Top Quotes: “In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond” — Robert Kaplan
“Great Britain’s and France’s policy of appeasement toward Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s had damaged the reputation of the West in Eastern Europe even before World War Il, an era when for significant periods it was mainly the Communists who were associated with standing up to the Nazis.”
“You don’t grow up gradually. You grow up in short bursts at pivotal moments, by suddenly realizing how ignorant and immature you are.”
“This was the beginning of a decade that would be among the worst in Romanian history, even if the political repression was actually more suffocating in the 1950s, when the Communists under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej had to establish total thought control over an ideologically hostile population. A distinguished British historian would later write that in the 1980s Romanians had been “reduced….to an animal state, concerned only with the problems of day-to-day survival.”
The situation would deteriorate by stages: with food, fuel water, and electricity shortages worse than during World War I. In late 1982, there was a widely circulating rumor that bread was deliberately held in the bakeries for twenty-four hours before selling, so it would become stale and the population would buy less. A local joke of the era: “If only the Russians invaded, then we would get to eat like the Czechs and get passports like the Hungarians.” By the middle of the decade, the buses would no longer run on diesel, but on the much cheaper and more dangerous methane gas, with tanks attached to the roofs.”
“On a later trip to Bucharest in 1984, Latham casually told me that Ceausescu was blasting a vast area of the capital into oblivion, with security forces plundering and then blowing up whole neighborhoods of historic Orthodox churches, monasteries, Jewish synagogues, and nineteenth-century houses: ten thousand structures in all, many with their own sylvan courtyards. Residents were given hours to clear out with their life possessions before explosive charges were set. The blast site, where an austere Stalinist-style civic center and apartment blocks were to be built, was being called “Ceaushima” by Romanians brave enough to talk to foreign diplomats. Latham, who had seen the plans for the new Party complexes and ceremonial avenues, compared it to something
“Albert Speer might have designed for Adolf Hitler, had the 1,000-year Reich become reality.””
“My third morning in Bucharest, fifty thousand people marched down the boulevards General Magheru and Nicola Bälcescu — named for the radical luminaries of the 1848 revolutions shouting, “Ceaugescu, Pace, Ceausescu, Pace” (“Ceausescu, Peace, Ceausescu, Peace”). The tyrant was hailed as the mythic leader of all world peace and disarmament movements. Massive photos of him and his wife, adorned with ribbons, and festooned with blue, yellow, and red Romanian flags, were noisily carried aloft. Near dawn I had watched as the busloads and truckloads of peasants — hauled in by convoy from the poverty-racked Wallachin countryside (underdeveloped even by Romanian standards). alighted near Piata Universitätii, close to my hotel, where gangsterish men in black fedoras and long trench coats directed them with bullhorns into their parade formations. It was Harvest Day, a festival blatantly manipulated by the regime for its own purposes. Occasionally an order was barked and people ran faster into place. Terror filled the faces of these peasants, many in sleeveless sheepskins, who looked far more wretched than even those at the morning bread lines. Ceausescu, Pace, Ceausescu, Pace. And yet the thunderous roar only seemed to intensify the silence I felt everywhere. Silence was the regnant sound of repression.”
“Standing on the sidewalk of Bulevardul Bälcescu, I detected a contest between two crowds: the one marching, composed of a rural peasantry (among the last remaining in Europe), and the one of city dwellers quietly observing. The crowd of city dwellers evidently could not be trusted; or else why bus in people from outside the city? But the peasants, too, were suspect according to the regime, if less so. I would later confirm with foreign diplomats that the peasants had been both bribed and bullied to attend the rally.
In their personal, family, and group histories those peasants surely had suffered far worse than merely having to submerge their individual thoughts periodically into the enforced collectivity of a crowd formation. Their relative docility — compared, that is, to the more sullen and untrustworthy city dwellers — was a natural survival mechanism, one born, for example, of the Long European War, begun in 1914, and still inching forward as a tailpiece in Romania in 1981, even if the war had ended in Western Europe in 1945. Truly, Ceausescu’s national Stalinism was a Kremlin-approved substitute for Soviet military occupation, which, in turn, had been the direct product of Stalin defeating Hitler in Central and Eastern Europe.”
