Multicultural Romania – Better look twice!

Romania is a multicultural country. The diversity is evident not only by looking at his inhabitants, but also in the country’s architecture and mix of languages.

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Nation images are rough labels of a nation. They are subjective, strongly abbreviated, extremely simplified, distorted and sweeping. In a word: wrong! A study on Romania’s image in Germany expresses precisely this fatal view: the country is politically stable, it is a beautiful vacation destination and can call many cultural monuments its own, but it leaves much to be desired in the categories of economy, environment and society.

Helga Schlimme, a profound expert of the country, published a headline 20 years ago: “Unknown Romania. Does ignorance lead to rejection?”. This is precisely the point: the less a country is known, the more unhesitatingly it and its inhabitants are ascribed characteristics and traits. But why is Romania a good example of pejorative attributions and stereotypes?
The socialist country and its inhabitants were sealed off from its Western European neighbors for 45 years after World War II.

Roman wolf in Cluj

Under dictator Ceauşescu (1918-1989), who liked to be called the genius of the Carpathians, the image spiral went rapidly downward, especially in his last years. With the collapse of the country came the opening to Europe, coupled with a devastating assessment of the economy and society: At first glance, everything was ramshackle, corrupt and outdated – ideal conditions for rampant stereotypes and prejudices. Only a second look at this country and the people who live in it can and must set right what has been distorted and falsified by ignorance and hasty judgment.

How Romania came to its present territory

Looking across spatial and temporal distances can contribute in a special way to reducing widespread ignorance. After all, Romania is a comparatively young state in its current borders. Although the name Romania (România) suggests that its roots go back to the Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum), the Romans were only present here in the 2nd and 3rd cent. n. Chr.
The present territory of the state was formed in several stages from the 11th century onwards.

  • The area on this side of the Carpathians, namely Transylvania and adjacent areas, belonged – apart from an Ottoman interlude (1658-1711) – to Hungary or Austria-Hungary until the end of the First World War.
  • The area beyond the Carpathians, the so-called Moldavia, Wallachia (between the Southern Carpathians and the Danube) and Dobruja (on the Black Sea) had the status of Ottoman vassals in the 18th century. In 1812 they became a Russian protectorate.
  • In 1866, these three parts – Moldavia, Wallachia, Dobruja – became the first (small) Romanian state, which was a monarchy from 1881.
  • After World War I – Romania was on the side of the victorious powers – the country was territorially rewarded: the previously Hungarian territory west of the Carpathian arc was added, as well as part of Banat in the west and Bessarabia in the east. In the period between the two world wars, the country was larger than ever before.
  • But already in the Second World War there were significant losses: Northern Bukovina (around Chernivtsi) and Bessarabia (between Pruth and Dnestr) fell to the Soviet Union, parts of northern Transylvania returned to Hungary.
  • In 1944, Stalin established new borders: the territories annexed by Hungary became Romanian again, while Bessarabia and northern Bukovina were annexed to the Soviet republics of Moldova and Ukraine, respectively. The Romanian external borders established at that time remain in force today.

The frequent change of state affiliation is thus characteristic of Romania. It is not only Ottoman, Russian and Hungarian influences that overlap in this southeastern European country. Linguistically, religiously or culturally, such interferences can be seen in many places; they are sometimes a problem for the country, but in any case they are characteristic. For Central Europeans, however, these specifics are only visible at second glance, because the country lies in the shadow of international attention.

Ethnic diversity of Romania

With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, the balance shifted and new perspectives emerged. Nation states are the intellectual construct of this time. In a polyethnic country like Romania, however, new problems are emerging. What should a nation state look like in a country with over 20 minorities? Can the centuries-old ethnic diversity be preserved? Today, Romanians (89%) rank clearly ahead of Hungarians (7%). Roma (3.3%), Ukrainians (0.3%), Germans (0.2%), Turks (0.1%), Russians (0.1%) and Tatars (0.1%) hardly play a role. Other ethnic groups, such as Serbs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Czechs or Poles, are even less represented numerically.

