Alexander Mirgorodski
Chișinău,  Moldova

Pros & Cons of the Soviet Union – Alex (Chișinău, MD)

Chișinău
Alexander Mirgorodski
Zeama

The Place: Chișinău, Moldova

“Silhouettes of featureless, concrete tower blocks split orange rays of the setting sun, barks echoed, feral animals scampered across potholed streets, and I descended my final hill into Moldova’s capital city… I allowed gravity to take control as I glided between haphazardly parked cars, and standstill traffic. I picked up speed with a lump in my throat; less than 15 minutes earlier, I’d watched a distracted driver careen into a stray dog I’d befriended for several kilometres, and I still felt my arms tremble a little as I attempted to maintain my composure.”

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Silhouettes of featureless, concrete tower blocks split orange rays of the setting sun, barks echoed, feral animals scampered across potholed streets, and I descended my final hill into Moldova’s capital city. What little energy I had left evaporated, and I allowed gravity to take control as I glided between haphazardly parked cars, and standstill traffic. I picked up speed with a lump in my throat; less than 15 minutes earlier, I’d watched a distracted driver careen into a stray dog I’d befriended for several kilometres, and I still felt my arms tremble a little as I attempted to maintain my composure. I looked up at the fiery colours, in the sky, willing them to recede into the distance and disappear so the day would be over and sleep could obscure the unshakable image in my head.

Calling Chișinău a metropolis would be an exaggeration; it has the same feel that many other Moldovan towns have – rusting and run-down, mixed with a little charming chaos, though of course the streets are busier, the buildings taller, and the traffic louder than anywhere else Moldova has to offer. By now, most of the snow had turned to freezing puddles of muddy water that splashed up the sides of my bike as I’d made my way south. Vast, expensive-looking government buildings rose from a surrounding patchwork of lopsided slabs of concrete in cracked pavements, the spires of Orthodox churches adorned with gold, weathered apartment complexes, sprawling green parks and flaking store-fronts; a motley combination that meant the city’s identity was difficult to pinpoint.

With it’s dreary winter atmosphere and the icy bite carried by the wind through streets drained of colour, Chișinău made me desperate for a drink to warm the soul. So, I explored what Moldova is most famous for; after sampling a variety of caramel-like sherries that stuck to the walls of the glass as they trickled back to the bottom following each sip at a tasting event, my hosts and I ventured out of the city and back into the countryside, where the rolling farmland belies a secret; hiding beneath acres of ploughed soil, row-upon-row of bottles of wine lie stacked on top of one another, gathering dust and sprouting tendrils of mould from their corks in the Milestii Mici wine cellar. The caverns of an old limestones mine, wide enough to drive a car through them, are now home to the largest wine collection in the world; the “golden collection”, totalling some 1.5 million bottles.

With all the alcoholic elixirs lulling you into a state of relaxation, it’s easy to forget that one of the hallmarks of Moldova’s complexity is never too far away. Just 60km from where I slept was the infamous “country that doesn’t exist”; the self-declared independent nation of Transnistria, separated from the rest of Moldova by a hard border manned by Russian peacekeepers (but more on that next time…). For now, I enjoyed the tipsiness that shrouded me in a layer of protective warmth against the frigid air outside.

Chișinău


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Alexander Mirgorodski, 36, IT Support

I was born and raised here in Chișinău. Actually I was born just a few kilometres from here, at a hospital where pretty much everybody in this city is born. After school, I wanted to study IT, but my parents had really different ideas. They wanted me to go to law school. They said you can learn computers by yourself, but you should go to a law faculty.”

See Alexander's Full Background

I work for an international company that does “mystery shopping” worldwide. What does that mean? Well, for example, you have a restaurant, bar or store, and you have employees there and want to see how well they treat your customers. You can check on the quality of the services in your store by asking someone to visit your store, but what if you have 100, or even 1000, stores? What if you’re McDonalds, or Louis Vuitton? So we offer a service to these companies, and we have “mystery shoppers” who come into a restaurant or shop, buy something, and then they go home and tell us how the service was. I work to help the field coordinators when they have IT problems. I’d never heard of this kind of thing before I worked for this company, and at that point I thought like “who really uses that?” Here in Moldova, we don’t do that. But worldwide and in the E.U. they do it a lot.

