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A reflective and subjective guide to Moldova’s cultural paradigm

vasile-ernu1Preliminary Data

In the following, we will be referring to the modern era (late XIXth century to the present) cultural structures and mechanisms of theMoldovanRepublic, but also to a certain cultural configuration that has emerged and continues to evolve there in the last few years. I will attempt a brief overview of the field and theme in question. When we speak ofMoldova, we must first take into account the history of the period that she was a part of, but also the socio-political waters that she had to “sail” during these years. If we simplify and reduce the subject to a few points that allow for the two aforementioned conditions, then we can state the following:

  1. The mechanics of cultural education and cultural institutions in MR are those instituted here by Czarist Russia and theUSSR. From primary school to the Academy and from galleries and theaters to professional associations, the institutions (but also the education) here are built according to the model of the Russian and Soviet state. However, we must not forget that these classical models are important for the European space, but as any other borrowed element, they took on a very particular local shape.
  2. A very important factor: RM’s modern social and economic state infrastructure is a profoundly Russian and Soviet one, extremely different from the Romanian one, and as such, it produced a particular kind of lifestyle, behaviour, culture and social memory. During this time, the “social language” became every bit as important as the maternal one.
  3. The basic cultural stratum of the Russian Empire’sProvinceofBasarabia(which became S.S.R. Moldova during the soviets) was a predominantly Romanian one and had a strong patriarchical character. At its core was the language, grounded more in a certain kind of ethnic (folk) culture and less in an “elitist” one.
  4. However, this basic cultural stratum was strongly influenced, on the one hand, by the cultural elite of the government and administration (the Russian born and Russian speaking elite) but also by some very active minorities (Jews, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Gagauzian) that used the official culture and language to further their goals.
  5. The dominant culture, that of the elite, was an overwhelmingly Russian one. Even after the emergence of a Romanian speaking elite, it had to be able to work with two dominant cultures, the Russian and the Romanian one, simultaneously.

Explanatory notes

A few additional remarks will prove useful in complementing my initial statements:

  1. A brief historical framing: Moldovan cultural space was excluded from the project of national identity construction specific to the XIXth century. In Basarabia, “the century of nations” did not culminate with the creation of a modern national identity, the “moldovan” identity remained a strictly local one, with the elites separated from the masses and not assuming a nation building cultural project.
  2. Beginning with the XXth century, the project of forging a national identity is reprised on numerous occasions, only to be abandoned “half way through.” The first attempt to create a Romanian national identity and promote Romanian nationalism on a grand scale takes place in the Interbellum period, when Basarabia is part of Greater Romania. The second  – the project to create a Moldovan identity as a “defence” against Romanian nationalism starts with the Soviet regime, but ends-up being a semi-failure, partially because of the ideological confusion characteristic to the communist regime, which, on the one hand, promotes internationalism and a so-called Soviet transnational identity, and on the other, it moderately fosters, on occasion, the Moldovan national identity.
  3. In the post-soviet period we can distinguish between two concurrent attempts to revitalise the 2 great cultural-identity projects “aborted” when their underlying political project collapsed.
  4. The first project, the Romanian one, is a reactive undertaking, manifesting itself only in relation to the Soviet-Moldovan project and, as I have mentioned before, it has all the traits of a XIXth century nation building programme, garnering the support of almost all ofMoldova’s cultural elite.
  5. The second is the “Moldovenist” one, which tries to re-legitimate the Soviet era project, giving it new traits and nuances. Being a political rather than a cultural project, it doesn’t have too many supporters within the elite, but its theses are embraced by a majority of the population.
  6. Hence, we are faced with a double discrepancy: firstly, the project of the cultural elite doesn’t coincide with that of the political elite, which explains the lack of a formal “infrastructure” that could support the project and, on the other hand, dillutes the cultural identity project of the political class, depriving it of the symbolic power it needs to prevail. In other words: the cultural and political projects don’t coincide. The second discrepancy, which dates from the Czarist period, is that between the cultural elite and the masses (only this time, the elite is not overwhelmingly a Russian speaking one).
  7. There is also a third cultural project, already mentioned above, produced by a young elite which accepts its affinity with the Romanian space, but insists there are marked differences between them. This last project stands apart from the other two not only by its contents, but also by the underlying logic of its theories. While the first two consider nation as an innate, primordial fact (based on ethnicity, language, etc.), the “young elite” falls into the “constructivist” paradigm, which regards national identities as being fluid and subjective (Anderson’s imagined community). In the long term, if this project gains enough momentum, it could represent the much needed linchpin between the masses and the elite, the cultural and the political undertakings.

The post-communist condition of Moldova’s culture

In the last years of its existence, theUSSRsaw the emergence on its territory of several famous movements that tried to redefine national identity. The process of (re)inventing national identity was a kind of relapse to a late XIXth century agenda. It was an attempt to forcefully recover a process by which to “reinvent”, redefine and, sometimes, repossess a nation, that proved to be quite tricky in the Soviet space. We should remind the reader that one of the Soviet projects for SSRM was to invent a Moldovan cultural identity distinct from the Romanian one, which from our perspective was only partially successful. This Soviet agenda is important in understanding the evolution of subsequent cultural strategies, because it compelled the postcommunist cultural elite in Moldova to revert to an almost XIXth century ideological discourse, developping a strong reaction against this particular kind of project, that aims to define another identity than the one stemming from the local elite itself.

