“You must plant today to have a harvest tomorrow.”
For over four decades, Fyodor Buliga was one of Moldova’s most celebrated performers. His aerial acrobatics took him all over the Soviet Union, then later to the Chisinau Circus, the independent state’s biggest attraction, as its star.
But in 2004 the circus shut its doors. With it went Buliga’s livelihood. In modern Moldova good news is hard to come by: Locals chalked up the demise of the circus, which became a crumbling, Ozymandian mess in a quiet corner of the capital, as another disappointment in a long, hard road out of Soviet rule.
It might have seemed time for Buliga to hang up his leotard. But he wasn’t quite ready to let the dream die.
Now he stood, gray-haired and barefoot, in the center of the circus’ small arena, a dark-lit space with seats for some 300 spectators. He stared out at them: the room was a pasquinade of the circus’ former glories. The ‘CCCP’ on his baggy red tee was heavily faded.
Buliga smiled. Just a few months ago he and the circus had almost lost hope. Three hundred seats is victory.
TUCKED BEHIND A MAIN ROAD among a sea of weed-covered paving slabs, Chisinau Circus is one of eastern Europe’s strangest buildings. Its jagged white buttresses poke out of the ground like giant chattering teeth. A fanned roof lurches skyward like the tip of a Bactrian crown.
Before 1981, there had been little to excite in the then-Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR), save for a reputation for fresh fruit and vegetables (the country’s coffee-colored loam still supports a dominant agriculture industry today).
But that year, the 1,900-capacity circus would change everything. It was the Soviet Union’s second-largest. Visitors from all over Europe flocked to the giant, modernist masterpiece, a gift from Leonid Brezhnev’s Kremlin to mark 545 years since the first recorded mention of Chisinau (then named the Russified ‘Kishinev’).
The decision was not arbitrary. Since the Moldavian State Circus was inaugurated in 1972 the small republic had won a reputation for its logic-defying daredevil acts. Buliga, who joined as a teen in 1974, was one of its stars. “When the Russians saw us at a festival they asked why Moldovans could do tricks that they couldn’t,” he told me.
Buliga, whose life in the circus is etched on a spry frame and spiky, David Byrne-esque hair, toured all over the Soviet Union. It was a rare chance for anyone in the MSSR to travel. He would spend weeks on the road, exhausted. They were the best years of his life.
When Chisinau’s circus was built, there were 410,000 Soviet citizens attending shows daily at 72 venues from Volgograd to Vladivostok. But its popularity faded toward the end of the 1980s. By the time communism collapsed in 1991, circuses fell down on the to-do list of states that, now cleaved from Russia, clawed toward the free market and stability.
Moldova, a spleen-shaped slither of land between Romania and Ukraine, had it worse than most. In 1992 it fought a civil war with the breakaway region of Transnistria, which remains de-facto independent thanks to Russian subsidies. It took until 1993 for Moldova to mint its own currency. Pro-Kremlin stooges and flimflam men won elections. The country made little, or no, progress.
Buliga and the circus continued to perform as one of few sources of entertainment to survive the turbulent ‘90s. But in 2004 the coffers finally ran dry, and the circus’s doors shut — seemingly for good. Now pushing 50, the former star was out in the cold. His stardom, now provincial, appeared dead.
Defiant, Buliga adapted. He installed two eight-meter pipes and a teeterboard (the see-saw gymnasts use to hurl each other into the air) in his back yard. Buliga named his homemade pummel horse Josephine, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife. He never stopped practicing. “I reinvented myself,” he said.
Ten years later, the phone rang.
THE CIRCUS HAS LONG BEEN a big part of Eastern European culture. Russia nationalized the Moscow State Circus in 1919 and later put it under management of the Centralized Circus Administration. From 1929 performers trained at the state-run Moscow Circus School, the first of its kind in the world.
In the 1930s, with Europe sliding toward a second great war, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin saw a chance to use the simplicity of the circus as a communist propaganda tool. At first it didn’t take off. In 1932 the director of the Ministry of Enlightenment’s arts department, L.I. Novitskii, chided the circus, claiming that it was “not as an art imbued with ideological content, but as a place where naked technique is demonstrated.”
But that changed with the release of the musical movie Circus in 1936, which championed racial harmony in the USSR. Its songs became anthems; its stylized backdrops were distilled moments in art. The Moscow State Circus soon became world-renowned, alongside famed Western groups such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows, Inc., in America.
As late as 1988 the Moscow State Circus came to New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, wowing spectators with its high-flying, visually stunning feats. The Cranes, its showcase trapeze troupe, performed on an aerial grid assembled for a whopping $200,000 — almost twice that in today’s money. The group got its name from a popular wartime legend, whereby fallen Soviet soldiers would be lifted to the skies by cranes.
