Category Archives: Romania

Crimea: The 19th Century’s ‘Great War’

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 47-82:

Two world wars have obscured the huge scale and enormous human cost of the Crimean War. Today it seems to us a relatively minor war …. Even in the countries that took part in it (Russia, Britain, France, Piedmont-Sardinia in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, including those territories that would later make up Romania and Bulgaria) there are not many people today who could say what the Crimean War was all about. But for our ancestors before the First World War the Crimea was the major conflict of the nineteenth century, the most important war of their lifetimes, just as the world wars of the twentieth century are the dominant historical landmarks of our lives. The losses were immense – at least three-quarters of a million soldiers killed in battle or lost through illness and disease, two-thirds of them Russian. The French lost around 100,000 men, the British a small fraction of that number, about 20,000, because they sent far fewer troops (98,000 British soldiers and sailors were involved in the Crimea compared to 310,000 French).

Nobody has counted the civilian casualties: victims of the shelling; people starved to death in besieged towns; populations devastated by disease spread by the armies; entire communities wiped out in the massacres and organized campaigns of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the fighting in the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Crimea. This was the first ‘total war’, a nineteenth-century version of the wars of our own age, involving civilians and humanitarian crises.

It was also the earliest example of a truly modern war – fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine, and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene. Yet at the same time it was the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with ‘parliamentaries’ and truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields. The early battles in the Crimea, on the River Alma and at Balaklava, where the famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place, were not so very different from the sort of fighting that went on during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the siege of Sevastopol, the longest and most crucial phase of the Crimean War, was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare of 1914–18. During the eleven and a half months of the siege, 120 kilometres of trenches were dug by the Russians, the British and the French; 150 million gunshots and 5 million bombs and shells of various calibre were exchanged between the two sides.

The name of the Crimean War does not reflect its global scale and huge significance for Europe, Russia and that area of the world – stretching from the Balkans to Jerusalem, from Constantinople to the Caucasus – that came to be defined by the Eastern Question, the great international problem posed by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps it would be better to adopt the Russian name for the Crimean War, the ‘Eastern War’ (Vostochnaia voina), which at least has the merit of connecting it to the Eastern Question, or even the ‘Turco-Russian War’, the name for it in many Turkish sources, which places it in the longer-term historical context of centuries of warfare between the Russians and the Ottomans, although this omits the crucial factor of Western intervention in the war.

The war began in 1853 between Ottoman and Russian forces in the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the territory of today’s Romania, and spread to the Caucasus, where the Turks and the British encouraged and supported the struggle of the Muslim tribes against Russia, and from there to other areas of the Black Sea. By 1854, with the intervention of the British and the French on Turkey’s side and the Austrians threatening to join this anti-Russian alliance, the Tsar withdrew his forces from the principalities, and the fighting shifted to the Crimea. But there were several other theatres of the war in 1854–5: in the Baltic Sea, where the Royal Navy planned to attack St Petersburg, the Russian capital; on the White Sea, where it bombarded the Solovetsky Monastery in July 1854; and even on the Pacific coastline of Siberia.

The global scale of the fighting was matched by the diversity of people it involved.

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South Slavic Nationalism before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 838-871:

The south Slavs lived in four different states – the Hapsburg Empire, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria – under eight different systems of government. Their impassioned nationalism imposed a dreadful blood forfeit: about 16 per cent of the entire population, almost two million men, women and children, perished violently in the six years of struggle that preceded Armistice Day 1918. Serbia fought two Balkan wars, in 1912 and 1913, to increase its size and power by seizing loose fragments of the Ottoman Empire. In 1912 the Russian foreign minister declared that a Serb–Bulgarian triumph over the Turks would be the worst outcome of the First Balkan War, because it would empower the local states to turn their aggressive instincts from Islamism, against Germanism: ‘In this event one … must prepare for a great and decisive general European war.’ Yet the Serbs and Bulgarians indeed triumphed in that conflict; a subsequent Serb–Romanian victory in the Second Balkan War – a squabble over the spoils of the First – made matters worse. Serbia doubled its territory by incorporating Macedonia and Kosovo. Serbians burst with pride, ambition and over-confidence. Wars seemed to work well for them.