“Dissidents there might be in Warsaw, psychologically buttressed by a Roman Catholic Church that was both universal in its values and nationalistic in its opposition to Soviet domination. But here in Bucharest, I would meet only one such dissident, a lonely and demoralized man, with no church or labor union to support him. In 1981 he told me, “Westerners expect Romania to be the next Poland, but it will never happen. There are no martyrs here. One half of the country is informing on the other half.” Whereas in countries like Poland and Hungary there were such things as “liberal” and “reform” Communists to serve as an unofficial opposition, people like that existed only by the handful in Romania, and made certain to keep their heads bowed, their eyes closed. They barely surfaced except in the final years of the decade. All privately owned typewriters were required to be registered, along with the owner’s fingerprints according to some reports, in order to cut off sources of antiregime literature.
Romanians had simply known no respite, political or economic, since the 1930s. World War Il witnessed a Nazi-allied regime, the to-ing and fro-ing of armies across Romanian territory, and bleak choices about whether to back Stalin or Hitler following Chamberlain’s pact with Hitler. (“You were nowhere,” Silviu Brucan, the grand old man of Romanian Communism, would later tell me, referring to how the United States was altogether missing from Central Europe until 1944. And since World War I, three and a half decades of Communism-as-Oriental-despotism had made conditions, by some accounts, worse than in the 1940s. And they would certainly be far worse by the late 1980s.
“Throughout Rumania’s history the country had survived because of clever pliancy rather than of the heroism of its people……The Rumanians possess to the highest degree the capacity of receiving the blows of destiny while relaxed,” writes the Countess R. G. Waldeck in a memoir of early 1940s Bucharest. The Romanians, in Waldeck’s intimation, were not so much fatalists as wise in the ways of history: in which, because there was no end to the process of permutation, there was always the possibility for adaptation and for finding new angles in order to survive. Just as con men had a better chance of surviving the Holocaust than those who played by the rules, Romanians endured the Ceaugescu years by corrupting the entire system.”
“The invasion of Iraq ultimately failed because the depth of the suspicion between Sunnis and Shiites was not adequately admitted and planned for.”
“The Orthodox nations of E. Europe — Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece — are characterized by weak institutions.
That is because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, based more on the oral traditions of peasants than on texts. So there is this pattern of rumor, lack of information, and conspiracy.”
“Romania’s president in 2013 was Train Bäsescu, formerly head of the Liberal Democratic Party. The prime minister was Victor Ponta, head of the Social Democratic Party. They were at each other’s throats with vicious charges of corruption, plagiarism, and so forth. Romanian politics were immobilized for a time by this rivalry, even as one suspected that years hence, few might even recall the names of those two politicians, neither of whom enjoyed all that much presence or gravitas (especially in Ponta’s case). Bäsescu officially represented a conservative tendency and Ponta a liberal one. But as this young analyst told me in the hotel lobby, there was at root no philosophical struggle between them. They merely represented two clientelistic networks, competing for spoils. “Bäsescu has personal interests and a good radar, but no belief system, only formally is he a conservative. Ponta is similar. His party is hungry for financial rewards after being out of power. There is little important that they really debate. They both have learned from the legacy of Communism how to siphon off state assets and run networks. It is all angles and striking poses: the mix of post-Communism and Latinity.”
The young analyst quoted a local proverb: “Mamáliga nu explodeaza.” Translation: Romanians are like polenta: Polenta doesn’t explode. It is amorphous, without guts, always adopting to whatever form is required.
Even if one rejects such essentialism, it was undeniable that the transition from Ceausescu’s Communism was not over. The more encompassing the tyranny, the more decades required to overcome it. The judicial system was broken. The rule of law was only partially established. The property regime, as I saw from the vacant lots and abandoned buildings, was insufficiently clear. Too many Romanian politicians in the second decade of the twenty-first century had risen to power in a police state system, or one proximately derivative of it. Nor did they have the advantages possessed by a former Warsaw Pact ally like Poland, which, for example, had had a civil opposition, a liberal Communist wing, and the activism of a universalist Church long before 1989. This was not to mention Poland’s helpfully tangible memory of a pre-World War Il bourgeois, as well as the advantage that Poland had gained from massive German investment following the Cold War.”
