July 22, 2010

From The Economist:

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.

May 24, 2010

I learned today why Moldovan kids always act mind-blown whenever they see me shuffle a deck of cards.

It’s because playing cards in public was illegal during the Soviet era.

May 8, 2010
Two-story tall, Soviet-era mosaic on the side of a school.

Two-story tall, Soviet-era mosaic on the side of a school.

May 6, 2010

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.

Ghimpu then shot back:

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.

April 12, 2010

Because of my positive experiences playing baseball with Moldovans and with Americans against Moldovans — the latter somehow being far more satisfying, even in defeat — and playing basketball with the town team and with kids from my school, I decided on a whim to organize a basketball game between the team from my town and whoever I could round up among the Americans in the country. When I told my Moldovan teammates about my idea, the response I got was, “Will you bring Kobe Bryant?”

Because I hadn’t really thought the matter through, I assumed this exhibition game would be low-key and casual, and, boy, was I ever wrong. Someone had mentioned the game to a man named Victor who works at the mayor’s office (he runs the basketball team), and when I went to go talk to him one day about an unrelated matter, he couldn’t contain his glee about the prospect of an America versus Moldova basketball game:

"Do you have uniforms? If you don’t have uniforms, we should find some for your team, because this game must be frumos!”

"Why do we need uniforms?"

"Because the mayor and the district commissioner and the radio and newspapers from Chisinau are coming. After the game we will have a big dinner with wine and food, and we will give medals and certificates to the players! All of it must be beautiful!"

Let me pause for a moment and say something about certificates. Certificates, or diplomas as Moldovans call them, are a fixture of everyday life here. A basic diploma is printed out from some cheesy Microsoft Word template, complete with faux-classy fonts and some cheap-looking, overly-florid border; variations on this theme can include the use of colored paper or clip-art to make the diploma more ‘official.’ As with all things frumos, the more elaborate the diploma, the better.

The circumstances under which one will receive a diploma are complex. My Odyssey of the Mind team was awarded diplomas for their third-place finish; there was a moment of panic when it was discovered we had only received enough diplomas for half the team, and the team was more heartbroken about the missing diplomas than the fact that they didn’t win (shortly thereafter we got diplomas for everyone). I’ve received diplomas for participating in mandatory seminars, and I was awarded one on the first week of school apparently just for being American. The students at practice school got diplomas, as did our partner teachers and the resource teachers observing our lessons. In contrast, at the high school graduation ceremony I attended last summer, the students received small government documents certifying their graduation and their final grades, but no diplomas.

In general, you might receive a Moldovan diploma if you do something that is seen as ‘extra.’ In contests, diplomas are awarded for placing in the top three, but these diplomas still have a participation award feel to them. This isn’t so different from the United States — I have received many meaningless certificates over the years myself — but in my experience in America there’s always been a tacit understanding on the part of the certificate-granter and the recipient that sooner rather than later that certificate will end up in the trash. In Moldova, these diplomas are a big deal, and feelings will be hurt if you fail to give a diploma when one was expected or if someone who gave you a diploma finds out you’ve thrown it out.

These diplomas have been around for decades. My room in Doamna Ana’s house was full of dusty certificates that she received for going to seminars, each one with her name lovingly inscribed on it in elaborate Cyrillic letters; the gym teacher at my school cried over her scrapbook of old ping pong tournament diplomas, printed on such shoddy paper that they had already begun to disintegrate. Because the state is commonly the granter of these diplomas, the diploma’s effect is two-fold: it makes the recipient feel honored and distinct while at the same time making people feel as if they have a role in the bureaucracy they have no choice but to live with. In a country where the only bureaucratic tradition in memory is that of the Soviet state (or its direct heir, which isn’t in many respects very different from its predecessor), the diploma is like a strange combination of an “I voted!” sticker and being listed in the newspaper for making honor roll.

Back to the basketball game: we would be playing at the school in town for Russian speakers (because their gym was better); we would have two referees and a scorers table (the gym coaches from all the schools in town); we would indeed have uniforms (donated to a volunteer by his old high school). The night before the game and the night after the game, nine guys — all volunteers — would be staying in my house. I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to how logistically difficult this would be since I only have one source of non-potable running water, a stove with two functioning eyes, one heated bedroom, and a handful of chairs for sitting around, but we made it work. I made chicken strips for everyone, and by the end of the weekend I had fried nearly 20 pounds of chicken.

