What is Romania?

Sitting down at my computer, I was ready to take my country apart, rip it to shreds. I’ve just finished reading Lucian Boia’s “Romania, tara de frontiera a Europei” (Romania, borderland of Europe) and felt a surge of anger at the teachers that shaped my childhood and at myself.

Some context first. I’ve not read anything of Boia before (he is a history professor at the University of Bucharest) or heard much about him. I picked up the book last winter on a visit home because I had become haunted by the question of Romania. What is Romania? It was a natural progression after asking for more than two years: “What is America?” As the answers to my second questions kept coming I realized I lacked that knowledge about my country. I wanted to be able to grasp intellectually what my country meant and needed some material to turn to.

Boia sets out to answer this question in his book and in my mind, he does a decent job of it. What he says is something I have been feeling but probably never articulated quite so forcefully: Romania is not a mythical entity, nor a chosen land with a people tricked by history, nor an idea always persecuted and undermined by the vile West. It’s just another country with its ups and downs, highs and lows, succeses and failures.

In dissecting the historical record of the language, the people, the territories, Boia doesn’t necessarily bring out new facts to life, but he offers a non-partisan and non-nationalistic view of the Romanian nation. This is not a patriotic treaty of victimisation, and it is its straight forwardness that has sparked my anger.

Not at Boia, but at the people who taught me I should believe in rotten revisionism, the story of a country that could have been more if it weren’t made to fight off invaders and protect Europe. What loads of bullshit. Certainly, every country has its myths and every country cultivates nationalism to various degrees. Still, I can’t help feeling betrayed by communism and the first decade that followed its toppling for wanting to eliminate my capacity to be critical of my country, its history and its culture.

When this winter I criticized my country in an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, I was branded as a traitor, someone who doesn’t respect or love the homeland. It is this victim-prone heritage and the incapacity of being self-critical that Boia criticizes (he has been in turn branded as being anti-Romani) and that many of my fellow countrymen lack.

I wanted to expand on some of his ideas and take apart the blind right-wing nationalistic instincts some Romanians have. But I won’t. Why? Because I realized that I had done something similar in the past, albeit in a more naive fashion. Here you can find the first of three essays that speak about Romania–they all appeared on dbrom.ro.

My apologies to English speakers–they are all in Romanian. But you could always enjoyed our national obsessions–as seen here in a self-serving (failed attempt at satire) beer commercial.

10 Responses to “What is Romania?”

  1. Finally, an explanation of why do people start overreacting whenever they sense even the slightest suggestion that Romania would have it’s bad parts. 🙂

  2. I’ve read Lucian Boia’s history book, entitled simply “Romania,” and found it to be a great piece of academic work for precisely the dispassionate perspective you found. In my attempt to begin understanding Romania, I ran a wide variety for histories from the Ceasescu slant to the visions of Magyar would-be-lords. It seemed nearly impossible to reconcile the various, vicious interpretations of events and consequence. Then Boia. He strung it all together quite remarkably in a way that allowed me to understand the other histories I’d read and realized that those perspectives began to make sense in light of Boia’s neutrality.

    I doubt he’s perfect. No one is. But damn if he isn’t the best around.

    Bring that book. I’ll buy it from you.

  3. Romerican, I believe we read the same book (although I read it in Romanian). The American Amazon sells it as “Romania.” Other publishers have used the full title: “Romania, borderland of Europe.”

    He is certainly not perfect (excessive use of “!” is one minus) but I agree that he is fantastic in his writing. I wish these books were there in the early 1990s and that such discussions would have been part of my school-sanctioned formation.

    Sure, learning never stops, but I’ll venture the guess that the majority of people in my generation would not come across such points of view unless they left the country (which allows for some emotional dettachment) or somehow, luckily, met a Boia either in their college years or later.

  4. Sounds good. I’ve just ordered it.

  5. Straight to the point. I, myself Romanian, have seldomly met others from my country being able to criticize the absurdities taking place over there, ranging from political, economic and social. Lucian Boia is a great writer and I even recommended one of his books as study material for my professor of Eastern European studies when I was in grad school in Italy. Hope other Romanian fellows will not hate me.
    Servus from a fellow Romanian from Washington

  6. Sadly, I sold my English copy before I left (like a fool!) and here they do not have the English version available. I hadn’t scoured the proprietary databases safely hidden behind the storekeeper’s counter, but I can report that the four bookstores I went to in Brasov did not carry the Romaneste version on their shelves (although, they did carry other works by the same).

  7. Cristina, what are you up to in Washington? Maybe fellow Romanians with similar ideas should get together for some friendly Romania-bashing 🙂

  8. servus draga admin

    Working…been here for 5 yrs. off and on. Always in for some Romania bashing..just let me know where and when…
    cheers.

  9. Romerican, just say the words and I’ll try to get it and bring it for you.

  10. […] Professor Boia is a talented scholar on an important mission to openly and judiciously wade through the various propogandized histories that swirl a fog around attempts to understand Romania, a nation whose history has long-been a manipulative toy in the hands of whomever ruled the region(s). From the Dacians to the Slavs to the Romans to the Magyars to the Turks to the Austrians to Ceauşescu, serious attempts to understand the Romanian peoples have been subverted in favor of politically expedient half-truths which have had a lasting impact on how current generations of Romanians undertstand themselves. Romania is a brilliant, honest dissection of all the known factual information where the author goes a step further in inviting you to join in a realistic putting-together of the puzzle pieces so you might get a better grasp who Romania has really been all these centuries without feeling as though some vitrolic agenda were predetermining conclusions. If you have any interest in Romania, however passingly casual the fancy or gravely central to your core being, you absolutely must –without a doubt– beg, borrow, or steal Romania, tara de frontiera a Europei by Lucian Boia. […]

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