Attila Demkó: A New Nation in Europe: Romanians or Moldavians?

In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new country appeared on the map between the Ukraine and Romania, which had never existed before: the Moldavian Republic. The birth of this country reopened an old controversy: who are the Moldavians? Are they an independent, separate nation, or are they part of the Romanian nation?To answer this not very easy question, first it is necessary to respond to another one: what are the characteristics of an independent nation? There are two main theories: one is the French and Anglo-Saxon, which emphasises the importance of the state. According to this interpretation, a nation is a large group of people living in one country and having an independent government.The other definition is the so called German, which emphasises race and ethnicity. In the German model, the three main characteristics of a nation are: common language, history, and culture.Using the first explanation, the answer to the Moldavian question is very simple: Moldavians have a separate state and government, so they are a nation. But in the region where Moldavia is situated, the French-Anglo-Saxon terminology is not valid. In Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkan peninsula the nation-theory based on ethnicity is the predominant one, therefore I will examine the subject based on the characteristics described in the so called German theory.

Romanian and Soviet history writing

There are two main views about the subject: the Soviet-Russian and the Romanian. The conception of most Romanian historians (and common people) is fairly simple: there was, there is and there will never be a separate Moldavian nation. According to them, the name “Moldavian” can only be used in geographical, non-ethnic sense. Some Romanians acknowledge that there is such a thing as Moldavian identity, but only on a regional level. In the middle ages, people in the Moldavian Principality called themselves Moldavians, and people in the Wallachian principality Wallachians, so this consciousness is only the remnant of the past (Van MEURS, p. 110).Russian (Soviet) historians have a completely different opinion: they say that there is an independent Moldavian nation distinct from the Romanian. The Russians developed two major theories to prove it:1. The followers of the first school describe the Moldavians and the whole Romanian nation as a half Slavic, half Latin mixture. According to this theory, the Latin Volochi people were the ancestors of both nations, but as they settled down they split into two parts. The Volochi in the south interacted with the South Slavs and became Romanians, while the Volochi of the northern regions interacted with the Eastern Slavs and became Moldavians.
2. The other, more popular view is that in the first two stages in the development of the nation (the tribe and the nationality period) there was no significant difference between the Latin-speaking population of the left and the right bank of the Prut. The schism between the Romanian and Moldavian peoples and cultures occurred in the nineteenth century, when two separate bourgeois nations (in the communist nation theory, the third stage of development) were formed with the rise of capitalism. One group of scholars categorically mark 1859, the year of the Romanian unification, as the year of schism for both cultures, others mention the late nineteenth century (Van MEURS, p. 113).