Statue of Mircea the Elder

However, two objections cause the arguments of the figures to waver. First, the percentages are calculated for the entire country. On the other hand, the regional perspective is completely different. The Tatars, for example, live in large numbers in Dobruja and are the dominant ethnic group in various villages here. The Lipovans, a small group of Russian Old Believers, live in the Danube Delta in villages such as Murighiol, where their blue-painted houses and fences make them more conspicuous than their share (4.5 %) would suggest.

On the other hand, the systematic Romanianization since the 1920s, which under socialism was accompanied by the industrialization and collectivization of agriculture, pushed back the non-Romanian ethnic groups step by step. For the Germans in Transylvania and the Banat, there was indeed the alternative of emigration to the land of their ancestors. However, the Hungarian population in particular often felt belittled and undervalued in the symbolic dispute.

Hunedoara Castle
The castle of Hunedoara graces many Romania travel guides. The Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus once inhabited it. (Photo: Peter Althaus)

It is precisely the monuments, the symbolic places, with which the ethnic groups express – often with an exclamation mark – their perspective, their interpretive sovereignty and their claimed own superiority. Thus, the numerous monuments with Stephen the Great and Saint (1433-1504) stand for the Romanians’ victories over the Ottomans; at the same time, they are supposed to be a warning to the Hungarians, who, however, can present counter-figures with Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) or Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849).

Elsewhere, monuments transcend the symbolism of opposition and admonish across ethnic lines. The large footprints in the center of Cluj commemorate the protesting students shot by the secret police Securitate in 1989: Romanian and Hungarian names stand side by side.

Multilingualism of Romania – Romanian, Hungarian, German and more

Other expressions of ethnic diversity are the multilingual names of places. The western Romanian city of Oradea is called Großwardein in German, Nagyvárad in Hungarian and Vel’ký Varadín in Slovak. Satu Mare, located in the northwest, bears the Hungarian name Szatmárnémeti and the German Sathmar. Other examples lengthen the list: Tîrgu Mureş (ger. Neumarkt am Mieresch, hung. Marosvásárhely), Bistriţa (ger. Bistritz, hung. Beszterce), Hunedoara (ger. Eisenmarkt, hung. Vajdahunyad), Braşov (engl. Kronstadt, hung. Brassó), Sibiu (ger. Hermannstadt, hung. Nagyszeben), Miercurea Ciuc (engl. Szeklerburg, hung. Csíkszereda), Timişoara (ger. Timisoara, ung. Temesvár, bosn./croat./serb. Темишвар/Temišvar) or – a special case – Gherla (ger. Armenierstadt, hung. Szamosújvár, armen. Hayakaghak). Such a variety of names (even without the again other Yiddish names) is widespread, depending on local conditions, especially in the countries of Southeastern Europe.

Shoppers at a market in Suceava

Multilingualism is a hallmark of cultural diversity. In the markets, cafés and stores, the staff changes languages depending on the clientele. Sports clubs have changed their names according to state affiliation, political requirements or the wishes of major sponsors; the CFR Cluj soccer club, for example, has changed its name ten times since it was founded in 1907. In training and at the game, however, everyone speaks as he or she sees fit.

Street names can point in yet another direction. Strada Lipscani, or Leipzig Street, runs through the historic center of Bucharest, the country’s capital, a lively shopping and trendy/pub street. The name refers to old contacts of long-distance trade, which brought goods from the Orient to the Occident and vice versa. This fits very well with a nearby former caravanserai (Hanul Manuc), which nowadays is run as a restaurant and is a must for many city tourists. Other towns in Wallachia, such as Craiova in Oltenia or Ploieşti (ploˈjeʃtʲ) on the edge of the Southern Carpathians, also have their Leipzig Street – with the same commercial background, of course. The street name was and is considered a figurehead, so that entire neighborhoods also have the name Lipscani.

Each culture has its own architectural style

It is different with the architectural styles. Here the traditions of the individual national schools differ considerably. In the former Hungarian Transylvania and in the Banat, buildings constructed in the Secession style are common. With the incorporation into Romania (1919), the government in Bucharest endeavored to construct the new official buildings in the Romanian architectural tradition. Today, a uniform, transnational architecture has long since prevailed in the commercial and residential districts. This process was particularly favored under socialism by the industrialization of residential construction (prefabricated buildings) and the concentration on larger cities. The architectural diversity of earlier decades disappeared and was not revived even by postmodern borrowings from Bauhaus traditions.

