August 19th, 2010


August Books 15) The Moldovans: Romania, Russia and the Politics of Culture, by Charles King

A decade after it was published, this remains the most serious examination of the identity of the people(s) of Moldova, the little-known ex-Soviet republic wedged between Romania and Ukraine, and of its breakaway Transdniestria region, a thin strip along the Ukrainian border. Most of the territory of what is now Moldova, lying between the rivers Prut and Dniester, was in the old territory known as Bessarabia, annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812 and then by the much enlarged Kingdom of Romania in 1918, and then by the Soviet Union in 1940, reclaimed by Romania in 1941 and finally again by the Soviets in 1944. (Transdniestria's history is linked but more complicated.) The majority of the population speaks a language described as Moldovan, but now acknowledged to be identical to Romanian; the cities and town, however, have tended to be concentrations of Russians, Ukrainians, and in earlier periods Jews. In the south of the country there are large districts where the local language is either Bulgarian or Gagauz, which is related to Turkish.

The subject of King's book is the story of how and to what extent a separate Moldovan consciousness has developed, even though the attempts to produce a separate language failed. The Soviet Union attempted to establish Moldovan, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, as a literary standard, and it simply didn't work; Romanian orthography is not easily adapted to Cyrillic (a memorable example is the case of Mr Mîţă, whose six children were all given different Cyrillic surnames by the hospital officials filling out their birth certificates). But at the same time, accepting the Romanian literary standard for their language did not mean seeking Romanian unification for their territory, even before taking into consideration the views of the large percentage of non-Romanian speakers in the population.

(It's an interesting comment on the state of such debates in Eastern Europe that so many observers thought - and some still think - that unification with Romania is inevitable. In Belgium, Walloons and Flemings use the literary standard languages of our neighbours without becoming French or Dutch, and likewise in Switzerland. The Kosovars have no hesitation about describing themselves as Albanian, but like the Moldovans are more than wary of unification with their neighbours. Ireland's use of English is slightly different because of the survival of an indigenous and separate language; while the Ulster Scots boondoggle is likely to go the way of Soviet Moldavian. But it's also striking that the languages formerly known as Serbo-Croat have established themselves rather more credibly, even if Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins remain entirely able to understand each other.)

Transdniestria, Moldova's separatist region, is a different matter. Although its sympathisers like to portray the issue as an ethnic one between the Slavic loyalties of the Transdniestrians and the supposed Romanian revanchism of Chişinău, thus fitting the same template as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, it's actually more a case of the local elite, who used to run things - none of the top brass in the Communist Party was from the Bessarabian side of the river before 1989 - refusing to accept the new state of affairs post-independence. Unlike the leaders of Katanga or Biafra, they won the war, but have yet to win the peace (and indeed the vibes from Moscow lately cannot be terribly encouraging for Tiraspol). The one serious ethnic issue in Moldova was the problem of the Gagauz, but they have settled for local autonomy; their slightly more numerous Bulgarian neighbours have accepted integration (the prime minister before last was from their ranks).

I produced three reports on Moldova in my time at ICG, and apart from them (and Tony Hawks' Playing the Moldovans at Tennis) there's not a lot out there; and King's book is still the taproot for most analysis of the country. But it is a very interesting and somewhat peculiar story in its own right, as a matter of general interest.


The new series of Eighth Doctor plays from Big Finish began with Situation Vacant, where Joanna Kanska stole the show, guest starring as a hotel duty manager; this time Fenella Woolgar (who was Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp) steals the show, guest starring as an interstellar war criminal incarcerated in a jail designed with an Edgar Allan Poe theme. Alan Barnes is one of the best Big Finish writers, but this isn't one of his best scripts, with a slightly daft premise and lots of references to Poe's work including giant robot ravens chanting "Nevermore". I haven't read much Poe (though I do know the late Zelazny story which riffs off many of his works) so some of this may have gone over my head. However it's probably fairly accessible to the non-Who fan who knows their Poe. (The new companion, I'm afraid, hasn't really settled in for me as yet.)

August Books 16) Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, by Thomas Merton

I have long had a vague interest in Thomas Merton, who became a Trappist monk after a dissolute youth (part of which was spent studying at my own later stamping ground, Clare College, Cambridge), and so was looking forward to reading this collection of his writings from the early 1960s - not least because I have been uncomfortably aware that I have enjoyed reading atheist tracts (Lucretius, Russell) more than Christian apologetics in the last few years.

I wasn't disappointed. A lot of this has dated - Merton's historical experience is of the Second World War and he writes in the context of the Cuban missile crisis and the Civil Rights movement - but basically he has a sane, humane, liberal take on Christianity and belief which I find comfortably close to my own prejudices and instincts. I winced a little at his initial naïve enthusiasm for Vatican II, knowing now how badly the Church has failed to follow through on the spirit of those times, but then a later piece in the collection accurately predicts the problems of the enterprise, in outline if not in detail.

The presentation of the material is not perfect. On the one hand, we are given to understand that this is a kind of commonplace book for occasional jottings; on the other hand, the text has been revised and expanded for publication. It would have been better to have a more thematic treatment, and better yet to have an index. As it is, it reads a bit more like random ramblings of a middle-aged monk than it really deserves to.