to be honoured by the British Royal Institute of Chemistry, one is to demonstrate that you have made a significant contribution to the chemical sciences, for example, through writing scholarly articles in respected scientific journals; the other is to become a dictator of a country in which you have absolute power.

This was how in 1978, Elena Ceausescu wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, obtained her honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. In her case that presented a problem because she was almost illiterate and by all accounts didn't even know the chemical formula for water. How was it that an august society such as the Royal Institute of Chemistry, could be so easily duped?

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In his documentary film, Elena Ceausescu; Doctor Horroris, film director Emil Busurca draws on archival film and interviews with Romanian historians, journalists and former politburo members to reveal the inner workings of the spectacularly corrupt and autocratic regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. As with most, if not all dictatorships, power was maintained using the services of a brutal secret police, in Romania's case, the Securitate. Stalin once said that, "power alone is not enough, you need to gain prestige", this was very much the case for Elena. Her way to gain prestige and respectability was to be seen to excel in the fields of chemistry and chemical engineering.

Romania has its own internationally respected Academy of Chemistry and some of its leading chemists were "asked" to make sure that authorship of many of their scientific papers and books was attributed to Elena Ceausescu. This they did and were handsomely rewarded for so doing, no doubt fully aware that the Securitate were waiting in the wings to deal with any dissenters. On the path to respectability Elena had to have a PhD, so a thesis was duly produced for and attributed to her - but there was a problem. By Romanian law the candidate for a doctoral thesis had to subject his or her work to public scrutiny by giving a presentation. She overcame this by quickly changing the law thus removing the requirement - absolute power does have its benefits.

In the New Scientist magazine of January 1990, Professor Richard Clogg of Kings College London, shed some light on the honorary award bestowed on Elena Ceausescu. In 1978 the Ceausescu's made a state visit to Britain, the government at the time under Jim Callaghan were keen to finalise a lucrative aero engine contract between Rolls Royce, British Aerospace and Romania.

Envoys from Romania had made it clear that Elena was keen to be made a fellow of the hugely prestigious Royal Society – they flatly refused. However, the Royal Institute of Chemistry obliged, a formal ceremony was duly arranged and Professor Sir Richard Norman, then president of the Institute, praised Elena's scientific achievements in a gushing speech. It was not the Institute's finest hour.

The Ceausescu regime began to fall apart in 1989 when despite the threat of reprisals from the Securitate, demonstrators amassed on the streets of the provincial city of Timisoara in unprecedented numbers, protesting against the regime. Four days later, on December 21, 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu addressed a huge gathering in the central square of the capital Bucharest. Eight minutes into his speech people at the back of the crowd started shouting "Timisoara". This chant spread through the crowd and was followed by boos and whistles. Never before had the Ceausescus been treated like this and the stunned looks on their faces must have sent ripples through every dictatorship around the world.

The unbelievable mismanagement of the Ceausescu regime over 24 years brought food shortages, routine torture, hundreds of executions and most famously, state neglect of orphans and handicapped children. This generated so much anger within Romania that when the regime collapsed the end was swift. A hastily arranged military tribunal was set up on December 25, 1989. Within an hour Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu had been tried, put against a wall and shot.

Remarkably, till their last breath it was clear they still didn't comprehend the scale of anguish they had inflicted on Romania.

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