The Flight Attendant Who Fell To Earth – Vesna Vulovic: In The Direction Of Dreams & Nightmares

Pilgrimages are often made by the faithful to certain holy sites in central and eastern Europe. Despite communist imposed atheism on most of the countries in the region for almost fifty years, sacred sites, often centuries old, outlasted the tyranny of that godless system. Since the iron curtain fell, these places have hosted great masses of Christians who make a special trip to see them each year. Several of these can be found in the Czech Republic, home to multiple venerated sites. These include the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wooden statue of the baby Jesus gripping a globus cruciger (cross-bearing orb) in his right hand. This 16th century statue is often clothed in imperial regalia and topped with a crown. Pilgrims come and pray to the statue in the fervent belief that it will provide favors to them. Another site of pilgrimage is the Holy Mountain, just fifty kilometers south of Prague. This hilltop, overlooking the town of Pribram, is home to a basilica that houses the famed Our Lady of Sveta Hora. This 14th century Gothic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, was venerated to the point that it was given a coronation by the Jesuits in 1732. Pilgrims visit the statue today in the hope that their prayers to it will be answered.

These sites of pilgrimage are predicated on history, legend, tradition and the abiding belief that they have miraculous powers which can alter an individual’s circumstances in this world. Every year tens of thousands make the trek in search of transcendence. Whether miracles result from these visits is largely left to the mind of the believer. They say you have got to have faith, but what about reality. Reality is what most miracle searchers are looking to transcend, but reality has produced its own share of miracles. One of the most incredible happens to have occurred in the Czech Republic and rivals anything in the annals of Catholicism. Located close to the tiny village of Srbska Kamenice is a potential pilgrimage site almost entirely unknown. Very few people, other than niche tourists or locals visit it.  That is a shame. For miracles really do happen and not just to the religious, but also to people like you and me. The skeptics and cynics who walk among us just might have their minds changed on miracles if they stop at a parking lot along road 25854 in northern Bohemia. This is where a small monument marks the crash of JAT Airways Flight 367. It is as good a place any to contemplate the miraculous life and fate of Vesna Vulovic.

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle - The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle – The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367 (Credit: palickap)

Rising & Falling Fortunes – Loss Of Altitude
Vesna Vulovic was born into a post-World War II Yugoslavia that was a good place to grow up for those forced to live behind the Iron Curtain. Tito-era Yugoslavia did not place the kind of tight restrictions on western culture and travel that other Eastern European nations were mandated to uphold while under the Soviet sphere of influence. The relatively relaxed Yugoslav administration allowed western pop culture to permeate the Balkans. A teenage Vesna could thus fall in love with the Beatles. That musical passion led her to take a trip to Great Britain following her first year of university study. Soon she was traveling onward to Sweden before heading back to her hometown of Belgrade. Somewhere along the way, Vesna fell in love with traveling. After she saw one of her friends wearing a stylish JAT (Yugoslavia’s National Airline) uniform, she decided to become a flight stewardess. She hoped this would offer her many more opportunities to journey abroad. Soon she was enjoying a life aloft, jetting across Europe. This surely made her one of the luckier young ladies in the communist world.

Vesna was only in her first year of working for JAT when she flew to Copenhagen in the winter of 1972. She was excited to visit the Danish capital for the first time. Such opportunities were the reason she had been so eager to pursue this new career. Though only twenty-two years old, Vesna’s career was quite literally taking flight. After arriving in Copenhagen she spent an afternoon shopping with some of her colleagues. After staying overnight, they were ready to fly out the next day. The plane they would be boarding arrived late from where it had originated from in Stockholm, Sweden. Vesna and the crew were slated to work the final two legs as it went first from Zagreb and then on to Belgrade. Vesna and several of her colleagues noticed an irritated passenger leaving the plane after it finally arrived from Stockholm. Perhaps this was due to its delayed arrival. In retrospect it may have been due to something else. This man was one of the last things Vesna would recall about the flight.

At precisely 3:15 p.m. on January 25, 1972, JAT Flight 367 departed from Copenhagen for Zagreb. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the narrow body DC-9 entered the airspace of Czechoslovakia. It was cruising at an altitude of 33,300 feet over the rolling hills and forested woodlands of northern Bohemia when suddenly the aircraft was torn apart by an explosion. All except one of the 28 passengers onboard were suddenly ejected from the aircraft where they fell from a height greater than that of Mount Everest to their deaths. Meanwhile, Vesna was wedged into the fuselage by a food cart, at least that was what later investigators surmised because she had no memory of the crash. When the fuselage finally fell to the earth its free fall was broken by trees and snowpack.

Serbian Stewardess - Vesna Vulovic

Serbian Stewardess – Vesna Vulovic

Crash Landing– A Precarious Position
Vesna Vulovic was somehow still alive after hitting the ground, though her chance of survival was precarious. A local from the village of Srbska Kamenice, Bruno Honke, heard her screaming in pain and found her covered in blood. In a stroke of incredibly good fortune, Honke was well versed in first aid from his experiences as a medic during World War II. If it had not been for his assistance, Vesna would have almost certainly died on the spot. Instead, she was rescued and transported to a hospital. The fact that she was still alive was nothing short of miraculous. The question now was whether she would survive.

Survival Skills – Tito’s Luck: The 1979 Montenegro Earthquake

To survive as a dictator takes an extremely clever individual who is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep power. This often means resorting to measured brutality. A dictator must know not only when to act against enemies, but also calibrate how much force should be used. It is one thing to get rid of would be usurpers and dangerous political enemies, it is quite another to engage in continuous purges. The latter can lead to a counter revolt by those who think they might be next on a growing proscription list. The most successful dictators in history know when to act and how far to go (Note: For the record, I am not condoning dictatorship or authoritarian rule, just stating simple truths).

One of the best at knowing when to purge enemies in order to keep power was Yugoslavia’s longtime leader and erstwhile dictator Josip Broz Tito. His decades long grip on power in a region that imploded after his death speaks volumes about his skill in power politics. Like all dictators, Tito was obsessed with control and for the sake of self-preservation he had to be. Lose control, lose power, lose your dictatorship, lose your life. Tito never said those words in that was, but he didn’t have to. He understood this logic intuitively. Tito was going to do everything possible to never lose his grip on power and he never did, at least not when it came to ruling Yugoslavia.

