On 15 January 1988, a dozen young Moldovans met to celebrate the birth of 19th century Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu. Gathering close to Eminescu’s bust in Chișinău’s snow-covered central park, the group recited poetry and sang patriotic songs. “When the moment came to say farewell, we had a feeling of loss,” says Anatol Șalaru, one of the group’s original participants. “So, I suggested that we see each other again, every Sunday, at Eminescu’s bust to talk, sing, and recite classic Romanian poetry.” A group of seven or eight indeed met up again at the same place every fortnight. But as the sessions became more regular, the crowd steadily grew and quickly numbered in the hundreds. The group became known as the Alexei Mateevici Literary-Musical Club. Its name honoured the poet, priest, and author of Moldova’s post-independence national anthem, Our Language.
The discussions at the club, held in the heart of the Moldovan capital, were deeply political. Members spoke out on historical events that had previously been taboo: the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact that resulted in the Soviet occupation of Moldova, the state-organised famine that killed hundreds of thousands across Moldova between 1946 and 1947, and the deportations that displaced more hundreds of thousands Moldovans between 1941 and 1951
The group’s repertoire of songs and poems were similarly political. In particular, the focus on Romanian culture was a slap in the face of the Soviet regime who had sought to distance Moldova from Bucharest via waves of repressions and forced Russification. After occupying Moldova in 1940, Soviets officials changed the alphabet from Latin to Cyrillic as part of a wider campaign to separate the two regions, which had been part of the same country in the interwar period.
During the Soviet era, the use of Russian proliferated and was enforced by the authorities as a state language. Russian became the lingua franca everywhere, from party meetings to city shops, despite the fact that most of the population spoke Romanian at home and as their mother tongue. University students were made to learn Moldovan history in Russian, while some generations of Moldovan medical students in the 80s found they only had access to Russian-language books: the “Moldovan-language” textbooks — or indeed textbooks that had been written in Romanian using Moldova’s newly distinct Cyrillic alphabet — had been destroyed by officials.
Against this backdrop, the Mateevici Literary Club was truly radical. Enabled by perestroika and glasnost, the group began reasserting their cultural roots. “The Mateevici club tried to generate an anti-Soviet front via literature in order to escape the great prison of nations. Being young, inexperienced, and chased by the KGB, we could not do anything else but use poetry and song in order to awaken our conationals,” Șalaru tells me.
Soon, however, the Mateevici Club moved from celebrating Romanian heritage to formulating political requests. They wanted a return to the Latin alphabet and the adoption of Romanian/Moldovan as an official state language. The demands had been made by Moldovan writers before, but had been largely unsuccessful. (In the late 60s, the writers’ demand to revert to the Latin alphabet had only seen the tiniest of concessions: add the letter ӂ ‘ge’ to the Cyrillic alphabet. The letter expresses a sound that is often used in Romanian but does not exist in Russian. As a result, my mother is called Angela rather than the Russian version, Anjela/Anzhela.)
In this way, the Mateevici Club built on a tradition set up by other literary clubs in Moldova and Romania. In more professional literary clubs, at the Writers’ Union in Chișinău, the youth magazine Tinerimea, or the Nadezhda Krupskaya Library, established and emerging writers gathered in closed spaces to read their own creations and discuss them with each other. Politics did come up, “but the message was often hidden behind five metaphors,” my parents, who regularly attended the clubs as journalism students, tell me. “Still, there was an air of freedom that we didn’t have elsewhere. It was like a small channel for revolt that the authorities allowed. They were so popular and crowded that we sometimes could not touch the floor with our feet; we were stuck like sardines in the room.” The clubs were also invaluable platforms for self-expression and networking for young writers and lovers of literature. “Everyone, including the young, were able and encouraged to say something on the works they’d heard — the literary clubs were our Facebook,” my father adds.
But the Mateevici Club was far more overtly political. It also took place outdoors, making it more public and less easy to control. All of this made the Soviet Moldovan government panic. Even though it was still winter, authorities turned on the fountain near the Eminescu bust — something that was usually reserved for Moldova’s warmer summer months — and organised open-air orchestral performances to prevent the youths from hearing each other. They asked the group to meet indoors rather than in the central park. Organisers refused. Some were arrested and beaten. The meetings went on.