The facts behind the theories

It is clear that both the Romanian and Soviet view are politically motivated, and the influence of politics is usually very harmful for fairness. This rule is valid in the case of the Moldavians, too: historical truth is far more complicated than the theories.The Russians are right in pointing out that Slavic people settled in Moldavia well before the Romanians, in the early sixth century. It is also true, that nomadic (mostly Mongolian) attacks devastated the territory between the Prut and Dniester rivers (Bessarabia) in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and the Romanized population first appeared between the two rivers in the fourteenth century. As they settled the territory, they assimilated the remnants of the Slavic population. Some Russians say, that this was the point, when the Moldavian nation was created. But according to the internationally accepted opinion – while the assimilation process obviously had effects on the Volochi people, too – it cannot be said, that the result was an ethnic group basically different from the Romanized population of other areas (SHLAPENTOKH, p. 72). After the Moldavian Principality had conquered the territory in the late fourteenth, early fifteenth century, the fate of Bessarabia became identical with that of the other parts of the principality for a long time. The people on both sides of the Prut experienced the Turkish conquest, the Tatar, Cossack and Polish raids. There was no significant difference between them in terms of language, race, habits etc. So the Soviet theory, which describes an early split in the Romanian population, cannot be taken very seriously.The other Soviet hypothesis is however not based entirely on the fantasies of historians. The Romanians usually fail to acknowledge that the most important turning point of the development of national consciousness in Moldavia is the Russian annexation of Bessarabia in 1812. While the roots of Romanian nationalism can be traced back to the eighteenth century (even before the enlightenment Romanian chronicles emphasised the common ancestry of the inhabitants of the Principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania), nationalism became a dominant force more than a century later. It spread from West to East, first appearing in Transylvania, and reached Old-Romania (Wallachia and Moldavia west of the Prut) in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Therefore the Russian annexation happened decades before the rise of any national sentiment, and the split affected very significantly the evolution of the national identity in Bessarabia.One of the most important aspects was the weakness, and – in the first decades – the pro-Russian orientation of the nobility (the nobility’s role in the development of national ideology is not so substantial in Western Europe, but crucial in the eastern regions of the continent). Some boyars quickly assimilated themselves to the Russians, others were marginalized. The Russians created a whole new nobility on the ruins of the old one. By 1911, of 498 noble families only 138 were Moldavian (HITCHINS, p. 240).The other nation creating class, the bourgeois middle class and indigenous ‘intelligentsia’, was even weaker, almost non existent. The urban population was very small in Moldavia. In the nineteenth century, 14.7 percent of the country’s population lived in cities, and only 14 percent of these 14 percent were Moldavians (HITCHINS, p. 243). That means that approximately two Moldavians in a hundred were city dwellers, and of course only a few them were culturally capable to grasp the meaning of the national idea (most of the people were illiterate even in the cities). There were a few patriotic poets (for example Constantine Stomata), but without proper audience and literary links with Romania, their influence was insignificant (Van MEURS ).The Orthodox Church, whose role in Hungarian-ruled Transylvania was very important in the Romanian national awakening, was the one and only native institution that remained for the Moldavians after the Russian occupation. But the situation was very different in the two provinces. In Transylvania and in the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Roman-Catholic Church was the dominant religion, so the Orthodox Church was not subordinated to the center. It retained its independence, its schools served as centers for national development. In Moldavia the rulers were also the followers of the Orthodox Church. After the annexation the Russians severed the Bessarabian church’s links with the Metropolitanate of Moldavia. It was placed under the jurisdiction of the Holy Synod in St. Petersburg. This was the beginning of a long Russification process. The higher levels of the hierarchy were filled by Russians, who were against any national movement (HITCHINS, pp. 243-244). The education system was severely affected, the teaching of Romanian as a subject in state elementary and secondary schools ceased in the 1860s and 1870s (HITCHINS, p. 248). Consequently not even the church could become the center of national sentiment.Based on the weakness of the foundation, it is not very surprising, that the level of national consciousness among the indigenous Bessarabian population was very low and there was no Romanian (or Moldavian) national political movement in Moldavia in the nineteenth century. As the Romanian Prime Minister said in 1891: “From Transylvania we hear the lamentations of our brethren, but from Bessarabia we hear nothing any more” (Van MEURS, p. 53).Only in 1905 did two nationalist organisations emerge in the educated circles. The moderate one, founded by a patriotic boyar, was mainly a cultural association. They advocated the introduction of the Moldavia language in the schools. The radicals, mainly university students, wanted to reinforce the sense of national consciousness among the Moldavian population. They did not, however, seek separation from the Russian Empire, unification was not the most important objective (HITCHINS, p. 249).The question of the Romanianness of the Latin speaking population of Bessarabia was not a problem. The educated circles knew of their being Romanians, the peasants knew nothing, and the Russians did not care about who they where. Moscow’s main goal was to incorporate the territory into the empire, and if possible, assimilate the population. Creating a nation was simply not on the agenda. While it is true, that the of the idea of an independent Moldavian nation first appeared in the Tsarist era, most of the Russian historians did not distinguish between the Romanians and Moldavians at the time. Even notorious Russifiers such as P.P. Batyushkov made no distinction. (Van MEURS, p. 154)Nevertheless it does not mean that the Soviets’ second version about the Moldavian nation is completely false. The development of the Romanians in Bessarabia and Old Romania went into different directions in the nineteenth century. They did not live through a lot of events which shaped the Romanian consciousness. One good example is the Hungarian-Romanian struggle over Transylvania, which has a very significant place in Romanian history: Moldavians completely lack the anti-Hungarian feelings of the Romanians.

