Cătărău's origins and early life are shrouded in mystery. He was from the town of Orhei (Orgeyev) or the nearby village of Marcăuți, both of them located in Russia's Bessarabia Governorate. The more detailed records show his birth year as 1888, naming his parents as Vasile Constantin and Alexandra. Romanian sources traditionally claim that Cătărău was not a member of the ethnic Romanian community, but rather a Bessarabian Bulgarian.
Cătărău and his several sisters were orphaned at an early age. He was sent to Russian Orthodox schools in Ananyiv and Odessa, and attended for a while the Bessarabian Seminary. He was unable to complete his education there, and was instead enlisted by the Imperial Russian Army, serving in the Hussar regiment of Warsaw. He later introduced himself as a Russian officer, who had left service "because of persecutions." Later accounts suggest that he was merely a cavalry soldier.
At some point in his youth, Cătărău crossed the Russian border into the Kingdom of Romania, swimming the Prut River at night. He was promptly arrested by the Gendarmes, but vouched for by philanthropist Gheorghe Burghele. Burghele took Cătărău into his house, and gave him his first lessons in standard Romanian. He then enlisted at the University of Bucharest Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, claiming to have suffered repression at the hands of Russian authorities, and therefore qualifying for a Romanian refugee scholarship. His dossier included forged papers, according to which he had been studying at Odessa University (a parallel rumor has it that Cătărău was actually being pursued for fraud in his native Bessarabia). After obtaining his visa, Cătărău became involved with the cell of Bessarabian exiles, including anarchist Zamfir Arbore and his Milcovul Society.
Cătărău's involvement with the cause was a matter of concern, and the Siguranța Statului secret police opened a special file on his activities. Officially, he paid allegiance to the Romanian nationalist youth. As later noted by the Arad newspaper Românul: "At first he passed himself off as a Bessarabian student and issued lively propaganda, in student circles, regarding the sufferings of Bessarabian Romanians. It was therefore easy for him to attract everyone's sympathy. He turned himself into a nationalist and was always present at nationalist rallies." Cătărău infiltrated the Democratic Nationalist Party (PND) of Nicolae Iorga and A. C. Cuza. He participated in the PND congress for Ilfov County, declaring that "us Bassarabian Romanians can only trust the nationalist-democratic party".
During the 1911 election, he campaigned for the PND's Cuza and Ion Zelea Codreanu in Fălticeni. A man of impressive size, he is said to have intimidated potential voters, and to have provoked a brawl. Such incidents earned Cătărău the trust of his party colleagues. Through Iorga, he even gained access to Crown Prince Carol. At the time, he made a name for himself denouncing alleged Russian spies, including Ion Costin. In retrospect, this appears to have been a disinformation campaign ordered by Cătărău's Russian contacts.
By then, Cătărău obtained his wages from a variety of unorthodox sources. He was adored by the public as an amateur wrestler and bullfighter at the Sidoli Circus, but also translated for Russian trading posts. In one instance, when Cătărău resolved his financial difficulties by turning to unskilled manual labor, Iorga and the students popularized his plight and collected funds in his name.
Cătărău benefited from the callousness of Romanian intelligence services, who were still in the process of organizing themselves. He was by then receiving his orders from the Okhrana, Russia's spy ring. In 1913, he was even registered as a counterintelligence operative with the Romanian Land Forces, receiving monthly payments for his services. He is known to have visited Serbia during the First Balkan War, officially acting as a press correspondent for Epoca daily. He was later naturalized, and traveled with a Romanian passport. In mid 1913, when Romania entered the Second Balkan War, Cătărău joined the Land Forces as a volunteer rifleman.
Upon his return to Bucharest, Ilie Cătărău underwent a change of lifestyle, which later fueled speculations about Russian payments. According to Românul: "his relationship with the agents of another state grew ever closer and since then he was seen in elegant clothes, he frequented dives where he gambled large sums of money and was seen in the company of the Capital's most elegant hetairai." He began associating with a Timofei Kiriloff, who was either a Russian or Bulgarian expatriate. One reconstructed biographical sketch of Kiriloff presents him as an escapee from the Potemkin mutiny, who supported himself in Bucharest by posing for painters and sculptors. His athletic body is supposedly the model for Friedrich Storck's statue of a giant, now in Carol Park. Others suggest that the inspiration for that sculpture was Cătărău himself.
