Russification and Ethnic Consciousness of Romanians in Bessarabia (1812 to 1991)

Research Paper for "Ethnicity and Subcultures in East-Central Europe"

International Studies Center - Budapest University of Economics
(Prof. Ágnes Fülemile)


Markus Schönherr

Student of Business Economics

Danziger Str. 15d

D-94036 Passau

Phone + Fax ++49-851-54803 /

Table of Contents

1. Introduction                                                  Page 1 

2. History until 1812                                                 2 

2.1. Early History                                                    2 

2.2. Medieval History                                                 3 

2.3. Turkish Suzerainty (1504-1812)                                   4 

3. Bessarabia under Russian occupation (1812-1917)                    5 

3.1. Historical Developments                                          5 

3.2. Demographic and Linguistic Trends                                5 

3.3. Rural Life                                                       7 

3.4. Urban Life                                                       8 

3.5. Effects of the Tsarist Rule                                      8 

4. Greater Romania (1918-1941)                                       10 

4.1. Historical Developments                                         10 

4.2. Ethno-Demographic and Linguistic aspects                        11 

5. Soviet Era (1940-1991)                                            12 

5.1. Historical and Political Developments                           12 

5.2. Diverging Nationality Policies                                  12 

5.3. Ethnic Compostion of the Communist Party Leadership             13 

5.4. Ethno-Demographic Changes                                       14 

5.5. Linguistic Developments                                         15 

6. The Re-Romanization in the 1980s and Moldavia's                   19 

6.1. Cultural Influences from Romania                                19 

6.2. The Romanian National Movement in Bessarabia in the             20 

6.3. Ethno-Demographic Issues                                        20 

6.4. The Moldavian Independence Movement and its                     21 

7. Conclusion                                                        17 


1. Introduction

Bessarabia is the region between the Prut and Dnestr rivers and the Black Sea (see map attachment 1). Today on this territory there live about 5 million inhabitants, chiefly Romanians, Ukrainians and Russians. The biggest chunk of it is today part of the Republic of Moldavia with about 4.5 million inhabitants, about 65% of which are ethnic Romanians. The capital of the republic is Kishinev ("Chisinau" in Romanian). The northern bit and ther southern part of Bessarabia are part of the Ukraine, and are inhabited by Romanians only in a relative majority, while the Ukrainians form a larger part of the population. Other nationalities in Bessarabia are mainly Bulgarians and Gagauzi (christian Turks). During 150 years of Russian and Soviet rule in Bessarabia, the Romanian population was subject to more or less intensive Russification. This paper wants to show how that affected the ethnic consciousness of the Romanians of Bessarabia.

2. History until 1812

2.1. Early History

Romanians claim their ancestors to be the Dacians, a Thracian people defeated by the Romans in 106 A.D. and subsequently Romanized. The Dacian settlements also comprised today's Moldavia, although it was not completely part of the Roman province. The Romans withdrew from Dacia in 270 A.D., and allegedly left the Romanized population behind, who lived for several hundred years in the forests and mountains, where they had sought refuge from all the peoples crossing their country, like Slavs, Bulgarians and Magyars. Other theories hold up that the evacuation also included the civil population, and that the Romanians' ancestors had lived for all this time somewhere south of the Danube on the Balkans. During this period, there is no evidence of any Romanian state. This fight between majorly Romanian and Hungarian historians goes mostly about the question whether Romanians lived in Transylvania when the Magyars came or not, and who can claim any historic right to Transylvania, which is irrelevant in the area discussed in this paper. When the Romanians, then known as Moldavians or Wallachians (Vlachs, Volokhi) reappeared on the scene, they had taken up a great amount of other peoples and assimilated them. Still they are considered to be the only bearers of the eastern Roman culture and heritage.

Bessarabia at that time (before 1000 A.D.) was mostly an unoccupied land, only in the south were there a few Byzantine, Italian and Greek merchant settlements on the Black Sea. After 1000, the Moldavians or Romanians started to spread out east, settling slowly also into the land between the Prut and Dnestr rivers. The first evidence of them in later Moldavia is from 1164. They even crossed the Dnestr in smaller groups from time to time and settled there, but there were already some other peoples and the compact Romanian population was confined to the area west of the Dnestr.

