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[Draft Four] Letter from Chișinău
What does it mean to be Moldovan today?
On Thursday night, just hours before a Russian missile crossed Moldovan airspace, and its still young government collapsed, Moldova remained under a terrific cold spell. In Chișinău, temperatures dropped as to -11 Celsius, ears-curling cold. There were occasional flurries.
Cristian Spătaru, the wonderkid conductor, loves it. Chișinău is “seven times more beautiful” when it snows, he told a reporter. Now, on stage in the Organ Hall, the 30-year-old dressed in gray slacks, and a black suit jacket with silky lapels, is swaying with his whole body as his hands guide the National Chamber Orchestra through their two-hour repertoire of Mozart, Stravinsky, and Bach. The large organ pipes at the back of the stage anchor the room, two bronze columns flanking two smaller silvery gatherings, shaped like a V, or maybe it’s an M – for Moldova?
The room is packed, but still. As Spătaru occasionally breaks his precise movements to set his brown locks straight, or turn a page, his partner, the soprano Valentina Nafornița, seated in the middle of the ninth row, dressed in an unmissable fuchsia jacket, takes out her iPhone and, discreetly presses record.
The recording will feature on her Instagram stories, which he will proudly repost. It’ll be a good night, with flowers, and so much applause that I, unfamiliar with the protocol, can’t tell how much was the music, and how much was the moment.
The world that made us expects something from us, Spătaru had said about conducting in Moldova. He was born and raised here but left 10 years ago to study in Vienna. Thursday night was his first time conducting the National Chamber Orchestra, part of event series called: “I Want to Sing at Home!”
Home, in this instance, is Moldova. It’s the word Spătaru himself uses often in interviews: here at home, I left home, back home. Home is the room of people cheering and applauding him and cellist Constantin Borodin, another Chișinău-born classical music prodigy. Both live and sing abroad. As does Valentina (she and Spătaru met in Vienna). As do more than a third of Moldovans, who left in the last few decades, looking for better, looking for more, looking for a more serene version of themselves, one less burdened by poverty, broken systems, and identity struggles. A disparate and diverse diaspora, who nevertheless is considered to have swung the latest presidential election, putting pro-European Maia Sandu in the president’s seat. One that enjoys coming home to conduct, and bow to the people, and the “home” where it all started.
In the week I just spent in Chișinău, I still heard plenty of Russian being spoken on the street, cafes, and restaurants. (Ukrainian as well; Moldova has taken in tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the war.) In the capital, people's attitudes towards Russia are a topic of conversation. A 2020 study asking who you don't want as your neighbor had Russian nationals score the lowest at 3,4%. Today, almost 10% of Moldovans said they would rather not live next to Russians. (To be fair, Russians still rank last in terms of who Moldovans want "social distance" from. The LGBTQ+ minority is the least accepted, with 80% of Moldovans saying they'd rather not live next to someone who’s gay. People living with HIV/AIDS come in a distant second, with 55%.)
Moldova remains poor (although less so than two decades ago), bordering the war, with the breakaway republic of Transnistria in its midst. Nothing works here, one journalist told me. A forty-something cab driver with two adult children working abroad agreed: everyone is corrupt. There is nothing here. He’s amused by all this; Moldovans will ruin anything good he believes. He’s waiting for some papers and hopes to take off for Germany. He’s one of many. There are less than 3 million Moldovans, and somewhere between a third and a half are scattered around the world.
But it's not all hopeless, or maybe it’s me forcing a story on the place. But the mood is different than it was five-six years back. The war made us particularly resilient, another journalist told me. The current president, and (until last Friday) the prime minister and attorney general are all women, educated abroad, pushing a more European (read “less Russian”) future for their country. Moldova is eyeing NATO and EU membership, and the restlessness is showing (slowness in getting closet to these goals was among the reasons cited for the recent government collapse after just a year and a half.)