The survivalist - Josip Broz Tito

The survivalist – Josip Broz Tito

A Matter of Control – Assassination Inspiration
Despite his longevity, uneasy was the head that wore the crown of leadership in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Tito was constantly threatened with assassination, much more by external foes rather than internal ones. After he broke Yugoslavia away from Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, Tito was a marked man. By some accounts, Tito managed to withstand no less than twenty-two KGB originated assassination attempts. Some of these seemed like fodder for James Bond novels, the most notorious of which involved a box that would be opened and spray Tito with a poison gas. None of the attempts came close to being successful, nonetheless they must have made Tito contemplate his mortality more than a few times. It spurred him to even greater control of his own personal security and surroundings. Political preservation and self-preservation were inextricably intertwined, making them literally a matter of life and death. Tito instinctively knew this, but even the most powerful dictators, and was certainly one of them, still must deal with events beyond their control.

The most unpredictable of these do not always come from human adversaries, instead they sometimes arise by force of nature. Tito learned this lesson in the 1979 Montenegro earthquake which nearly took his life and rule from him. How does a dictator protect himself from an earthquake? The answer is one of two things, either they do not bother worrying about such infrequent cataclysms or they manage to get lucky. And when it came to keeping power in the Balkans it is sometimes better to be lucky than good. There is no better example of Tito’s luck than the exceedingly nasty 1979 Montenegro earthquake. It was certainly bad luck to have such a catastrophe strike the Yugoslav state in the first place, but not surprising since the area has been riven throughout history by repeated temblors. The quake hit during the spring of 1979 when on the morning of April 15 the coast of Montenegro and the near inland area was jolted by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

Damaged goods - Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro

Damaged goods – Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro (Credit: R McGuire/U.S. Geological Survey)

No Rest For The Weary – Mortal Dangers
By several standards of measurement, the 1979 Montenegro Earthquake was more powerful than the terribly destructive one that had leveled much of Skopje in Macedonia a decade and a half earlier. Not as much is heard about the Montenegrin quake because it did not strike a densely populated area or major city. In this case, it was not just the rumbling ground, but also the roiling sea which wreaked havoc along the Montenegrin coast as a six-meter high tsunami crashed into parts of the shoreline.
A great deal of the 1979 quake’s destruction was wrought upon the historic town of Budva which hugged the Adriatic Sea. Its Old Town sustained major damage to cultural properties, while local residences crumbled. The same thing occurred in many of the communities around the beautiful bay of Kotor.

On April 15, Tito was staying at Igalo, on the northside of the bay at one of his personal residences. He was spending time resting and relaxing in this vibrant coastal resort area. Tito was in the final phase of his life, an 86-year old all-powerful leader of a nation that only he could control. As unwieldy as Yugoslavia was to lead, it was nothing compared to dealing with an earthquake. One gigantic tremor and suddenly the omnipotent Tito felt his own mortality. When the quake hit Igalo, it was still rather early in the morning and Tito was reportedly resting. He, like hundreds of thousands in Montenegro, felt the full terrifying force of the ground shifting beneath their feet. Unlike other Yugoslavs, hundreds of kilometers away in Sarajevo, Skopje and Zagreb who felt tremors, Tito was much closer to the epicenter. He received nature’s greatest wake up call, a much more powerful and personal experience than he had with most natural forces in his life. He was lucky to escape without injury. In the past, Tito as Yugoslav leader had shown up to review earthquake damages, this time he was part of one.

Long live Tito - Graffiti in former Yugoslavia

Long live Tito – Graffiti in former Yugoslavia (Credit: anjci)

An Act Of Nature – Out Of Control Forces
Tito only lived three more years after his earthquake experience. As he faded in his final years, much of the Montenegrin coast that had been damaged by the 1979 Earthquake underwent a slow, yet substantial rebuilding process. The lifeblood of Montenegro has been and always will be its coastline, where trade and tourism thrive. The 1979 Earthquake turned out to be a major aberration in the area’s development, but one that would be overcome. As for Tito, the earthquake was a reminder of his mortality and the fact that some forces would always be beyond his dictatorial control. The earthquake did not take his life, but the end was near. No one survives forever, especially in the Balkans, not even Josip Broz Tito.

Dreams Dancing In The Distance – Romantic Notions: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part Four)

Our gracious guide to the Szekelyderzs Fortified Church, Anita, patiently answered all our questions. She then led us out of the church back onto the lush green lawn inside the fortified walls. At this point, there was only one thing left to do, climb the Fortified Church’s bell tower. While my wife stayed behind chatting with Anita in Hungarian, I embarked on a climb to the top. Almost immediately, I realized that this was not going to be an easy task. There were five levels to scale using slanted ladders that doubled as the steepest set of stairs I have ever climbed. Some of the steps were nearly vertical. Each time I ascended a flight, I would find that scaling the next ladder was steeper and more dangerous than the last. The landings were not much better, at each one I could hear the planks beneath my feet rattling. Midway to the top, I realized that coming down would likely be much more dangerous than going up. That thought filled me with trepidation. I became more careful and reticence as I was beset by the thought of what might happen if I lost the courage to climb back down. Getting stuck in the tower for several hours until I could be rescued by a bunch of Szekely was a ridiculously romantic notion.

Keeping time - The bell tower at the Fortified Church of Szekelyderzs

Keeping time – The bell tower at the Fortified Church of Szekelyderzs

Living In The Shadows Of History – Standing On Its Own Merits
Such misgivings failed to stop my progress. I forced myself to keep climbing upwards. At one point I was forced to grip the wooden beams above me as an extra safety precaution. I had my mind set on getting to the top for no other reason than I thought there would be magnificent photo opportunities overlooking the village and surrounding landscape. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me just how much trust was placed in visitors to Szekelyderzs. People who were much less agile or sure footed than me probably attempted to summit the tower. This could possibly lead to dire results. Nonetheless, there was not a single sign warning anyone of the consequences. This was the sure sign of a less than litigious culture in Romania, especially compared to the United States. At your own risk meant just that. Such trust in common sense was refreshing, even if it might lead to accidents.

Very little of the property was off limits to visitors. A person was free to wander where they liked. Paying the entrance fee was obligatory, but in our case did not occur until the very end of our visit. At times, I had to remind myself that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most exalted designation a historical or cultural site could ever hope to attain. And yet there were no guards, security was nonexistent, nothing was enclosed within glass or sequestered behind bars. I would later learn that only the church priest knows the riddle that can open the medieval lock that allows access to the fortified church. This was tradition, the basis for nearly everything in these villages. Those who lived in Szekelyderzs (Darjiu Romania) were used to living around this history. They did not deify or sanctify the site any more than it needed to be, the fortified church stood on its own merits. It was still as much a part of community life as it had been five hundred years before. No one need erect signage stating that this was one of the premier cultural sites in Eastern Europe. It was up to visitors to figure this out for themselves. Just as it was up to visitors to decide whether they could safely scale the bell tower.

