Features among wine and walnut growers. in the poorest country in europe
A journey through Gagauzia, where walnuts and wine are important industries.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1 2012, pages 36-39
Published on balticworlds.com on april 12, 2012
The walnuts are part of the Soviet legacy. Walnuts have grown in the Carpathians since ancient times, of course, and have been grown in Moldova for centuries. The first syllable of the word walnut has the same linguistic roots as Walachia, the Romanian region bordering on Moldova. But it was during the Soviet era that the trees were planted in rows along the public highways. They were supposed to provide shelter from the wind in the summer, and, in the winter, keep pollinating insects enclosed and mark out the roads through the snow-covered fields. People were always free to pick nuts along the roads whenever they wished.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union twenty years ago, the Moldovans realized there was a global market for the nuts.
Moldova is the poorest state in Europe. Maxim, a driver from the capital city of Chişinău, is taking me south to Gagauzia. “People are really poor here”, Maxim says when I return to the car after a house call in a village. “Two of them who walked by while I was waiting here cadged cigarettes. Imagine not being able to afford cigarettes. And you don’t see such worn-out, dirty shoes where I come from.”
“I’ve never regretted coming home for the nuts fifteen years ago”, says Aleksandr Chernovenko. “And the profits end up in the pockets of humble people who really need the money”, he adds.
Chernovenko, an aerospace engineer and a PhD, worked for many years at the Academy of Sciences in neighboring Ukraine. When the Russian financial crisis of 1998 hit Moldova, an acquaintance of his at a wine company back home in Komrat, the largest city in Gagauzia, called him up. The company wanted to start selling walnuts as a new product line, and Chernovenko agreed to come manage it.
With the nutcrackers
The walnut trees growing here and there in people’s yards are low to the ground, and the nuts are easily harvested by beating them down with a rod and then gathering them up. But the trees lining the avenues are tall. I see people using sticks to knock down the nuts from low-hanging branches, and here and there young men trying to hit nuts higher up by throwing branches at them. The rest are gathered from the ground in mid-October when they fall naturally.
I figure at least one or two of the Moldovan companies — out of at least 20 in total — buy walnuts in Komrat, but none of my friends knows of any. But we are given an address by some women selling knitted goods in the bazaar. From the outside, the low building looks like a closed up warehouse, but inside it’s as busy as Santa’s workshop. The pickers arrive carrying their nuts in plastic bags, for which they are paid according to weight and quality, with a higher rate for shelled nuts. Hardworking pickers can manage a ton over the season, at the most, for which they earn about 1,100 euros. The unshelled nuts are poured into sacks and carried out to the storehouse. They are taken from there to the sorting trays, one or two at a time, where women work in teams of three. Nuts that fell or were picked from the trees when green have blackened by now and are put in separate sacks. The nuts allowed to ripen on the trees are paler. They get sorted into the highest quality category. The sorted sacks are then put in a corner of the room, where they wait for other women to crack them.
The nutcrackers of Gagauzia do not move in either march or waltz time as in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Instead, I discern a refined 7/10 time as they rake a few nuts out of the bag, crush them with syncopated hammer blows, and then pick out the nutmeats from the shells.
Seventy percent of Moldovan walnuts go to the EU, twenty-five percent to the Arab world, and the rest to Russia. Wine produces ten times more revenue for Moldova than the nuts, but many small walnut groves are being planted these days while several wine producers are waiting for better times before they think it will be worthwhile to bottle wine again. One exception is Cioc Maidan Vin, located about 20 kilometers east of Komrat. Their production was exported in tank cars to Russia until 2006, when Russia banned imports of wine from Georgia and Moldova. But Cioc Maidan Vin found other buyers in Abkhazia across the Black Sea, so the cars now trundle along the railroads via Ukraine.
“In Abkhazia, they add sweetened fruit juice to make our wine taste like theirs”, says product manager Maria Politsmerskaya with a sigh. The wine has been babied in her lab and wine cellar for many years before export. She suspects the sweetened wine is sold on to Russia as Abkhazian.
The remnants of the Gagauzian people
There is no hotel in Gagauzia, so while I’m conducting my interviews I stay at an inn in Cahul 70 kilometers away, almost at the Romanian border. Several vineyards around Cahul have been abandoned because they haven’t been profitable for many years. There’s a waiter at the hotel, also named Maxim, who becomes my local driver. He calls his native language Romanian, even though the state language is officially called Moldovan — which is basically Romanian with a large contingent of Russian loanwords, especially when it comes to technical terms. When I first meet him, Maxim says he thinks the Gagauzians should speak Romanian with him, but they are used to using Russian to talk to anyone other than Gagauzians. But Maxim is curious — he tags along to my interviews and asks his own questions, getting more interested all the time. After all, he says after a couple of days, the Gagauzians live the same way we do. When we visit the Gagauzian theater in Çadır-Lunga, he is keen to tell actors that his father is a teacher and that he also has great respect for the dramatic arts.
I came to Gagauzia the first time in the early 1990s. Two days before that, I had lain in a foxhole at Bender and interviewed men of the Moldovan home guard while snipers on the Transnistrian side fired inches above our heads; that was the civil war that would eventually claim more than a thousand lives.
