September 17, 2009

Moldova is different from any place I’ve ever visited in one big way: the manner in which Moldova’s identity as a people was defined, and how that is related to its geographical boundaries.  Modern states’ shape on the map is determined by their history — what remains in the wake of acts of men and women — and their geography — what remains in the wake of acts of nature.  The two are, of course, not really separable.  I’ve always been fascinated by maps, because comparing a state’s actual borders to its natural ones (those that would make sense because of geographical features or demographics) — or what they are versus what they should be — can tell you something about history that no one can ever really capture adequately in words.  Perhaps this is why most history books have maps in them.

Modern Moldova’s boundaries are marked by the river Prut in the west and the Nistru in the east.  Of the two I’ve only seen the Nistru in person, but both are unremarkable rivers; the Nistru is maybe as wide as the Cumberland as it passes through Nashville.  In places the current can be strong, but there’s nothing about the river that would require feats of engineering for people or armies to cross it.  The Nistru has added geographical significance in that the Eurasian steppe — that premodern superhighway for Huns, Tatars, and Mongols that begins in Manchuria — officially ends with its eastern bank.  On the Transnistrian side there is low-lying forest, and the Moldovan side is a small bluff.  The steppe of Transnistria and Ukraine is more flat than Moldova, which has gentle ridges like a raisin.   This is one reason why Moldova has changed hands so many times: both rivers made convenient boundaries for larger powers from the north and south, but there’s nothing stopping an army from rolling through, and the Prut makes just as good of an arbitrary boundary as the Nistru.

In 1538, the Principality of Moldavia became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, ending roughly 150 years of independent existence as a quasi-state.  The Principality probably fell short even of contemporary European standards of statehood, because Moldova has always been rural.   Even now, Moldova is a very rural country — it’s largest city, Chisinau, has a population of around half-a-million, and it was founded only in 1436 (the first city of Moldavia was always Iasi, which is now located in România) — so the few people around were likely peasant farmers.  But the year 1538 was the first year in a 450 year struggle to determine whether the boundary of the Russian Empire would be the Prut or the Nistru.  Arguably, that still has not been settled, and won’t be until the frozen standoff with Transnistria is resolved.

The Turks did not give up control of Bessarabia — the half of Moldavia that corresponds closely to modern Moldova — until 1812, when it became part of the Russian Empire.  Except for the twenty-two years between the Treaty of Paris in 1856 and the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 and the inter-war period in the twentieth century (when Bessarabia was part of România), the area remained part of the Russian Empire, first under the tsars and later under the Soviets.  This Russian period marked the first time when an outside power was interested in Moldova as more than just a buffer zone but as an actual boundary.  Imperial Russia began a program of Russification, outlawing Orthodox mass in Romanian, for example.  And the door swung both ways: nascent Romanian nationalism created a backlash during the brief periods of Romanian control.

The Soviets continued the tsars’ programs of Russification, deported anyone who resisted to Siberia, and began manufacturing a separate Moldovan linguistic identity so as to alienate their kin in northern România by introducing new words into the common language so as to differentiate “Moldovan” from “Romanian.”  (Whether the language here is called Moldovan or Romanian remains a political argument to this day.)  When Moldova declared its independence in 1991, some were hoping that the new nation would rejoin newly-democratic România; this is why the predominantly-Russified area of Transnistria split and remains de facto independent, but due in part to the lingering effects of the manipulation of Moldovan language and culture by the Soviets, this never materialized.

So let us consider how Moldova’s history and its geography have created it’s identity.  Moldova’s history as a previously subjugated state is different from that of other new states like Serbia, for example — which was a regional power in the fourteenth century before it was conquered and ruled by the Turks for five hundred years — because Serbians successfully forged a national identity from their struggle against outside rule.  In other words, the struggle to establish an identity not only created Serbians’ identity as a people but became their national identity.  During the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, Serbia was at the focal point of great power struggle in Europe: Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia both wanted a piece of Ottoman territory, and both the Hungarians and the Russians benefitted from pouring gas on the fire of Serbian nationalism at that time, giving a voice to the Serbians when it was convenient for them.  The difference between Serbia and Moldova is that although Bessarabia changed hands three times during the nineteenth century, Moldovans rarely got a say in the matter, and Moldovan nationalism was never an issue.