An incredible imposition - The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from above

An incredible imposition – The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from above

The Illusion Of A Rural Idyll – Beyond The Fortified Walls
By the time I made it to the top, my hands were shaking and legs beginning to quiver. I now faced another problem. This bell tower was still in use today. I had lost track of time, having no idea how close it was to the top of the hour. I tried to be mindful that a bone rattling series of rings might be forthcoming at any moment. My attention was soon drawn to the windows where I could look out over the village and surrounding countryside. Just below where I stood was the church. From above it was even more impressive than below. The immaculately tiled reddish-orange roof imposed itself on the view. It dwarfed anything else in the village beyond the fortified walls. Rooftops of the houses in Szekelyderzs were mainly clustered around the road that wound through the village. I noticed that the tiles on many of the roofs were chipped or missing.

From above, the village looked quaint and unpretentious. A rural idyll to those who do not have to fight the elements or agricultural markets to eke out a living. This part of Romania was naturally blessed, but economically depressed when compared to the rest of the European Union. As part of what is known as the Centru (southern Transylvania) economic region it has an income per person that is just 54% of the EU average. I was not surprised. Rural life often looks inviting to those who have never lived within its economic strictures. The road through town showed multiple signs of agricultural life. Looking down at one stretch of road I counted four tractors and just a single car. Further out in the distance were the fields and meadows that provided a livelihood for so many of the villagers.

A romantic notion - The view above and beyond Szekelyderzs

A romantic notion – The view above and beyond Szekelyderzs

Limitless Possibilities – Walking Into Another World
The landscape looked beautifully bucolic. I felt the urge to give everything I had ever known up and begin walking towards the highest hillside in the distance. Then follow the forests and grasslands into another world, one filled with limitless possibilities. Dreams of months spent wandering around Szekely Land began to dance in my head. It could be the subject of a fascinating book and a different life, one that I lacked the courage to pursue. A man can still dream in Szekelyderzs. My imaginary process was interrupted by a rumble of thunder as dark clouds floated onto the horizon. A storm had suddenly formed. A reminder that forces beyond our control are always waiting outside the walls that we build to protect ourselves. Forces, that I was unwilling to confront.

The Ancient Comes Alive – “They Want To Be Buried Here”: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part Three)

We went to Szekelyderzs (Darjiu, Romania) hoping to see something dramatic. The fortified church certainly did not disappoint. The photos I had seen of it beforehand were stunning, but nothing could compare to standing inside the walls and looking up at centuries’ worth of history formed from stone and mortar. The church’s exterior was resplendent and intimidating while the fortress walls were stark and impenetrable. Each structure in the complex was in surprisingly good condition. It did not take me long to realize that what surrounded me was an icon of Szekely architectural history. Nothing else we would see in the region during the coming days was comparable to the magnificence of these battlements that had repelled innumerable invaders. Above it all, soared a bell tower that hovered over the village it had helped sustain both spiritually and culturally for ages.

To the light - Inside the church at Szekelyderzs

To the light – Inside the church at Szekelyderzs

A Witness To History – Tradition & Trust
The fortified church complex was full of surprises, the most memorable of which was an English speaking guide. One that would provide insights into both the architecture and Szekely Land. Her name was Anita. She was tall, skinny and kind, with brown hair that fell just beyond her shoulders. When searching for the correct word in English, she would sometimes twirl her fingers around a lock of hair. Though of high school age, she still had many such girlish impulses. Her knowledge of the fortified church was impressive. She spoke with an intimacy that came from being part of life and history in this forgotten land. Life and history in Szekely Land had given rise to traditions. And these traditions had been carried forward into the present by villagers who had not forgotten the practices of their forebears. A fine example of this was the first place Anita showed us, the larders where local villagers stored foodstuffs right up through today. I imagined that many of her ancestors had done the same.

After we entered the church, she related the legend of St. Ladislaus slaying the Cuman Warrior, portrayed in an exquisite medieval fresco that was painted nearly a century prior to Columbus landing in the New World. I could not believe what I was seeing, this fresco and patches of several others covered the wall. They dated back to the early 15th century. None of them were protected by glass or armed guards, no cameras kept a close watch. The only visible thing standing between visitors and these frescoes for an entire summer was a high school girl. Yet there was something invisible and infinitely more secure which protected them, trust. Those in charge of visitor services at the fortified church have placed a remarkable amount of trust in the young docent. From what I experienced their trust had been rewarded. Her level of seriousness, focused interpretation and knowledge of both the church and Szekely history was spot on.

Preserved by trust - 15th century fresco inside the church at Szekelydersz

Preserved by trust – 15th century fresco inside the church at Szekelydersz

Austere Reminders – Inside The Hallowed Hall
Getting up close and personal with history at Szekelyderzs was a welcome respite from my usual experiences with museums in wealthier countries, including my own. The fortified church was not just part of the past, but also the present. The idea of preservation here was not inclined towards curation or climate control. Instead the past was preserved by keeping alive age-old traditions. The bastions along the fortified walls were still used by the villagers as storage for meat. The church was an active Unitarian one, with regular weekly worship services. I picked up one of the hymnals covered by a hand knitted dust jacket. In a few more days a villager would be holding this hymnal, reciting songs their ancestors had sung for centuries. Everything in the church looked ancient yet alive. The sky blue pews, life like frescoes still vibrant after six hundred years, intricately carved wooden chandeliers and the ornately crowned pulpit, it was all living history.

Anita led us over to the southside of the church where she pointed out a brick in the wall. Carved on it was a runic inscription dated to 1274. This was the lone visible clue as to the Romanesque Church which had once stood on this site and had been replaced by the Gothic inspired edifice we now stood within. The brick was an austere reminder that the church had stood in some form or fashion since the earliest days of Szekely settlement in the area. The person who carved the inscription on this stone had no idea that seven and a half centuries later people would be standing in front of it marveling at this symbol of time tempered immortality. It was just about as close to forever as any history in Szekelyland can get.

The ancient comes alive - Interior of the Church at Szekelyderzs

The ancient comes alive – Interior of the Church at Szekelyderzs

Working The Land – A Szekely State Of Mind
We were soon back outside asking Anita a few questions about what life was like in Szekely Land for a young person. Until we met her, everyone we had seen in Szekely villages had been middle aged or older. Now we were lucky enough to find the opposite, a Szekely teenager. Anita said that many young Szekely left the region looking for better opportunities, usually in Hungary. She said that almost everyone eventually comes back. “They love this land, they want to be buried here.” I asked her if she had been to Hungary and if so, what did she think of Hungarians? Yes, she had been there. She paused to answer the second part of my question. Then a bit embarrassed, she nervously remarked “they are nice, but spoiled. We try to be humble.”

