Romania: Borderland of Europe
By Lucian Boia
Or, Everything You Thought You Knew About Romania Is Wrong. For this is a book that smashes down every cliché, exposes every myth and just about turns the Romania we thought we knew on its head. An iconoclastic work – Lucian Boia appears to take much pleasure in being contrary – it is the only place any foreigner wanting to learn about Romania should think of starting. From how the country was forged, to the impact history has had on its people, everything you need to know is found in this concise volume; to get the best out of it, leave aside your prejudices as you open the cover.
Any writer who states – and not entirely with tongue in cheek – that for hundreds of years, until the early 19th century, ‘the Poles were in many ways far more Latin than the Romanians,’ is asking for trouble. For many Romanians, the only version of their origins anyone need to know is the semi-official ‘we are the direct descendents of the Roman Empire.’ Foreigners especially are to be fed this line, and discouraged from investigating any further. So it is no wonder that Boia, a professor of history at the University of Bucharest, has become the nemesis of Romanian nationalists.
His first major work, 1997’s History and Myth in the Romanian Consciousness challenged Romanians to stop being manipulated by the interpretations others placed on history, and to begin investigating Romanian history for themselves. The undertext was that Romanian historiography needed to be woken from the slumber into which it had fallen during the communist period, when history was changed according to the whims of the communist party leadership.
He took particular umbrage at the many myths surrounding Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) who, in 1600, briefly (it lasted for less than a year) united the three Romanian principalities into a single kingdom. Boia successfully argued that Mihai Viteazul had done so purely out of his own regard for power, and that the idea he had acted on behalf of the great desire of the Romanian people to be united in a unitary state was ludicrous. Most Romanians at the time would not even have immediately recognised themselves as Romanians (they certainly wouldn’t have used the word Romanian).
Where Romania: Borderland of Europe is particularly strong is in its rejection of the idea that communism can successfully be blamed for all of Romania’s current woes. Boia is very quick to point out that communism changed Romania: ‘the Romania left behind by communism was totally different to the one it had inherited’ but not in the sense that others have led us to believe. Boia prefers facts to conjecture about the national psyche, pointing to the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the country in the 1960s and 1970s, and the transformation of the inner cities: especially Bucharest.
If there is a weakness, it is in the way that Boia passes over the Romanian Revolution of 1989 with barely a paragraph: perhaps this man who prefers facts to fiction simply realised that no definitive history of the revolution can be written until all the pertinent details are made available.
At the end of the book we join Boia on a walk through Bucharest, a city he appears he adore despite his own best efforts not to: ‘Bucharest is full of surprises. Nowhere – aside from the vast areas of blocks, where one block follows another – will you see two buildings the same. Not the same in style, in height, nor in size. And even the blocks can hide surprises: often you will find a whole street of old houses hidden behind a block, as if frozen in time … But enough already, my aim was to explain Bucharest, not to become a travel guide.’
Published by Humanitas, you will find the Romanian version in all good Romanian bookshops. For the English version (published by Topographics) visit Amazon.co.uk.