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‘Every village that vanishes is like a healthy cell leaving the human body.’ A Romanian photographer captures a fading part of Moldovan life. From Ziarul de Garda.
When asked if he wanted to see a school without pupils in Pietrosu, in the Falesti district, Stefan Susai didn’t hesitate. The mayor of the village had tears in his eyes as he opened the door. The Moldovan flag was hanging in tatters, but the rest looked as if students had left the building only the day before. In some classrooms everything was intact; teaching materials were still there. Someone had written on a blackboard, “Dear school, I will never forget you.”
The Romanian photographer has been traveling around Moldova for years to document vanishing villages like Pietrosu. On a Saturday in October, we joined him on a trip to the village of Truseni, to see for ourselves how village life in Moldova is changing.
On the way, Susai recalls a conversation with [Moldovan poet] Grigore Vieru, reproduced in his 2009 book “Last House in the Soviet Union.” Vieru said that some people dream of reaching the cosmos, but that all his life he dreamed of crossing the Prut, the river that separates Romania and Moldova. Susai replied that on the other side of Prut, there was someone who had always wanted to cross the river in the opposite direction to see Moldova. It was him.
And once Susai succeeded, he never stopped. “As a child, when I heard that there were Romanians on both sides of the Prut, I didn’t understand and nobody explained the situation to me,” he says. “But when I came here, I became very attached to the place, and I liked the villages. Moldova is still authentic to a certain extent, there are still authentic peasants, there is still rural architecture.”
That’s where his optimism about Moldovan villages ends.
Once in Truseni, we leave the car behind and start walking through the village. The houses are a patchwork. Some are built in the European style. Some are left in disrepair. At least one lane is asphalted, others not. When a car passes, dust flies and settles on our shoes.
“The villages near Chisinau have been turned into dormitory areas and have practically lost their personality,” Susai says.
He blames the loss of architectural integrity on Moldova’s high emigration. Everyone wants to do to their house what they see abroad. The villages that kept their old look often have houses whose original owners died and whose new owners have forgotten about them.
“In [the village of] Drepcauti, in the Briceni district, for example, I found a very nice house and asked whose it was,” Susai says. “I was told that the people living there had died, but that I could go in. I didn’t, but I asked who lived in the other houses, which were so well-preserved. They [the locals] pointed to most of the houses and said: he died, he died, he’s dying, he died, and so on.”
As we walk on, Susai talks about problems likely to arise in villages in addition to depopulation, such as climate and water quality issues. He believes that in 20-30 years’ time, we might look back and realize how good things still are now.
Stopping by a well with a tin bucket, he notes that such things are becoming rarities, replaced by plastic. The dogs in the nearby sheepfold start barking.
‘People Who Knew What Beauty Meant’
Susai takes photos whenever something catches his eye. He goes on to talk about the decline of the traditional village, about the fact that there are no more craftsmen like in the past – ones who make wooden decorations, for example – and that people merely copy things they see outside Moldova.
“There are some things that don’t fit with the architecture here, and the mayors should intervene,” he says. “I saw a round house somewhere, and I asked the local mayor why he allowed that. He said it belonged to some guys who came from Portugal and had money. You can have money, but you don’t do that in the center of the village, where you have to preserve the architecture. The foreigners who still come here want to see something authentic; they want to see what characterizes a nation.”
He discovered one of the most beautiful houses in Moldova in the village of Malaiesti. It was blue, simple, built by peasants. “People with no education, but who knew what beauty meant,” says Susai. “But their heirs made a mockery of it.”
From time to time, a cyclist, a child, or an elderly man passes by. We’re at the foot of a hill when we stop to ask a young woman if we can find old houses farther on.
“This is the way to the center, but I don’t look at houses,” she says. “But what do you look at?” asks Susai. “I look at the road,” she replies.
When we get to the top of the hill, a man herding goats comes up to meet us. At first he’s reluctant to let us photograph him, but within minutes Susai persuades him, and he lets us into his yard. He shows us his house and cellar and is ready to show us an even older house, his mother’s, if we wait a few minutes for him to take the goats to the pasture.