I was born and raised here in Chișinău. Actually I was born just a few kilometres from here, at a hospital where pretty much everybody in this city is born. After school, I wanted to study IT, but my parents had really different ideas. They wanted me to go to law school. They said you can learn computers by yourself, but you should go to a law faculty. I was supposed to spend years. I had to spend one extra year there, because I started to work alongside my studies in the first year, for like 10 hours per day, and I started skipping the education side of things. I was working instead of studying, so I lost a year. 

In 2004, a friend offered me and Marina, now my wife, to go the U.S.A. for work and travel, which is very popular now. At that time, nobody was doing it. She couldn’t go, because she was still in university, but I went for four months. We’d actually met the friends here in Moldova, since they’d come over for adoption, and Marina was the translator for them. They found me a guesthouse and a job at their company. One of the guy’s side jobs was that he bought cars that were ruined, fixed them, and then sold them for a profit. He did that with one and let me use it while I was there. That period was actually when I learned my English. Before that, I thought I knew English, but I now realise I didn’t. For the first month, I was working in a pawn shop, which was easy because people just pointed at things they wanted. People would ask where I was from. When I said “Moldova”, they’d never heard of the country.

I later started working at a construction company, and I had an American partner, who I obviously had to talk with since we worked together for like 14 hours a day. At that point, my throat started really hurting because I was changing my phonetic behaviour. But after that, I learned English through practice. Then I went back and forth to the U.S. with Marina four times. Now since we’ve been back, we’re working for the same international company. We have two kids, and we’re thinking of maybe more. Why not? Right now things are good, though. We have two boys, and they share the same room, so if we want more kids we would have to move. We have this apartment which we can sell, but we remodelled the whole thing; it’s actually the place I used to live with my parents. We demolished everything there, and rebuilt the inside from scratch, basically. Now we have our own cellar, and it has two floors. So we don’t know if we really want to move.

I take part in ultra-marathons. There was a guy in Moldova who built so many websites that they account for like 70% of Moldovan internet traffic. He even made some cartoons. But he was rich, and got super bored, and started to do some sports. Slowly, he started to do triathlons and so on, and then he started training to hold his breath underwater. He holds the record in Moldova, and is able to spend 6 minutes underwater. He started to run after that, and started creating marathons. He opened a company called ‘Sporter’, and now they run ultramarathons. The idea is to unite the country by running through the whole of it. It wasn’t possible to do it all in one go, so they split it across three years. First year was the Eastern part, then the central part, and this year it’s the Western part. It’s getting harder each time. The first was 450km, the second 500km, and last time it was 540km.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“This is a national problem here in Moldova. Everybody is smart enough to know what home means; this is where you grew up, where your roots are… But the problem is that we have a huge amount of emigration. Here, only like 70% of the population is still in Moldova. The remaining 30% have already moved away…”

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This is a national problem here in Moldova. Everybody is smart enough to know what home means; this is where you grew up, where your roots are. You know the history of your country, of your city, and you are attached to them. But the problem is that we have a huge amount of emigration. Here, only like 70% of the population is still in Moldova. The remaining 30% have already moved away to places like Italy, Spain and Portugal. Some have left for good, and likely won’t come back if they don’t have to. It’s because of different reasons.

We have issues here, like I am a Russian-speaking person, and I don’t speak Romanian. That’s ok for me, because I work for an international company and the language spoken there is English. But if you want to work here in Moldova, you will most likely be required to learn the Romanian language. It’s kind of weird, because when I went to the U.S.A., I learned English pretty quickly, but here it’s complicated for the people who speak Russian to learn Romanian because they don’t practice. You can go to the store or a restaurant and order everything in Russian. People won’t study a language until it’s really required.

My point is that everyone knows what home is and what it means, and I’m pretty sure the values are the same for most people; your parents, siblings and relatives who are here, your house maybe. But at the same time there are lots of people who move away because of the language issues, and because of the low salaries. People are leaving their homes behind for better living. You can see here that the city is nice, and if you’d come in summer, it would be super green with lots of trees, but at the same time they keep destroying these green spaces to build new things. There is no perfect place. We have a saying here, which kind of translates as: “the perfect life is in the place where we are not located now”. 

