Reflections after two years of living in Moldova….
This past week I served on a panel, convened by our Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy here in Chisinau, to interview Moldovans who were applying for Fulbright post-doc fellowships and Humphrey grants, which allow 6-12 months to work with professional counterparts in the USA. Our panel had the opportunity to consider proposals from a wide range of professionals, from a plant geneticist working on developing drought-resistant corn, to a waste-water engineer working on improving Moldova’s water treatment facilities, a shipper who is trying to expand the use of Moldova’s only seaport on the Danube, a psychiatrist who wants to improve prevention and treatment of substance abuse in Moldova, and a historian who wants to study the content and effects of messaging that came from Radio Free Europe and Liberty Radio into Soviet Moldova during the Cold War. (The latter, it seems to me, is a very pertinent topic for Americans too, and an ironic one, given our current position on the other end of a social media propaganda campaign coming from Russia.) One of the members of our panel, a Fulbright alumna, asked each of our applicants, “What slogan might you use to characterize Moldova when asked by Americans about what Moldova is like?” I thought her question rather difficult, and indeed, most of the applicants had to give it considerable thought. Listening to them struggling to answer, challenged me to think, how would I characterize Moldova in a brief slogan? I have lived here for two years now, is there a concise way to describe my impressions of Moldova?
At another event this week, organized by the American Embassy’s Community Liaison Office, I heard a historian give a presentation about Moldova, present and past, to Americans who are newly-arrived at post. She began with an exposition of the logo that Moldova’s Tourism industry uses to promote Moldova, a stylized and colorful Tree of Life, which on its branches bears symbols of Moldova’s wineries, its hospitality, and its religious culture. Under the Tree stands a large M, symbolizing the roots anchoring the agrarian culture/Tree of Life into the soil, and under it all the slogan: “Moldova: Discover the Routes of Life.”
Moldova is indeed a society still rooted firmly in agriculture and that agricultural heritage, along with the wine, food, music, dance and craft traditions that arose from it, were on full display at two summer festivals we took in this summer: “Ia Mania,” (pronounced “EEya Muneeya”) a celebration of Moldovan hand-embroidered clothing, and the Hoginesti Pottery Festival. At both of these festivals Moldovans displayed their handwork, weaving, pottery, wood carving and villages competed for the award of best prepared traditional foods.
The agricultural sector still employs about 25% of working Moldovans, but Moldova’s sources of income are changing, and Moldova’s identity will change along with the changing occupations of its people.
Dealing with change, as it turns out, has been an integral facet of Moldova’s identity for centuries. Another slide in the historian’s presentation summarized, with pictures of maps, how Moldova’s national affiliation, its geographic boundaries, its size, and its name, have changed repeatedly since the 13th century, from its semi-independent status as half of Moldavia under the Ottoman Empire, to its being split off from the western half of Moldavia and annexed by Russia in 1812 as part of the Russian Turk Wars, to its later rejoining with Moldavia and all of Romania when it departed from the Russian Empire shortly after the Russian revolution, to its subsequent fall into Soviet hands after WWII, and its final independence with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1989. Presently, the struggle between those who identify with the other half of historic Moldavia (which is now part of Romania) and therefore favor an affiliation with Western Europe, versus those who continue to identify with Russia, continues to profoundly influence Moldova’s struggle for a clear identity.
Throughout all of the re-drawing of boundaries, the renaming, and the reinvention, Moldovans have not only held onto their traditions, but have also resisted domination. Under the Ottomans, they held a semi-independent status thanks to the terms of agreement won by Stephan cel Mare. During the Soviet era there was resistance as well. The story of Moldovans who suffered for their resistance to Soviet domination, (sent into exile and dying in Siberia,) is told through a photographic exhibit in the basement of the National History Museum. Many Moldovans now recognize a current threat of domination in the form of a wealthy, powerful elite and the culture of corruption which they have helped to shape. It is nearly impossible to live in Moldova for more than a few weeks and not be aware of these ongoing and historical political controversies.
As I write this post, a protest demonstration is occurring in Chisinau. It began yesterday with reportedly thousands of participants waving Moldovan and European Union flags, and chanting slogans such as “Down with the Mafia!” They are charging that one of the political parties, headed by a billionaire, has interfered in the recent election for the Chisinau mayor. Chisinau residents elected a pro-EU candidate who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, but someone immediately brought an appeal to a judge who declared the election invalid on grounds that both candidates used social media on the day of the election to urge voters to vote. The EU suspended a $116 million aid package for Moldova in protest of the voided election. The protestors claim that this billionaire has undue influence in both the media and in the current government, and view him and his circle as members of a Russian-style oligarchy who would subvert democracy in order to run Moldova for their own benefit. The demonstration continued into the morning today, interrupting Chisinau’s street festival observance of Moldovan Independence Day. As government officials laid a wreath at the foot of the statue of Stephan cel Mare this morning, a crowd of protesters, held back by police, chanted in Romanian, “No More Mafia!”
As we were passing through another downtown area this morning, the outdoor art market, we greeted an elderly acquaintance, a bunica (grandmother.) She was sitting there among her displayed embroidered goods, as she does every day, and we asked her, “Why are you working today? It’s a holiday… Independence Day!” Her bright blue eyes blazed as she tugged at the ties of the scarf around her head and retorted, “I never received any independence! I am still tied!”
