[Jacob Lassen and Rachel Hicks]

Moldavia, the province that gave its name to and constituted some of the territory of modern Moldova was founded by a Vlach (Romanian) nobleman called Dragos. Allegedly, the Hungarian king sent Dragos tothe region to set up defenses against the Tatars. Dragos liked the land, decided to stay, and named the area for his dog which had been gored by an auroch (King, 13).

Dragos’ founding of Moldavia was followed by Hungarian-Romanian
immigration to the area, effectively making it a Romanian region. In 1359 another
Romanian noble from Hungary, Bogdan I, crossed the Carpathian mountains into
Moldavia, defeated one of Dragos’ descendents, and declared himself the ruler
of an independent Moldavia, rejecting Hungarian authority (Wikipedia).
Independent Moldavia struggled to survive in medieval Europe until the
ascension of Stephen the Great in 1457. Stephen was an adept military leader,
able to fend off attacks from Moldavia’s larger and more powerful neighbors
like Hungary and an invading Tatar army (Wikipedia). The Ottoman Empire, one of
the most powerful forces in southern Europe at the time, launched an attack
upon Moldavia, but Stephen defeated the Ottoman army at Vaslui, giving the
seemingly invincible Ottomans one of their first major military victories

Stephen’s death in 1504 resulted in a series of much weaker
princes taking power in Moldavia. Eventually, in 1538, Moldavia became a vassal
state of the Ottoman Empire (Wikipedia). Ottoman rule became harsher as time
wore on and eventually the Moldavian monarchy had very little control over its
territory or population. Moldavia’s location made it a logical transit zone for
Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman troops for centuries and eventually a prize in
warfare as well. Following the first Russo-Turkish war, predominantly Orthodox
Moldavia became a Russian protectorate even as it remained an Ottoman vassal
state (Wikipedia).

As as Ottoman vassal state, Moldavia was isolated from the rest of
Europe. Often it was called the “Turkey of Europe,” a border region that was
not very welcoming to visitors and did not seem to offer much to European
outsiders (King, 16). In isolation from much of European culture, Moldavian
society began to borrow a great deal from Ottoman life and culture.
Traditionally, Ottoman titles such as grand vizier and the fashions of the
Turkish pashas found their way into Moldavian court life (King, 16).

Turkish control over Moldavia intensified as the Ottoman Empire
began to weaken. Worried about losing control of their borders, the Ottomans
rescinded Moldavia’s vassal status and appointed Greek nobles from Istanbul to
oversee the region (King, 16-7). These Greek nobles were more concerned with
their own enrichment than the development of the provinces, often engaging in
court intrigues. This behavior made Moldavia even more vulnerable and soon
Austrian and Russian influence strengthened. Eventually, in 1775, Austria
annexed the northern section of Moldavia, Bukovina (King, 18).

As Napoleon’s armies swept through Europe, Tsar Alexander I was
worried about Napoleon’s designs on the Balkans, a key strategic location for
the Russian Empire. Not trusting the Ottomans to defend the region, Alexander’s
army occupied the eastern portion of Moldova in 1806 (King, 18-9). Following
Napoleon’s defeat and a concurrent Russian war with the Ottomans, Russia
formally annexed Bessarabia with the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812 (King, 19).

Many in Bessarabia warmly greeted Russian annexation. It was
believed that Russia’s control over the region would modernize administration
and revitalize Moldovan culture. The early years of Russian rule did see
Moldovan customary law given a special position in the governance of the region
and Moldovan was used alongside Russian as the official administrative
languages of Bessarabia (King, 21).

This period of relative autonomy in Moldova was rather brief. The
death of Gavril Banulescu-Bodoni, the Metropolitan of Moldova and a strong
leader and defender of Moldovan identity and language in 1821, and the subsequent
coronation of the conservative Nicholas I in 1825 led to a more intense period
of Russification in Moldova. Nicholas I repealed an order mandating use of the
Moldovan language in public documents and by the middle of the nineteenth
century Russian was the sole official language of the region (King, 22).

Russian cultural control was compacted by Russian approved colonizations
into Bessarabia following the Napoleonic wars (King, 23). The influx of
Russians, Bulgarians, Germans, Jews, Tatars, Turks, and Gagauz made Bessarabia
a much more diverse location than it had been before the Russian annexation.
This new diversity forced ethnic Moldovans into a secondary role in their own
land. Russians and Jews were at the forefront of city life, while other ethnic
groups like the Germans and Turks dominated specific trades (King, 23).
Moldovans were often seen as a simple peasant people whose culture was
subordinated to that of Russia’s. This feeling of inferiority and the tumultuous
political situation in the Russian Empire allowed for the birth of a nascent
Moldovan national movement in the early part of the twentieth century.

Ready to erupt, the 1905 revolution inspired and paved the way for discontent in Moldova. Two theories among the Bessarabians emerged—the young intellectuals influenced by radicalism sought social justice, land reforms, and universal suffrage while the youth supported by artists and philanthropic circles supported reform through pan-Romanian nationalism (King, 28).  The older Moldovan nobles played the two groups against each other while trying to gain minor concessions from the tsar (King, 28). The 1905 revolution heightened tensions and increased the number of secret circles among students and literary scholars. A newspaper in Romanian in the Cyrillic alphabet was even published for a brief period, until the conservative reaction to the revolution
suppressed most activity (King, 29). Counter tsarist culture, both pro-Romanian
and pro-Moldovan, grew until the outbreak of WWI.