“Disease, hunger, chaos. Only the eventual victory of the Western Allies and the collapse of the Russian front following the Bolshevik Revolution restored to Romania all its historic territories by 1920. Then in 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin set the stage for Soviet Russia taking back
Bessarabia and entering northern Bukovina, and Nazi Germany awarding northern Transylvania to Hungary. Romanian troops in their many hundreds of thousands then fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union — unto Odessa and Stalingrad — in the first part of World War Il, and later they switched sides and fought against Nazi Germany in order to recapture northern Transylvania. Then following World War Il came the living death of Communism, when the Soviet Union treated Romania, because of its alliance with Hitler right up through and after Stalingrad, as a defeated country, suitable for predation.”
“Myth, forgetfulness, and self-deception suffuse the national memory of Romanians, as they do those of other peoples, but maybe more so in the Romanians’ case because the legacy of Communism — and particularly that of the Ceausescu variety was really one of national fascism: a national fascism that had to contend with a late medieval, early modern, and modern history of being a mere group of weak principalities eventually cobbled together as a nation. This was unlike more formidable powers such as Poland and Hungary to the north and northwest, and the adjacent Balkan kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria to the west and south.
Ceausescu’s national fascism was an intensification of his predecessor Gheorghiu-Dej’s own national Communism: an ideological orientation which stood in opposition to the Moscow-based Communism of most of the other ruling Communist parties of Eastern Europe in the early decades of the Cold War. Whereas the other East European parties were led by men and women who had spent World War II in exile from their home countries in Moscow under Stalin’s supervision, in Romania the power struggle was won by those like Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu, who had spent the war years in prison inside Romania itself, and who therefore distrusted those other Communists who returned after 1945 from the Soviet Union. To Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu, the Moscow- based Communists were seen as cosmopolitans and Jews; not altogether Romanian, that is.”
“It is telling that whereas intellectuals in the West — particularly in France, England, and America — have tended to inhabit the left of the political spectrum (with variations, of course), with a distinctive passion and proclivity for advancing human rights and cosmopolitanism, Romanian intellectuals over the course of the past two centuries have demonstrated in a marked number of cases a disposition to occupy the philosophical space on the right, with an emphasis on myth, the ethnic nation, and the agricultural life of the soil.”
“Until the mid-nineteenth century, Romanians wrote in Cyrillic, a legacy of the Greek and Russian influences, another reminder of the miracle of Latinity.”
“The Turks crafted a system of millets, or self-governing religious communities under a patriarch or other leader, responsible, in turn, to the central Ottoman authority. Within Istanbul’s walls resided not only the Islamic authority, but also the Greek and Armenian patriarchs and the Jewish chief rabbi. Lord Kinross calls the state of affairs a “Pax Ottomanica.” Because this system worked so well for centuries, it would be the drawn-out decline and eventual breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I that would ignite so many ethnic, religious, and national conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East. The Middle East, in particular, in the early twenty-first century is still unable to find a solution to the demise of the Ottoman Empire.”
“The end of World War I had given Romania little or no respite. From early 1944, the Western Allies recognized that the war inside Romania and the peace that followed, therefore, was “Russia’s business.” In October 1944, British prime minister Winston Churchill conceded to Soviet party chief Joseph Stalin a “90 percent” interest in Romania. By early 1946, the Red Army “quartered…between 600,000 and 900,000 men” in the country. “This bleak state of affairs was primarily the consequence of geography,” writes British historian Hugh Thomas in Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945–1946. “A place between two totalitarian empires, the German Nazi one and the Soviet Russian, is unenviable.””
“The Communists had to be particularly pitiless precisely because Romania, as we know from the history of its intellectual life through the 1930s, was a culture in which the right exerted greater influence than the left. Idealism, an emotion which the Communists were traditionally expert at manipulating, had been the particular province of the Romanian right during the interwar years. Moreover, Romania, a predominantly agricultural country, lacked much of an indigenous working class out of which the Communists could form a base. Thus cruelty was a method used to overcome a weak starting position. It was a starting position made more tenuous by the fact that, in the first half of the twentieth century, Romania had occupied what was considered Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Russian territory. This made neighboring Communist parties doubly suspicious of their Romanian colleagues, who, consequently, were under even more pressure to prove themselves.”