Some people are missing Moldova and they come back, but mostly people just see the higher salaries and they go. Here in Moldova, if you lose your job, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get another one with a similar income.  So 30% of the population has already left the country, and people are still leaving. It’s very sad, but that’s how it is. Even me and Marina, every year we enroll for the green card in the United States. If we get it, we will probably leave too. We could go there without one, and then look for ways to stay, but if we move we want to move officially with the right to work and the right to stay. The green card would give us that opportunity, but we haven’t “won it” yet. But it’s not that bad here for us, because we have good income, a place to live so we don’t have to spend a lot on renting. Here, where people get €400-€500/month, if you’re paying €300 for rent like my parents were, you can really feel it. That’s why in Moldova, and the same in Ukraine and Russia, people stay with their parents way after they are 16 or 18. My old classmate is 36 and still lives with his parents, not because he’s super attached or anything, but just because renting is so expensive, and you have to pay additional bills as well. We’re lucky that we have a different situation, but that’s widespread.

What is special about Chișinău?

“Kids and their parents are more attached than in places like the U.S. There, when you’re 18, you can find a job and you look for places to live with your friends, and you go far away from your relatives, and probably just visit on Christmas or some weekends. Here, the city is very compact, and the country as well, so everything is very close… There’s a lot of family cohesion.”

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Besides it being super green in summer, it’s really compact and small. It’s easy to meet friends, to go to the park for a run, or whatever. Everything is near. You can be super lazy but things are so close that you still go to them. Plus, if you want to go into nature, you can go to old Orhei, which is not far from the city, or one of the wineries. They’re not that close, it’s still 100km from here, but it’s not terrible. Kids and their parents are more attached than in places like the U.S. There, when you’re 18, you can find a job and you look for places to live with your friends, and you go far away from your relatives, and probably just visit on Christmas or some weekends. Here, the city is very compact, and the country as well, so everything is very close. Marina’s parents live a 7 minute walk from our house, and my parents live a 25 minute walk. So it’s easy to visit, or leave the kids with them for a bit. There’s a lot of family cohesion. That’s how it goes here. In other places, the opportunity for kids to go and live somewhere else can mean families are more divided. 

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Chișinău or Moldova?

“In the 1990s, it was way worse here because the country was controlled by the mafia… The communist party then came into power, and they got rid of these groups in their own way. Instead of paying to criminals, the big businesses started paying money to the government to get protection from the police. For regular people, it was a big change. The crime level on the streets decreased a lot.”

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In the 1990s, it was way worse here because the country was controlled by the mafia – gangsters. They were controlling the big businesses. The high-up ones didn’t affect average people too much, but they had lower level criminals who would just go out on the streets and commit crimes. The communist party then came into power, and they got rid of these groups in their own way. Instead of paying to criminals, the big businesses started paying money to the government to get protection from the police. For regular people, it was a big change. The crime level on the streets decreased a lot. When the communist party lost power, the crime went up a bit again. It’s not the safest country, or the best country in the world, but it has it’s own up and downs. This period was good, they made the country safer.

What is your main concern or worry about Moldova?

“…there’s a lot of tension here in this small country… in Moldova, we don’t have somewhere we can point at and say, ok, they live worse there. We live badly here, with all the tensions between different groups, and the low salaries.”

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This is still like a third-world country. Of course it’s not like the Central African Republic or anything, and we live fairly well here. Water and stuff is cheap here. But my concern is that we really have low salaries, and we have this national question with the emigration. We have a tiny country, but it’s bigger than Belgium. And yet we have a worse situation than Belgium. We have this tension between Romanian-speakers and Russian-speakers, between official Moldova and Transnistria, between official Moldova and the autonomous region of Gagauzia; so there’s a lot of tension here in this small country. I think there are two ways to calm people down in your country; one of them is to make people wealthier, and another is to say that in other countries there are worse problems. Russia does that with Ukraine, and Ukraine does it with Russia. But in Moldova, we don’t have somewhere we can point at and say, ok, they live worse there. We live badly here, with all the tensions between different groups, and the low salaries. So my concern is with all this tension.

Do Moldovan people prefer the EU or Russia?

“There’s a split between being pro-Russia and pro-Europe. Now we have two main political parties. The Socialist party has a lot of people from the old communist party, which lost all its power. They have good relations with Russia. Our president is pro-Russian, but the other party controls parliament and the ministries, and now we even have the ‘Ministry of External Affairs and European Integration’.”

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There’s a split between being pro-Russia and pro-Europe. Now we have two main political parties. The Socialist party has a lot of people from the old communist party, which lost all its power. They have good relations with Russia. Before them, when relations were bad, we had lots of regulations from Russia; we couldn’t sell our wine to Russia. When we have bad relations with them, they say “you’re wine is bad, and we won’t buy it.” But our products are fine. It’s just politics.

