Capital of Obscurity – Chisinau: A Non-Visitor’s Guide

Many years ago, I tried to stump a close friend and Cambridge educated historian with a trivia question. My question arose while we were discussing geography, specifically national capitals. My friend had always been dismissive of Eastern Europe as an underdeveloped region full of strange peoples who historically could not get their acts together. For him, the region was filled with superstitious peasants speaking unintelligible languages. Four decades of communism had only made matters worse, adding to a long history of despotic dictatorships. All this banter aside, our discussion turned to a sort of impromptu trivia quiz.

As I began to rattle off one Eastern European nation after another, he named each of their capitals with a startling indifference, as if to say: “Do you really think I don’t know the capital of Albania?” I should have known better. After all, this was a man who read the World Almanac while eating dinner. It was not long before I was running short of nations. Then I stumbled upon the one country that I thought just might have a capital that would escape his base of knowledge. At the very least this country might make him pause while deep in thought before excavating an answer from his memory bank. I said with barely disguised glee, “Moldova.” He paused, but only for a second before saying “Chisinau.” After that the game ended.

A Whole New World - Chisinau in 1980

A Whole New World – Chisinau in 1980 (Credit: Ion Chibzil)

Cheap Thrills – A Strange Place To Party
Anyone who can name Chisinau as the capital of Moldova is either an academic, a Moldovan or a madman. Of all the European capitals, Chisinau is by far the most obscure. How could it not be? Most people have little idea where Moldova is to begin with, let alone its capital. Those who do, myself included, have been known to get it mixed up with Moldavia, which is one of the three main regions of Romania. To make matter more confusing, Moldavia borders Moldova. Furthermore, Chisinau used to be a provincial capital in the Soviet Union’s most obscure republic before 1991. Moldova (Bessarabia when it was part of pre-1940 Romania) was never seen as an independent nation until the Soviet Union collapsed. For geo-political and economic reasons Moldova was not reattached to Romania. Thus, Chisinau ended up as a national capital. Today it is the sixty-first largest city in Europe and without a doubt, the most obscure capital.

I have only met one person who has been to Chisinau. This was a young British guy I talked to at a hostel in Kiev. He had just spent several days there with friends. I was interested to hear his impressions. When I asked him what it was like, he just shrugged. They were not really visiting Chisinau to sightsee. It soon became obvious why. He and his friends were traveling through Eastern Europe to party in cheap places. Chisinau has become known for its pulsating nightlife. It is also reputedly very cheap. As the capital of the poorest country in Europe how could it not be. This did not seem a legitimate reason for visiting unless you were young and looking to get drunk. Those activities did not interest me, but I was still intrigued by Chisinau.

Delusions of Grandeur - Nightlife in Chisinau

Delusions of Grandeur – Nightlife in Chisinau (Credit: Nicolai Mihailiuc)

Capital Investment – The Wealth Of Nations
At one time, I dreamed of going to every capital city in Eastern Europe. I rationalized this short-lived fantasy as an experiential way to compare levels of national development. I am sure it would be, but a capital often provides a skewed view of a nation. Capital cities are often promotional set pieces for a nation and home to most of its governmental institutions. National history and art museums, along with a grand array of cultural attractions, are to be found there as well. These are often more attractive to foreigners than they are locals. Another distinct trait of a national capital is that its inhabitants are almost always more prosperous than those who live in other areas of the country. Moldova suffers from terrible poverty by European standards, but Chisinau is by far its wealthiest city. It is responsible for 60% of the entire Gross Domestic Product of the country. Chisinau also provides a skewed view of Moldova. It is the closest thing to an urban metropolis in Europe’s least urbanized country. Only 43% or 1.15 million Moldovans live in an urban area. 71% of those live in the Chisinau metro area. These are extraordinary statistics in an increasingly urbanizing Europe. It seems that Chisinau is an urban exception that proves the rural rule when it comes to Moldova’s population.

Moldova is mainly known for two things, wine and its beautiful monasteries. Vineyards do not sprout from Chisinau’s concrete constructions, while monasteries are refuges for contemplation not usually associated with cityscapes. Ironically, Chisinau does have a connection to one of Moldova’s most famous attractions associated with wine. Just fifteen kilometers north of the city is Cricova, home to the 2nd largest wine cellar complex in Moldova and one of the largest in the world. The cellars were created by the excavation of limestone, much of which went for the communist era buildings which can be seen towering across Chisinau. The city suffered major destruction, first from a catastrophic earthquake in 1940, then from aerial bombing and urban warfare during the Second World War. The limestone at Cricova was invaluable in helping form the less than desirable post-war architectural cityscape of Chisinau.

An Open City - The Gate of Chisinau

An Open City – The Gate of Chisinau (Credit: Serhio)

Concrete Realities – Skyscrapers of Stalinism
The Soviet legacy of Chisinau is both its main draw and its greatest drawback. Much of the city’s population lives in the stolid high-rise housing blocks which are the skyscrapers of Stalinism. These soaring eyesores allowed the city to grow from a population of just over 100,000 after the Second World War to 676,000 in 1991 when the Soviet era ended. They are often associated with the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras since those periods were when construction accelerated the most. The Soviet Union dumped a billion rubles into these constructions during the early 1970’s, transforming Chisinau with the infrastructure of brutalism. The city still lives in this long concrete shadow. The Soviet style city may not be appealing to tourists and is certainly not high on my list of must-sees, but it does hold a certain attraction. For those who want to get an idea of what a communist city looked like behind the Iron Curtain, Chisinau is a good place to start.

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