In contrast, the residential houses of the Roma developed in a completely different direction. Large palaces are built by those who are successful in trade and mostly do business abroad. Their houses resemble bombastic housing complexes that provide space for entire family groups. At the other end of the scale are the poorest of the poor. They live in makeshift shacks on garbage dumps, without property titles, threatened by repeated evictions and without prospects. On the eastern outskirts of Cluj is such a ghetto, which has been given the name Dallas by its inhabitants.

Orthodox Church in Fagarash

Religious diversity of Romania

Religious and ethnic affiliation were considered identical in the Ottoman Empire. Even today, Romanians are predominantly (87%) members of the Orthodox Church, while Hungarians and Germans, as Catholics or Protestants, are members of the Western Churches. In Dobruja, on the Black Sea, there are widespread Muslim communities, which attract attention from afar with their minarets towering pointedly into the sky.

The Romanian Orthodox churches are conspicuous for their often dominating domed buildings. The small Greek Orthodox parishes (e.g., in Braşov or Galaţi) usually have to make do with inconspicuous buildings. Armenian churches, on the other hand, are few and far between. They are located in places where Armenian long-distance traders had settled in Ottoman times, e.g., in Iaşi or Constanţa, but especially in Gherla and Dumbrăveni, both in Transylvania. From these, the western churches are clearly set apart by their high towers.

Generally speaking, churches assert secular as well as spiritual claims. The place in the center, preferably still in a lofty position, is therefore occupied by the oldest and usually dominant denomination. The other churches have to be content with second or third choice places.

The synagogue of Sighosoara survived the Second World War. (Photo: Peter Althaus)

For synagogues there was never a place of first choice. In fascist times, Jews were also persecuted in Romania and killed in Transnistrian concentration camps, and synagogues were destroyed in many cases – Iaşi on the border with Moldova, which had previously had over 100 houses of prayer, was particularly affected. Today, a stele in front of the old synagogue commemorates the bloody pogroms. The history of diversity is unfortunately also a history of unwanted, erased diversity.

Romania – European in the best sense

The balance is obvious at second glance: Romania has a long multicultural tradition. It can be explained by the territorial conditions of the time before nation states, when the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Russia shared this space. Cultural and religious diversity go hand in hand with ethnic diversity, but living together is not always easy; phases of co-existence, coexistence and antagonism alternate. This is just as true in Romania as in other countries in Europe and the world. The lived diversity with its long tradition is a specific feature of Romania and at the same time a model for the whole of Europe.

The broad linguistic competence of many Romanians – a consequence of diversity – facilitates labor migration within the EU enormously. Romance-speaking countries such as Italy or Spain remain the main destinations of Romanian labor migrants, but Hungary, Austria or Germany also come into question for many for linguistic reasons.

Genoese lighthouse in Constanta

What is a Genoese lighthouse doing in Romania?

The mystery of the Genoese lighthouse at Constanţa, mentioned at the beginning of this article, remains open, although its location is of course easily explained at second glance. The Ottoman Empire, which was expanding in the late Middle Ages, granted trade privileges, so-called capitulations, to foreign powers. Venice hereby secured trading places along the Albanian and Greek coasts as far as Palestine. Genoa had ports and lighthouses around the Black Sea: in the west, Constanţa and north of it, at the mouth of the Dniester, Mauro Castro (ukr. Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj); in the south, Galata, Amasra and Samsun in present-day Turkey; and in the north, Sudak, Kaffa and Kerch on the southern side of the Crimean peninsula, which at that time belonged to the Mongol Khanate of the Golden Horde.

The connections and networks used to be different, but they also stretched far – not just from Leipzig to Bucharest to Jerusalem. Can such a diverse country be boring?

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Johann-Bernhard Haversath is professor emeritus of geography didactics at the University of Giessen. He has worked on contemporary transformation processes and specializes in the countries of Moldova and Romania.

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