Moldova, the 51st State?

Here in Moldova, we’re not much impressed by the news from Ukraine. The citizens of Kiev smashed a statue of Lenin to protest their president’s reluctance to cuddle up to the European Union. This brings a flutter to freedom-loving American hearts, but here, in one of Europe’s most impoverished nations, we wonder: Why would Ukrainians take out their rage on a statue of the person they have to thank for Ukraine’s appearing on the political map in the first place — in 1922, as a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? It was as if the Americans were to topple a statue of Washington.

But, then, we don’t expect much from the lands of the former Soviet Union. We know we are a constellation of the absurd. And Ukraine is hardly the most absurd. The laurels go to us, Moldova.

It’s being reported in the United States that Moldova, like Ukraine, has been strong-armed by Russia to shun Western Europe and NATO. But so far there’s been only the barest hint of protest here. Moldovans are too busy stampeding for the exits. If illegal immigration were an Olympic sport, we would be the gold medalists. Nearly a quarter of the four million people of Moldova have found work abroad, and many more would like to join them.

For that reason, Americans need to know that Moldova, though far away and virtually never in their consciousness, would not be unrecognizable. On the contrary, we should be familiar enough to qualify as your 51st state. Yes, Moldova. Even ahead of Puerto Rico.

Why, you ask? Think of us as John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” Here, throngs of seasonal workers still roam the country, finding neither peace nor work. They suffer from hunger and their children are emaciated. Alas, we haven’t found our Eleanor Roosevelt, to read about us in the presidential mansion and then see for herself how much truth the novelist wrote. The spouses of Moldovan politicians don’t do that kind of reading or traveling. And so the mass of Moldovans store up their grapes of wrath to this day, after 22 years of strange independence.

I say strange because Moldovans, in contrast to Americans, didn’t have to fight for our freedom. So we don’t know its price. One morning in August 1991, after a coup to revive Soviet Communism collapsed in Moscow, a voice on the radio announced that this was no longer the Soviet Union, but independent Moldova. Imagine if the Boston Tea Party had been organized by British officials in Boston as King George III fended off a coup in London, and the officials sat along the harbor with their cups of tea, saying: “Carry on, fellows, carry on. Now throw this into the water! Excellent. I’m leaving for London. And by the way, here’s your Declaration of Independence. Good luck!”

Like America, Moldova is a young nation. The difference is, we act like one. In contrast to Americans, who strive toward their dreams, Moldovans prefer just to dream. Like teenagers, we want all the privileges of grown-up life but without its responsibility.

Moldovans, like Americans, are also a people of the frontier. It’s not the goal that’s important, but the striving. Perhaps we understand the absurdity of our search for the promised land of Europe, but we can’t stop ourselves. The Crusaders took two centuries before they gave up on marching toward Jerusalem, having found only a desert. Now, the Moldovans find nothing in Europe except grueling work for meager wages. The one sure source of money here is remittances from those who work abroad, mostly illegally.

Moldovans will risk anything to sneak across borders in search of a better life. Small wonder. Poor Moldova has one of Europe’s highest rates of alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization says a reasonable level of drinking is roughly a gallon of pure alcohol per capita a year. Here in Moldova, we imbibe about two and a half gallons, outranking even our neighbors the Russians.

So maybe we should forget about Europe, and also give up on Russia bailing us out. Maybe we should look to becoming part of the United States. We do, in fact, have something to offer, unusual in the former Soviet Union: We don’t make a fuss. Since independence, there have been no real organized protests against our rulers.

We don’t protest an epidemic of tuberculosis comparable to what occurred after World War II. Or over the average student’s stipend, $15 a month. Or the $40-a-month pension on which a retirees must scrape by. Or our government’s resale of Russian natural gas to its citizens at a 100 percent markup. I know my suggestion is unlikely to be taken seriously by Americans. But be warned. The former Soviet republics cannot function on their own. If Europe isn’t an option, what about America?

If the United States doesn’t want to adopt us in one fell swoop, you’ll find us coming anyway, even if it’s just a trickle. Maybe we’ll pose as an underwater hockey team — yes, it’s a real sport — gain visas as athletes and then request political asylum. (That worked for one group of Moldovans in 2003, in Canada.)

In any case, America, you can’t simply shake us off. Moldova and our ilk are a movable feast. Even if you’re not hungry, we are.

Vladimir Lorchenkov, a Moldovan journalist and writer, is the author of the forthcoming novel The Good Life Elsewhere, which was translated by Ross Ufberg from the Russian, as was this essay.

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