Together with Kiriloff, Cătărău was the main suspect behind an act of violence, carried out against Romania's rival neighbor, Austria-Hungary, and targeting the symbols of Hungarian identity. The two are credited as responsible for the planting of dynamite around a Hungarian monument on Tâmpa Hill, which heavily damaged the structure (September 27, 1913). Later investigation had it that Cătărău and Kiriloff had several times crossed into Transylvania using false papers.
In February 1914, authorities in several countries identified Cătărău and Kiriloff as responsible for another attack, the letter bomb which exploded at the Hajdúdorog Bishopric palace, in Debrecen. The selection of this target was later explained in ethnic terms, since the Bishopric served to Magyarize the population of Partium. The standard account is that Cătărău had personally traveled to Bukovina's main city, Czernowitz, and sent the bomb across Austria-Hungary.
The subsequent inquiry was notably backed by the Transylvanian Romanian press, which made efforts to distinguish between Romanian political efforts and Cătărău's acts of destruction. Gazeta Transilvaniei called him "a political adventurer" of uncertain loyalties and qualifications. In Bukovina, which was in the non-Hungarian, "Cisleithanian", half of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Romanian community leaders also described the "criminal act" as intolerable, condemning foreign attempts to exacerbate ethnic tensions in Transylvania. Cătărău was similarly marginalized by an association of Bucharest University students, who noted: "the public trial is concluded: an adventurer, lacking even the shade of moral discipline, has taken on by accident, and for a short while, the image of a university student". The international press (Arbeiter-Zeitung, Breslauer Zeitung, Journal des Débats, Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten) covered the attack and its consequences, highlighting the risky and divisive ethnic politics of Hungarian administrations; in Hungarian newspapers, the focus was on Romanian agitation or ingratitude.
A manhunt began shortly after. According to one report, the Romanian Police tacitly helped the Hungarian authorities in tracking down the two men, but the Romanian press unwittingly informed them of the chase, allowing them time to escape. Over 10,000 lei were said to have been spent on telegrams between police stations during the time it took for Cătărău and Kiriloff to drive out of Bucharest and make themselves lost in Ploiești. Some speculated that they then left for a Danube port, either Brăila or Galați, or that they made their way to the Bessarabian border.
Meanwhile, Police released the initial working suspects, including Romanian artist Silvestru Măndășescu and Russian migrant worker T. Avramov, whose identity papers were allegedly used by Cătărău and Kiriloff to fend off suspicions. The fugitives were being pursued in several states, and there was even a false alert that they had been spotted in Naples. The press also reported that an inventive Serbian police officer tricked Hungarian detectives by announcing Cătărău's capture in Skopje, collected the large reward, and swiftly disappeared. There were additional news that Cătărău had been briefly retained in the Ottoman Empire, and released when the Ottomans noted that he did not fit the extradition criteria. By 1916, he had become something of a legend in the criminal underworld of Transylvania: interrogated on charges of burglary, an obscure man stirred passions when he, in an effort to gain notoriety, claimed that he was in reality the Bessarabian bomber.
Meanwhile, the real Cătărău had been given safe passage by Romanian authorities. Years later, skippers Eugeniu Botez and Nicolae Ionescu-Johnson noted with pride that they had helped Cătărău flee aboard the SS Dacia. He spent some time in Egypt, but returned incognito to visit Bucharest and contact his sponsors. Romanian journalist Em C. Grigoraș stated that Siguranța Statului knew this plan all too well. Intelligence officers told him that Cătărău's getaway car was provided by Internal Affairs, and that they themselves had pretended not to understand the queries sent in from Austria-Hungary.
Despite having a Romanian network to assist him, Cătărău was still working for Russian interests. Beyond his involvement with Okhrana, he was possibly affiliated with the far right of Russian nationalism. Allegations thus surfaced that he was a sworn member of the Black Hundreds or the Chamber of the Archangel Michael, both being private militias created by Bessarabian landowner Vladimir Purishkevich. This account was backed by Zamfir Arbore, who recalled that he and Stelian Popescu of Universul newspaper had visited Cătărău in Bucharest. At the time, much was made of Cătărău's possible connection with nationalist leader Aleksei Aleksandrovich Bobrinsky. A rumor had it that the Russian diplomats made efforts to obscure the relationship, whereas Arbore openly alleged having seen Bobrinsky's visiting card in Cătărău's apartment. Another suspected Russian contact, cited by Romanian sources, was allegedly a Dolgorukov prince.
