On Frontiers. An essay


  What does the frontier mean for the Romanians, or, in this respect, for any kind of community which was systematically and for a long period of time stopped from going across it? With how much fascination would the Romanians have regarded the frontiers during Communism? The frontier acquires new meanings in a world thrown by its own political system or by various ideologies to the peripheries of Europe and this happens because, as Alain Brossat notices, ‘the frontier is a territory of variable dimensions and depths, and whose property is less topological (a separation line) but rather political: a space governed by special rules – themselves variable – and whose relations with the territory are susceptible to alter according to circumstances’.[1]

            At the level of collective mentality, frontiers, especially those defined and shaped from 19thcentury (considered the Century of the Nations in Europe) onward preserve the myth of the fortress in a siege; they function starting from the idea of an unsecure space which needs to be continually defended. When the threat is not there, when the enemy neither exists nor has the desire to conquer he has to be invented in order to justify the mere necessity of the border to exist and to be protected at all costs. This scenario is brilliantly exposed in J.M Coetzee`s novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians”. There, an Empire prepares for war against an enemy never seen or known. The Barbarians, whose existence is barely proven, justify the abolition of human rights and turn the whole society into a sophisticated, cruel and cynical war machine.

            At the same time, a frontier creates and disseminates the sense of belonging; with the invention of the national border, local or regional identities artificially melt or are subordinated to a much heterogeneous and, consequently, conflict one: the national identity. The Communist ideology is perhaps the best example of annihilation of local identities through borders. One has to think just about the former Soviet Republics or the cases of Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia to have a glimpse of how frontiers generate artificial identities which end up by antagonizing communities. 

            First and above all, the frontier is a limit, both physical and imaginary; ‘The frontier is the physical proof of the human race’s divided self’[2]. And this happens because, as it is already a well-known fact, the more secured the frontier is, the more mythical becomes what lies within. On 15th of August, 2013 the Mexican newspaper Zocalo published an article about the relations between Nicolae Ceaușescu and… aliens. The reader finds out about the numerous encounters between the Romanian dictator and various outer space creatures, descending from UFO`s. The Aliens apparently conducted experiments on children provided by the Romanian shoe-maker, temporarily President of Romania. Since Ceaușescu was barely speaking decent Romanian, it is still a mystery how the communication was established.              When looking over the fence – which is so specific for Romanians – it becomes impossible, when news from outside the border are filtered, censured and distorted by propaganda the frustration increases and, together with it, a whole range of mythical elements and symbols. This range has two functions and, as paradoxically as it may seem, they cohabitate dialectically: on the one hand, it generates the fascination towards the foreigner, and on the other, it contributes to stirring a feeling of susceptibility toward the foreigner.

            The existence of a frontier defined as such raises another challenge and opens an entirely new debate about… freedom. There is a certain matrix, a paradigm inside which freedom is perceived. For Romanians, freedom is a synonym, in Post-Communism of the freedom of movement, i.e. the movement of ideas and the mobility of individuals.

            The signals received from beyond the border in Communism (letters from abroad, football games watched on the Bulgarian channels, listening to the Radio Free Europe, etc.) acquire the significances of a miracle in miniature. These represent the almost mystical joy of a secluded person who, all of a sudden and for a short time, feels himself or herself part of a world he or she only presumes, of which he or she dreams and which he infuses with his or her own hopes.

            We might say then, rightfully, that Romanians have never had a special desire to travel. ‘We should not forget that, at the beginning of the 19th century, for 90% of the Romanians, the world’s margins were the margins of the village or the town they lived in. The horizon was the place where stories started.[3] Nevertheless, as Salman Rushdie puts it (Rushdie himself being someone who has experienced limits and frontiers all his life) `in our deepest natures, we are frontier-crossing beings`.[4]

            If, before 1989, just a few Romanians could aspire to see any other space except for the one inside the Iron Curtain, just a few years after the collapse of the Romanian Communism, the initial contact with the outer world was facilitated, initially, by movies and books. Years later, the first waves of Romanian immigration faced the cultural clash between East and West, with consequences to be seen even today. For almost half millennia, without even being fully aware, Europe was defined by two completely different realities. Inside each of them, the cultural paradigms and the collective mentalities were shaped so divergently, then, when finally the communication became formally possible, it was undermined by a certain cultural memory, by a certain gap between the New Man created by Communism and the Capitalist World. This antinomy is not, as one might think, an abstract concept; it manifested itself visibly. One just has to look around nowadays to observe it on the streets of Paris, London or Madrid. The Georgian writer Lasha Bugadze (whose book I discovered recently while on a trip to Georgia) describes it in his novel “The Literature Express”: “I guess the Europeans don’t suspect such complexes exist. One has to come from the former Soviet Union or be a survivor of the `80-ies in order to understand these fears. The fear of making a mistake. The fear of misdemeanor. The fear of pissing in Vienna airport toilet design for handicapped and being obliged to pay the fine out of the miserable amount you managed to save for your trip abroad.Why have you urinated in the toilet for handicapped, citizen?

