We usually publish reviews of great books about Romania under the heading Great Books About Romania in English. Alas for those of you who don’t read Romanian, Lucian Boia’s latest book De ce este Romania altfel? (Why is Romania different?) is not – yet – available in English. We hope it will be very soon, and if Boia’s publishers (Humanitas) are reading, we are available to translate, for a modest fee. (If they are not planning on publishing an English version we might well buy the rights to do so ourselves. It’s that good).
As our regular reader (Mrs. Trellis of North Wales) will know, we are big fans of Boia here at Bucharest Life, not least for his book Romania: Borderland of Europe, which we reviewed a while ago, and which remains the finest primer on contemporary Romania available in any language.
De ce este Romania altfel? is in many ways a continuation of that book (and others), an appendix which delves into both Romania’s past and present in order to help us mull over (if not quite fully answer) the simple question posed in the title: Why is Romania different? Was it the communists who made it so? Or the Russians? Or the Turks? Or the Hungarians? Or the Romans?
Maybe it’s simply a curse?
No, is the answer we are led by this book to believe. None of the above.
In Boia’s eyes, Romania has always been different, a consequence of its belated birth and chaotic history, and the nonsense that was the Romanian political scene last summer was merely a continuation of a lot of other nonsense which has been played out for centuries. The thread which binds this essay together is that to even suggest Romania was ever anything other than a bit different (our italics) is to take a trip through fantasyland: something many have.
Take the bizarre case of Nicolae Densusianu. In 1913 Densusianu’s Dacia Preistorica was posthumously published, in which he argued that long before the Romans or the Greeks there lived in Dacia a great civilisation back to which all of Europe’s other great civilisations can trace their heritage. Densusianu believed that Latin was a dialect of Dacian, and argued that the Dacians migrated to the Italian peninsula where they laid the foundations of Ancient Rome. Far from Romanians being the descendants of the Romans (itself not entirely correct, Boia claims), the Romans were in fact the descendants of the Romanians in their earliest guise: the Dacians.
You couldn’t make it up? Well, Densusianu did.
Why he did is another question. Boia argues that it was another one of those occasional bouts of extreme national pride which punctures Romania’s national inferiority complex every now and then, and which usually massively overcompensates. Boia doesn’t quite go as far as claiming that Romania is fundamentally a manic-depressive country, but you can see what he’s getting at.
After all, Boia is a historian first and foremost. The book is therefore packed with far more facts than hypotheses or psychoanalysis. Some of the facts are gems. We find out for example that long before Bucharest was known as the Paris of the East (if it ever was), Romania as a whole had ambitions to become the Belgium of the East. Oh yes.
Apparently, the country’s 1866 constitution was a copy – almost word for word – of the 1830 Belgian constitution. (Victor Ponta was therefore not the first Romanian politician to allegedly be ‘inspired’ from elsewhere). As Boia points out, you have to question the wisdom of those men who decided that industrial Belgium would be the ideal model for rural Romania.
It was also pleasing to find intact Boia’s devastating ability to tear apart hitherto Romanian national myths (not least because he always does so sparingly, never needing more than a sentence or two).
Take for example his dismissal of the idea that the Romania of the 1930s was some kind of golden age of plenty, a shangri-la of which Romanians were robbed by those nasty communists. (Not few are the lesser historians who have tried to portray interbellic Romania as a model worthy of copying).
Far from being a model society Romania in the 1930s was the most backwards country in Europe. All but a small, privileged, wealthy (and often non-Romanian) elite lived generally miserable lives. Less than half the population could read and write and less than 20 per cent lived in towns.
There’s no need to add anything else.
While the communists put some of this right – making education universal and getting millions of peasants off the land – they also further atomised an already highly divided society. Yet as Boia repeatedly reminds us, to place the blame for Romania’s current plight on one unfortunate 40 year period is to ignore hundreds of years of often self-inflicted misfortune.
Having reached the final chapter, which deals with last year’s shenanigans, it becomes difficult to see how those bizarre days last summer could have played out any differently. That grey area in the Romanian constitution (not for some time based on the Belgian model) where the Romanian president’s brief ends and parliament’s begins was always bound to cause issues sooner or later, almost as though it had been quite deliberately designed to do so. As for the question of whether Traian Basescu deserved to be impeached, Boia is suitably dismissive: Basescu was no more a dictator than the attempt to remove him was a coup d’etat. He also points out that the result of the referendum Basescu lost, and yet still won, was ‘suitably different. Suitably Romanian.’