Theft of the Century / A Childhood in Moldova

"L.," born in Moldova in 1996, tells her story.

WHAT DOES it look like when the Russian mafiya takes over an entire country and strips it down for parts? It looks a lot like Moldova, a sovereign nation half the size of West Virginia sandwiched between eastern Romania and Ukraine. Since reverting back to Communism in 2001, a decade after independence, Moldova has been controlled by a crooked oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. He even managed to survive the 2009 shift from Communist to “Democratic” rule, and with his cronies (allegedly) proceeded to plunder three major Moldovan banks. As Forbes explains:

Here's how the scheme worked: After getting hold of those banks around 2012, [they] set up shell companies. They lent money to those shell companies and declared losses. Two years later, they asked the central bank for a bailout. They got it in November 2014. They funneled a lot of the money off shore, with nearly half of it going to Russia. The result, over $1 billion stolen from public funds, as widely reported by foreign media. To put that into perspective, the Moldovan GDP is around $8 billion. It would be like a trio of American businessmen, bankers and politicians running off with over $2 trillion from the Federal Reserve.

If Plahotniuc is known at all to Americans, it is for hiring Richard Grenell, until yesterday the acting Director of National Intelligence, to do consulting work for him. Grenell has denied—to me specifically!—being a Russian operative, but he was absolutely in the employ of a Moldovan maybe-mobster, which work he did not bother to disclose. Happily, Moldova’s Prosecutor General this week announced that Plahotniuc has been formally charged for his involvement in what Moldovans call the “Theft of the Century.” We’ll see if Grenell’s boss’s government deports him; the former ADNI’s former client is now, illegally, in the United States.

What few articles on the subject exist at all tend to focus on the audacity of the crimes, or perhaps the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-mobster question about Plahotniuc. (Grenell, unsurprisingly, thinks he isn’t). But corrupt governments have real-world consequences—especially in small, landlocked countries in Eastern Europe like Moldova.

To demonstrate, I asked “L.” to share her story. She was born in northern Moldova in 1996, and emigrated to Britain, where she now resides, in 2009. What follows is her account:

My Childhood in Moldova, by “L.”

PEOPLE ALWAYS come together in times of crisis. This is something my grandmother told me. And I saw it first-hand five years ago, when I watched people pouring through the door at my grandparents’ house in Eastern Europe hours after my grandfather died. I remember thinking how strange it is that death and tragedy bring people together—almost like there is an odd addiction to sharing the misery of others. I never thought people just wanted to help out because they are kind. I still don’t believe that.

I felt like a spectator on that day. It was my first visit to Moldova since I left as a child. I spent my formative years in Britain, and have long since forgotten my roots and hardship in general. I couldn’t show any emotions on the evening my grandfather died. I had to take charge, and besides, emotions weren’t encouraged in my Communist homeland. I started by sorting things out, all my instincts kicking in at once. Calling distant relatives, stunned that my fingers remembered which buttons to touch; covering all the mirrors in the house with black scarves (of which we had surprisingly many) as per the Orthodox tradition; making some sweet tea for my grandmother to get her blood sugar up; attempting to calm down my mother’s hysterical weeping. Nothing ever feels the same once tragedy enters your home, I thought when I finally sat back trying to watch the herd of people, mostly family, friends and neighbours, coming into my grandparents’ house. A house which was always very private and silent, suddenly overflowing with people who did not belong there. People who I desperately needed. 

From that evening until I went back home, strangers took charge of everything happening with my family. In the morning I was informed that the funeral will take place the following day, with most arrangements already made, and that I was expected to cover my head with a black scarf immediately. My grandmother gently put the scarf over my head, explaining,  ‘You have to, it’s for your granddad.’ I haven’t been to sleep yet, and had no energy to argue with a bereaved woman. I only kept the scarf on until I accidentally saw my reflection in one of the few uncovered mirrors in the house. I looked ridiculous, like I had aged for fifteen years. I took it off and put it around my neck. My grandfather was an atheist, he would never expect me to cover my head just because it’s a religious funeral. When my grandmother saw me later with my curly shoulder-length brown hair everywhere she cracked a smile and simply said, ‘You never just listen, do you?’ 

Not much changed in Moldova in the six years I was away. The roads are still broken, politicians still mostly corrupt, and people still unhappy. There are still cows on the roads and stray dogs everywhere who won’t hesitate to bite strangers. Our unbelievably tiny country is located between Romania and Ukraine. I was born in the part of Moldova fairly close to Ukraine, and although I speak Romanian fluently, I always struggled to understand my Romanian neighbours. We always seemed so different from them, even though not long ago we used to be one country. Moldova was part of the Soviet Union and the first post-Soviet state to have the Communist Party return to power, with the presidency of Vladimir Voronin in 2001. The country stayed under the wing of the Communists until 2009, at which point we went into civil unrest following a rigged election which gave the Communist Party another huge majority. To solve the conflict, four parties went into a coalition, subsequently pushing the Communist Party into opposition. Since 2009, not much has changed. Moldova still thrives on corruption, oligarchs, and bad roads. 

Moldovan politics was never about the people, simply about power. The governing elites never legislated on behalf of their citizens; Members of Parliament don’t go into work with the interest of their constituents at heart; and state institutions are designed to serve the ruling elites, as opposed to the community. Moldova has been like that for as long as I remember. A state that did not adequately function simply because of greed. A faux democracy with votes decided before ballots were counted. 

