Ideas Archipelago USSR | Moldova
Trebujeni, Moldova, July 2019. A chapel in a monk's cave at Orhei archaelogical park. Photo: Fotokon

‘To be born in the USSR was to be born into a state of being’

Born in 1978 in Chișinău, Tatiana Ţîbuleac was 13 years old when Moldova declared the independence her father had fought for all his life. Yet she was unable to do what everyone expected her to do: cut her ties with Russia and the Russian language.

Published on 20 January 2022 at 12:00
Trebujeni, Moldova, July 2019. A chapel in a monk's cave at Orhei archaelogical park. Photo: Fotokon

When my father died, I flew to Chișinău and slept for one night in his apartment. I shared out his suits and ties among his neighbours. I didn’t touch the books. Ultimately, I sat down on the edge of the bed, and turned on the TV. It was a Russian channel, a young woman was singing a love song, and it scared me so badly that I hurled the remote control away and stood up straight up. My father hated the Russian language, my father hated Russians. 

It was something fundamentally wrong to listen to a Russian love song in his home, of a man now dead, but who for a lifetime had fought against the Soviet system and had longed for one language – the Romanian language. At that moment I saw him clearly in front of me: an old man full of regrets, his fists clenched, with that foreign tongue wrapped around his neck like a noose. That's when I really started crying, for everything. 

If I ever left the Soviet Union, it happened that night.


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I was a child who came late, though it wasn’t that, but rather the Russian language that had always stood between the two of us like an electric fence. My father never forgave me for the fact that when Moldova proclaimed its independence, when in ‘89 Moldovans regained the Latin alphabet they had fought for, and some even died, I did not do what I had to do — cut off anything to do with Russia. Not to speak Russian anymore, not to read Russian anymore, not to have Russian friends anymore — that was what was expected of me. 


It is always difficult to explain to westerners a person’s enthusiasm for being allowed to use his or her language with pride, to present oneself with pride


I’m not saying I didn’t try, I'm just saying I didn’t succeed. It was hard for me to argue with my father and his friends, who had to live the best years of their lives only halfway, in half-hiding, in fear. I saw them lose their health, their jobs, their family, their dignity, one by one — all for the same ideal: leaving the USSR and uniting with Romania. They crushed me with arguments — grandparents deported to Siberia, mother born in the Gulag, persecution, decimated lives and crushed careers. Who was I after all, what did I choose to be? I wondered this for years. 

Why was it so hard for me to hate, when that hatred was justified, when it seemed to be the right way? 

I remember a certain autumn morning, it must have been around ’91, all the children in our courtyard headed to school with our backpacks on, as we’ve done for our entire childhood. Then someone yelled at the Russian boys to go to the train station and head home, because Moldova was no longer their home. It was a popular slogan in those days, you didn’t hear it only in courtyards but on TV, in the press. That was how the split began. Grave things followed: neighbors who ceased to speak to each other after having cohabitated in peace for years, meetings, street violence, strife. 

We finally had license to tell the “occupants” that we didn’t want them among us any longer, or at least that we want them to be on our side. The example set by the Baltics were our ideal, but unfortunately it failed us. It was assumed that the Moldovans’ effervescent patriotism would determine the ethnic Russians to learn the Romanian language overnight. This did not happen, but instead it led to war. The Transnistria War began after a year and definitively decimated the country. A useless and brutal war, a war of egos. To this day Moldova has not recuperated Transnistria from Russian influence. To this day Russia has not withdrawn its troops from that region, as had been promised. 

As was the case for most ex-Soviet countries, years of national rebirth followed in Moldova. This meant a great deal in the cultural sphere: literature, theatre, music, sport. Writers, artists, athletes from Moldova were no longer bound by the obligatory “soviet” branding at the finale, they were no longer bound to pass through the filter of centralised power. The Romanian language came home and so did the connection to the motherland, at least ideologically. It is always difficult to explain to westerners a person’s enthusiasm for being allowed to use his or her language with pride, to present oneself with pride, but I’m still stubborn enough to persist in doing this. 