            Ultimately, the Romanians’ prostration in front of the foreigners, specific for the first years after 1990, arises also from this frustration. They come from beyond the frontier, from a new forbidden world. We do not know them but we have imagined them all in the nights when the Romanian Communists left us in the dark in order to cut the electricity expenses. And, in the dark, the border becomes even more mysterious.

            The Communists are no pioneers here either. The fear of foreigners and the need to protect oneself through frontiers dates back to even the dawns of the Romanian state. On April 4th, 1881, when it turned out that Romania had become a refuge for the so called second rate foreigners, a new law was adopted, through which ‘the foreigner who through his or her behaviour might compromise the inner or outer security of the country could be forced to leave the place he or she inhabited or to be transferred in another region or simply thrown out of the country. An expelled foreigner, who entered Romania again would be arrested, and submitted to the correctional police, which would condemn him to prison from 5 days to 6 months, and after this period, he would be taken to the border without having the right to be shown the exit point.’[5]With such history, there is no question why our relations with the Others are defined by permanent suspicions. In fact, the contact with the Other and the danger it represents to an allegedly national specificity was the recurrent theme of every nationalistic speech in Romania and throughout the world. It is so easy to hate and to feel in peril in the presence of frontiers because the frontiers feed themselves with this antinomy: inside, the pure, outside the pagans, the conspirators!

            Immediately after 1989, the foreigners who came to Romania did not come from France, Germany, Italy or Spain, but from beyond the border. Consequently, we have here ’a radical dissociation of two destinies: that of the cast of the world, who have the possibility to move around without any obstacle and thus live in time, and that of those who are prisoners within a certain space, who do not start moving unless they have to, unless they have no other choice and who face the inhospitality of the world’[6]. Consequently, the border is also a qualitative delimitation, a fracture between two categories of citizens (the Romanian public discourse will frequently use the syntagma a second rate European citizen).

            The desire for integration into Europe (which still today means for Romanians  Western Europe) is manifested simultaneously with a tendency of diminishing if not removing any legacy which seems incompatible with the new world we want to integrate in. In Freudian terms one can label this attitude as denial. Romanians have always treated their neighbours with condescendence and irony (especially the Bulgarians and the Moldavians beyond the Prut) as well as everything that could have reminded them of their Oriental antecedents. The Romanian historian Marius Oprea says that ‘the Turks entered Romanian history through the football gate, the Bulgarians through the jokes Romanians tell about them, as for the Serbs or the Russians, we hardly like to mention them at all. Today we admire or despise the French, the Germans, the English or the Americans. The mentality and the behaviour have changed in the past two hundred years because then, more than two hundred years ago new models were produced”.[7]The imaginary does not register any deep change of perspective after Romania’s joining the European Union either (on the contrary).

            In an article published in the Romanian edition of the magazine Le Monde Diplomatique, Victor Negrescu states that ‘the Romanian person goes through a deep feeling of complexity towards the other European citizens, for different reasons whose source lies in the acute lack of knowledge regarding the European matter and of the Romanian-centrism promoted by politicians.’[8] The complex of which Victor Negrescu speaks about (and not only he) is in itself the expression of a border.

            For the Romanians, borders multiplied in an alarming way. In Communism not only were people not allowed to cross the border, but also the simple trip from one county to another, from one city or town to another became an adventure. For economic reasons and not only, in weekends, cars were allowed to run only according to a very precise timetable (according to the vehicle registration plate which was either even or uneven) the citizens who happened to be out after a certain hour were asked their IDs, it was difficult to get residency in a city or town (it was so difficult to get residency in Bucharest that Romanians had to offer huge bribes or even to get married there). It is important to run back over all these limits whose proximity increased to such extent that the individual found himself or herself to lead his or her existence in almost claustrophobic spaces. Forced to live in ever more restrictive reservations, people felt acutely that everything in Communism developed under the paradigm of frontier. Speaking about his leaving for the USA, the Romanian priest and writer, Valeriu Anania, describes the moment when the stairs of the plane were lifting indicating in the end the taking-off to another space. The fragment is relevant for the way in which the collective mentality relates to the frontier: ‘The fascinating stairs which a Romanian nowadays represent the first steps to freedom, the scary stairs which, at a simple sign of the finger, could turn you back from the door of the plane to humiliation and fright’[9].

            Beyond the village, beyond the city, beyond the area in which everything could be controlled rigorously, existence became an adventure. In a book of memoirs about the resistance in the mountains, one of the leaders of the Romanian anti-Communist movement Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu describes this world as follows: “The entrance into the woods was guarded as a frontier. The people in the village were not allowed to leave the village in the evening”[10].

            The discursive frontier could not be avoided either. Never before Communism had euphemism been so present in discourses. The allusion, the parable, the ambiguity – all of them represented supplementary frontiers, verbal disguises of ideas always repressed, always forced to adjust to an official discourse which (confusingly indeed) modified itself. In Communism ‘everything urged towards interpretation, urged you to search for meanings carefully, and more and more courageously to give new meanings sprung from the world of your ideas’[11]. The effect was, on the one hand, the idealisation of literature, its consideration as a symbol of anti-communist resistance, and on the other hand, the freezing, the robotisation of the Romanian society. Another paradigm was created; any discourse was regarded, even after 1989, in terms of double language. Beyond the written or uttered word there was a true delirium of interpretations going on. Censorship functioned as border in this case as well. Each supplementary frontier added, with generosity, a new frustration.

