A journey from the evil empire to the land of the free
Text of the speech made by Vlad Spânu, President of the Moldova Foundation, at the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society (University of Virginia in Charlottesville), as it was delivered on March 18, 2011 (for Romanian translation, click here).
It is an honor and privilege for me to speak at one of the oldest debating societies in North America created in 1825, which is named after the first U.S. Secretary of State, second American vice-president and the third president. Thank you to organizers, Chris Mullen and Marie Connor, for their meticulous preparation for this nice event and for their hospitality. I am also glad to be here, on the University of Virginia’s ground, where my daughter is currently a student.
I was born into a family of farmers, of “collective farmers” in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, my parents could not become real farmers, as my grandparents have been before the Soviets occupied a portion of Eastern Romania, called Bessarabia, back in 1940, as result of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression agreement, signed in 1939, which divided Europe between the USSR and the Nazi Germany.
In 1949, in the new created Soviet republic of Moldova, the year when my parents got married, the Soviet Bolsheviks confiscated private land from all peasants and organized mass deportation to GULAG in Siberia for those who were opposing nationalization. To avoid deportation, people were in hiding. It is the case of my grandparents-in-law, who have been hiding in forests for 6 months. My grandmother’s brother and his family were not so lucky and they were deported for many years. “The most dangerous elements” of the Soviet communists – mainly priests, teachers, mayors, and just who considered themselves Romanians and voiced their disagreement with occupation – have been killed without any due judicial process and dumped in mass graves. The unknown chapter in our history until recently was the level of resistance to Soviet occupation of the local population in Moldova, including armed resistance organized by small commandos engaged in random insurgent actions against Soviet political activists that took place from 1944 until mid-1950s.
This forced collectivization happened two years after another cataclysm took place – an organized mass starvation in 1946-1947 that took a toll of about 295,000 lives. The famine was deliberately caused by Soviet authorities, who imposed a total confiscation of the prior year’s harvest “for the needs of the state”, including stocks of seeds, farmers had put aside for sawing, in the aftermath of the 1945-1946 drought. The draught and famine were used by the Kremlin as the means to bring the rural population to its knees, to stop resistance movements against land collectivization, a move similar with 1930s starvation in neighboring Ukraine. It was a disaster, people committed suicide to end their misery, and, in some poor areas, cases of cannibalism have been recorded. Even in these years of famine, some 15,550 people were deported from Soviet Moldova to Siberia in 1946 and 21,707 in 1947. The total number of Moldovan deportees throughout the Soviet rule is considered to be half a million from the total number of population of less than 3 million. Adding up this figure of deportees with the number of people who lost their lives because of deliberate starvation and we get a frightening number of 30% of the total population.
Besides land, farmers had to give to the state all agricultural equipment, their caws, horses, sheep, being left with a minimal number imposed by the Soviet authorities just for subsistence. I recall my mother-in-law’s story. She was 12 in 1949 when Soviet activists came to take her family’s animals, including her beloved horse. Every time the collective farm’s horse herd was passing nearby her house, her horse would stop and look over the gate with sad eyes. My mother-in-law is now 74, residing in Romania, but still she is marked by that lose.
The schools were transformed in reeducation camps. Moscow was using schools as communist propaganda machines. History, social studies and the like suffered the most. I was always struggling matching the fabricated Soviet history I was hearing in school and what my grandparents and my parents were telling me they knew who we are as people, belonging to Romanians, but not to the homo Sovieticus. I also could not match the “brave Soviet liberator” of the Red Army presented in history books with stories of my mother who were forced to hide in 1944, along with her sister, to avoid being raped by the Soviet soldiers. Only in recent years, I learnt about this mass phenomenon of rape that took place in countries during the Soviet occupation.
Similarly, people from other Soviet republics have suffered - Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia, Armenia, including from the two Slavic nations – Ukraine and Belarus.
Geographically, the Republic of Moldova is the north-eastern region of Romania, eastern part of the medieval Principality of Moldova. Stalin’s propaganda coined the term "Moldovans" for the people living in the newly acquired Soviet occupied Moldova, targeting especially because these people identified themselves as Romanians. The Bolsheviks even changed the alphabet of the Romanian language in Moldova – from Latin to Cyrillic – calling it Moldovan. At the university level, the language of education for all, including the majority, the Romanians, was Russian. In 1979, when I became a student at the Moldova State University there were two groups for my major: one was taught in Russian, while the other – formally in Romanian, with Cyrillic alphabet, of course. I have chosen the Romanian group, where I met my future wife, who is here today, to find out later that the only course taught in Romanian was the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
About 90 % of churches in Moldova have been closed by 1962, they being transformed by the Soviet regime in clubs, warehouses, or bars. The Bolsheviks had no God in their hearts and minds, for them Stalin was their idol. Every Sunday morning at 10AM, my grandfather, would turn the radio on to the Radio Free Europe channel for church service, broadcasted live from Romanian churches in Western Europe. He also hid the family Bible and other religious texts. In doing so, he risked to be imprisoned, but keeping his and his family's faith in God during those times was what mattered.
