postcards & dispatches from a peace corps volunteer in moldova
August 12, 2010
This is a satellite photo of the forest fires raging outside Moscow, courtesy of the European Space Agency.
It’s my understanding that there’s not much on the news about this back in the States, and in any case, with this year’s quake in Haiti and the current floods in Pakistan, a heat wave and forest fires don’t seem all that bad. But let me tell you a few things:
This is the hottest summer for the region since records began 130 years ago.
In some areas around Moscow, scientists believe the temperatures over the last month have been hotter that they’ve been in 400 years, and by some guesses, hotter than they’ve been in a millenium.
The average high for July is 73ºF, for August it’s 70ºF; in recent days, the thermometer has reached 100ºF, and temperatures have not dropped below 86ºF since mid-June.
The death rate in Moscow has doubled during the heat wave; close to 700 people have been dying a day in the city. For reference, Moscow has 11 million people, and as best as I can tell, the city’s death rate was already double New York City’s before the heat wave.
Alcohol abuse doesn’t help the problem. According to The Economist, ”In the past two months over 2,000 people have drowned trying to escape the heat by dunking themselves in lakes and rivers. (For comparison, 13,000 Soviet soldiers died during the ten-year Afghan campaign.) Fully 90% of them were drunken men, say officials.”
Forest and peat-bog fires raging outside the city have reached areas contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl, adding further toxicity to the smog around Moscow.
Even though skies have been cloudless in the city, people have gone days without seeing the sun because of the smog.
Now, for some of us, 86ºF is nothing, and even 100ºF is not really all that impressive. Keep in mind, though, that no one in Moscow has air conditioning. Add to that the fact that these Soviet-era apartment buildings are not built for hot weather — on a summer night of 65ºF, it may be 85ºF inside, depending on how hot the day was. The apartments have thick, concrete walls and they retain heat; on a cool summer night in a Soviet-era Chisinau apartment, for example, it’s not uncommon for me to sweat through my clothes and the bed linens. Following a day of 100ºF temperatures? I don’t even want to imagine how hot it is in those poor people’s homes. And with the smog, it’s not like they can just go outside for some fresh air.
MOST victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact are pretty clear about what happened to them in 1940. But Moldova, once a province of Romania (and before that part of Czarist Russia) has taken a low-key, some would say muddled, approach to its history since 1991.
Last month the acting president, Mihai Gimpu, designated June 28th ”Soviet occupation day”. That infuriated Russia, which prefers to highlight Soviet sacrifice in liberating eastern Europe from fascism, rather than the Stalin-era carve-up with Hitler that preceded the war. Vladimir Socor at the Jamestown Foundation summarised the reaction:
'In a commentary issued on June 25, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterizes the Moldovan decree as “pseudo-history” and a move “directed against Russian-Moldovan partnership, harmful to the [Moldovan] state’s national interests.” Condemning the decree as “sacrilegious” (a term previously applied to Estonia’s relocation of the Red Army monument from downtown Tallinn), the Russian MFA warns of possible “confrontations in Moldova’s multi-ethnic society” in this connection. Instead of a “so-called occupation,” Moscow advises Chisinau to speak about “the history that we and the Moldovan people share.” The document puts Moldova’s governing Alliance for European Integration (AEI) on notice that Moscow “expect[s] pragmatic approaches to prevail in the Moldovan leadership and the AEI” (Russian MFA Commentary, Interfax, June 25).
'The Duma’s international affairs committee chairman, Konstantin Kosachev, characterized the Moldovan presidential decree as “idiocy” and “historical illiteracy.” Kosachev also insinuated that Ghimpu was contradicting the “international community’s” position on the Russian troops in Moldova (Interfax, June 25). Well-known Russian Television pundit Vladimir Solovyov proposed calling on a “psychiatrist, to assess this document as part of Ghimpu’s medical history” (Moldova Suverana, June 25).'
Officials in Moscow impounded Moldovan wine imports. Russia’s chief sanitary official Gennady Onishchenko said it was only good for “painting faces”. He threatened a total ban on the wine, Moldova’s most important export.
Moldova hastened to negotiate. And on July 12, the country’s constitutional court cancelled the presidential decree, saying that Mr Ghimpu had “no authority” to institute the day.
The row comes in the run up to the referendum on September 5th which will introduce a direct election for the presidency, ending the year-long constitutional deadlock in parliament, where neither the government nor the opposition has enough votes to get a head of state elected. Keeping the economy afloat until then probably matters rather more than symbolic and divisive gestures about history, however justified and overdue some on the centre-right of Moldovan politics may find them.