2.2. Medieval History

After Romanians had slowly infiltrated the area east of the Carpathian mountains from northern Transylvania, in the area today known as Bukovina they founded the principality of Moldavia in the 14th century. The reign of the Moldavian princes was extended soon to the whole area between the Carpathians and the Dnestr river, although the region today known as southern Bessarabia then belonged to the Wallachian principality under the Basarab dynasty, giving the name to it (which was applied later to the whole province).

The Principality of Moldavia was established also in part to protect Hungary's eastern borders from the barbarians (Mongolians in the 13th century) in the steppes east of the Dnestr river. For this, a chain of fortresses had been built along this border, which could guarantee the safety of Transylvania, Upper Hungary and southern Poland as well as the trade routes to the Danube mouth at the Black Sea.

In the middle ages, the neighbors of Moldavia were Poland in the north, Hungary in the west, Wallachia and Ottoman Turks in the south, the latter of which were a constant threat, and the Tatars in the east, whom they had to defend the Dnestr border against. Moscow at that time was small and remote, as well as the Ukrainians.

2.3. Turkish Suzerainty (1504-1812)

In 1484, the Turkish sultan occupied Cetatea Alba and subsequently in 1538 (southern) Bessarabia. After the death of Prince Stephen the Great (1457-1504), Moldavia (and Wallachia) had to accept Turkish suzerainty, which was relieved finally only in 1878. During this time Moldavia frequently came between the three big powers of the region, Austria, Turkey and Russia. The latter had expanded into the steppes of today's southern Ukraine east of the Dnestr only in the 17th century, where it fostered the colonization of the land. Nonetheless, the Turks from time to time attacked Russia and vice versa.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, Moldavia finally became a victim of the big power territorial expansionism. In 1774, Austria annexed the Bukovina area, the historical heartland of Moldavia. The two principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia had been offered by France (Napoleon) to both Austria and Russia in order to fight the respectively other. Finally, Russia succeeded, but had to withdraw its troops again.

3. Bessarabia under Russian occupation (1812-1917)

3.1. Historical Developments

After having occupied all of Wallachia and Moldavia in the war against Turkey (1806-1812), the Russian Empire annexed the territory between Prut and Dnestr in 1812. These lands had no particular name before, they were simply part of the Moldavian Principality. Russia had to find a justification that allowed her not to withdraw her troops from this area. They employed a misleading name, stating that in the Treaty of Bucharest of 1812 it was not required to leave Bessarabia. Bessarabia, however, had only been the southern part of what is today known as Bessarabia, also called the Bugeac, but the Russians extended the name ”Bessarabia” to all the region between Prut and Dnestr, so that they could annex it. In fact, this region was the most fertile part of Moldavia, and even bigger than the rump-Moldavia remaining independent. 90% of the population were Romanians.

From 1856 (after the Crimean War) until 1878, southern Bessarabia (Bugeac) came back to Moldavia, which was united in 1859 with Wallachia. The state was then called Romania, because the people of the two principalities had come to use that name predominatly for themselves.

3.2. Ethno-Demographic and Linguistic Trends

Under Tsar Nicholas I., the autonomy of Bessarabia was abolished. For any documents of the public life, the Russian language became dominant. Romanians had two speak and write in Russian in the administration, although Romanian could retain its status as an official language until 1854. With tsarist bureaucracy also came Russification.

The population of Bessarabia increased significantly from 250,000 to 580,000 people in the first 12 years of tsarist occupation, but this was mainly due to an influx of non-Romanian people. Ukrainians settled mostly in the northern and southern parts of Bessarabia, where they became preponderous (these areas were later under Stalin given to Ukraine). The percentage of Romanians fell significantly, especially in urban areas. In 1867 the schools ceased to teach in Romanian, and in 1871, church services were no longer held in Romanian, either. Except for some persons who opposed the tsarist regime, there were no mass deportations. The Russification affected mostly the cities, though, whereas the countryside suffered more from social problems and backwardness. Since 1874 also Romanians had to do military service, often somewhere far away in Russian, and came back Russianized. Cultural relations between Bessarabia and Romania were almost inexistent, as the Russian censorship prohibited the import of Romanian printed materials. Romanians in Bessarabia were thus subject to relentless Russification.

