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Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family

by Stephen Henighan

You would be correct to assume that the Soviet Union crumbled back in 1991 – sort of. Though most of the statues of Lenin have disappeared, the desperation and economic hopelessness that characterized life for many citizens under the Soviets is still alive, and this grim reality is painted in vivid shades of grey by Stephen Henighan in Lost Province.

Henighan lived with the Lençuta family in the capital city of Chisinau while teaching English in the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1994. Moldova is a small country wedged between Romania on the west and Ukraine to the east. The history of the country is a sad tale of Russian colonialism, Romanian nationalism, and language laws manipulated by opportunistic politicians. Henighan, who schooled himself in Romanian before his trip, discovers a sort of cultural purgatory in Moldova, which was part of Romania until becoming a Soviet republic in 1940.

The Lençutas take Henighan in and he quickly feels loved by the family, but also suffocated by the lack of personal space. He takes walks just to escape and discovers a surreal world that democracy and the modern world has largely passed by.

Henighan describes vast numbers of young, unemployed Moldovan men prowling the city in track suits and sandals, looking for an escape from boredom and a bleak future – that is when they’re not watching MTV and being seduced by the unattainable riches of the West. Many wind up in dubious business schemes, fall into alcohol abuse and petty theft, or worse, join the Russian mafia, seemingly the only beneficiary of Eastern Europe’s ruthless new economic “openness.” The women don’t fare much better, working at low-paying, menial jobs or exported by the mafia to work as prostitutes in other parts of Europe.

Lost Province is often a bleak book, but Henighan’s analysis and personal portraits shine needed light into the dark corners of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Moldovans are rejecting their own history and culture, and those around them – even their former compatriots in Romania – are following suit.