She explained that Hungarians had it much easier in their own country than the Szekely did in their homeland. From what I had seen so far, I had to agree. The economy was rural, people still lived off the land. The Szekelys were a linguistic island in a country that they were still somewhat strangers within. Hungary was richer, more materialistic and modern. The way of life in Szekely Land looked rich and rewarding, but nothing came easy. This was a land where you had to work for everything. I asked Anita if she would leave Szekely Land to go to university?” She said there were some good universities in Transylvania that she could attend. And then added, “I want to come back. I love it here.”

A Stubborn Resistance To Time – Stand Alone: The Fortified Church At Szekelyderzs (Part Two)

From the moment of our arrival in Transylvania I had one goal in mind, to visit the Szekely Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Darjiu, Romania). I first discovered the church while researching the trip my wife and I would take to Eastern Transylvania and Szekely Land in the months prior to our departure. Photos of the fortified church gripped my imagination. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The bare, white washed fortification walls looked impregnable, the church sequestered inside it an angular presence full of sharp edges and blunt battlements. It was a stunning slice of architectural austerity. Every part of the complex was of the essence, not a single inch of space was wasted.  This was where I wanted to go in Transylvania, everything else became secondary. I soon learned that seven fortified churches in Transylvania have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but Szekelyderzs Fortified Church is the only one Szekely rather than Saxon in origin. This tidbit of trivia made my urge to visit almost uncontrollable. It was one of a kind. I had to go there, I had to see it. Szekelyderzs was to be the Holy Grail of the trip to Transylvania.

The Road To Inspiration - Village of Szekelyderzs

The Road To Inspiration – Village of Szekelyderzs

Positively Pastoral – Self-Sufficient In Szekely Land
Visiting the church became a singular goal, to the point that I planned our travel itinerary with it primarily in mind. Accommodation was selected in the nearby small city of Szekelyudvarhely, mainly because it was within half an hour’s driving distance of Szekelyderzs. When we first entered Szekely Land on a Thursday morning, the sun was burning bright and the sky above covered in a blanket of blue as puffy clouds floated on the horizon. After a single stop to tour a historic salt mine that had been converted into a surreal underground theme park at Sovata, I vowed to continue onward until we arrived in Szekelyudvarhely. This meant skipping a stop at the beautiful village of Farkaslaka (Lupeni, Harghita County, Romania). It was there that I noticed a group of cars parked at a cemetery within easy walking distance of the highway. Groups of people were making a beeline to pay homage to one of the Szekely’s most famous writers, Aron Tamasi, who was buried there. I promised that we would return but knew otherwise. At that moment nothing was going to get in the way of getting to Szekelyderzs.

We arrived just after 1:00 p.m. in Szekelyudvarhely and quickly checked into our accommodation. There was still plenty of time in the afternoon to visit Szekelyderzs. The goal was within reach. And thus, our final journey to the village began with a drive along a slim, but well-maintained road. It wound its way through lush meadows and hills fringed with scattered forests. The landscape was positively pastoral, broken only by an array of atmospheric villages. This part of Szekely Land was a world unto itself. A few kilometers after leaving Szkeleyudvarhely it was hard to imagine that such a city existed anywhere nearby. The villages we passed through looked self-sufficient and stand alone. They were connected only to the surrounding landscape. Lushness, greenery and overgrowth prevailed. There was a way of life here that I imagined had never changed. I knew this was an illusion. These villages had been buffeted by a torrent of geopolitical tempests during the 20th century. Their residents had weathered such storms by adhering to traditions, which the many tip wells and wagon carts symbolized. A stubborn resistance to time and change was a perceptible trait in this land.

A Model Opportunity - Reconstruction of the Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs

A Model Opportunity – Reconstruction of the Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs

Glowing In The Sunlight – The Impossible & Impregnable
After a few more curvy kilometers we suddenly arrived at the village of Szekelyderzs, a place filled with the romance of a decaying world. Everything in the village looked older than its age, the houses were weather beaten, the road crumbling and a single grizzled resident sat by the roadside. He leered ominously at us when we drove by. The only notable exception to these less than desirable atmospherics were the great white walls that surrounded the fortified church glowing in the sunlight. They looked both impossible and impregnable. We pulled just off the roadside onto a patch of dirt which doubled as the parking area. Upon leaving the car, I immediately noticed a notable absence of noise. The village was silent, save for the intermittent bark of a random dog hidden somewhere behind fences that fringed so many of the homes. I immediately set myself to snapping a photo of the fortified church rising above the walls, but the height was too formidable an obstacle. Whereas in the past these walls withstood the Tatars and Turks, now they repelled the photogenic eyes of starstruck travelers.

Thankfully the point of entry was free of obstruction. Strangely enough, it was also free of people or docents. The only thing here to greet us was an entrance way at the very bottom of a bell tower that stretched towards the sky. We were soon inside the walls, peering up at the massive church that had been previously hidden from view. The building dwarfed its surroundings, taking up much of the interior. Along the church’s exterior we soon spotted a woman who paid us little attention. She was feverishly beautifying the grounds closest to the church walls. Placing flowers in the fertile summertime soil. Two girls soon appeared on the grounds as well. They looked to be sisters, one of high school age, the other much younger. The girls were called over by the woman and began helping her. I decided the woman must be their mother.

On the inside - The fortified church and bell tower at Szekelyderzs

On the inside – The fortified church and bell tower at Szekelyderzs

A Local Guide – The Power of Mutual Comprehension
After a few minutes the older of the two girls walked over to us and introduced herself in Hungarian. She turned out to be the local guide. I held out little hope that she would be able to speak English. She began to converse in Hungarian with my wife who would then translate. When I made a couple of remarks, she looked at me, nodded in understanding and began to speak in English. I was taken aback. Her English was still a work in progress, but she was able to converse with me rather well. Having the guide services of an English speaking Szekely was a rarity. This tour was going to be better than I could have ever imagined.

From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

If a person lives long enough in Bucharest, they are bound to experience an earthquake. Most of these earthquakes are relatively minor, often in the range of 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. They offer a reminder that the city is within range of some of the most suspect terrain in Europe. Shockwave after shockwave rises to the surface from deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. In the worst-case scenario, Bucharest is riven by this thunderous force causing the ground to ripple, buildings to buckle and a cacophony of calamity to bellow forth, echoing through the concrete corridors of Romania’s capital city. In the 20th century, few Bucharestians were able to escape this experience. Some felt it more acutely than others, specifically those who were in the city on March 4, 1977.