Our president is pro-Russian, but the other party controls parliament and the ministries, and now we even have the “Ministry of External Affairs and European Integration”. They say that we’ll become an EU member in 2000-something. But the EU says, “ok, well you have to change your legislation to deal with corruption”, and so on. We said we changed it, but the EU hired experts to find out if the new legislation worked, and it failed. So then they add more and more legislation; it’s constantly changing. Meanwhile, the EU sends money here for roads,  hospitals and schools, because we don’t have money; so much of it was stolen. Parliament works with the EU, and says we are a pro-EU country and we want to be a part of NATO. But the president says “no, we’re in the middle of Russia, Europe and Asia, and we have to be friends with everybody. We have a multinational country”. But Russia is a big, strong neighbour, and is willing to be a friend to us. So why should we have to turn our backs to them especially when we use their gas and oil? Why should we say that Russia is our enemy?

With all the sanctions we have a lot of tricky cases with meat that comes through Moldova. They see that when it gets to Russian customs, it has Belgian marks on it, so it was produced in Europe, went through Moldova, had it’s paperwork switched, and came to Russia as Moldovan meat because there’s no sanctions against Moldovan meat. The same happens when Russia says “no apples from Moldova, apart from the 10 companies in Transnistria”. These 10 small companies export hundreds and hundreds of tonnes of apples, and people go there to find these companies and there is nothing there. So the same thing happens with that.

Can you explain the situation with Transnistria?

“The economy there is completely separate. They have their own factories. They still produce carpets and shoes, and in one place they have metals which they export worldwide. So they have their own economy. They have huge support from Russia. Russia pays some of the pensions for retired people there. They don’t live super well, but it is cleaner than here. You have the feeling there that nothing has changed for decades.”

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This part of Moldova became part of the Russian empire after a war between them and the Ottomans. Russia took Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. Bulgaria and Romania became independent, but Moldova became part of Russia. Then WWI started. When WWI ended, Germany lost a lot of land, but Romania claimed part of Moldova. But they only took land up to the Dniester river, and on the other side of that was Ukraine. So, from 1918 to 1939, that area was a separate state. Then the Soviet Union became a strong country, and in 1939, they came here to this territory, and Romania was given five days to leave, which they did. In 1941, Romania came back, fighting on the side of Germany. In 1943, Russia took it back again. 

So there was a lot of merging and then dividing, before Moldova became a Soviet Republic unit, and Transnistria, which used to be a part of Ukraine, became part of Moldova. Mostly it’s Ukrainians and Russians living there. That area was never a Moldavian kingdom, and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the politicians here said “we’re not just Moldova, we’re brothers with Romania and we have to unite again”. At that point, Transnistria said “uh, no? We’ve never been part of Romana, we’re not Romanians. So we don’t want to be a part of Romania, and we want to be our own country”. So a war over their independence started with Transnistria, but the Russian Federation sent an army here to Transnistria. Officially, they haven’t sent it, but the general “brought his army here personally” to protect the Russians there. And really quickly the Russians explained to Moldova that they did not have a big army. So the fighting stopped super-quickly. But people did get killed, it wasn’t fun. They probably could have gotten Transnistria back and arrested the people who wanted to lead Transnistria by themselves, but they couldn’t because of Russia, who has kept peacekeepers here since 1991. 

Now the economy there is completely separate. They have their own factories. They still produce carpets and shoes, and in one place they have metals which they export worldwide. So they have their own economy. They have huge support from Russia. Russia pays some of the pensions for retired people there. They don’t live super well, but it is cleaner than here. You have the feeling there that nothing has changed for decades. We ran a marathon through Transnistria, actually. People there are different. When we went in, we didn’t know if they’d let us inside; a group crazy runners at 12am. But at the border because there were so many of us, they were like “we’ll just take a group photo of you with your IDs. How many of there are you? 42? Ok so 42 people have to leave when you run out the other side. We will check”. The police even offered police cars to escort us. Sporter wanted to do a half-marathon in the capital of Transnistria, Tiraspol, but to do that you have to get permission from the Transnistrian president. 

Can you explain the Moldovan Bank Fraud Scandal that saw $1 Billion disappear from the Moldovan economy?

“…one billion dollars was taken away from Moldova to some accounts offshore… The country is small, and it was so unexpected. It was like 30-35% of our GDP. In the U.K. or the U.S.A., there would have been a lot of people who would have gone to jail. Here, it was just two people, and it’s no guarantee that one of them was even involved.”

