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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Romanianists

100 years of Romania. What Romanians have done for their country this past century in areas ranging from the humanities to science and sports has drawn a great deal of attention, commentary and analysis. But what non-Romanians have done for the country in this century of “Greater Romania” may tend to be overlooked or regarded as occasional foreign input.

This post, while unable to comprise all of the non-Romanian contribution to the country’s development over the last 100 years (early 20th-century urban development alone, by French architects in Bucharest, would be a huge topic), sets out to look at the input of eight contemporary non-Romanians as fully and substantially complementing the input of Romanians in the same areas. Some of them are journalists, some are historians, some others – linguists. This post will refer to all of them as “Romanianists” because, irrespective of their area of expertise, what characterises them is primarily their keen interest in Romania. We will consider how they contributed in their area of interest to the development of Romania, but also what overall message their take on Romania’s issues and challenges may convey – in other words, what advice or insights they have to offer to a nation which, although not their own, they feel close to and are interested in.

The most senior of the Romanianists selected here is Jiří Felix. A Czech philologist, Mr Felix was born in 1931 in Prague. When he was 6 he spent a summer holiday in a place near the border of Czechoslovakia with Romania (the two countries shared a frontier back then) and he became interested in learning the neighbouring country’s language. That was no easy task at the time, but luckily Jiří met a Czech student who had been to Romania and had a spare 3rd-grade Romanian textbook. That’s how the keen boy started learning the language on his own, and today he is proud to remember how he worked his way through Eminescu’s poem “Why Do You Wail, O Forest Trees...” and Romania’s old national anthem, “Long Live the King”, both included in the textbook which he still has. [1]

Soon after World War II, in 1946, to make sure he could keep improving, young Jiří Felix wrote a letter to the Romanian Association of Friendship with Czechoslovakia, asking to be put in contact with a boy his age from Romania, as pen pals. The Association obliged, and the young man started to exchange letters with a student of the “Spiru Haret” High School in Bucharest, called Ion Iliescu – none other than the man who was to replace Ceauşescu in December 1989 and be the President of Romania for three terms after the Revolution. Iliescu later described Mr Felix as a true “friend of Romania” who became a symbol of the “respect and friendship” between the Czechs and the Romanians. [2]

The two pen pals, however, did not meet until later in life: as a 4th-year undergraduate Mr Felix got a scholarship to study for a semester at the University of Bucharest, so in 1954 he finally arrived in the country he had been in love with for so many years. In Bucharest he studied Romanian linguistics with professors of high repute such as Alexandru Rosetti and Alexandru Graur, and after that semester he kept coming back to Romania, including in 1970, when he defended here his doctoral thesis on Romanian verb phrases.

Having completed his Romanian studies, Mr Felix took up a teaching position in the Romanian Department of the Faculty of Letters at Charles University in Prague, a Department he later headed from 1979 to 2002. He wrote a coursebook titled, Romanian without a Teacher, which was published in three editions and has made the language accessible to generations of Czech learners. He also published dictionaries and conversation guides, as well as academic articles in specialised journals, on a variety of Romanian linguistics topics. Last but not least, he became the President of the Association which, years before, had facilitated his contact with his Romanian pen pal, and he taught Romanian at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Prague.

In recognition of his merits as a Romanianist, the University of Bucharest awarded him the doctor honoris causa in 1998, the Romanian Academy granted him the “Academic Merit” diploma in 2009, and his former pen pal decorated him with the “Loyal Service” National Order in 2002, when he was the President of the country. Still, what can never be properly rewarded is Mr Felix’s lifetime dedication to a foreign language he chose to promote in his own country and abroad out of sheer love of it.

Our second Romanianist, too, has a long connection with Romania: American Katherine Verdery, a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, spent a few years in Romania in the 1970s-‘80s to study interethnic relationships between Germans and Romanians in the county of Hunedoara, and then she did research into agricultural property relationships in Transylvania between 1993 and 2000.