The herder, whose name is Victor, returns as promised and leads us down a grass-covered country road to the house he grew up in. His mother died when she was almost 100 years old. The garden is guarded by a skinny dog on a chain, and Volodia the pig naps nearby. The house rises in the background.
The paint on the porch is fading, and the door has a padlock attached to it. In the house, under a beam, there are photographs wrapped in old paper. Floral handkerchiefs on the walls have gathered dust. No one sits at the table, and the light bulb in the ceiling no longer burns.
The owner tells us something about everything we point at. He unfolds the paper with the old photos and lists the names of the faces looking up at us. He shakes off the dust from a handkerchief. “Quality work,” he says. Susai finds an issue of the Russian-language newspaper Тrud, featuring a trip Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took to France.
The camera keeps clicking as he takes one photo after another.
On the way out, the padlock is fastened back into place, the wooden door to the porch closed, and Victor asks us to step over the hay on the doorstep, which he says is “for the animals.”
When we return to Chisinau, Susai will say that Moldovan people are welcoming, hospitable, and eager to talk, “just like the travel brochures about Moldova say,” and that he rarely meets anyone having a bad day.
During his trips, he sometimes runs into people with extraordinary life stories. But any discussion with the locals mostly leads to the past, rather than addressing ways in which what’s left could be preserved.
A Future in Doubt
We leave the alley, then slowly the village. Susai recounts how schools and houses disappear from other parts of Moldova. He recently went to take photos in the village of Horesti because he was convinced the end of its school was near. “The school will disappear; it will be closed,” he says. He wants to take photos of the last pupils to enter its halls.
“It’s impressive and awful at the same time when you know there were a thousand students and now there are 80. One classroom only has four students. It’s something that can’t be described. And the village will die. You sit and think that it survived world wars, the Soviet Union’s disintegration and now, in peacetime, this village, like many others, is disappearing. It’s like a sick person on life support; it will die. It hurts me every time I see such a situation and know what it was before.”
Another time, however, he managed to get some young people to think twice about what they wanted to do with a house they inherited. It was in the village of Larga in the summer of 2015. The house was impressive, “with exquisite wood carvings, and shutters on the windows.” Stefan stopped to take a closer look. Two young men came out and, while chatting, said their grandmother now lived there. They said that after she died, they would tear down the house and build a European-style one in its place.
“I told them that they should keep it – it was so well-maintained as it was – and that no one needed their European-style house. … You can’t really find houses like that one anymore. The man replied: ‘Maybe we don’t know how to appreciate what’s important anymore.’ And I told him that maybe he was right. I passed by the house recently and it’s still intact, still in good shape,” says the photographer.
We ask him how we should view the phenomena of depopulation and depersonalization of villages.
“With concern,” he replies. “There is a governmental document called Moldova 2030, which says that in a short time many more villages will disappear, their population will migrate, and that the future of villages is uncertain.”
He says a national program to save villages is needed. “Moldova without villages will not be a country, but just another state with just another population. … Every village that disappears is a healthy cell leaving the human body. Moldova without its villages is nothing.”
Susai has published several books about Moldovan traditions, villages, and village houses and their inhabitants. He says it’s important to be able to share the “dowry” of recovered photographs, and that his findings from rural areas could be useful for researchers. “A book is like cutting a slice out of time and giving it to others.”
He encourages students to photograph rural areas as much as possible and to talk to older people there, so their stories don’t disappear along with them, their houses, and their villages.
As Truseni faded from the car’s rear-view mirror, I felt a flood of other memories of villages, including the one I grew up in; villages I visited for work or to admire a river or a pond; villages that even Moldovans who left years ago still consider home.
There were no more clicks of the camera – only silence, about both the past and the future.
Aliona Ciurca is a reporter at Ziarul de Garda, a Moldovan newspaper where this article was originally published. Reprinted with permission and edited for concision and clarity.
Photos by Stefan Susai. Translated by Ioana Caloianu.