"Limba Noastra" - Essay on Language in Moldavia

by Diana Nissler, Saarbrücken


If people think about languages, they do often have in mind foreign ones: the difficulties arising when learning them, the necessity of knowing foreign languages in a more and more globalizing (business) world, the chance to discover another culture... Native language seems to be something natural, nothing worth thinking about. Maybe sometimes some people complain about the increasing usage of Anglicisms - that's all, isn't it?

In the former Soviet Union, the native language was quite an important factor for the non-Russian peoples. When splitting from the Union, they often enacted laws concerning use and function of their native languages, or they at least defined the status of the different languages used by people in their state.

That is also what the situation was like in the former Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic. In the 1980s a famous Moldavian poet proclaimed: "They do speak a language here, it gives me the creeps." (1)

Among other reasons it was also the care for their native language that made the Moldavians fight for regaining sovereignty.

Development of a Romanian/Moldavian language (until 1812)

The Romanian language is of Latin origin. When the present Romanian and Moldavian territory was conquered by the Roman Empire, the people living there had to adapt to Roman language and culture. After the decline of the Roman Empire, nothing was heard of Romanians for a long time to come - until the foundation of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in the 14th century.

While in the early Middle Ages the population was speaking something they used to call "Romanian", the historic "written languages" in the principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania were Latin and Old Slavic.

In changing the status of Romanian language from vernacular to standard language, books played an important role.

The oldest original Moldavian manuscript still existing in our times is a "Tetraevangelium" of 1429 (today in Bodleian Library, Oxford). Elaborately written and illustrated books and manuscripts had been produced in monasteries since the 13th or 14th century. They were extremely expensive at that time, e.g. for one book one third of the Mount Prislop was paid (about 1490), somebody else paid a big farm, a horse and twelve sheep for two religious books. (2)

It is easy to imagine that only very few people could afford that. This changed from 1508, when the first book on the present Romanian territory was printed (in Wallachia). It was - as most books at that time - a religious one; entitled "Lithurghierul slavonesc" - Old Slavic liturgy.

By applying the printing method, making books became easier and cheaper, but there remained another important problem that prevented people from reading: a Romanian written (standard) language had not existed yet, and only very few people (clerics, scholars, some noblemen) were able to understand Latin or Old Slavic.

The development of the Romanian standard language finally started in the 16th century, mainly with the intention to enable lower social strata as merchants and craftsmen, whose role in society had become more important, to use the means of written communication without being obliged to learn Latin or Old Slavic before.

Though still written in Cyrillic characters, the first text dealing with correct spelling of Romanian language appeared already in 1420. The first text printed in Romanian language was again related to religion, it was an "Old Slavic - Roman Gospel". This book was edited by F. Moldoveanu in Sibiu, Transylvania.

Other important promoters of Romanian language were the scholars S. Micu, P. Maior and G. Sincai, who published several Romanian schoolbooks and a grammar book for Romanian language and by this way strongly supported the development of a Romanian standard language.

But only in 1813, after Bessarabia had already been given to Russia, the first Romanian school in the old principality of Moldavia (now: Russian province) was established by G. Asuchi, who also edited the first Romanian newspaper (in Iasi) and thus contributed to the development of a national consciousness among the Romanian people. (3)

Moldavian language policy in Tsarist Russia (1812 till 1917)

In 1812, due to the Treaty of Bucharest, Moldavia east of the Prut, Bessarabia, became part of the Russian Empire.

The ruling Tsar, Alexander I, had quite a tolerant view regarding his "foreign subordinates": "Life in their country shall accord to these peoples' own rights, customs and law: All social strata shall possess the same rights as their ancestors."

So, life went on nearly unchanged during the first years of Bessarabia's belonging to the Russian Empire. Administration remained to the greatest part in the hands of native noblemen, the administrative system - though not corresponding to the Russian one - was not changed, either.