Epicentered - Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake

Epicentered – Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake (Credit: U.S. Geologocial Survey)

Fatal Fault Lines – Undermining Urbanization
By 1977 Bucharest was a massive city. It had been over three and a half decades since the last time it suffered a major earthquake. That was on November 10, 1940 when the city’s population stood at approximately 800,000. Such a concentrated mass of people in a highly urbanized area exacerbated the number of killed and wounded. The city had suffered more powerful quakes in the past, such as in 1802, but the population at that time had been only 35,000. Put in twenty-two times the amount of people in a much larger, more built up urban environment and the number of casualties was certain to multiply. This was the case in 1977. The population of Bucharest had more than doubled since 1940, growing to over 1.8 million people.

In a city that was bursting with more residents, apartment blocks and other large buildings served to expand the urban footprint. This mass urbanization was the upshot of policies by the communist regime that governed Romania throughout the post-World War II and Cold War eras. More people led to more structures, which in turn increased the likelihood that the next earthquake would cause catastrophic damage. Modernity and calamity were on a collision course encouraged by communist policy. All it would take was another slippage on the fatal fault line deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. Every half century or so this had proved to be Bucharest’s undoing. Such a subterranean shift occurred on the night of March 5, 1977 just as many of the city’s inhabitants were turning in for the night.

Willful Destruction - Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest

Willful Destruction – Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest (Credit: Radu Stefanescu)

A Matter Of Luck, Fate & Structural Engineering  – Plunging Into Ruin
At precisely 10:55 local time the earth began to rumble across eastern Romania with an almost unimaginable force. This became dramatically visible in parts of Bucharest, specifically those with lots of buildings that were constructed in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The overwhelming majority of these had not been constructed with reinforced concrete. The sheer force of the earthquake, estimated at a 7.2 magnitude, sent 28 multi-story buildings across the city center crashing to the ground. The effect must have been terrifying. One building after another disappearing into plumes of dust, cries from the rubble, friends and loved ones buried beneath smoldering ruins. Those who were lucky enough to be in a building that refused to buckle looked on in horror. Were they to be next? What kept the structures In which they stood or slept from plunging into ruin? Could this really be happening? The difference between life and death was a matter of luck, fate and structural engineering.

Bucharest was quickly turned into ground zero for carnage caused by the earthquake. This was in stark contrast to the more powerful 1940 Earthquake (7.7 magnitude), where damage in provincial areas, especially Moldavia and Bessarabia, was greater. Conversely, nine-tenths of those killed or injured in the 1986 earthquake lived in Bucharest. Buildings that had withstood, but also been weakened by the 1940 earthquake now suffered a moment of reckoning many would not survive. Almost all the large buildings that collapsed had been constructed between 1920 and 1940. The immediate and dire consequences of this fact would not be lost on communist party officials, specifically the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was out of the country at the time for a trip abroad to Africa. When the increasingly dictatorial Ceaucescu got back home and surveyed the damage, he saw the ruined areas as less a tragedy and more an opportunity to remake the capital into an ideal showpiece of totalitarian architecture. His future vision of Bucharest was as a socialist-realist architectural utopia. The 1977 Earthquake gave him an unprecedented opportunity to make this vision a reality.

Megalomaniacal Ceausima - Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest

Megalomaniacal Ceausima – Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest (Credit: Contessa Binter)

Ceausima – Systemization’s Failure
Anyone who has spent time in Bucharest cannot help but notice the endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that blot the city skyline in seemingly every direction. These buildings and other concrete concoctions. such as the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, were constructed in the years after the 1977 earthquake. Many of them appeared in the exact same place where buildings had collapsed during the earthquake. Other areas with both damaged and non-damaged buildings underwent demolition to make way for Ceaucescu’s systemization development plan. Nowhere was this process carried out with more thoroughness, lack of empathy and willful disregard for historical architecture than in the creation of the Centrul Civic in Bucharest.

The Centrul Civic as it exists today, covers an area of 8 square kilometers (3.1 square miles). It was overlaid on an area of historic Bucharest where a massive demolition had been carried out by order of the authorities. What the 1977 earthquake did not destroy, the Ceaucescu regime made sure explosives and bulldozers did. Damage caused by the earthquake paled in comparison to the aesthetic and cultural destruction carried out by the regime. It was so vast that a new term was coined for this destruction of Romania’s heritage, Ceausima. A word combined from the first four letters of the dictator’s last name and the last four letters of Hiroshima. This word summed up the wanton demolition and destruction that resulted in the reactionary reasoning which followed the earthquake.

Thus, a natural disaster became the catalyst, impetus and stimulus to further the policy of systemization. The upshot of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal scheme was the destruction of 26 churches, monasteries and synagogues in addition to an array of historic homes and cultural buildings in the area that would become home to the Centrul Civic. In their place came massive residential and civic structures made with marble facades and tons of reinforced concrete. Reasons for the creation of this architectural abomination were twofold. First and foremost, to create a legacy for Ceaucescu. Secondly, to withstand another earthquake. Each of these goals were achieved, just not in the way those who created them assumed. The legacy of Ceaucescu’s systemization program in Bucharest is one ghastly eyesore after another. As for the buildings’ structural integrity, they are likely to withstand another earthquake, but many Romanians probably wish otherwise.

 

 

The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

Bells rang out across a wide swath of Eastern Europe. This was no cause for celebration, instead it signified the beginning of a tragedy. Across the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia bells tolled. Further to the north, in the Austrian imperial city of Lemberg church bells began to ring for no apparent reason. The same was true in Kiev. The effect of what was happening could be felt as far away as Warsaw, Moscow and St. Petersburg. A movement was afoot, not one caused by the might of armies, the will of kings or great masses of the peasantry. Instead, this movement came from something much deeper. At its core, the movement caused churches to buckle, palaces to collapse and the uprooting of statues. It made both rich and poor homeless in a matter of minutes. The movement would be one of the most powerful to ever jolt Europe. It emanated outward from deep within the obscure Vrancea Mountains what was known at the time as Moldavia and today is part of Romania.

This movement was a massive earthquake, the likes of which had never been felt before in an area that had long been known as one of the shakiest in Europe. Estimates would later be made that this earthquake measured a 7.9 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the most powerful in European history. Though the earthquake inflicted tremendous physical destruction, it killed only a handful of people. Perhaps that is why today, hardly anyone remembers what happened in Bucharest on Tuesday, October 26, 1802. The event is little more than a footnote in a handful of history books. Yet for the city of Bucharest, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia as well as those who lived through it, the day was unforgettable.