When I was later taken toward Gagauzia, the Moldovans had set up roadblocks there. Some were manned by police, but most were patrolled by the civilian guard, who were armed with a motley collection of weapons. Once I got to Gagauzia, there was not a single defensive line. The Gagauzian civil defense was known as the National Guard, with the local police making up its core. The National Guardsmen remained in their usual workplaces, but kept their weapons at hand. Keeping patrols at border stations could have provoked a confrontation.
“It’s ridiculous”, National Guardsman Sasha told me then. “They’ve put up roadblocks because they’re afraid of us. There’s 150,000 of us and four million of them. Do they really think we’re going to attack them?”
A couple of people were murdered in Gagauzia during the period of greatest tension, but war never broke out.
Several indigenous peoples had “autonomous republics” in the Soviet Union, a system intended to guarantee certain services in the local languages. When the Union fell apart, these republics declared themselves sovereign, usually in a bid to strengthen their negotiating position when Russia was drafting a new constitution, for example. The tiny Gagauzian remnant had not been granted status as an autonomous republic, but they declared themselves one to fend off Romanian nationalism in response to Moldova’s independence. When another region in Moldova, Transnistria, also declared itself sovereign, however, the issue was not ethnicity alone. As in the rest of Moldova, there are Romanians, Ukrainians, and Russians living in Transnistria, although in Transnistria the Slavic element is larger. The crux of the Russian demand for sovereignty in Transnistria was that the country’s key industries were found there and were often managed by Russians and others who had ended up there in the course of their Soviet careers.
Russian was the second language of the Gagauzians and rumors that the government in Chişinău intended to shut down the Russian TV channel sparked outrage.
When I interview a school principal in Çadır-Lunga one afternoon, a pupil is there who she believes is one of the best remaining at the school. When I ask 16-year-old Olesa to tell me the names of people in the Moldovan government, she just shakes her head. Olesa reads Russian literature, watches a Russian-language channel from Ukraine, prefers to listen to Russian rock music, and is concerned that fewer and fewer people believe in God. She dreams of moving to Ukraine, where there are more educational opportunities. She would love to be a teacher. The countries she would most like to visit are Egypt and the remnants of Greco-Roman civilization, but also China, India, France, Germany, and Holland. Why Holland? “I don’t know”, she says. “I once saw a TV show from there.”
As a result of massive unemployment, at least 600,000 Moldovans work abroad and the money they send home amounts to one third of the GDP. People have a better chance of finding a job in a country where they can navigate in Russian rather than Romanian. Students who speak Gagauzian, a Turkish language, can manage relatively well at Turkish universities. Since the job market does not generate a lot of inter-language meeting places in the country, the barrier of suspicion remains.
The theater and cultural identity
Mikhail Konstantinov, director of the Gagauzian regional theater, actually has a daughter who works for the National Opera in Chişinău. When he took on the post in 2007, he tried to broker an agreement on sending young actors from Gagauzia to a state school for the dramatic arts in Chişinău. The idea was rejected on the grounds that Gagauzians do not speak fluent Romanian.
I end up sitting with the actors as they eat their bag lunches in a chilly room above a closed-down theater space in Çadır-Lunga. It’s so cold here in winter the theater cannot be used. The rest of the year, the space is often used as a meeting room, so the ensemble does not have a permanent venue. The actors soon fall into a discussion with Maxim about where you can buy the cheapest potatoes in southern Moldova. Their wage, paid from the Gagauzian state budget, is around 500—800 lei, or 30—50 euros a month. That is about equal to an ordinary retirement pension.
Gagauzia’s arts budget is shrinking, and as of 2012, the theater has been administratively merged with a folklore ensemble and an orchestra in Komrat in an attempt to keep everything going. The theater tours the villages and some plays are also performed in Romanian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian in order to reach a wider audience. One third of the audiences are children. Tickets cost 10 lei (60 euro cents) and the receipts just about cover the cost of transporting the actors and props. Directors and stage designers are sometimes invited in from Chişinău. An American director who was financed through development aid was very well received.
There are no resources for understudies, so if an actor falls ill and cannot be there for a rehearsal or performance, it affects the entire ensemble. The actors and actresses assure me they do not have the time to moonlight, but Konstantinov says the income from his private vineyard has occasionally saved him.
Here, as at other meetings, the gap between the Gagauzian cultural and political elites is apparent. The culture workers assert that the main purpose of the autonomy Gagauzia was granted after the difficult years in the early 1990s is to strengthen Gagauzian cultural identity. The politicians I encounter are more inclined to talk about how Gagauzia should have the right to make its own laws in most areas and even to engage independently in foreign trade. The Communist Party received sixty percent of the votes in the last parliamentary election in Gagauzia. This can partly be explained by the strong support for the party even after the fall of the Soviet Union in the agricultural belt that stretches across parts of Moldova, Ukraine, and southern Russia. In their rhetoric, the Moldovan Communists seem more modern than their Russian counterparts, but they still appeal to many Russian-speaking voters.
