Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania ( Indiana University Press, 2019) is the winner of the 2020 Ed Hewett Prize awarded annually by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies for an outstanding monograph on the political economy of Russia, Eurasia and/or Eastern Europe published in the previous year. (See full prize citation in the Awards page.)
The book examines the fraught relationship between heritage-making and statecraft. Focusing on Romania from 1945 to 2016, I analyze the socialist state’s attempt to create its own heritage, as well as the legacy of that project. More specifically, I explore the transformation of a central district, the Old Town, from a socially and ethnically diverse place in the early 20th century, into an epitome of national history under socialism, and then, starting in the 2000s, into the historic center of a European capital. Under socialism, politicians and professionals used the district’s historic buildings, especially the ruins of a medieval palace that archeologists discovered in the 1950s, to emphasize the city’s Romanian past and erase its ethnically diverse history.
Since the collapse of socialism, the cultural and economic value of the Old Town has become highly contested. Bucharest’s middle class has regarded the district as a site of tempting transgressions. Its poor residents have decried their semi-decrepit homes, while entrepreneurs and politicians have viewed it as a source of easy money. Such arguments point to negotiations about the meanings of class, political participation, and ethnic and economic belonging in postsocialist Romania—acountry with a rising social polarization, and whose citizens have lost their trust in the government.
An archival and ethnographic research of the changing meanings of the Old Town reveals the fundamentally dual nature of heritage: behind every search for the essence of an idealized past lie strategies of differentiation that can lead to further marginalization and exclusion.