See Alexander's Full Answer

I see that we have issues, but it’s not because of our city. It’s the our mentality and the mentality of people who run the city. There is a saying that every nation deserves the people who rule them. The same here; they get into power in government, and they steal from the budget and so on. I will tell you this story about the bank fraud the way that know it.

One of our politicians discovered this scheme. A lot were involved I think, but this guy was the one who revealed this story. He said; “I have a document that reveals that one billion dollars was taken away from Moldova to some accounts offshore. What are we gonna do about this?” This guy is from one of our political parties, and owns his own media, so it became a big thing. The opposing party has the same. So each side started revealing certain parts of the story to the public. It came out that there were three banks involved in these schemes. These banks then had these huge deficits. Then the European Union came and said we had to close them, and they pushed for us to investigate.

This was all three years ago, and we still don’t know who stole the money, or where the money is. There was an investigation by an international group, but for some reason they never released their findings. But there are three guys who we know had some kind of participation with this. One of them used to be Prime Minister. Another was this consultant, who is also the mayor of Orhei, who said “ok, I was involved in this stealing, but I was not the one in charge. I was just doing due diligence. The Prime Minister was the one who was really stealing”. So the government revoked his immunity, and put the PM in jail, which is where he is now. There is a third guy who was involved in some other schemes and was suspected of being involved in this, so they kidnapped him from Ukraine and brought him to Moldova and put him in jail.

The public actually knows who is really behind all this stealing, but this person is ruling the country now. He is not president, he is just a leader of one of the parties. But there is no concrete proof that it was him. And even if there was, he would just smile and be like “ok. What are you going to do?”

The country is small, and it was so unexpected. It was like 30-35% of our GDP. In the U.K. or the U.S.A., there would have been a lot of people who would have gone to jail. Here, it was just two people, and it’s no guarantee that one of them was even involved. The guy from Ukraine didn’t even have Moldovan citizenship. We have a lot of political prosecutions, they’re like a normal thing here.

Do you remember what it was like when Moldova gained independence from the Soviet Union?

When we became independent, we have a joke that we became independent not just from the Soviet Union, but also from oil, natural gas. So we became both independent and super poor at the same time. A lot of factories just shut down. A lot of them had been working for the needs of the Soviet Union, so there was no point running them any more. A lot of very talented people – a lot of engineers – became unemployed in a moment.”

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It was a tough time of that moment, when it was the last years of the Soviet Union. I remember we had special coupons to buy trousers or coats. With furniture, we had problems for a long time. You could buy furniture, but only bad quality. If you wanted something good, you had to have like a relative or something who worked in a furniture store. Then you could get furniture from Germany or something. You had to have money and a connection. When the Soviet Union was crashing in 1987-1989, I remember these coupons. You couldn’t just go to the store to buy a nice dress. You needed the coupon. You could get two coats in a year. There was a huge deficit of things in Chișinău. But you could go to some village, and in stores there you could find a nice dress because nobody needed one there. People were living on their land, they didn’t need many nice clothes.

When we became independent, we have a joke that we became independent not just from the Soviet Union, but also from oil, natural gas. So we became both independent and super poor at the same time. A lot of factories just shut down. A lot of them had been working for the needs of the Soviet Union, so there was no point running them any more. A lot of very talented people – a lot of engineers – became unemployed in a moment. My wife’s father was an engineer at a factory producing things for the army and the Soviet space program. This one was shut down as well. This was a really sad period of time; these talented engineers started to sell things, and they’re not good sellers. My father-in-law was going to Romania and Poland to sell things there. My wife and her mother would sew something with a Moldovan design, and her father would take it there to sell. You can see now all these retired people with really low pensions go out to sell things. It’s like a flea market, but different because they don’t sell rare or unique things. They just sell shoes or some clothes. That’s because of their low pension payments.

I remember a time when we had no gas when we became independent. We lost hot water as well. We would go into the garden and cook in the garden. At that time, people were just going outside to cook food, and people were bringing big propane tanks to houses. These changes were all dramatic and you could see them.

How have things changed since the fall of the USSR?

There is a lot of inertia here, so everything is changing very slowly. People are attached to their habits, and that’s why communists became leaders. They were just used to that brand, so a lot of people voted for them.”