In June 1914 the Russian minister in Belgrade, the dedicated pan-Slavist Nikolai Hartwig, was believed actively to desire an armed clash between Serbia and Austria, though St Petersburg almost certainly did not. The Russian ambassador in Constantinople complained that Hartwig, a former newspaper columnist, ‘shows the activity of an irresponsible journalist’. Serbia was a young country wrested from the Ottoman Empire only in 1878, which now clung to the south-eastern frontier of the Hapsburg Empire like some malevolent growth. Western statesmen regarded the place with impatience and suspicion. Its self-assertiveness, its popular catchphrase ‘Where a Serb dwells, there is Serbia,’ estabilised the Balkans. Europe’s chancelleries were irritated by its ‘little Serbia’, proud-victim culture. Serbs treated their own minority subjects, especially Muslims, with conspicuous and often murderous brutality. Every continental power recognised that the Serbs could achieve their ambition to enfold in their own polity two million brethren still under Hapsburg rule only at the cost of bringing down Franz Joseph’s empire.

Just four and a half million Serbs occupied 87,300 square kilometres of rich rural regions and barren mountains, a smaller country than Romania or Greece. Four-fifths of them lived off the land, and the country retained an exotic oriental legacy from its long subjection to the Ottomans. Such industries as it had were agriculturally based – flour and sawmills, sugar refineries, tobacco. ‘Within little more than two days’ rail from [London],’ wrote an enthusiastic pre-war British traveller, ‘there lies an undeveloped country of extraordinary fertility and potential wealth, possessing a history more wonderful than any fairy tale, and a race of heroes and patriots who may one day set Europe by the ears … I know no country which can offer so general an impression of beauty, so decided an aroma of the Middle Ages. The whole atmosphere is that of a thrilling romance. Conversation is larded with accounts of hairbreadth ’scapes and deeds of chivalry … Every stranger is welcome, and an Englishman more than any.’

Others saw Serbia in much less roseate hues: the country exemplified the Balkan tradition of domestic violence, regime change by murder. On the night of 11 June 1903, a group of young Serb officers fell upon the tyrannical King Alexander and his hated Queen Draga by candlelight in the private apartments of their palace: the bodies were later found in the garden, riddled with bullets and mutilated. Among the assassins was Dragutin Dimitrijević, who became the ‘Apis’ of the Sarajevo conspiracy: he was wounded in a clash with the royal guards, which earned him the status of a national hero. When King Peter returned from a long exile in Switzerland to take the throne of a notional constitutional monarchy, Serbia continued to seethe with factionalism. Peter had two sons: the elder, Djordje, educated in Russia, was a violent playboy who was forced to relinquish his claim to the throne after a 1908 scandal in which he kicked his butler to death. His brother Alexander, who became the royal heir, was suspected of attempting to poison Djordje. The Serb royal family provided no template for peaceful co-existence, and the army wielded as much power as that of a modern African statelet.

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The Turkish Defeat at Plevna, 1877

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 189-191:

The breakout was, of course, doomed from the start. And yet Osman Pasha all but brought off another miracle. Security in Plevna had been so strict that the Russians were quite unaware of the plans until a Polish spy woke up Skobeleff at 4 a.m. on the day. The Russian troops had hardly assembled before masses of Turkish troops started streaming across the snowy plain west of the town. At their head rode Osman Pasha on a chestnut stallion. Behind them rumbled thousands of wagons. Without wavering 2000 picked Turkish troops, with bands blazing and banners unfurled, charged the Russian trenches. By 8.30 a.m. they had annihilated one Russian regiment and broken the first links in the iron ring.

Without hesitation Osman charged into the attack on the inner Russian defence line, but here the opposition was stiffer as nearly 50,000 Turks and Russians fought hand to hand. Yet the Turks were holding their own against heavy odds and might well have succeeded, but for a catastrophe. A stray bullet wounded Osman Pasha. Those around him saw him lurch, then fall from his horse. In fact he was only wounded in the leg, but in a matter of moments the rumour galloped through the Turkish ranks that he had been killed. It was more than the half-starved, half-sick men could bear, and in a panic they streamed away from the Russian defences. By the time they had been regrouped, it was too late, and the Russians had occupied the Turkish redoubts, cutting off any hope of reaching a temporary sanctuary there. By one o’clock, the last shot was fired in a siege that had lasted 143 days, and from a house near the bridge, where the wounded Osman had taken refuge, a white flag fluttered.

Osman Pasha was treated as a hero by the Russians. When the Grand Duke Nicholas finally came face to face with him, he shook his hand and cried, ‘I compliment you on your defence of Plevna. It is one of the most splendid exploits in history.’ The immaculately booted Russian officers echoed, ‘Bravo!’ And when Osman Pasha first met the general in white uniform and realised it was Skobeleff, he took his hand and said to him, ‘One day you will be commander-in-chief of the Russian Army.’

