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REZINA, Moldova—Northern Moldova is one of the poorest regions in the poorest country in Europe. Two decades after the hardly-remembered War of Transdnistria, the battered region stands on little more than dust and remittances. What it does have—in ample quantity—is religion.
As in other former Soviet republics, spirituality has filled the material void, and the Orthodox Church is thriving. According to the Moldova Foundation, roughly 98 percent of Moldova’s population belongs to a church. But in Moldova one must ask—what kind of church? Is it European? Russian? Something else? You will find a smattering of Catholic churches, a handful of Sunni mosques, a few groups of Mormons, and of course the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is dominant. On this particular summer night in early August, as the sun darkens the Dniester River, the country’s intense religiosity is the main event. It is Thursday evening, and like every Thursday, the Saharna Monastery, one of the most well-known monasteries in the country, opens its cloister gates to allow the public inside to attend a mass exorcism.
Past the wooden crucifixes that dot the crumbling townships, inside the monastery, around 200 people have gathered to expel their demons. I watch a dozen of the faithful dunk themselves in holy water and kiss the base of a steel cross, preparing to purge themselves of demons—dyavoli, as they are called here. The mystically devout that are present this evening are surprisingly young: The vast majority are teenagers. They huddle together in little packs, whispering over candles. American University’s Elizabeth Worden, an expert on Moldovan national identity, says she has witnessed an intense rise in the society’s religiosity in the past 15 years. “In the ’90s, there was a curriculum on spiritual and moral values,” says Worden. “But by 2008 … the school assemblies had these crazy religious overtones.”
As Moldova enters its third decade of independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion may be the only social force that is as rampant as the corruption that has swallowed the public and private sector. University students, almost without fail, must bribe professors to pass courses. Malls and shopping centers, such as the one in the heart of Balti, Moldova’s second-largest city, undergo abrupt, massive expansions—not in the name of commerce, but in the pursuit of money laundering. Even those organizations and offices that were set up to combat the country’s corruption are accused of being part of the racket. Amid this sea of corruption, the Orthodox Church has become one of the few remaining institutions with something approaching respectability. “What you have is [the Orthodox Church] standing up and apart from a lot of institutions that aren’t respected, emerging within this illiberal democracy,” says Tanya Domi, a researcher at Columbia University.
“Sergey!” A black-robed priest with a scraggly beard bellows out the names of the faithful who have come to the exorcism. “Natasha! Igor! Andrei! Natalia! Ekaterina! Vyacheslav-Aleksandr-Daria-Ivan-Anatoly-Viktor-Veronika-Ksenyia-Vladimir!” The candles flutter. A shriek arises from somewhere deep in the crowd. Then, 10 feet from me, a woman screams: Davaite dyavoli! Davaite dyavoli!
The crowd around her jumps. A man, presumably her boyfriend, muffles her mouth with his hand and sways her back and forth. I look at my watch. It was already 1 a.m., and half a dozen women are screaming. A girl, who looks to be about 20, writhes and presses herself into her boyfriend’s shoulder. Someone hands him a bottle of silt taken from the pool of holy water. He dumps the murky mix into his mouth, swirls it around, and spits it in his girlfriend’s face before pulling her back. And then he smiles.
This stark and superstitious religiosity stands in contrast to the image Moldova has recently attempted to cultivate. A few months ago, the residents of the Moldovan capital of Chisinau held their first-ever Gay Pride parade. Unlike in neighboring Georgia and Russia, where priests and religious thugs brutally beat gay-rights supporters in the streets, Orthodox Moldovans left the LGBT parade alone. The tiny country was praised as a progressive bulwark against a reactionary regional slide.
But experts say that the notion that a highly religious Moldova is becoming more tolerant is a ruse, mainly intended to please the European Union, which is considering the country for membership. Moldova has feinted to the left on social and societal issues, while lagging on both judicial and media reforms. And with gay rights, Moldova—under the heavy influence of the Orthodox Church—still largely follows Moscow’s lead, which has become increasingly repressive. Indeed, the religious yoke of Moscow has a long history. In 1812, the Russian Orthodox Church seized the Moldovan church, and the latter has remained subservient ever since. And so, a few months after currying favor with Brussels, the Moldovan parliament passed a law that was nearly identical to Russia’s much-maligned anti-gay statute. The U.S. State Department noted that the Orthodox Church had “welcomed” the local ordinances the new law was based on.
At the Saharna Monastery, after hours of chanting and screaming, the exorcism ends at 2 a.m. The teenagers, divided in their various cliques, filter out into the night. These kids clumped together, standing in packs, murmuring to one another as they left. Of course, a few had attended for the sheer spectacle, to participate in a voyeuristic way in this bizarre mix of religion and the occult. When a scream erupted from the writhing mass of teenage churchgoers, it was often met by a handful of giggles from different corners of the crowd.
But even if they come for pure entertainment, it is because Moldova’s youth have plenty of reasons to seek an escape. The country’s young people are the first generation to grow up without the security of the old Soviet safety net—and nothing has replaced it. Job prospects are incredibly bleak. According to the World Bank, unemployment for young men surpassed 20 percent in 2010. Most of the work that is available is low-wage. The International Monetary Fund’s most recent report on the country’s wealth disparity put Moldova’s overall poverty rate at 26.3 percent. As a result, many head abroad in search of work, sending their earnings back home to take care of family and loved ones. (As the UNDP reported, nearly 40 percent of Moldovans working abroad were under the age of 30.)
And so, they come to this exorcism. If the government can’t help, then perhaps the church can fill the vacuum. “It’s just a pretty dismal situation for young people [in Moldova], thinking about the future,” says Domi. “Can you can imagine being a kid in Moldova?”
For now, there is little sign that Moldova’s secular society is ready to do much to tamp down the country’s massive graft, and, in the meantime, the church’s power, especially among the youth, will build. It seems the issues that the church can’t fix—unemployment, graft, hopelessness—are the real dyavoli of Moldova, demons these exorcisms were never intended to stop.