I do it whenever I have the chance. And then, in those most, I have the impression that I voice the multiple people who live inside me: the nostalgic, the rebel, and the person who desires revenge. Yet then came the transitional years (which seem never to end), with the economic crash, inflation, human trafficking, and the fragilisation of social systems. Years of unemployment, of disappointment, in which Moldova was constantly responsible for the most controversial international news stories. There came the title of poorest country in Europe and, soon enough, the official return of communists to power. The initial enthusiasm made way for bitter scepticism. 


I will always be part of the “between” generation. Of people raised between two languages, between two worlds. At home everywhere and nowhere


What does independence truly mean for Moldovans? If I were to choose one sole meaning, I would first say, the right to choose. Although, as a poor country without natural resources, the right to choose always meant choosing a big brother – Romania, Europe, Russia – it was nevertheless a choice, which became available only after the fall of the USSR. At present, over one million Moldovans live abroad for work or study. Migration, especially that of those apt to work, is one of the most common customs, to which I am certain we must soon find an alternative. At the same time, it represents an enormous opportunity for the young to find their place in the world in other positions, with other aspirations. 

What tormented me most as a writer was the sense of doubt, that I was not doing the right thing. Not taking the extreme path, a path taken by many of my peers, becoming national heroes and examples, did I have the moral right to talk about my family's past? How could I have written about deportations, about the crimes of the Soviet regime, if I continued to speak the language of those behind these acts. Moving to France was that last step which allowed me to see things from a different angle. Not clearer, but from a different angle. 

I also performed that mandatory dissection which every child born in the USSR had to perform at some point. I discovered a whole world raised on a foreign culture. Russia was a parasite, attacking the tree and weakening it, but in the end it became the tree itself. It would have been possible to cut it out of me, but it would have meant cutting out a good part of my life. I had to make a choice in order to carry on. Personally, I left hatred behind and separated a language from a regime, politician from the common people. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s essential, especially when you find yourself among strangers. I’m not saying I succeeded, but I did try. 


hirty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, I don't feel much. It is not a date highlighted in either red or black in the calendar


I will never be just one or the other. I will always be part of the “between” generation. Of people raised between two languages, between two worlds. At home everywhere and nowhere.

In Paris I have a shelf with a few books from my childhood. I keep them separate, and everyone in the house calls them mom’s books. Not because they’re written by me, but because only I can read them. The language in which they were written no longer exists and should never have existed. It is the Moldovan language, a hybrid between Romanian words and the Russian alphabet, a language invented by the Soviets, which had only one purpose: to keep us separated from Romania, to control us, to uproot us. A language that, although extinct, continues to haunt us. I feel exactly like these books — only half clear, only half true. A mix of what I am and what I should be.

Thirty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, I don't feel much. It is not a date highlighted in either red or black in the calendar. Had I not received the invitation to write this text, it would have been a day like any other. Because, in a way, some part of me is still there, even though the world’s map now says otherwise. I have friends in all fifteen former sister republics. We exchange messages, parcels, worries and jokes that only we can understand. It’s important to know that there are people whom you don’t have to explain your past to, even if they come from another country, from another culture. 

Just as others were born near the sea or in the mountains, we say we were born in the USSR. Not in a place, but in a state of being. This might have been a nostalgic text. And maybe it is. I could have referred to wordless cartoons, to school competitions in small courtyards, to ponds and ice cream on a sticks, letters with their stamps licked on, dozens of collected bottles. To the friendship that goes on beyond borders. To all those darling oddities which will never perish from the life of a sovok, a children born and raised in the USSR, no matter where on earth they end up. But besides this, besides these memories like little lights, for every one of us there will always be a price to pay. I have written about mine. Because the way in which you choose to remember the past defines you as a person. 



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