The problem in the former Yugoslavia has been that national boundaries do not correspond to ethnic demographics: Serbs live in Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania; Croats and Albanians both live in Serbia.  Moldova does not have this problem.  But compare Moldova to France, for example, which has such well-defined boundaries (which have barely changed since the Roman era) that a distinct language, culture, and national identity could develop inside them.  French culture exists in part because French geography created circumstances for its development.  It’s the same for Moldova — Moldovan culture exists because of Moldova’s geography — but the difference is that while the Alps, the Pyrenees, the English Channel, and the Rhine created walls behind which the French became French, protecting them, Moldova’s geography has repeatedly betrayed it, providing an open garage door for other powers to drive through.  And it’s as if the boundaries of Moldova became defined as they are not because it was clear that “here is an area where the Moldovans live,” but more because it was a convenient buffer zone.  Once the Prut and Nistru became relevant as the possible hard southern boundaries of Russia, the alternating cultural manipulations of the tsars and Romanian nationalism only exacerbated this problem — Bessarabia as no-man’s-land — with the end result that Moldovans have about as much in common with Russians as they do with the people of Romanian Moldova, and neither group accepts them as brethren.

Before, I had assumed national identity was something a nation just had, and part of that identity is forged in the struggle for it.  But for Moldova, it seems like their frustrated inability to establish a national identity has resulted in an identity that is defined by that failure.  And perhaps this is why Moldova is different: Moldovans’ horrific journey to make a home for themselves has become their home.

FILED UNDER: history identity 
August 25, 2009

Friday I accompanied one of my partner teachers, Petru, to a ceremony for the opening of a new monument in town commemorating those from my town who lost their lives in battle. I arrived before Petru, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

In the plaza just off the roundabout that marks the center of town, I found about twenty men milling about in Soviet military uniforms. More arrived by the minute. Some were ancient, others were maybe in their forties or fifties. I recognized one man, whose name I’m embarrassed to say I can’t recall, from my first full day in town. He was dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, and underneath his tunic he wore one of those blue-and-white striped Soviet army undershirts. The white was discolored with age.

He is not a forgettable man, but is not really a conspicuous one either. He is short and stocky, the stockiness presumably coming from drink. He wears a thin mustache and oval glasses, behind which his eyes squint when he smiles. That smile is memorable, because it always is genuine and because his teeth are improbably and widely spaced. One sees it frequently because he always speaks with enthusiasm. I was introduced to him on Wednesday at a magazin near the centru, where he sat at 10:30 a.m. with four of his comrades around some beers, cucumbers, and placinta. Petru told me that all of these men were former police officers, and they now have an insurance agency, the office for which is nearby. He added that the table where they were seated was more like their de facto office. We sat with them for about an hour. They asked me about America, they joked with one another and with me. When we excused ourselves that day, I felt like I was in good with the semi-retired cop community in town, at least.

As I was waiting, awkwardly, for Petru in the plaza, this man came up to me and shook my hand.

“I didn’t know you were in the army,” I said.

“You didn’t ask! I served in Afghanistan.”

“Wow, that must have been tough.” The word Moldovans use to say something is tough has a stronger meaning — almost “unbearable” and sounds a lot less stupid in this context. “I’ve heard there were a lot of boys from around here sent to Afghanistan, is that true?” I had not, in fact, heard this, but it was true about Costesti, and so I figured it would be true about my town.

“There weren’t so many,” he said, with an air of disappointment. Then he perked up: ”But I was the first!”

“The first what?”

“I was the first person here to go into Afghanistan!”

