Travelling Light : In the Borderlands of Putin’s Empire

Where In The World Is Chisinau, Moldova?
Story and photos by Rosalea Barker

Istanbul’s modern airport terminal is seemingly the size of a small city—I spend much of my 2-hour layover there walking from one gate to another. The International Departures board testifies to the city’s position on the cusp of the East and the West, even if its food hall doesn’t, featuring as it does fast food you’d get at any airport terminal around the world.

When I find my ground level departure gate, it’s just a desk and a few chairs amidst a myriad other desks and chairs. We’re ushered onto a shuttle bus that takes us on a tiki tour of the tarmac to get to our shuttle plane. Most of my fellow passengers seem to have been on a shopping trip, so the overhead bins are soon filled to capacity. Glad I checked my bag!

I’m en route to the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, a one-and-a-half hour flight away. Moldova is almost encircled by Ukraine, with its very own (after a nasty civil war in the 1990s) breakaway republic east of the Nistru/Dniestr River, and Romania its neighbor west of the river Prut. Even a cursory reading of Moldova’s history is enough to make me thankful that NZ has its borders defined by water. At various times claimed by the Roman, Magyar and Ottoman empires, in recent history Moldova was known as Moldavia and alternately claimed by Romania, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union. The UN recognized it as a nation in its own right in 1992, about which time Moldova ditched the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language in favor of Roman lettering and Romanian. Still, Russian names are common.

Even though Romanian is the official language, a large portion of the population speaks Russian, especially in the south and in breakaway Transdniestr. The young woman sitting next to me on the plane, returning from a holiday in Thailand, explains that even in cosmopolitan Chisinau, people can go through life speaking only one language or the other because schools and universities self-segregate by language.

As a result of its great climate and rich alluvial soils, Moldova was pretty much the USSR’s equivalent of California in terms of food production. It is famous for its wines—Putin had his 50th birthday party at a vineyard near Chisinau and keeps a stock of vino in the cellars there, as do a number of other well-known people from around the world. Chisinau itself prospered as the headquarters of the USSR’s southwestern military operations, and it is in one of the hotels built in the 80s to cater to minor officials and the military that I’ve chosen to stay.

The Cosmos Hotel stands tall and proud at the end of Yuri Gagarin Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. During the day, the footpath on one side of the boulevard serves as a citywide garage sale, with items laid out on rugs in the hopes of the owners getting something to live on. Some of the vendors may be secondhand traders, but it’s a bleak prospect nonetheless—the worn shoes, used bedpans, knick-knacks of no particular beauty or value.

There is also a large vibrant city market closer to Chisinau’s cultural heart—Stephan the Great Park. On the Sunday of my visit in late March, the weather is warm and sunny, and people are out and about enjoying the day. The crowd is a mix of young people dressed like the dancers on MTV and older people—the women wearing head scarves as befits Eastern Orthodox and Romanian traditional values. Some young women manage to combine both styles with panache.

The National Archaeology and History Museum.

Older women feature prominently as custodians in the two museums I visit. They are adamant that the exhibits must be viewed in a particular order, and that I pay the requisite fee if I want to take any photos inside the museums. The National Archaeology and History Museum has a lavish interior, not unlike some palatial Western European residence, and each of the exhibition halls contains a grand piano, as if at any minute the gilded rooms will revert to being ballrooms or salons.

The prescribed path takes me from prehistoric times through to the war in Transdniestr. Among the exhibits are replicas of the rooms of famous writers, inventors, and of the office of a newspaper that was a driving force in some uprising or another. The largest exhibit, which took 8 years to create, has its own hall. It is a 500 square meter diorama of Operation Iasi-Chisinau, complete with actual weapons, ordnance and anti- tank cannon. Iasi is in present-day Romania. During WWII, Romania sided with Nazi Germany, and thousands of Jews and Roma were shipped off to concentration camps. The Moldavian section of Romania became part of the Soviet Union as the result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1940.

The Battle of Iasi-Chisinau saw the Russians, aided by Allied airpower, defeat the Nazis, after which Romania immediately changed sides, and took all the German soldiers inside its borders prisoner. The horrors weren’t over for the people of what is now Moldova, however. During Stalinist rule, thousands of people and families were rounded up and sent to labor camps in Siberia, many dying on the way. Outside the train station in Chisinau is a recently erected monument to those people, and in the basement of the museum is a poignant exhibit about the victims of both the Nazi and Soviet deportations.

When the families returned from the work camps, they found their land and businesses had been given away and they had to start again from nothing. Despite that, many of those families and their descendants prefer the Russian language to Romanian, and feel that life was better as a Soviet republic than as an independent one. Hard-core Transdiniestr, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, is particularly Soviet-era-centric, cherishing the buildings and institutions emblematic of that time.

My second museum visit was to the National Ethnographic and Natural History Museum, which was fairly unremarkable except for a strange room with only a mural on the walls, in which humanity is taking good care of the natural environment and is seemingly worshipping Gaia. Besides the rooms of cultural artifacts, stuffed animals and examples of soil types and vegetation, there were two temporary exhibitions on the mezzanine gallery. One was photographs of masks and revelers in Venice, and running beneath it was an exhibition of martisors, the tiny traditional handmade red-and-white lapel talismans given to and worn by women during the month of March in order to secure a prosperous future.

The museum had put out a national call for entries, and the ones from schools were particularly imaginative, but my favorite had to be this one from the Moldovan Finance Ministry made up of Euro and Dollar moneybags.

Moldova’s independence sure seems to have trapped the country at the bottom of the prosperity ladder, and it could do with a big dose of foreign investment. Crucial infrastructure that presumably would have been efficiently maintained and updated under communism suffers from a lack of financial resources, particularly sewerage systems, roads, public transportation, and the supply of water and electricity in rural areas. Street-side garbage collection is non-existent or a relative novelty, not just in towns but also in the capital. Individual homeowners prefer to burn their trash.

In Chisinau, the footpaths are in the process of being dug up to repair or replace major sewer lines, but many small restaurants and public buildings still have squat toilets, albeit with nice white porcelain footplates. A notable exception is Propaganda, where I go for dinner on Sunday night. The décor in its dining area is kind of Punk Bohemian, and the two WCs are housed behind Soviet-era apartment doors. Inside each room, a gleaming white porcelain toilet sits tall and proud in its mini-apartment with bookshelves and framed pictures on the wall, a large transistor radio in one WC and a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the other.

The menu includes many Italian dishes, and in fact Italian is pretty widely spoken in Moldova and neighboring Romania. During the days of the Roman Empire, this part of the world was known as Dacia and was a province of some importance, being on the tradeways between East and West. An Italian barista tells me that quite a few of his fellow countrymen have moved to Moldova as a result of the parlous state of the Italian economy.

And so the long wheels of history turn in this lovely country, with its mix of rural SE Asia’s relatively primitive infrastructure, European grandeur, Eastern Orthodox splendor, and Soviet utilitarianism. The photo above is of a public square in the heart of Chisinau, where services in the small church are shown live for the overflow crowd, who sit on benches painted in the colors of the Moldova flag.