Other ethnic groups in Bessarabia, which had come to Bessarabia during the tsarist occupation, were Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Bulgarians, Gagauzi (Chistianized Turks). The former two had come as colonists, officials of the regime or refugees from serfdom, the latter two had sought shelter from the Turks, whereas the Jews wanted to escape the persecution by the Russians.

During the civic Russian revolution in 1905, the Romanians intellectuals in Bessarabia claimed national rights, such as the use of Romanian in the administration and church. Romanian then was printed mostly in cyrillic letters. Due to these separatist movements, the existence of any Romanians in the Russian Empire was denied for the first time in history in 1910 and after.

3.3. Rural Life

The peasantry was constituted overwhelmingly by ethnic Romanians. Peasant sons, however, could not attend any schools, whereas Russian and Romanian nobles received some education, leading to a divide between those two groups, and thus also to a divide between the ethnic groups.Most Romanians remained illiterate, while the Romanian language was banned from schools, administration and churches.

What was really a step backward for the development of Bessarabia was the introduction of peasant serfdom in 1831. Tsar Alexander II in 1861 abolished serfdom, though, but it was practically of no avail, as the land reform, which should have accompanied it, was delayed by several years. When it finally came, it was published in the Romanian language, too, but all contracts concerning money, including compensation for the landlords, had to be made in Russian, so that the Romanian small peasants could easily be cheated. All this left the peasant population in a state of dependence and did not allow for them to emancipate and develop any cultural aspirations. Between 1900 and 1904 the Bessarabian peasants started several revolts against the frauds in connection with the land reform and the Russification.

3.4. Urban Life

Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia, was in 1834 designed in a new Russian way, old houses impeding the new city layout were torn down. Therefore, Kishinev still today has a different face than other Romanian cities. Kishinev looks much more like a Russian or Ukrainian city, with a grid layout or small one or two story buildings, at least where this old pre-socialist architecture is concerned, than Romanian cities which look more naturally grown. This gives the city a more Russian and also "colonial” character.

Whereas the rural areas were mostly populated by Romanians, the cities were dominated by Jews (37%), Russians (24%) and Ukrainians (16%). Romanians only constituted 14% of the urban population. The Jewish relative majority was subject to widespread persecution, they were, as in other regions of the Russian Empire, even killed on the streets.

3.5. Effects of the Tsarist Rule

It can be said that during the tsarist occupation of Bessarabia, the Moscow regime did try to Russify the population, but was only partly successful. In the cities, the Romanians were soon outnumbered by Jews and Russians, and came under the influence of the Russian language, which was solely employed in the administration. In the countryside, which was kept in a state of backwardness, schooling was negelected and by this way a strong Russification could not really take place. So the rural population, who in the vast majority was Romanian, could retain their Romanian culture and language, although they were cut off from any advances and developments in respect of the national emancipation of Romanians. Even when the term "Romanian” was introduced officially in 1859, they were not even part of Romania. (Which could be used as another excuse for the claim of their being a different people). Their adoption of the new term went relatively slow in Bessarabia, mainly due to the lack of good education of the majority of ethnic Romanians (Moldavians). Later, "Moldavian” was more and more used as a regional differentiation,without the notion of being a people separate from the Romanian.

4. Greater Romania (1918-1941)

4.1. Historical Developments

In 1917, after the October Revolution in Russia, the Romanians in Bessarabia established the Sfatul Tarii (State Council), which declared an independent republic in 1918. The Sfatul Tarii could not really get a grip on all the chaos coming over from Russia and called in the Romanian army. This led finally to the union with Romania in 1920.

The Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s did everything to destabilize the situation in Bessarabia and Romania,both by propaganda and underground operations. (Hofbauer 90) In 1924, the Soviets created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (as a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic), which comprised a stretch of land on the left bank of the Dnestr, as well as some more territory more inland to Ukraine. In the area that formed the new Moldavian ASSR, only 30 % of the population were ethnic Romanians, whose existence had been totally denied before. All that was designed to prepare the re-occupation of Bessarabia by the Soviet Union. For this, Stalin then claimed in 1939 that Bessarabia was mainly inhabited by Ukrainians.

The communist party in Romania, which was marginal in its influence, recruited the majority of its members from Bessarabia, most of whom were not ethnic Romanians anyway, but Russians or Jews.

4.2. Ethno-Demographic and Linguistic Aspects

In Bessarabia, the pressure and propaganda from the Soviet Union urged the Bucharest government to conduct a big land reform, expropriating the big landlords, not, however, in order to achieve some socialist goals, but in order to preclude any unrest and succeptibility to Soviet propaganda in the peasant population. Bessarabia was supposed to be a last frontier against the Bolsheviks. The Bucharest government also invested into the schools and the social system, so that in the 1930s about 30% of the Bessarabians were literate. Before 1918, no school in Bessarabia had taught in Romanian.

5. Soviet era (1940-1991)

5.1. Historical and Political Developments

Despite the 1940 ”unification of all Moldavians”, Stalin found it appropriate to redraw the internal borders of Moldavia and Ukraine (divide et impera). Southern Bessarabia and its northernmost part as well as the eastern half of the Moldavian ASSR went to Ukraine, while the rest of Bessarabia and the Moldavian ASSR were joined into the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic (see map attachment 2). Southern Bessarabia had been strongly mixed ethnically, with the Romanians only in relative majority. But actually, more than any ethnic reason, it was probably more the old dream of the the Russian Tsars to reach the Danube and keep it under control, which Stalin had adopted and striven to fulfill.

5.2. Diverging Nationality Policies

While the ethnic Romanians of Soviet Moldavia were spoken of by the authorites as a different people, namely Moldavians, other national minorities in Soviet Moldavia enjoyed a different treatment. The Gagauzi and Bulgarians were seen as part of their peoples living outside the Soviet Union, as well as the Russians and Ukrainians. This was denied to the "Moldavians”.

Based on the theories brought forward in the 1920s, the Soviet occupants claimed that the ethnic Romanians in Bessarabia were actually a different people, the Moldavians, with a Moldavian language, written in cyrillic. This step was designed to separate the ethnic Romanians of Soviet Moldavia culturally and linguistically from the Romanians across the Prut river.

5.3. Ethnic Compostion of the Communist Party Leadership

The whole communist party apparatus was imported from the Soviet Union to Bessarabia in 1940, which means that they were mostly Russians. Moscow did not trust the Bessarabians. In the first years of Soviet rule, the party remained open almost exclusively for non-Romanians, also because of the armed resistance the Soviets encountered from ethnic Romanians. Then, the communists realized that their mistrust was counterproductive in trying to receive support from the "masses”, and had to open itself for ethnic Romanians, too. This was also crucial for the success of the collectivization of the agriculture in 1950, where mostly ethnic Romanians were affected. Those able to join the ruling party were mostly Soviet-educated or anti-fascist resistance people. In the 1960s ethnic Romanians could move up into local and district party ranks, and were granted preference in higher education. This was to create the impression to the outside world that minorities were given equal opportunities in the Soviet Union.

Still the republic's leadership was dominated by non-Romanians. In 1979 the percentage of Russians and Ukrainians in Soviet Moldavia was 27%, while they held 65% of the ministerial posts.Similar numbers go for the central committee of the communist party. So, the real rulers of Soviet Moldavia were predominantly non-Romanians.

5.4. Ethno-Demographic Changes

During the Soviet rule, many ethnic Romanians left Soviet Moldavia, while other ethnic groups migrated in, most of them Russians. One of the reasons were deportations. Already from 1940 to 1941, about 100,000 Moldavians were deported as industrial workers to the inner Soviet Union. In exchange, Moldavia received 13,000 Soviet party activists and administrators, most of them Russians. Families were split, people were executed, the economy was destroyed. The deportations and executions resumed after the Soviets returned in 1944 and were justified by antifascism, but in fact were an ethnic cleansing as we understand it nowadays. About 500,000 Romanians were deported between 1944 and the 1960s.

