A nondescript bottle of cheap brandy
On my desk right in front of me stands a 0.5 liter bottle of brandy, of mediocre-to-inferior quality, the mundane kind you can buy in cheap convenience stores and petrol stations. In a fashion characteristic of simple firewater, aimed at less than affluent customers, the bottle is adorned with several glittering labels, stars, a gold foil around the cork and a thin gold thread, wound in paralellogramic patterns around the whole bottle.
Of course, at that price you have no guarantee that it actually contains distilled wine. The contents could just as well be chemically processed ethanol, spiced with artificial flavor and coloring. Still, it will get you reasonably liquored-up, at modest cost. The producer of such a bottle would probably be an insignificant firm in some obscure district of a lesser-known wine-growing nation.
Don’t forget the spelling
As it happens, this particular bottle comes from the Republic of Moldavia. The large main label carries the text “Brandy BELÎI AIST”. Note the spelling (for example the letter Î, an I with a circumflex) and remember it well. It will be of considerable importance for what will follow.
Stale brandy for a stale Empire
Moldavia is the sorriest of all the sorry lands that the Soviet Empire left behind. Its economy is in shambles, a serious strife between two population groups within its borders periodically erupts into armed conflict, there is no industry to speak of, the farmlands lay fallow and the unemployment rate is unbelievable.
But at the time of the Soviet Empire it produced lots of wine -- and brandy. Because the Soviet Empire was in essence just a Russian Empire with a stale communist stench, the Moldavian brandy carried a Russian name, “ БЕЛЫЙ АИСТ ” (= White Stork). Under this brand-name it was well known and cheerfully imbibed in all corners of the Empire.
Bessarabia, aka Moldavia
However, the people of Moldavia are not Russian, because Moldavia is originally a piece of land carved out of Romania, inhabited by Romanian-speaking people. Romanian is a Latin-derived Romance language, related to Italian and Spanish. The fate of the Moldavians took a grim twist toward the infernal in 1940, when the totalitarian friends Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin had decided to carve up Eastern Europe between them. In return for the western half of Poland, which Hitler reserved for himself, Stalin got the eastern half of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland (if he could take it, which he couldn’t, as it soon turned out), and -- an area called Bessarabia, an ancient designation of the Romanian province of Moldavia. During a limited period in the 19th and early 20th century it had been wrestled into the possessions of the Tsarist Russian Empire, so Stalin saw it most befitting that it should now be wrestled into the new Communist Russian Empire as well.
In Cyrillic, please -- or else!
What the Russians took in 1940, they took with a vengeance. People in all the newly occupied countries were deported en masse to Siberia, later to be replaced by supposedly loyal Russians. Russian was declared the “language of communication of the peoples of the Soviet Union”. But in Moldavia the excesses were even more nightmarish than elsewhere. Without further ado, Russia declared that the Latin-derived Romanian language of Moldavia, written in Latin letters for thousands of years, should henceforth be written with the Cyrillic alphabet!
English road-signs for the bewildered
To get an idea of what this means to the ordinary person, imagine for a moment that Russia would occupy England and the next day declare that English must from now on be written with the Cyrillic alphabet, requiring the road-signs to be immediately re-lettered.
The next morning, driving to work as usual, you would to your bewilderment meet signs like
which of course could be easily read as LONDON, BRISTOL, OXFORD and DOVER, provided that you became sufficiently knowledgeable in the Cyrillic alphabet. But I bet that at first you would lose your way repeatedly, not to speak of your temper. So what the poor Moldavians had to endure must not be taken lightly.
Liberation in 1991
Now let us return to the bottle of cheap Moldavian brandy on my desk. Like most other countries that had been occupied by the Soviet Russian Empire (with the notable exception of Chechnya, which remains in the harsh hands of Russia), Moldavia was liberated in 1991. Its people promptly returned to writing with their original Latin letters.
A snifter of Moldavian Revenge, anyone?
The “White Stork” brandy was still popular in Russia, even after 1991, representing valuable export income for impoverished Moldavia. Would the Moldavians now translate the Russian “White Stork” into Romanian –- writing “Barza Alba” on the labels? No. The Russian name БЕЛЫЙ АИСТ was a well-established brand on the Russian market, so why change a winning horse. Instead, the Moldavians devised a terrible revenge for their 50 years of Cyrillic plight:
they transcribed the Russian words for “White Stork” with Romanian Latin letters –
A touch of genius, as revenge goes, non-violent and utterly devastating! The label still said “White Stork” in Russian, certainly. But to understand what it said, the Russian customers had to pronounce the Latin letters, listen to their own voice, and then try to comprehend what Russian words they represented. Hence they were compelled to go through exactly the reverse of the procedure that the Moldavians had been forced to carry out during 50 years of brutal occupation.
What about the Romanian Î, the I with a circumflex in BELÎI AIST? It’s a Romanian attempt at approximating the Russian sound Ы, using the Romanian letter Î. The pronunciation of Î is rather difficult to explain, as the sound is not found among the major European languages. However, the same sound as the Romanian Î occurs in Turkish, Albanian and Estonian, but in these languages it is designated by different letter-symbols. The incurably curious reader may find an explanation of how to pronounce the Î in Estonian pronunciation.
Update, August 2004 -- Return of the Cyrillic spectre?
Unfortunately, this may not be the end of the story. There is a sliver of Russian land on the other side of the river Dniester which Moscow, during its Soviet days, added to the Moldavian Soviet Republic. So a part of present-day Republic of Moldavia, called Transdniestria, has a Russian majority, but also a large Romanian minority. The Russian majority has tried its best to secede from Moldavia, illegally declaring their "Republic of Transdniestria".
In July 2004 the separatists of the "Republic of Transdniestria" suddenly decreed that Romanian-language public schools in Transdniestria may no longer use Latin script, just Cyrillic. Schools using Latin script could only continue working if they registered as private institutions, "teaching in a foreign language". But just a few weeks later, without waiting for any registrations to come in, separatist militia closed down 3 Romanian-language schools, forcibly removing furniture and the offending Latin-scripted teaching materials.
Could it be that the mild-mannered Moldavian revenge à la "Belîi Aist" may have been too mild?