MOLDOVA: The Good Old Soviet Days

Every good teacher gives lessons beyond the subject they teach. My Russian teacher was one of those.

She wanted me to overcome my shyness and go to a random person, particularly the elderly, and work on my Russian. I smiled, said I’d give it a try, knowing full well that I would do no such thing. The fact that I made conversation with a waiter, trolleybus driver or random street vendor was amazing.

“The older people are nice,” she insisted, “they will love to talk to a foreigner. We love foreigners. They will help you with your Russian. They have nothing better to do. Everyone will try to help you. Everyone. It is the Moldovan way.”

Moldovans are often known as the friendliest people, a trait that she believes is a hangover from the Soviet times. All that was good, friendly and trusting came from years under Soviet Russia.

“We used to say that our citizens are trusting idiots.”

According to her, there was no corruption, no crime, during the Soviet years… at least not widespread as it is now. She could trust policemen, she could trust government and there weren’t people on the street needing to beg for people’s loose change.

Some years ago, in what she referred to as the “Soviet Time”, her brother had found a man and his two children awaiting a bus at night. They had no car, and no place to stay for the evening and the bus would not arrive until dawn and the small family was forced to spend the night there, in the shelter of the station’s under hang. Her brother stopped, found out their situation and brought them home, gave them a place to spend the night and drove them to their destination in the morning.

“That was normal,” she would say with a strange nostalgia, “We invite people to our homes. We were trusting. That is why the elderly are so nice now, they remember a better time. Now we lock every door, and we do not trust the police.”

The only terrible thing that she remembered was the incredible bureaucracy, and while the world was rationed and people were poor, there was a certain equality and egalitarianism that made everyone more generous.

In that harsh, austere moderation of Soviet living she remembered that no one could live without the help of their neighbors, and that no one could survive without trusting each other.

I wonder if her perception is colored by the rose glasses we all wear when looking into our own pasts.

“Now? You cannot even get a taxi cab without them charging too much if they know you are a foreigner,” she warned me, “that would never have happened in the Soviet days.”

Democracy is a word she says tongue-in-cheek, for a lack of discipline and uniformity. It is a lack of consistency due to the multiple minds yanking this and that to their own self interest. It is a word she uses for when, in my lessons, I ask why there is no consistency in an irregular verb or why certainly letters are dropped in speech.

“It is democracy,” she shrugged.

I asked for her opinion on the current events in the Ukraine, the Russian separatists, the annexation of Crimea and the Eastern districts. I asked for her opinion on the EU Partnership Agreement, and Moldova’s future with the western side of Europe. Her answer was… well, rather enlightening.

Her prophesies were dismal. Other countries that have joined the EU have all suffered, and because Moldova was the poorest country in Europe, it will suffer even more than those that came before. She expects Moldova will lose everything, suffer from an influx of “European” goods and services and their farmers and factory workers will be lost in the tidal wave of “progress”. Unlike the younger generation, she was not optimistic about how the cards had fallen, and she did not like the western pull that was changing her country.

“Now we join the EU, things will get worse and we will be just like Ukraine. We will want to go back to Russia.”

I do not agree with her perspective. Maybe I am,  as someone once accused me, more Randian than I like to admit. I happen to share the great optimism of my Moldovan contemporaries – millennials, hippies and liberals –  that after the initial growing pains the EU will, in the end, be good for Moldova. Then again, I have never lived or pledged my loyalty to countries that were not democratic. I have never lived under communism.

That being said, my Russian teacher’s perspective is not uncommon. My Lithuanian friend, a man in his 30’s, had told me that his father missed the old soviet days too. I spoke to a man in the Park, he was gray haired and professorial in appearance, wearing a vest over a cream colored button down, and looked at me through black wire glasses. He spoke French, Russian, Romanian and English. He told me that he missed the Soviet days too. He looked at the clattering and sputtering of cars in the Chisinau street and cringed, wondering if this was what the revolution was for.

4 Comments

  1. Jas_sbap says:

    There is a girl in my acting class whose family is Russian. She said that her mother described similar feelings and the class couldn’t believe it. “People being happy in communism?”
    Her response was,
    “Well, compared to the way things are now, it was apparently better.”

    1. Francis says:

      It’s definitely a valid point. Tough to swallow – the fact that people actually believe they were better off with Communism, but I guess people would rather have the certainty than the uncertainty of democracy.

  2. I think no matter which way the dice falls, it always looks greener when we look back at the pastures that were left. I think there would be a chance, that were it the other way around, and it had been democracy that gave way for communism, many would look back on democracy having been the better way of life. People like the familiar.

    A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing a World War II Vet who had been a prisoner of war in Hong Kong for five years. He was captured when he was 19, less than three months into his tour of duty, and not released until he was 24. When he looked back on it, he would repeat several times that it wasn’t terrible. He reflected on how when he first came back to Canada after being freed, food, freedom and our customs seemed slightly foreign to him, and there were times when it was hard not to want to fall back into the schedule that had led his life for those five years.

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