“A single, mass Communist Party movement soon replaced the traditional interwar and postwar political parties, tainted as they were by democratic and traditional values. The new mass party refused members of the “former exploiting classes,” as the mass party became a vehicle for implementing Stalinism across the board in industry, agriculture, banking, mining, and transport. The Party soon abolished private landholdings. “This permitted the liquidation of the remnants of the old landowning class and of the kulaks,’” writes Deletant, a reference to anyone who used hired labor or lent out equipment, regardless of the size of his property. Peasants were organized into massive collective farms. Total censorship of newspapers, books, and the arts reigned. The Greek Catholic or Uniate Church, with its links to the West and to the pope, was forcibly merged with the Orthodox Church, as the latter came under the control of the regime and the new Securitate. By the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Romanians were incarcerated in forced labor camps for political reasons. By the early 1960s, a network of camps was established in the Danube Delta where tens of thousands of prisoners were made to work waist-deep in water cutting reeds, with specially trained dogs nearby to bite them if they faltered. Such small details illustrate the magnitude of the human disaster more than do the statistics.
Thus were centuries of history, national life, and cultural traditions ground up into dust within a little more than a decade, something Gheorghiu-Dej deemed necessary in order to eliminate rightward tendencies in Romanian society. The only way for an ordinary Romanian to survive under Gheorghiu-Dej was, as the saying went, to keep your mouth shut.”
“Ceausescu’s 1971 visits to China under Mao Zedong and North Korea under Kim Il Sung constituted a turning point. Rather than being repelled at those two totalitarian systems, Ceaugescu and his increasingly powerful wife, Elena, were suddenly envious of the mass mobilization and perfectly choreographed pageants in celebration of the tyrant that characterized Mao’s and Kim’s leadership style. The Ceausescus henceforth embarked on a methodical plan to turn Romania into an Eastern European version of North Korea. A key feature of this plan was systematization, a crackpot scheme to reduce the number of Romania’s villages by half by the year 2000, requiring the destruction of thousands of them. The map of Romania itself would be emptied of names, and replaced with spreading rashes of work camps and industrial and agricultural combines. Though systematization was only in its early stages by the time the Ceaugescus were executed in 1989, the very concept embodied much of the dehumanizing and maniacal aspects of their Stalinist ideology. This all went hand in glove with their national fascism, as exemplified by Ceausescu’s 1984 call to the female Romanian populace: “breed, comrade women, it is your patriotic duty.” Women of childbearing age were subject to regular examinations to make sure they were not using contraceptives, and childless couples were made to pay punitive taxes. It is estimated that more than ten thousand women died from unsafe and illegal abortions because of those directives.”
“In the 1980s,the regime reduced the entire population to sheer “degradation.” In December 1989, after the Ceaugescus had ordered troops and police to fire on protesters in Timisoara and Bucharest, “the popular decision was made to execute them.”
“Under Iliescu, Romania, in the first half of the 1990s, did not so much become a capitalist state as a liberal Gorbachevian Communist state, after having been a Stalinist state for decades — especially since the Ceausescus’ visit to North Korea. This all followed from the reported help that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union provided in the autumn of 1989 to Iliescu, the late Silviu Brucan, and other reform Communists opposed to the Ceausescus. Because of the unrepentant Stalinism of the Ceausescus, Romania’s revolution constituted the only one in Eastern Europe that year that the Soviet Union implicitly supported. Bärbulescu had a point in this regard, even if he wildly exaggerated.
The other interpretation is that Iliescu’s very go-slow approach, combined with his emphasis on regime security in the early 1990s, saved Romania from becoming a version of Yugoslavia next door, whose ethnic civil war was coterminous with Iliescu’s first six years as president. Rulers often succeed less by accomplishing anything specific than by preventing even worse things from happening, Sustained violence against ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, and indeed “general anarchy,” as Iliescu told me, were distinct possibilities for a Romania that had few usable institutions, dozens of new political parties, and severe urban and rural poverty in the wake of the Ceaugescus’ 1989 execution. The worse the tyranny, the worse the power vacuum that must follow. Iliescu thus saw his role as primarily holding the country together: what Romania required was less a democrat than a transition figure. Remember that the essence of enlightened conservatism according to Edmund Burke is pacing — that is to say, gradual change preserves society better than sudden disruption, even if such disruption has a moral basis.”
