12 December 2022Moldova

Moldova’s accursed questions

Historian Alexei Tulbure discusses the reasons why Moldova is split and the possible remedies available for the country

by Alexei Tulbure, Vladimir Soloviev
© Natalia Gârbu

History is a minefield for the highly heterogeneous Moldovan society. Even framing the memory of the recent past is prone to division. Some are reluctant to consider the mass deportations of the Soviet era a tragedy, while others are struggling to accept and reckon with the other tragedy: the Holocaust. Editor of the section “Moldova” Vladimir Solovyov and Moldovan historian Alexei Tulbure discuss the reasons why the narratives of memory are so polarized in the country and whether there is a possibility that the common past will not rob people of their common future.

Română   English   Русский

Stories about history

To begin with, the split over the attitude towards the past is not an exclusively Moldovan problem. This phenomenon is quite characteristic of all the Central and Eastern Europe as well. In our neighboring Ukraine before the war, the split in relation to the past was quite visible. The war has changed a lot. An example in the same vein is the history of the Jedwabne massacre in Poland. It had been commonly believed that the SS slaughtered the entire Jewish population in this town. Eventually it turned out that it was the Polish half of the population that killed the Jewish one. Jan Tomasz Gross wrote about this in his famous book Neighbors. Similar problems exist in Romania.

Our country, as well as the countries I mentioned, are part of the world in which, once upon a time, the Soviet power had taken over and socialism had ruled, with all its birthmarks, its problems, and its horrors, such as the Great Terror or mass deportations, just to name some of them. It was the case throughout the entire territory of the USSR and in the countries under the so-called people's democracy governments. The Holocaust took place on the same territory. Thus, the death camps were located in Poland, and in the USSR during the Second World War, the Holocaust by bullets was carried out in the occupied territories where Jews were murdered through executions, tortures, disease, and hunger. Moldova witnessed both the deportations of the Soviet era and the Holocaust during the Second World War.

The collapse of the USSR brought about a wide range of discussions: as the country stepped out of the Soviet period, our society felt the urge for democratization; we started looking for the ways to reveal the truth about the past and to build a truly free world. Thinking logically, a democratic project should have taken place of the totalitarian, authoritarian one. Instead, however, the Moldovan intellectuals came up with a different project: a project that could only be devised within their ideological capacity at that time.

It is also true, though, that in the history of Moldova there was no period that could be referred to as the “golden age” of democracy. It would be impossible to say: here it is, that is when we were free, that is the experience we should rely and build our democracy upon. The lack of this kind of foundation resulted in "Romanianism" growing into the dominating ideological trend in the early 1990s. It came on as a substitute for the Soviet regime, while democracy was an appendix of a sort in the “national awakening” project that came about as a concession amid the pressure of the free world.

All this was immediately reflected in the educational practices. The history taught in Soviet schools had been “ideologically processed.” As we all know, for example, the World War II was presented as the Great Patriotic War, and so, for all the Soviet schoolchildren and all the Soviet people in general, the first day of that war was June 22, 1941. In fact, the participation of the USSR dates back to September 16, 1939, when the Soviet troops, moving towards the advancing Nazi troops, invaded the territory of Poland. That was the date when the Soviet Union really entered the war. Industrialization in the USSR, that was officially presented as “the great achievement of the Soviet people,” turns out to be the result of the direct appropriation of Western technologies: the Soviets drew heavily upon them bringing in entire factories from the West and assembling them on site as turnkey operations. Collectivization, another remarkable achievement of the Soviet Union, cost millions of peasant lives. One can be proud of the Soviet space program, it’s true, but the vast majority of the other "great achievements" turned into "great tragedies."

After the collapse of the USSR, that presentation of history was replaced by another one, with accents shifted around. This version of history, too, was not critical, but rather ideologically processed. In this new rendition, we are part of the Romanian world, part of the Romanian state, which was illegitimately annexed by a large empire. Everything that was done in Romania was good, and everything that happened outside of Romania was bad. Since everything that was done in Romania was good, nothing of what happened during the World War II could possibly be bad.

Well, actually, there was a Holocaust on the territory of Moldova during the World War II. This fact was not the subject of any discussions: neither in the Soviet era, nor after the collapse of the USSR. The Holocaust in this region was carried out by the Romanian troops and the gendarmerie, with the participation of the local population, which is particularly horrible. Romania was the only ally of Nazi Germany with its own ideological justification for the physical extermination of ethnic minorities in general, but Jews in particular.