When we got to the Russian school we had about an hour to get warmed up and get a game plan together. The boys from the Anenii team are big; we Americans only had two guys one might call ‘tall.’ The Anenii boys like to run people ragged; we were all out of shape. These guys practice together three times a week; we had never played together. I liked our chances, though, because they score most of their points off turnovers, and we planned on playing slowly and methodically to mitigate their opportunities in transition.

The gym was as full as could be. Gyms in Moldova aren’t big enough for bleachers — in fact, the gym isn’t even big enough for the basketball court, and the ball goes out-of-bounds when it hits the wall — so everyone was standing along the sidelines. We didn’t have many fans, maybe three, so whenever the Moldovans did something well the crowd roared.

We got out to an early lead — maybe ten points — but the moment our starters needed a breather it swung to a ten-point deficit. With our two big men and the only sure ball handler all winded, we were disorganized and they took advantage of mistakes like they normally do. Moldovans also play in a way that was foreign to some of the guys in our group who hadn’t played any organized Moldovan basketball before: there is not a stoppage in play when possession changes because of a turnover. In other words, if the other team is whistled for travelling or if they throw the ball out-of-bounds, you may run to the ball and pass it inbounds to restart play with no input from the referee. Whenever we Americans heard a whistle, before we knew what had happened the Moldovans had inbounded the ball and scored an easy lay-up because we were all standing around trying to figure out what the call was. The Moldovans maybe scored twenty points this way.

The referees also make very, very different calls in Moldova. There is no reaching in, over the back, or charging: these infractions may all exist in theory, but I’ve never seen them called. Moving screens don’t exist; in fact, the only screens I ever see are moving. If a shot is blocked, a foul will be called, even if there was clearly nothing but ball contact. On the other hand, the referees over-enforce backcourt violations (they blow the whistle every time the ball is thrown inbounds to someone in the backcourt, for example) and three second violations. I’m used to these things by now so I know not to complain, but my teammates were visibly frustrated by these things and pleaded with the referees repeatedly. Once I realized how much we were complaining, I got nervous: I wasn’t happy about the prospects of looking like poor sports in front of the mayor and the media. There were some tense moments. We got dunked on more than a few times, which made us want to win even more. 

The rest of the game was close, and indeed, it went into overtime. We should have known how it would turn out, though, when we walked into the door that morning: on the wall next to the gym teacher’s office was a bulletin board that had on it a framed photograph of the final seconds of the controversial gold medal game between the USSR and the USA at the 1972 Munich Olympics. With about thirty seconds left, we were ahead by one point with the ball. We were whistled for some violation, I don’t remember what, and the Moldovans threw the ball inbounds on a typical “the Americans are standing around to try and figure out what’s happening” moment; at this point, I was prepared, and chased the guy with the ball down the court and blocked his shot cleanly without making contact with him. A foul was called on me; he shot free throws and made them both. With about fifteen seconds left, the best shooter among us brought the ball up, drove into the lane, and put up a floater; he was fouled so hard by three people that the ball didn’t make it halfway to the basket. No foul was called, and time expired. We lost, and frankly, we were all furious.

After the game, the mayor presented us with medals, and the Anenii boys got diplomas and a trophy before we sat down for a feast with the guys from the other team, the referees, the mayor, and this crazy seventy year-old Russian-speaking gym teacher who wanted to arm wrestle all of us over shots of vodka. Our medals were for second place; all I could think of was Ricky Bobby’s mantra, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Unlike that Munich team, though, we accepted the silver.

We’ve come along way since 1972, I guess. But I really wanted that diploma.

FILED UNDER: soviet remnants sports 
December 16, 2009

Monday night it began snowing, and the snow has yet to stop; it won’t be stopping until tomorrow night.  We’ve already had at least two feet, and the snow drifts I have to wade through to get to the outhouse are up to my belt.

The first day the snow fell almost no one was out in it, and a peaceful quiet seeped through town.  When I walked to school yesterday morning, I heard not a car, nor a bird, neither yet any voices for the length of the walk; today, the town again took up its usual bustle.  Town today had a wintry pulse, and I saw snow shoveled from walks, sand peppered across the road, snowballs hurled in the schoolyard, and sleds towed up hills.