“Iasi’s 19th-century metropolitan cathedral was vast and yet claustrophobic, so jam-packed was it with evening worshippers, who, by the looks of their clothes and expressions, seemed crushed by the unrelenting vicissitudes of life. And they weren’t all old either, for there were many young people as well. The resurgence of religion was not simply a reaction to decades of atheistic Stalinism, but to the frankly tough economic times Romanians were currently enduring, partly thanks to the crisis within the European Union. Nearby Greece, for example, which had never experienced Communism, but whose economy had virtually collapsed, was in the throes of an Orthodox revival. The frescoes of transfixed emperors, the thick incense, the hypnotic chants fostered a dream state that overwhelmed one. Orthodoxy’s very magic will guarantee its survival.”
“43,500 Jews lived in the city in 1921; 350 in 2013. Before World War Il Iasi had 137 synagogues; now there were two. However, the end of Jewish life in Iasi came mainly during the Communist era, when the regime charged the West in hard currency to buy out the Jews who desired to go to Israel or elsewhere. And of course they wanted to go — who wouldn’t have wanted to leave the Romania of Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu?”
“MARSHAL ION ANTONESCU’S ROMANIA was Adolf Hitler’s second most important Axis ally after Benito Mussolini’s Italy, though one might easily consider Antonescu more formidable and useful from Hitler’s point of view than Mussolini was. Antonescu contributed 585,000 Romanian troops to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union from June to October 1941. At Stalingrad, in late 1942 and early 1943, Romanian troops fought alongside the Germans and against the Soviets with a particular ferocity. Romania, rich in natural resources and lying on the southern path of the invasion route of Operation Barbarossa, supplied Hitler’s war machine with critical stores of oil from the Ploiesti fields as well as other raw materials. Antonescu met with Hitler no less than ten times.”
“Antonescu directly orchestrated, through deliberate starvation and “horrific acts of mass butchery,” the deaths of up to 300,000 Jews in northern Bukovina, Bessarabia, and Transdniestria: the areas to the east and north of Romania with large ethnic Romanian populations (in the cases of Bukovina and Bessarabia) that Romanian troops captured from Stalin’s forces in the first weeks of the Nazi-led invasion in 1941. But in Romania proper — Moldavia, Wallachia, and southern Transylvania — Antonescu kept up to 375,000 Jews from local slaughter and transport to death camps in German-occupied Poland. This was something that would not have happened had the fascist Iron Guard regime remained in power in Bucharest. For in January 1941, after tolerating the Iron Guard inside his government for the first five months of his rule, Antonescu decimated the Guard and hunted down the fascist Legionnaires. The survival rate of the Jewish population under his direct civil, administrative, and military control — within the legal borders of Romania, that is — “was greater than that of any other Axis ally, protectorate or occupied area aside from Finland.” writes the scholar and Romania specialist Lany L. Watts, in a recent unpublished monograph. If you were a Jew within Antonescu’s Romania proper you were more likely to survive World War Il than if you had been living virtually anywhere else in Axis-occupied Europe. But, on the other hand, if you were a Jew in the areas that Antonescu’s troops recaptured from the Soviet Union, there were few places worse to be during that period.”
“Jewish immigration into the Romanian lands from Russia and Austria-Hungary in the second half of the nineteenth century had dramatically increased their numbers, so that Jews constituted 14.6 percent of all urban dwellers. In Moldavia they were almost a third of the urban population, and in Jassy itself over 40 percent. This also fed the anti-Semitism of the illiterate masses, “a crude kind of class hatred” against a minority “which busied itself with money,” in the words of Hugh Seton-Watson.”
“Antonescu’s deportation of the Roma people to Transdniestria — where some 20,000 died of disease, starvation, and cold — was not a result of German pressure, but something he had initiated on his own.”
“Upon Antonescu’s removal from power, the Romanians switched sides in the war. For the remainder of the war Romania contributed more troops — 538,000–to the Allied cause than any country except for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Romanian casualties against the Nazis in 1944–45 were some twenty-five times greater than those of Italy, another country that fought first for the Axis and then against it.”