It had a name: “Romanization.” The word was coined in the 1990s and no one tried to really reflect upon its meaning or upon the fact that Romanization was not just about teaching Romanian language, but there was a lot of tragedy behind Romanization in the past. Hence the lexicon that echoes the language of Putin's Russia in relation to Ukraine today: “Moldovans are not a nation,” “Moldovans are corrupt Romanians,” and so on.

“History of the Romanians” – and not the “History of Moldova” or just “History” – has been taught in schools for years. Preference is given to the singe titular ethnic group, while the earthly past of the rest of the people is denied or their history is minimized in proportion to the time allotted to its studies. Meanwhile, their historical past is closely intertwined with the past of everyone else who has lived here. A lot was pulled out of context or misplaced – in other words, blatantly falsified. There was a simple idea behind it: a new generation should be raised, which will eventually be able to perform the unification of Moldova with Romania without any trouble. Everyone will be thinking the same way, everyone will share the understanding that this is the right thing to do and the only way in which it should be done. The narrative of "Romanization" has, expectedly, been in actively political use by the parties and formations that advocated for the unification of Moldova and Romania.

It must be admitted that the situation of history teaching (in particular the history of Holocaust) has changed over the last 3–5 years. Today, the textbooks have special sections devoted to other ethnic groups that live in the territory of Moldova or lived here before. The authors of the textbooks use the integrative teaching strategy where the past is interpreted as the common past of all the ethnic groups living here, and not as the history of just the titular nation and minorities, with all kinds of labels, such as "historical injustice" or "mistakes of the past."

Politics and memory

As I said before, these interpretations of the past serve as essential tools in the hands of Moldovan politicians for constructing the political present and future. Is does not happen in Moldova only, but rather everywhere — in particular, though, in Central and Eastern Europe. Interpretation of the past is an integral part of the ideological background behind any political formation. But this is a road to nowhere. If common consent over the past is impossible to reach, there will be no consent over the future either, since it will be impossible to exert common efforts and act conjointly.

The West has gotten over its traumas. After the Second World War, bearing in mind the horror of what happened, they managed to come to a common agreement: the important Franco-German consensus, which subsequently served as the foundation of the European Union. The French and Germans consented to "forget" the tragedies of the past, the mutual harm and blood shed, for the sake of building a new Europe together. Strasbourg was appointed as one of the pan-European capitals, where the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights are located. Why Strasbourg? Because it was the capital of Alsace: a disputed territory that used to pass from hand to hand between Germany and France. This very city ended up as a symbol of reconciliation and putting an end to the Franco-German centennial wars. People said: we are not going to solve our problems of the past, as long as interpretations keep multiplying. Let's put it all aside and agree: from now on, we are going to cooperate and build the future.

By the same token, here, in Moldova, we could agree to leave the past to historians and let them battle for their interpretations in their monographs and at scholarly conferences, while politicians would proceed from a different principle in order to be capable of building a common future. This principle comes down to something like this: from now on, all of us are one nation, irrespective of ethnic origin, a civic nation where membership is determined by citizenship. The whole Europe is built on this principle of understanding nation. We want medicine, education, and roads here, in Moldova, to be like in Europe, but when it comes to the socio-political sphere and nation-building, we still don’t want to adopt the features that do work for Europe, but, supposedly, wouldn’t work for us.

In fact, all this works for us too. Since the very beginning of its independence, Moldova has been considered de jure a civic nation. The law on citizenship traces back to 1990 when independence was not declared yet, but we already had the right, within the framework of the Soviet constitution, to hold Moldovan citizenship, in addition to the Soviet one. Back then, Chisinau followed the “zero option” and Moldovan citizenship was granted to all those people who were living in the country at that moment, regardless of ethnic origin. This attitude was dramatically different from the approach used, for instance, by the Baltic countries. All of us are Moldovans by citizenship – as simple as this; no offense, no discrimination.

A “Moldovan consensus” may be put in this way: all of us – Russians, Jews, Moldovans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Gagauz – are one nation by citizenship. This is the only homeland we have; this piece of land is our common territory. And it is our responsibility to create an environment in which it would be possible to live a decent life here, to study, to receive medical treatment, and in which our children could have a range of life opportunities.

Quite recently, we had the chance to discover the possibility of this kind of consensus. In 2020, Maia Sandu won the presidential election. This happened mainly because she disposed of the “accursed questions of Moldovans,” such as: what should be the name of the language; who we are; where we should be going, etc. Instead, she preferred to discuss the economy and the ways to fight corruption. This is how she won the election and, just a year later, her party won a majority in the parliament – not trying to capitalize on the divides in society.