Slowly, the Mateevici Club became bolder. In February 1989, they helped to organise a march of more than 30,000 people on Moldova’s Academy of Science, requesting a range of changes — from the recognition of the Latin alphabet to ecological demands —in what was one of Soviet Chișinău’s first anti-government mass demonstrations. “That’s when people felt they were a force,” Șalaru, the leader of the club, remembers. The protest was inspired by a series of powerful articles written by Gheorghe Malarciuc, and by Moldova’s most popular writer, Ion Druță, about the extreme use of pesticides in order to increase productivity in Soviet Moldova, as well as about the repressed cultural heritage mentioned above. The crowds also shouted “Moldovans, unite!” and “Down with the mafia!” — meaning the largely Russian-ethnic nomenclature that monopolised all branches of power in Soviet Moldova, a term borrowed from the widely popular Italian TV crime series The Octopus, historian Virgil Pâslariuc says. (“A slogan we’ve been shouting at protests for more than 30 years since,” he adds.)
The influence of the Mateevici Club went beyond Moldova’s capital city. In the provinces, too, dozens of similar literary clubs quickly popped up. One of the best-known examples involved a club in Tighina, Transnistria, where organisers were beaten and arrested on a summer day in 1989 for carrying a Romanian flag. The blue, yellow, and red tricolour would not be voted as Moldova’s official flag until the next year, in 1990.
“While the impulse [behind the club] came from the capital, the force came from across the republic,” says poet, writer, and editor Eugenia Bulat. She was part of the group who founded their own literary-musical club, Datina (Tradition), in Călărași, in the centre of Moldova. By joining literary-musical clubs in Chișinău since the mid-80s, she had been able to meet other young people from her district. “Slowly, we came to the idea that we needed a similar club in Călărași, especially for people who were unable to travel to the capital city,” she says.
Luckily for the group, the head of Călărași’s House of Culture was also director of the town’s Folklore Theatre — and he was on board with the idea. They organised their first monthly performance inside the House of Culture in January 1989, on Eminescu’s birthday. Throughout the next months, the concert hall was filled to its 600-seat capacity. People from neighbouring villages would eventually flock to listen to music, poetry, and discussions, even if it meant standing up throughout the show.
Featuring both famous poets and musicians from the capital alongside local talent, each of Datina’s monthly events had its own theme. Some were dedicated to classic poets or historical figures, while others tackled Soviet taboos. “We had a very moving meeting on 6 July 1989, when we commemorated 40 years since the deportations in 1949,” says Bulat. Organisers went around the town door to door to invite former deportees to join the meeting. Many went on stage to share their personal stories. “People cried for the full two and a half hour meeting,” says Bulat. On the same day that the event took place, the group’s founders decided to take their next step: organising their own local branch of Popular Front. Launched at the Writers’ Union in Chișinău in May 1989, the front was a political organisation inspired by similar groups in the Baltic states fighting for independence. The decision changed the course of Bulat’s life. She went on to become the first democratically elected mayor of her native village, Sadova, in 1990. The reforms she undertook included refusing to send the boys of the village to do the mandatory military service in the Soviet Army.
But Bulat’s story is not unique. Moldova’s national liberation movement abounds in stories of writers who became politicians. In March 1989, in what were the USSR’s first (partially) free elections, a dozen writers and intellectuals spearheading the “national renaissance” were elected as members of the Soviet Parliament in Moscow. Writer and President of the Popular Front, Ion Hadărcă, won the elections in Călărași partly thanks to the literary-musical events and canvassing of the Datina group. Until then, only factory workers, bureaucrats, and the odd cosmonaut, represented the people at the Kremlin. Ogonyok, the most read magazine in the Soviet Union, ran a cover featuring two new Moldovan members of the Soviet parliament: writer Vladimir Beșleagă, and the priest Petru Buburuz. Both symbolised a new spirit of the final days of the Soviet Empire.
At the peak of Moldova’s national liberation movement, on 27 August 1989, a million Moldovans gathered in the centre of Chișinău in what was called the Great National Assembly. Organised by the Popular Front, the protest saw demonstrators sing the same patriotic songs and recite the same political poetry that they had heard at the literary and musical clubs across the republic. Followed up by two similar National Assemblies, including one on 27 August 1991, the event eventually gave its name to Chișinău’s central square, previously called Victory Square during the Soviet era.
“It was something shivering,” Hadârcă tells me. He recalls how the Moscow paper Pravda minimised and denigrated the demonstration, calling it a “tolpa” (or “mob”). “This only motivated us more.”
Three days later, on 31 August 1989, Soviet Moldovan authorities adopted the Latin alphabet, adding “Moldovan” as a state language in addition to Russian. The day of the march — 27 August — became Moldova’s independence day two years later.