Creating a Nation

The victory of the communists brought considerable changes to the Moldavian question: the concept of the Moldavian people as a nation in its own right was developed by Soviet historians in the early twenties and thirties of this century. There is a lot of examples that it is possible to create (or to help in creating) a nation from the outside. For example in the case of the Macedonians, the Yugoslavs were very successful in building a brand new nation. The Soviets tried to do the same with the Moldavians, they treated them as a separate nation from the beginning. For instance in the Soviet era censuses, Romanians of the Bukovina region and Moldavians were clearly put into two categories. The political motivation behind this aim was the loss of Bessarabia: the Russians tried to create a historically founded explanation for their expansionist goals: the region is not inhabited by Romanians, therefore Romania has no right to rule it.After most of the territories inhabited by Moldavians had been lost to Romania after 1918, only a few hundred thousand of them remained under Soviet rule, mainly in the Transdniester region on the left bank of the Dniester. The Soviets first tried to form a new nation from these people. Moscow created a homeland for them, the Moldavian Autonomous Republic, which was called by the propaganda the “first national state of the Moldavian people”. In 1928, a large campaign was launched to make a full blown language out of the dialect of the Moldavian village people. Borrowings from both Romanian and Slavic were replaced by newly invented “Moldavian” words. (For example the international word “termometru” was replaced by a weird invention “caulduro masuzator” (Van MEURS, p. 129). But there was a little problem with this language: the peasants could not understand it. This was the first big blow to the nation creating process.In 1940, the Bessarabian territory was annexed by the Soviets partly based on the assumption that the population is not Romanian, but an independent nation. The second blow came after the second world war: the Russians stopped the Moldavianisation. Under Khrushchev’s liberal cultural policy, the national cultural heritage was revived. Mihail Eminescu, the greatest (and very nationalist) Romanian poet was recognised as part of the Moldavian cultural heritage. The younger generation of Moldavian writers rediscovered their ethnic identity, around 1960 even some protests against Russification were heard. In 1968 Brezhnev, who was a party secretary in Moldavia, reintroduced the nation creating process. Cultural exchange with Romania was restricted, and the import of Romanian books was forbidden (Van MEURS, pp. 142-44). This period lasted for some twenty years. The results from a Soviet point of view were not very encouraging. The Moldavian intellectuals and the remnants of the bourgeois strata retained the culture and the language. On the eve of the changes, after fifty years of Soviet rule, the so called Moldavian language was not even a separate dialect, just a variation of the wider Moldavian dialect of the Romanian language (BÍRÓ, p. 20).As Glasnost permitted a national awakening throughout the USSR, the restrictions of Brezhnev were quickly washed away, and Moldavians began to reclaim their Romanian heritage. In the late eighties, slogans demanding recognition of the identity of the Moldavian and Romanian languages, and transfer of the Moldavian language to the Latin alphabet proved to be effective mobilisers (SHLAPENTOKH, p. 81).Then came the question of the state flag, which also showed the Romanian orientation: the majority preferred the traditional tri-color of Romania, the red, yellow and blue. The flag became official symbol in April 1990. At the same time street names in Chisinau and other mostly Moldavian cities were reverted to names they carried in the Romanian era (BREMMER – TARAS, p. 136). So on the surface it seemed that the question of the Moldavian nation is not a question anymore.But the problem was not so simple. Only the population in the cities preferred the nationalist alterations, while in the countryside Moldavians were not so enthusiastic about their Romanian heritage and nationalism (SHLAPENTOKH, p. 82). A public opinion survey in early 1990 showed that 43.1 percent of the population favoured the preservation of Moldavia within the Soviet Union, while 41.8 percent were for independence. This was not anywhere close to the data of the Baltic states. The most striking was that while 29.9 percent of ethnic Moldavians favoured the Soviet Union, and 54.8 percent wanted an independent state, only 3.9 percent supported the unification with Romania. For the Moldavians the main question was the question of statehood (SHLAPENTOKH, p. 80).In spite of this very interesting data, the opinion of the majority of international experts is much closer to the Romanian standpoint than to the Russian. Van Meurs simply calls the theory of an independent Moldavian nation a myth (Van MEURS, p. 111). Other experts consequently call the Moldavians Romanians (Bíró is the best example).While it is clear that the Moldavians and Romanians have a common language, and largely common culture and history, I think that today the relationship between Romanians and Moldavians is similar neither to the East-German / West-German case, where there were not the slightest doubt that they are one nation, nor to the Macedonian / Bulgarian, where it is clear that they are two separate people. Moldavians are somewhere in between, in the grey zone with a possibility to go towards both directions. It is maybe more probable that they will unite as a nation with the Romanians, but nothing is sure in history.


  • BÍRÓ, Béla ‘A “moldáv” rejtély’ (The Moldavian Enigma), Pro Minoritate, 1996/Tél, p.20
  • BREMMER, Ian – TARAS, Ray ‘Nations & Politics in the Soviet Successor States’, Cambridge, 1993
  • HITCHINS, Keith ‘Rumania 1866-1947’, Oxford, 1994
  • SHLAPENTOKH, Vladimir ‘The New Russian Diaspora’ New York, 1994
  • Van MEURS, Wim ‘The Bessarabian Question’, New York, 1994

Tudor Cojocariu

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