I began Tuesday with laundry.  I was in dire need of some clean underwear.  Because the daytime is now so brief, I have to have the clothes washed and on the line by sun-up so that there will be enough daylight for them to dry outside.  The sun hadn’t come out from behind the clouds in at least a week, so as each day passed I put laundry off for hope of a sunnier day the next.  The weather got colder and colder, and by Tuesday I couldn’t wait any longer, so at dawn I was stringing wet clothes up in the snow.  My socks froze within five minutes.  Tomorrow I’ll bring everything in and lay it all on the radiator so that everything will melt, but first I’ll have to shovel enough snow so that I can get to the clothesline.  I did trudge out there to check on my laundry this afternoon; my shirts have snow in the sleeves, and I can shape my frozen blue jeans like a body shop mechanic hammers out dings in fenders.

Through the snow this week we’ve had exams, and so there haven’t been classes as usual.  Monday and today I had to proctor English exams.  There are two tests a day, each an hour and a half long.  Between the tests the students all rush downstairs during the short break to buy snacks from the ladies who clean the school.  The snacks are like pigs-in-blankets on a larger scale; they are made with a gross kind of hot dog that has a texture like toothpaste.  The snacks are a steal at a cost of twenty cents each.

The students take their tests in their homerooms, and because half of the students from a homeroom section study French and the other half English, two tests happen at once.  This — along with making two variants of the English test — helps prevent copying, since not every student is sitting next to someone taking the same language test.  Copying — I won’t say cheating, for reasons I will go into — is a problem for every Peace Corps Volunteer I know.  I’m lucky, in that it’s less rife at my school than it seems to be at smaller, village schools, but I would say that maybe ninety percent of my students either give or use outside help on every test.

That’s a big percentage.  It’s so big, in fact, that I can’t very well give them all failing grades for copying.  Indeed, the students aren’t used to being punished for it.  They know they shouldn’t be caught copying, but the emphasis there is on the being caught, and most teachers are willfully blind.  All of this — the copying, the blind eye, the lack of punishment — is a charming and maddening social legacy of the Soviet Union.  Before the Soviet takeover, Moldovans may or may not have had a collectivist bent, but Soviet communism cast the ethos of putting village before self in iron that lasts to this day.  The philosophy here is that neighbors should help their neighbors — after all, we’re all in this together — so ownership of student performance is not individual but collective; a poor mark on a test shows that everyone has failed, while a student who excels but does not share with others is ostracized as greedy.

This is why I won’t call it cheating.  At home, a student who uses a cheat-sheet or who copies from the student next to him is often seen as stealing something from others; if it is not literally the stealing of an answer it is the stealing of an advantage on an otherwise level field.  Here, the students are giving so as to make the whole better, and I may be a minority among volunteers, but I don’t fault them for that.  I think that my students’ instinct to help a struggling neighbor is beautiful, and it’s not my place to try and break them of that.  I try to do everything I can to prevent copying — by making two test variants, by asking questions whose answers are not easily copied, by telling them to put their pre-written essays back in their pockets — but I’m not going to rip up a test and give someone a failing grade if I catch them copying.  In my opinion that won’t teach them anything, because in order to understand why they should do their own work they must first learn the joys of owning their work: the pride in themselves and the pride others will have in them of a job well-done.

This pride in a job well-done is a foreign idea to many of my students, not just because they are teenagers.  We Americans tend to forget that this is a peculiarly Western, if not specifically American, ethos: the ideals of self-reliance and meritocratic equality of opportunity.  Moldovans have inherited an ethos that tries to enforce equality of outcome, and those Moldovans who have succeeded during the capitalist era have not always been those who merited success.  And so even though it is not my job as a volunteer to break my Moldovan students of their instinct to share, it is my job to show them something new, something they can use to make their country better.  I hope to show my students ownership: I believe that my students can have their community oriented spirit while owning their successes and failures.

In the spirit of ownership, I will share some of my successes here.  One of my tenth grade classes is very, very weak.  My twelfth graders who have been studying English for two years and for whom English is their fourth language know more than these kids who have been studying it for eight.  Two weeks ago — three months into the school year — I had to do a lesson on the verb “to be.”  Until that day, about half of them didn’t know how to translate it, and none of them could get the subject-verb agreement correct.