After I had enough students pestering me about it, I finally joined Odnoklassniki, which is a sort of Russian Facebook. (There is another site, called vkontakte, which is closer to a Facebook/LinkedIn clone, but Odnoklassniki is much more popular with my students.) I finally relented because I’ll need student volunteers for some activities I’m planning and it’s an easy way to get in touch with them, and because I thought it would make for an interesting social experiment.
Because it’s all in Russian, the learning curve for me is a bit steep. I’ve gotten the hang of it by using my dictionary, though, and I think I understand just about everything on the site now. Odnoklassniki (the English transcription of одноклассники, ‘classmates’) is different from Facebook in a number of ways:
You have to pay to join. It costs about $3, which you pay for by texting a phone number and the registration fee is deducted from your cell phone minutes.
Everyone can tell when you’re online, not just your friends.
Photos you put up are ‘rated’ by other people, on a scale of one to five, kind of like Hot or Not (who remembers that?). You can pay extra money to rate someone a ‘5+’ by the same means that you paid for your registration.
You don’t actually have a profile where you can list The Bible, Twilight, and The Da Vinci Code as your favorite books or The Notebook as your favorite movie — your friends will have to just ask you if they want to know.
And, perhaps the creepiest part:
People can tell when you’ve looked at their profiles.
You can upload photo albums, give status updates like on facebook, and comment on your friends’ photos and status updates; there are groups to join, games to play, a chat feature, and friend suggestions. You have to request that someone be your friend, and all your friends’ status updates and photo uploads go into a sort of news feed, called лента, which translates as ‘tape’ or ‘ribbon.’
Facebook is useful for a number of reasons: keeping track of friends who live far away, sharing links or videos, uploading fun photos of parties and such, event planning, long-form messaging that’s more structured than chat but less formal than e-mail, and, most importantly, ‘stalking’ potential girlfriends/boyfriends/employees. Odnoklassniki, though it has some of these capabilities, is not used for any of these reasons.
Instead, the fact that people can tell when you’ve looked at their profile ruins stalking, and the photo rating turns the whole exercise into an orgy of narcissism. None of the pictures I’ve seen on Odnoklassniki are funny in the least — instead, glamor shots rule the site, for boys and girls alike. It’s all just a contest to see who can post the most ‘frumos' pictures, and when I've seen kids sign on, it's mostly to check out how their pictures look; checking their profile visits and chatting come in second and third, respectively.
Hey everyone, I’m using social media in the former USSR! Come and see how good I look!
On the 9th of May, Russia will celebrate the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany with a parade in Moscow. It is to be the greatest parade in the post-Soviet era and marks the first time that armies from other countries will take place in the celebration.
For its part in the Soviet push against Nazi holdings in Eastern Europe, especially in 1944, Moldova has been invited to participate in the parade. Moldova’s interim president, Mihai Ghimpu, started a bit of a spat with Russia when he said that although Moldova’s army would participate in the parade he would not be joining them:
How can I take part in a parade alongside the army that brought communism upon us, starved us, and deported us to Siberia? Today, it [the army] is in Stephen the Great’s fortress. This army was at the core of forming Transnistria.
The Russian foreign affairs minister, Sergey Lavrov, responded by suggesting that Moldova’s western neighbors don’t take Moldova’s sovereignty seriously:
We recognize Moldova as a sovereign and independent state. Not all Moldova’s neighbours do the same. Our Western neighbours, for example, do not consider that Moldovans constitute a nation. If I were Ghimpu, this would be my main preoccupation. I would not use a celebration, sacred for us, to make such insinuations.
It is not Romania that’s got a foreign army on the Republic of Moldova’s territory. Moldova’s citizens are convinced that Romania recognises Moldova’s independence and it was the first country to do so.
How Moldovans feel about Russia varies across the country and even across communities. The only generalization I think I can make about the country as a whole is that very few people are ambivalent about the Soviet era and about Russia’s present relationship with Moldova. Folks in my town are very pro-Russia, by virtue of the fact that there are so many Russian-speakers; people in other towns and villages are virulently anti-Russia. Often, but not always, language is a proxy for this conflict. Here are a few anecdotes about my experience with this issue:
Last summer, our training group was given a presentation on the history of the Soviet era in Moldova by the history teacher from the village where we were all living. The presentation focused both on the terrible stories of Moldovans who were deported to Siberia to die grisly deaths and on Soviet repression of academic discourse. I asked the teacher how she felt about Putin’s manipulation of Russian history textbooks to rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy, and one of our language instructors basically called me a liar for making the suggestion that Putin’s leadership was anything but wholesome.
There is a prominent statue of Lenin still standing in my town, which from what I understand is a rarity in Moldova. Piles of flowers were laid at its feet when I walked by on April 22nd, Lenin’s birthday; in contrast, the statue of Lenin that stood in Costesti, my training village, was removed and thrown into the lake overnight when the USSR dissolved.