Prof Verdery wrote extensively on changes in agricultural property during the Soviet-style collectivisation and after the fall of communism, in works like Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic, and Ethnic Change (1983), and The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania (2003). She also looked into interethnic tensions in Romania, arguing that they were nurtured by the nationalist ideology and rhetoric enforced under Communist Party rule, in National Ideology under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceauşescu's Romania (1991).

On a more personal level, Ms Verdery realised that during her stays in communist Romania she had been under surveillance by Ceauşescu’s Securitate (secret services), which suspected her of being a CIA spy. The suspicion was fuelled at some point by her meetings in the late 1980s with Romanian dissidents like Nicolae Steinhardt, Gabriel Liiceanu and Alexandru Paleologu. As if to match that suspicion, Ms Verdery made sure to sneak out of the country, via diplomatic channels, A Sociology of Queues, a work which was critical of Ceauşescu’s regime, written by ex-nomenklatura sociologist Pavel Cîmpeanu. [3]

Following up on the surveillance she had been subjected to, recently Ms Verdery published an autobiographical book titled, My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File (2018). The work is based on her experience reading the 2,800-page surveillance file made by Securitate, which she accessed at the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS). Going through the file, Ms Verdery found out that during her stays in the country where she’d come to study village life her hotel rooms were bugged, her phone conversations were tapped, a hidden video camera was attached to her bed, and her local contacts were forced to report on their interaction with her. Towards the end of Ceauşescu’s reign, the Securitate was apparently getting ready to arrest her and put her on trial, and Ms Verdery was by now “suffering from depression and fits of paranoid distress”. In the end, she was able to safely return to the USA, and only revisited Romania after the downfall of Ceauşescu. [4]

Discovering exactly how much her life in Romania had been under scrutiny, her privacy violated and her trust abused was very painful, as Ms Verdery confessed. Despite all that, this Romanianist contributed valuable research to the study of Romanian agricultural life, demonstrated amazing solidarity with Romanian anti-communist opponents and, enduring the kind of oppression by Securitate that so many ordinary Romanians also endured, she became a member of the community. Despite the way she was treated by the communist Romanian state, she was able to form an long-lasting attachment to that other Romania, the non-official, repressed and humane one, and to respond to it commensurately: “she slowly learned to love and understand this extraordinary nation.” [5]

Our third Romanianist is Tom Gerard Gallagher. Born in 1954 in Scotland, Mr Gallagher graduated from the

University of Manchester and completed a PhD thesis on authoritarianism in Portugal. He taught politics at the University of Bradford, where he headed the Department of Peace Studies, and is currently Emeritus Professor there. As part of his specialisation in South-Eastern Europe and the Balkans, he has shown consistent interest in Romania. He published three books about the country and its recent history: Romania after Ceausescu: The Politics of Intolerance (1993), Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism (2005), and Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong (2009). Moreover, between 2005 and 2015 he had a weekly column in Romanian daily România liberă, where he covered a huge variety of topics related to Romania’s modern history and current politics.

Prof Gallagher’s main points about Romania’s recent history are that the country’s December 1989 uprising “was quickly superseded by a putsch by second-ranking communists” who, since then, have stayed close to the power structures in Romania [6], and that Europe was tricked into admitting Romania into the European Union before it was properly prepared for membership, by crafty and duplicitous Romanian politicians [7]. Such views may not be popular with all Romanians, but they are certainly well phrased and well-argumented, demonstrating outstanding clarity of vision and an always honest, well-intended and truth-seeking interest in Romanian affairs.

Another Romanianist from Britain is Dennis Deletant, born in Norfolk in 1946, Visiting Ion Raţiu Professor of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and Emeritus Professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. Probably the best known and most prominent Romanianist in the academia, Prof Deletant’s interest in Romania is two-fold: on the one hand, he published extensively on the country’s recent history, with works like Studies in Romanian History (1991), Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-89 (1995), Romania under Communist Rule (1998) or Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State 1948–1965 (1999); on the other hand, he produced important Romanian language works, such as Colloquial Romanian (1984) or Teach Yourself Romanian (1992). In recognition of his contribution to Romanian history and language studies, Prof Deletant was awarded the Order for Merit “with the rank of commander, for services to Romanian democracy”, by the Romanian Presidency in 2000. [8]

