Dracula Sucked Notoriously, but Modova Sucks Not*

Accursed city Kishinev! The tongue would tire of berating you

Alexander Pushkin (1823)




Since the 19th Century Russia has laid claim to Bessarabia, long before it became the Socialist State of Moldova, and long before General Lebed became a local hero. In fact, one of Russia’s greatest writers, Alexander Pushkin, once lived in the capital city of Kishinev (as he would have called it) in exile, before he was sent farther east to breathe the sea air of Odessa, which is not to say that he found happiness in Kishinev, as the lines quoted above indicate. But wasn’t this a brush with literary greatness and charisma? And didn’t he leave Pushkin Park behind him in Moldova, a happy place where weddings are celebrated?

In the October of 2011 I attended a conference along with some friends from Moldavia on “Border Visions”, concerning real and metaphorical “borders”. In my lifetime, borders have generally disappeared in Europe after the fall of the Wall in 1989. I can remember trying to drive into the Netherlands from Germany during the mid-1990s, for example, trying to get from Aachen to Amsterdam, and then doubling back because I simply could not tell where the border was. No telling when I had left Deutschland.

The only real border I can remember crossing in the past twenty years was the one between Romania and Moldova, formerly part of the U.S.S.R., on my way from Iaşi to Chişinau, to lecture at the State University. I crossed the River Prut to find myself in a surprising no-man’s land that seemed as “serious” as Checkpoint Charlie might have been at the height of the Cold War. There were several Very Official Looking border guards with big round visored hats and automatic weapons, protecting Moldova from the likes of harmless Western academics, such as me. There was procedure; there was ritual; there was potential intimidation. If I had come by train from the Nicolina Station in Iaşi, there would have been a delay while the wheels were changed, since the rail gauge changes at this border. For, you see, Moldovans understand borders. Borders intended to separate this Russified little country from the West. The Romanians who live on one side of the border aren’t much different from those who live on the other side, except that the orientation on the Modova side is northward towards Kyiv rather than south and west to Bucharest and Budapest and Prague (or London, Rome, perhaps even Paris). Students of Russian foreign policy in the 19th Century will tell you that imperial Russia long had designs on the “Principalities” of Moldavia and Wallachia, which were destined to become “Romania” (or is it “Rumania”?) in 1859, but Russia always kept Bessarabia in its sights, and grabbed it up after the world wars of the 20th Century. After Soviet Communism collapsed, Moldova opted for independence, but a sizable part of the urban population had migrated from neighboring Ukraine, and the Russian influence in Kishinev is therefore stunning. So, Moldova has a different mindset, separated by a real border, with big, burly borderguards.

Consequently, Chişinau (Kishinev, to the Ukrainian and Russian speakers) is and is not entirely Romanian in nature, just as the language may not be entirely Romanian (though very close, linguists have claimed, although certain Russified nationalists have insisted that “Moldovan” is a separate language, but they have their own agendas, don’t they?). While there in Chişinau, I stayed in the Armenian neighborhood, and that part of the old city in fact seemed more like a leafy village than a city, though the state university was within easy walking distance. The city’s equivalent to Central Park is Pushkin Park, a lovely green space in the city center, named for the Russian writer who was exiled there. It seemed to me far more “rustic” than Iaşi or Suceava to the West or Odessa to the East. And strangely tranquil and civilized. Violins serenaded us at dinner at the restaurant up the Armenian Street.

At any event, when I thought of borders, I thought of Moldova, going to that “Border Visions” conference in New England, maybe with a touch of nostalgia. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I examined the conference program and discovered a paper entitled Moldova Sucks!. No, it doesn’t, I thought, not really. Then I discovered that the fellow who had written that “paper” (for in truth, it was more extempore than “read”) had lived for a few years in Chişinau. What, I wondered, was he up to?

Turns out he had seen a really bad American movie with a reasonably good cast called RED, an acronym standing for “Retired, [&] Extremely Dangerous”, an absurd 2010 geriatric fantasy about “spooks” who had been put out to pasture but were still capable of nasty dirty tricks, the likes of Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Morgan Freeman, all of them old enough to know better than to sign for such a silly and exploitative movie, with Hollywood hucksters trying to sell the adolescent interests of a youth market to an audience of geezers unlikely to want to be fantasy action heroes, even in their dreams. Well, I could kill time amusingly and test patience here by providing a detailed plot summary, but the plot in fact had little to do with the title of the paper at issue. Turns out, at the very end of the movie the geezer stars were being chased over a nondescript border by some kind of East European army, and, just before the movie ends, John Malkovich can just barely be heard protesting in a voice-over, “Moldova Sucks!”. Well, the demanding historian I was sitting next to didn’t think that was really enough content to hang a thesis on, but that was exactly what seemed to be happening. And the paper went over its time limit anyway, as did the following paper that seemed to be posing the question of whether or not Tony Curtis was appropriate casting for Taras Bulba, and to what extent Gogol had been defiled by a movie that probably wasn’t quite as long as the paper attempting to explore its less than mountainous typography—in detail! The session ran way out of time before it ran out of gas, so the exasperated audience just didn’t have a chance to ask questions. Maybe that was just as well? Regardless, Moldavia is a pretty sad province with a punishing and repressive history, whose cultural icon (judged from abroad, at least) seems to be Vlad Dracula thanks to that flamboyant, theatrical, slanderous Irishman Bram Stoker, rather than the saintly and heroic Ştefan cel Mare, currently resting in peace at the Putna Monastery. Moldova is even sadder, one of the poorest countries on the edge of Europe, and it saddens me that filmmakers and academicians should make light of it. “Moldova sucks?”. Nonsense.


Bibliographical Note: I’ll admit that my grasp of Balkan history was initially shaped and influenced by a class in “Russian Foreign Policy of the 19th Century,” taught by Barbara Jelavich at Indiana University in 1965 and by her book A Century of Russian Foreign Policy, 1814-1914 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), augmented by three books by Charles King: Moldova Post-Sovietică: Un Ţinut de Hotar în Tranziţie (Iaşi: Center for Romanian Studies, 1997); The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000); and Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011). I might be considered Charles King’s biggest fan on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.


[1] Jim Welsh (James Michael Welsh) şi-a primit educaţia în Bloomington, Indiana, şi Lawrence, Kansas. A urmat Literele (engleză, critică de text, studii de film la University of Kansas). A urmat şi cursuri post-doctorale în istorie la Indiana University, perioadă în care câţiva profesori îndrăgiţi l-au determinat să accepte un Fulbright de doi ani la Universitatea „Alexandru Ioan Cuza”, Iaşi, în 1994 şi 1998. Din şederea lui în Iaşi a rezultat un program de schimb între Universitatea „Alexandru Ioan Cuza” şi Salisbury University din Maryland. Jim le-a recomandat Fulbrightul şi altor colegi şi prieteni, astfel încât au predat la Universitatea „Alexandru Ioan Cuza” şi Tom Erskine, fondatorul revistei “Literature/Film Quarterly” şi poetul Michael WatersJim e fondatorul Asociaţiei pentru Literatura şi Film şi de mai mult de 30 de ani este Redactor-şef la “Literature/Film Quarterly”. Printre cărţile recente menţionăm: Coppola Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, scrisă împreună cu John C. Tibbetts, The Literature/Film Reader: Issues in Adaptation, co-editată cu Peter Lev, No Country for Old Men: from Novel to Film, co-editată cu Rick Wallach şi Lynnea King, The Pedagogy of Adaptation, co-editată cu Laurence Raw şi Dennis Cutchins.








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