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The Ghosts of Communist Past

Last Update: 2/17/2013 11:26 PM

By Mike Schowalter 

Recently I sat down with RPCV Alex Lubinov to talk about ghost stories in Eastern Europe. I didn’t expect that we would talk about real ghosts that continue to haunt Moldova. Born in Ukraine, Alex moved to the United States when he was five years old. Eighteen years later, Alex returned to Eastern Europe, where he worked in business advising, and on environmental and health development. Recounting his return to Eastern Europe after so many years, Alex reflected, “It’s almost like a counter-factual personal history. I think for me that was really pressing. It’s much more visceral, it’s much more raw because in part, I come from that background. I understand what they feel at times – not everything, but I understand where it’s coming from.” And partly because Alex grew up in the United States, the contrast between what he saw and what he could have grown up with was quite astounding.

Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Europe is different than the classic idea that most people have in mind when they think of the Peace Corps. Whereas in most of the world, countries are building economically for the first time (at least in a Western sense), in Eastern Europe, communities are rebuilding around the remnants of a government led society that fell around them. Memories are fresh with both the good and the bad of the Soviet Union, and what were once plans for the future have subsequently been abandoned. Everywhere one goes in Eastern Europe, the land and the infrastructure is a reminder of what could have been, while also begging the question of whether the past was a lost opportunity for something else.

During his pre-service training, Alex stayed with two families in their shared home. The grandfather there, a sort of patriarch to the families, once had his own farm-land. But one day the Soviet government took his land. When the Soviet system collapsed, instead of the land being returned to those that the government took from, it was sold to the highest bidder. “He would just talk about the kind of, you know, six in the morning until nine at night work he did, and he loved it because he was feeding his family with it, but he hasn’t done that in 30 years.”

Alex recounted the toll that such memories, tied to the land as they are, were a weight on his host-grandfather to this day. “This man was a consummate farmer and now he has no means of his own, and he can literally look at that land every morning, and he’s like, ‘It’s not mine.’ And that’s this kind of reminder to him of what he had and how he lost it. It tore him apart. This guy drank. I think most Moldovans drink to remember, but he certainly drank to forget.”

Whether it’s a ghost of what could have been, or the ghost of lost opportunity, nowhere is this more prevalent than in a city’s buildings themselves. “Moldova really does remind me of a ghost town that a lot of people live in,” remarked Alex. “It’s because you have these buildings that are just completely derelict, completely destroyed, whether they’re former pig slaughter houses, coal factories, or hydro-electric power plants.” Alex continued, “They’re decaying. And in part its Moldovan culture trying to respond to it, trying to say, ‘No, there’s no decay,’ and yet it’s always physically there. So when people tell you stories, their stories tend to revolve around land or buildings, or something they had that was taken away from them. And they can literally point down the street, just like this building, and see what’s going on with it? This is a sign of the times. It’s like being able to point at a ghost and saying, ‘We’re haunted by this.’”

To Alex, these buildings are like lost souls wandering the earth trying to escape purgatory. Except that these buildings don’t wander. Rather, our lives wander around the remnants of them and the buildings continue to hold the weight of memory. Alex would ask why certain buildings remained unchanged as new buildings were built around them. “They have this kind of look where they – it’s – you don’t know if it’s, they’re honoring this place, or if they’re afraid of the place, or there’s simply not enough money. But it’s almost like a pandora’s box that nobody really wants to open. And part of it is because of the raw emotion that I think is there.”

Alex continued, “I think that for Moldovans and for Eastern Europeans in part there’s unfinished business with a place. It was supposed to be a thriving metropolis. It was supposed to produce meat for people to eat. It was supposed to produce coal for people to use to heat their homes, and then it died, and it has almost unfinished business . . . . That building had a potential that millions of people were pinning their hopes on. I think as a result of that, that building has its own character, its own attitude. And that’s why people are kind of afraid of it. But they don’t know what it exactly is. They can’t interact with it in any real human way. And I think that’s what unnerves people so much. And that’s why those building tend to – they don’t go away. You don’t really know what to do with it. You don’t know how to interact with it.”

The ghosts of Communist past surrounded Alex and his site, Drochia. There are whole groups of homes, abandoned before they were even finished because the fall of the Soviet Union could no longer support the local economy. Representing abandoned dreams and discarded plans, Alex reflects, “They become a kind of tombstone, or a memory to what that person wanted.”

Some abandoned homes were once lived in too. Entering into such homes, Alex could usually tell what direction he was facing because families often left a small picture of Christ in the Eastern-most facing corner of the house, where many Eastern Orthodox Christians often place small icons for prayer at home. “When you walk in to derelict homes and you still see a picture being there as a way to guide people, but it’s no longer – no one’s in there. And you realize, who is it guiding? It’s like leaving hope in this tiny dark place. That, to me, always unnerved me.”

Similarly, in a forest within the city limits is an abandoned factory. Surrounded by a cement fence, it is clearly visible with Google Maps. Inside the compound, nature is retaking what humans have yet to regain for themselves. Grass pushes up through the concrete floor. Weather erodes and wears out the facilities. “I think its supernatural in the sense that there was industry there – it just never really grew into fruition. It never really grew into something stable. And it’s kind of haunting. It’s haunting in the way that Steven King describes homes being alive, and that’s really scary. These buildings were alive, and now they literally died and they’re not being used.”

Alex wonders if Moldovans need to look back before they can look forward. “That would be so interesting to see if there are people that I knew that can walk into those buildings and be like, “We’re going to make this work as a way of healing, and healing the people that pin their hopes on it.’” Alex also wonders how the patriarch of his first host family might respond. “I would imagine that if he had a chance to go to his land and just harvest once, just to do it once, he would be able to move on.”