Book review: In Europe’s Shadow, by Robert Kaplan

Amidst a sea of often wildly inaccurate and turgid rubbish churned out by hacks eager to make a quick few bob in the wake of Romania’s 1989 revolution, one of the few genuinely readable accounts of Romania at the time was that which appeared in Robert Kaplan’s excellent Balkan Ghosts. A sweeping tour of the entire Balkan peninsula Balkan Ghosts was ironically limited by the sheer breadth of its overall scope: each country, including Romania, gets just a chapter or two. So vividly written was it that you were left wanting a lot more, as it was clear Kaplan had further insight to add.

In his latest book, In Europe’s Shadow (subtitled Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond) Romania very much takes centre stage and we at last get to find out what else Kaplan has to say about the country we call home. Rather disappointingly, Kaplan doesn’t have as much to say as we’d expected, which is probably why he feels the need to make exactly the same point (Romania must rediscover its past before it can have a future) over and over and over and over and over again.

Neither a conventional history nor a travelogue In Europe’s Shadow tries to look at Romania’s past, present and future through the prism of those who matter most: its people. Admirably, Kaplan is not the kind of author to sit in his hotel and pass judgement on a country he barely understands. Kaplan has visited Romania many times since the 1970s and clearly knows a thing or two. He also gets out and about. What makes parts of the book so dull is the appalling choice of interviewees.

Are we really going to learn anything new from Ion Iliescu, Mircea Geoana or Victor Ponta?

What’s more, Kaplan has a habit of reporting the words of a string of nameless ‘friends’ and ‘companions’. We are not for one moment suggesting Kaplan has made these people up, just that sometimes it all appears a little too convenient to have a companion standing by with the perfect quote to complement your own train of thought.

Indeed, convenience is a theme of the book. In one instance we are even told how the customers in a Iasi (which he throughout refers to as Jassy) cafe are talking in Italian and French, immediately after Kaplan has learned about how well Romanian students absorb foreign languages.

With little of any note to say about contemporary Romania (besides the fact that Romania must rediscover its past bla bla bla) the book is at its best when looking back at the Romania of the 1970s and 1980s. Kaplan’s description of Caru cu bere circa 1985 is marvellous:

Screenshot-2016-02-19-08.44.10-e1455864439797

The chapter on Moldova (Republic of) is also rather good. Describing Chisinau as a city where ‘the women dress with elegance but the men look like slobs’ is little short of genius.

Kaplan also succeeds in writing perhaps the clearest and most succinct summary of the fascist Ion Antonescu regime we have ever perhaps read. We also smiled when we discovered that his view of the Legionnaire Movement matches ours: pseudo-religious terrorist fanatics who were to Christianity what Isis are to Islam. He then blots his copybook by interviewing the notorious historian Neagu Djuvara (a leading Legionnaire idealogue in the 1930s who, although he publicly disassociated himself from the Legionnaires in 1943, continued to fill a a number of roles in Antonescu’s government). Kaplan has sympathy for very few Romanian historical figures, with one notable and worthy exception: Iuliu Maniu, the liberal colossus who died at Sighet prison in 1953 who he rightly identifies as the 20th century’s greatest Romanian.

As is so often the case with American writers, there is something of an air of snobbish superiority running through the book, although it’s slightly more forgivable coming from Kaplan, a man of rather humble background (although his volunteering for the Israeli army – a fact he loves to remind us of – raises more questions), than it is from certain others we shall not bother to name. Kaplan also fails to reach any real conclusion about where Romania, as a country, is bound (beyond the fact that the country needs to rediscover its past OH STOP IT). He at times appears absurdly optimistic about Romania’s future, while just a page or two later he views the country as irretrievably fatalist and superstitious, condemned to be poorly led forever. After this week’s events we are inclined to agree with the latter premise.

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69 thoughts on “Book review: In Europe’s Shadow, by Robert Kaplan

  1. How much of a colossus was Maniu, post-1920s? Hoodwinked by Carol in 1930, he spent the whole of the 1930s sulking about it, and whenever there was an important decision to be made afterwards (Bassarabia, Northern Transylvania, 23 August 1944) he was nowhere to be found.

    Olivia Manning’s report of her attempt to interview him in Cluj in 1940 tally exactly with all the assessments to be found in the UK Foreign Office documents and in Ivor Porter’s accounts of dealings with him during Operation Autonomous: a dithering little fusspot incapable of making anything approaching an important decision when the stakes were high.

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    1. For good or ill, the 20th Century’s greatest (as in most significant) Romanian would probably come down to a toss-up between Titulescu and Ceausescu, with a covering bet on Nicolae Paulescu for his work discovering insulin.

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      1. Not even to be present as a dissenting voice? Iorga was there and spoke up for defiance. Refusing to participate in discussions over whether to oppose or accede to the dismemberment of ones country doesn’t strike me as the action of a great man.