Ready To Be Toppled - The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

Ready To Be Toppled – The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

A City In Ruin  – Damaged Goods
In 1802 Bucharest bore little resemblance to the city that would eventually come to dominate Romania’s political, economic and cultural life. It had a population of approximately 35,000. The city was part of Wallachia, which was administered under the Phanariote system. Though part of the Ottoman Empire, it was given a wide degree of autonomy under Phanariote rulers. This ruling class came from Greeks who were from Constantinople. The empire appointed them to rule over their Orthodox subjects. In 1802, a new Phanariote ruler, Constantine Ypsilanti, had just taken the helm as Hospodar (Lord) of Wallachia. His rule was about to take a turn for the worst due to a natural event beyond his or anyone else’s control. Major events such as earthquakes were viewed by many as ominous portents of worse things to come. Historical sources state that the earthquake struck at midday.  At 12:55 local time the ground began to shake violently. One of the worst earthquakes in history was underway.

The earthquake lasted for ten minutes, an incredible amount of time by the standards of such tremors. This was no ordinary earthquake. Such massive force coupled with how long it occurred led to widespread destruction throughout the city. Even the sturdiest structures were no match for nature’s fury. At that time, the tallest structure in Bucharest was the Coltea Tower. This was Bucharest’s most notable landmark, used both as a bell tower and fire watch. The earthquake proved much too strong for the upper part of the tower which soon collapsed. Its 1,700 kilogram bell tumbled into the rubble. Only the tower’s lower half managed to withstand the initial force. Meanwhile, other structures in the city suffered grave damage. A skyline that had been filled with steeples was suddenly marked by plumes of dust. Churches, monasteries, stately dwellings and humble abodes were all left in ruins. The same was true in the countryside. Damage was widespread throughout Moldavia and even reached into eastern Transylvania.

The Mighty Have Fallen - The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake

The Mighty Have Fallen – The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake (Credit: Charles Doussault)

Fate & Destiny – From Rubble To Reconstruction
One of the more astonishing aspects of the 1802 earthquake is the low number of deaths that were reported. The official toll given is only four, which seems scarcely believable. Obviously, records from that time are sketchy, which likely led to a lower total of deaths than the actual number. On the other hand, Bucharest, where the majority of reports concerning destruction originated from would have had plenty of literate eyewitnesses attesting to fatalities. Historians and scientists have theorized on why so few lives were lost. The answer comes down to population density, specifically the lack thereof. The buildings of early 19th century Bucharest were not densely packed together the way they are today. When one building collapsed it did not produce a domino effect that might damage or cause other structures to in turn collapse. In addition, most buildings were made of timber, which was much less dangerous to health and safety.

Bucharest’s inhabitants may have survived relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said for the city’s physical infrastructure. The earthquake left it a vast ruin. This did not bode well for the newly installed Hospodar of Wallachia, Ypsilantis. Fate could hardly have conjured a more inauspicious beginning to his rule. Amid this crisis, Ypsilantis took it upon himself to energize the rebuilding of Bucharest. He first combatted looting by enhancing security in what was left of the city. Rules were then put into place whereby contractors could not overcharge for their services. Wage limits were set and work was regulated. These measures allowed the city to be largely rebuilt in just a few years.

The Reconstructor - Constantine Ypsilantis

The Reconstructer – Constantine Ypsilantis (Credit: Marinos Bretos)

A State Of Instability – Shattering Truths
Ypsilantis’ rule only lasted until 1806 when he was deposed. His visionary leadership led to the successful rebuilding of what would become Romania’s greatest city, but he would not be there to see its growth. In exile, he lived under the protection of Russia’s tsar while supervising a military barracks in Kiev. In 1819 he died far away from the city he helped recreate. By that time, the 1802 earthquake had already begun to fade from memory. It would not be long though, before nature reinserted itself into the fears of another generation. Bucharest was to be constantly reminded of just how unstable a place it held in the natural world.

Click here for: Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Terrifying Tremors In Eastern Europe – Seismic Effects: Earthquakes In Hungary & Romania (Part One)

Anytime there is a hurricane, tornado or blizzard in the United States, my Hungarian wife never fails to remind me of the genteel climate in her homeland and the greater region surrounding it. In her eyes, the United States is a land of climatic extremes, with life threatening weather and natural disasters an all too common occurrence. I often remind her that before the Danube and Tisza Rivers were tamed both were prone to catastrophic flooding. Budapest in 1838 and Szeged in 1879 sustained horrendous damage from unprecedented inundations. As for tornadoes, I have never seen or heard of one in Hungary or Eastern Europe. And since winter is not what it used to be in the region, blizzards have become a rare occurrence. Thus, I must admit that there is a great amount of truth in her opinion. The United States is buffeted on an annual basis by a variety of catastrophic weather. Nonetheless, Eastern Europe is not exactly blessed with peaceful and serene nature either. Natural disasters have been known to strike there, in some countries more than others.

When I think of earthquakes my mind usually gravitates towards those places that always seem to make the news. These include the San Andreas Fault in California, in addition to the highly unstable Pacific Rim where Japan and Indonesia suffer deadly earthquakes on a recurring basis. One place I have never really thought of is Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary. It is worth mentioning that prior to my first trip there in 2011, I was surprised to hear that things had gotten a bit shaky. A 4.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Budapest region causing some minor cracks in a few buildings. Besides shaking up the locals, the earthquake was pretty much forgettable. The truth is that most earthquakes in Hungary are unlikely to make many seismic waves. The most powerful one to ever strike the country happened all the way back in 1763 at Komarom in northern Hungary. The 6.5 temblor damaged many of the city’s buildings and caused some casualties. Yet, by the standards of earthquakes, it was relatively modest in size and scale.  Furthermore, this earthquake was not a precursor of greater tremors to come. Contrast the earthquake situation in Hungary with that of its eastern neighbor, Romania. Only then, does a totally different situation emerge.