In 1818, Moldavia was conferred to the status of an autonomous area. In official documents the Moldavian language was declared to be the second national language. Russian became (or remained) first national language.

This situation changed to the worse when Alexander I died in 1825 and Nicholas I became heir to the throne. Step by step the Moldavian people lost its privileges given by Alexander I: 1828 the autonomous status was deprived, Moldavians occupying posts in administration were replaced by Russians, the Russian legal and administrative system was introduced, Romanian schools were closed.

Romanian language could only be applied in non-public areas; to pursue a career, the knowledge of the Russian language was indispensable.

In the south of Bessarabia, where population density was very low, now Ukrainians, Gagauzian, Germans... were settled. They usually lived separately from one another, and thus went on living as Ukrainian, Gagauzian, German... community. Moldavia became a multiethnic country, due to the colonization policy of the Russian Empire. (4)

The Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic (1940 till 1991)

Belonging to Romania for only 23 years in the interwar period, Moldavia was integrated into the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics after the Russian re-occupation of this area in 1940.

The attitude of the central government in Moscow towards the different ethnic groups living in the country it reigned changed from time to time, due to factors such as change of leading persons, dependence on non-Russian elites, or foreign policy (in case of Moldavia the relationship between the USSR and Romania played an important role). (5)

The first years of the Soviet Union (from 1917 until Lenin's death in 1924) were marked by a very tolerant nationalities policy. The young Soviet State wanted to be seen by the non-Russian people in a different light than its predecessors. All ethnic groups had equal rights, some were even privileged. Just to mention some aspects of language policy: The key word at that time was "korenisatzia" (from the Russian word "korenj" = root). The aim was to root non-Russians into Russian culture. Nevertheless they should not be Russianized, but become "bi-national". Their native languages and cultures were promoted, linguists developed scripts for up to that time only spoken minority languages, at elementary schools lessons were given in the native languages, secondary schools and universities with native languages as language of instruction were installed, newspapers in non-Russian languages were edited.

The stronger Stalin's influence became, the more restrictive became the nationalities policy. After having taken over the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1924, he stopped "korenisatzia" completely and replaced it by a policy of Russification, justified by the explanation that nationalism is an instrument of the capitalists (used in order to distract the working class people from the fact that they were exploited), and should be abolished on the way to a better society.

Non-Russians and non-conformist Russians occupying leading posts in government, administration or other public areas were replaced by Russians supporting Stalin, learning of the Russian language at school became compulsory. (6)

That is what the situation looked like when Bessarabia became part of the Soviet Union. In the years to follow, the then entitled "Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic" became "a laboratory for a nationalities policy focused on Russification". (7) The main aim was to deny that Moldavians and Romanians had been one people, separated because of territorial claims of the Soviet Union. A first step was to re-reform the Romanian script in Moldavia: after a general reform of Romanian language in the 1920s, the Romanian language was written in Latin characters, after February 1941 the "Soviet part" of Moldavia had to switch back to the Cyrillic alphabet. Whole Armadas of linguists started to prove the independence of the "Moldavian" language from the Romanian language. One thesis said that Moldavian were an independent Eastern Roman language (Sergievski, about 1940), another one (Ceban) proclaimed that, because of intense contacts between Moldavians on the one hand and Russians and Ukrainians on the other, the formerly Roman language was being transformed into a Slavic one.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev became the most powerful person in the Soviet Union. The nationalities policy became more liberal, elements of "korenisatzia" were realized again. (8)

In Moldavia it then became possible to take part in the cultural life on the other side of the border: Romanian books were sold, Romanian films were shown... Even exchange programs between Moldavian and Romanian students, enterprises, theaters etc. were organized. (9) Without any problem, and despite the thesis of the independence of Romanian and Moldavian language, Moldavian authors wrote and published their books in Romanian standard language, just written in Cyrillic characters. Using Romanian dictionaries and bibliography did not cause trouble, either. To Moldavian intellectuals, correct use of their native language was very important, because they knew that this was the only way to preserve their language as well as their national heritage. Thus in the 1960s a national elite with a Romanian national consciousness was grown: they learned to read Latin characters and tried to take part as intensely as possible in the development of Romanian language and culture. Though carefully, they proclaimed this national consciousness in public. (10)