On Monday’s semester exam, these students were to write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, “Adolescence is the the best period of our life.”  Here are some excerpts, followed by an explanation.  All errors are, of course, sic:

Adolescence is the best period … because I play computer games. I teach in school. I drink with my frieds. Every day I go to school. I’m totally over the moon.
I agree of this argument because adolescence is realy the best of the best period of my life because I did anythyng what I do.  I go to school and I teach and after scool I go home and I rest.  Late I did my homework and after I stay at the computer, in the internet, play game, and watching TV.  I love this period very much because we grow old and we don’t enjoy.  In this period we go to a disco and we dancing.  Adolescence is a interesting period of our life. I love to play video games, to dancing, to drink, I love very much to travel in the world.  In this period we don’t listen parents.  Adolescence is a joyous period and the best period in my life.

These essays are by two boys who are at the middle of the class w/r/t their English.  I can tell that I’ve succeeded in making English “cool” enough for them to care to try, but they are both still a little too concerned with what their friends think, so they never do their homework.  At first, these essays made me put my head in my hands with disappointment.  Both of them go off-topic and make simple lists of things that they like to do.  But then I saw that these essays actually show my work as a teacher: usually I begin every class by asking the students what they did the previous day or over the weekend.  (It’s actually become a joke for them to turn it back around on me and ask me what I did. That’s one more question than my twelfth graders usually ask in English per class.)  And they did not know how to say the simplest things at the beginning of the year, like “Last weekend I went to the disco.”  Now they know.  And the essay is otherwise so bad and off topic that I know they didn’t cheat, so now I know they know.

(As an aside, I’d like to point out how both essays mistake “to teach” for “to learn.”  This mistake comes from something peculiar about Romanian: the verb for learn is often used for teach as well, just like some people in Appalachia might say that “My job is to learn these kids some English.”  I don’t know where they learned to use teach like this; I most certainly did not learn it to them.)

Another essay:

For me adolescence is very beautiful period because in this part of life I teach who is love and peace, and I have a lot of fun… . We are carefree, and look for adventures… . For all I thank my parents, and very much love.

This essay is from one of the stronger girls.  Her sentence about being carefree and looking for adventures is perfect, and she got those words from a discussion I led about the problems and virtues of being a teenager.  I learned her those words!


I’m agree with argument “Adolescence is the best period of our life” because in adolescence people are doing first step to their future.  But all people must pay big attention how they are doing first step on the life’s way because if the adolescent doesn’t walking correct it is broken.  After adolescence all people are dividing in 2 groups.  First group with the people which walked correct on his life’s way and forms his life good and second group is people wich doesnt walked correct and forme his life bad. We must try to walked correct and hiting on first group.  Just good dreams and thoughts in adolescence are bearing to the health future. Each person is single and lives in a world of her. In within this phase you grow, you start to look at things from another perspective, become a different person, different from what you were before… . Adolescence means for me the most beautiful period of life most full of anxiety, arising from questions seeking their response.

Now, although this essay sounds like a spam e-mail from a Nigerian “banker” claiming he’s won the lottery but only needs your bank account to help him collect his money, it is from the strongest girl in the class.  She’s the one student in that class whose English is somewhere close to where it should be, and she’s also the only student who is as interested as I’d like her to be.  It’s harder to see what I’ve taught her here because she already knew a lot.  But you can see that this girl’s essay has a trace of something more important than English: “Each person is single and lives in a world of her.”

September 25, 2009
Soviet war veterans celebrating the dedication of a new war monument with the mayor of my town, the mustachioed man in the shiny gray suit.

Soviet war veterans celebrating the dedication of a new war monument with the mayor of my town, the mustachioed man in the shiny gray suit.

September 22, 2009

When I was younger I would sometimes close my eyes and try to imagine what the Soviet Union looked like.  Of course I had seen Moscow and other places in photographs and on film, but nothing short of imagination could help me visualize a place where the aesthetic was determined purely by utilitarian considerations and political theory.  It’s not surprising to me that my favorite building to walk around in my previous travels was not the Parthenon or the Colosseum, but Milano Centrale, the main train station in Milan that was completed when Mussolini was Prime Minister.  That building, though it borrowed heavily from Art Deco and other styles, was intended to represent the power of Italian fascism.  Walking inside its halls imparts an understanding — a superficial one, but more of one than I otherwise have — of the socio-political upheavals and consequent horrors of the 20th century that can’t be gleaned from a history book.  But Milano Centrale is just one building, and once you board a train or walk out the front door that understanding vanishes.

Now I don’t have to use my imagination: I’m in a country-sized diorama put together for a Reagan-era middle school social studies project.  There is no escaping the visual vestiges of the Soviet era here; I have yet to enter one building (with the possible exception of the Peace Corps office) that does not somehow give away its Soviet era roots.  When I take the bus into Chisinau, there’s reminder after reminder:

There is the charred carcass of an old Russian-made SUV on the side of the road.  The car, being of a make apparently prone to overheating, did just that, and had burst into flames on the side of the two-and-a-half lane highway.  For an idea of how this car looks in a pre-combusted state, imagine OJ’s white Bronco scaled down to the proportions of a Jeep Wrangler, and Poftim! you have the Lada Niva.  A Bond villain would look perfectly at home behind the wheel of a Niva.  The Niva, like most Soviet-era Russian cars, looks sinister and alien to my Western eyes for two reasons: (1) we don’t have them at home, so I’ve never seen one outside of a spy movie; (2) the designers clearly made no effort to take aesthetics into account.  This is not to say the car is necessarily ugly, but there’s nothing nonessential about its appearance.  I’ve seen a lot of old cars around — some probably fifty years old — and it’s no surprise that none of them have tail fins, for example.  Like most structures that predate the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Niva and its Russian comrades are strictly utilitarian.

And next is the bus stop for the village of Chetrosu.  Chetrosu’s largest public work is its sign: a crumbling concrete sculpture with the name of the town anachronistically spelled out in a sort of Cyrillic lettering that’s recognizable from high school history textbooks’ illustrations of Soviet propaganda. The sign lords over the entrance to Chetrosu’s main thoroughfare, a tree-lined dirt road leading away from the highway that I’ve yet to see anything but pedestrians and cattle use.  The bus stop sits opposite the sign, set off the highway by a strip of yard-high brown weeds.  Its concrete walls and roof are in such bad shape that Trotsky himself may have set their cement, and a chipped mural, the subject matter of which is unintelligible, covers one outside wall.  One can only assume that strong men and women working the fields in service of the state once loomed over their comrades waiting for the bus.  In any city outside Moldova I would probably stand outside of such a bus stop for fear that it would reek of urine (an assumption based only on its appearance); here it’s probably the safest place to stand to avoid stepping in a cow pie.  (And in rural Moldova, of course, there are better places to micturate than inside the one concrete structure you’ll find for miles.)

Then I see a quaint train overtake our bus from the east.  The railroad runs parallel to the highway about half-a-mile to the north, and this train consists of three tanker cars in varying states of disrepair led by an engine painted in the red, yellow, and blue of the Moldovan flag.  Surely this is not this engine’s first or only paint job, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this train had once carried dissenters bound for the gulag.  It was limping along at a faster clip than our bus, which, based on the vaguely Germanic exhortations at the exits (“Verboden te roken!”), appeared to have been purchased used from a Dutch township.

These sights punctuate a landscape between my site and Chisinau that is otherwise devoid of punctuation.  Very few fences cordon off the fields, and most of the villages between my town and the big city are set off the highway by at least a kilometer or two.  The highway runs through a valley, with ridges on either side covered in forest, vineyards, and every now and again a sprinkling of houses.  But the ellipsis ends abruptly when Chisinau welcomes the traveler from the east with an odd but triumphant gate made of two massive apartment buildings that flank the road on either side.  These are not your run of the mill Soviet tenement towers, of which Chisinau has plenty; no, these buildings were clearly designed to put you on notice that you’ve come into the city.

Once you’ve passed through the gates, tenement after tenement lines the road.  At first glance, they are all identical: the same uniform shape, size color, and state of external disrepair.  But look again! the buildings are not identical; you can make out which windows belong to which apartment from the outside because the owners have so altered their appearance.  Where balconies were originally built some families have added a room by closing off the open air portion with wood paneling and windows.  Some have replaced the original, style-less windows with more fashionable ones.  Others have even repainted the exterior of their apartments.

Most of these modifications look as if they were done decades ago.  If that is the case, I think these home-improvements reveal how the Soviet system was doomed from the start: human beings can’t be expected to live in the sort of monotonous equality Soviet building programs attempted to impose.  Not having been here at these buildings’ completion, I can’t say when the residents of these tenements began to truly make them their own, but it makes me wonder whether there was ever such a thing as the Soviet Union of my imagination.

September 5, 2009
The Lenin statue in front of the community culture center in my town.

The Lenin statue in front of the community culture center in my town.

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.