Romania's debt of gratitude, or: a wartime story from Mihai Eminescu

September 16, 2023 by Lucian Mogosanu

In the following paragraphs the reader shall find the English translation of a text published by Mihai Eminescu on the 3rd of January 18781 in Timpul, a sort of Romanian The Times in the nineteenth century.

"The press"2 reproduces a series of articles from 1870-1871 through which it demonstrates in the most thorough manner that the initiative of the idea of independence belongs to the conservative party, whose "press" was back then the single organ. This great and noble idea that was put forth by the conservatives, and then applied by the very same through commercial treaties and whose definitive triumph is tributary to the army, also organized, trained and armed by a conservative minister, this idea came into being at the will of an otherwise blind and unjust fate, thanks to extraordinary circumstances, under the government of those who not only did not do anything to sustain it, but who in fact fought tooth and nail to prevent its realization. They fought it in their newspapers, they ridiculed it in their pamphlets3 and they attacked the commercial treaties while, through an aberration, an extraordinary insolence, they dared to frame as a work of betrayal one of the most brilliant diplomatic victories that were ever obtained; then they went against budgetary spendings for the army, the concentrations and everything that turned the parade soldiers of old times into the army of Pleven and Grivitsa. At the end of the day they'd proclaim the necessity of keeping ourselves tied to Turkey, they'd invent a pretend Western politics, which was nonexistent beginning with 1870-1871, they'd send Mazar Pașa4 to Constantinopole; they'd congratulate a Turkish minister out loud through public acts, for opposing with all his might, as was his duty as a Turk, the extension of rights and privileges of the Romanian nation governed by the conservatives.

As they took the reins of government, they'd abolish the military through budgetary exercise, they'd suppress recruitment in a year such as 1876 and they'd announce the public auctioning of garment effects, and soon thereafter maybe also of arms held by Romanian hands5. In a few months however orders, clearly arriving from outside, along with the urge to maintain the reins of power at any price, a source of monetary perks for the Catilinarian clique that they represented, made them change the entirety of their Turkish politics which helped bring them to power. Still, like all servile beings driven by interests, and not by principles, they were as exaggeratedly philorussian as they had previously been obedient and humble philoturkish. They went into war, something that could very well be approved and supported, however they entered with an army that was materially unprepared, due to their inept and culpable administration, and without any convention stipulating the scope of sacrifices and the extent of benefits for Romanians, thanks to their devoted diplomacy6. When questioned by the conservative press whether they had a treaty with the neighbouring empire alongside whom they fought, they boldly answered that that empire could not negotiate with a state that is still a vassal and, topping this humble confession with sanctimonious flattery for the powerful sovereign that was occupying Romania and Turkey with five hundred thousand people, they added that they couldn't insult the generous czar by demanding documents, warranties etc.; with these daring words they wanted to close conservatives' mouths, placing them between the necessity of remaining silent and the peril of speaking, thus making them displeasing to the all-powerful emperor who held in his hands the destiny of the East. The parade/defense was well-crafted, fit for that slavish ability into which most of them were raised. Never before, however, has such an extreme and inept tactic been put forward. If we were a vassal state with whom negotiations were impossible, why did Russia agree to the commerce treaty signed under minister Lascar Catargi by His Majesty Emperor Alexander himself, along with His Majesty the Domnitor7? We know that this undertaking was faced with great difficulties. Yet the conservatives' respectful yet firm insistence defeated the scruples of the Russian chancellery and the appeal made towards the emperor's benevolence was heard, and when? when Russia, upon dealing with us, was making a diplomatic concession just like that, without asking for either gold, nor for blood in return.

If we were a vassal state, then why, before our entrance in action, did the Russian government sign with us the convention for the passage of the army8, which stipulates entirely political conditions, such as territorial integrity? Here's what was achieved when our side acted with benevolent neutrality.