Grigoraș sees the matter as a local spy game between the Entente Powers (Russia included) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary etc.). In his account, Cătărău and his associates were trying to wreck Romania's few remaining links with the Central Powers, and make the country a part of Entente projects in any coming war. Other sections of the Romanian public opinion were less adamant that Cătărău and Kiriloff were the guilty parties, placing the blame directly on the Russian Empire (accused of wanting to encourage a conflict between Romanians and Hungarians) or, contrarily, on Transylvanian Rusyns incited by Bobrinsky.
The Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Bucharest, Count Ottokar von Czernin, remained skeptical of all Romanian disclaimers, and, in his memoirs, alleged that, whether Cătărău was guilty or not, "the Romanian authorities certainly were". In fact, Grigoraș claims, Czernin himself buried the affair: Archduke Franz Ferdinand ordered his diplomat not to answer in kind to the warmongers. Grigoraș argues that, because of this disengagement, the Entente's hawks changed their tactic and organized the Sarajevo Assassination.
Shortly after these incidents, World War I broke out. With his unexpected returns to still-neutral Romania, Cătărău made himself an official nuisance. He was again arrested by the Romanian authorities, and secretly detained in Pângărați. He spent his time there experimenting on small animals and performing acts of charity for the rural community.
Eventually, Romania joined the Entente, waging a disastrous war on Austria-Hungary. Cătărău again applied to join the Romanian Land Forces, but his request was denied. During the Romanian retreat of 1916, Cătărău escaped his place of detention, and wandered around Neamț County. He was urgently apprehended, and moved to Durău. He was still there when the February Revolution broke out in Russia, and witnessed the consequences of this event on Romanian morale. He escaped custody and left for Iași, the Romanian provisional capital. He kept company with other Bessarabian refugees, among them Okhrana informant Alexis Nour.
By April 1917, Cătărău had come into contact with the leftist Labor Party, founded by George Diamandy, Nicolae L. Lupu, and Grigore Trancu-Iași. Cătărău left for Bessarabia, where, as a nominal Labor Party representative, he contacted the autonomist National Moldavian Party (PNM). The PNM registered Cătărău's mission as an oddity, and refused to deal with the Romanian leftists. Cătărău returned to Romania as a radical competitor of Laborite politics, and founded his own republican-dictatorial group, the "Romanian Nationalist-Revolutionary Party". It had a self-contradictory program, celebrating the glories of "Greater Romania" and "Free Russia", and counted among its members the Bessarabian Simeon G. Murafa.
Revolution had sent the Russian Empire into administrative chaos, amplifying tensions between the Russian Provisional Government and the Romanian state. As noted by historian Ion Constantin, the returning activist formalized his Okhrana connection. However, the Russian Republic considered Cătărău a Romanian separatist, and arrested him as such. He was sent to the stockade in Chișinău, where he met and closely befriended communist Grigory Kotovsky.
Romania's relationship with Russia broke down into hostility after the October Revolution: switching his allegiance to Soviet Russia, Cătărău reemerged as a figure on the Bessarabian Bolshevik underground, and took part in the clandestine effort to Bolshevize the various troops still stationed in the region. He was probably in contact with the Soviet state security agency, Cheka, but was later portrayed by Russian and Soviet sources as a Romanian mole.
These events took place in late 1917, just as anti-Bolshevik forces were setting up a Moldavian Democratic Republic with its capital in Chișinău. Cătărău presented himself as a supporter of the new regime, and was even a guest speaker at the first session of Sfatul Țării (its legislative assembly). Reportedly, in his bid to join the new Bessarabian army, Cătărău failed to convince the officers, but the lower ranks responded positively to his request of "aiding and enlightening" the masses. According to scholar Charles Upson Clark, he was actually successful at demoralizing and dividing the Bessarabian self-defense forces, increasing the likelihood that the state would crumble, and exposing it to the danger of being engulfed by a Greater Ukraine. Military historian Vitalie Ciobanu argues that some of the Republic's main problems of maintaining authority stemmed from Cătărău's activity in Chișinău and from the parallel appointment of Stabskapitän Anatol Popa as head of garrison in Bălți.
Soon after being admitted into the garrison, Cătărău became known for propagating communist- and anarchist-inspired messages, such as: "All things belong to the people, the boyars must be killed"; "All things are yours, take hold of them while you still can, before it's too late." Profiting from the breakdown of traditional rank structure, and receiving backing from the military soviet, he was voted head of the Moldavian 1st Regiment, garrisoned in Chișinău. Ciobanu, who describes Cătărău as "an overt partisan of anarchy", notes that, for the Chișinău committees which endorsed this appointment, "the social element took precedence over the national one."