Thus, the Soviets took from people everything: private property, religion, language and the right to our national identity. If another 50-70 years the communist regime survived in the USSR, there might have been little chances to see on the map of Europe countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and other former Soviet republics.
Fortunately for us, towards the end of the Cold War, thanks, in part, to the U.S. and its leader Ronald Reagan, glasnost and perestroika came, and starting with 1988, in just three years, everything was changed. Living through those revolutionary times I can say proudly that I took part in most of the events, along with my family and my countrymen. We participated in public peaceful protests and meetings to voice our desire for liberty that started from a few dozens of people and ended with several hundreds of thousands in 1989. My son, who was 4 years old in 1988 and who joined the USMC this year, was also a participant, shouting on my shoulders something he had no idea about, but he knew of it's bad connotation: “Down with Demidenco!” – which was the last name of the Soviet Moldova’s prosecutor general, who ordered the arrest of a few dozen of protesters in the previous weekend. We still laugh remembering that scene.
In 1990, I have grabbed a unique opportunity in those times to participate in a national contest organized by the national government of Moldova, still under the Soviet control, but with a large degree of autonomy thanks to the national movement and to a patriot who was the prime minister. I was given a scholarship, along with other 14 young man and women, to Romania, a place prohibited to visit for us, residents of Soviet Moldova, after World War II.
My master degree in administration acquired in Bucharest helped me to start a new career in the Foreign Service of the independent Moldova, being among other young diplomats who put the foundation of Moldova’s foreign relations, negotiating first bilateral and multilateral agreements and getting membership for the Republic of Moldova in international organizations. I will remember for the rest of my life my first official trip, which was to China. In less than 3 months on the job, I found myself the chef negotiator at the table with experienced Chinese diplomats to draft the documents to be signed between Moldovan president and his Chinese counterpart in a visit to China scheduled in the following two weeks. We were hosted in a governmental compound downtown Beijing, where lines of communication were unsecured, therefore, no way we could freely communicate with our colleagues back home. Besides, we had little money and could not afford paying to the Chinese $12 a page to be faxed to Moldova. Ultimately, to my satisfaction, all documents – statements of the two presidents, cooperation agreements between the foreign affairs ministries and other agreements turned out to be accepted by Moldovan leaders and have been signed during the president’s visit.
Then, in 1994, I was asked by Moldova’s first ambassador to the U.S., who was Moldova’s first minister of foreign affairs, to join his team in Washington. I went back to Moldova in 1997 and was sent back to Washington again in 1998 to be charge d’affairs that lasted for 6 months before a new ambassador was appointed. I was sent to organize three visits in three months – of the minister of foreign affairs in August, of president - in September, and prime minister - in October. My wife still reminds me about those hectic months when I had to completely “forget” about my family.
In 2001, when the Communist Party took fool control of the Moldovan parliament and government, I had to resign. Their policies were the opposite of my principles and ideals, leaving me with no other choice.
My wife and I have decided to leave Moldova for the United States. It was a difficult decision to make, leaving everything behind – a successful career, our parents, brothers, friends, and house. Now, looking back, we are glad we did it. I knew Europe, I travelled to Canada, Asia, but nothing could be compared with the United States. Not because it was easy to emigrate, quite the opposite.
You, who were born here, in the United States, know your country well, but I want to tell you from a European prospective, from the part of Europe that was the most oppressed by the Stalinist regime. I want to give my prospective why this country is better than the rest of the world and why it is important to keep U.S. this way for Americans, but also for the rest of the nations. This is especially important now, when in the last several years, there are clear signs that the U.S. is moving towards a European-style social structure.
Let’s take the political system of the United States and compare it to political system in many countries in Europe.
First, the executive branch in the U.S. is headed by president, while in many countries in Europe the executive has two ‘bosses’ – a president, usually elected by people (in parliamentarian republics, like it is the case of Moldova, president is elected by parliament) and the prime minister approved by the parliament, being proposed by president. That is, there is the duality of the executive branch. As result, besides typical healthy political struggle between the executive and legislative branches, in European countries, the toughest fight is between president and prime minister. This lead to political instability, government dismissal, which creates, in many instances, an environment of political chaos. In post World War II, for example, the Italian government has been changed 60 times in 65 years. Today, the political capital, energy and scares resources are spent for political fights between president and prime minister in places like Ukraine, Poland, Romania, to name a few.
The second difference is the number of parties – in the United States there two main parties (left and right, democrats and republicans), in Europe – there are dozens of parties (left, right, center-right, center-left, green, red and other colors of the rainbow). The fragmentation of the political spectrum leads to bogus coalition in parliament and in government, intrigues, and early dismissals of government and dissolutions of parliament.