I paused. It was taking me a moment to think of something original to say, other than, that must have been difficult, because it was war and obviously it was difficult. But then he added:

“Yep. I was there. On December 27th, 1979.”

Then I understood what he was so proud of. When he said that he had been the first from this town to go into Afghanistan, I had no idea that he meant he was part of the initial invasion.

On December 27th, 1979, eighty thousand Soviet troops began an invasion of Afghanistan, ostensibly at the behest of the government of Afghanistan. Many Moldovans were among that invading force. The invasion meant the beginning of thirty years of war in Afghanistan; the Soviets, at least, would not leave until 1989. And this man was part of the first wave.

At the moment of my epiphany Petru arrived along with some other veterans, notably a former Soviet general and a naval aviator. The general was friendly and smiled; the naval aviator was severe and wore an intimidating marine dagger at his hip. The veterans left together to prepare for the ceremony, leaving me with Petru. The ceremony itself was rather long and uneventful, and consisted mostly of the local priests chanting and tossing holy water over the new monument and the veterans.

The following Monday Petru and the mayor of the town took me to a nearby village, on the bank of the Dniester River. We rode on a bus full of veterans from the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan; Petru and I were the only ones not wearing camouflage and not drinking. The mayor certainly is the most mayoral-looking man I’ve seen in town, even when he’s a camouflage suit as opposed to his regular charcoal silk one. His most prominent feature is his mustache, and I can’t quite decide whether it’s closer to that of Henry Stanley, George Custer, or the Monopoly Man.  He sat at the front of the bus, passing out tiny cups for beer, and dictating who drank when.

We pulled off of the main road, and ahead I could see a white tower, perhaps six stories tall. It was in the form of a narrow arch, perhaps fifteen yards wide its entire height. Near the top was a crossbar from which hung a giant bell, and on top of the arch was a large cross. The arch was placed near the bluff overlooking the Dneister river, and in the attic of the arch on the side facing Moldova was the inscription:

Eroilor Razboiului – Glorie!

Or, “To the heros of war, glory!”  On the other side, facing the Dneister, was the same inscription, but in Russian.  The monument specifically is dedicated to the memory of the Soviet troops who died wresting Moldova from German control in 1944.  At this spot, in 1944, Soviet troops crossed the Dniester and scaled the bluff to regain a foothold in Moldova.  On August 24th of that year, the Soviets would take the rest of the country and re-annex it as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.  This celebration was scheduled to commemorate the 65th anniversary of that “liberation.”

There was a ceremony, during which a number of prominent figures gave speeches, including the acting president and prime minister. Afterwards, the politicians and veterans placed flowers on a small memorial plaque near the arch before the veterans withdrew to drink and tell war stories. There was a kiosk selling overpriced drinks; from it I saw one particularly grizzled man – he had nothing but silver teeth and the largest, most gnarled hands I’ve ever seen – buy a tomato, a single piece of chocolate candy, and a clear plastic container with a foil lid that was exactly the same size and shape of the pudding cups I would take in my lunch during middle school. The contents of the pudding cup were clear, however, and clearly not pudding.  I soon realized that this was vodka. It was a single serving of two shots. He opened it, drank it at once, shuddered, ate the tomato, and last, the chocolate.  His hands shook.

Petru saw me staring at him and said, “Perhaps we should go, and leave the Afghans to their business.”

I hitched a ride home with a friend of his who is a driving instructor.  One of his students drove us home.  Perhaps I might have been safer with the Afghans.

August 9, 2009

Friday marked the last day of practice school.  The first week-and-a-half, as I have written here, I taught 7th graders, by myself.  The last week-and-a-half, I’ve been teaching 11th graders with my future partner teacher, Iulia.

Iulia and I already make a good team, which is apparently something that most volunteers have trouble with in the beginning.  I can’t say that it’s my doing; she’s wonderful to work with and open to my ideas.  We were observed by a current volunteer mid-week who said it was one of the best lessons she saw.  I can’t take credit for that either though, because our students this week were so good and well-behaved.  We started with nine students the first day, including a couple of boys, but there had been some mix-up in the organization of practice school — I was teaching incoming 12th graders the first lessons from the 11th grade book — and most of them didn’t want to come the next day; we only had three students the second day.