Prof Deletant’s first contact with Romania was in 1965, when he attended summer courses organised by the University of Bucharest in Sinaia. Later on, in 1969, he did a British Council postgraduate course in Romania and then visited the country regularly up until 1988, when he was declared persona non grata by Ceauşescu’s regime because of his criticisms of it, published in the British press. [9] During the December 1989 Revolution he was a BBC television consultant in Bucharest, and since then he has contributed regular articles and interviews in the Romanian press, for example in Revista 22. In those writings, one of Prof Deletant’s most frequently expressed views is that Romania should do more to uncover the truth about the crimes of both communism and fascism here, since the Romanian Gulag and the Romanian Holocaust are still insufficiently known among the Romanian public nowadays.

Unlike Prof Deletant, ethnographer Margaret Hiebert Beissinger has a much more specific area of expertise:

the Balkan epic, including epic tradition in Romania. She first came in touch with Romanian when she was a Harvard College undergraduate visiting Braşov on a summer course in the 1970s. She graduated magna cum laude in 1976 and returned to Romania in 1979-1980 as an IREX/Fulbright scholar to do doctoral research. She was awarded her PhD by the Committee on Romanian and South Slavic Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University in 1984, after which she taught Romanian at Harvard for several years. She subsequently became an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and since 2006 she has been at Princeton University, teaching courses on Balkan culture, Slavic and East European folklore, as well as Romani oral epic.

As far as Romanian culture is concerned, Ms Beissinger specialises in southern Romanian folklore, especially lăutari and Romani music [10]. A member of the Romanian Studies Association of America since the 1970s, she has published a great deal of books and articles on Romanian and gypsy music-making: The Art of the Lăutar: The Epic Tradition of Romania (1991); Manele in Romania: Cultural Expression and Social Meaning in Balkan Popular Music (2016); “Professionalization among young Romani musicians: strategies of music-making in contemporary Romania” (2016); “Romani Performance and the Music of Celebration: Traditional Weddings in Pre-and Post-1990 Southern Romania” (2015); “Court Poetry, Village Verse: Romanian Oral Epic in the Medieval World” (2012); etc. Ms Beissinger’s dedication to the study of Romanian gypsy music, oral tradition and performance has helped popularise outside Romania an ethnographic treasure, the lăutari music, of which contemporary Romanians themselves unfortunately tend to be either ignorant or disparaging. Sometimes, it seems, it takes a foreigner to make locals aware of their full cultural richness...

Moving on, a controversial Romanianist is French sociologist Claude Karnoouh, a Marxist intellectual who has been very critical of the Romanian rightist and/or anti-communist intelligentsia. Born in 1940 in Paris, Mr Karnoouh studied both sciences (1959-1965) and humanities (1966-1969), before becoming a researcher with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in 1970 and visiting Romania for the first time in 1973, to do ethnographic research in the village of Brebu, the county of Maramureş. Subsequently, Mr Karnoouh was an associate/visiting professor with various universities, including Paris X Nanterre, Gand, Charlottesville, Urbino, as well as “Babeş-Bolyai” University in Cluj (1991-2002) and the National University of Fine Arts in Bucharest. Referring to his academic experience, Mr Karnoouh said that he enjoyed his career in Romanian universities because there was more freedom of speech here than in Western universities, and Romanian students “don’t just listen like some calves or geese” [11].

Particularly controversial are Mr Karnoouh’s statements about the integration of the Roma in Romanian society – or, rather, the lack of it. The anthropologist claims that Romanians are racist and that the integration here could be done forcefully through culture. According to Mr Karnoouh, despite European funds meant to help the integration of the Roma, the Romanian state’s policies have failed because they didn’t take into account Roma cultural specifics which conflicted with them. Also, and quite paradoxically, he maintains that there is a rich upper-class among the Roma that manipulates the European Union legislative framework and facilities to eschew any kind of civic engagement. [12] While such remarks may not be wholly valid (and certainly not wholly comfortable), they do demonstrate an uncompromising interest in Romania’s most troubling present issues, on the French anthropologist’s part. More of his thinking can be accessed in a few books he published in Romanian (for instance, Românii. Tipologie și mentalități, 1994), as well as in a series of articles posted on Critic Atac.

