Moldova is frequently and inaccurately depicted as a post-Soviet backwater, impeded by its own history. But twenty-four years on, it is no longer the agricultural Soviet paradise it used to be, producing wine and fruits for the tables of the rest of the Union.
When we first visited Moldova in 2012, we did not plan to start a project. We were interested in discovering a land that could arguably be defined as the least known country in Europe.
Moldova, a republic inhabited by about three and a half million people, is part of the historical region of Bessarabia, an Eastern European territory contested by both Turkish and Russian empires in the nineteenth century, then subjected to Russian rule before eventually becoming part of the Kingdom of Romania. The twentieth century has been a century of tragedies for the region; the authoritarian rule of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu and the fight between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union left the country shattered. After the war, renamed The Great Patriotic War in all Soviet countries, Moldova became one of the fifteen Republics of the Soviet Union until its independence in 1991.
It is rare to find decent books and writings on contemporary Moldova. It seems that academic interest often focuses on either Romania, on one side, or Ukraine, on the other. What is in-between is often forgotten. Why?
Moldova is frequently and inaccurately depicted as a post-Soviet backwater, impeded by its own history. But twenty-four years on, it is no longer the agricultural Soviet paradise it used to be, producing wine and fruits for the tables of the rest of the Union. Despite this, many people in Europe keep playing with the past and its fetishes without inquiring. Part of our curiosity was raised by the lack of information about contemporary Moldovan society and the absence of the name ‘Moldova’ in the news cycle. Our first journey took place long before EuroMaidan; there had not yet been a resurgence of interest in the New East and the name ‘Transnistria’ did not mean much to the majority of people.
A large majority of people identify themselves as Romanian speakers, almost 75%. Throughout the country though, especially in urban areas such as Balti and Chisinau, there is a sizeable minority of Russian and Ukrainian speakers and in the Transnistrian region they are the majority of the population.
For many people travelling towards the country from the West, the train is a cheap and easy option and was our first choice of travel too. If you follow this route, Moldova does not start at the border with Romania, in Ungheni. It actually starts in Bucharest, at the run-down but majestic Gara de Nord, on the old daily Bucharest-Chisinau sleeper train that slowly carries people eastwards. The blue-and-yellow painted train is somehow mastodontic (Moldova still retains the old Soviet train gauge, one of the largest in the world, which causes a long and enervating stop in the middle of the night at the border with Romania for wheels substitution), with sad window curtains and old rugs on the floor. The train is mostly full of Moldovans going back home, having been working in Romania and further west in Europe. The atmosphere is humble and buzzing at the same time, between people carrying large bags full of gifts for relatives and the enthusiasm mixed with sadness so typical of migrants going home for their holidays. As the train leaves the European Union, it carries the rituals of custom controls at the border, almost forgotten by the privileged ones carrying a EU passport. The history of Moldova has been made by several borders, geographical and political ones and many of them aleatory, as we would soon discover.
What we saw in the following days gave us an insight into the country that greatly influenced us in the shaping of ideas that led to The Moldovan Diaries two years later. Amongst other aspects, the central bus station, close to the Piata Centrala in Chisinau, really struck us. Like the pulsating core of a tiny country, a network of hundreds of minibuses (rutiera in Romanian or marschrutka in Russian) leads to the remotest villages, several hours away from the capital. Thousands of people constantly and frantically jump on and off the buses alongside the whiff of placinta (a traditional Moldovan fried pastry) and the shouts coming from the market. Here is the whole spectrum of social classes from all over Moldova, reunited in barely a square kilometre, where several languages can be heard coming from the small crowds; we thought this could serve as a good metaphor and an excellent starting point for an inquiry into the country.
The first idea was to film a documentary about the minibus drivers, following them home, to the various corners of Moldova, to hear their stories and their opinions on what Moldova has become since the independence. The idea soon changed and turned into a larger, non-linear project. Instead of following a few characters, we decided to focus on the geography of Moldova. For a good reason: by then we had realised that one of the main reasons for Moldova being absent in media is because people, especially in the West, simply do not know where Moldova is. How could anyone be interested in a country and its society they are not able to locate on a map?
In the South, in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, a Turkic language is commonly spoken and Russian is a lingua franca, especially amongst the younger generations. Bulgarian communities have their own district nearby, Taraclia. It is common to find bilingual or even trilingual people in the country.
Creating a small atlas of human geography then became a priority. Initially we thought that The Bessarabian Diaries would have been a good title, evoking the historical name of the region, Bessarabia. We soon realised however that Bessarabia is a politically charged term, having been adopted by supporters of the union with Romania as a synonym for Moldova. Toponyms and identity often collide in contemporary Moldovan society, there is no doubt about that. We eventually changed the name to The Moldovan Diaries. Discovering the country region by region became an imperative; gathering stories in order to explain what Moldova has become today and by whom these lands are inhabited, and finally placing the country on a map.
Moldova is a land where a distinctive geopolitical history and a unique sociolinguistic identity are equally a bridge between West and East, and a source of disagreement amongst different communities. A large majority of people identify themselves as Romanian speakers, almost 75%. Throughout the country though, especially in urban areas such as Balti and Chisinau, there is a sizeable minority of Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and in the Transnistrian region they are the majority of the population. Moreover, in the South, in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, a Turkic language is commonly spoken and Russian is a lingua franca, especially amongst the younger generations. Bulgarian communities have their own district nearby, Taraclia. It is common to find bilingual or even trilingual people in the country. Moreover it is not superfluous to underline how these ethno-linguistic identities are often blurred and substituted by the idea of belonging to the sovereign entity of Moldova firstly and mostly. How come this diversity was almost never mentioned on the rare occasions Moldova ended up in the news? We arrived in the country driven by the desire of discovering these places and understanding these mosaics we could barely read about. This was one of the reasons that led us to travel throughout the country in three different journeys, for a period of over two months, interviewing people and filming the urban and rural landscapes of Moldova.