            Not being exclusively a simple physical obstacle, the frontier could not simply disappear all of a sudden. The isolation produced by the imaginary barrier between us and the Others continues to produce its effects. Some attitudes towards Romanian exiles are emblematic for our present discussion. The exiled is, quite often, denied from expressing his or her views on Romania due to the fact that, living abroad, apparently he or she lost any right to act as a Romanian citizen. Those who stayed, who, and this was a commonly used expression, ate salami with soy, are always morally superior. They suffered, and suffering inside the border is seen as a criterion for a better understanding of life itself.

            During Communism, life inside the borders was never easy. Similarly to any life fact at identity level, it has its own symptoms. Which are these? First of all, the exacerbation of the myth of the anti-Romanian conspiracies. The lack of real contact with the world across the border raises suspicions. Then, the excessive valorisation of Romanian spirituality or, on the contrary, the minimisation of the national identity…even though they are antagonist processes, they are generated by the same type of identity isolation.

            The frontier not only prevents us from accessing the other side, but for Romanians, it also prevents the free circulation of culture. The lack of accordance with the today’s spirit also generates feeling of identity insecurity or, on the contrary, sufficiency. In a compensatory manner, any imprisoned person (whether we talk about the physical prison or not) develops an irresistible desire to travel. Travelling is, as I already stated, a metaphor for freedom itself. Valeriu Anania confesses in his Memoirs that ‘this longing became stronger along the years spent in prison, the reclusion itself making the starving people dream only about food, and the enchained of journeys’[12].

            The removal of frontiers seems to be a much harder task then imposing them. When the frontier disappears, those who were inside and outside feel equally threatened by the contact with the Aliens. The human beings, all over the globe, communicate with a code which transcends the linguistic barrier; it is a cultural code, it is the habit of doing things in more or less the same manner. When the code is broken by the existence of ideologies, when these ideologies have a lot of time at their disposal to mutilate, distort and replace, the conflict is inherent. Then, the easiest solution seems to be idealizing the time when the frontier existed and trying to reset everything or, in Plato`s terms, to go back to the caves. But, on a long run, this attitude does nothing more than postponing the problem, freezing it for the next generations to solve it.  In the end, sooner or later, the cave will not be enough, especially for those who are now aware of the existence of another reality outside.











ANANIA, Valeriu.Memorii, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2008.

BROSSAT, Alain.Frontiera ca muzeu şi laborator al exceptării, in Teritorii (Scrieri, dez-scrieri). Coordinator: Octavian Groza, Bucureşti: Paideia Publishing House, 2003.

MIHĂILESCU, Dan C.Literatura română în postceauşism, (3 vol.), Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2006.

NEGRESCU, Victor.Sunt românii cetăţeni de categoria a doua?, in „Le Monde Diplomatique”, Romanian language edition, nr. 4, aprilie 2007.

NEGRICI, Eugen.Iluziile literaturii române, Bucureşti: Cartea Românească Publishing House, 2008.

OGORANU, Ion Gavrilă.Brazii se frâng, dar nu se îndoiesc, Timişoara: Marineasa Publishing House, 1993.

OPREA, Marius.Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, Bucureşti: Humanitas Publishing House, 2006.

RUSHDIE, Salman.Step Across this Line, Colected Non-Fiction 1992-2002,London: Vintage, 2003.

STAN, Apostol.Putere politică şi democraţie în România, 1859 – 1918, Bucureşti: Albatros Publishing House, 1995.


[1]Alain Brossat, Frontiera ca muzeu şi laborator al exceptării, in Teritorii (Scrieri, dez-scrieri). Coordinator:  Octavian Groza, Bucureşti: Paideia Publishing House, 2003, pp. 101-102.

[2] Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line, Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002,London: Vintage, 2003, p. 412.

[3] Marius Oprea, Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, Bucureşti: Humanitas Publishing House, 2006, p. 17.

[4] Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line, p. 408.

[5] Apostol Stan, Putere politică şi democraţie în România, 1859 – 1918, Bucureşti: Albatros Publishing House, 1995, p. 138.

[6] Alain Brossat, Frontiera ca muzeu şi laborator al exceptării, p. 107.

[7] Marius Oprea, Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, pp. 22-23.

[8] Victor Negrescu, Sunt românii cetăţeni de categoria a doua?, in ”Le Monde Diplomatique”, Romanian language edition, no. 4, April 2007.

[9] Valeriu Anania, Memorii, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2008, p. 345.

[10] Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu, Brazii se frâng, dar nu se îndoiesc, vol. 2, Timişoara: Marineasa Publishing House, 1993, p. 108.

[11] Eugen Negrici, Iluziile literaturii române, p. 30.

[12] Valeriu Anania, op. cit., p. 455.

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