Earlier this summer, our US Embassy Public Affairs office sponsored a Student Essay Contest, inviting essays on the subject of “How Youth Can Fight Corruption in Moldova.” I served on the panel of judges and found it inspiring to hear these Moldovan high school students express their belief that, with a commitment to personal integrity and activism, they can in fact eventually succeed in reducing the acceptance of corruption as a modus operandi in Moldova.
At the same time however, some of my ESL students express cynicism about political freedom and democratic processes in Moldova. During one of my English classes this past week we listened to a TED Talk about the Social Progress Index, “SPI” and discussed a chart comparing Moldova SPI scores to other countries of similar GDP. When they saw a favorable score for “political rights” on that chart, they expressed their disbelief. They may have political rights on paper, they told me, the right to vote when they turn 18, but corruption and events such as the stolen recent mayoral election negate those rights.
These students are all very bright young people, but because of lack of opportunities at home, unfortunately for Moldova, most of them aspire to study and eventually work abroad. I find myself wondering whether there will come a day when this younger generation of highly trained diaspora will want to return to their country to help develop Moldova, as are doing more and more frequently, members of the diaspora of African countries like Ethiopia, who were once part of a similar “brain drain,” phenomenon. Moldovan young people who attend university in Western Europe will generally find it easier to assimilate there than Africans do. They will not experience the kind of racial discrimination that African immigrants often experience, which can give rise to some of the desire to return to help develop their homelands. To be sure, much of the motivation of returning African diaspora is completely altruistic, grounded in gratitude for the opportunities they have been given abroad and the desire to “give back,” and hopefully some of Moldova’s educated diaspora will eventually feel some of that same motivation. Any hope for Moldova’s future does reside with its educated younger generation, and Moldova must find a way to not only give them opportunity here in Moldova, but to welcome them back with more opportunity if and when they want to return.
Getting back to the Fulbright alumna’s question, “How would you describe Moldova,” after two years of living in Moldova, I would have to say that the longer I am here, the more I appreciate the complexity of Moldovan identity and character, and the less confident I feel in my own ability as an expat to truly understand it. I cannot come up with a simple slogan. I would attempt to answer with this long-winded summary:
Moldova is a country strongly rooted in agrarian life and Moldovans are great at preserving and celebrating their folk traditions. They are very family-oriented and those who have moved to the city continue to make frequent visits to their extended families in the village. Moldova’s older generation is strongly grounded in Orthodox Christian religion and has experienced a lot of hardship, both during the Soviet era and during the period of a collapsed economy immediately after independence, but they are strong and enduring, and they are still eager to celebrate the pleasures of a simple life. Older Moldovans can appear quite reserved and closed to strangers, but they become very warm and hospitable once they have been introduced to you and especially after they have had a chance to learn to know you a bit. Moldova is blessed with bright young people who are very capable, open, and forward-looking, but Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe, and better opportunities outside Moldova lure many of the young people away. Moldovan society is also torn, divided between those who lean toward Western Europe with their Moldavian/Romanian identity, and those who lean toward Russia. Throughout their history, Moldovans have resisted domination, and currently there is rising resistance to corruption, and to an oligarchical approach to governing which many Moldovans feel is threatening their democracy.
With its abundant agricultural resources, it’s traditional villages and beautiful rolling countryside, with its vibrant wine-making industry and Winery Tours, (including Wine-and-Bike tours,) Moldova has great potential for agritourism….and it deserves a visit from you!
There you have it, 230 words, not a slogan…. and I’m not even done yet…. one last thing…
I have mentioned before that Moldovans have especially endeared themselves to me with their tremendous love of music. In Chisinau and in the village, Moldovans learn to play instruments, participate in choirs, and make sure their children also have those opportunities. Through both their folk traditions and their professional music schools they produce very accomplished musicians.
Yesterday afternoon we attended a concert focused on one such accomplished musician, at the outdoor amphitheater near our house, which was, as usual, packed with Moldovans of all ages. Constantin Moscovici, the beloved Moldovan panpipe player, presented a program entitled, “Melodia Sufletului” or “Melody of the Soul.” Sufletu in Romanian means “soul” while sufle means “blow,” so the program was fittingly named as it not only included the soulful and haunting music of the traditional shepherd’s panpipe, but also the music of many other wind instrumentalists whom Moscovici had invited from around the world to join him. Along with Moscovici on the panpipes, we heard an Azerbaijani on the “balaban,” an Israeli Klezmer musician on clarinet, a Kazakhstani on a wooden flute the name of which I cannot remember, a Czech saxophonist, and an Italian tenor. The Azerbaijani also “sang” in the deep-throated overtone chanting that is unique to that part of the world. Even more amazing was Moscovici’s panpipe playing of klezmer music at breakneck tempo.
And last but not least, I love the fact that, despite the many reasons Moldovans might have for discouragement or cynicism, they do not scorn romantic, sentimental nostalgia and schmaltz. At this concert, one of the warm-up bands played Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” The audience, young and old, loved it.
Enjoying Moldova’s “Routes of Life”
The newest Peace Corps volunteers demonstrate their dancing skills at their recent Swearing-In ceremony.