Next, Swiss historian Oliver Jens Schmitt, like other Romanianists mentioned above, has a wider interest in

Balkan politics with a specific focus on Romanian modern history, particularly fascism (for example, in 2016 he published a biography of far-right Romanian inter-war leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu). Born in Basel in 1973, Mr Schmitt studied Byzantine and south-east European history in Basel, Vienna, Berlin and Munich, and since 2005 he has taught the latter subject at the Vienna University. He confessed having been impressed, as a teenager, with images from the Romanian Revolution broadcast on TV in 1989, but it was later, as an undergraduate living in a student residence in Vienna, that he first met Romanians and started picking up the language. After that he travelled all around Romania, from Maramureş to the Black Sea coast and became quite familiar with the country [13]. Published this year, his latest book, România în 100 de ani. Bilanţul unui veac de istorie / Romania in 100 years. The Balance of a Century of History, stands proof of that familiarity.

In an event held at Atheneul Român in February 2018, Mr Schmitt gave a speech about centenary Romania in which he made a few interesting points. Firstly, he remarked that in 1918 Greater Romania was administratively as well as culturally a very non-homogeneous space basically made up of three distinct territories whose inhabitants only had in common the language they spoke. The Union implied, thus, a huge homogenisation effort and was, all in all, “an experiment in integration” in a whole range of areas, from transport and infrastructure to education. Secondly, between 1918 and 2018 Romania has experienced just three main historical stages: the inter-war period, stereotypically regarded as positive; the communist regime, commonly seen as negative; and the current post-Revolution period. About the latter interval Mr Schmitt believes it is the best Romanians have traversed in the past century; consequently the best we can do this centenary year is to focus on the present and the plethora of opportunities it holds, particularly the civil awakening it has brought about. [14]

The last Romanianist whose contribution is reviewed here is also probably the most openly passionate about the country: his name is Peter Hurley, typically described as “the Irishman who is in love with Romania”. Mr Hurley was born in 1968 In Ireland, into a family with ten children. When he first came to Romania he was 26. He remembers feeling intrigued about how different, interesting and unknown this part of Europe was, and he decided that one day he was going to relocate here. Very soon afterwards he was presented with a business opportunity in Romania and he jumped at it: in 1994 he moved to Romania and founded two now famous marketing companies, Mercury Research and Mercury Promotions, where he worked for 15 years.

He left the field of marketing in 2009 and took to promoting just one product: Romania. First, he founded “The Long Road to the Merry Cemetery”, an intercultural festival of peasant traditions whose first edition he organised in 2010. Secondly, in November 2012 he set off on a 650-kilometre trip on foot from the Săpânţa Merry Cemetery up north in Maramureş to the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest, relying, on his way, on the people’s hospitality and kindness. Thirdly, he published the follow-up to the journey, a book titled Drumul crucilor / The Way of the Crosses, in which he makes a crucial point: Romania is the last “Western” country which still keeps alive and unaltered its authentic rural civilisation. The whole of Mr Hurley’s effort to promote Romania is effectively centred on that belief, and his main plea to Romanians, above all, is for them to discover the priceless treasures held by their folk traditions and take on the responsibility of maintaining them [14].

From ethnography to politics, critical or flattering, convenient or uncomfortable, the non-Romanian Romanianists’ views about this country, its history, its people and its worth make up a mirroring mosaic of our gifts, flaws, challenges and opportunities. The very least such opinions achieve is to make us reflect with lucid eyes upon our status quo; the most they can accomplish is to awaken us to a sense of our own contribution to the rest of the world – seeing with honesty where we stand, what we’re missing, what we can still bring forth.

Now, are you ready for some royal non-Romanian insights into this country’s character? If so, listen to Prince Charles talk about “the enduring resilience and indomitable spirit” of the Romanians.

Notes & sources

[5] Ibidem.

[12] Ibidem.

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