I had the privilege a couple of weeks ago of attending the opening of a wonderful exhibition currently showing at the Romanian Cultural Centre. Strawberries and No Cream, by Florin Ungureanu, takes as its subject matter the 1978 visit of then President Nicolae Ceausescu to Britain, where he and his wife Elena were treated to State Banquets, an honorary Knighthood (for Nicolae), an honorary degree (for Elena), and even a ride in the Royal Carriage with Queen Elizabeth herself.
Ungureanu takes stills from archive footage of the visit, rendering them in stark black and white. In one Ceausescu inspects the Royal Guard, the soldiers dwarfing the diminutive dictator; in another the carriage drives past a cinema showing the film Deep Throat; in a third the President laps up the applause as the Queen turns away from him, looking personally uncomfortable to be sharing her transit with him, while performing her totemic role of validating his grandiose ambitions for global acceptance.
The visit ‘celebrated’ the signing of a £200m joint production deal – Ceausescu (regarded at that time by the West as the acceptable face of communism for previous anti-Soviet statements) was to supply the UK with 80 BAC 1–11 airplanes and 225 Rolls-Royce Spey engines. It was a deal that Romania, deteriorating economically, was unable to uphold – rumour has it that Ceausescu resorted to paying his outstanding dues in strawberries, hence the title of the show. Further rumour has it that the strawberries were rotten by the time they arrived.
The show focuses in particular on the documentary evidence of Ion Ratiu, who protested the visit at the time and was arrested. Ratiu, exiled in England from 1947-89, published the Free Romanian Press, a collection of news stories from within Romania written by dissidents, journalists and dissident journalists, and later ran for President after the fall of Ceausescu.
His son, Nicolae Ratiu, is now the British President of the The World Union of Free Romanians and it was fascinating to talk to him on the night, particularly about his father’s return to Romania for his Presidential bid – Ratiu described seeing his father taken away by a lynch mob one day (‘How did that feel?’ I asked foolishly. ‘Scary’, Nicolae replied with great urbanity). Particularly fascinating was his description of returning after exile and attempting to set up a political campaign – the trouble was, he said, they knew no-one. The social links we take for granted do not exist. You don’t know a doctor. You don’t know a shopkeeper. You don’t know who is your friend and who is not. You are in a vacuum.
This exhibition makes ludicrous what was the apotheosis of Ceausescu’s grandstanding, and of the West’s acquiescence to it. Twelve years later, on Christmas day 1989 Ceausescu and Elena were arrested, tried in a hastily constructed courtroom, and summarily executed. I remember at the time being shocked at the footage of their dead bodies, displayed to the world as the rebel leaders Christmas present to the nation – I remember being even more shocked years later to see the trial and execution on the BBC.
The Queen continues to perform her totemic role validating rulers the state regards as needing validation. There is less pomp now, but not much less. One hopes that, more often than not, it is strawberries she is sent rather than guns. But one assumes not.
Strawberries and No Cream is at the Romanian Cultural Centre /Ratiu Foundation London until January 10th, 2013. Admission Free.