Out here 1000 miles from their home

On Friday night my windows were rattled in their frames by a series of loud booms. My initial thought was that for some foolish reason the army was firing off their AA batteries and I ran outside on my balcony to scan the sky for tracer fire.

It turned out that the local government was firing off high-grade fireworks in commemoration of the “Little Union”, when the ruling prince of Moldova managed to convince a group of other princes to proclaim him as the ruler of Wallachia on a cold winter’s day in 1859.

What that has to do with Transylvania, other than being a rather pathetic provocation to the Hungarian population, I don’t know. But as the temperature plummeted and the snow began to fall, I couldn’t help but think of the homeless, crowded together in this city’s miserable shelter, and the families in their awful shacks living out at the municipal landfill, and the elderly in their threadbare apartments, and the poor, all trying to stay warm, and wonder why the mayor felt it necessary to blow a few thousand euros on a 15-minute “patriotic” salvo.


I went out this morning and took the above photo in Cluj’s main cemetery. Although the work crews had diligently managed to clear the paths in the rest of the cemetery, in this remote area it had been left untouched. I stood there in the frozen air for several minutes, loathe to break the pristine snow with my footsteps. And yet I knew that I had to tell this story.

The row upon row of tombstones all bear the same word – неизвестные – Russian for “unknown”, marking the final resting place of soldiers who died in or near Cluj seventy years ago. Abandoned and forgotten, the simple gray markers all bear the inscription “soldier, 1944” because only their occupation and the year of their death are known.

While little Romanian schoolchildren must be diligently learning about the events of the “Little Unification” of 1859, I wonder how many of them know why there is a Soviet graveyard in their city’s cemetery, or who these men were, or why 80,000 of them gave their lives so far away from their homes.

But if today’s children should somehow find their way to this remote corner of the cemetery, they could not even read what was carefully engraved there because the Russian language is no longer taught. It’s not wanted and it’s not welcome anymore, and nobody today wants to think about the forces that brought those men here. There won’t be any fireworks for the men in this part of the cemetery, nor for the Romanian soldiers who fell next to them.


There is not a shred of doubt that there is a strong anti-Russian sentiment in this country and I’ve struggled for a long time to understand why. Certainly there is a long history between Russia and the various regions of Romania but the same can be said about the Germans and the Turks. I’ve spent the past week poring over old documents, parsing Romanian news accounts written in that hideously obtuse Communist style, and even gritting my teeth as I sifted through Ion Pacepa’s dubious “revelations”.

I will write about what I found here soon because I found, to my surprise, that the answers to this question led me to finding the answers to two other questions I’ve had. And so I began to trace it back ever further into the past, until I found that it all began in the shallow waters off the coast of Japan on a brutally hot summer’s day more than 150 years ago.

All the details to come as I write that post and put the pieces together. Until then, may all the dead rest in peace.

8 thoughts on “Out here 1000 miles from their home

  1. Hi there!

    You’ll learn a lot about the Russian lack of popularity within Romania. You only need to ask. The most recent explanations are based upon the events following 1944, but by no means it starts then.
    It starts with the Russian-Turkish War of 1806-1812, when Russia swallows half of Moldova, an act that contributed to the Romanian waking-up on Russian “good intentions”.
    It continues with the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, ended with The Peace of Adrianopole. Although the peace had most favorable consequences for the Danubian Principalities, the way in which the war was carried out by the Russian troops on Romanian soil generated, for the first time, a truly widespread national hate against the Russians. The Russian Army made countless and huge abuses on Principalities’ territory. Look here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/115011778/Razboiul-Ruso-turc-Din-1828-1829 .
    It continues with the 1848 Revolution, when the Russian Empire agreed to help in repressing the revolutions in Eastern Europe. Russian Army again crossed Romanian territory on its way to Hungary. They contributed to the elimination of last pockets of revolution in Wallachia and instituted a truly terror regime, in order to dissuade and deter the population from engaging in further political unrest. The author and historian Neagu Djuvara mentions this repression in one of his books (sorry, but I do not remember the title). This repression further aliens Romanians to the Russian “mirage”.
    It continues with the 1853 Russian invasion of the Principalities, when, at the start of the Crimean War, this was considered hostile territory by the Russian Army. No need to detail what that meant…
    For a while it’s quiet, but in First world War when, after the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Army present in Romania is virtually dissolved and all the Russian soldiers are returning back to Russia. In the middle of the winter, with no supplies and no discipline to speak of, it was… not easy, to say the least for the Romanian population of Moldova.
    It’s redundant to further mention the events after 1944.

    In the end, I’ll tell you a joke which I heard when I was young (shortly after 1989). You may know it, but if you don’t, it reflects the image of the Russian people in the eyes of the Easter and Central Europeans,
    A guy (Romanian, obvious) walks and sees the golden fish on the ground. It saves it by throwing back into water. The golden fish is grateful and is willing to fulfill the guy three wishes. He thinks and asks: “Let the Chinese come here!” “Ok!”, says the fish. 50 million Chinese are coming to Romania. They pillage and burn and lay waste to the land, after which they leave.
    The second wish is: “Let the Chinese come here!”. “OK!”, and 100 million Chinese are coming. Incredible, unimaginable devastation ensues, after which they leave.
    The third wish is: “Let the Chinese come here!”. “OK!”, and 300 million Chinese are coming. The destruction cannot be described. Almost no stone is left standing. Life on this land almost cease to exists, after which they leave.
    After these three wishes, the golden fish stands pensive and ask: “Why on Earth did you ask for the Chinese to come here three times? Your country is no more, the land is destroyed. Why?”. And the guy responds: “They may have came here three times, but they went through the Russians SIX times!”
    And I have recently heard this joke in relation to the events in Ukraine, so it seems that this vision about our neighbors it is shared throughout the region.
    They really managed to get themselves hated all over Europe. Just ask the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs or the people in the Baltic countries about it.


