The layered culture of MoldovaLizet Wesselman - 03/06/2023
The layered culture of MoldovaLizet Wesselman - 03/06/2023
You might have never heard of the country of Moldova, or low-key expected it to be a fictional country from a Disney movie. But it’s very much a real country, with a very rich history, which resulted in one of the most interesting cultures I have even visited. This tiny country in Eastern Europe had to deal with constant changes throughout history and managed to build an incredibly strong society with some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Let me explain the history and culture of Moldova.
A turbulent history
The history of Moldova is one that is deeply intertwined with the resilience and strength of its people, who have endured centuries of external influences, conflicts, and political shifts. Situated in Eastern Europe, Moldova has been shaped by various historic events, each leaving its mark on the local community.
Changing power structures
Despite centuries of resistance, amongst others led by Stephan the Great, who is still honoured for his efforts, Moldova came under the control of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. This was the beginning of a period of foreign domination and a struggle to preserve their cultural and religious identity. The Ottomans introduced Islam, while the majority of the Moldovan population was Orthodox Christian.
In the early 19th century, the Russian Empire gained control over Moldova, who brought modernization and economic development to the region. But they also implemented policies aimed at Russification, making it again harder for the Moldovan people to maintain their cultural distinctiveness.
Following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Bessarabia (as Moldova was called back then) finally declared independence and formed a union with Romania. However, in 1940, Joseph Stalin forcibly annexed Bessarabia again. During World War II, Moldova was caught in the crossfire between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with lots of destruction and lost lives as a result.
Independence of Moldova
Moldova finally gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, following its dissolution. However, the transition to independence wasn’t without difficulties. The country faced economic challenges, political instability, and the Transnistrian conflict, a separatist movement that resulted in a frozen conflict and the separation of Transnistria from Moldova.
Yet, throughout all of it, Moldova has preserved its cultural traditions, language, and a strong sense of national identity. But the effects of historic events on the local community can still be felt today. Moldova remains a diverse nation, where Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, and other cultural influences coexist.
The struggles and triumphs of the past have shaped the Moldovan people into a resilient, adaptable, and forward-looking community, ready to embrace the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. The current Moldovan president, Maia Sandu, said they’re working on Moldova’s admission to Europe, but she admits they still have a long way to go.
Our first glimpse of Moldova’s history
We started our Moldova travel journey in the capital city, Chișinău, which only houses a small 530.000-700.000 people (depending on who you ask). The city is pretty much in the middle of this tiny country, that’s landlocked between Romania and Ukraine. We did a tour through the city with a local tour guide, which immediately gave us an insight into the heavy history this country went through and how it got hit after hit. Sharing 1222 km of their border with Ukraine, the Ukrainian war that started in 2022 has been the last hit, causing heavy pressure on the country yet again.
As the population in the country is still very divided, the war caused the people to be weary about their neighbours and what they can and can’t say. We asked our guide about the general views on the war, and she went noticeably quiet when answering that the country is a bit divided on it, with many people still strongly supporting Russia in everything they do.
This support showed a few times during our Moldova trip. To start with, the self-proclaimed country Transnistria, which is next to the border with Ukraine. Support for Russia runs deep here. The region was created during the second world war, when Stalin changed the border of Moldova to make the country slightly bigger. Transnistria, an already heavily pro-Russian region was added.
Even though Russia never acknowledged the area as a country on it’s own, they do intertwine in business and politics. For example, by sending Russian soldiers to guard the borders of Transnistria and acknowledging Transnistrian army members as members of the Russian army. With this in mind, it’s not very surprising that Ukraine secured their borders when the war started, to avoid Russia settling in Transnistria and attacking Ukraine from 2 sides.
But also in the city of Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, you’ll find links with the former USSR. Like this restaurant, which is called “back in the USSR” and is filled with items from that time period and even includes servers in old USSR outfits. The USSR is still pretty glorified all over this region.