Seismic hazard map of Romania

Seismic hazard map of Romania (Credit: US Geological Survey)

On Shaky Ground – All That It Is Cracked Up To Be
During the 20th century, Romania suffered from a litany of woes. two World Wars, interethnic strife, corruption on a colossal scale and the depraved dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. The last thing the country needed during this time was any kind of natural disaster. On more than one occasion, that is exactly what they got. Romania may not be a widely known seismic hotspot, but it has one of the most seismically active areas in the world, known as the Vrancea zone which is centered in mountains to the north of Bucharest. Unfortunately, that zone includes Bucharest, the nation’s most populated city and Romania’s capital. Five times during the 20th century, earthquakes measuring 7.0 or greater on the Richter Scale took place in Romania. All but one of these occurred in the Vrancea zone.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted with any amount of precision, but future ones are almost certain to occur in places where they have struck numerous times before. By such extrapolation, it is almost a certainty that Romanians living anywhere around or near the Vrancea zone will experience many more earthquakes. It is not just the incidence of earthquakes in the zone which makes them worrisome, but also their overwhelming power. Between 1802 and 1986 there were no less than eight earthquakes emanating from the zone that measured 7.0 or greater on the Richer Scale. That is an average of one massively destructive earthquake every 23 years. Now consider the following, there has been no earthquake approaching this standard since 1986. That was 32 years ago. By the law of averages, Romania is overdue for another one any day.

Red Alerts – Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst
While there are several cities located close to the Vrancea Zone, none is as large or as important as Bucharest. Judging by past experiences, the next big earthquake is likely to cause outsized damage in the capital. Because of this threat, many risk management experts have deemed Bucharest the most dangerous European capital to live in. Ominous signs of potential calamity can be found all over the city center if a keen-eyed observer knows what to look for. Many of the old, grandiloquent late 19th and early 20th century apartment blocks have red circles attached to them. These plaques are part of a program that was instituted by city authorities in the 1990’s to identify buildings which were at risk of collapse if an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or greater were to hit the city again.

Rents in these structurally deficient buildings are a good deal cheaper than elsewhere in the city center. With property prices in the area soaring, many renters have thrown caution to the wind and hope their luck holds. The odds are against them. As part of the identification program, zero interest loans were offered to residents of these buildings. The hope was that they would take it upon themselves to fix structural weaknesses. Few have taken up the offer. Major repairs still need to be made, but most likely that will never happen. The biggest effect of the red placard program was that it ended up reducing rent in many decrepit buildings and their value as well. Residents have roundly rejected the program and very few buildings have been labeled with the warning signs over the past two decades.

Structural Faults – Life In The Vrancea Zone
Of the 400 buildings that were identified as in danger of collapse, most of these were severely weakened by the 1977 and 1986 earthquakes which killed and injured thousands while causing billions of dollars in damages. Hundreds of thousands still have living memories of these catastrophes. Nonetheless, few have the time, inclination or resources to take the steps necessary to shore up their building’s structural faults. Bucharest’s citizens hope the day of reckoning never arrives though many of them know better. The next big earthquake is just a moment, a day or decade away. Such is life in the Vrancea Zone.

Click here for: The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

A Pale Postwar Representation Of The Past – Constanta Casino: Of Spite & Shadow (Part Four)

During the Belle Epoque (Golden Age) of pre-World War I Romania many people would have died for the chance to spend an evening socializing with the wealthy elites who haunted the gilded halls, resplendent ballrooms and high stakes gambling tables of the Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). The crème de la crème of the nation’s aristocracy loved and laughed with little thought for the future during this era. They had no idea just how much two World Wars would change Romania. To understand just how radical the transformation, look no further than the Casino after the communists took power in 1948. Over the next few years, people were no longer dying to come into the casino, instead they were at risk of being worked to death in the vacant and half-ruined postwar edifice.

An anti-gambling law had destroyed the casino’s main stream of revenue. The work to transform this once ornate structure into a House Of Culture was being done by men who in the past would have led the country. The elites and politicos of a former age were marked men, transformed into political prisoners and slave labor forced to work on reconstruction projects. The Casino, which for years had played host to many amazing events and evenings, had now sunk down into the depths of its darkest hour.

A Pale Representation - Constanta's House of Casino Culture

A Pale Representation – Constanta’s House of Casino Culture (Credit: Dan Carp)

The House Of Culture – A Communist Style Casino
By the end of World War II, the Constanta Casino was a mere shell of its former self. The Casino had suffered grave damage due to wartime air raids. Though it was still standing, the interior had been largely ruined, a pale representation of this once fantastical seaside set piece. The communists may have destroyed the Casino’s economic livelihood by banning gambling, but they saw an opportunity to use the building for propaganda purposes. This was the genesis of its transformation into a House of Culture. The idea was communist co-option at its finest. They could take the Casino, give it a new name and superficial overhaul, then claim it as their own. The revamp would not be done by skilled artisans, that was much too sensible an idea. Instead, those that had been deemed the dregs of society were commandeered into service.

A bit further north and west of Constanta, thousands of political prisoners were laboring on construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal. These prisoners were former aristocrats, capitalists, fascists and other so called enemies of the state. The communists picked one hundred men from these prisoners to work on repairing and renovating the Casino. While work on the Canal was done under the most brutal of conditions, those selected for work on the Casino would not be that much better off. They were forced to work from before sunup to after sundown. Living conditions were deplorable. They were underfed, ill-treated and housed in one of the few Casino rooms that lacked windows. The casino was in very poor condition and the prisoners in no better shape. A building that in an earlier age acted as portal to a world of beauty, was now a prison of shadow and spite. Eventually the repairs ended, the prisoners were taken away and the House of Culture was quasi complete. It did not last long. By the mid-1950’s, preservationists were working to get the building protected as a national heritage monument. Whether it was termed the Casino or House of Culture hardly mattered, better just to call it history.

Indefinite Closure - Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino

Indefinite Closure – Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino (Credit: Madavlasie)

Coming Full Circle – Less Than Ideal Conditions
The building slowly regained some of its former splendor under communism, which was ironic considering that it had once symbolized the excesses of aristocrats and wealthy elites. The communist-era Casino played host to a handful of dignitaries, while being frequented by the masses who could now watch movies inside and enjoy a bite to eat. Beginning in 1960, up through the collapse of communism, the Casino was run by Romania’s Central Tourism Authority as a tourist attraction. Instead of gambling revenues, it was now state subsidies that kept the building open. This would not prove viable in the long run. From a financial standpoint, the Casino was ultra-expensive to maintain. Keeping the building up to its golden age standard was next to impossible. On the other hand, it was still a marvelous structure, worthy of great admiration even in less than ideal condition. At least one attempt was made to improve the interior during the later years of Communist rule, unfortunately it occurred at the worst possible time.

During the 1980’s, with the Romanian economy headed toward a full-blown crisis and dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu descending into the depths of megalomania, the tourist authorities decided that the building needed a major renovation. Never mind that a nation having trouble feeding its own population, while resorting to such “cost saving” measures as turning off heat during the winter could ill afford the slightest extravagance. Nonetheless, renovations were soon underway. In an odd twist, the gilt and refinement of the Belle Epoque made something of a comeback within the Casino while most of Romania wasted away. Stained glass windows, new flooring, wall panels and ornate light fixtures were installed. It turned out to be both too little, too late and not nearly enough. A nation with so few economic and material resources could ill afford this kind of esoteric excess. Communism imploded at the end of 1989 leaving government departments in dire straits. This situation led to the national tourist authorities handing the casino back to the city of Constanta in 1990. The Casino’s ownership had come full circle back to where it began.