    1. Dar pe de alta parte, avem doua vorbe: lucru nemtesc si respectiv lucru rusesc. Si sint expresii de lauda. Lucru rusesc = ceva de regula mare, greoi, fara un design stralucitor, insa fiabil, solid, puternic, fara moarte si de regula simplu de operat. In lucrurile rusesti poti sa ai incredere. Comparati o Volga cu un Renault din aceeasi perioada si veti intelege.
      Nu stiu de ce mai persista sentimentul acesta antirus. Noi nu avem prea multe motive contemporane. Vecinii de care pomeniti sufera inca sechelele ocupatiei permanente, armatele ruse de pe teritoriul lor s-au retras tirziu, abia in 1993 de pilda din Polonia. Dar la noi nu au fost cantonate si daca Ceausescu a facut un lucru bun, acesta a fost tinerea la distanta a armatelor ruse si tinerea la respect a Pactului de la Varsovia. Aceste lucruri au inceput sa se spuna acum si pe canalele mass-media, pentru ca propaganda anti-Ceausescu a inceput sa lase locul faptului istoric.


  2. Nu cred ca vei gasi raspunsul privind sentimentul antirus in hirtii. In afara faptului mai mult decit evident si consemnat peste tot, anume Basarabia fiind trecuta in custodia URSS dupa razboi, Bucovina si Delta Dunarii in Ucraina (care pentru noi inca inseamna URSS), mai trebuie sa vorbesti cu oamenii batrini despre cote, datorii de razboi, armata rusa si comportamentul ei. Si cu veteranii de razboi despre felul in care au murit rusii in Transilvania in al doilea razboi mondial, dar si despre cum au murit romanii cind au deschis frontul in marsul spre vest, carne de tun pt armata rusa.
    In rest, nimeni nu are nimic impotriva rusilor contemporani ca oameni. Dupa cum se vede si in raspunsurile anterioare, tot despre acea perioada e vorba.
    Putin dintre romani au cunoscut rusi contemporani de rind. Si ei au fost chinuiti la fel ca noi si acum sint chiar mai rau. Sint tot oameni si ei. Si la ei sint virfuri mafiote si sarmani care nu-i inghit. Una peste alta, oamenii sint la fel peste tot in lume
    Draga Sam, din 2011 de cind mi-am dezactivat definitiv contul pe Facebook, vad ca ai inceput sa fii un pic molipsit de modul de a vorbi al mass-media locale. Se vede ca predominanta accentului tragic si sentimental din presa romana te-a influentat.
    Oare de ce ar fi sarbatorirea Micii Uniri o provocare pentru populatia maghiara? Si de ce intrebi ce legatura are cu Transilvania? Transilvania este o zona geeografica apartinind Romaniei, nu o tara sau un land german sau vreun stat in stat ca in USA, cu guvern aparte. Populatia maghiara tot cetatenie romana are si trebuie sa cunoasca istoria acestei tari precum si istoria propriei etnii si cum a ajuns aceasta sa locuiasca, sa se nasca si sa isi cistige existenta aici.
    Cit priveste focurile de artificii, aceeasi intrebare o poti pune si despre 4 Iulie si despre Carnavalul din Rio si are acelasi raspuns: panem et circensem.
    Cu drag, Ina


  3. “There is not a shred of doubt that there is a strong anti-Russian sentiment in this country and I’ve struggled for a long time to understand why. Certainly there is a long history between Russia and the various regions of Romania but the same can be said about the Germans and the Turks.”

    I guess you never read the great Constantin Tănase’s sketch satirizing the Red Army soldiers’ habit of “requisitioning” all personal property in sight:

    Rău era cu “der, die, das”
    Da-i mai rău cu “davai ceas”
    De la Nistru pân’ la Don
    Davai ceas, davai palton
    Davai ceas, davai moşie
    Haraşo tovărăşie.

    You can find the translation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantin_T%C4%83nase#Death. Check it out, you will also find out how (and why) Tănase died. Maybe it will help you find an answer to your question…

    And now you know. Vai ce bine!


  4. Oh, just for historical accuracy, Alexandru Ioan Cuza was not the ruling prince of Moldova. In fact he was not any kind of prince, he was an army colonel who was elected as ruler (“domnitor”) in both countries.
    The decision for this double election was taken by a group of patriots, mostly nobles from Wallachia and Moldova.

    As a final word, I am really amazed that you are having problems understanding why we don’t like the Russians. For more the last 200 years they have taken various parts of Romania, conquered us completely several times, butchered hundreds of thousands of Romanians, shoved communism down our throats and they keep on being the greatest threat to us. What part is unclear for you?


  5. Nevermind the fact that the Little Union has nothing to do with Hungary, why are the Hungarians being provoked by Romanians celebrating one of our national hollidays? Aren’t they supposed to be loyal citizen of Romania?
    If they are, there is no offence. If they are not then… well, we have a problem. And it’s not the fireworks.


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