        And as for 23 August, he was fully aware of what was imminent, and went into hiding, rather than being present while greater men took action, hence his absence from the post-coup cabinet.

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  2. “As is so often the case with American writers, there is something of an air of snobbish superiority running through the book…”
    I hear this cliche’d cheap-shot complaint of the “snobbishly superior” American so often. But from personal experience I can say that this observation usually says much more about the Euro-inferiority complex of the observer than the observed. Get over it already.

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      1. It’s obviously “a valid point” from your perspective. When one opens a book written by someone of a certain nationality whom one assumes are prone to having an “air of snobbish superiority”, one can easily find “validation” of that assumption in every sentence. “The author is explaining things as he sees them. He’s an American. Ipso facto he is ‘Yanksplaining.'” There’s no way of avoiding being guilty of the crime you’ve long ago been pre-judged on. To even use that term “Yanksplaining” betrays that prejudice. But I completely understand how and why you can’t see that because, “as is so often the case with European writers,” they aren’t aware of the inferiority-colored glasses they view the world through and most everything I read of their writing validates my assertion. I call it “Euroferioring.” Sorry, got carried away there. I just lazily painted a large group of people with a negative stereotype. I apologize. Because that’s sort of a petty thing to do.

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      2. If I can put my relative privilege to one side before inking my virtual pen I fail to see why others can’t, nor why they should be spared criticism when they do not.

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    1. Funny thing this. You can’t be from Europe and criticize something American without it being a product of some inferiority complex. And you can’t be American and comment on European matters without coming across as a snob.

      Of course everyone knows Americans are simply not sophisticated enough to make for truly good snobs. They’re mostly too rude and too loud, shouting ‘MURICA!! everywhere they go. They’re more like knobs than snobs.

      And yeah, I’m just taking the piss. I don’t actually believe what I’ve just said. At least not entirely :))

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      1. I assume you refer to the canal. Mention of which reminds me of another mistake in the book: Kaplan claims it was built by prisoners. It wasn’t. The first canal project (abandoned in the 1950s) was prisoner labour: those who worked on the later canal project in the 1980s were well-paid and better fed than most other workers in Romania at the time. I know one.

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    1. I think Kaplan is referring to his relatively liberal political outlook (which as far as I am aware is not innacurate) rather than the name of any party he was a founder or member of. What Kaplan does not mention is that Maniu did a deal with the Legionnaires to remove Carol II.

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  3. I am struggling with this book now and finding it hard to pin down as the author jerks back and forth between Voltaire, Michael the Brave, Thucydides, Ceausescu and Uncle Tom Cobley, sometimes all within the same paragraph. As you point out, he only consults figures from the ancien regime — he talks to Patapievici and seems awed by the duffer’s vacuous old-man homilies.
    Parmalat will (ahem) disagree but I thought in spite of his many disasters and softie image Emil Constantinescu did good things for Romania. He got the country on the right road and paid a high political cost for it.

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    1. If we are wondering today why Romanians have such low salaries, it’s because the Constantinescu regime destroyed the economy.

      Had it not been for the disastrous Constantinescu regime, with its 3 prime ministers, today the Romanian economy would have looked much better.

      Constantinescu conceded to everything the IMF and the bloody Westerners demanded from him: close the mines, close the pig farms, sell everything else for nothing, destroy jobs and root the Romanian people abroad (that happened a few months later, in the Nastase regime because we couldn’t feed the people anymore).

      Also in the Constantinescu regime Romania witnessed the two biggest financial scams in its history: the robbing of Bancorex, the collapse of Fondul National de Investitii

      This country still needs another 30 years to recover economically from the Constantinescu era.

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      1. I forgot to mention the robbing of Bankcoop, the third biggest financial scam in the history of Romania. Still in Constantinescu’s regime.

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      2. I wouldn’t blame Constantinescu exclusively for this and I’m certainly not gonna jump on the “Ceaușescu über alles” wagon, but I’ve come to think one of the greatest lies ever told to the Romanian people back in the 90s – and I remember this being obsessively repeated – was that Romania was a country with no natural resources to speak of and that there was no way to “modernize” other than by putting entire industries to the torch. Almost literally. Plus selling off the rest – this time quite literally – for one buck US.

        My mother used to work as an accountant at a textile plant in Bucharest. When it was “privatized” the factory had some almost brand new, barely used weaving machines that were sold for scrap. They weren’t cheap Chinese knock-offs either, they were modern machines. I’d have to ask mom, but I think they were made in Germany (and not the Eastern one). They went from exporting silk and linen fabrics all over the world to LITERALLY producing nothing in the space of a few years. (Yes, I’m over-using the word literally to make a point. Get over it.)

