Romania: Bottom of the Heap

The February 2000 issue of the Bucharest men’s magazine Plai cu Boi features one Princess Brianna Caradja. Variously clad in leather or nothing much at all, she is spread across the center pages in a cluster of soft-focus poses, abusing subservient half-naked (male) serfs. The smock-clad underlings chop wood, haul sleighs, and strain against a rusting steam tractor, chained to their tasks, while Princess Brianna (the real thing, apparently) leans lasciviously into her furs, whip in hand, glaring contemptuously at men and camera alike, in a rural setting reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

An acquired taste, perhaps. But then Mircea Dinescu, editor of Plai cu Boi and a well-known writer and critic, is no Hugh Hefner. His centerfold spread has a knowing, sardonic undertone: it plays mockingly off Romanian nationalism’s obsession with peasants, land, and foreign exploitation. Princess Brianna is a fantastical, camp evocation of aristocratic hauteur and indulgence, Venus in Furs for a nation that has suffered serial historical humiliation. The ironic juxtaposition of pleasure, cruelty, and a rusting tractor adds a distinctive local flourish. You wouldn’t find this on a newsstand elsewhere in Europe. Not in Prague, much less Vienna. You wouldn’t even find it in Warsaw. Romania is different.

In December 2000, Romanians went to the polls. In a nightmare of post-Communist political meltdown, they faced a choice for president between Ion Iliescu, a former Communist apparatchik, and Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a fanatical nationalist. All the other candidates had been eliminated in a preliminary round of voting. The parties of the center, who had governed in uneasy coalition since 1996, had collapsed in a welter of incompetence, corruption, and recrimination (their leader, the former university rector Emil Constantinescu, did not even bother to stand for a second presidential term). Romanians elected Iliescu by a margin of two-to-one; that is, one in three of those who voted preferred Tudor. Tudor’s platform combines irredentist nostalgia with attacks on the Hungarian minority—some 2 million people out of a population of 22 million—and openly espouses anti-Semitism. The magazines that support him carry cartoons with slanderous and scatological depictions of Hungarians, Jews, and gypsies. They would be banned in some Western democracies.

Both Tudor and Iliescu have deep roots in pre-1989 Romanian politics. Tudor was Nicolae Ceausescu’s best- known literary sycophant, writing odes to his leader’s glory before making the easy switch from national communism to ultranationalism and founding his Greater Romania Party in 1991 with émigré cash. Ion Iliescu is one of a number of senior Communists who turned against Ceausescu and manipulated a suspiciously stage-managed revolution to their own advantage. President of Romania between 1990 and 1996 before winning again in 2000, he is popular throughout the countryside, especially in his native region of Moldavia, where his picture is everywhere. Even urban liberals voted for him, holding their noses (and with Tudor as the alternative). There are men like these in every East European country, but …

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