“We’ve thought about reorganizing the theater as a business with its own website and trying to find foreign sponsors to get around the internal political squabbles”, says Konstantinov. “But a theater without its own venue, or at least a technical base, is an impossibility.”
We have to break off the conversation when a group of pre-adolescent girls troops into the room with expectant faces. It’s time for one of the actresses to give them this week’s lesson in the performing arts.
“You can never stop using your imagination”, Konstantinov says on the way out. “When I got married, I bought an electric accordion. People thought I was nuts and wasting my money. But actually, it was the accordion that made it possible for me to buy a house and other things. With my accordion and my professionalism, I could replace an entire band and I was hired to play at a lot of weddings.”
Poet, prose writer, painter, and film director Dmitri Kara-Çoban is one of the prominent figures of Gagauzian culture. At his death in 1986, he left as a legacy a museum of history and ethnography in the community of Beşalma, where we are reminded that the Gagauzians declared the autonomous Republic of Komrat for a few days in 1906, but quickly fell under Russian control again. Forty percent of the Gagauzian people died in the famine of 1946.
When I sat with the head of the Gagauzian Chamber of Commerce, Vitali Kyurkchu, one evening a couple of years ago, he dwelled on all the evil Lenin’s party had done to the Gagauzians and their culture, including the deportations to Kazakhstan. It is thus a mystery why the statue of Lenin still stands in front of the administrative building on the main street running through Komrat. Of course, until there is something to put in its place, you wouldn’t be able to guess the location of the center of town without it. Over the years, I’ve been accustomed to arranging to meet people at Lenin’s feet, for lack of any other landmark.
At the Kara-Çoban museum, Maxim the waiter remarks enthusiastically to the guide when he realizes that the Gagauzians use the same farm implements as the Romanians do back home, a few dozen kilometers away. And how could it be otherwise? Like the nuts, the wine has been here for millennia. Peoples have come and peoples have gone over the centuries, but the crops have determined the tools of production.
Wine bottles, grapes, and ewe’s milk cheese
Winemaking is an important sideline for most farmers in Moldova. Piotr Sirkeli in Kirsova spends one week a year harvesting and pressing one ton of grapes. When his son was at school, he bought an additional two tons from other growers for his wine production. The plants that make wine for bottling are going through hard times, in part because the younger generation has discovered beer. But the new wine from the farms is much sought after in the cities. It tastes of grape must, both before and after fermentation. Like so much else in Moldova, the farm wines are sold on the black market. But Piotr Sirkeli is already retired and gets 570 lei a month from the state. The extra income from his wine is below the taxable threshold. He also makes his own ewe’s milk cheese and sells it to order. The cheese is stored next to the four oak barrels of wine in the cellar. One of the barrels is thirty years old, the others five.
“You just have to replace the hoops once in a while”, Piotr says. There is a shortage of wood for new barrels, since oak trees are protected in Moldova. “But that can usually be got round”, he adds with a sly smile.
A dark grape called Moldova is a popular choice for the farm wines, but Piotr sometimes mixes in a couple of other varieties, including a light grape his wife prefers.
After I’ve been allowed to see how Piotr presses his wine, I am invited to have a bowl of potato soup in the kitchen. The position of the kitchen makes it easy to come in and out while working in the garden. Piotr explains that despite the hard times he can find customers for his wine because he has taken care of the vines and maintains high quality. The same goes for the ewe’s milk cheese. He sold the first batches in the town square, but his customers loved it so much they started ordering it directly from him.
Otherwise, he and his daughter-in-law Maria, who is sitting with us at the table, both know very well that Moldovan wine has been subject to a lot of manipulations over the years. She is Bulgarian, and speaks Russian with her husband and in-laws.
“Almost no wine is exported in bottles; it is thus susceptible to tampering along the way, by watering it down, for example”, Maria says, whose family is in the wine business.
I reply that I’ve seen Moldovan wine in bottles in many countries and had in fact seen it only a month before at restaurants in Kyrgyzstan.
“I don’t think all the wine sold as Moldovan really comes from here”, Maria answers. She tells me about some people who collected bottles from several different countries containing wine that, according to the labels, was of the same Moldovan origin.
“They all tasted very different”, Maria says.
It’s time to say farewell to Gagauzia this time round. The Maxim who lives in Chişinău has come to pick me up. Something broke in one of the rear wheels, so he has had to leave the car on the side of the road and get a taxi the rest of the way. When the taxi passes the last community on the main road out of Gagauzia toward Chişinău, we end up in a traffic circle planted with bushes and a tree in the middle. After having nearly completed the turn, we discover a big dog on the asphalt behind the bushes. It is sitting with its back toward us, basking in the sun. The taxi driver swerves at the last second. He exchanges a look with Maxim and then Maxim glances at me.
We see the dog in the rearview mirror, still sitting in the same position, unaware that its life was in danger only seconds ago. And so the last picture burned into my retina in Gagauzia this time was of a dog sitting next to a tree and enjoying life, like Ferdinand the bull, although this tree bears nuts, not cork. ≈