A product of this state was Vladimir Plahotniuc, an oligarch and a politician who controlled virtually every state institution in the country (media, police, and the government bureaucracy) effectively making him the most powerful man in the land. He rose to prominence by being a friend of the Communist Party and President Voronin. With the demise of both Communism and Voronin’s authoritarian ruling style, Plahotniuc was quick to put money in another party, the Democratic Party (one of the four parties which subsequently formed an alliance to push the Communist Party into opposition). The following year, in 2010, Plahotniuc formally entered politics by becoming a Member of Parliament. Later on, the initial coalition fell, another was formed, but Plahotniuc remained in charge. By 2014 the ruling coalition in Moldova consisted of corrupt rich men who stole, even by their standards, a shameless amount of money from the country: one billion dollars from three state banks. That’s nearly 13% of Moldova’s GDP. The sum was so large for our country that some arrests had to be made, which included that of the former Prime Minister of Moldova, Vlad Filat. 

Moldova has a weak history of democratic institutions, and our people have virtually no understanding of liberal values. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Moldova had diverse politics with competing media outlets, a strong legislative branch and almost no restrictions on political organisations. In 2001, when the Communists came to power, they reversed the little progress already made by gaining control of the media and courts, thereby, slowly transforming the country into an autocracy.

I remember my years under Communism very well. My grandfather was a Communist, often melancholic for the return of the Soviet Union. I used to read Marx with him willingly as a child, not because I had any interest in Marxist theory, but because I loved the way my grandfathers' eyes lit up and the way he smiled at me because I pretended to understand what was written in his favourite copy of Das Kapital. I also remember when he got sick for the first time, and my grandmother put all their money in his medical treatment. They traveled to the capital—Chișinău—and left me alone in their house for a week or so. I was little, about six or seven years old. I ran out of food, and the whole world forgot about me. I would feed myself by climbing trees and eating fruits and nuts, and I was fairly content with my newly found independence. I wasn’t alone for long enough to go feral, but I still remember the day my grandmother came home. She was physically unable to get herself out of bed because she was mentally devastated and emotionally broken. I would make her tea and bring her the fruit and nuts I hunted to make sure she recovered. And in time she did, and things returned to some sort of new normality.

I wasn’t the only child to grow up without her parents; a lot of people grow up with their grandparents instead of a parent in Eastern Europe. This happens for many different and complex reasons, although usually, it’s the lack of finances. Parents feel unable to raise their children without any state support in a bad economy, so they migrate and seek opportunities to earn a better living. I never understood why my parents left. They had good jobs; my mother taught economics at a local college and my dad was a history teacher. That didn’t bring in a lot of money, but they had a lot of support from my grandparents. The feeling I got was that they felt desperately trapped and unhappy, and wanted the chance to achieve more, something they couldn’t do in Moldova.

My mum and dad got married when they were far too young, but in Moldova being married shortly after you turn eighteen was and remains a common practice. They were madly in love, to begin with, but this love ran out very quickly, and I was everything that was left of it. Gradually they grew more and more frustrated with one another, and although they never took their anger on me, I never felt particularly wanted in that house. Instead, I would spend day and night playing with my friends, and when my friends would go home in the evening, I would go and play on this one field which was about three kilometres away from my home. This field, I discovered on the morning of the funeral, has been transformed into a graveyard.

Whenever one of my British friends asks me to describe Moldova to them, I usually say it’s a small little land with incredible food, resilient people, and glorious forests. Then I smile and attempt to resist describing Moldova the way I actually see her—as unhappy. I am lucky that my hardship ended, but despite all that, I am so incredibly grateful to have experienced my childhood the way I have. I felt so much pain when I was little that to this day I go numb when I try to re-collect some of it. On the few occasions I did feel happiness in those days, it was so intense and powerful that it quickly overshadowed every bad thing which happened in my life. The happiness of seeing my mother for the first time after many years; the smell of her perfume intoxicating the house in the morning; her big blue eyes looking at me with such tenderness. That little bit of happiness made all the hardship and the pain worth it.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote ‘unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.’ Here Solzhenitsyn was referring to the power held by guards in Gulags, Soviet concentration camps, while also indirectly criticising the power structure of autocracy, and the tragedies it leads to. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn documents the terrors of Soviet Gulags, and his surprise that humans were able to survive in these diabolical conditions for more than a few weeks. The triumph of the human spirit and resilience of people to overcome even the most abhorrent living conditions are themes which have long accompanied non-fiction aimed at analysing the evils created by our society and born out of political ideology and gross abuse of power. Humans always persevere. At least this is the moral of our history books. 

A British friend rang me on the morning of the funeral. I say morning, but it was around 3 am. In Moldova on the night before the funeral, the coffin (yes, with the body) is brought in the house, as per some silly tradition. I was explaining to my friend why there was a corpse in the living room, a concept so ridiculous that I found myself bursting into laughter. When I came back into the living room I sat next to my mother, she looked at me and smiled. We were both exhausted, but visibility at peace by that stage. It was an intense 40 something hours. I asked her if she thinks we should be looking more mournful so our Moldovan relatives don’t start judging us. She smiled again and said ‘No, we don’t need to pretend to feel anything we don’t.’

Photo credit: A park in northern Moldova. Photo by L.