When I speak Romanian at the market and the butcher’s shop in town, people look at me as if they’ve never heard the language before in their lives. They don’t speak a word of Romanian and are very rude to me because I don’t speak Russian.
One waitress at a Greek restaurant where I am a regular in Chisinau gets visibly angry when we speak to her in Romanian. She always responds to us in English. The rest of the wait staff speak Romanian with us with no problem.
I’ve been told by more Moldovans than I can count how awesome it is that I learned to speak Romanian so quickly, because there are Russians here who have been here for forty years and haven’t bothered to learn the language.
One volunteer who lives in a more Romanian-speaking area than me and who took her Odyssey of the Mind to the international competition in Belarus told me it was interesting to see her team react to the Russian and Romanian teams; no matter how bad the Romanian teams performed, her team applauded (and the Romanian teams treated her kids as brothers and sisters in turn). Her team was visibly disgusted by the Russian teams.
Religion is another proxy battle, as Moldovans are torn between the leadership of the Orthodox Church patriarchs in Moscow and Bucharest. This split in the church affects everything from politics to the calendar. The Russian Orthodox Church, with no apparent sense of irony, strongly supported the Communist Party in the hotly-contested elections here in Moldova last year. Meanwhile, when the (anti-Communist) coalition government made the Gregorian calendar Christmas (December 25th), as celebrated in Romania, a national holiday in addition to the long-celebrated Julian calendar Christmas (January 7th), it caused quite a stink among those who look to Russia for political, theological, and cultural leadership.
These conflicts are not unique to Moldova; as many of you may know, Russian influence is also an issue in Ukraine. Just last week, there was a battle royale in the Ukrainian parliament over the issue of the newly-elected, pro-Russian government’s renewal of a lease of the port at Sevastopol to the Russian Black Sea fleet:
Usually when we think about the legacies of colonialism, we think of the responses to it in former European colonies or American puppet regimes in the Americas, Asia, and Africa: from Robert Mugabe, Muhammar al-Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, Evo Morales, and Hugo Chavez to al-Qaida and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most potent postcolonial political movements have used popular vitriol against former imperial occupiers or tormenters to consolidate their power. The postcolonial response to Russia in the former Soviet republics is markedly different: while people feel passionately about Russia, those passions are split down ethnic and generational lines, making consensus impossible.
Certainly these same divisions exist in other postcolonial states, so why does it seem that the former Soviet republics — from the divided nations of Moldova and Ukraine, to Kyrgyzstan and its recent unrest, to the oppressive regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have so much trouble shaking off the yokes of communism, authoritarianism, and continuing Russian influence?
Obviously, I’ve only been to Moldova, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the imperialist power in these states was not just another nation that sought to exploit its colonies resources, but was also a system of ideas that was so pervasive, all-encompassing, and, in the end, antithetical to the spirit of humanity that they cannot be easily forgotten, even twenty years later. The psychological, legal, and financial legacies of communism have hurt these nations’ ability to join the international community, marginalizing them and sending them running back into Russia’s open arms. Moldova, given its size, will always be under somebody’s thumb. The only other thumb Moldova has to choose from, the EU’s, is such a different and foreign sort of thumb from Russia’s that many people, especially those who grew up during the Brezhnev era, understandably fear the change.
I want you to think quickly about the following question before reading on: in your experience, which country produces the lowest-quality manufactured goods?
I’m guessing that many of you thought of China. We hear a lot in the news about Chinese manufacturing disasters: defective toys, lethal baby formula, and tainted pet food.
Now, perhaps not all of you decided on China — maybe some of you thought of other countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Mexico — but I have a nomination for home of the world’s worst manufacturers I doubt any of you considered: Russia. In short, I’ve yet to come across any Russian product during my time in Moldova that I could call well-made. Any product. At all. Ever.
This is not a knock on the Russian people — they are just as capable and hardworking as everyone else in the world. But from my experience, albeit limited, there is something seriously wrong with Russian industry. Russian cars are death traps. (The Lada? The Volga? The Moskvitch? I’d rather drive a Pinto.) Russian chocolate tastes like soap; Russian soaps and detergents seem to be made of crumbled chalk and ice cream sprinkles. Russian-made furniture makes Wal-Mart furniture seem as durable as the USS Constitution. The Russian equivalent of Facebook is so creepy that I’d rather join MySpace. Russian beer is skunky — it’s like a poor man’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, and PBR is by no means the rich man’s anything. Leaving food outside for a few hours at Chernobyl would cook food faster than my old host family’s Russian-made microwave could (before it mercifully broke and they bought a Samsung; the Russian one was less than a year old). As for Russian-made refrigerators? Washing machines? Televisions? Stoves? Pots and pans? All of them are the worst products of their kind I have ever encountered.