“Communism was an ideology that in an extraordinarily simple way…was capable of explaining to any idiot the complexities of the world. It was enough to know a few formulas to be wiser than Plato, Heidegger, or Descartes. And here Communism collapsed, and along with it this simple way of explaining the world. There remained a vacuum. And don’t you have the impression that into that gap is now entering a coarse and primitive nationalism? That those people who explained the world to themselves by using Communist categories are now doing it by using nationalist categories.”
“Nabucco, a planned pipeline network to bring Azerbaijani natural gas across Anatolia to the Balkans and Central Europe, had been killed by a combination of “economic interests” — Russian bribery and sabotage — and the failure of the West to see Nabucco for and sabotage what it truly was: a geopolitical necessity, not a phenomenon of economics. Instead, South Stream, a pipeline project that would transport Russian natural gas to the Balkans, was going forward at least for the moment.”
“Moldova is dominated by ethnic Romanians, but only a third of Transdniestria’s population of 400,000 is of Romanian descent (though reliable demographic data was unavailable at the time of this writing). At the beginning of the 1990s, Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union, even as Transdniestria, with encouragement from the Kremlin, seceded from Moldova in a political drama that included a war which left over a thousand dead and 130,000 internally displaced. As Georgetown professor Charles King has written, while the conflict was not about ancient hatreds, “history did play an important role.”“
“It occurred to me that the Russians loved weak, murky systems, whether autocratic or democratic — it made little difference — where it was easy for them to bribe parliamentarians even as a handful of oligarchs controlled the economy, always hedging their bets based on which faction and imperial system called the shots. The Russians simply hated strong governments, even authoritarian ones in some instances. After all, the Titos of the world had little trouble keeping the Soviets out. (So did Ceausescu, up to a point at least.) But give the Russians a weak and chaotic democracy like Moldova’s, without the rule of law,and the Russians were in their element. And because they liked murkiness, whether legal, political, or otherwise, they preferred the confused legal status of Transdniestria just as it was: if Putin officially annexed it, then Moldova would be rid of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians and might then be in a position to one day reunify with Romania. Transdniestria, a smugglers’ paradise, had been the perfect Stalinist creation: one built on ethnic divisions rather than on ethnic reconciliations.
So it wasn’t a conventional land invasion of eastern Ukraine that Putin desired so much as the creation of mini-Transdniestrias there — a much more efficient way to weaken the Ukrainian state. Nothing should be legally settled. Putin had annexed Crimea only because he had to, in order to satisfy public opinion back home in Russia after the loss of the pro-Moscow Kiev regime. Crime was clean, as little else would be in this new age of Russian imperial subversion, which bore striking resemblances to a non-linear insurgency of sorts.”
“The Roma, or Gypsies, are Europe’s biggest minority with 11 million people, who left India during late antiquity or the early Middle Ages and have adopted various religions and languages, although there is a Romani language with different dialects. The European Union is working to overturn centuries of discrimination against the Roma, which culminated in World War Il when Hitler tried to exterminate them. According to the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, “one-third of Roma are unemployed, 20 percent have no health insurance and 80 percent live below the poverty line.” Europe’s resurgent far-right parties have appealed to local prejudices by attacking the Roma in the way the Jews were verbally attacked in the 1930s. Eight percent of the Romanian population is Roma. They are fundamental to the Romanian landscape.”
“The Germans were an essential part of the Transylvanian aesthetic. The architecture could be, for example, Burgundian early Gothic, as at the fortress church at nearby Prejmer. The church, with its towering stone walls covered in smudged white plaster, dizzying clay roof tiles, mazelike wooden walkways, heavy and battered furniture with floral designs, and assemblages of blackened brass pots and tight weavings, had the aura of a complete and lost world of the high Middle Ages: the stern Lutheran equivalent of the Orthodox monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece (even though Prejmer was originally Roman Catholic). Then, too, there was Viscri, a rickety Saxon religious fortification dating to the late twelfth century. Its tower was the traditional, steep pyramidal hat, suddenly flattening out over. a wooden platform, as is common in Transylvania, the clay tiles so discolored that they looked like ancient coins. Through the lacework of poplars and fruit trees was a rippling sculptural landscape, dotted with purple crocuses, which here and there took on the layered depth of an oil painting.