The Czar invited Osman Pasha to luncheon, and when Osman removed his sword the Czar returned it to him. As Osman prepared to leave for internment in Kharkov, a member of the Czar’s staff offered him a sprig of myrtle – a traditional Russian sign that he was no longer their enemy.

A very different fate was reserved for the soldiers of the line. Despite repeated Russian promises that prisoners would be well treated, nearly 45,000 Turks were kept in the bitterly cold open air of Plevna for two weeks. They received virtually no food, drugs, medical aid; nor could then even drink the water of the River Vid which was contaminated by hundreds of corpses. Three thousand men died before the rest set off in the snow to various interment camps. Of the 42,000 men who started, often barefoot, on the long march to prison, barely 15,000 reached Russia. A fate as terrible awaited the seriously wounded left behind by Osman. The Bulgarians, conveniently ignoring their promises, dragged them from the hospitals and massacred every man.

One last and gruesome echo of the heroic siege of Plevna appeared in, of all places, a Bristol newspaper. It consisted of one paragraph that escaped general notice in England. In an article dealing with fertilizers, it read simply: ‘Thirty tons of human bones, comprising thirty thousand skeletons, have just been landed at Bristol from Plevna.’

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First Romanian Orthodox Church in Africa

Orthodox priest and blogger Khanya recently filed a firsthand report (with photos) on the founding of the First Romanian Orthodox Church in Africa. In the distant background of the first photo you can see the recently built Midrand Nizamiye Mosque, the first Turkish mosque in South Africa and “the largest religious complex in the southern hemisphere.”

Here’s a bit of the text of his report (with a few typos corrected).

Archbishop Damaskinos of Johannesburg and Pretoria and Bishop Petronius of Zalău in the Sălaj County of Romania laid the foundation stone of St Andrew’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Midrand, Gauteng. It is the first Romanian Orthodox Church in Africa.

In 2001 Father Mihai (Mircea) Corpodean came to be a priest for the Romanian community, but since they had no church of their own, and the Churchy of St Nicholas in Brixton had just lost its priest, the bishop at that time, Metropolitan Seraphim, asked Fr Mihai to become parish priest at St Nicholas. St Nicholas was started as a multiethic parish, and welcomed the Romanian community, and we still use some Romanian in services there.

It took the Romanian community quite a long time to find a suitable piece of land, and in 2008 Fr Mihai moved to New Zealand, and Fr Razvan Tatu came to replace him, and began holding Romanian service at St George’s Hotel near Oilfantsfontein.

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Salonica, 1800s: Religion vs. Nation

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 242-243:

TO THE OTTOMAN AUTHORITIES what had always mattered were religious rather than national or linguistic differences: Balkan Christians were either under the authority of the Patriarch in Constantinople or they were—more rarely—Catholic or Protestant. The Patriarchate shared the same outlook; it was indifferent to whether its flock spoke Greek, Vlach, Bulgarian or any other language or dialect. As for the illiterate Slav-speaking peasants tilling the fields, they rarely felt strongly about either Greece or Bulgaria and when asked which they were, many insisted on being known simply, as they had been for centuries, as “Christians.”

In Salonica itself, the growth of the Christian population had come from continual immigration over centuries from outlying villages, often as distant as the far side of the Pindos mountains, where many of the inhabitants spoke not Greek but Vlach (a Romance language akin to Romanian), Albanian or indeed various forms of Slavic. The city’s life, schools and priests gave these villagers, or their children, a new tongue, and turned them into Greeks. In fact many famous Greek figures of the past were really Vlachs by origin, including the savant Mosiodax, the revolutionary Rhigas Velestinlis, as well as the city’s first “Greek” printers, the Garbolas family, and the Manakis brothers, pioneers of Balkan cinema. “Twenty years ago there was nothing in Balkan politics so inevitable, so nearly axiomatic, as the connection of the Vlachs with the Greek cause,” wrote Brailsford in 1905. “They had no national consciousness and no national ambition … With some of them Hellenism was a passion and an enthusiasm. They believed themselves to be Greek. They baptized their children ‘Themistocles’ and ‘Penelope.’ They studied in Athens and they left their fortunes to Greek schools and Greek hospitals.” So many Vlachs settled in Salonica that in 1880 a Romanian paper claimed, to the fury of the Greek community, that there were no genuine Greeks there at all. Changing—or rather, acquiring—nationality was often simply a matter of upward mobility and a French consul once notoriously boasted that with a million pounds he could make Macedonians into Frenchmen.

