A geography lesson

In all the time I’ve been blogging, I haven’t written a single post about Moldova, the country where I spent 3 years as an English teacher, missionary, friend, church member, and wife. I met my husband there. I learned more about life and who I am in those 3 years than I did in 5 years of college and grad school. I started my professional career there. I made some of my closest friends. My in-laws are still there. Cousins, friends, and oodles of people I care deeply about.

A post over at Untangling Tales brought me out of the closet. In her Tuesday Tales she wrote a Belorussian folk tale about a prince’s love for a common girl. After writing it she was talking about it with someone who insisted on calling it “Russian,” and then said that Amy was being pedantic for insisting on it being Belorussian. (My thought: the person using the word pedantic is much more pedantic than the person insisting that a country independent for 15+ years is, in fact, distinct from its former colonial oppressor.)

With the connections I have to Moldova, and with a husband who was born and raised there, it’s infuriating when people refuse to acknowledge that Moldova is different from Russia. Let’s see. The national language is Romanian (de fapt este “limba noastra”, dar cu parere de rau asta este prea complicata pentru americanii care de obicei citesc blog-ul acesta), which is a romance language (like Spanish, Italian, French) – not Slavic. Moldova does not border Russia. Formerly it was a part of Romania. Romania is not slavic, nor is it Russian. So just because Moldova was a part of the Soviet Union (and not by choice either), people insist on calling it Russia?

Let’s get a few things straight. The Soviet Union was not Russian. The Soviet Union was a collection of 15 republics (formerly independent nations), one of which being Russia, consolidated under a single constitution and governing body. Those 15 republics (all of which are now independent nations – again) were: Belarus, Ukraine (which should not be called”The Ukraine”), Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Soviet Union imposed both Communism and the Russian language on the countries (republics) it controlled, and did everything it could to mix up and confuse the very distinct nationalities, cultures, and heritages – all the while creating legislation and policies that pretended to protect those very same entities.

With that straightened out, let’s get to the source of my frustration. Here’s how a typical conversation goes these days: “So, is your family still in Russia?” “No. They never were. They’re in Moldova – it doesn’t even border Russia. Different country.” “Oh, and do you ever go back to Russia to visit them?” “Well, we go to Moldova to visit them, since we wouldn’t see them in Russia – it’s a different country.” “Oh. So is it a long flight to Russia?” “Well I suppose it would be. But we don’t fly there. We fly to Moldova.” “Oh, and Moldovia is, what, like a state in Russia?” You get it. Right? You’re smart enough to see what’s happening. You can see why it’s infuriating. Add to the frustration that Russia was the fear-inspiring oppressor (really the Soviet Union was, but the power of the Soviet Union was within the Russian Republic and the Russian ethnicity was staunchly protected), and since independence Russia has not ceased its meddling in Moldovan affairs.

Also let me note that we have many, many friends who are Russians. From Russia. Who speak Russian. They are dear friends and wonderful people. We hold nothing against them, seeing as how they were not the ones causing problems in Moldova. They were subject to the same oppressive regime Moldovans or Belorussians or Tajiks were. They just happened to be born in the most powerful of the republics. We won’t hold it against them. 🙂

I believe that the stubborn insistence on calling everything east of the Iron Curtain “Russia” comes from two things: stereotypes and lack of interest. There’s a stereotype that anything east of, say, Germany (or any part of Europe that’s not a major tourist destination) is communist. They’re the enemy and they probably have missiles pointed at us. They despise freedom, drink vodka, and don’t have heat in the winter. (In case you’re wondering, that isn’t any more true than the uninformed stereotype that everyone in Africa is a cannibal.) It’s that typical “them” and “us” distinction that gets us into trouble, especially when combine with the next problem.

The second issue is a lack of interest. Surprisingly though, even people we consider to be friends (or sometimes even family) have a shocking lack of interest. Every day we (we meaning all of us, as part of the human race) make a conscious choice about what information we’ll internalize. We prioritize informational input and choose what’s important enough to keep, and what’s superfluous. Unfortunately, the independence of our former cold-war enemy often falls under the category of superfluous information. And therefore, no matter how often we correct someone that Moldova (or Belarus or Georgia, or any other independent nation, including Bosnia, Slovakia, etc.) is independent, working for democracy (nu vreau sa le spun ca moldovenii au ales un partid comunist in alegeri democratice). It’s easier for people to stick with their uninformed stereotypes (and, in fact, the geopolitical information they learned in grade school) than it is to keep up with current events in a region they believe to have no direct impact on them. There’s a reluctance to accept change, and that translates over time to stubbornness and ignorance about the rest of the world.

The fact is that as time goes on the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place because of technology and the very same people who put information about the rest of the world in “superfluous information” category will be the same people who are left behind as the world moves forward. So why should I be concerned? They’re the ones who will be made ‘superfluous’ in their careers, they’re the ones who will be forced to catch up or get out of the race. And I won’t let them bother me. But I will continue – daily – to correct their misassumptions and biases.