Another place where we saw the influence of Russia and the ongoing support, was at an old USSR Collective farm in the Gagauzia region. A collective farm is a collectively run cooperation, which means that everybody does their part, and the profits are split. In this case, it was the entire community of the town Kopcak who worked together and profits went to build a brand-new church. Everything that people earned from the farm, went back into the church. But the other side of a collective farm is about community, people helping each other through rough times. You’re really in it together. For the good and the bad, so it definitely requires a good amount of trust in the people who run it.
This farm is located in Gagauzia, an autonomous territory that has been acknowledged as a separate region with its own political system. Unlike Transnistria, it’s accepted by Moldova as a separate region, but it remains part of the country. This is because of the economic dependency of the region on Moldova. But it wasn’t the first choice. After the USSR fell in 1991, Gagauzia still supported the USSR and would have chosen to remain part of it, if it was an option. This also showed during the 2023 elections, where a pro-Russian party won.
Gagauzia was already a separate region before it joined Moldova and has been a region of ethnical minorities. The region consists of many different ethnicities, mainly Turkic people, who have lived in the geographic area for many years. Because of this, they wanted to keep their independence from Moldova, but Moldova agreed to pay more attention to the minorities, and they agreed on this autonomous territory middle ground.
However, back in 2014 a referendum was held about closer ties with Russia over EU integration. It was won with a majority of pro-Russian votes that even stated to want independence if Moldova was to join the EU.
But there’s a different side in the country. The side who suffered from the rule of the Soviet Union and sees more benefits in joining the EU than remaining this former USSR country. However, there’s no hostile division in the country. Although they might not understand each other’s views and preferences, these people have found a way to live alongside each other quite peacefully.
Thanks to the country’s turbulent history, you will traditionally find a wide variety of ethnicities in Moldova, such as Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians and Ukrainians. By now, most simply identify as Moldovans, but many do hold pride in their origins and thus also share traditions inherited from their ancestors. These groups have always lived side by side peacefully. Instead of fighting each other, they accepted that they share this land, and have decided to show the best sides of the cultures united here. And together they now constitute the Moldovan people.
One of the things I loved so much about this country is that nobody really seems to blame one another for their problems. They are aware of the power structures in and around the country and don’t seem to blame each other for their conflicting views. They just want to share their own culture and show what they are proud of.
Personal experiences influence the standpoint
We visited “Tanti Mashi”, who taught us how to make a local dish called cuscus and let us taste many of her home-made spreads and spices. But while we enjoyed one of many delicious homecooked meals, she also shared a very personal story with us about her own experiences throughout the most recent historic events. She had male family members who were called to war by the Russian army and who were then killed because they were seen as prosperous, considering their heritage. But also because of their liberal thoughts about the situation, which weren’t in line with the Russians. Only her dad survived.
I don’t think I have to explain what caused her to be pro-EU. But yet she never blamed any of her fellow citizens, she blamed the Russian government(s). That might sound logical, but we all know how quickly people can turn against each other. And it’s surprising to me, that this doesn’t seem to be the case in Moldova.
Personal interaction isn’t political
And we had different conversations like this. One of our fellow travel companions speaks Russian and often helped translate. During another lovely homecooked meal at our accommodation the Eco Village, we had a lovely conversation with the owner. She again shared personal stories about the struggles her and her family had to go through due to Soviet influences. At some point we asked the question on her thoughts about us communicating in Russian. As their main language is Romanian and Russian is a left-over language from the Soviet times.
She mentioned that language isn’t political. By speaking Russian, she doesn’t suddenly support Putin. On the contrary, she made her wished for him very clear. But for her it was a way to connect to people, she otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect to.
The way these people all seem to turn their turbulent history into something positive, is absolutely inspiring. And I can assure you, that I’ve had my fair share of emotional moments during this trip. Which might have been partially due to the richly flowing amounts of wine throughout the trip. But definitely also because of the openness and genuine friendliness of these people.
Do you want to experience a very pure, but oh so layered culture, that has been so undiscovered until now? Then I can highly recommend you to visit Moldova before everybody else does. If there’s one hidden gem I’ve been to, it’s this beautiful country.