At Sunset - Constanta Casino

At Sunset – Constanta Casino (Credit: Dan Carp)

False Promises – A Series Of What Have Beens
The post-communist history of the Constanta Casino is depressing. It can be summed up as a series of what might have beens. Despite near continuous efforts on the part of both public and private entities, the Casino has remained vacant. Promises to restore, redevelop or reconstruct the interior and repair the exterior have turned out to be just that. The marvelous façade stands cracked and peeling, paint chips, glass shatters and the walls weaken. Guards keep the curious from getting a closer look. That is probably for the best. The only thing to see inside is one marvelously empty room after another. The Casino still stands for now, but the future is uncertain. Tragically, that is an improvement on its postwar past.

My Moldova  –   A Messed Up Memoir: On The Road To Nowhere

I sometimes think of Moldova as the nation that should not be. Let me be clear about that statement, this is through no fault of the Moldovan people. Moldova is a severed appendage of the old Soviet empire that has grown from swollen to scrawny. Whereas the trio of nations known as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are bound together by their Baltic shoreline, Moldova is a geopolitical paradox, untethered yet landlocked, crammed between Ukraine, Romania and its own breakaway region of Transnistria. A place where Far Eastern Europe transitions to oblivion. The country cannot be easily explained. It finds itself in an extremely confusing situation. Moldova used to be (and probably still ought to be) part of the Romanian region of Moldavia. Proof that a slightly different spelling can be the difference between provincial anonymity and nationhood. Moldova might best be described Romania-lite, just do not tell that to the Slavic or Gagauz minorities who also inhabit the country.

On the fringes - Location of Moldova in Europe

On the fringes – Location of Moldova in Europe

A Lower Level Of Subsistence – Coping Mechanisms
Moldova struck fear into me ever since the first time I learned anything about it. This goes back to an article I read in the Economist eighteen years ago, entitled, “Can Moldova Get Worse?”. The article related just how impoverished the country was and the slim prospects for any kind of improvement. It began with a joke, that was making the rounds in Moldova, “What happens when the economy hits rock bottom? Everyone starts digging.” This was the type of gallows humor that was pervasive at the tail end of the communist era in the Eastern Bloc. It seemed that in Moldova such feelings had never gone away. How could they? Moldova’s average income level was abysmal. It was less than half that of Albania’s, which at the time and still today is no one’s idea of a well-run nation. Doctors were working for a couple of dollars per hour, while most of the labor force made less than a dollar.

From what I learned, most of the citizens outside of the larger cities were surviving through subsistence level farming. This was not as bad as it sounded. I would later discover from other background reading that Moldova’s soil was incredibly fertile. Massive quantities of fruit and vegetables could be grown on a plot of land. All this was supplemented by copious quantities of wine. Drinking is a bad way of combating poverty, but it has been proven in Moldova as a tried and true way of coping with it. A World Health Organization survey done in 2011, showed that Moldovans consume more wine than any country in Europe. From what I read, they have good reason to.

Out with the old and in with the not so new -Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Romanian flag in 1990

Out with the old and in with the not so new -Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Romanian flag in 1990 (Credit Fotoreporter)

An Unsatisfying Nationalism – Going Nowhere
Moldova’s people are over eighty percent ethnic Romanians (this does not include the breakaway republic of Transnistria). The Moldovan language is nothing more than Romanian by another name.  Despite the fact, that a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary was published in 2003 by the government. An overwhelming majority of the population thought it patently ridiculous. The dictionary mostly covered slang phrases and satisfied a few firebrand nationalists. It did nothing to differentiate between the two countries, if anything it made them seem more similar. Since the end of communism, Moldova has been pulled between two entities, the Romanian and Russian spheres of influence. Romania has been in no condition to adsorb Moldova. Moldova is too impoverished and corrupt. The assimilation of such a weak state would only exacerbate the same types of problems that already exist in Romania while at the same time creating others.

The Soviet Union and now Russia is the problem for Moldova that will not go away. Romanians know Moldova as Bessarabia, which was taken from them by the Stalinist Soviet Union. The most famous thing to come out of Moldova during Soviet rule was the frosty Leonid Brezhnev, who made a name for himself as a purging party boss. The early years of Soviet rule (1940-41 and 1945 – 1953) were marked by starvation and deportations or worse. The numbers affected are measured in the hundreds of thousands. Only later did the country begin to enjoy the benefits of being part of such a far-flung empire. These included the growth of scientific industry for space and submarine development programs. Another benefit was that the ethnic Romanian population avoided being under the heavy-handed (and by the 1980’s) increasingly crazed rule of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Meanwhile, Russia has used its influence in the Slavophile, pseudo-state of Transnistria (the breakaway part of Moldova east of the Dniester River) to disrupt Moldova politically and economically. The Russians do not want or need another nation in their backyard aligning with the western world. Thus, Moldova’s status will likely remain in limbo for the foreseeable future. In a logical geopolitical world Moldova would have been reattached to Romania, but the world of geopolitics is not logical. The problem lies in the fact that if Moldova became part of Romania, it would then automatically become part of the European Union and NATO.  This is something Russia finds unthinkable, even if it does not share a border with Moldova. Thus, Moldova will remain independent. With its situation frozen in a perpetual present, Moldova will probably continue to be the poorest nation in Europe.

Moldova - Countryside and car

Moldova – Countryside and car (Credit: Ion Chibzli)

A Failure To Comprehend – Opposing Truths
On a political and socioeconomic level this is serious stuff. To a scantily-informed outsider such as myself, the situation looks stagnant at best, dire at worst. Then again, what do I really know about Moldova besides what was conveyed to me through the writings of others. My personal knowledge of the place is almost non-existent. I have only met one Moldovan in my life, tending an almost empty bar in Asheville, North Carolina. For some reason I can still remember her. A tight smile, shockingly unnatural blonde hair and an aloofness that tended toward coldness. I met her once by chance on a mid-afternoon almost twenty-five years ago. She offered me no insights about her country, few words and went about her work efficiently. That was my personal experience with Moldova, an indifferent shrug and semi-cold shoulder. This first impression was likely opposite of the truth, but there was something about her that I found incomprehensible. I could say the same about her homeland.