And today, when His Majesty the Czar shares along with the Romanian army the dangers and the hardships of war, when he receives the decorations and the Medal of Virtue of the Romanian state, when he grants our sovereign with distinctions that are only destined for the sovereign of an independent state, when we are generously gifted with honors and decorations (Trop de fleurs, trop de fleurs, we could shout), the red diplomacy declares that we are a vassal state and that we cannot make deals in our name. Thus when it comes to positive interests, to a formal treaty, Messrs. Cogălniceanu and Rosetti9 flatly state, one from the tribune, the other from the newspaper, that we cannot make deals, that we are a vassal state and that it's more prudent to trust the generosity of H.M. the Czar. And we have the utmost trust in this proverbial generosity and kindness. Is it however certain that His Majesty's personal benevolence will always be able to trump the dispositions of his goverment, the interests of the Empire, the shynesses of diplomacy, the opinion of the Russian people? Hasn't the "Romanian"10, which lately has the air of becoming the Official Gazette of the most intimate and personal feelings of His Majesty, declared by itself that His Majesty wanted this war and that he ceded to the general movement of opinion in this matter11?

Here's then one point where His Majesty's personal will yielded to higher considerations. This aside, the ultraconstitutional organ of Mr. C.A. Rosetti finds it comfortable to shelter the red government from responsibility at a height where it thinks it's going to be hard for someone to look for it. However, this cowardly tactic must not succeed.

Romanians know H.M. to be a noble and generous sovereign. They also know the Russian government to be the government of a friendly power12. But nothing more. They have nothing in common with a personality that is too high to be placed in the game and whose name we were forced to pronounce only by the disrespectful duplicity of Mr. C.A. Rosetti. Similarly, Romanians have no problem with the Russian government that is, we believe, preoccupied with the interests of the Empire and of the Russian people, and in no case with Romania's business13. Romanians have to deal with the Romanian government, with Mr. Brătianu, war minister, with Mr. Cogălniceanu, minister of foreign affairs14, with Mr. C.A. Rosetti, president of the Chambers15 and inspirer of government16.

We had then the right to ask them and they were obligated to respond: what measures did you undertake? what conventions have you signed? how do you believe, upon the signing of peace, that you will guard the interests of the country? They answered plain and clear that they didn't do any of those things and they sent us to appeal to the generosity of a foreign government. It seems to us that the answer was categorical. If Romania doesn't get out of the war with any advantages, or with disproportional advantages to its expenses, the responsibility will be borne by these inept and obsequious ministers, who did not know how to speak and stipulate in the name of a free and self-determined people. But if conversely, Romania will win something either in the form of territory or its rights, if from this there were to emerge its integrity as territory and nation, a guaranteed and assured independence, then yet again we have no gratitude for today's ministers, since they themselves have declared that they did nothing to achieve this and that everything is owed to the generosity of a foreign power. To them shall go the country's appreciation17.

  1. Roughly before the start of the battle of Vidin, in the Romanian War of Independence that lasted between 1877 and 1878.

    Mind that the author is an important figure in Romanian journalism, so I for one take his words at the value of historical source. The reader may or may not agree with me, in either case we have to agree that it's impossible to wage a discussion from different grounds. I don't care whether you like Eminescu or not, that's well besides the point; the point is that his prose is crisp-clear, even more so than his poetry, his arguments grounded in reality, his conclusion cutting straight to the core of the problem, overall a much better sight than poor Orwell could have ever mustered in his language. If you're fluent in Romanian we may have this debate on the original text, otherwise you'll have to sit and learn from the words of one who lived almost 150 years ago filtered through the mind of some dude who lives now. But if you find a better recollection on the subject, the commenting box awaits for you at the bottom of the page. 

  2. The agitprop machine works today in the very same way it did then, the use of technology merely changed the grade of amplification. 

  3. There's a footnote here, which translates to:

    Everyone recalls the kingdom with cold water, worthy of patriotic conscience and the distinguished spirit that were rewarded with the Bene merenti medal.

    The Bene merenti medal was a honorary medal -- of Catholic inspiration, I presume -- issued by the Romanian state starting with 1876. I'm not sure what he means by the "kingdom with cold water", I suspect he must be jesting at the expense of some "intellectuals" who received the medal at some point. 