Wolfgang Wittstock, the head of the German Democratic Forum in Brasov, told me that while the ethnic German population in Transylvania had stopped declining, it was mainly an urban culture now. The Saxon village civilization, whose architecture I had so marveled at, had almost completely died out. The monuments were now supported by a historical trust whose benefactors included Prince Charles of Great Britain, who owned land in Transylvania and was an enthusiast of the region.
When Ceausescu had come to power, there were some 400,000 ethnic Germans in Romania. About a third or more of those who remained after Ceausescu’s execution fled in 1990 and 1991, when the borders were finally opened. Since then the numbers had dwindled further to 45,000, with mostly old people left. The latest twist, Wittstock explained, was that with the German economy in the doldrums, young Saxons were returning to Romania to launch start-up firms. The fact that ethnic Germans were newly welcomed in post-Communist Romania was evinced by the person of Klaus Iohannis, the respected ethnic German mayor of Sibiu, who ran for president in the 2014 Romanian national elections and won in a startling upset, promising institutional reforms, a fight against corruption, and closer alignment with the West against Putin.”
“Travel was a compressed, more vivid version of life: the highs and lows came quickly upon each other; everything could change in the space of a day, or in a few hours even. A city you had visited only a few days before might seem like a distant recollection now, though you could remember every detail of it. And yet at the end of your travels the entire journey became richly embedded in memory — as though an epic even as years of workaday existence at home fade into a blur. We travel in order to defeat oblivion.”
“The West did not want Ukraine to join Russia, but neither did the West really want Ukraine as a member of its own alliance system. The European Union bureaucracy in Brussels wasn’t enthusiastic about dealing with a poor and unstable country of 45 million. And neither Washington nor Brussels truly wanted Ukraine as a member of NATO, for that would make relations with Russia permanently impossible. Russia, for its part, did not want to fully incorporate Ukraine, but neither did it want Ukraine to join the West. So the further institutionalizing of both Ukraine and Moldova as buffer states was likely, since it served the purpose of the two camps. There was no conspiracy here, it was just a certain overlapping of interests. Naumescu said to me: “The West may integrate Ukraine and Moldova into some of their institutions, but will not admit them as full-fledged members. Meanwhile, if the West ever went too far, Putin can activate the separatism of the Gagauz in southern Moldova and further inflame the crisis in Ukraine.””
“Ethnic, populist nationalism is just not much of an issue today in Romania, he said. Ironically, Gheorghiu-Dej’s and Ceaugescu’s national Communism had turned Romania into a “unitary” state, without any divisive regional issues regarding public opinion. Because the Hungarian population in Transylvania had declined over the course of the decades due to discrimination (today’s Babes-Bolyai was originally a Hungarian university in the late nineteenth century), the increasing uni-ethnic character of Romania was, sad to say, a force for stability. There had been a brief spark of nasty populism in the 1990s and at the turn of the century in Cluj, when the anti-Hungarian firebrand Gheorghe Funar was mayor. But it had passed. And as the others had told me, Romanians were united about wanting to be in the European Union and NATO. Finally, in a future economic crisis, Romanians would still have the benefit of an escape valve through the ability to migrate elsewhere in Europe and the West in search of work.
Listening to Bädescu rattle off statistics in his terse, meditative voice, it occurred to me that having seen Romania at its worst in 1990, following a half century of world war and fascist-style Stalinism, I was now seeing the country at its best, with a population freely united on the main issues and as free of hatreds as it would ever likely be, even as its rulers, with a vivid memory of a dark and brutal past, remained relatively sober. Ukraine had made the Romanian governing class that much more serious, without (at least as yet) constituting a demonstrable threat. History surely had not ended here, but it had for the moment become more benign.”
“The Hungarians, or Magyars, represent a nomadic horse people of the Central Asian steppe who had migrated into the heart of Europe. Without a trace of Latin, Slavic, or German blood, they were distantly related to the Finns and Turks, the latter of whom had also migrated westward from Asia’s interior reaches. The Hungarians’ adoption of Latin Christianity more than a millennium ago completed an extraordinary process of cultural transformation; yet another of history’s surprises and virtuoso acts that could not have been foreseen.”