We figured we would have a poor turnout the second day (once we realized the students would be bored with material they’ve already had) so Iulia and I tried to plan something more exciting for the ones who would come.  The grammar was about modal verbs, so we decided to have the students listen to “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” by The Clash. We had a few more students back on Monday (five girls in total), and they stayed through the rest of the week.

There were a three moments during the week that made me melt: after class on Wednesday, the girls in our class told my partner out in the hallway that the classes that day were the best English lectures they’ve ever had; one girl in the class wrote a three paragraph essay on part of the test Thursday, did not make a single grammatical mistake, and managed to correctly use the word “knavish”; after class Friday the girls gave both me and my partner gifts and asked to take pictures with both of us.  I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so appreciated.

I had pretty grand plans for the following Saturday.  Because our training obligations would be over at noon that day, because practice school was over, and because I was planning on playing baseball in Chisinau on Sunday, I wanted to take it easy for the rest of the day.  I’ve read about twelve pages in the eight books I lugged over here since I’ve arrived; I’ve been too busy, and when I’m not busy I’m too mentally exhausted, to do any reading.  So just as I started to settle in with The Quiet American by Graham Greene my younger host brother, Tudor, and his cousin, Andrei, come barging into my room.  The two of them are fine when they are separated, but when both are around me they try way too hard to impress me by doing things that 17 year-old boys think older guys will find impressive (viz., bragging about non-existent exploits with girls).  As the summer has dragged on they’ve become insufferable simply because they are always together.  Cue Tudor, as Andrei nosily rifles through the papers on my desk:

Tudor: “Hai Hai la bunica!”  Come on, we’re going to grandma’s!  Hurry up!

C: “Ce?  De ce?  De cît timp?”  What?  Why?  For how long?

T: “Masa pentru bunic.  Hai!”  A feast for [deceased] grampa.  Come on!

C: Didn’t we already have one of those?

T: We did, but it’s been forty days since the last one, and while his memory will never die, the mourning period is now over, and your presence has been specifically requested (approximate translation). “Hai!”

I really did not want to go.  I was exhausted, and the last funeral masa was incredibly awkward.  And to add to it, my host mom and dad had been out of town since Wednesday, and in awkward situations my host dad has been my savior because he uses words he knows I know to explain what other people are saying to me.  He also jumps in to explain that I’m not interested in marrying 15 year-old girls when host-grandma starts suggesting that I marry one of her grandkids.  His absence would be missed.

Of course, I was obliged to accept an invitation to such an important event and one at which my presence — that of the weird foreigner, that is –had been specifically requested.  Tudor and I got to the party early because he had to set up.  There were a few other old men milling about whom I didn’t recognize; one came up and shook my hand and introduced himself as Gheorghe.  I told him my name, and he said, roughly, “What the hell kind of name is that?  What are you, Italian?  German?”  I told him no, that I am American, and a grin shot across his face as he slapped my still open hand and clasped it for the beginning of the longest handshake I’ve ever been involved in.  He told me he’s never seen an American in person before in his life.  Then he hugged me, the first of what would be three times on the day.  He asked me to follow him to a shady spot in the courtyard so we could chat, so I followed.

First he asked me typical questions: if I like Moldova, how big are the houses in America, whether I like the food, whether I like the girls, and when I plan on getting married to one.  Then he started telling me about himself: he’s 57 years-old; he used to be in the Soviet Army; his battalion took part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 following the Prague Spring that year; he shot seven people during that invasion who may or may not have died; he’s cried ever since then over having done it.  He later asked me to comment on what I thought, as an American, of the different peoples of the world, which was a question that was a bit too deep for my limited vocabulary. After stuttering for a few minutes, I managed to say, “I’m an American, you’re Moldovan, but we’re both just men.”  He laughed and said, “But it’s easy to be a bandit, or a thief, or a criminal; it’s hard to be a real man.”  I didn’t think I could take much more of the heavy conversation, so I wished him happiness and excused myself.

