CHISINAU, Moldova — In the overgrown garden of a dacha in smalltown Moldova, young people sit on blankets or lie in hammocks sipping sangria as the local electronic group Murmur de Izvar performs the final set of the evening. When the breakbeats drop, it’s all flailing arms and legs, riotous motion beneath a setting sun.
Of course, in the relatively rural town of Cricova, the event – ‘ZeDacha: On the Ground’ – will have to wrap up at 10pm. But no matter, a hardcore techno gig will start in a couple of hours 15km away at the hub of the capital Chișinău’s underground scene. ‘It’s crazy,’ says local rapper Traian. ‘There are so many events, and people doing cool things.’
Attendees nibble at skewers of white cheese, cherry tomatoes and cucumber, and drink homemade lemonade. Beech and cherry trees rustle in the breeze. The garden is all lilac and irises, camomile and magnolia. Nearby, a troupe of weapons enthusiasts emerge in medieval battle gear and fire arrows and assail each other with swords.
Moldova’s alternative scene has a sense of movement, after years on life support. ‘People were waiting and waiting,’ says Feodor Cantir, part of Murmur de Izvar, ‘and now it has exploded.’ The country, emerging from sustained periods of Covid-19 restrictions, has seen young people organising events on a scale previously unseen. This despite the proximity of the war next door in Ukraine, which Moldovans feel keenly.
There is a cautious optimism. Two prominent oligarchs – widely believed to have been behind the theft of a billion dollars from Moldovan banks in 2014, and the total debasement of an already rotten political system – have been driven into hiding abroad. The government, under centre-right prime minister Natalia Gavrilița and neoliberal technocrat president Maia Sandu, is relatively competent. And Brussels is dangling the prospect of EU accession after granting Moldova candidate status in June, reflecting the EU’s sharp focus on Moscow.
Over the coming weeks, there will be numerous gigs: metal, hip-hop, trance, indie. A two-day rave in a forest north of Chișinău. A party to celebrate the opening of an LGBTQ community centre. An event for Moldova’s massive diaspora, enjoying their summer trips home. ‘Artists are known for feeling social needs,’ says Dumitru Colesnicov, 31, who organised the ZeDacha event at his family’s home and has long been putting on DIY gigs. ‘With the end of Covid, I could feel society’s craving for gathering.’
‘We have two cultures in us’
Yet, the nation is grappling with numerous issues: with the Ukraine war to the east, there is a refugee crisis; state institutions are mired in corruption, contributing to an intractable economic perma-crisis, compounded by inflation of around 30%. There are also ethno-linguistic fissures (people here speak Romanian and Russian, with a small Turkic-speaking minority in Gagauzia). ‘It’s like we have two cultures inside us,’ says Cantir. ‘This gives us a lot of cognitive dissonance.’
Many here wonder if this may be their last summer of fun. After all, there have been regular Russian missile strikes on the nearby Ukrainian port city of Odessa and shipbuilding hub of Mykolaiv, part of a push to cut Ukraine off from the now heavily mined Black Sea. The question on everybody’s mind is, could Russian tanks roll into Moldova?
With the ZeDacha event ending, people drift out onto the street, searching for shared taxis or buses to whisk them back to Chișinău and on to an event at Pro Sanatate (Pro-health), the heart of alternative life here.
Chișinău’s changing aesthetic
Chișinău is Moldova’s commercial hub, with a population of about half a million, pleasant and leafy in the summer. It was rebuilt after the destruction of the second world war and then developed in the Soviet fashion: Stalinist-classical constructions, brutalist apartment complexes. Modern buildings have been erected with varying degrees of oversight on developers who place a premium on cutting costs. This creates a chaotic aesthetic that turns Chișinău’s skyline into a reflection of broader dysfunction.
‘From the early 1990s, land grabs from municipal or central authorities …through corrupt schemes paved the way for some developers to gain land in key parts of the city,’ says one architect. ‘They then filled as many square metres as possible, without any concern for history, infrastructure, laws or regulations.’
Chișinău’s underground has experience with development projects. In 2017 a basement theatre and alternative music venue called Spalatorie (Laundromat) closed down after seven years. The building had been an industrial laundry in the Soviet era. Young people from assorted subcultures often gathered there, watching politically charged theatre or dancing late into the night. A developer bought up the buildings in the area and demolished them, replacing them with dull beige office spaces and apartments. It was all legal, but to many represented a broader failure of the authorities to rein in out-of-control development.
The vacuum was filled in 2018 by a bar owner originally from the Gaza Strip, who set up Pro Sanatate. By day, the clientele descend a narrow staircase covered in worn green AstroTurf to find an understated restaurant; by night, it’s the city’s hub of alternative nightlife. ‘We only have this venue,’ said Lorand Leon, 28, a psychotherapist, sipping a beer at a recent late-night event. ‘This is Chișinău, not Berlin.’
