In Europe’s poorest country, young people are turning to occult religious practices—even exorcisms—to escape everyday life.
Northern Moldova, which shares borders with Romania and Ukraine, 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.
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.
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.
deed, 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.
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.