Probably one of the most frustrating things for me, living here in Nistrenia (the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR) aka “Transnistria”) is just how friggin’ determined some people are to pigeonhole the population into discrete ethnic identities.
Search through just about any article about this country, and you’ll see obligatory phrases like “Russian-led” or “majority Russian,” or bizarre statistics about exactly how many Russians versus Moldovans or whatever other ethnic groups live in Pridnestrovie. Still others quite literally believe that PMR was founded due to a conflict between Russians and Moldovans.
But none of it is true, no matter how desperately some bitter old Nazis want it to be true.
To begin with, both the Republic of Moldova and Pridnestrovie are, indisputably, multi-ethnic countries. There are huge numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, and Moldovans on both sides of the border. And although Moldova is struggling to come to grips with the idea of a state versus a nation, Pridnestrovie has, from the very first day, always been firmly in favor of multi-culturalism.
But beyond that, it still irks me when people try to say this person is Moldovan or this person is Russian, as if individuals can only fit in one box.
For example, the other day, I was talking to a woman whom I know here in Tiraspol. The only language that she speaks fluently is Russian, but she knows enough English that we can communicate a bit. But when I saw her name written on a document, I was surprised to learn that her last (family) name is German.
I asked her about it, and she told me had acquired it from her husband. He doesn’t speak any German, but his grandfather had been a German speaker. Yet she does sometimes cook traditional German foods for her family.
Another example that comes to mind was when I was shooting some video for the local TV station last November or December. We were standing outside on a sunny day, and the producer said to me (in English), “Today, the sun has some teeth.”
That instantly piqued my curiosity because there’s an old Romanian phrase, soare cu dinti (literally “sun with teeth”), that refers to a sunny day in winter that is (surprisingly) cold.
But since “sun with teeth” is definitely not an English expression, I asked him where he had learned it. Well, it turns out that his Moldovan grandmother used to say it to him (in Russian, natch!) and so he uses it even today. But he doesn’t speak a word of Moldovan.
I’ve also met a Russian-speaking woman here in Tiraspol who used to live in Chisinau and absolutely adores Martisor charms. In fact, she has a whole collection of them. But she only speaks a little bit of the Moldovan language.
So, are these locals “Russian”? In some sense, yes, they are. But in other very significant ways, they’re not. You can’t say that they’re “pure” Moldovan or German, but you also can’t say that they’re “pure” Russian either.
And besides what goes on in any individual family, public life in Pridnestrovie is also very multicultural. In my short time here, I’ve been to music concerts and seen dancing, food festivals, and other cultural exhibitions put on by people from all ethnicities. Even the official government (bank) holidays encompass a wide range of different backgrounds.
But nobody on the outside wants to believe that. And they definitely don’t want to believe that around 30% of the people who live in Pridnestrovie now consider themselves “ethnically” Pridnestrovian, even though it makes total sense to me.
Yes, it is indisputably true that the concept of Pridnestrovie didn’t exist before 1989, but there are now young adults who were born and raised in Pridnestrovie and never knew Soviet life at all. And public life here isn’t “pure” Russian any more than it is “pure” Moldovan, “pure” Bulgarian, “pure” Ukrainian or anything else. So, is it really necessary to hang onto these ancient identifiers, or is there some room for new identities to be born?
I like it here. Every day, I feel more at home here. And every day, I feel a tiny bit more Pridnestrovian, especially because I don’t have to sacrifice my personal identity one bit to fit in. Just as all the other people whom I’ve met here can feel Pridnestrovian without having to sacrifice their names, languages, backgrounds, or cultures.
After years of research and consideration, I have come to the belief that the greatest mistake Romania ever made was to conflate people who speak Romanian with the concept of being an ethnic Romanian.
My veterinarian friend has a Hungarian name, and her native language is Hungarian. But she also speaks Romanian and English fluently (along with some German). She told me that her family has been in the Transylvania area for centuries. I asked her once if she had ever felt a desire to move to Hungary, and she firmly told me “No,” informing me that this (Cluj-Napoca aka Koloszvar) was her home.
So, is she Romanian? Well, she’s certainly a Romanian citizen. She’s not some newcomer immigrant – she was born and raised in Cluj. And she speaks Romanian probably better than I do. She’s visited Hungary, but she’s never lived there, and she has zero desire to live there. She definitely considers herself culturally (“ethnically”) Hungarian, but she has no connection whatsoever to the state of Hungary.
Therefore, she meets the criteria of “a person who speaks Romanian” but she definitely doesn’t consider herself “ethnically” or “culturally” Romanian at all.
And yet there’s no space in Romania for that dichotomy to exist because there’s a seemingly unquestionable a priori belief that anyone who speaks Romanian is also simultaneously “ethnically” Romanian. This despite the fact that the current president of Romania has a German name, and his first language is German!
This conflation of Romanian-speaking and ethnic Romanian has led to countless problems, suffering, and even deaths over the past century and a half. It’s also twisted the definition of Romanian “patriotism” from “proud of one’s heritage or country” to a rigid belief that anyone who speaks the language has to also be ethnically Romanian.
This is why, even today, you’ll see retarded concepts like “Basarabia e pamant romanesc” (the Republic of Moldova is Romanian territory), which I used to see spraypainted everywhere in Cluj. It’s also why wacko kids on YouTube want Romania to invade Ukraine in order to militarily occupy Bucovina simply because some Romanian-speakers live there.
It’s also warped the very fabric of Romanian history, which is why you’ll hear such ludicrous things as St. Stephen (Stefan cel Mare) being described as a “Romanian” king when he was actually the King of Moldova.
I don’t have time to go into the details of it here (alas, perhaps another day), but there was a very interesting meeting that occurred in 1976 between the Soviet leader Brezhnev and the Romanian dictator Ceausescu in which Brezhnev warned Ceausescu against exactly this concept – that not everyone who speaks Romanian is an ethnic Romanian.
Brezhnev wanted Ceausescu to tone done the rhetoric because it was straining the relationship between Communist Romania and (Soviet) Moldova when they were supposed to be ideological partners.
But Ceausescu didn’t heed Brezhnev at all. In fact, he did the opposite. He upgraded the radio and TV transmitters in Iasi (in northeastern Romania right on the border with Moldova) so that Romanian state media could reach every household in Moldova.
Fast forward to 1989, and nearly 300,000 people marched on Chisinau in support of the idea that the people living in Moldova are, actually, Romanians. In 1991, when Moldova declared independence, the first flag that they used was an exact copy of Romania’s flag.
But Moldova isn’t Romania, and it never was. Just like English-speaking people in Scotland are not and will never be English.
Even between 1920-1940 when both Romania and Moldova were ruled by the same government, there was widespread pushback in Moldova against the idea that every resident had to be “ethnically” Romanian.
And in 1990, those living east of the Dniester River (today’s Pridnestrovie), those in the south (the Gagauz and Bulgarians) and those in the north (primarily Russian and Ukrainian) of Moldova all pushed back hard against the idea. And in one case (Pridnestrovie), it led to the creation of a brand-new country.
Indeed, no “unionist” party in Moldova has ever been able to stay in power for more than a few months precisely because only a tiny minority of the people in Moldova believe that they are Romanian.
Romanian is a beautiful language, but it’s really time to let go of this irrational belief that anyone who speaks it must also be “ethnically” Romanian.