Photos from gigs adorned the walls. Images of dictators were pinned to a cupboard: Stalin, Hussein and, among others, the feared Moldovan tycoon and politician Vladimir Plahotniuc. Acid techno pumped from speakers. Dry ice filled the dancefloor. One tattooed attendee stomped frenetically in a full-head leather BDSM rabbit mask. Two women twirled, LED glasses glowed neon red. The party was called DIASPORAVE, thrown for diaspora Moldovans, here on holiday.
‘The purpose of DIASPORAVE events is not just to share what we’ve experienced far from home,’ said Aryna Livadari, 25, a graphic designer DJing at the event, ‘but also to remind young people that an émigré must never forget their origins, and always contribute to the community that shaped them.’ She blasted tracks by the South Korean DJ Messiahwaits and Truncate from Los Angeles.
Moldova was hit hard by the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. Its economy was structured around niche agricultural production in the protected Soviet market; it stood little chance in a predatory laissez-faire environment. Its USSR subsidies were wiped out, some 25% of GDP gone. Fuel and fertiliser costs rose steeply, money was syphoned offshore, and trade decreased severely, according to a 2003 paper by historian Vladimir Solonari.1 The collapse was total.
Empire, kingdom, republic
The country had long been pulled this way and that by bigger powers, in turn a vassal of the Ottoman empire, a part of the Romanian kingdom and a Soviet republic, creating complex layers of identity. ‘Moldova essentially lacked the experience of an independent existence,’ wrote Solonari. ‘Its political and managerial elite was not educated to run an independent state and market economy.’
The rot set in. Poverty became widespread. Many left the country in search of opportunity, a most severe brain drain. Families fractured; it is common for the post-Soviet generations to have been raised by relatives and have no real sense of the nuclear family. To be sure, the remittance economy has saved Moldova, but its psychological impact appears poorly articulated, if keenly felt.
Not all is lost. For Livadari, the massive diaspora can use their experiences abroad as a tool for positive change upon return. ‘As a Moldovan, being introduced to electronic music was a breakthrough moment. Every weekend people from different art departments would come together at some party…talk about cultural differences, philosophy, different art concepts,’ she says. ‘The incredible awareness of cultural contrast on coming home after months or years abroad can turn verbal stories into real acts.’
‘Someone beloved across the river’
At another event, a duo called Fanfarov & Vonaim, performed an experimental set: hip-hop, electro and even folk music. Vonaim is Victor Șcemanenco, 38, who has long organised events and performed in bands. The previous evening, he sat in the studio of his band, Self Programmed Deaf, running through his set on a midi controller.
The studio is hidden away in the state-run Moldova-Film, which Soviet authorities set up in the 1950s. The once-stately hilltop complex, which produced historical epics, neo-realist features, propagandist slice-of-life documentaries, is now a depleted relic.
He played a sample of a friend’s mother singing a mournful song, Nistrule cu apa rece (Nistru with cold water), which he will integrate into tomorrow’s show. ‘It’s an old song about having someone beloved across the river.’ Romanian speakers refer to the Dniester river as the Nistru. It divides Moldova from the breakaway territory of Transnistria, where 1,500 Russian troops are now stationed.2
Russia’s war is hardening identarian mores – generating and entrenching the Russophobia that Putin cites as the reason for his ‘special operation’. Nationalism in, for example, the Baltics is exposing differences between a diplomatic ‘old Europe’ and the hyper-nationalistic currents of newer, more aggressive, EU members. Even worse, it is allowing NATO/US militarism to be framed as an urgent moral imperative.
Probably around 70% of Moldovans would roundly condemn the war. But a pro-Romanian surge could prove as unpredictable as Putin’s fevered Russian nationalism. There are scant indicators that low-heat ethno-linguistic difference will boil over here. But war destabilises.
‘People now understand that it’s easy to lose all we have. It could all be gone one day. We get used to everything, this is a property of the human mind,’ said Șcemanenco. ‘It’s important for all kinds of people that are close to the arts to have open connections, connections between different styles and genres of music.’
He opened YouTube, typed something in. ‘Someone did a very brilliant thing and looped the end of this amazing song.’ It was the sweeping, melodic final two minutes of Straws pulled at random by the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah, looped for three hours. The text on the video player read, ‘As you listen to this, you will automatically feel better’
1 Vladimir Solonari, ‘The political economy of Moldova’, paper for the Lucerne Conference of the CIS-7 Initiative, January 20-22, 2003
2 See Loïc Ramirez, ‘Transnistria, relic of a frozen conflict’, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2022