I wish to thank Chronicles for the insightful parts of Derek Turner’s recent “Letter From Rumania” (“What Civilization Remains,” Correspondence, June). Some portions are extremely lively and convey a vivid picture of his experiences there.
As an informed reader, however, I was struck by the one-sided view the article imparts in several ways to the common reader. To the uninformed reader, aside from Bucharest, it might seem as if the whole of Rumania were Transylvania—and as if the whole of Transylvania were just a bit Rumanian, perhaps not even Rumanian at all.
Focusing on Transylvania’s minorities was not per se an unwelcome idea. Indeed, beginning with the 12th century, Transylvania’s Saxon settlers contributed a lot to the urban civilization of that province conquered and occupied by Hungary shortly before. On the other hand, the native population, the underprivileged majority (Mr. Turner calls them “Vlachs”) constituted for many centuries the province’s pariah, most of the time deprived of all rights. The approach in which the focus is predominantly on the Saxon and Hungarian presence is bound to distort much of the historical realities of a province where the native Rumanian population has been for centuries an essential component of the land’s history.
Moreover, calling them “Vlachs” (as the author does when writing about oil: a substance “later Vlachs would regard as much more valuable than cattle or even churches”) is both unjust in terms of historical realities regarding values and infelicitous in terms of usage. The term Vlach is applied to Rumanians by foreigners, connotes disdain, and has been used pejoratively, most of the time in derogatory fashion. Leaving aside the obvious “parti pris,” a better title of Mr. Turner’s piece could have been “Letter From Transylvania” (and, perhaps, Bucharest).
—Dr. Andrei Brezianu
Mr. Turner Replies:
Dr. Brezianu has highlighted the perils faced by outsiders seeking to comment on complex historical matters within the short compass of a magazine article. I was not aware that Vlach was a pejorative term and would not have used it had I known. However, in my defense, almost all the guidebooks and histories I relied on during my journey used the term freely (and not negatively).
I was fully aware that I was skimping somewhat on the Rumanian version of events, but I had little choice when there were only a few pages of Chronicles at my disposal. And histories, whether potted magazine versions or scholarly tomes, do tend to focus on the wealthiest, most influential, and best-known historical actors, in this case more often Saxons and Hungarians than ethnic Rumanians. Nonetheless, I’d hoped that I had paid tribute to ethnic Rumanians at least fleetingly, by referring to the vibrant and still partly extant folk culture they have created over centuries of hard work and exploitation, by being fair about Vlad Tepes, and by empathizing with their plight at the hands of Hungarians and then Ceausescu. To quote myself, “for [ethnic Rumanians] the long Hungarian suzerainty meant centuries of impoverishment, and social, linguistic, and religious marginalization, a debased state for a people tracing its descent from dogged Dacians and Roman soldiers.”
My article certainly did not compass all the reality of modern Rumania, but what article could? Perhaps Dr. Brezianu might care to write an article of his own, to help give all of us a fuller picture of this fascinating and beautiful country.
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