        Just another random example. How in the hell do you go from exporting huge trucks to an open-pit mine in Australia one year to “OMG, we can’t even manage a tractor” the next?

        That’s not to say the Romanian industry didn’t have some clear technological limits. But there were also plenty of domains that were strong: textiles, furniture, industrial machinery, including steam turbines, pumps, steel presses, oil extraction and refining equipment.

        Amazingly enough, some things still survive to this day. I imagine not people know that, for example, Romania exports nuclear grade heavy water.

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  4. Bucharest still suffers from a lack of a clear identity. I’m here in Paris right now and Paris is Paris: you know what you are looking at before you. The Parisian culture is very clearly defined. In Bucharest I often feel I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at. Who are the people exactly standing in front of me? What are their values? There is a kind of chaos intrinsic to Romanian culture that makes me question if the country will ever function like the West? I’m not sure it can. Romanians think differently than people. I think Kaplan is right about Romania needing to rediscover its past. The failure to confront the past is a prime reason why Romania is still what it is: a Balkan backwater.

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    1. why don t you start taking pictures of paris and try selling them huh? ahh…there are tons of them..all of them portraying the same bland clean rosy pictures…thousands of petty so called photographers like you doing the same thing. i hope your romanian girlfriend reads this and sees you for the clown you are, ditching her place with no shame whatsoever. u lowlife low iq american or canadian?(who gives a fuk) scum.

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      1. Davin Ellicson wants Romania to go drown itself in a liberal pool, just like the West. And he doesn’t understand why Romanians ain’t buying this shit.

        Because Romanians are too damn smart to swallow whatever bullshit the West is trying to feed them.

        We have developed antibodies. If something comes from the West, the first thing we’re thinking about is “in what way are they trying to steal from us this time?”

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      2. I love Romania more than many Romanians. Nicu and Lena and Iliescu and the Securitate are low life scum, not me. I wish Romania wasn’t so corrupt and that the country had a clear direction, but this is simply not the case. In many ways this is what makes Bucharest more interesting than most other European cities.

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      3. Davina peddling out the same old bullshit over and over again; he’s like Woger whining about the EU, nothing new to see, but it does serve as a reminder that they are both colossal twats.

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      4. My main gripe about Bucharest is that Izvor, Uranus, Antim and Unirii were destroyed by Ceausescu–50+ streets and hundreds of beautiful villas on cobblestoned hilly streets and now 1/3 of the center of the city is a dead zone and even 26 years later nothing is done with the area. This is what I mean when I say I don’t understand Romania. Other European cities don’t do this. They hold onto their heritage and recognize its value. What’s odd is that Bucharest keeps the Centru Civic as a grand monument to the Ceausescus as if Romanians are ambivalent about the communist regime and want to remember the 1980s every day instead of confronting the past and redesigning the area.

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      5. I’m not the one to get off on quoting myself, but in this case it’s worth it. Just to point out I may have been a bit… errr… premature: “I guess you haven’t mentioned women this time, so perhaps that counts for something.”

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      6. Yes, I am making a big tour of the nightlife scene here in Bucharest with only 3 weeks to go before smoking is banished forever. So long to hardcore Eastern Europe that was Romania!

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      7. As a smoker, I actually don’t mind the ban. On the other hand I’m not sure how much the ban is gonna stick. This being Romania and all.

        (cue Parmo to come and tell us again how the liberal West is winning or something)

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      8. Probably if those streets were allowed to remain they’d be a mess like many Bucharest streets with older buildings.
        Davin, you must be a trust fund baby. Surely you cannot “keep an apartment in Paris” on the proceeds from your stalker pics of teenage girls.

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      9. It’s generally understood that Ceausescu destroyed one of the more beautiful areas of Bucharest set on a hill. Romania is the second poorest country in the EU and yet it has the second largest building in the world. Bucharest did not need the Centru Civic or the palace. You’d have hundreds of villas on over 50 streets that don’t exist today. Yes, they might be in a state of disrepair but who would be complaining at hipster beer gardens on cobblestoned streets?! I don’t see anyone going to Berceni for restaurants or wine bars.

        I am not trust funded. I run photo workshops and sell prints from my Maramures work to collectors and I also rent apartments here.

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    2. Parmo’s back. Now you’re back. What is this? Bands Reunited? Looks like we’re still missing Roger and Anon though.

      In other non-news, Parmo may say a lot of colossal absurdities…or worse… but at least he’s entertaining and – shockingly! – can occasionally dig up some gem or two. God knows from where, but it’s enough to make one feel like there’s still some hope for him 😀

      You, on the other hand, are like broken record. Endlessly rehashing the same tired comments. A cliché of a cliché. I mean come on, seriously. Say something new, for goodness’ sake. Surprise us. Show some evolution or some attempt at expanding the breath of your understanding. I guess you haven’t mentioned women this time, so perhaps that counts for something.