The shadows of the oligarchs haven’t completely faded, and "corruption", whatever you make of its meaning, remains a buzz word. It came in as the last word on a list I put together with a group of about 20 journalists from Radio Free Europe who listed "the most important story of Moldova" today. When “corruption” did come up, the woman who said the word offered this: "just so it’s there”. What came before, might be more specific: poverty, inequality, discrimination, exile, infrastructure, education, health, pollution.
This home has plenty of ongoing repairs.
Spătaru, the conductor, is a Moldovan of the world. One of those who “made it”, who shows up on TV shows to say he is happy he’s home for the meals, and the wine (oh, the wine), and the friends, but then adds he hopes the country would change faster. He spends most of his time in Romania now, where, in 2021, at an important Bucharest competition, he was crowned “Best Romanian conductor”.
The question of who and what Moldovans are is one I poked at.
One day, I chatted with a radio reporter who was editing an interview with a Moldovan who is a native Russian speaker. Their conversation was about identity – about how Russians, who have traditionally held the social and cultural power in Chișinău, are losing this privilege. The inferiority complex locals have toward the Russians who came here during the times of the USSR is fading, the reporter told me. They had the better schools, the better connections, they were meant to teach the largely working class or agrarian local population to become the New Soviet Man. Moldova had been passed back and forth between Romania and Russia for half a century, and the new empire wanted to make sure it became one of them.
It all ended in 1991, and Moldovans have been puzzling it out ever since. Many spoke Russian, many spoke Romanian, most spoke both, not really belonging to either. If there was any kind of nostalgia for a Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”), the reporter told me, it crumbled when it was revealed in the past decade as nothing else but Putin’s delusional narrative.
So as the reality of Russia as an oppressor is clearer by the day, will ethnic Russians admit to having been the privileged class? This is what the reporter wanted, but she also admitted her own bias – her family was uprooted from Romanian Bucovina, and they lost it all multiple times. Somebody had to be accountable for the pain.
What are you, I asked?
“A Romanian from Moldova”, she replied.
Another journalist, who spent the better part of the last two decades in Prague, said his daughters are “Romanians from Moldova, who grew up in Czech Republic”.
There is trauma here, and maybe it’ll take time to acknowledge it. There is no healing until we move past all the trauma, a local writer told me. He has barely spoken to his father in the past year, because his father is “a Putinist”. In his youth, he worked on ships for the USSR; he believes in Putin’s rhetoric maybe less because he believes in Empire, and maybe more because he misses who he once was, the status he once had. In Moldova, who is he?
Liliana was born some years after 1991. She hasn’t lived in the USSR. Her parents worked for almost 20 years in Moscow, back when Moldovans couldn’t get visas to work someplace else; her mother now cares for an elderly woman in Italy. Liliana has never been to Russia. She also hasn’t particularly thought of who she is. “A Moldovan”, I guess, she told me. “Not a Romanian from Moldova?”, I asked. She pondered. No, she said. Her older sister – who also lives abroad – would probably say that. Then again, she added, her sister probably also wishes Moldova and Romania became one country again.
Natalia, who is of the same generation, told me over coffee: “I’m a Moldovan with a Romanian passport”. She is a young podcaster who could fit in just about anywhere: a pop culture nerd, and a keen observer of the stories we tell, she did a tremendous piece a few back about skateboarding building bridges between youth in Moldova, and Transnistria. For Natalia, a Romanian passport meant early access to a COVID vaccine, and it’s still the blessing of going through EU customs worry free.
About seven years ago a Moldovan pop singer named Denis Roabeș, who goes by The Motans in Romania, where he’s huge, wrote a scathing song about leaving the country. Moldova is when money washes one’s sins, he sings. Moldova is when prosecutors are for sale. Moldova is when the people’s servants sip Hennessy, while subjugating its citizens. Moldova is when you smile at the border.