Another difference of the political system is the way of voting. In the United States members of Congress are elected in electoral districts, but in many European countries (like Romania, Ukraine, Moldova) by party lists. Party bosses decide who gets what place on the list, based, usually not on their merits, but on the money each member contributes, leaving place for corruption. But most importantly, voters cannot keep members of the legislative branch accountable for their wrong doings.
Another aspect of the American exceptionalism (a term first used by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America in 1831) is its unique business environment that has its roots in individual liberties and entrepreneurial spirit of the people. In the United States taking a risk in a business venture is a norm. After all, first settlers of the New World (and others that followed) risked everything when they left their home countries, travelling by sea for weeks, starting their new life from scratch. In Europe, for centuries, to start a business was more like a privilege reserved for the upper class and the licensing and regulation is much stricter than it is in the U.S.
The tax system is another obstacle that prevents Europeans to achieve efficiency. The value added tax (VAT), despite its name, does not add any value at all, it kills businesses and entrepreneurial spirit. For any step of the process of producing goods, businesses are taxed – when buying equipment, raw materials, parts, or getting services. Average VAT is around 20 percent from the cost of the goods or services. An entrepreneur in Europe already pays the government 20% for every purchase he made, before introducing the new product on the market. And it is painful for me to hear some voices in the United States who want to implement the VAT system in this country.
Let me say a few words about the role of the United States in the world today. Nobody said it better than Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, co-founder of the Solidarity movement that overthrew the communist regime in Poland in 1989-1990 and, ultimately, made a fatal crack in the Soviet block.
Walesa said in 2010 at an event in Chicago: “The United States is only one superpower. Today they lead the world. Nobody has doubts about it – militarily. They also lead economically, but they’re getting weak. They don’t lead morally and politically anymore. The world has no leadership. The United States was always the last resort and hope for all other nations. There was the hope, whenever something was going wrong, one could count on the United States. Today, we lost that hope” (Feb. 5, 2010, Lifesitenews.com).
Half a year earlier, in 2009, this anti-communist icon, along with other 21 ex-presidents, prime ministers, ministers from Central and Eastern Europe wrote a 6 page-long letter to the Obama administration pleading the United States not to abandon its leadership role in the world and not to abandon its strategic relations with America’s strongest allies and friends – countries of Central and Eastern Europe. These were powerful words from people whose liberties have been oppressed by the evil empire, but who had the courage and wisdom to stand up against it, defending their right and leading their people to free their countries from tyranny. Unfortunately, the United States’ administration did not change its course since then and the voices of these leaders will remain in history as a warning for the U.S. that was ignored.
Instead of strengthening its relations with allies and friendly nations, the U.S. invests heavily in totalitarian and corrupt governments. Let’s look at the top 7 countries that have received U.S. foreign aid in 2009: Afghanistan - $8.8 billion; Israel – $2.4 bil.; Iraq – $2.3 bill.; Egypt – $1.8 bil.; Pakistan – $1.8 bil.; Sudan – $1.2 bil.; West Bank/Gaza – $1.0 bil. Except Israel, which is the United States ally in the Middle East and shares similar democratic value with us, the investment in other countries is not sustainable in the long run. It is like pouring water into a bucket full of holes. Now, imagine what will be the return on investment if this amounts of money would be spend in friendly nations in places like Macedonia, or Ukraine, or Moldova, or Georgia that are still struggling to become fully democratic.
The United States’ foreign policy has to change its priorities – embracing those nations who have their arms open for the United States, instead of trying for decades to make friends those who wish harm to the U.S. Nevertheless, by not giving billions of dollars to authoritarian and corrupt regimes, does not mean the U.S. should not work with civil society in those countries who want to live in liberty. Independent media, especially in the wake of the social media technology boom, is an important tool to win the hearts and minds of people in the oppressed regimes. What the Radio Free Europe and Voice of America did for people east of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, today new media should do for people in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, or Egypt. In other words, the United States must invest tax-payers money wisely, with maximum return.
That being said, I still believe in the United States of tomorrow. This country that became my second home has something that no other nation has – a strong foundation, created by people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The Founding Fathers of this nation have created a structure that put in place an environment of unique system of individual freedoms and liberties. This structure is hard to dismantle, although we are witnessing these days some erosion of it. This system is strong because of the checks and balances put in place by our Constitution. No matter where immigrants come from – Great Britain or China, Ireland or Romania, Ghana or India – they become part of the system, strengthening it because people, who come here, like me and my family, value the freedom and liberty and will do whatever it takes to preserve it. Therefore, the U.S. system might not be perfect, but is the best in the world and our politicians should not look to Europe or elsewhere to borrow other models.
We have to tell the new generation that comes after us that they need to preserve the land of the free left to us by Founding Fathers of this nation and previous generations. We have to use all available tribunes for that. I am confident that the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society and similar groups will take the lead in this endeavor.