Wine and Saints: Economy and Ritual in Moldova

This project examines the relationship between economy and ritual in a wine-growing region of Moldova. The two main questions are, first, how are the relations between house, community, and market changing in response to global economic changes?  Second, why does ritual activity appear to be intensifying during a period of economic decline?

During the past twenty years, Moldova’s overall economic condition has severely deteriorated, making it the poorest country in Europe. One of the reasons for this decline is the loss of markets for agricultural produce. Currently, upwards of 1/3 of the population labors abroad, and remittances make up one of the highest proportions of GDP in the world. Yet ritual life during this same period has intensified – Saints’ Day celebrations are now celebrated in nearly every village, weddings are more elaborate, and new traditions are being introduced. If resources are so scarce, why are they being spent on ritual? This study focuses on two areas of activity – wine production and the celebration of the village’s patron saint - to examine how local communities experience, construct, and understand the relations between economic and ritual activity.

Wine is one of Moldova’s most important agricultural products in terms of GNP, and it is also tightly linked to local economic and cultural identity. The first part of this project therefore examines wine production, in the house and factory, as an important component in the economic and ritual life of a village. Questions to be asked include – how does a family decide how much wine to produce in a year?  How is labor mobilized during the wine-growing season, and at harvest time? What proportion of wine is kept for home-consumption, and what proportion sold? How do families use their wine – for pleasurable consumption, or to build social networks and business opportunities? Moreover, the local wine factory will be studied in relation to individual houses and community, through a consideration of such issues as the competition between factory and houses for land, grapes, and labor; the factory’s role in mediating relations between the local community and the national or global market; and its role in transforming or perpetuating economic behaviors and ideologies. For both house and factory, how is wine production linked to changing ritual activity?

The second part of the project explicitly examines the economic dimensions of ritual activity. Communal, life-cycle, and religious rituals will be compared for the economic “costs and benefits” in both material and immaterial terms. Of particular interest and focus will be the celebration of Patron Saints’ Days (Hram) by villages. These celebrations represent both an extreme example of proliferation and cost, and should therefore show the strongest relations to economy. The celebration of Hrams has increased dramatically since 1989, rising from fewer than 289 to more than 1200 by 2004.  Hram celebrations are also extremely costly: village administrative units, the local church, and individual households spend significant time and resources preparing for the annual celebration. The initial hypothesis is that Hram celebrations, like other rituals, are only possible by mobilizing extended networks of kin, friends, and colleagues to acquire necessary cash, materials, assistance, and discounts. If this is true, it raises other questions about both the rationale and impact of such celebrations. Are the activated networks positive sources of financial security, sociability, and mutual advancement? Or, since networks do not necessarily benefit all participants equally, are some families becoming wealthier at the expense of others? Does the requirement to fulfill costly social obligations drive people to work abroad?

Combining the study of wine production and Hram celebrations should make it possible to trace the intersection of social relations with economic transactions; to map these relationships spatially to reflect patterns of dependency between communities; and to measure the interpenetration of market relations into individual communities and houses. 

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