Once dinner started, the town priest showed up.  The town priest could not be any more perfect for his job.  He is possibly the friendliest man in town, and he simply looks the part.  He has a Hemingway-esque beard, and its white color matches the cream of his robes.   The cross around his neck doesn’t so much hang as it does rest on his paunch.  He speaks fluent Spanish, spent some time in Cuba, and has a son who lives in California.

The priest gave some sort of a blessing, and a specific type of bread called a colac was passed around the table.  The bread is in the shape of a ring, about a foot across, and has two intertwining parts that make it look like a rope.  When handed the bread, people kiss the bread and then stick a small candle in it before lighting the candle and laying the bread on the already crowded table.  The bread is not consumed at the meal but taken home afterward (a pity because it’s the best bread I’ve had here); the bread is a symbolic gift from the family of the bereaved to the memory of the deceased.

Earlier that same day I had been introduced to a cousin of my brothers’ whom I hadn’t yet met.  Her name is Mariana (or Maia for short), and she lives on the other hill in the same village.   Maia is seventeen and will be a 12th grader this year.  She had come over to our house to talk to my brother about something, and I had been upstairs doing a bit of work, when Condrat called me downstairs to meet her and so she could practice her (limited) English.  The three of us had watermelon and popcorn in the summer kitchen outside, and Maia was nervous about speaking in English.  We all had a few laughs, but then it started to rain and Condrat drove her home.  When Condrat returned, he asked me what I thought of her, and I simply said she was friendly.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I later started to suspect that the meeting had been orchestrated.

Maia was at the masa later that night.  She did not sit down for most of it but was helping to serve food and pour wine for the fifty-odd guests at the table.  Condrat left mid-meal to go take care of some business, and Tudor was otherwise occupied helping, and so I had been sitting by myself awkwardly for the last half of dinner: I didn’t want to be the weird American butting into conversations at an important family event like this.  So I noticed Maia had a free minute, and I ushered her to come sit with me.  Big mistake.

Maia revealed that she is a certified masseuse, which I was impressed with since she’s so young.  Joking, I asked her how much a massage cost, and she said that for me it would be free as long as I’d give her an English lesson.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that comment, so I laughed and said that since I was playing baseball tomorrow my shoulder would hurt and I might need one.  Little did I know that host-grandma had seen us talking, and decided to interrupt by saying something I didn’t fully understand to her.  Eventually I was able to pick out the word for “engaged” thrown in there, at which time Maia turned red and ran off.  I’m not sure what all that means, but I’m sure I’ll find out some time in the next two weeks since host-grandma assured me I would not leave town a bachelor.  If I had any idea what she will be throwing at me next I could prepare a polite refusal, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

June 1, 2009

My name is Casey. I’m from Memphis, Tennessee and am an alumnus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Vanderbilt University Law School. I live in Washington, DC. 

This blog is pretty much closed down. I hope to resume writing elsewhere soon, but whatever I write, it won’t be appropriate to include here. What is here? Most recently, commentary on events in Moldova/eastern Europe/the post-Soviet sphere, some mediocre photography, and the life adjustments a Southerner/Returned Peace Corps Volunteer must make upon moving to DC; before that, postcards and dispatches from my life and travels as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Moldova, where I taught English from June 2009 until September 2010.

For a brief intro to everything I’ve written about Moldova (since the archives of the site are basically unnavigable), I’ve made a list of some of the more popular pieces I’ve written:

Recurring features

Most popular dispatches, in rough chronological order

If it’s photos you want, you can click visit my Flickr (the link is also up top) or here. You can also click on the Random button at the top to get a random post.

You can also follow me Twitter (@onebloceast), where I’ll mostly post articles/essays I read that I find interesting.

FILED UNDER: history about disclaimer