25 February 2011

A Tale of Two Museums...

We've been to two museums in Moldova whose names might be translated into "National Museum of History." One of them is in Chisinau, the capital. The other is in Tiraspol, which is the capital of Transnistria. Transnistria likes to consider itself a country, but is unrecognized as such by most other nations. The US considers it a "frozen conflict zone" within Moldova. As you might imagine, the two museums had quite dissimilar ideas about national history.
The Chisinau museum - pictured above - was housed in a beautiful former university building on a tree-lined block of the city.
The museum mostly leaves out Transnistria, and focuses on two time periods which have become touchstones for the Moldovan republic. The first is the middle ages, when there was a putative Moldovan principality in the region (often, erroneously, referred to as "Moldavia"). The little nation reached its peak during the 14th century, when the prince Stephan cel Mare ruled. He is still the most important figure in Moldovan history - something like King Arthur. It is an important time for a certain type of national historian because it was the one period (until now) that Moldova can truly say it was its own country.
The second period that the museum focused on was much more recent - a complicated political dance emerged between the USSR and Romania during the 20th century, which saw Moldova pass hands twice before declaring independence. Essentially, the goal of the museum was to prove that Moldova's history was both more Romanian than Russian and more independent than regional. It is a complex, confusing identity, based primarily on being non-slavic. I am reading an excellent book on this subject called The Moldovans by Charles King, and I highly recommend it if you want to know more about this place.
One room was dominated by this huge diorama depicting Romanian forces defending the Moldovan hills during WWII.
The Tiraspol museum was much smaller and had an altogether different take on history. A quick primer: the Transnistrian breakaway state's primary objection to Moldova as a whole (and a country) is that the Russian language and the cyrillic alphabet were replaced by Romanian and latinate letters. Essentially, Transnistria is a majority slavic region that remains committed to Soviet-style communism (and corruption) and is opposed to the idea of a Romanian nation on what they consider "Russian" soil.
The museum was, largely, a travel brochure for the region. Pictures of the president, Igor Smirnov, shaking hands with athletes, farmers, nurses and businessmen filled a few glass cases. A large display of Kvint "cognac" - the country's pride and joy - occupied a prominent space in the middle of one of the main rooms.
It was a small place, but there was an English language guide on hand. She spoke excellently, but was a little biased. She was very interested in showing us pictures of Transnistrian soldiers fighting the Moldovans during the civil war of 1991-1992. Also, pictures of the soldiers feeding children and holding flowers. This is still, as I said, a frozen conflict zone, and the Military holds complete power.
There were a few displays of Transnistrian products from before the war - all somewhat dated. The state has very limited exports because of a nearly universal, worldwide embargo on goods produced here. Not that it's hard to find Kvint liquor everywhere in Moldova, or to go to Tiraspol to pick up illegal weapons or women.
There was a small, sweet exhibition depicting old-style handicrafts, which was pretty. The guides seemed genuinely happy that a pair of Americans had dropped in on them, though the soldier stationed out front was less cordial.

1 comment:

  1. ...this diorama is about Soviet Army defending Chisinau from Nazi (German and Romanian troops)...