Basic education in the national language was possible, but for higher education profound knowledge of Russian language was necessary. So everybody who wanted to improve his social status had to learn the Russian language and had at least partly to adapt to Russian culture. (11)

In the middle of the 1960s the situation became worse. Tensions arose in the external relations of Romania with the Soviet Union, because of the dominating role of the Soviet Union in the COMECON. An anti-Romanian campaign was organized, and a stronger emphasis was put again on the independence of Moldavia from Romania. Authors were criticized for giving way to foreign (= Romanian) influences on the Moldavian language; Romanian books and films were prohibited, exchange programs no longer possible. (12) Only in the 1970s the situation improved a bit.

Different degrees of "Russianization" were remarkable within the Moldavian society. Roughly three different groups can be classified.

a) Rural population

People living in villages were only slightly affected by Russification. They lived within a Moldavian community and hardly had any contacts to Russian people, so there was no real need for them to apply Russian language, which they usually had learned at school. An exception were men who had to do military service, because Russian was the only official language within the Red Army, where lots of different nationalities met.

There were newspapers in Moldavian language as well as radio or television programs. It was also possible to receive Romanian radio and TV-programs, especially after a big antenna in Iasi had been built. (13)

An important point is, that there is a difference between written and spoken Moldavian language. Whereas written language does widely correspond to Romanian standard language, Moldavian spoken language was being transformed into a "Russo-Moldovan jargon". (14) This jargon was also promoted via official national radio and television and lead to a decline of the Romanian language on the Moldavian territory into a "peasants dialect". (15)

b) Russophone urban population

They use Russian language in public, but Moldavian language in private.

Russian was official language, used especially in the administrative and economic sector. The share of the non-Moldavian population was much higher in urban than in rural areas, and Russian was more or less a common second language for all non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet Union. It is obvious that speaking Russian was unavoidable for the urban population.

c) Humanistic intelligentsia (authors, linguists...)

These people had often developed a national consciousness and cared for Moldavian/Romanian language and culture. It was their aim to keep Russian influence away from their native culture and to intensify cultural exchange with their Romanian neighbors. (16)

Moldavia has been confronted with Russian language and culture for more than 150 years, with only a short interruption during the interwar period. What are the reasons for being able to preserve a native language and culture over such a long period of time under such unfavorable conditions?

First, there are remarkable differences between the Russian and the Moldavian cultures, so a "sneaking adaptation" was not easily possible.

Furthermore the government in Moscow did not wish to exterminate the peculiarities of non-Russian nationalities. It had just to be assured that national interest did not contradict to the interests of the Soviet Union. For example, in Soviet times Moldavian language was taught at schools: in "national schools" it was language of instruction, in "mixed schools" (for children of different nationalities) lessons in Moldavian language were given. Although these institutions assured only basic education, they were important for the survival of the Moldavian language.

Another point is, that many Moldavians left the rural areas and went to live in one of the Moldavian cities, leaving their relatives behind in the village (in 1940 13% of the total population in Moldavia lived in cities, the number increased up to 48% in 1990). (17)(18) This way russophone Moldavians in the cities and "traditional" Moldavians in the villages kept contacting one another and helped the Moldavian language to remain alive in the cities - though mostly spoken in a non-public area only.

Striving for independence

When Gorbachev became the leading personality of the Soviet Union in 1985, he soon implemented a policy of "glasnost" (the Old Russian word "glas" means voice: deplorable states of affairs should be named in public) and "perestroika" (reorganization).