“I’m sorry”, the chorus goes. “I give up. Moldova RIP, passport in my teeth, Ctrl Alt Delete”
Maia told me she felt the same. After some two decades working in media, and then for a government agency, by the mid-2010s she felt she wanted out for good. She moved to Spain, had a tough time learning the language, and fitting in, but finally she did, and was about to start a master’s in food tourism in Catalonia in the first pandemic year. That winter, as classes moved online once more, she thought being in Chișinău would be cheaper for a few months. It’s been two years, and she doesn’t want to leave. Maybe ever again. Every street corner in Chișinău means something to me, she said.
Every country has its problems. It’s all in how you relate to them.
Maia is the one who took me to Spătaru’s concert. We Moldovans must be proud of ourselves, she told me. We must start believing in ourselves, stop relying so much on external validation. The trouble with calling yourself “Moldovan”, she added, is that Russia-backed politicos have always associated the word with backwardness, stupidity. But there is strength in breaking away from comparisons and influence.
The mid 2010s wine embargo to Russia didn’t kill the Moldovan wine industry; it accelerated its change. Back then, Purcari kicked off this new era with a tongue-in-check Freedom Blend. Today, Moldova has some amazing wineries: Fautor (Negre won an important award last year), Gitana (Lupi is amazing), Château Vartely, and others.
Maybe the aftershocks of the energy crisis will prove beneficial in the long run; still, this winter’s price hikes are hitting people hard. Maybe breaking away from Russian gas will push Moldova into becoming a renewable energy player. Maybe, some of the people I talked to wondered, it’s all about the right attitude, and less looking to one’s neighbors.
There is no unifying story of where Moldova is or where it’s going.
Russia is still here – the occasional missile crossing the airspace is a reminder. So is Ukrainian President Zelensky’s recent warning that Russia has plans to sabotage Moldova. Politics remains shaky ground; a new security-minded government is forthcoming. The party in power says it’s on the right side of the force, yet, with a Parliamentary majority, it sometimes pushes the limits of democracy. Romania is also close – close enough to sell its surplus energy, on one hand, and play the nationalism card on the other.
And then there is the EU, both promise land, and a power player ready to tip the scales.
I listened to a story a local did with a local entrepreneur selling fruit. He had lived and worked in the US for many years, then came back. Home. Today, he can sell fruit abroad. Plums to Germany, spotted apples to Dubai. He’ll sell whatever they buy.
His voice in the story wavers when the reporter asks what’s with the trees uprooted and toppled to the ground in a corner of the orchard. It’s the foreign markets, they want a specific kind of apple (red and spotted), so we’re taking ours down, he says. They don’t sell. He’ll plant what they’ll buy. But apple trees live for 25-30 years, so he’s hoping the new customers don’t change their minds too soon.
This is for all who were generous to spend their days and nights with me in Moldova this week. Special tip of the hat to Liliana, a rare breed of a reporter, and a generous companion who, on my last night in town, took me to Marlène, a Chișinău cocktail bar, where I had something called a Yokohama.
The best book in Romanian I read in the past year is a queer coming of age novel written by a young Moldovan author under the pen name Sașa Zare. It’s called Dezrădăcinare (Uprooting), it moves from Moldova to Romania and back, and it’s mind-blowing.
Another Moldovan writer I love is Tatiana Țîbuleac, whose words on the power of stories I quote religiously: “[Only between a story’s] soft and enchanted ribs do people make peace with evil and pain, with disease and betrayal, because they know. They know a story never leaves things unresolved. A story – even the shortest, even the saddest – is always careful to make things right”. Here’s Tatiana speaking about her grandmother (and much more) at The Power of Storytelling in Bucharest.
I walked daily on Pushkin Street in Chișinău. Is Pushkin, the Russian poet, an apolitical read?, asks Elif Batuman in a recent New Yorker essay. Can one really read Russian literature in war time without pondering what it says about a former Empires conquering ambitions?
And this doodle by Laur Răboj, made two years ago when Maia Sandu won the Moldovan presidency. (Also; read DoR’s 2019 profile of Sandu here).
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