Let me give you a more concrete example. I bought a bicycle this week: brand new, made in Russia. It’s a sharp-looking bike, and it cost around one hundred dollars. The moment I put my foot on the left pedal its plastic shattered. The bike hadn’t been out in the weather; the attendant had brought it out of the back and it was wrapped in the original packaging, yet the quality of the pedal was so bad that it just splintered when I put the least bit of pressure on it. (The woman at the store graciously replaced the pedals for me.)
By the time I got the bike home, the handlebars were so crooked on their x-axis that it looked as if I were constantly executing a hard left turn, and the bars were so loose on their y-axis that I had to hold them up — I couldn’t lean on them in order to get any extra power to get up a hill. As soon as I got in the gate, I broke out my Leatherman and tried to tighten the hex bolts that hold the handlebars; the metal in the bolts was so soft that my (mostly) American-made wrench shredded the outside of the bolt heads. Let me emphasize that I’m not talking about a Phillips-head screwdriver shredding a screw head, which happens; no, my Leatherman literally rounded off the hex bolt so that its head is no longer hexagonal but circular. I might as well have been using a pneumatic lug wrench with an Erector Set.
I thought I had finally gotten everything straightened out, and the next day I was ready to ride my new bike the five kilometers to school. Around kilometer number four, I stood up on the pedals to give myself some extra oomph for going up a small rise, and my weight ripped the left pedal out of its socket in the crank. Now, I’m not a large man, but the threads of the bolt that connected the pedal to the crank had been torn out. Fool me once, Russia, shame on you; fool me twice, etc.
In short, I find it surprising that Russian companies manufacture such utter crap. After all, wasn’t the United States and her allies engaged in a to-the-death struggle with the Soviet Union for the forty-five-odd years in between Hitler’s death and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Didn’t they launch Sputnik and dogs and monkeys into space before we did? Didn’t the USSR design and manufacture what remains the world’s most popular assault rifle, the AK-47? Didn’t President Reagan lecture us about the threat of the Evil Empire? Weren’t earnest movies like this —
— at least somewhat plausible to us, even as late as 1984? All of that fear would suggest that the Soviet Union — and by extension, its most direct heir, Russia — could match us in almost every conceivable way, most of all in industry, since heavy industry was a prerequisite for each of those accomplishments I listed above.
Of course, I recognize that it’s been twenty years since we considered the Soviet Union a mortal enemy, and I know that what people were afraid of wasn’t Soviet manufacturing but Soviet ICBMs. And everyone knows Russia went through some hard times in the 1990’s before Putin took power. But is that an excuse? Can you build an intercontinental ballistic missile if you can’t make a goddamn bicycle? Can an entire economy unlearn how to make manufactured goods?
My educated guess to that latter question is an emphatic no. I asked Iulia, my partner teacher, about the poor quality of Russian-made goods, and she told me that twenty years ago, Made in Russia meant that a product was the best of its kind available. She stopped herself, though, to say that Moldovans did not have access to German, American, or even Turkish goods then, as if to say that perhaps Russian goods’ absolute quality hasn’t changed, only their quality relative to other countries’ manufactured goods has.
After spending nearly a year in what was apparently one of the more industrialized and densely populated Soviet republics I’ve come to believe that Reagan’s rhetoric about the Soviet Union’s power during the 1980’s was nothing but snake-oil salesmanship. Were the Soviet Union as powerful then as Reagan told us it was, Russian industry (as well as Moldova’s infrastructure) would have had to have undergone an unparalleled collapse to get to the sorry state it is in today. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, yet I can find no other explanation for how we ever could have considered these people and their government such a threat to our ‘way of life’ when they can’t manufacture a bicycle.
What’s even more baffling to me, though, is the fact that the perception in Moldova of Russian goods as high quality hasn’t changed even as their quality relative to available goods from other countries has faded. Anything that is of shoddy quality is automatically from China and not to be trusted according to the Moldovans I’ve spoken to about this; Russian-made items are all high-quality. For example, when Doamna Ana’s Russian-made microwave broke, her response was to suggest she had been lied to about its provenance and that the microwave was actually Chinese.
After my last episode with the bicycle, I went to the central market in Chisinau to buy new pedals, a crank, and a sprocket. I took along a magnet to test the quality of the metal in the parts I was buying. When one vendor saw me holding the magnet up to one of his sprockets, he said, “Don’t worry — this one is the best. It’s made in Russia.” I told him I had had a problem with Russian-made parts already, and I showed him my old crank that had the bolt threads ripped out.
"No, this can’t have been made in Russia," he assured me. "Only Chinese parts are this bad."