For a person who has just turned fifty and wishes to see a bit of Europe again beyond cobbled stoned cities, cheese shops and castles, Moldova can be a dream destination.
To begin with, you get to experience a rare part of Europe with no immigrants and very few tourists – close to the kind of feeling I imagine early Asian or African visitors would have felt arriving in places like Birmingham, Berlin or Brussels in the 1940s.
Part of the allure is that not many people know anything about Moldova. There is no history or guide book written on just this country alone that I know of. My friend Jerry thought it was a country in Africa when I told him I was going there but Moldova is actually located deep in Eastern Europe to the east of Romania landlocked away by Ukraine from Russia and the Black Sea.
Due to its location in the western end of the great steppes and plains of Eurasia (known as Scythia in 11th century BC to 2nd century AD), the region that became Moldova was settled for hundreds of years by migrating tribesmen, peasants, armies and exiles from all corners including people with blue eyes and fair hair from the north and west , olive skin and aquiline noses from the south and also black hair and high cheekbones from the east.
A land of sun-kissed fields and black chernozem soil lying between the Rivers Prut and Dniestr known as Bessarabia, Moldova has always remained as someone else’s back garden: peripheral, exploited and forever at empire’s edge.
From the later half of the 14th century onwards it gradually became part of Moldavia, one of three principalities which together with Wallachia and Transylvania historically make up Romania.
Bessarabia was split up and ruled intermittently as vassal provinces of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-16 th century until 1812, when the defeated Turks formally signed the Treaty of Bucharest on 28 May giving the territory to Russia as a war trophy to be appended to its expanding empire.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and under pressure from the Romanian Army who had been invited in to maintain order, Bessarabia swiftly declares its independence and in 1918 entered into a political union with Romania on condition of territorial autonomy.
During WW II following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between Hitler and Stalin, the Soviet Union on 28 June 1940 seized Bessarabia from Romania to create the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova became an independent country for the first time.
Today Moldova is a nation seemingly unsure of itself and one with an image crisis partly of its own making.
Just while Moldova is often prefaced in western news as Europe’s poorest country, ordinary westerners continue to spread the image of the country as backward, crime infested and populated by beautiful women eager to marry rich foreigners or be smuggled abroad to work as prostitutes. Such simplistic depictions betray Europe’s dangerous ignorance about its own past and are clearly wrong.
Despite the unflattering statistics about low per capita income and human development, the country has a well-educated and culturally sophisticated population of 4 million that speak both Slavic and Latin-based languages, a nice capital city with good roads lined with handsome deciduous trees, affordable food that are grown from the earth including apples with a crunch and taste amazingly better than any I have ever eaten.
Moldova is rich in agriculture and human potentials. It is a country that is better than what outsiders and tragically even its own citizens believe. In my last evening in Chisinau as I stood with my new friend Eugene drinking coffee and eating his favourite hot dog in front of the city’s French School I felt a strange reluctance to leave this quiet, humbling and slightly surreal country.
All images Copyright Kerk Boon Leng Oct 2014