IN APRIL 2012 the mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu, unveiled a statue on the steps of the National Museum of Romanian History. It was the Roman emperor Trajan standing upright, crowned with a bowl cut, nude, frowning sternly. A panting animal rests on his outstretched left wrist. It’s the Capitoline she-wolf, the symbol of ancient Rome. To Trajan’s right the wolf’s head extends into the body of a slithering snake, the “draco,” a creature painted on the battle standards of the Dacian tribes the emperor subdued in the second century AD.
The crowd gathered at the dedication was stunned. Some saw the sculpture as a troubling sign of the state of Romanian contemporary art. “It looks like a monster escaped from Chernobyl,” said one reporter. Others interpreted the she-wolf as a symbol of Oprescu’s failure to make good on his promise to rid Bucharest of its 70,000 stray dogs. It was later announced that the statue would be moved. But today, two years on, Trajan commands a legion of Instagram faithful who flock to the museum steps clutching their pet dogs, cats, and rodents.
It’s hard to say when the Romanians became Romanians. If you go by the national myth, Roman colonists settled the Danubian plain after Trajan defeated Decebal, king of the Dacians. Rome’s laws and institutions were put into effect and the region was “Romanized.” Latin became the lingua franca. (Grammatically, Romanian is the closest living language to Latin.) After the Romans withdrew from Dacia in 271 AD, the bulk of this Romanized population — the “Daco-Romans” — stayed put. Their descendants mingled with Slavs and other invaders over the following centuries.
Debunkers of the Romanian-Roman connection — namely, the Hungarians — have identified a puzzling hole in this argument: the Daco-Romans’ thousand-year disappearance from history. It’s not until the 14th century that Byzantine chroniclers again speak of a Latinate-speaking population living north of the Danube. Those who deny the theory of “Romanian continuity” insist that the empire’s evacuation of Dacia in the 3rd century thoroughly clearedthe region of all Roman presence.It was only later, perhaps in the 13th century, that today’s Romanians migrated from the northern Balkans and reoccupied the Danubian plain and the Carpathian hills.
Today in Romania the Daco-Roman connection is played up everywhere. One in two Romanians currently drives a car called the “Dacia.” Politicians like Corneliu Vadim Tudor — a Holocaust-denier and a runner-up in the 2000 presidential elections — style themselves “tribunes” of the people. I once had a cab driver in Cluj-Napoca introduce himself as Marcus Aurelius. (That Latin “-Napoca” was tacked on by Ceausescu in 1974.) On the Romanian bank of the Iron Gates, Europe’s tallest rock-cut monument depicts Trajan’s rival Decebal — also frowning — staring down the facing Serbian shore.
Romanians never tire of discussing their national origins, perhaps because, historically speaking, so much has gone downhill over the years. As Keith Hitchins demonstrates in his judicious new A Concise History of Romania, for huge swaths of its history Romania’s peasantry has been ruthlessly exploited by outsiders. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the three main regions of modern Romania — Wallachia (in the southeast, where Bucharest sits), Moldavia (in the northeast), Transylvania (in the west) — were lorded over by Eastern Europe’s three great empires: the Ottomans, the Russians, and the Austro-Hungarians. At the turn of the 17th century, an opportunistic Wallachian prince, Michael the Brave, briefly united these three principalities under “Romanian rule,” but this was an exception in an otherwise grim half-millennium of foreign domination. The road to independence came as a halting series of Ottoman and Great Power accessions in the 19th century. A peasant insurrection headed by Tudor Vladimirescu in 1821 triggered the granting of political autonomy to Moldavia and Wallachia in 1829. The two principalities formally united after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 and were rechristened “Romania” four years later.
Romania continues to be plagued by two historically related problems. Hitchins identifies the first as the Agrarian Problem. For most of its history, the Romanian middle class has been composed of city-dwelling “foreigners”: Jewish moneylenders, Greek merchants, German and Hungarian craftsmen. The Romanians have worked the fields. Even today Romania remains more dependent on agriculture than any other European nation, with 29 percent of the country’s total workforce employed on farms (compared to four percent in contemporary Western Europe). This mismanaged investment in agriculture has kept Romania’s urbanized populations low — per capita, Romania ranks 109th in the world, just surpassing French Polynesia. The country continues to be a net food importer from the European Union, mostly because its farms, with outdated or nonexistent farm equipment, are too small to be economically viable. To help pay off 10 billion dollars of debt to Western governments, Ceausescu enacted a horse-breeding program in 1986 to replace motorized vehicles — the centerpiece of one of the most disastrous austerity programs in history. When you drive around Romania today, you still see more plows than tractors.