Another reason were the conditions in the big Soviet Empire, which had no internal borders. Especially young people could move to other regions to take up employment there. This, on the other hand, was fostered by the regime in Moscow in order to achieve the denationalization and Russification of the minority peoples. The problem of the Soviet Union was that the majority of its natural resources lay where there was only a minority of the population, which led to a shortage of labor in these areas, particularly Siberia. So the Soviet propaganda tried to convince people in "overpopulated” regions as Moldavia to move voluntarily to these "underpopulated” areas, which failed, however.

While the ethnic Romanians had a relatively high rate of reproduction, the Russians and Ukrainians in Soviet Moldavia raised their numbers foremostly by in-migration.Russians and Ukrainians settled mostly into the cities, where they occupied jobs in industry, administration and politics. A 23% Russian and Ukrainian population of Soviet Moldavia occupied 65% of the urban industrial jobs during the 1960s. Later the then better educated ethnic Romanians also took jobs in this area, so that the percentages were not so unbalanced any more. From 1944 until 1979 an estimate over 500,000 non-Romanians were settled in Soviet Moldavia. This lead to an urbanization of Soviet Moldavia (22% urban population in 1959, 39% in 1979), and a change in its ethno-demographic structure. (Dima 71) This change, however, was not too significant by statistics, however not because they were falsified. In fact, many Soviet citizens enjoyed career advantages when they declared themselves as members of the nationality which gave the name to the republic they lived in, although they had been in fact already Russified.

In the 1980s, the in-migration of non-Romanians decreased, the majority of new urban inhabitants were ethnic Romanians from the villages. They brought with them their national consciousness, which then finally led to the split from the Soviet Union.

5.5. Cultural Influences from Romania

In Romania it was also forbidden to claim in public that Bessarabia was Romanian until the 1960s. Then, the Red Army had withdrawn from Romania, and Romania began, under Ceausescu, to develop an anti-Russian attitude. Romanian radio stations transmitted into Bessarabian territory, which caused hostile reactions from the Soviet propaganda. Romanian folk groups, literature and newspapers were very much appreciated in Soviet Moldavia, which led to their prohibition in 1970. In the 1970s, the quarrel over Bessarabia did not calm down. While Moscow stressed that Moldavians were a different people with their own language, Romania and the Moldavians continued to claim that they were one people. Despite all this, the Russification with significant ethno-demographic changes carried on in Soviet Moldavia. Only under Gorbatchev was the existence of Romanians officially recognized, and the Moldavians could refer to themselves as Romanians again without fear of being deported to Siberia.

5.6. Linguistic Developments

Linguistic differences between the peoples in the Soviet Union were a deep concern for the Soviet regime, because they hindered the creation of one single socialist nation. The "language of communication between the nationalities”, Russian, was supposed to replace the minority languages in more and more fields of life, thus paving the way to a total linguistic assimilation, and in the end, also an ethnic assimilation. On the other hand, it should be clear that this "socialist nation” was supposed to be dominated by the Russian culture, which makes Soviet patriotism not much different from Russian chauvinism.

Socially more advanced groups of non-Russian people in the Soviet Union seem to have tended more towards adopting the Russian culture than less advanced groups. This also goes for more dispersed and more compact groups of non-Russians. The less compact and the more socially advanced a group is, the more is it succeptible to linguistic assimilation.

The introduction of the cyrillic script was, in the perception of the Romanians, a step back to the middle ages, or at least to the early 19th century, when Romanian was still written in cyrillic. The switch to the latin based script had been a step of national emancipation for them. The adoption of the Latin script by Romania, though, had taken place in the time when Bessarabia was occupied by the Tsars, so it was a kind of import from across the Prut. The cyrillic script made the "Moldavian” look more like Russian than Romanian, and was thus quite useful. In addition to that, many words of Slavonic origin from the regional language or dialect were taken to replace the literary Romanian words, in order to create a diverse language. Soviet Moldavian intellectuals and educated people later seemed to resist to that by continuing to speak a literary Romanian. Also newly adopted words, although not coinciding with the words in Romania, were hardly taken from Russian, but from other languages like French or English. But at first, due to the lack of an intellectual class, which had left Soviet Moldavia, it was rather easy to implement a language that sounded somewhat uneducated or as if spoken by a non-Romanian.