Money affected nationality in other ways as well. In the Ottoman system, the Orthodox Church was not merely a focus of spiritual life; it was also a gatherer of taxes. Peasants in the countryside, just like wealthy magnates in Salonica itself, chafed at the power and corruption that accompanied these privileges. But while most bishops and the higher ecclesiastical hierarchy spoke Greek—the traditional language of the church and religious learning—and looked down on the use of Slavic, most Christian peasants around Salonica spoke Bulgarian—or if not Bulgarian then a Slavic tongue close to it. This started to matter to the peasants themselves once they identified Greek with the language not merely of holy scripture but of excessive taxation and corruption. In 1860, the Bishop of Cassandra’s extortions actually drove some villagers under his jurisdiction to threaten to convert to Catholicism—French priests from Salonica contacted the families concerned, promising them complete freedom of worship and a “Bishop of your own creed who will not take a single piastre from you.” Other villagers from near Kilkis demanded a bishop who would provide the liturgy in Old Church Slavonic and got one after they too started to declare themselves for Rome.

Yet what these peasants were talking was about shifting their religious not their national allegiance and it took decades for the discontent of the village tax-payer to be further transformed into nationalism. Greek continued to be the language of upward mobility through the nineteenth century. As for Bulgarian self-consciousness, this was slow to develop. Sir Henry Layard visited Salonica in 1842 to enquire into the movement which was alleged to be in progress amongst the Bulgarians but he did not find very much. “The Bulgarians, being of the Greek faith” he wrote later, “were then included by the Porte in classifying the Christian subjects of the Sultan, among the Greeks. It was not until many years afterwards that the Christians to the south of the Balkans speaking the Bulgarian language, were recognized as a distinct nation. At the time of my visit to Salonica no part of its Christian population, which was considerable, was known as Bulgarian.”

What led Slavic speakers to see their mother tongue in a new light was the influence of political ideologies coming from central and eastern Europe. German-inspired romantic nationalism glorified and ennobled the language of the peasantry and insisted it was as worthy of study and propagation as any other. Pan-Slavism—helped along perhaps by Russian agents—gave them pride in their unwritten family tongue and identified the enemy, for the first time, as Greek cultural arrogance. “I feel a great sorrow,” wrote Kiryak/Kyriakos Durzhiovich/Darlovitsi, the printer, “that although I am a Bulgarian I do not know how to write in the Bulgarian language.”

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Herta Müller on Securitate Spies and Friends

On 31 August 2008, before the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, signandsight.com published an excerpt from Herta Müller‘s latest novel, “Everything I Own I Carry With Me” (“Atemschaukel”). Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt that captures the ambiguities of close friendships in police states, at least judging from our own experience in Romania in 1983-84.

The three years at the tractor factory Tehnometal where I was a translator are missing [from my Securitate file]. I translated the manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. For two years I sat with four bookkeepers in the office. They worked out the wages of the workers, I turned the pages of my fat technical dictionaries. I didn’t understand the first thing about hydraulic or non-hydraulic presses, levers or gauges. When the dictionary offered three, four, or even seven terms, I went out onto the factory floor and asked the workers. They told me the correct Romanian word without any knowledge of German – they knew their machines. In the third year a “protocol office” was established. The company director moved me there to work alongside two newly employed translators, one from French, the other from English. One was the wife of a university professor who, even in my student days, was said to be a Securitate informant. The other was the daughter-in-law of the second most senior secret service officer in town. Only those two had the key to the file cupboard. When foreign professionals visited, I had to leave the office. Then, apparently, I was to be put through two recruitment tests with the secret police officer Stana, to be made suitable for the office. After my second refusal, his goodbye was: “You’ll be sorry, we’ll drown you in the river.”

One morning when I turned up for work, my dictionaries were lying on the floor outside the office door. My place had been taken by an engineer, and I was no longer allowed into the office. I couldn’t go home, they would have sacked me there and then. Now I had no table, no chair. For two days, I defiantly sat my eight hours with the dictionaries on a concrete staircase that joined the ground and first floors, trying to translate so that no one could say I wasn’t working. The office staff walked past me in silence. My friend Jenny, an engineer, knew about what was happening to me. Every day on our way home I explained it to her in detail. She came to me in the lunch break and sat down on the stairs. We ate together as we had done before in my office. Over the loudspeaker in the yard we could always hear the workers’ choruses about the happiness of the people. She ate and cried for me, I didn’t. I had to be strong.

