Ukraine shares a long border with Moldova, where I served in the Peace Corps from 2016 to 2018. With Russian forces now threatening Ukraine, it’s a good time to share some things I learned about the neighborhood.
Moldova and Ukraine have separate identities and histories, and I don’t claim any expertise about Ukraine, but the following seven photos do tell interesting stories:
I’ll start with this photo of me with Vladimir, my “host father” during my pre-service training. He served in the Soviet military, preparing to fight their Cold War enemy — in other words, us. Now he was hosting an American. For so many Moldovans — and Ukrainians — the Russian military is not an abstraction. It’s something they know personally.
Americans endured great suffering during World War Two. My father was among those who saw friends die in combat. Yet the Soviet Union had more than 50 times as many deaths as we did, a toll that’s seared into their collective memory. Almost every Moldovan city and village has a memorial, including this one in the capital. Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukrainian sovereignty is unacceptable, and I’m glad to see our government pushing back so forcefully, but we shouldn’t be surprised when Russians obsess about the security of their borders.
This Soviet memorial and Orthodox church are in Comrat, a small city that is the capital of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia, which we visited. Most Gagauz people speak Russian instead of Romanian. So do people in other parts of Moldova. Ukraine also has regions where most people speak Russian and have strong cultural and familial ties to Russia. Simultaneously, some of these same people now feel more loyal to Ukraine than to Russia. It’s complicated.
This statue is outside the school where Champa taught. Sanduța Petru served in the Soviet military and was killed in Afghanistan. His memorial reminds us that the Soviets suffered a military disaster there long before our own recent debacle. About 15,000 Soviet troops were killed during nine years of fighting with the Mujahideen, a force with less equipment and training than Ukraine has now. Putin surely remembers that conflict, although one wonders what conclusions he draws from it.
This statue in Moldova’s capital memorializes the devastating deportation of Moldovans to Siberia and other locations during Stalin’s rule. Many died during this Great Purge and Moldovans have never forgotten about it. I met several families whose relatives or friends were deported. Tens of thousands of Ukranians were banished as well and I assume their neighbors haven’t forgotten, either.
Champa and I toured Odessa, where my grandmother grew up. We visited the magnificent opera house and strolled past beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues. Odessa was the third largest city in the Russian empire. As you can see in this photo, it’s a Ukrainian port along the Black Sea. If Putin attacks from here, as some analysts predict, his troops could march into the city via the famous Odessa Steps, which Sergei Eisenstein immortalized in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Stalin later banned that film over fears it might incite a riot against his regime. That’s interesting to contemplate now.
Finally, while President Biden and others are warning loudly about the Russian threat, Ukraine’s leader has acted calmer, as have many Ukranians (and Moldovans, for that matter). President Zelensky’s approach may be calculated but he also was a comedian before entering politics. He’s not alone among Ukranians in having a sense of humor, as you can see from this shop window in Odessa.
I emphasize again that I served in Moldova, not Ukraine, which is a bit like someone opining about the United States after living for two years in Canada. But I was in the region long enough to grasp the complexity of its history and culture. If you hear an American politician or pundit suggesting the current situation can be easily explained or resolved, I encourage you to be very skeptical.