As a part of the Soviet Union, the future Moldova, a small land-locked country between Romania and the Ukraine, had economic ties between itself and other areas in the Union and the Eastern bloc. The dissolving of the Soviet Union had the effect of ending these relations. With no orders to fill, factories closed and agricultural collectives fell apart. No one had experience with capitalism, but they now had to live in a free-market economy. Few new businesses started and little new employment was created. Moldovans watched their standard of living decline, to the point where they became the poorest people as measured by per-capita income in Europe.
About a fourth of the Moldova’s population, roughly a million people, have chosen to work abroad, often illegally, and send money to their families as a solution to the economic crisis. Traditionally, Moldovan families were close, and this new development is tearing apart the social fabric.
“YOU KNOW LIFE WAS BETTER in the Soviet Union,” Tamara said from across the wooden dinner table.
I lived with Tamara and her family for the summer of 2003 while I trained in their village, Fundul Galbenei, to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova. Part of my instruction was on the Romanian language, but my skills were still feeble at this point. To satisfy our mutual curiosity of each other we talked in Russian. Like all the Moldovans educated in the Soviet era, she and her husband, Nicolae, had to learn it.
We were sitting in her kitchen along with Nicolae after a dinner of bell peppers stuffed with rice and meat, bread, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Behind her was a stove that was hooked up to a gas cylinder. To her left was an open window that allowed in a cool evening breeze.
“I could have sent all my children to the university without a problem,” Tamara said referring to the free university education available during Soviet times.
“My oldest son doesn’t want to go to university and I am fine with that. But Mircea, who is in his late teens, wants to study, and we want our daughter to as well, but we don’t have the money for both,” she said propping up her head in the palm of her right hand. She looked down at the table and let strands of her graying brown hair flop into her face.
Tamara was a part-time Russian teacher at the village school for $40 a month, while Nicolae worked in construction six days a week in a neighboring town. He had not always done this type of work. In the past, he played guitar and sang in a band, but he could no longer make money doing that.
I would never have guessed that he was a musician. I had never seen him play his guitar. Usually on his day off he did household chores and then lay down on the coach on the porch and dozed. His compact muscular body was too tired to do much else.
As hard as they both worked, they were still confronted with having to choose whether their son or their daughter would attend university. A critical factor in their final decision was that the daughter was just twelve years old, which meant the family could start saving for her university education and build up a sum of money over the next six years.
“Mircea agreed to go to work so his little sister will have the money to go to university when she is old enough,” Tamara said.
Tamara sighed and looked outside. It had been a hot summer day. Just beyond the kitchen window was a porch that an arbor ran along covered with grape vines from which my hosts made red and white wines. Past the arbor was the vegetable garden. The sun had baked the black soil into a dry crust and wilted the leaves of the cucumber, tomato and bell peppers plants.
“Understand. He is a good boy. He is smart, but he works in a furniture factory in Chisinau the capital. He lives with my brother there and my oldest son. He always gives me a part of his pay and doesn’t ask if he can keep more for himself. We wouldn’t have to do this in the past. Now everything is money, money,” she said.