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.

 

The Last Bolshevik – Konstantin Chernenko: The Sick Man of Europe

From 1917 until 1991 seven different men were the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union. These men were at the pinnacle of the Communist party apparatus and exercised power over one of the world’s greatest land mass. Four of these leaders are well known for better or worse (usually the latter). These four can be easily named by the historically minded. They are Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Two others are well known among Cold War history buffs, Brezhnev and Andropov. That leaves one who is almost invisible to history, the grey man of a secretive society.

Konstantin Chernenko - the opposite of inspiration

Konstantin Chernenko – the opposite of inspiration

Communism In Human Form
The name Konstantin Chernenko does not bring any lasting historical image to mind. For that matter, the name hardly brings anything to mind. Chernenko had the shortest reign of any Soviet ruler, lasting a mere thirteen months at the helm. Some historians call Chernenko, “The Last Bolshevik.” This is because he is viewed as the last of the old order, those communists who were symbolic of the rigidity, corruption and ossification of the Soviet Union’s final decades. A look at Chernenko definitely fits that image. In photos taken of him during the time he led the nation, he looks elderly, dull and uninspiring. That’s probably because he was. Communism in the Soviet Union died a slow death in its final two decades. The human personification of that decay was Chernenko.

Chernenko & Brezhnev – The Road To Gloom
Who was Konstantin Chernenko? In line with his frosty visage, Chernenko was born in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia in 1911, the son of a poor miner. Growing up in poverty, Chernenko took advantage of the one real opportunity for advancement during that time, getting involved with the Communist Party. At the age of 18 he became a member of the Communist Youth League. He was soon a full member of the party. Chernenko built a career in party propaganda. He worked in the typical Soviet organizations such as the House of Party Enlightenment. Chernenko managed to ascend the party ranks while avoiding the deadly Stalinist purges of the 1930’s. It helped that he was working in the east part of the country during some of the worst excesses of the system.

It is probably no surprise that an individual as dull, grey and stolid as Chernenko received his first major career advancement due to his friendship with a man cut from the same cloth. Leonid Brezhnev, the embodiment of Soviet style gloom and corruption chose Chernenko to head the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’s propaganda efforts in the late 1940’s. From that point until Brezhnev’s death in 1982, Chernenko’s career trajectory closely followed that of his political patron. By the mid-1950’s, they were in Moscow together, where a decade later, Brezhnev would replace the deposed Nikita Khrushchev as Supreme Leader of the Soviet Union.

Sign Here - Konstantin Chernenko's signature style

Sign Here – Konstantin Chernenko’s signature style

A Signature Style
The Brezhnev years cast a light on the shadowy career of the prototypically dull Chernenko. What was the gray man’s job during these years? Well in an extremely centralized state apparatus, Chernenko made sure it stayed that way. He set the agenda for interminable Politburo sessions. He signed papers, literally tens of thousands. In the bureaucratic morass that was the Soviet system, Chernenko was the ultimate bureaucrat. For over twenty years he put his signature on hundreds of documents each day. Even after he took the helm as supreme leader, Chernenko would continue to sign the documents as he had done for far too long as head of the bland sounding General Department. Whereas Stalin and Lenin had the blood of millions on their hands, Chernenko’s were covered with ink. All of this was done in the service of mind numbing decrees and resolutions. The Soviet Union and the communist system may not have had the cure for civilization’s ills, but they had cultivated the ultimate cure for insomnia.

A Phenomenon of Frailty
All the while, Chernenko carried on an exceedingly unhealthy lifestyle. He was a chain smoker, an addiction that was said to have begun at the tender age of nine. By the time he took power, Chernenko was a physician’s worst nightmare. His ailments included emphysema, pulmonary disease and heart failure. At the funeral of his predecessor Yuri Andropov, he was barely able to read the eulogy. On that same day at Lenin’s Mausoleum he had to take an escalator rather than stairs to the top. After the ceremony was over, Chernenko’s bodyguards were reduced to protecting their frail leader, not from would be assassins, but from a slip or a fall. They had to help him back down the escalator. He spent much of his time as leader suffering from an amazing variety of illnesses. If it was not bronchitis, it was pneumonia or pleurisy or cirrhosis of the liver. Somehow Chernenko kept on living. The man was as much a phenomenon as he was an individual, a staggering, stuttering, stumbling example of the sclerotic Soviet system.

His most notable achievement while in office was the announcement that the Soviet’s would boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was a foolish and petulant act designed to exact symbolic revenge on the United States for boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In place of tet a tet’s between Chernenko and the president of the United States, there were tit for tat’s. That the sickly Chernenko could even engage in such foolishness was miraculous.

The Long Goodbye - Chernenko strikes a pose

The Long Goodbye – Chernenko strikes a pose

The Sickest of Them All
Finally, mercifully, during the late winter of 1985, the death defying Chernenko approached his final moment. By this point it was a tossup whether he would succumb to emphysema, heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver or hepatitis. It turned out to be a combination of all four. Within hours his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev was announced, offering proof that Chernenko had long since been given up for dead. Ironically, the Soviet papers announced Gorbachev’s ascension to power on their front pages, while Chernenko’s death notice took a backseat on page two. Conversely, the New York Times placed both events on the front page. Chernenko had ceased to be of importance to the Soviet Union, while still being at least symbolically respected in the western world.

The Soviet system outlasted Chernenko by another seven years. It had been able to survive frailty in the leadership for nearly a decade. The last several years of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko were characterized more by illness than anything else. These were the sick men of Europe and Chernenko was the sickest of them all. He had been neither a reformer nor much of a hardliner, he had just been there, barely able to breathe, let alone rule. His role was to keep the seat lukewarm. Interestingly, what the Soviet Union was unable to survive was the reform minded and progressive Mikhail Gorbachev. His energetic leadership was finally put the Soviet Union to rest.