The first day of Spring, and a cold wind blowing in Chisinau, Moldova.
News is still coming in about opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder in Russia beneath the Kremlin’s walls. It’s just over a year since Crimea was invaded by Russian troops that the Kremlin lied about. Two days since the Kremlin declared a national holiday for the Russian special forces that are sustaining a war now in Luhansk and Donetsk in east Ukraine, and that created one 23 years ago on the right bank of the river Dnistr that split Moldova before it even had a chance to be one country.
In Chisinau, the morning streets are lined with stalls selling red and white crocheted amulets – bells, flowers, hearts, suns. It’s Martisor today, a spring holiday based on ancient myths spread across this region, about blood and snow and rebirth.
“I don’t know,” says my taxi driver, when I ask what the festival is about. “It isn’t my holiday. I’m not Moldovan.”
Sergei – let’s call him that – says he’s Ukrainian (almost every taxi driver I’ve encountered so far has been Ukrainian). He left Luhansk years ago to live here; his father is Moldovan. I say he’s lucky he left Luhansk long before the war started; he shrugs and says, “It’s not so great here. Everyone I know has left or is leaving.”
Life is visibly very hard in Moldova; not enough work, horribly low salaries and pensions. Sergei lists his friends who have gone to seek work in Canada, England, Ireland, Germany… He himself wants to go to Russia. “I’d be comfortable there. It’s all familiar, I know the language. I never managed to learn Moldovan, it’s not that I couldn’t, but… I feel comfortable in Russian.” He tells me about a friend living now in Germany, and how she doesn’t like that everything there is not like in Russian-speaking Moldova. “Even the way they visit each other at home is different,” he says, with a sort of resigned, vaguely surprised disapproval.
He asks me if it’s true that it rains all the time in England. “I couldn’t live in a rainy country,” he says, and rhapsodises about the joy of sunshine in Spring, which is a joy common to all of us.
Russian popsa is playing on the radio; if I asked him to switch to a news station it would be in Russian, of course, and it would be listing, in that important voice of supressed excitement that Russian newscasters have perfected, the numerous ridiculous theories about who murdered Nemtsov, and Putin would be abusing the word ‘provocation’ and offering condolences to Nemtsov’s mother who just days earlier warned her son he was likely to be killed. Outside, Moldovans are buying pretty red and white knitted amulets to celebrate spring, in another world as far as Sergei is concerned here in his closed Russian-language information bubble.
It isn’t just closed to him by a language barrier, it’s closed by his lack of interest, motivation or curiosity. He doesn’t speak Moldovan, he doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t have to, there are dozens of Russian TV channels here to choose from, there are thousands of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, he may not have bothered to learn Moldovan but most Moldovans have bothered to learn Russian.
It’s very easy to stay snug in his information bubble, protected from a big bad world that doesn’t have a place for him. It’s much easier to retreat as he is told all the time that he is under imminent threat of attack from all sides, and yet is part of a unassailably great Russian-speaking empire.
It’s human nature to want what is familiar,what makes us comfortable, and god knows life is so hard for people here they could be forgiven for wanting to hide from it (god knows there are enough British people without that excuse, buying villas in Romania or Moldova without ever developing the slightest interest in those countries’ culture and language, god knows it’s a great British tradition…)
But it’s also human nature to be curious (isn’t it?)
The Soviet system killed curiosity. It spread a whole population of incurious monolinguists from Sakhalin to Chisinau who just want to be comfortable speaking Russian and are prepared to fight and to lie about who is fighting so that they can remain comfortable and ignorant.
Sergei is in his twenties. That’s the age when you’re supposed to want to see the world, learn new things, collect experiences. Somehow, Sergei and thousands like him have been denied that desire, not by an iron curtain across a continent but by something worse: an iron curtain inside their heads.
I never really understood the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’, but it might have been invented by Stalin or by Putin. Incuriosity kills tolerance. Kills development. Kills plurality, self-awareness, critical thinking, empathy, honesty – and even the small joys in life, like learning the weird and wonderful rules of hospitality in other countries. Like knowing what those red and white amulets are for, and being able to join in a celebration of Spring, which is universal to all of us.