See Alexander's Full Answer

There is a lot of inertia here, so everything is changing very slowly. People are attached to their habits, and that’s why communists became leaders. They were just used to that brand, so a lot of people voted for them. A lot of people were not satisfied after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I think this was the biggest change; when Moldova became an independent country. But how old was I? Like 9-10 years old. I do remember it.

Also with the crime, when the communists got into power they changed things quickly. The city is getting nicer. But the changes are slower now. People don’t get bigger salaries, but things are becoming more official, because the government is trying to fight against this “salary in an envelope”. But nobody trusts the government with taxes. They think they’ve just stolen it, and it’s gone for good. When you look at half of these people in parliament, and you see their cars, you think “ok, this is from our taxes…”

What were some of the good things about the Soviet Union?

“Moldova and Chișinău really started to grow. There were a lot of people who wanted to move to Moldova, like engineers who wanted to build something here. Working immigration was really high during the Soviet Union. Before that, it was just an agricultural country with no factories or anything… after WWII, the Soviet Union gave growth to the country.”

See Alexander's Full Answer

I think things were good here when Moldova was part of the Soviet Union. Moldova and Chișinău really started to grow. There were a lot of people who wanted to move to Moldova, like engineers who wanted to build something here. Working immigration was really high during the Soviet Union. Before that, it was just an agricultural country with no factories or anything. Just fields and gardens. But then after WWII, the Soviet Union gave growth to the country. Since we became independent, it’s really hard to say if it’s been good or not. I think we are really lucky that we weren’t held like Chechnya. They wanted to be independent too, but Russia said no, and they had two wars there. But people here felt that nobody asked them if they wanted to stay with the Soviet Union, so they had no choice in it.

There were a lot of good things about the Soviet Union which we don’t have now. I was just a kid, so I don’t remember a lot, but our parents and grandparents remember. Everybody had a decent salary. It wasn’t like you could open a restaurant or a store and become super rich. That was not possible. At that time, everybody was middle-class. Even the people in charge of the factories were middle-class. If you worked for a factory, you got like £1,000/month. The directors and administrators got £1,500, and they didn’t get bonuses or golden parachutes. People knew that they would graduate the school, and if you’re not super smart, you can still just go to work somewhere, and if you have ambitions and are smarter, you go to university. There would be 30 people going for one spot, so you had to be better than the others to get in. It’s not like now where you just pay money and start to study. After university, you knew where you would go to work. You could study here but be sent to work in the suburb of Moscow. Usually people who wanted to earn a lot would go to places like Siberia, because people were paid more for putting up with the bad weather there. You could be paid five times for the same work there. It was all super stable. You also had an apartment. This is very important. It wasn’t super simple to get an apartment, but you knew that if you worked for this factory or this institution, you would get an apartment. More likely, before that you get a room, but a shared toilet and kitchen. Now, if you work here in Moldova with a middle salary, there is no way for you to get an apartment, because you need a down-payment and then every month you have to pay something. Now, you don’t have the stability, and you don’t know what will happen when you lose your job. The employers are often not pleasant people, and say “ok, you don’t want to work in these conditions? Leave.” 

Medicine and education was much better then. They were completely free. We had really good doctors who have left now. It was much, much better then than now. A lot of teachers and professors also left the country. We lost a lot of really smart and talented people. They had no place here to use their talents in the 1990s.

In the UK or the USA, you work for a company, and if it shuts down, your bank doesn’t care that it shut down. You should find somewhere else to work quickly. In the Soviet Union, nobody could even imagine something shutting down. A factory? A company? No, it was super solid, and super stable. You just worked from 8am to 5pm with one hour for food, and a place to eat in the factory. So this kind of thing is that people are missing today. Yeah, they were not getting a lot of money. But at the same time they knew that their salary and pension payments would be enough for decent living.

What were some of the bad things about the Soviet Union?

In the UK, you can get a regular job, go to the bank and say ‘ok, I want to get a mortgage and buy my own apartment or house.’… In the Soviet Union, you didn’t have this freedom. You worked at a factory, store or institute, and you have can’t say which building you want to live in. Your employer gives you, after some time, your apartment. There was really no choice when it came to where to live.”

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Not everything was good, of course. In the UK, you can get a regular job, go to the bank and say “ok, I want to get a mortgage and buy my own apartment or house.” Depending on your income, you pick which accommodation you purchase. In the Soviet Union, you didn’t have this freedom. You worked at a factory, store or institute, and you have can’t say which building you want to live in. Your employer gives you, after some time, your apartment. There was really no choice when it came to where to live. That accommodation building is built for this factory, this building is built for this network of stores, and so on. Now you can get any apartment anywhere.