On the third day I installed myself at Jenny’s desk, she cleared a corner for me. On the fourth day too. It was a large office. On the fifth morning she was waiting for me outside the door. “I am no longer allowed to let you in the office. Just think, my colleagues say you are a spy. ” “How’s that possible,” I asked. “But you know where we’re living,” she reasoned. I took my dictionaries and sat down on the stairs again. This time I cried too. When I went out onto the factory floor to ask about a word, the workers whistled after me and shouted: “Informer”. It was a witches’ cauldron. How many spies were there in Jenny’s office and on the shop floor. They were acting on instructions. There were orders from above to attack me, the slander was meant to force me to resign. At the beginning of these turbulent times my father died. I no longer had a grip on things, I had to reassure myself that I really existed in the world, and began to write down the story of my – these writings formed the basis of the short stories in “Nadirs”.

The fact that I was now considered a spy because I had refused to become one was worse than the attempt to recruit me and the death threat. I was being slandered by precisely the people that I was protecting by refusing to spy on them. Jenny and a handful of colleagues could see the games that were being played with me. But those who knew me less well could not. How could I have explained to them what was going on, how could I have proved the opposite. It was completely impossible, as the Securitate knew only too well, and that is exactly why they did it to me. They knew, too, that such perfidy would be far more destructive than any blackmail. You can even get used to death threats. They are part and parcel of this one life we have. You can defy anxiety to the depths of your soul. But slander steals your soul. You just feel surrounded by horror.

How long this situation lasted, I no longer know. It seemed endless to me. It was probably just weeks. Finally, I was sacked….

My file at least answered one painful question. A year after my departure from Romania, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassment in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I was sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and the additional visas for France and Greece, I confronted her directly: “You don’t get a passport like that for nothing, what did you do to get it?” Her answer: “The secret service has sent me, and I was desperate to see you again.” Jenny had cancer – she is long dead now. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the outset, her friendship just part of the job. After her return, I see from the file, she delivered a detailed description of the flat and of our habits, as “SURSA (source) SANDA”.

But in a bugging protocol from 21 December, 1984, a note in the margin, next to Jenny’s name, reads: “We must identify JENI, apparently there is great trust between them.” This friendship, which meant so much to me, was ruined by her visit to Berlin, a terminally ill cancer patient lured into betrayal after chemotherapy. The copied key made it clear that Jenny had fulfilled her task behind our backs. I had to ask her to leave our Berlin flat at once. I had to chase my closest friend out in order to protect myself and Richard Wagner from her assignment. This tangle of love and betrayal was unavoidable. A thousand times I have turned her visit over in my mind, mourned our friendship, discovering to my disbelief that after my emigration, Jenny had a relationship with a Securitate officer. Today I am glad, for the file shows that our intimacy had grown naturally and had not been arranged by the secret service, and that Jenny didn’t spy on me until after my emigration. You become grateful for small mercies, trawling through all the poison for a part that isn’t contaminated, however small. That my file proves that the feelings between us were real, almost makes me happy now.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Kim Jong Un: Apollo of the Amnok, Titan of the Tumen, …

Whenever I wonder what Romania might be like now if Nicolae Ceauşescu had somehow managed to survive long enough to pass his kingdom on to his son, Nicu (alas, poor Nicu!), I just turn my gaze to the royal succession in the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, which fits Tony Judt‘s characterization of Ceauşescu’s Romania only too well.

Romanian Communism in its last years sat uneasily athwart the intersection of brutality and parody. Portraits of the Party leader and his wife were everywhere; his praise was sung in dithyrambic terms that might have embarrassed even Stalin himself (though not perhaps North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, with whom the Romanian leader was sometimes compared). A short list of the epithets officially-approved by Ceauşescu for use in accounts of his achievements would include: The Architect; The Creed-shaper; The Wise Helmsman; The Tallest Mast; The Nimbus of Victory; The Visionary; The Titan; The Son of the Sun; A Danube of Thought; and The Genius of the Carpathians.

But now it looks as if the heralds of the Kim dynasty are preparing for another royal succession by echoing the epithets of the Genius of the Carpathians in describing a Brilliant Comrade, the Grandson of the Sun, the Dauphin of Dokdo, the Titan of the Tumen (or Dionysus of the Duman), the Apollo of the Amnok, the Priapus of Paektusan, the East Sea of Ecstasy, the Yorik of the Yalu, the Need-shaper, the Wisen Heimer, the Un, etc.

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