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Romania: The old country

One in six Romanians now lives abroad. How has this wave of emigration transformed their nation? Photography by Petrut Calinescu.

Philip Maughan writes: More interesting than the tabloid speculation over Romanian immigration to the United Kingdom is the story of how emigration is transforming life in Romania.

At present, one in six Romanians lives and works abroad. Since the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in 1989 (and following liberal reforms in the late 1990s), the country’s economy has grown steadily. Romania is the 49th-largest economy in the world; its GDP was estimated at $274.1bn in 2012, slightly ahead of the United Arab Emirates and Israel, though growth has slowed. Romanian artists are receiving international recognition: Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and the writer Herta Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Most of those who left in the 1990s were from parts of the country that already sent people to work as itinerant labourers in Romania. They moved to France, Italy and Spain – countries with which they share cultural and linguistic ties (Romanian is the only Romance language in the Slavic-dominated eastern Europe). They plugged gaps in labour markets – construction, agriculture, domestic services – and continue to do so.

Rural areas such as Satu Mare, Maramures and Suceava have been transformed by mass emigration. The photographer Petrut Calinescu attempts to document this process in the photographs in this essay, taken from his “Pride and Concrete” project.

“Unlike in the city,” he writes, “where economic competition is a more subtle affair, in the villages of Romania changes are highly visible and the main street acts as a stage for ostentatious display.”

Photography by Petrut Calinescu.

Cotros (second from the right) recalls his arrival in France. Unable to understand his doctor’s instructions, he drank a bottle of eyedrops that were prescribed to him.

A road through Cajvana, a town in Suceava County in north-eastern Romania, lined with half-built houses

In the north-western county of Maramures, a woman washes her clothes in an icy river flowing out of the Carpathian Mountains

Sheep pass by a newly built house on the edge of Cajvana. Many of the town’s residents have made money in the construction industry abroad and are now building their own houses in Romania

A horse-drawn cart passes a parked Ferrari. The owner of the car is an entrepreneur who now lives in Paris. He hires Romanian labourers to work in the construction industry there and returns to Certeze during the holidays

Newly-weds in traditional dress pose, carrying bottles of a local spirit in Eiffel Tower-shaped glass decanters. These bottles have become a symbol of success abroad. Both the bride and groom are currently working in the UK


This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue