My stay in the Republic of Moldova took in the book “Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family”. This book, by Canadian writer Stephen Henighan, details his time spent billeted with a typical Moldovan family in a small apartment in the capital, Chişinău, whilst teaching English at the local University.
As such we get a uniquely intimate look – through the eyes of a Westerner – of the day to day lives of this family, whose concerns, hopes and beliefs in turn give a wider insight into this confused country. Henighan’s role as a language teacher is crucial here: for the tension between the dominant languages of Russian, Romanian and Moldovan (essentially Romanian, but rarely recognised as such, even by the native speakers) demonstrates wider tensions among descendants of Russians imported into the country during the cold war, and those who believe that Moldova should be culturally and ethnically (and economically) linked with its neighbour, Romania. By some, Russian is seen as the language of Soviet colonialism, whereas others see Moldovan as a degenerate language, not fit for the key purposes of civil service and ‘bizniz’. The fact that a language law is about to be passed during Henighan’s visit, declaring Romanian the country’s official language – gives these divisions a particularly political edge.
As with Paula Huntley’s “The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo”, Henighan’s classroom of students - or ‘little dictators’ as he half-affectionately calls them - provide a barometer of society here, with a contentious mix of Romanian and Russian speakers, each with their own views of the country’s situation (and of the West, which Henighan is seen as typifying, until he disappoints his acquaintances by revealing that he is not up to date with the latest technological gadgets, does not own his own house and is not in regular touch with Michael Jackson).
Throughout the book Henighan cleverly uses the divisive issue of language here, to demonstrate the wider divisions within this complex society. For instance, Henighan is angrily berated a number of times when trying to purchase items in shops, for not speaking Russian; and on one occasion, whilst sitting with a group of Romanians in the dusty communal square outside his hosts’ apartment, the group all uniformly switch to Russian, as soon as a sole Russian speaker joins them.
These divisions are seen within Henighan’s host family as well – Dora and Senya and their two sons Serge and Andrei: whereas Dora speaks mainly Romanian, her son, Andrei, speaks mainly Russian, which he sees as the language of ‘bizniz’, and he is dismissive of Romanian. Some of Henighan’s greatest insights into life in early 1990s Moldova come through his depictions of family life – especially in Dora’s world-weary view of the world, and 20-year old Andrei’s frustration at the lack of job opportunities in his homeland, which is finely balanced between comedy (in his scheme to bring the Jackson family to play a concert in Moldova) and tragedy (in his inevitable gravitation towards a life of petty crime with the local ‘mafia’ gangs).
Some of the broader depictions of life in this economically-struggling country are also telling; the purchase of a carton of orange juice is seen as a luxury – costing almost a month’s salary – and the casual mugging of Henighan on a tram by the local ‘police’ is especially shocking. Yet Henighan has an obvious and genuine warmth towards this lost province, and seems especially comfortable in the communal square outside his building where people of all ages gather to chat, play and drink wine from the nearby kiosks. He sees this as a 'little village' in the midst of a grey metropolis, and identifies here the remnants of traditional Moldovan communal life.
However, one cannot but help feel a sense of pessimism for this struggling country, and this is borne out by Henighan’s return visit, ten years later in 2001. On the surface of it things seem to have improved – the street-life in downtown Chişinău seems more lively and vibrant, with global chains (including the inevitable McDonalds) and designer brands on show. However his visit to Dora – now estranged from her husband and sons, still living in the same apartment block – shows this to be a thin veneer of success. As Dora says: “you have to understand that in the past few years life here has been very, very hard. Many families have broken up….All that stuff you see downtown, near your hotel – that’s not for us, that’s not for ordinary people. For most people things are getting worse and worse.”
The fact that Dora’s own family unit has broken up – she is divorcing Senya, and no longer speaks to Andrei or Serge, whose allegiance now lies with the local criminal gangs – is an effective depiction of a wider social malaise in this complex country.
All in all, this is a well-written, entertaining and insightful look at life in the 1990s in this complex, divided yet engaging post-Soviet country. I would be fascinated to hear about the lives of these individuals a decade on from the Epilogue, in 2011...
And so from one complex, divided place to another – and one which is intractably linked with Moldova itself…
Transnistria, also known as Trans-Dniester or Transdniestria is a breakaway territory located mostly in a strip between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border to Ukraine. It is generally recognised internationally as being de jure in Eastern Moldova as the autonomous region Stînga Nistrului. Since its declaration of independence in 1990, and especially after the War of Transnistria in 1992, it is governed de facto by the unrecognised Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR, also known as "Pridnestrovie"), which claims the east bank of the river Dniester and a small area located on the right bank of the Dnestr river. The modern Republic of Moldova does not recognise this secession and considers territories controlled by the PMR to be a part of Moldova's sovereign territory. Transnistria's sovereignty is not recognised by any member of the United Nations and it has no official diplomatic relations with any of those states, although it has strong ties with Russia, as well as being recognised by the disputed former Soviet states of Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
I take the slow train from Chişinău to the capital city of Tiraspol, arriving two hours later to a scene that could be straight out of Soviet-era Russian – a large tank greets the train as it rolls into the station, and upon leaving the station I am met with a large embossed plaque featuring Lenin in the small square outside. I look forward to updating you on the book “This Is Radio PMR: News From Transnistria” soon.