During 1987 a public opposition movement was developing in Moldavia. It consisted mainly of Moldavian writers and linguists. Next to the pollution of environment because of intensified agriculture they criticized the language policy applied in their country during the past years.

In spring 1988 the Mateevici-Society was founded. Mateevici, an orthodox priest, who had died in 1917, had written a poem entitled "Limba noastra" (= our language), which became national anthem of the independent Moldavian Republic in 1994.

The main demands of this Society and other opposition groups (which united to Frontul Popular al Moldovei, the Popular Front of Moldavia) were the promotion and historically correct interpretation of Moldavian language and history. Moldavian language should become national language and be written in Latin characters again. Features of Moldavian culture should become visible in public life, mixed schools should be abolished and replaced by separate schools for each nation. (19)

Already in 1988 a commission on behalf of the Communist Party of Moldavia investigated the necessity and worked out a concept for a possible language reform. For a long time, government and opposition could not agree. It was the people that finally decided: during the final discussion in the parliament half a million people were demonstrating for "our language".

Finally two laws were passed in August 1989: the "Law on the status of the state language in the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic" and the "Law on the functioning of language on the territory of the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic".

It was not the only task of these laws to correct the language policy "made in Moscow", but also to stress the independence of Moldavian and Russian culture.

So what were the contents of these language laws?

Of course, Moldavian language was declared to be state language. This state language should be applied in the political, economic, social and cultural sector. Gagauzian language became second state language in areas with a high share of Gagauz people on the total population. Russian should be used as language of communication among nationalities. The "degradation" of Russian language was one of the reasons for the conflict in the Trans-Dniestr region, which is mainly inhabited by Russians. The identity of Romanian and Moldavian language was officially recognized, Cyrillic script was replaced by Latin script. (20) This point is very important for a possible future development of a common national consciousness among Romanians and Moldavians: How can someone understand that his people and the one on the opposite embankment are one and the same nation, if he can't even read the road signs as soon as he has crossed the river?

What about ethnic minorities in Moldavia? Gagauzia gained an autonomic status, in the Gagauzian area every official has to be able to speak three languages (Romanian, Russian, Gagauzian), according to Moldavian language laws. From 1991 till 1994 more than 70 Ukrainian schools were opened in Moldavia, and the RFE/RL-report stated on October 10th, 1994, that the Ukrainians see the further development positively. Moldavian nationalities policy is also seen positively by international organizations. In spite of stressing national language and national heritage, Moldavia also respects the culture of minorities living there.


I Michail Guboglo: Sprachengesetzgebung und Sprachenpolitik in der UdSSR und den Nachfolgestaaten der UdSSR seit 1989, Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien

II Jörg Stadelbauer: Die Nachfolgestaaten der Sowjetunion, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1996

III Michael Unger: Stichwort GUS - Völker und Staaten, W. Heyne Verlag, München 1992

IV Lászlo Révész: Die uniforme Presse in Osteuropa, Universitätsverlag Freiburg/Schweiz 1977

V Andreas Kappeler: Russland als Vielvölkerreich, Beck-Verlag, München 1992

VI Claus Neukirch: Die Republik Moldau, LIT-Verlag, Münster 1996

VII Peter Hübner: Die Kultur der Sowjetunion an der Schwelle zur Marktwirtschaft, Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, Köln 1991

VIII Erhard Stölting: Eine Weltmacht zerbricht, Eichborn-Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 1990

IX D. Tranca, I. Marinescu: Über das Buch in Rumänien, Verlag Meridiane, Bukarest 1968


1 VI p 79
2 IX p. 20
3 IX
4 V
5 VI p. 72
6 V p. 304
7 II p. 189
8 V p. 310
9 VI p. 73
10 VI p. 76 f
11 V p. 312
12 VI p. 76f
13 VI p. 73
14 VI p. 79
15 VI p. 76ff
16 VI p. 87f
17 VI p. 138
18 VI p. 86f
19 VIII p. 98
20 I p. 3ff


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