So here’s my challenge to you. When you get dressed tomorrow morning, look on the tag of your clothes and see where they were made. It might say China, or it might name some country you’ve never heard of. Whatever it is, google it. Find it on a map. And learn at least 3 things about that country. Keep up with where the world is going. When you flip through your newspaper, don’t chunk the “world” section because it has nothing to do with you (the “world” section consisting of no more than Afghanistan and Iraq is the topic of another rant, another day).

Thanks for bringing this up Amy. Maybe one day soon I’ll come even further out of the closet and share some of my experiences from Moldova, and introduce you all (all 4 of you) to a country you might otherwise know very little about.


8 thoughts on “A geography lesson

  1. I love this post! 🙂 I learned some things, and I think that map is too funny.

    There are other comments swimming in my head, but my brain is having a hard time forming them into complete sentences. (That happens late at night sometimes.)


  2. *sigh*
    That wasn’t supposed to look like a snub-off of traveling, but Wow.

    Just wait long enough the gov’t will change. Ouch. Well, I guess that’s true of anywhere.

    The question of “White Russia” is that there are those who debate whether the “white” means coloration of the people, the ethnic outfits or (symbolically) the land, as less ravaged in a particular invasion (they certainly made up for it later!).

    Personally, I like the ethnic-coloration angle.

    Now I really do have to go do my Cultural memory post. It’s pretty embryonic but I’m curious about your thoughts 🙂


  3. No need to feel self-conscious about touting facts. Even if your personal connection is from generations ago, that’s still a personal connection. Belarus is your heritage, even if you’re far removed from it.

    And don’t be too quick to snub Belarus off as an un-travelable place. You’re right that there are issues of concern, but the current government is bound to be displaced sometime, and hopefully that will bring positive change. When that happens it’d be worth visiting your roots! And even in the meantime, Belarus has a lot to offer. The people are kind and warm-hearted, and though all I saw was Western Belarus, there are some great landmarks (like Brest Fortress – wow!), parks, and a truly bizarre preservation of Soviet likeness.

    And as it’s been explained to me, White Russia is a perfectly fine translation, but it would be like calling every Peter you meet “Stone” – it’s just not that translatable. 😉

    Thanks for the good discussion! This is what I love about blogging!


  4. {blushing}

    I’m sorry I sound so knowledgeable. Everything I know so far is either extrapolated from the folktales I’ve been reading or from 15-minutes of reading library books before my story class last night.

    That’s why I felt horribly self-conscious about the argument– I’m so far from an authority on this.

    Even knowing the cultures are distinct from each other I can’t know if the distinctions I find between the Bels and the Rus are true differences or just different parts of the same elephant.

    On some level it seems to be trying to explain the difference between rival collage teams. You kind of have to be a part of one to articulate it, and even then not everyone “outside” understands.

    I’ve never been. From what I read about the current state of the country I’m a bit intimidated and not sure I want to go.

    My connection is from a comment of my dad’s a long time ago– that his Grandpa Joe (Joseph) was from “Belarussia,” which Dad said meant “White Russia” (something I now know to be disputed) and attributed our fair coloring to that source.


  5. So true. It’s definitely about prioritizing. And I’m the same way with the states – only for me it’s those on the other side of the Mississippi. My family, friends, travels, and influences are all mostly on my side of the Mississippi, and I don’t pay much attention to the rest (in fact, I probably pay more attention to Eastern European news).

    Have you been to Belarus? You seem to know quite a bit about it. I only spent a week there, but I found the same thing that I found in other (Slavic and non-Slavic) nations in E. Europe. They do have their own heritage. It’s often tightly connected to Russia (and often even more to other non-Russian Slavic countries), but they are all very knowledgeable about their heritage, proud of their roots, and able to distinguish their own nationality from Russia’s. While similar, they are distinct, and they deserve to be regarded as such.

    Thanks for your comment, and for you post. I look forward to seeing more of your Cultural Memory ideas. Very cool.


  6. What a terrific idea Kathy! And I appreciate your comments complementary of Russians while still insisting on your uniqueness.

    I think it’s so sad that the natural result of such insistence is to look resistant. Confrontational.

    Belarus is slavic, so there are less degrees of separation from it to Moldova. And I do like the Russian tales too– but I’m interested in differences along with similarities.


    I’d like to add one more catigory to explain our collective ignorance, or maybe put a more understanding face on what you label, “lack of interest.”

    As one who recently “didn’t care,” I can only defend myself by agreeing with you that, yes, the world is getting smaller every day, and that part of why it’s so hard to keep up.

    It wasn’t a vicious attempt on my part to exclude the facts of the world, it was a strategic (if unconscious) act of self-preservation:

    I ration my limited resources to cover most thoroughly those things that are closest to having bearing on my current way of living.

    Consequently, my mind only occasionally wanders abroad.

    Incidentally, the way you describe ignorance of the smaller former-Socialist states even fits my ignorance of our own (“lower-48”) United States.

    They don’t touch my life often (other that the two my sibs live in, so I think of them on an as-needed basis. And the States are (some could argue) even more “relevant” to me than Eastern Europe where a few other relatives have ties.

    I’ll quit now 😉
    It’s obvious there are whole posts wrapped up in this topic of geography (or “roots,” as it’s growing into for me).


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