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.

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.