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A guide to Romania: Background

My name is Razvan, I’m a 33-year-old Romanian currently living in the US, and in this article I will try to give you a few insights about my native country. My perspective is that of a Romanian, but one who has been educated and spent a considerable amount of time outside of it. I have travelled extensively on five continents (including the UK, which I visited several times), in both the developed and the developing worlds. Since I do not live in Romania at the moment, I may not be able to give you the most accurate information on the latest prices, fashions, and developments; I will attempt to equip you with the information that will help you understand the country and its people.

Compared to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Romania is a relatively late blip on the average Westerner’s radar. For most of the early ’90s the country was only known for its problems (the bloody 1989 regime change, the ensuing chaos that subsided only late in the decade, the Romanian beggars that could be found in the major cities in the West). I and many Romanians of my age were dismayed at how the country seemed incapable of shaking off its past and moving on. The West was still a good place to be. And yet, in the early 2000s, things started to change for the better, while at the same time they seemed to go the opposite way in the West (it was supremely ironic to see riots in France and ridiculous election imbroglios in the US; these very things, riots and shaky elections, were used to categorise Romania as an unstable country in the 1990s). Romania is changing, but it is still a different country, potentially puzzling to a Westerner.

In order to understand Romania, you need to know a few things about its history and geography. It is situated north of the Balkans. Several empires bordered Romania (Turkish, Russian, and Austrian) and influenced its culture and politics; Greek, Jewish, German, and French influences also shaped Romania at different times in its history.

The Romanians are a Latin people; they are the only Orthodox Christian Latins, and the only Latins in Eastern Europe (for the purposes of this article I assimilate the ex-USSR state of Moldova to Romania, although they are different states). The Romanian language is recognisably Latin, although borrowings from Russian and Turkish make it a bit more unusual-sounding than Spanish or Italian. As Balkan-influenced Latins, Romanians are gossipy and hot-blooded; social relationships are important and tend to be long lasting, and the average Romanian is likely to be quite bound to the place of his or her birth.

Information about Romania’s early history is scarce, and it only gets better from the 13th century. Today’s Romania was split into several principalities, which were under the direct or indirect rule of one or other of their powerful neighbours until the late 19th century. Romania became an independent country in 1877, and only after World War I did the country start to resemble what it is today, after re-uniting the last provinces that were under foreign rule. In fact, British readers will be interested to find out that one of the most popular royals of Romania, who made a major contribution to the war effort during the First World War, and at the ensuing peace conference, was British-born Queen Marie, a popular figure both in Romania and abroad until the 1930s.

Until a generation ago, most Romanians (perhaps more than 80%) lived in the countryside. Because of its state of political dependency, Eastern Orthodox religion, and distance from the West, Romania did not have a Renaissance or Enlightenment Age. It was a feudal society until the middle of the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution finally came only in the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century.

Furthermore, the gains of World War I were not to last; the Romanian psyche was severely wounded by territorial losses to Russia and Hungary at the onset of World War II, and by the Communist rule imposed by the Soviet Union following the war. Some of Romania’s best and brightest were lost during the Communist-ordered purges that followed the war, and the 40-plus years of Communist rule (the latter of which were under an increasingly paranoid President Ceausescu) did unfortunately keep the country in a backward state at a time of great change in the rest of the world.

Romania, thus, did not have a ’60s generation, women’s liberation, affirmative action, political correctness, or any of the developments that occurred in the West in the post war period. The fear of repression under Communism made people extremely reluctant to speak their minds. The society remained relatively egalitarian until 1989, with various shortages making everyone equally deprived. Like the other Eastern European countries, Romania is a uni-racial society (99+ % white). Especially during the latter years of Communist rule, foreigners were viewed with suspicion and contacts with the outside world were severely limited. As opposed to most other Eastern Bloc countries, Romania did not have a direct border with any non-Communist country and access to Western TV stations was non-existent.

Compared to the other Eastern European countries, though, Romania is diverse, because of the different influences its provinces have been under. A trip from the North West to the South East of the country will mean a transition from a Central European world and culture (think Germany and Austria) to a Middle Eastern one. Brasov is an unmistakably Germanic town while Bucharest has definite traces of Istanbul; on the shores of the Black Sea you can already find mosques, as well as Greek ruins.

After 1989 things started to change, although it took a decade for the politics to settle into a predictable pattern. The egalitarianism of the Communist era quickly vanished and today’s Romania is a polarised society with a narrow middle class, where an average salary is a few hundred euros a month and Jaguars can be found parked in front of decrepit Communist-era apartment buildings.

Current-day Romania has been in the news lately, especially since its application for EU membership is under review. Read on:
Part Two: Stereotypes

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