Chisinau’s circus wasn’t as well known, but it still drew thousands from across the Soviet world, and occasionally Western Europe. Artists paid bribes to perform in the city, knowing that a good show could mean global fame and fortune.
But when the circus shuttered, none of that history counted for anything. Within years the paving along its wide, gray esplanade was weeded over, windows were smashed and homeless people slept in the box office. Thieves looted almost everything of value, from marble stairs to copper wire.
A Cypriot firm took over the lease in 2008 but did nothing with it. By 2013 the Moldovan government wrested back control. But the country was in such dire financial straits that little could be done. Urban explorers came to document the festooned old treasure, and it featured heavily on abandoned architecture blogs. The circus was becoming a national joke: a giant, quixotic reminder that Moldova had been better off as a Soviet satrapy.
Even if there wasn’t any money, something had to be done. It seemed that only one man could solve the problem. But even he wasn’t sure.
ANDREI LOCOMAN has been a promoter his entire career, and no stranger to hustle. But in April 2013, when the Moldovan culture minister called and asked if he wanted to revive the country’s circus, he had to think it over.
Locoman, a stout and avuncular man, said he’d ponder the circus’s directorship. Then he put the phone down and took a stroll across Chisinau. It was a hot, cloudless day. He told me, “When I entered the circus alone, besides the fact that there was no water and electricity, there was no security, not one single employee.
“There was…nothing,” he said. “This was a public toilet in the center of the city.”
A week later he was still in a kind of shock. “Frankly I didn’t know where to start. I knew there were problems, but I never imagined there were so many of them and that they were so serious. Anyway, I started gathering a team, inviting people, convincing them to work even though we had nothing to promise. And I told them the best lie: the truth. I told them they weren’t going to be paid for at least half a year, so the money could go into the infrastructure.”
The big arena was never an option — “far too utopian,” as Locoman put it — but the small ring was doable. Locoman pencilled the way he saw it on a sheet of paper and gave it to a friend, who created a 3D model.
Money, however, in a country which suffered a spate of political scandals and perfidies, soon dried up. Locoman begged local firms for help. Metal, building supplies, furniture — even carpets — all came for free. Soon, Phase One, as he called it, was almost done. “To this day, I cannot understand why these people believed in us,” he said.
But Locoman still needed performers. That was when he called Fyodor Buliga, who’d been busy practicing his acrobatics and creating new equipment at home for almost 10 years. The former star couldn’t believe his luck. Desperate to pitch in not only with his performances, he put his newfound tradesman skills to good use. He painted walls and welded seats to the perimeter.
Buliga went off in search of new talent, determined to discover a new generation of coveted Moldovan acrobats. He approached Cristina Similtan, 19, while she was stocking shelves in a local supermarket.
“I found what I was looking for,” he told her.
He handed her a business card. She had nothing to lose other than the long boredom of a life spent stacking shelves. Within months she was tumbling and trapezing alongside the old master. “Now I know I want to do that on a professional level in the future,” she said.
“Artists used to pay bribes in Moscow just to have the chance to come to Chisinau, because the climate was superb and you could eat fruits all year round,” Locoman told me. “Now, the artists come here for the same reasons, for our hospitality and our traditions.”
Over 20,000 people have been entertained since the first show on May 30, 2014.
Some Moldovan traditions, however, threaten the circus’ future. Last year someone siphoned $1 billion — over an eighth of Moldova’s GDP — from three national banks. The subsequent political strife, complete with riots and a detained prime minister has undermined Locoman’s plans for Phase Two: opening the entire complex.
He still thinks it will happen, though — if only just to put off the urban bloggers, who still nose around for a sniff of the past. He wants a Lazarus act, not a laughing stock. “I’m a bit tired to see these people who come just to say, ‘Oh, look what a disaster.’ Ten years of mourning is enough.”
Buliga, weathered but peripatetic, is even more certain of success. He believes in his young charges and still joins them on the high wire for each show. One of them is 20-year-old Mihaela Munteanu. She hopes to one day perform in China. Buliga, she told me, was a hard taskmaster. “There were lots of times I got tired, wanted to leave,” she said. “I usually come back after two days. I can’t live without the circus.”
Neither can Buliga, who even invented a special-made aerial cradle, he told me, with which he wants Similtan — “The Little One,” as he calls her — to excite crowds worldwide. He is desperate for Moldova to retake its reputation as an Eastern European talent factory. Of anyone in Moldova, he’s shown he has the patience to build it again from scratch.
“You must plant today to have a harvest tomorrow,” he said.
Sean Williams is a Berlin-based writer and journalist. His work has appeared at newyorker.com, The Guardian, Esquire and many others.
Dorin Goian is a photojournalist whose portfolio can be found here.
Edited by Ben Wolford