If Romanian demonstrators succeed in toppling President Nicolae Ceausescu, they will bring down Eastern Europe's last important link to communism's Stalinist past. Ceausescu joined the party in 1935 at the age of 17, during the height of Joseph Stalin's power in the Soviet Union. He became president 32 years later, when the Stalinist system had been widely discredited, and neighboring Czechoslovakia and Hungary were about to experiment with "socialism with a human face" and "goulash communism." But in his 22 years in power, it has often seemed that Ceausescu is determined to be the post-modern Stalinist who would prove to the world, to his 23 million fellow citizens -- and perhaps to himself -- that the pure ideals he had learned as a boy, while working as a shoemaker's apprentice, could yet succeed on a grand scale. The cult of personality, the ruthless industrialization, the paranoid use of informers and spies, the suppression of dissent, the painful effort to be independent from other countries regardless of the human costs -- all are hallmarks of the Ceausescu era that are reminiscent of a communism that has vanished elsewhere in Europe. Romanian observers say the closest comparison to Ceausescu in world communism today is North Korea's Stalinist leader Kim Il Sung. Ceausescu has expressed his admiration for Kim, and North Korean films are often shown on Romanian television. "He thinks his idea of communism is the only one that works," said Dorin Tudoran, a writer and chief editor of the U.S.-based Romanian cultural magazine Agora. "From the beginning he's seen himself as the embodiment of the super ideals of communism. He really believes that he is a kind of god for the nation, having all the answers to all the questions. In this respect he is a true believer in his own faith, his own destiny." These convictions, which are said to be shared by his wife and close adviser, Elena, suggest to Romanian observers that the kind of peaceful change that occurred in Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia is unlikely in Bucharest. "He would kill a million," said Norman Manea, a Romanian writer who is currently an international fellow at Bard College. Manea describes the rule of Ceausescu and his wife as "feudal," in a country with a history of ruthless leaders, from Vlad the Impaler in Transylvania to the short but bloody World War II dictatorship of the fascist Iron Guard. The international outrage over the recent events in Romania amounts to the final unmasking of a regime which, for many years, was treated with special favor by the United States, France and West Germany because of Ceausescu's independence from the Soviet Union. In 1958, Soviet troops had been withdrawn from Romania, enabling Ceausescu to maneuver for more freedom from Moscow in the 1960s. Romania refused to join the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1971, Ceausescu visited China, was highly impressed by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, and acted as a channel of communication between President Nixon and Premier Chou En-lai. Ceausescu further demonstrated his independence by making Romania the only Warsaw Pact nation to maintain relations with Israel. But while Ceausescu was being wined and dined in Washington, Paris and London, he was tightening the screws at home. In the early 1970s, Bucharest still had a lively cultural life, but by the end of the decade it had become "cruel and dark," as one Romanian who experienced the changes put it. Ceausescu put as many as 34 of his relatives in government jobs, began to live a sumptuous lifestyle, staged vast open-air festivals in his own honor, bulldozed churches and old buildings, and began constructing vast, colonnaded vistas of "socialist victory," reminiscent of those seen in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. In the early 1980s, Ceausescu's near-paranoid drive to make Romania independent took a new turn whose aftermath may be playing a role in the current unrest. Stung by criticisms of Romania's heavy foreign debt, Ceausescu ordered a draconian austerity program to make Romania unbeholden to foreign bankers. Western governments and bankers were supportive, but ordinary Romanians paid heavily. Factories were kept freezing cold in winter to conserve oil, food was exported to raise cash and the economy stagnated as new borrowing came to a halt. It was part of what the Romanian media called Ceausescu's "era of light" -- a name used in many sardonic jokes associated with frequent power blackouts. Critics said these policies showed an extraordinary callousness toward the people, but they enabled Ceausescu to achieve his aim of financial independence. By the time the reform movements had begun to sweep out of Moscow into Eastern Europe, Ceausescu had succeeded in insulating his regime from the reform virus through his brutal "independence" policies.