One of the bestselling books of 2012 in Romania was a slender work called “Why Is Romania Different?” Written by superstar historian Lucian Boia (as pop as academics get by local standards), it pondered the idea of Romania as an exceptional European entity: trapped by geography, victim to waves of invaders from Romans to Slavs to Ottomans to Germans to Russians, but inert because its people succumb to the idea of the present being the work of the past.

These are all ideas that American writer and longtime foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan tackles in his more complex dissection of Romania, “In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond.” Part travelogue, part cultural history, part academic literature review, Kaplan’s book captures the reality of Romania’s past, while pushing back against determinism.

It’s true that the territory Romanians inhabit did belong to the Roman Empire, but the Romanians’ claims to a Latin heritage are more a product of 19th-century politics turning toward a more liberal-minded West than 2,000 years of nostalgia. Although constantly at a crossroads of warring empires — Habsburg, Russian, Ottoman — Romania isn’t necessarily the unsung last bastion of Christianity against conquering Muslim armies. Its buffer role was just as convenient to foreign powers as it was to local chieftains who could switch allegiances based on which neighbor was stronger.

Kaplan elegantly dismisses the idea of Romania as a victim of history, a narrative ingrained in the national psyche through schooling and culture, as well as state propaganda in the almost 100 years of the country’s modern history.

But he also highlights the brutal, devastating effects that 50 years of nationalistic communism had on a frontier people who have yet to develop a coherent identity: destruction of intellectual life, loss of diversity as Jews and ethnic Germans were essentially sold to Israel and Germany, the lasting scars of surveillance and violence.

Romanian history — and all history, for that matter — is a clash between the given (geography, language, culture, resources) and the people who inhabit a space and embody its characteristics. Can one make history, or has history already determined one’s fate? This clash is what Kaplan, a longtime fan of the country, attempts to highlight.

He weaves history into the stories of his trips through Romania in the bleak Communist 1980s and the confused 1990s, up to its more settled present as a member of the European Union. He describes the places and people of yesterday and today, with ghosts of the past lurking in the background. He recalls the trauma, but he is unwavering in his optimism that Romania — even in the age of Vladimir Putin, and the newly resurgent wave of right-wing extremism throughout Europe — will find a way.

In the end, this is not the stereotypical Romania of Dracula, of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, or of perfect gymnasts — this is the story of a young and confused country, forever on the borderland of Europe, constantly forced to side with the strongest schoolyard bully, while doing its best to retain a soul it still can’t quite pin down.

 

Cristian Lupsa, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is a Romanian journalist. He lives in Bucharest.

IN EUROPE'S SHADOW

By: Robert D. Kaplan.

Publisher: Random House, 287 pages, $28.