 The Soviet revolution and WWI left Bessarabia in a confused state. An elected national assembly, the Sfatul Ţării, was convened on November 21, 1917 (King, 32). On December second an autonomous republic within Russia was declared (King, 33). However, Romania, during the course of the war, regained parts of Bessarabia which had previously been part of greater Romania. As the Bolsheviks continued their war, the Sfatul Ţării proclaimed an independent Moldovan Democratic Republic of Bessarabia despite the uncertain political climate, but three months later in March of 1918 united with Romania. Occupied before the union took place, the Moldovan state had mixed reactions, which did not follow ethnic lines. The Sfatul Ţării was disbanded, and Moldova ceased to exist.

Despite negotiations, the issue of Bessarabia was arguably not settled until the Second World War. Romania maintained the portion of modern Moldova she gained as part of Romanian expansion in the interwar years. Due to its status as contested territory and a
general attitude that Bessarabia was occupied rather than united, Romanian administrators governed Bessarabia (King, 42-43). Efforts to Romanianize the region were unsuccessful, but some cultural exchange was experienced and for a brief period in the 1920s the Romanian Language prospered. Throughout the period, the Romanians acted as a counter balance to the Soviets across the Dnestr River; both sides spread propaganda against the other (King, 42).

The remaining part of modern-day Moldova resided in Soviet territory. After failed attempts to foment rebellion against ‘Romanian chauvinism,’ negotiations, and terrorist incidents on the border, the Soviets created the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR) on October 12, 1924 (King, 52). The creation of the MASSR served to pressure Romania to cede the rest of Bessarabia to the Soviets, an example of Soviet
utilization of nation-building as a tool for foreign policy (King, 55). The state itself was less than a third Moldovan with many other ethnic groups within her borders and many Moldovans outside her borders as well (King, 54). The distinction between Moldovans and Romanians was so minute that Soviet writers acknowledged they were a single ethno-national group, but denied that Bessarabia and the MASSR should be united (King, 59).  In fact, in the 1920s the Soviets reversed and denied the Moldovans were separated from Romanians, but then reversed their perception and again perpetuated Moldovan identity (King, 64). Soviet maintenance of the Moldovan identity and the division of Moldova, like the previous division between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, currently divides the country.

The MASSR did not experience Romanization like Bessarabia; rather, it initially experienced Moldovanization. This idea was quickly abandoned due to the failure the Soviets experienced in the 1930s, but its influence is still felt today.  The Cyrillic alphabet, which had been historically preferred, was propagated. One of the few distinguishing features between Moldovan and Romanian Cyrillic script was, like Moldovan identity, for a time abandoned during a latinization campaign by the Soviets, but returned to in the 1930s (King, 85). Indigenization occurred and the state officially conducted all business in Moldovan and promoted locals in government, but as late as 1936 many still had no knowledge of the local language (King, 73). “After 1938, the ‘Moldovan language’ and eventually most of Moldovan high culture would come to be little more than Romanian in disguise” (King, 88) and by the 1940s Moldovan nationalism was purged and underrepresentation of Moldovans in MASSR government followed (King,73).

With the outbreak of WWII, Russia demanded Bessarabia and annexed it. Throughout the course of the war, Romania regained control of the territory and then expanded into the MASSR. As a result of the expansion, at the conclusion of the war Romania was viewed as the aggressor and the USSR was granted what is today Moldova (King, 93). The great diversity of Moldova during this period was ravaged and the Moldovan Soviet
Socialist Republic (MSSR), which was officially established in August of 1940, emerged (King, 93-94). The USSR had to socialize the newly acquired region quickly and famine, collectivization, and deportation ensued (King, 96).  Agriculturally successful, the region underwent a second collectivization in the 1970s for ‘factory-farm’ industrialization (King, 99). However, due to poor management, the economy did not do well, nor did the region develop as quickly as the rest of the western borderlands (King, 102). The economic disappointments combined with unrest concerning Chernobyl, and reform was demanded during perestroika (King, 103).

The backlash against Russification during this period resulted in a Romanization of the people, while the urbanization of the people had also Moldovanized them as well. The Popular Front, the oppositional movement, called for Romanian to be the state language,
there were movements for both languages (King, 120). With the Soviet Union ending, the MSSR had elections for the Supreme Soviet, a representative body, the country declared her independence in 1991(King,121). However, independence was not welcomed by all and war broke out. Transnistria, the area of Moldova that had been under Soviet control the longest, declared itself a separate country the Dnester Moldovan Republic in 1990. The area fully supported the Russian government and was deeply Soviet. Tensions escalated to a full scale war by 1991, and the two currently exist in a common state with international troops to preserve peace (King, 192). The region now looks thoroughly Soviet and little progress has occurred. The Gagauz are another splinter group in Moldova, composed of Orthodox Christian Turks. They were not selected to be the titular nationality. In the southern parts of Moldova, they began fighting for recognition in the late 1980s. However, the minor operations paled in comparison to the conflict with Transistria. Five distinct Gagauz regions have voted to be defined as Gaguaz; thus, they currently exist and operate as autonomous regions within Moldova. The regions are very poor and have little development, but are supported by Turkey.

Moldova as a state today exists with many splinter groups within and her own people are divided concerning their identity.


Works Cited:

  • Charles King, The Moldovans (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 2000).
  • “History of Moldova,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,

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