Now, if you have money, you can buy a car. But then it. Wasn’t. That. Simple. At. All. You went to the store, and they wrote down your place in the line. There was a deficit of cars. It wasn’t like “I want this car in this colour…”. It was just “I want a car.” You placed an order, and you could wait for up to two years for your place in the line to come up. At that time, variety of products was very limited. It was all good quality products. Clothes were really good quality, but at the same time good quality is not enough. Sometimes you want a certain logo, like Abercrombie & Fitch. You couldn’t have that. You just had a blue shirt, and your neighbour had the same thing, and everyone else had the same thing. So there was a really poor variety of things. We didn’t have things like bubblegum. When we got things in the 1980s like Pepsi, it was like “woaaah!” We had our own beverages, which were still nice. They were so different. I’m pretty sure you can’t get them in the UK. So we had our own things, but there was the iron curtain. So people who by some chance travelled beyond that were bringing jeans, which they got for $5-20, to the Soviet Union where they could sell them for $100. One of the singers in the 1980s was riding a Mercedes in Moscow when there were like three Mercedes in the whole country. These kind of things were really unique and rare. Things from outside the iron curtain were super expensive and really, really rare.

There were other problems as well. In 1947-48, there was a time when people were dying because they had no food. In the area that divides Ukraine and Russia, Ukrainian nationalists say that the bread was taken from Ukraine to supply the Russian part, and that’s why people there starved. But it was a hard time for the whole country. People were going to jail for weird cases like telling jokes about rulers… though that was seldom. But people were afraid of saying something against the rulers of the country.

Now we have a joke that an American and Soviet guy meet in the 1970s or 80s, and the American says “You don’t have democracy or freedom of speech here?”.

The Soviet says “freedom of speech? What do you mean?”.

“Well, it’s simple; I can go in front of the Whitehouse and say that Reagan is stupid!”

The Soviet replies, “well I can also go to the Red Square in Russia and say that Reagan is stupid!”

Now, retired people only get like €60-80 pension payments per month. It’s enough to cover their bills, and that’s it. So that’s why they go to the flea markets to sell things. They have to eat. This is why younger generations, their kids, are helping them. Like I was paying the bills for my Grandpa, because I could afford it. He was trying to be independent, and he could have been but he was very thankful that I helped. People retire, and then they don’t get enough money in their pensions. And they don’t like to pay taxes here because they understand that when they retire the pension will be terrible.

What do you do during the Holidays here?

Christmas is not a big thing here. We started to celebrate it because of movies and stuff. Now, because of this government, they have made the 25th an official holiday so we can celebrate it. And January 7th is still an official Christmas holiday as well! So we have two official Christmases.”

See Alexander's Full Answer

First of all, Christmas is not the biggest celebration here in Moldova. We started to celebrate it recently, but the major celebration is New Year’s eve. It’s usually different types of meat. Nothing particularly special. It’s a lot of food, which makes it hard to say exactly what we eat. It’s a tradition from the Soviet Union. If you go to every house, they will all have lots of dishes with all types of meat, all types of salads, all types of food. And you’re supposed to eat all of it. And people gain weight during that time because of it! And people drink a lot then, too.

And now Christmas comes to our country. Christmas is not a big thing here. We started to celebrate it because of movies and stuff. Now, because of this government, they have made the 25th an official holiday so we can celebrate it. And January 7th is still an official Christmas holiday as well! So we have two official Christmases. We don’t have lots of special Christmas food, but for New Year we tend to eat the same thing. We have Olivier, which is a salad that has canned veggies like peas, carrots and pickles, and it all comes with mayo. We also have vinaigrette, which is another salad that has this dark-brown violet colour. With meat, we have holodets, which is usually chicken.

What is your favourite and least favourite Moldovan Dish?

“The mamalyga itself is just this maize thing, but you add this… sour cottage cheese that’s very strong, and… sour cream. And you add sunflower oil with garlic, and some small pieces of meat. When you add that all together, it’s tasty, even though I’m not the biggest fan.”