  4. Let's nickname him "the daddy of the historical Romanian Liberal Party".

    He was known in the West as Sir Stephen Bartlett Lakeman, but he got the Ottoman nickname because he fought alongside them in the Crimean War. Oh, and he was also friends with the Brătianu family, which I suppose made the liberals friends of the establishment, at least until it became obvious that Russia will use Romania as a weapon against the Ottomans. Now it may not be obvious from the text, but Eminescu was a conservative who kept himself bound to a certain code of honour, which had inscribed within it among others: "thou shalt not act in a duplicitous manner". Just like today's "liberals" will happily shift towards the other extreme tomorrow if it suits the needs of those in power, so did those days' "liberals" go with the political wind, and it was seen as a contemptible act by their adversaries, although in our days this has become somewhat of a norm. 

  5. This seems to fit the description of the state of Romanian army post-NATO integration. 

  6. To my Romanian readers: does this ring any bells? 

  7. The name of Carol I is implicit in that "Domnitor", since Alexander II was a Czar, an Emperor even, but not a Domnitor, i.e. he did not belong to Romanians. 

  8. He refers to the right of passage granted to Russian troops on the way to the Danube, where they'd enter the Ottoman Empire. 

  9. Mihail Kogălniceanu and C.A. Rosetti. They were both something or the other in the Romanian state at the time; liberals back then were frequently rotating statesmen between positions, much like today's Romanian liberals are in the habit of doing, or the other way around to be more precise. 

  10. C.A. Rosetti's paper. 

  11. It's not clear altogether from this sentence who wanted to wage the war: the Emperor or the people. Based on H.M.'s personal history (or at least the official version thereof) I'm guessing that he actually wasn't looking too happily at the prospect of war, but the Russian council saw the failing Ottoman Empire as a potential risk for the region. 

  12. Russians helped Romanians get rid of Ottomans, while Americans helped Romanians get rid of (Soviet) Russians. Now who's going to help them get rid of Americans? 

  13. I suppose we're going to take Eminescu at his word here. The truth is likely quite a great deal more complicated than presented in this page, given that both the Hohenzollerns and the Romanovs were part of a network of wealthy and powerful families, while Alexander II was of Prussian descent on his mother's side, while at the same time Carol I was part of a minor family, leading what was to become a minor power in the region. Still, pre-communist Russia was fundamentally different from the USSR, although it was well on the way towards socialism at the time. By the way, Dostoevsky was still writing The Brothers Karamazov when Eminescu was writing this, we have the former to thank for an accurate depiction of Russian society at the time. 

  14. Funnily enough, "affair" is French for "matter" or (less commonly used today) "business", which caused the Romanian "afacere" to exist, through Romanians' francophony beginning in the nineteenth century. Romanians kept the older usage with the meaning of business, so we could as well translate this part to "minister of foreign business". 

  15. The Deputy's chambers, a sort of Romanian House of Representatives. The modern American and Romanian political systems were modelled on similar bases, although sure, we cannot possibly compare the results. 

  16. Read: chief of establishment narrative-building. 

  17. And here we are. We could make a whole lot of parallels between those and these times, in fact I'm not ashamed to admit that I've made a couple of the more obvious ones above. The moral, either way, sums up to this: Romania owes a debt of gratitude to the so-called "higher powers", as for the most part it was them who helped it make it. They have to thank the Romans first and foremost, first of all, since Roman culture was the womb; they then have to thank the numerous barbarian populations as well as the older Slavs, then they have to thank Hungarians, Ottomans, Prussians, Germans, Austrians, French, British, Russians (Soviet or otherwise), and now Americans and last but not least Chinese. Then, only then, can Romanians start thanking themselves for the great job they've done.

    You'd think that USians are doing a great job in Ukraine, when looking just a bit further into the past, say in the latter part of the nineteenth century, you'll find out that Russians already had the same project running with Romanians. Eventually this led them nowhere, or y'know, straight into the communist utopia, if we were to give that particular mess a name, except those days' Ottomans were in a really bad shape while nowadays' Russia seems far from it -- although to be honest, it's getting harder to see by the day. Meanwhile Turkey is ambitiously playing a double game, while the only European actor who's still left speaking up is... Hungary, of all those diverse countries. Sure, Austrians are getting a bad rap for their protectionism, but really, who gives a fuck anymore.

    So I'd say Romania is in a quite similar position to where it was then, only matters are a great deal more complicated this time around. 

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