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      1. I actually used the beginning of that clip as an e-mail alert sound on someone’s computer back at work. It took him a bit until he figured out what the hell was going on. Fun times :))

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      2. Yes, a broken record because Romania refuses to confront its past. Romania itself is a broken record. Damaged goods. I’m unclear why calling for Unirii and Izvor to be redesigned gets me called a cunt?! Seems like a logical idea to me. . . The palace is 70% empty. How come it’s off limits to the people if it’s called “The House of the People”? Am I missing something? This was supposed to be a joke by Ceausescu?

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      3. Because in Romania we don’t wear our good clothes when we cook or when we sleep. We only wear our good clothes when there’s a holiday.

        The same thing with buildings: of course it’s the “House of the People” (“House of the Republic” as was initially named by Ceausescu), but that doesn’t mean the people should prophane it day in and day out.

        And all administrative buildings have 2 entrances: the main entrance which is big and only open at holidays and events, and a small sideways entrance which is used daily.

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      4. Take the SRI headquarters, for example: the main entrance is on the boulevard, facing Casa Poporului.

        But if you try to go in through the main entrance, the guards won’t allow you.

        They will send you to the back of the building, where there’s a small entrance which everybody uses on a daily basis.

        The main entrance is only for politicians and other officials and only on special occasions and events.

        Even schools have separate entrances for teachers (which are clean and well kept and sometimes feature a carpet and separate stairways) and for students (which are ugly and dirty).

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      5. I never left. Roger got banned I think.

        He’s an American who’s talent is pressing a button on a camera, taking creepshots of young girls. I don’t think he has the cognitive ability to say anything else…he must be straining his brain just to come up with what he does.

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    3. Don’t you realise that you are just praising the Romanians. Who wants to be pigeonholed? So after you the locals (me) should behave as tourists (you) expect from novels, films? LOL.

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  5. Just flew into Bucharest from Paris tonight and Otopeni now has all these fashion ads above the baggage carousels except that you can see that the airport printed them at like a university copy shop on inkjet printers as the ads show the lines from the printing. Completely amateur looking. I have never seen such cheap advertising at other airports. Usually they are expensive LED backlit displays. I actually laughed out loud when I saw this tonight. Got out to the taxis and there was simply not enough space for all the people and waiting taxis. Otopeni is like a small provincial airport in a corner of a state in the USA. It could totally be expanded. Is it just me or is Romania not firing on all four cylinders?

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    1. I don’t understand why you wonder around like that. Today you’re in Paris, tomorrow you’re in Bucharest, after that you’re in Poland or God knows where.

      People stay in a single place they don’t just go allover the world like that.

      Why don’t you stay in a single place?

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      1. “La pasarica daca dai bani si n-o lingi… ai pus pe negru si-a picat pe rosu. Ai pierdut banii”

        GIOVANI BECALI

        =)))))))

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  6. Your dismissal of Neagu Djuvara as a “notorious historian” is rather unfair – his record in the 1930s as a supporter of the Iron Guard clearly warrants comment but the man has had another 80 years to redeem himself. And his forays into Romanian history have shown an independent and critical spirit – such that most nationalists see his books as anti-Romanian. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neagu_Djuvara

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      1. Over the past decade he has consistently warned of the dangers of European multiculturalism – which even Angela Merkel had to admit a couple of years ago had been a failure. Does this make her a fascist? Most people now have a deep unease about the flow of refugees/immigrants….that does not make us fascists
        Craig, do you not realize, that the readiness with which you throw the term “fascist” around in your column stifles discussion?

        It’s hard not to respect someone who can produce such a beautiful book as his “Short, illustrated history of Romania” http://cdn4.libris.ro/userdocspdf/435/a-brief-illustrated-history-of-romanians.pdf
        You may not like Djuvara’s views and books, but please do him (and us) the courtesy of granting him a hearing

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      2. We should not let ourselves discouraged by the words they throw at us. For our legacy and our faith in the bright future of our nation will overcome their petty rants.

        Stand up and stick together with your kind and nothing will overcome you.

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      3. He was thinking of people like you. That is why you don’t like him. BTW, I am pretty sure that your PM is on the same wavelength with him and us.

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  7. “the notorious historian Neagu Djuvara (a leading Legionnaire idealogue in the 1930s who, although he publicly disassociated himself from the Legionnaires in 1943, continued to fill a a number of roles in Antonescu’s government).”
    Really, could you ask your master Alexandru Florian to provide evidence for this? It is the first time I hear this rubbish. And what the … is your business with Neagu Djuvara’s past. Why do you care?

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  8. “(although his volunteering for the Israeli army – a fact he loves to remind us of – raises more questions),”
    Ah. Maybe you are not a hopeless case. (An advice: don’t raise those questions with Alexandru Florian. Maybe his is a violent chap.)

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