Furthermore, there seems to be a divide between those who foster the Romanian language and its independence, and those who are subject to "Russianization”, which means taking Russian vocabulary into the Romanian language, as opposed to Russification, which means a total adoption of Russian as the spoken language. The difference between written and spoken Romanian in Soviet Moldavia also widened. Russian replaced the Romanian in many fields of public life, while Romanian is used in the family, especially in the cities, while the countryside was not so much affected by that. Romanian was furthermore hardly learned by in-migrating people.

Soviet statistics showed a stagnation rather than a decline of those who speak Romanian as their mother tongue. One must consider the fact, that it was a career advantage in the Soviet Union republics for Moldavians to declare their mother tongue to be Moldavian, despite the fact that it had actually already become Russian; learning Russian had been compulsory anyway. The fact that many ethnic Romanians were quite eager to learn Russian was because it was needed for career advancement, which cannot be seen as a voluntary thing.

The "Russianization” of the Romanian spoken by many Moldavians can be heard quite significantly when going to Kishinev and talking to people. They sound as if they speak Romanian with a Russian accent, for example the "e” sounds like "ye”, as Russians pronounce it. These characteristics might even be recognizable for person with no knowledge of Romanian. In addition to that, Russian seems to have replaced Romanian even in the families to a certain extent, especially in mixed families. Many young people from the Republic of Moldavia now speak Romanian in public, but Russian at home. So, the role of the two languages had reverted in the past decades, especially in the cities.

The problem that many ethnic Romanians in the Republic of Moldavia face now, is that they have not properly learned their mother tongue, or have forgotten it. This is in fact no surprise after 100 years of Tsarist and 40 years of Soviet Russification. Now the Moldavian government strives to re-Romanize the country.

6. Conclusion

The 150 years of Tsarist and Soviet education definitely had an impact on the ethno-demographic structure and the use of the Romanian and Russian languages in Bessarabia. The rural areas were not so much affected by this than the cities. In the cities, the in-migration of Russians and other non-Romanian ethnicities caused a Russification of the indigenous Romanians (and also the other non-Russian peoples), although many ethnic Romanians resisted to it. Now, since the biggest part of Bessarabia forms the independent Republic of Moldavia, which stresses its Romanian heritage and language, these developments might go into the other direction again.



BÂRSAN, Victor, "Masacrul inocentilor - Razboiul din Moldova - 1 martie - 29 iulie 1992" (Romanian, "Massacre of the Innocent - The War in Moldavia - March 1st - July 29th, 1992"), Bucharest 1993

BRATIANU, Gheorge I., "Die Moldau und ihre historischen Grenzen" (German, "Moldavia and her historic boundaries"), Bucharest 1940

BRUCHIS, Michael, "Nations - Nationalities - People: A Study of the Nationalities Policy of the Communist Party in Soviet Moldavia", Boulder / New York 1984

DIMA, Nicholas, "From Moldavia to Moldova - The Soviet-Romanian Territorial Dispute", Boulder / New York 1991

HOFBAUER, Hannes, Roman, Viorel, "Bukowina, Bessarabien, Moldawien: vergessenes Land zwischen Westeuropa, Russland und der Türkei" (German, "Bukovina, Bessarabia, Moldavia: forgotten land between Western Europe, Russia and Turkey"), Vienna 1993

WECZERKA, Hugo, "Das mittelalterliche und frühneuzeitliche Deutschtum im Fürstentum Moldau" (German, "The medieval and early modern Germanity in the Principality of Moldavia"), Munich 1960

other publications:

European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, Country Update Moldova, Brussels, November 1995

Russification and Ethnic Consciousness

of Romanians in Bessarabia (1812 to 1991)


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