KISHINEV, MOLDOVA, U.S.S.R — Kishinev, Moldova, U.S.S.R. ETO NASHA ZEMLYA. ''It's our land.'' It is a Russian phrase I have heard spoken with an Estonian accent, a Lithuanian accent, a Latvian accent, an Armenian accent, an Azerbaijani accent, a Georgian accent, an Uzbek accent, a Kirghiz accent, an Abkhazian accent, a Chuvash accent, an Ingush accent, a Nenets accent.
And now I am hearing it with a Moldovan accent, standing in a crowd of excited Moldovans who keep interrupting one another, turning up the volume in an attempt to make the dull-witted foreigner understand their passion.
Eto nasha zemlya! They are talking about southern Moldova, a two-hour drive away across vineyards tinted autumn-orange. There, members of the Gagauz ethnic minority have lived since they fled the Ottoman Turks nearly two centuries ago.
Most of the people who are claiming the land are Moldovans from the area around Kishinev or farther north. With few exceptions, they and their ancestors have never lived on the land where the Gagauz live. But they say it is their land, because their blood is Moldovan and it is part of the territory called Moldova.
''We let them come as guests to graze their livestock,'' says one well-dressed man about the Gagauz. ''But we never gave them our land.''
The ''we'' of his argument does not bear much analysis. In the early 19th century in Bessarabia, as most of today's Moldova was known, ethnic Moldovans (or Romanians, the same thing) answered to imperial powers: first, the Ottoman empire; then, after 1812, the Russian empire. So the Moldovans themselves had little say in whether the Gagauz migrated to Bessarabia.
And if the man's ancestors indeed had an opinion on the admission of the Gagauz ''guests,'' it would have been not his father or grandfather but at least his great-great-great-grandfather, whose views are probably not well documented.
But in the heat of the post-Leninist moment, none of this matters. What matters is that it is our land, and we must protect it, defend it, drive the aliens off it. Whatever the cost.
Gasoline is hard to find in Kishinev. The fuel shortage hampered this year's harvest. The main hotel for foreigners cannot order a taxi. Yet dozens of buses sit idling for hours in the central square, among the hundreds of buses preparing to take Moldovan volunteers south to confront the Gagauz. When the cause is at stake, gasoline must not be spared.
It would be easier to get caught up in the justice of the Moldovan cause, or the justice of the Gagauz cause, if theirs were the only such disputes to have arisen in the ruins of the Soviet empire.
But they are only the latest of dozens of such quarrels to flare in every Soviet republic and in most of Eastern Europe as well.
Nationalism has sprouted everywhere with stunning simultaneity, proving that what is involved is not a local phenomenon but a historical process. A tangled tragedy has begun to unfold in many of the non-Russian republics that ring the Russian behemoth, a bloody tragedy that it likely to play itself out for many years to come.
It is certainly true the Soviet empire never passed a test of logic or economic sense. Moscow parceled together distant territories with as little in common linguistically, culturally and economically as Finland and Afghanistan, then held them together with Communist propaganda and brute force.
And surely the non-Russians have legitimate grievances against the Russian ''elder brother,'' who often painted a thin layer of Leninist internationalism over a crude core of imperialist arrogance and brutality.
In the Kishinev crowd, one man says he was born in Siberia, where his parents were exiled when Stalin's troops reoccupied Bessarabia after World War II.
''They traveled 10 days in box cars without water. Then soldiers opened each car and told them to throw out the corpses. They asked for shovels to bury them and the soldiers laughed and replied: 'Why do you need shovels? The wolves are hungry, too,' '' the man says, his eyes burning with emotion.
Others tell how in more recent years, addressing in the Moldovan language one of the Russian bureaucrats who essentially ran the republic, they would hear the sharp reply in Russian: ''Speak human language!'' A Moldovan teacher recalls being scolded for speaking to her Moldovan students in their native language: ''Don't speak that peasant language,'' they said.
Yet the oppressed can learn from the oppressor one of two things: how not to act, or how to act. It may not be surprising that the Moldovans are giving the Russians in their republic, most of them in the region east of the Dnestr River, a taste of their own medicine. But it is discouraging to hear the Gagauz describe the Moldovans' behavior toward them exactly the way the Moldovans describe the Russians' past behavior toward them.