See Alexander's Full Answer

I like the Sarmale, which you tried, but i prefer it with grape vine leaves instead of cabbage. It’s a national thing. I’m not a big fan of mamalyga. Sometimes, people like my mother-in-law cook it really well. My Grandpa was really good at cooking it as well. The mamalyga itself is just this maize thing, but you add this brinza, which is like this sour cottage cheese that’s very strong, and smietana, which is sour cream. And you add sunflower oil with garlic, and some small pieces of meat. When you add that all together, it’s tasty, even though I’m not the biggest fan.

Reccomendation:

Zeama! It’s a chicken soup… it comes with… the stomach juice from a certain animal. It sounds horrific, but it actually gives it a lot of flavour.”

See Alexander's Full Reccomendation

Zeama! It’s a chicken soup, and it sometimes it comes with rice, but more often it has noodles, veggies and chicken meat inside. It uses borscht, but not the Ukrainian barszcz. It’s the stomach juice from a certain animal. It sounds horrific, but it actually gives it a lot of flavour. Other than that, sarmale, which is rice with meat and some sauce that is then wrapped in cabbage leaves or grape leaves. The difference here in Moldova is that we make small Sarmale. If you try it in Ukraine, it will be bigger there. Some people who cook them do them super small, so it’s mostly leaf. My Grandpa used to do that, and it was really good. It’s like sunflower seeds; you can just have one after another. Then the last thing is Papanași, which is a dessert made from balls of fried cottage cheese, and is served with jam and sour cream. 

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Alexander Mirgorodski


The Plate: Zeama

“When I finally took notice of the meal that had thudded onto the table minutes earlier… I felt a twinge of nostalgia. I couldn’t help but see the resemblance to kneidlach, a Jewish recipe I’d eaten many times before, prepared by none other than my grandmother back at home. A more exotic form, perhaps; brighter in colour and lacking the dumplings that are integral to it, but the similarities were there.”

Read More About Zeama

While Alex and I sat in a near empty ‘La Placinta’, dissecting Moldovan culture, cuisine and history, I struggled to concentrate on my meal over my the points he was making. When I finally took notice of the meal that had thudded onto the table minutes earlier, however, I felt a twinge of nostalgia. I couldn’t help but see the resemblance to kneidlach, a Jewish recipe I’d eaten many times before, prepared by none other than my grandmother back at home. A more exotic form, perhaps; brighter in colour and lacking the dumplings that are integral to it, but the similarities were there. As I struggled to keep noodles from splashing back into the orange-tinted broth speckled with parsley cuttings below, I suddenly didn’t feel so far from my family in the UK.

I won’t compare the two further, because nothing until the day I die will ever beat my Grandma’s cooking, but Moldovan zeama’s simple aesthetic reflects it’s flavour; a saltiness contrasted with a lemon-like sapor, and the qualities brought forth by each ingredient diffused throughout the liquid, so the taste, whether you manage to get noodle or chicken on your spoon, remained more or less unchanged. But was that sharp, lemony tang really citrus? According to Alex: no. That attribute, he’d told me, was brought into the mix by what he tactfully described as “stomach juice”.  I have, however, found recipes online that include lemon and make no mention of any stomach-related ingredients, so perhaps he was messing with with a naïve Englishman.

The thickness of the noodles acted as an oasis of texture; chewy and satisfyingly rubbery. But though they were slick with oil on the exterior, moisture had failed to permeate the chunks of chicken torn from the bone, and their dryness slightly overcompensated for the wateriness of the soup, meaning the consistency felt a little unbalanced; oily and aqueous in one spoonful, dry in the next. I won’t risk generalising this across all zeama in Moldova, however, and suspect that particular flaw may have been to do with the chef who prepared it.

The two green chillies beside pots of sour cream might seem like a puzzling afterthought, considering their spice and crunch weren’t too fitting with the softer characteristics of the soup, but I’d had them served alongside countless dishes in Eastern Europe. By this point had realised that they’re often included with meals here, and I treated them as a separate dish entirely.

After a two-and-a-half hour discussion on the inner workings of Moldova, and full in both mind and stomach, I left the meal feeling a little closer to home. Though the flavour itself wasn’t necessarily award-winning, zeama stands out to me as memorable for the sentimentality it evoked, rather than as a purely culinary experience.

Zeama


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Inequality & Youth Culture - Marina (Bălți, MD)

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

2 Comments

  • Dennis

    Yet another world….and I agree with your appreciation of Grandma’s cooking…we’re OK in the UK despite the current political gymnastics.

  • Hilda

    Wow, what an interview. Such changes in a short time to one country – and they are still finding their way. Nice to know your grandma is such a good cook!!!!

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