On Legacies: Imperial, Personal, Subjective

By Roxana Coman

Rossita Graveda’s lecture “The Ottoman Legacy of Bulgaria”, 19 September 2021. Photo: private.

Between 14 and 21 September 2021, I was fortunate to attend the Forum Transregionale Studien’s Transregional Academy, “Shadows of Empires: Imperial Legacies and Mythologies in East Central Europe”, held in Sofia, Bulgaria. I could connect with other scholars, learn about their work, talk about my own, and receive feedback on it. The lectures offered by Annette Werberger, Diana Mishkova, Ulrich Schmid, Dimitris Stamatopoulos, Miloš Řezník, and Rossitsa Gradeva, as well as the project presentations, in a space that encouraged the open exchange of ideas, facilitated interesting discussions around concepts and theories of empire, nation, Orientalism, and Balkanism, while challenging their meanings and interpretations.

Archeological monument of part of a Turkish türbe in Sofia, Bulgaria. According to Rossitsa Gradeva, for a very long time, it was called the ‘Roman Wall’. Photo: private.

As I listened about Ivo Strahilov and Slavka Karakusheva’s project, “Dis/Inheriting the Ottoman Legacy in Contemporary Bulgaria”, and their interaction with the Ottoman heritage of mosques, one of their questions stood out: who are we to talk about the Muslim minority of Bulgaria? They further asked: are we able to represent and speak for them? As with many other things I gleaned from my colleagues’ presentations and the keynote lectures, I let these questions sit for moment, with the plan to return to them. Interestingly, 2021 has proven to be a year with defining moments regarding how Romania still deals with its imperial legacies. On the issue of Ottoman legacy, given the 200-year anniversary of the 1821 Wallachian Revolution led by Tudor Vladimirescu, as well as the Moldavian uprising, in which Alexandros Ypsilantis had a defining role, the no 65/April 8 2021 law declaring Vladimirescu a national hero and 2021 as Tudor Vladimirescu year, was met with mixed reactions from Romanian academia. The Romanian Academy, led by historian Ioan Aurel Pop, lobbied in favor of further perceiving the year 1821 as the temporal border between medieval and modern as well as ‘subjugated’ and ‘free’ Romania. Meanwhile, the 300-year anniversary celebrations of Baron Samuel von Brukenthal and the neo-nationalist/far-right scandal over a public monument erected in Sibiu to honor his cultural legacy, further emphasize the still present ambivalent and paradoxical discourses and attitudes in Romania in relation to its Hapsburg imperial legacies.

Diana Mishkova’s lecture “Comparing National/Regional Approaches to the Byzantine and Ottoman Imperial legacies”, 16 September 2021. Photo: private.

I was reminded of Strahilov and Karakusheva’s questions when I saw an exhibition announcement on the Romanian Cultural Institute in Istanbul’s Facebook page. The exhibition’s name, translated into English, sounds a bit off – Bucharest as Seen within an Ottoman-Oriental Matrix. It references, however, the work of a famous Romanian philosopher, Lucian Blaga. His philosophical system, heavily influenced by German ethnologist Leo Frobenius’ geographical determinist theory of Kulturmporphologie, is very much in tandem with similar Romanian interwar theories that appeared in fields from literature to psychology[1] and attempted to more clearly delineate between East and West and to answer the ever-present question: who are we, as Romanians? This process led me to question the changing discourse and approaches that I have used in my own work, because I have read and applied Blaga, Romanian sociologist Mihai Ralea, and other authors that contributed an Orientalist and autochthonous narrative to defining Romania. This also led me to question my own bias. Was I, myself, guilty of having an Orientalist phase in my work while I wondered whether we could frame 19th-century Romanian art depicting Oriental scenes as mere byproducts of a Westernization process? Whenever I looked at Theodor Aman’s or Carol Popp de Szathmary’s paintings and watercolors – or artworks produced by the so-called ‘Balcic School’ – as instances of an orientalist gaze, was I overusing the concept of Orientalism? Annette Werberger’s and Diana Mishkova’s comments on how and if Orientalism is still a valid theory, or if it has become a catchphrase, certainly had an impact on how I relate to Ottoman material culture both in 18th  and 19th-century, as well as present-day, Romania.

Moreover, the discussions and comments sparked by the case studies presented by my colleagues, and the roundtable on the already observed impact of the COVID pandemic on the social studies and humanities, enabled me to further critically engage with both my formation as a scholar and my research. Beyond connecting with other scholars, attending the academy also helped me to reflect on my personal and professional biases.


[1] See also Romanian sociologist Mihai Ralea, Fenomenul românesc, 1924; Nichifor Crainic, Schimbarea la față a României, 1937; and Constantin Rădulescu-Motru, Psihologia poporului român, 1937.


Roxana Coman (PhD, University of Bucharest, 2015) is a curator at the Bucharest Municipality Museum. Her most recent exhibition project was “Tudor Vladimirescu and the Cultural Memory of the Revolution of 1821”, in March 2021 the Bucharest Municipality Museum. In 2020 Roxana Coman was a participant in the Transregional Academy “Shadows of Empire” of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Foundation.

 

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