Ever since the beginning this has been a wonderful adventure. A blizzard that hit Gagauzia in January left a landscape that looked almost magical in its remoteness amongst frozen lakes, forgotten memorials and a language reminding us of the little known history of these Orthodox Turks, still surviving and proud of their diversity. The Jewish cemeteries, disseminated all over the country from Edinet to Leova, overgrown and hidden, represent a blueprint of a world that does not exist anymore because of Nazi persecution first followed by migration to Israel starting in 1989; at least fifty thousands members of the Jewish community are thought to have left the country since then. The capital Chisinau, a mix of brutish architecture, transport and commercial hub and even a growing café culture, is becoming more and more a city-state, where everything that matters in Moldova needs to be here, from the intricate network of NGOs (effectively the real welfare state of the country) to the businesses and some shy foreign investments. Last by not least, the laborious farmers that still represent the backbone of the society. They grow corn, apples, grapes and sunflowers, struggling against a Russian embargo on Moldovan goods that choked a relevant part of the economy, and mostly living in traditional villages; a world on their own, made by blue and green houses, wells, unpaved roads, Orthodox churches and overwhelming hospitality.
There are undeniable reasons why Moldova is not in the news cycle very often: it is not a tourist destination and could hardly become one in the foreseeable future. There are neither sea nor mountains here and WWII contributed to destroying almost the totality of the architectural heritage, especially in the capital Chisinau, also hit by an earthquake in 1940; there are no large sport events in program and there is no war.
There are however undeniable reasons why Moldova is not in the news cycle very often: it is not a tourist destination and could hardly become one in the foreseeable future. There are neither sea nor mountains here and WWII contributed to destroying almost the totality of the architectural heritage, especially in the capital Chisinau, also hit by an earthquake in 1940; there are no large sport events in program and there is no war. True, there is a breakaway region, Transnistria, carved out of Moldova by a brief but bloody conflict in 1992 and de facto independent from the central government since then. And because of the recent facts in Crimea and Donbass, Transnistria attracts renewed attention to the region as a possible, next-in-line target of Russian foreign policy. Otherwise, the only tags used to describe the country are ‘Soviet Union’ (an obsolete but still largely successful brand), ‘migration’ and ‘human trafficking’. In order to go beyond the usual stories, to understand more about the lives of ordinary citizens living in Moldova today, it was urgent to ask them to narrate their personal stories, a prism through which to illustrate the society they live in. And in Moldova, asking about personal stories inevitably leads to the issue of national, sociolinguistic and political identity. This soon became the focus of our research. What does it mean to be a Moldovan citizen today, in an era of massive migration and geopolitical tensions, in a plurilinguistic society at a critical point of its history?
When we started our project, the European Union Association Agreement was about to be signed by the government, signalling a desire from the political establishment and at least part of the population to start a long march towards a possible, although not certain, joining of the European Union. Was it the same country where, only a few years ago, president Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party had been in power for almost ten years, willing to maintain good economic ties with the Russian Federation? (Moldova is the only country in the former Eastern Bloc where a Communist party has democratically taken power). During the last few years, people have started to take sides in an often polarised and uncritical debate. They are either backing EU or are in favour of stronger commercial ties with the Customs Union project so strongly desired by Vladimir Putin. How did all this happen? We wanted to know more, to have a visual proof of this historical momentum.
What does it mean to be a Moldovan citizen today, in an era of massive migration and geopolitical tensions, in a plurilinguistic society at a critical point of its history?
Soviet Union and European Union have been the common words on the lips of the people we met. Not only in the form of the near past and a possible future, but as two different ideas of citizenship. The term ‘Soviet Union’, especially but not exclusively amongst many people belonging to the older generations, does not necessarily recall the authoritarian regime and its corruption, the never fully achieved egalitarianism or perhaps the welfare state that granted free education and electricity. Some people are simply proud of having been Soviet citizens. For them, Soviet citizenship was an idea of transnational citizenship that bypassed social and ethnic differences, offering simple political symbols in which to believe. Identity meant stability and some people are still longing for that. After the catastrophic 1990s and in the current era of economic uncertainty, it is no wonder that the idea of proximity to Russia and the Customs Union offers reassurance to part of the population. On the other side, the European Union offers the possibility of belonging to a modern geopolitical project that could bring prosperity and stability to the country, and freedom of trade and movement. Yet such a possibility does not bring simple symbols in which to believe readily or easy formulas to succeed; in other words, Europe is an idea that many people in the country still struggle to understand. Moreover, an often unsuitable political class took possession of these different ideas of citizenship, exacerbating the debate in the public opinion. It was interesting for us to try to observe indirectly the status quo of this debate and to understand whether it really matters or not for Moldovans to relate their identity to other geopolitical entities.
Undoubtedly, it has also been greatly helpful for our quest to explore the architectural heritage of Moldova, its villages and rural landscapes. ‘What does Moldova look like?’ has been one of the most frequently asked questions when back from our journeys. Navigating through these pages should help to give a tangible face to our travelling.
We did not have hypotheses before starting The Moldovan Diaries, so we do not offer any conclusions. These pages unfold in a long diary, written throughout thousands of kilometres and dozens of meetings and interviews. An atlas of stories and people, suggesting how borders are often fortuitous but are rarely easy to get rid of. And like any atlas, it can be used for many reasons: to search for locations, to discover a region or, maybe, to daydream about imaginary lines and landscapes.