The second problem is the Minority Problem. The vast empires that ruled Romania could accommodate its various ethnic groups. The nation-state that emerged in 1881 regarded non-Romanians as the perpetrators of the country’s backwardness. Jews were the preferred culprits. Most are gone today. In its effort to clear the way for a strong middle class of ethnic Romanians, the Antonescu dictatorship murdered 300,000 Transnistrian Jews between 1941 and 1942. Most of those who survived the war were sent to Israel in the 1950s in exchange for livestock and automated slaughterhouses. The Saxons of Transylvania are also largely gone, sold to West Germany in the 1970s at 4,000–10,000 Deutschmarks a head. But 2 million Hungarians still remain, Europe’s largest official minority. Joint membership in the European Union has softened tensions between Romania and Hungary over this group. But the threat of a secession referendum is still waved on a near-monthly basis in Transylvania, and Bucharest politicians continue to court voters with the promise of a “Romania for Romanians.” In addition, unnumbered hundreds of thousands of Roma — Eastern Europe’s largest portion — continue to be virtually invisible when it comes to political representation.
The experience of Communism only further entrenched these problems. The drive to “modernize” Romanian agriculture under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej was relentless. The collectivization of farmland amounted to a forced assault on Romania’s peasantry. Rural resistance to Communist decrees resulted in the trial of more than 80,000 farmers between 1949 and 1952. Many of them were dismissed to the deadly labor camps of the Black Sea–Danube canal. Other Party projects — the pitting of poor farmers against better-off neighbors; mass urbanization — never truly eliminated economic inequality. But they did unravel the social fabric of the countryside. In 1962 Gheorghiu-Dej announced the successful conclusion of the collectivization process. Yet agricultural output continued to underperform, and tacitly Gheorghiu-Dej acknowledged as much. (His frustration took the form of the show-trial of Ana Pauker, foreign minister and daughter of a Moldavian rabbi). Later, in the 1980s, Ceausescu resorted to a renewed attack on the agrarian sector. Had it seen completion, his “systematization” of the countryside would have converted 7,000 villages into 558 “agro-technical centers.”
Nor did the Communist decades settle Romania’s bitter ethnic divisions. Confronted with the Soviet Union’s reneging on Stalinist principles in the 1950s, Romania’s Party leaders feverishly charted their own “National Stalinist” course. This entailed a doubled-down commitment to 1940s-style economic reform and the cleansing of all Russian influence through “Romanianization.” The Slavs were written out of historiography. Great emphasis was laid on Daco-Roman roots. The Hungarians’ struggles were compounded as this nationalist doctrine gained currency. The nationalization of all business and banks had already undermined the economic foundations of their middle classes, but in the late 1950s the Party proceeded to dissolve Hungarian schools and resettle Transylvania with ethnic Romanians. In the 1970s, Ceausescu — the “omniscient father” — took the nationalist agenda to new extremes. The ransoming of Saxons and Jews picked up where Antonescu had left off in 1942 (derided in the immediate postwar years, his image was resuscitated in the 1960s). A prohibition on abortion was designed to boost numbers of ethnic Romanians; instead, the death rate from illegal abortions far exceeded that of any other European nation.
The recovery from all this has been slow in coming. The 1989 overthrow of Ceausescu didn’t so much mark the birth of a new Romania as it signaled the recycling of the Communist legacy into two camps. The Party’s economic mantel passed into the hands of the National Salvation Front and Ion Iliescu, a former Ceausescu apparatchik and the stage manager of his assassination. Iliescu took the presidency in 2000. His opponent, Corneliu Vadim Tudor (the “tribune”), represents the enduring power of Ceausescu-style nationalism. Tudor talks of clearing what remain of Romania’s Jewish, Hungarian, German, and Roma minorities.
A Concise History of Romania takes us to 2007. A shift toward Europeanization seems now forthcoming. Eurocrats of the late ’90s were doubtful of Romania’s chances of economic integration into the continent. In the early 2000s, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase brought the fight against political corruption and galvanized the Romanian economy. The country was admitted into the European Union in 2007 (though Nastase now sits in jail on corruption charges). The Romanian economy’s initial progress silenced Western skeptics. As late as 2008, rates of growth were three times the EU average. The country has since fallen victim to the euro crisis. In 2009 it applied for a 20 billion euro loan. Government-sponsored cutbacks have primarily affected wages; average Romanian earnings are now surpassed by other, non-EU Balkan countries. The result has been mass migration to Germany and the United Kingdom. (Half the population of Romania earns 287 euros or less per month; the job seekers’ allowance in the United Kingdom is nearly 90 euros a week.) Schengen membership will be contingent on Bucharest redressing falling standards of living and stemming abuses of power that have hounded nearly every post-Communist cabinet — including that of the current president, Traian Basescu. A former mayor of Bucharest, Basescu was impeached in 2007 for constitutional misconduct. In a national referendum, 87 percent of Romanians voted to have him removed, but a 46 percent turnout rate invalidated the procedure.
“Two generations of peace and clean government might make of Roumania an earthly paradise,” wrote the English historian R. W. Seton-Watson. That was in 1934. Romania just managed to survive the depredations of the next six decades. “An earthly paradise” seems ambitious, but this decade could see Romanians getting more than Trajan and a wolf-snake.