Paul Kenyon’s narrative begins not in downtown Bucharest in December 1989 with the moment – quite possibly the only episode in modern Romanian history most people know – when Nicolae Ceaușescu, addressing a Communist Party rally, for the first time in his life encountered something other than unadulterated adulation and fled (though not very far) in the nearest helicopter. Rather, it opens in Gallipoli in the middle of the 15th century, four centuries before a country called Romania even existed, with a young Vlad Tepeș – better known to posterity by his nickname Dracula – being delivered to the Ottoman sultan as a hostage for the good behaviour of his father, ruler under Turkish sufferance of the Danubian principality of Wallachia.
Kenyon loves a good tale, and a half-chance to retell the story of Dracula’s life (and afterlife) was clearly too tempting to pass up. But he has another purpose in beginning his book with Dracula. Dracula’s life story foreshadows the central theme of this book: Romania’s vulnerability to the whims of foreign powers and the dodges, double-crosses and dark arts its leaders have had to deploy to see off their enemies at home and abroad. Here, Dracula was the model for all who came after him. He played off his rivals against each other and made up for a lack of brute strength with the use of exemplary terror. Later rulers tried to emulate these stratagems, with varying degrees of success. The fascist Iron Guard regime that with Germany’s blessing took control of Romania in September 1940 was so wanton in its use of violence against its adversaries that even Hitler abjured it and connived in its overthrow. More successfully, during the 1960s and 1970s, Ceaușescu freed himself from his Soviet overlords and set himself up as a major figure on the world stage by purging pro-Moscow elements in Romania’s Communist Party and launching a charm offensive on the West.
Kenyon’s title is taken from a line in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and his work unfolds like a gothic horror story. While there is just about no blood-drinking, there are murders, pillages and massacres aplenty, along with extortion, embezzlement and human trafficking. In 1942, for instance, General Ion Antonescu, the country’s military dictator, agreed to halt the deportation of Romania’s Jews in return for donations worth $15 million to a hospital and to his wife’s charity (set up to help families suffering as a result of the war, would you believe?). Later, under the country’s first communist leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Jews were ‘sold’ to Israel in exchange for farm equipment. Kenyon’s book even contains the odd case of the living dead. In 1938, Corneliu Codreanu, teenage idol, self-styled mystic and leader of the Iron Guard, was murdered on the orders of a jealous King Carol II, after which his followers exhumed his body and submitted themselves to the leadership of his spirit.
In keeping with the gothic theme, modern Romania reveals itself over the course of Children of the Night as a protean thing. Its origins lie in the union in 1859 of Vlad Tepeș’s old fiefdom of Wallachia with the principality of Moldavia, which lay to its northeast. They were brought together under the personal rule of an energetic boyar, Alexandru Ioan Cuza. In 1866, Cuza was ousted and a branch of the Hohenzollern dynasty was invited to take power instead. In the century and a half since, Romania has variously been an Ottoman vassal (it achieved full independence only in 1878), a constitutional monarchy, a fascist terror state, a military dictatorship, a communist republic and a parliamentary democracy, in some cases switching from one to the other and back again within a few months.
Such dramatic shape-shifting has been a feature not only of Romania’s internal politics but also of its frontiers. In the aftermath of the First World War, in which Romania fought on the Allied side, the storied province of Transylvania (site of Count Dracula’s castle in Stoker’s novel) was cleaved off from Hungary and grafted on to Romania. With the addition also of Bessarabia, which had seceded from Russia following the Bolshevik takeover, Romania’s size more than doubled almost overnight. The new ‘Greater Romania’, much fetishised by nationalists, lasted two decades. In June 1940, the USSR, invigorated by its pact with Nazi Germany, marched into Bessarabia. Two months later, Hitler ‘awarded’ a slab of northern Transylvania to his Hungarian allies, a territorial transfer that Romania – caught between Germany and the Soviet Union – was powerless to prevent. When Hitler took up arms against the USSR in 1941, the dictator Antonescu joined in, eager to expunge the humiliations of the previous year. Romanian troops took control of Bessarabia once more and seized Transnistria and Odessa. By 1944, they had been driven out of all three by the Russians, yet in the aftermath of the war Romania was compensated with the restoration of northern Transylvania. Since then, there have been only minor adjustments to Romania’s borders, though in Transylvania Hungarian flags are still ubiquitous and in Moldova, the tiny modern state that emerged in Bessarabia following the USSR’s collapse, a sizeable minority favours union with Romania.
Kenyon relates all this with verve, humour and, sometimes, just a little too much relish. His concern is principally with the goings-on in the palaces, council chambers and boudoirs of Bucharest, and he rarely falters in explaining the sometimes bewildering shifts in fortune that seem always to ambush Romania’s rulers. At the same time, he patiently untangles the complicated webs of loyalty and enmity that crisscrossed the royal court, the military camarilla and the politburo alike. He also nails the foibles and failings of Romania’s leaders, as exhibited in Carol II’s elevation of his mistress’s chauffeur to chief adviser and in Ceaușescu’s indulgence of his wife’s scientific pretensions (founded on a plagiarised PhD thesis) and her penchant for expensive furs at a time when ordinary people had to queue for hours just for chicken feet. Very occasionally, the characterisations verge on the cartoonish and some of Kenyon’s descriptions – of the gaudy icons wielded by Codreanu’s devotees, of Carol II’s choice of clothes (‘self-styled uniforms of candy-coloured blue and gold braid with a chest of saucer-sized medals’) and of the interior of the Ceaușescus’ villa (with its ‘mosaics of rainbows and fantastical fish’) – might leave you wondering whether kitsch is the only form of art permitted in Romania.
Kenyon is married to a Romanian and he makes enterprising use of his in-laws’ memories of communist rule. More widely, however, those who did not stalk the corridors of power don’t get much of a look in. No ‘epic’ can survive a graph devoted to the balance of trade or a table showing relative fertility rates, but a little bit more on the economic and social history of Romania would have helped tie up loose ends. For instance, Kenyon makes great play of the importance of Romanian oil exports to the outcomes of the two world wars, but oil then departs the stage, only to return when Kenyon reaches the 1970s, by which time Romania apparently lacked the means even to meet its own needs. What had happened in between? Similarly, he describes the suppression of Christianity by Gheorghiu-Dej’s communist government in the late 1940s (including the replacement of Father Christmas with Father Frost) and no more is then heard about religion until we encounter clerics leading the resistance to Ceaușescu in the 1980s. How, we are left wondering, did Christian institutions survive to become the spearhead of the anti-communist opposition?
Kenyon concludes this enjoyable history by letting sunlight filter in, paying the customary tribute to the ‘drive and inspiration’ of young Romanians today and celebrating the ‘new and exciting’ period of prosperity that awaits them following the arrival of such multinationals as Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Is he forgetting the lessons of his own book? Foreign interventions in Romania don’t have a habit of ending well.