With such support, and given a free hand to ensure order in the capital city, the new commander embarked on a program of arbitrary confiscations in the rural sectors, targeting the property of affluent peasants. The stolen cattle was kept in the Seminary compound, and, in reality, only redistributed to those who would pay Cătărău a special sum of money. There were other corruption schemes of which the regiment stood accused: it put financial pressure on landowners after Cătărău took over the guarding of their estates, in what was originally a move to curb pillaging by deserting or home-bound Russian soldiers. In this context, he is also said to have advanced himself to the rank of Colonel. As later noted by Patria, the Transylvanian daily, Cătărău was becoming "a sort of dictator that terrified the city."
In conflict with Sfatul Țării, Cătărău began organizing himself for an insurgency. He agitated for a social revolution, set up an armed guard for himself, and began corresponding with Kotovsky, who was the self-appointed Bolshevik leader in Tiraspol, while setting up a reserve arms' depot in Dubăsari town. His insubordination to the government and his radical views on property were made explicit when he refused to help out against the deserters attacking Soroca. Replying to the appeal for help, Cătărău wrote: "the Moldavian Democracy, in the name of the soldiers of the Moldavian Regiment, understands that the way to stop the anarchy which has arisen in agrarian matters, is not to use military force, but to [legislate against] the causes which give rise to fire and devastation." Nevertheless, when similar events in Chișinău led the Republic to proclaim a state of emergency (December 20), one of the regimental battalions patrolled the city streets alongside loyalist units.
The conflict between the Moldavian Republic's Military Director, Gherman Pântea, and the city garrison flared up in late December. At that moment, Cătărău and his soldiers refused to swear allegiance to God and the Republic, and announced their own parade on January 1, to celebrate the notions of freedom and proletarian internationalism. In the end, one fourth of the soldiers in Cătărău's command disobeyed his orders and represented the Regiment in the loyalist parade.
The rest of the garrison grew worried that the Directors were going to retaliate by arresting their leader, and, on December 27, Cătărău's soldiers made a show of force inside the governmental building. Allegedly, they threatened to blow up the Sfatul Țării palace. Pântea and the others persuaded them to leave, but afterward centered their attention on an urgent plan to topple and arrest Cătărău. Seeking approval from the Bolsheviks, Cătărău formed a new soviet, "of the peasants". Its leadership also included Filip Levenzon (Levinsohn), a Russian Army deserter. He also published a letter of affiliation to Russian and Ukrainian Bolshevism, condemning Romanian nationalism as the cause of "great landowners and capitalists". Unbeknown to Cătărău, the Soviet and Rumcherod authorities were preparing a coup against him: the Chișinău Garrison was to be assigned to a more controllable figure.
With the approval of Bessarabian President Ion Inculeț, Pântea took a preemptive measure. He co-opted Filip Levenzon, informing him about the improbability of Cătărău's schemes. They arrested Cătărău on New Year's Eve 1918, before the garrison could have its own parade. Pântea noted the possibility of discontent and even rebellion in the Moldavian ranks, so he appealed to outside help: a unit of Amur Cossacks was enlisted to provide logistical support and intervene in case of trouble, then relocated to Pântea's townhouse. The Director and his Cossack ally Colonel Yermolenko, with Levenzon, visited Cătărău at Londra Hotel, where Levenzon approached him on the subject of his parade; when Cătărău dropped his guard, the Cossacks pounced on him, and, although some were wounded in a skirmish with communist soldiers, managed to escort him out of the building.
The charges against Cătărău were espionage in favor of a foreign state and abuse of power. As far as the Bessarabian authorities cared to explain, the "foreign state" alluded to here was not Russia, but Romania; Levenzon confiscated Cătărău's Romanian passport. Cătărău was never prosecuted, but promptly expelled over the eastern border, to Odessa, Ukrainian People's Republic. According to official statements, his escorts for the swift journey included two former Sfatul Țării delegates, Grigore Turcuman and Ion Tudose. However, as argued by Patria, the Inculeț administration was bent on killing him with discretion. Cătărău, it argued, was able to talk his captors into sparing his life.