We should be able to identify a number of ideological trends that delineate this period:

  1. Most of the Romanian speaking cultural elite, in other words, the majority, align themselves to a nationalistic type of discourse, through which they are attempting to recover a “sense of cultural identity”, but also seek readmittance in the cultural space of postcommunistRomania.
  2. Practically, the majority of the Moldovan elite’s cultural enterprises from the Soviet and post-Soviet era are not aiming to create or construct anything, they are just a response to Soviet initiatives. Meanwhile, a small part of these projects are either mimetic in regard toMoscoworBucharest, or very conservative and many years behind those emanating from the two aforementioned centers of cultural power.
  3. There is a younger elite, which is attempting to play a slightly different card: it acknowledges being part of the Romanian cultural space, but tries to find nuances in search of a certain autonomy that could actually legitimize the new power and the new statehood.
  4. A new and important ideological element comes to the foreground: the mirage of the West, which is not something new, but is becoming stronger than ever – gaining the status of a central mimetic cultural element.
  5. The national minorities have an important role to play, the most prominent one being held by the Russian speaking community that has played a crucial part in the last 200 years of Basarabian history and will surely continue to do so.
  6. There still exists a Soviet element, that is latently being transmitted through different channels and structures even to this day.

At a structural level, things are simpler but much more tragic.

  1. Despite the disappearence of the Soviet style ideology and propaganda, the level of education is in a free-fall. The folkloristic-nationalist ideology is coming into play.
  2. The Soviet infrastructure is in ruins and it is not being replaced by anything.
  3. The occupational structures and institutions (artists’ unions) aren’t capable of restructuring themselves and maintain their Soviet style configuration, despite the fact that they are in a continual state of degradation due to their lack of vision and funding, which makes them lose even those spaces they previously owned (galleries, art houses, theatres, libraries, bookstores, etc.).
  4. However, new privately owned or independent structures are emerging. Those that are thriving right now are the private publishing houses, but there are also independent theatres, private cinemas and bookstores, alternative clubs and galleries, important music venues. A very important area that has been flourishing in recent years is that of the independent cultural press, and lately, the cyberspace. But the infrastructure is still inadequate, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.
  5. There arises the possibility of private patronage and, with it, a first major player on this so-called free market: the Soros Foundation. This privately owned and independent fund, separate from the State, was the most important player on the cultural market in the former communist block (a detailed analysis below).

The State, Soros and the Alternative (an example)

In a space likeMoldova, where the structures of the state play such an important role in the cultural configuration, to give them up seems almost catastrophic on a medium and long term. The role of the State and its structures hasn’t been replaced by other organizations. The myth according to which the “free market” will solve all problems with its “invisible hand” is today living its dying moments. The free market wasn’t able to solve even the problems of the economically profitable areas of society, least of all those of the cultural sector. In this sense, it is my opinion that the State should reconsider the fundamental construction mechanisms of its cultural and educational policies. The State should understand that it cannot afford the luxury of leaving its culture and education in the hands of the private sector, but it can no longer be their sole patron and provider. It must redefine itself, it must build and consolidate a much needed legal framework through which it could grant financial aid to independent structures and organizations that can be managed through transparent, simple rules, based on competitive criteria.

I chose the Soros Foundation as a model because I believe it to be an exemplary one. (It is still operating today, even if it has a different funding structure and, as such, a different mission.) In the years just after 1990, an era in which the State (in almost all former communist states) became weak and did not fulfill even the most basic of its functions, this Foundation showed up to benefit form this situation and substitute, in its own interests, certain key areas of the state. It granted funds to certain projects and artists (because this is the field we are reffering to here) according to a few straightforward criteria and a certain ideology. There was a time when the following rule was very clear: what worked for the State didn’t work for Soros and vice versa. TheMoldovanStatefollowed and still follows the tenets of a traditional, nationalistic and ethnic  culture, while the Soros Foundation is a firm proponent of well-known slogans like multiculturalism, open society and the like. In a very short time, the Soros Foundation became a fundamental structure for a certain type of cultural bureaucracy, very well paid, especially in comparison to State employees, and the projects and artists that it promoted were welcomed in an international circuit that worked according to a very particular kind of ideological rationale. This is not characteristic toMoldova, it happens everywhere else in the world with such mechanisms. In fact, this Foundation tried to introduce a neoliberal and colonialistic logic and ideology. Two fascinating events occur:

  1. The kind of artists and projects promoted by Soros become alternative in Moldova, because the official ones are those promoted by the State, but once they are out of the country, they join the international cultural establishment (rather descentralized and multipolar) which is gradually becoming central also to the Eastern cultural space. See how these structures evolved in countries likeHungary or theCzechRepublic.
  2. Another important element is the fact that the Soros Foundation did not succeed in creating an institution that could continue its work after its withdrawal from the country. That means that the structure lasted only as long as its financing, and once that was gone, it disappeared (along with the infrastructure it created). On this point, I tend to agree with the widely supported theory that the Soros mechanism, which is essentially a colonialistic one, was, in the long run, counterproductive for the State in which it operated, hindering  its reformation rather then helping it achieve a lasting and fundamental change in its processes and institutions. We cannot deny the important role that it had for a certain cultural and bureaucratic elite, but at the same time, now that we know more than before and have an understanding of the consequences of the entire process, we cannot refute the fact that Soros-like structures were nothing but small outlets that did not solve any of the country’s bigger problems. The Soros Foundation was an artificial mechanism that solved certain problems for a very short period of time. After its departure from the country we found ourselves in the same situation: we had to reimagine the mechanisms of the State and rebuild working structures and institutions.

 Translated by Alexandru Macovei

Versions of this text have been published in different magazines in Romania and abroad. This is a work in progress.