chapter  4
23 Pages

Foreigners in town: Urban immigration and local attitudes in the Romanian Principalities in the mid-nineteenth century FLOREA IONCIOAIA

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Romanian Principalities, especially Moldavia,1 went through a spectacular and contradictory urban evolution. On the one hand, the demographic and economic growth of the urban world was rapid, with no historical precedent, but rather sudden and syncopated, and it was not upheld by general economic growth, or at least not growth of the same dimensions. On the other hand, the demographic growth of the cities was not accompanied by a corresponding modernisation of urban life or administrative rationalisation. Most of the newly built towns were simply exchange centres, lacking not only industries and autonomous administration, but also, more importantly, any kind of urban conception. This is when the distinction between borough (târg) and town (oraş)2

appeared. The former were mainly centres for commercial exchange with a local character, generally owned by a boyar (landowner) or a monastery, whereas the towns, few in number, started working as autonomous administrative entities, but more like communities with relatively separate semi-political and economic aspects, where urban policies and the beginnings of urban life were tested. It is not a surprise that some of the boroughs that appeared then would disappear in the second half of the nineteenth century. To explain this paradox, we must find out what triggered the urban explosion in

this period. The first event that attracts our attention is the growth and, even more, the mobility of the population. The arising of new settlements and the growth of old ones is first of all the effect of a flow of population from very different origins. Second, looking at the statistics of the time, the number of internal migrants was low compared to the number of immigrants from across the borders. Thus, due to the impact of immigrants coming especially from Austria, Russia and, although far fewer, the South-Danubian regions of the Ottoman Empire, the urban world in the Principalities underwent a decisive mutation; the town started playing a visible economic and social role, becoming a public space in a modern way. At the same time, especially in the Principality of Moldavia, more so in the

northern or border towns, this phenomenon changed the symbolic geography of the country. The massive arrival of foreign populations brought into discussion their acceptance in a culturally poorly adjusted habitat that was still at the

beginnings of modernisation. It was no longer a question of a simple relationship with the generic foreigner or with ‘Greco-Levantines’, who were seen as Turkey’s puppets. The image of a foreigner, as the expression of an undesirable internal other lifted from the Greeks andMuslims to settle on the Jews and the marginalised, sometimes not distinguishing among them. The urban foreigner thus becomes a character in the public discussions about difference, modernisation and the search for identity. The authorities start taking their first steps against immigration. Xenophobia is visible, although the nationalistic speeches, in all their glory at this point in time, do not target these immigrants. It is clear, however, that the tension between immigration and creating a ‘modern’ political agenda in the Principalities, based on identity, legal order, ethno-cultural homogeneity and a common ethos, is insinuating itself in the public debates in the 1860s. Starting from that moment, immigration becomes perceived as a danger that is increasingly easier to play with politically. Naturally, the historical reconstruction of the urban migration phenomenon has

been linked to the ever-changing political agenda. The topic in itself, therefore, has from the very beginning a highly political flavour. Besides the cult of the nationstate, which fatally involved a different agenda, a discussion about immigration would have seemed like a concession to the immigrationalist theories, which implicitly spoke about the historical right to the national territory and were always powerfully refused by Romanian historiography from the very beginning, in the seventeenth century. Thus, a distinction had to be made between the history of the towns and that of their migrant community. The migrant was a problem for the Parliament, but he seemed to be completely invisible in the academic area. Furthermore, for a long time, history research on urbanity developed as a meta-

project of urban genealogy, which left us many urban monographs, somewhere between a relatively critical positivism and an ethno-graphical tinge. Only recently, starting in the 1950s and 1960s, under the impetus of the new Marxist-influenced social and economic history, is the theme of the town’s history clearly linked to the history of migration. It is a fact that the immigration problem appears mostly in the background or at most as internal migration. But it is only now that these ideas have been cleared of old Marxist or nationalist clichés. First of all, the immigrants no longer appear as a threat to the ethnic purity or as the expression of an invasion.3