Pântea claims that Cătărău protested his patriotism, demanding to be allowed to kiss his native soil one final time. Upon arriving to Odessa, he took a rather different stance. Questioned by Commissioner Poplavko of the Central Rada, he stated: "Bessarabian Moldavians are pushing for Romania; I alone will fight for Bessarabia to become united with the Ukraine." To the consternation of Bessarabian officials, Poplavko was satisfied with that answer, ordering Cătărău's release. Cătărău's account of the events is entirely different. He claimed to have shot down his entire escort before they could kill him, and to have been recaptured in Odessa by UNA soldiers, whom he also executed.
Over the following years, many Romanians were convinced that Cătărău had either been summarily executed by the Romanian military or assassinated by his Bolshevik allies. In fact, around the time of Bessarabia's union with Romania, Cătărău had left Europe. Characterized by Patria as "handsome and intelligent", he had mastered as many as 8 languages "to perfection." According to one account, he sailed to England, then to the Far East, and began trafficking in opium. Others attest his slow crossing of Siberia, where the Civil War was waging. Some echoes of his temporary presence in the Empire of Japan were recorded by a Romanian historiographer, Radu D. Rosetti. Rosetti was told that Cătărău, already subsidized by Soviet Russia and trafficking in stolen jewelry, was seized as he tried to smuggle a precious Buddharupa out of the country, then expelled as a nuisance. Another version places the incident in Japanese-occupied Siberia. According to such sources, Cătărău was only freed from Yokohama Prison when a Romanian official intervened in his favor.
Employed by the Siberian Government, Cătărău was a drill instructor in Vladivostok. During the last months of the world war, he was in the Shanghai International Settlement, where he earned back his Romanian nationalist credentials. He narrowly escaped prosecution after severely injuring a Russian national who had mocked the Romanian war effort. Shortly after Armistice Day, he was sighted driving around town, his automobile donned in red-yellow-blue, the Romanian national colors. Copies of his photograph reached Romania, where it was announced that "Cătărău lives".
Cătărău was later sighted in the United States and Mexico, and worked as a whale hunter. Another story has it that he settled in Polynesia, and was even recognized as king by an indigenous tribe. In France, where he arrived with a false passport, Cătărău led the life of a delinquent, and spent time in prison. In 1920, he was jailed in Nice for stealing jewels from his American fiancée. After 1925, he was spotted in the Republic of China, a gunrunner for the National Revolutionary Army.
At home, some supporters of Greater Romania were in the process of reconsidering Cătărău's activity, glorifying his early attack on Hungarian nationalism. Writing in April 1920, the Romanian physician and nationalist militant Vasile Bianu placed Cătărău in "the vanguard of the holy war to reunite the [Romanian] nation", calling him "a guiding light" of patriotic feeling. Contrarily, Rosetti called Cătărău a "Bolshevist adventurer" and a by-product "of the awful slaughter" that was World War I. As Cătărău's former sponsor, Nicolae Iorga was perplexed by echoes of his participation in "the Bolshevik resistance". In his 1930s autobiography, he briefly mentions Cătărău as "my bizarre former student and 'political supporter', a combatant in the Fălticeni elections".
Ilie Cătărău survived World War II in obscurity, and made it into the Soviet Union. He resided for a while in the Moldavian SSR, and was referred to in Soviet propaganda as a hero, for having fought against union with Romania. Around 1950, Cătărău left the Soviet province and returned to Romania. He tried to capitalize on the newly established Romanian communist regime, presenting himself as a hero of the cause, and was used by the government as a denouncer of "reactionary" politicians. Employed by the communist press, he notably took his revenge on Gherman Pântea, who had had a second career as a Romanian state official. As Ion Constantin notes, he accused Pântea "of acts for the most part invented, in order to determine [Pântea's] arrest by the regime's authorities." Cătărău additionally claimed a special communist pedigree, passing himself off as a personal friend of Bolshevik theorist Vladimir Lenin.
However, the former anarchist was also friends with Constant Tonegaru, the anticommunist poet, whom he fascinated with his stories of Polynesia. In 1952, when Tonegaru returned from communist imprisonment to die in Bucharest, Cătărău was present at his funeral ceremony. In his final years, Cătărău experienced religious sentiment and became a monk of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The decision was controversial, and Church authorities had to be persuaded by Premier Petru Groza into accepting Cătărău's retreat to a monastery in Transylvania. According to one interpretation, Groza wanted to reactivate Cătărău as a Romanian spy, but Cătărău died before this could happen.