As a researcher, I am very interested in this phenomenon. What I have advocated for many years seems to have finally worked. Strangely enough, it worked for the conventional right, although in Moldova, a unity agenda seemed more natural for the conventional left. Our conventional left, however, have discredited both themselves and the word “Moldovenism,” which they reduced to a mix of traditionalism and the idea of return to the archaic combined with nostalgia for the Soviet “blooming Moldova” under the patronage of Moscow, to which there will be no return.

The state to the rescue

Anyway, as the events of 2020-2021 demonstrated, a consensus is possible and the Moldovan society is not a lost cause: the survival instincts and reflexes are working. The other side of the truth, though, is that a lot depends on the state and the political class.

Holocaust historians have repeatedly addressed the question how it was possible that the whole Europe took part in the physical destruction of six million Jews: not just the governments and armies, but the civilian population too, without much resistance? Researchers unanimously emphasize the fundamental role of the state and state propaganda. It was more beneficial overall [for ordinary people] to trust the state and keep adjusted, rather than resist. People who demonstrate conformism and loyalty to the state are always rewarded, while non-conformism is punished. This is a sociological maxim and an axiom. The state said that the Jews were not people and, therefore, it dehumanized them and placed them beyond the limits of human moral norms. As a result, unthinkable crimes turned out possible. This is an obvious example of the state playing the leading role in the preparation, indulgence, and implementation of evil.

But the state is able to – and should – participate in the advancement of good. Four or five years ago, when we just started our discussions of the Holocaust in Moldova, the state became involved. Together with my colleagues from the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, I conducted seminars for Moldovan teachers. We covered every single district and visited all the schools in the country. We brought them an enormous number of books. In today’s Moldova, books about the Holocaust can be found in every school.

In the very beginning of our work, we got repeatedly yelled at and insulted in the audiences where we held our seminars. History teachers, who are supposed to be on the front line in the battle for minds, accused us of defending Jews and promoting their interests, although we talked about our common history. Step by step, though, our reality began to change – and it did change dramatically over the five years.

The consistent work of the state in cooperation with the civil society has paid off. The antisemitic shouts raged themselves out, people finally stopped feeling ashamed of their emotions and went on to ask more meaningful questions. It has happened more than once that history teachers broke into tears at our seminars, which is pretty understandable: for twenty-five years, they had taught their students about the glorious return of the Romanian troops to Bessarabia and the following liberation, and now they realized what exactly that “liberation” involved. It was a purgatory catharsis, indeed. And, of course, the evolution of the teacher’s mentality and perceptions should inevitably impact on the students as well.

In a country like Moldova, people are quite responsive to what they are told, with no restrictions on conversations, opinions, and reasoning. A calm and thoughtful conversation can be very productive and the Holocaust story is not the only case like this.

The role of the state is fundamental to construct the perception of the past, present, and future, since the state has the resources, institutions, and power of influence through the educational system.

In search of its own path, Moldova is still facing internal difficulties and bumping into contradictions. Some argue that the country should keep along the lines with Brussels or Bucharest; others believe that it makes more sense to fall into the arms of Moscow. Where is all this coming from? I dare say, Moldovans are devoid of memory of their responsibility for their own destiny. The Soviet project as such had no room for personal responsibility: it was the state that determined a lot – if not everything. Those who were willing to make decisions for themselves ended up moving from Moldova to Siberia – not of their own volition at all. With the last wave of deportations, in 1949, 35 thousand people – or 11 thousand families – were washed out of here. These were those Moldovans who refused to join the collective farms, who did not expect anything from the state and took responsibility for their lives and the lives of their children. Those very people were eliminated.

Today, we have to learn again how to take responsibility. Now that Moldova has received the status of an EU candidate country, the situation may change, and this is exactly what imposes new responsibility upon us. The prospect of European integration puts an end to the process of persistent search for a new political master outside of Moldova itself (which was the case over all thirty years of Moldovan independence). To summarize the meaning of this new prospect, it boils down to the ability of self-government, of being free and responsible for our own country and for our own destiny.

Translated from Russian by Kun

Das Leben unterm TischBelarus
Das Leben unterm Tisch 

Im Angesicht der ungewissen Zukunft spielt eine belarussische Schriftstellerin mit der Vergangenheit

20 December 2023
Russlands MitschuldArmenia
Russlands Mitschuld 

Wie Russland im Spiel um seine eigenen geopolitischen Interessen den Berg-Karabach-Konflikt als Trumpf nutzte

12 December 2023