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History of Moldova

The land of present-day Moldova has been home to various people for millennia and for much of time these people have made a living by farming and animal husbandry; two industries still prevalent today. Thousands of years ago the area was quite prosperous as the geographic conditions were ideal for life. However, the relatively flat lands also provided easy transportation routes and this eventually led to a region that was constantly taken over and at war.

About 2000 years ago control over the land settled by the Dacians, however the Romans and later the Byzantines arrived due to having no natural barriers. The Romans conquered the land in about 100 AD and the invading armies intermingled with the locals creating a new ethnicity, which adopted Latin as its language and today's Moldovan language is a very close descendent of Latin.

After the Romans pulled out of the region in about 250-300 the land was bypassed and taken over by various groups, many of whom intermarried the local people. For much of the next 1000 years this region nominally fell under foreign rule, but never close enough to any foreign capital to make the region strongly supervised. The area was invaded by the Huns, Magyars, Rus, Mongols, and Bulgarians among others. These people all helped contribute to the ethnic makeup of the people today as there are bits of all these ethnicities in most ethnic Moldovans today, although for most of these groups the percentage is very small.

Throughout this same time period Christianity spread, first introduced by the Romans. Over the next thousand years it spread among the people in modern day Moldova until it became the predominant religion. The people at first followed the churches based in Rome, but later fell under Byzantine influence and the Eastern Orthodox traditions based in Constantinople (Istanbul).

In 1359 the Principality of Moldavia was established and at that time most of modern day Moldova (but not the lands east of the Nistru River) along with present-day eastern Romania fell under this rule. This principality was founded by and ruled over by Vlach or Romanian princes, first as a stronghold for the Hungarian king, but later these princes gained enough power to gain independence. This rule peaked under Stefan cel Mare (Stefan the Great) in the second half of the 1400s. Under the rule of these Romanian princes, the people became more Romanicized and the Romanian culture, which was present in both modern day Romania and Moldova developed greatly. This time strongly established the Romanian ethnicity, culture, language, religion, and later identity that exist in Moldova today.

Under Vlach (Romanian) rulers, this land was invaded by Tatars, Ottomans, and Russians, but it was the Ottoman Turks, who in 1538, took over full control of the land as it became a vassal state of their empire. Under Ottoman rule, the Moldavian princes continued to rule and they were given a fair amount of autonomy, however the direction and prosperity of the people was dependent on the relationship their Moldavian prince had with the Ottomans. The most lasting effect the Ottomans had on the people of modern day Moldova was, oddly, the introduction of their language. A small group of people in Gagauzia (a region in southern Moldova) today still speak a Turkic language, although these people maintained much of their traditional Romanian culture, including Christianity.

The 1700s were a bad time for the region as the Ottomans, Russians, Austrians, and even the local princes fought over power as army after army swept in. Eventually, in 1774, the region of modern-day Moldova was passed on to the Russians and this area, along with some surrounding lands in modern day Ukraine, became known as Bessarabia. Over the next couple years the wars continued and eventually the lands were divided between the Russians, who gained all of modern day Moldova, and the Austrians, who gained much of Bukovina and what is today known as Moldovia (a region in eastern Romania).

At the beginning of the 1800s wars with the Ottoman Empire continued until 1812 when Russia solidified control over the region. From this point until about 1828 the region of Bessarabia (modern day Moldova and parts of Ukraine) was fairly independent as the Russian government almost wholly ignored it, only using it as a destination for Russian political exiles. Among the Russians the region was known as the wild west throughout the 1800s.

In 1828 a new Russian tsar came to power, Nicolas I, and he clamped down on the lands, forcing the Russian language on the government and giving his appointed governors full power over the region. This loss of local power created a backlash among the primarily ethnic Romanian people and the land was then passed back and forth between the two groups, beginning with going to the Romanians in 1859 as Moldavia and Wallachia united as a vassal state under Ottoman Rule. The rule of Nicolas I also began building greater hostilities between the ethnic Russians and Romanians.

In 1878 the Russians defeated the Ottomans for good and Russia was given the task of protecting the newly formed state of Romania as Russia gained control over Bessarabia, placing Moldova back under Russian supervision. Just as hostilities existed between the ethnic Romanians and Russians earlier, these conflicts again arose as the Russians tried to force their language on the people by shutting down Romanian language schools and printing presses; by 1912 every school in the country was taught in Russian. This fueled greater resentment among the ethnic Romanians and, since most Romanians couldn't speak Russian, couldn't get into school to be educated and hence the population became one of the most poorly educated in all of Europe. This helped continue the rural lifestyle of the people as farming remained the economy of choice for ethnic Romanians.

Throughout the 1800s, but particularly under Nicolas I, the Russian tsars encouraged foreigners to settle the region in order to Russify the lands. This came in the settlement of ethnic Russians, Cossacks (similar to the Ukrainians), Jews, and dozens more, including Germans. This settlement of foreigners, in conjunction with the Russian language being forced on the people, led to a point of open conflict between many of the ethnic Romanians and the Russians. These hostilities, in union with domestic Russian chaos in the early 1900s, led to growing independence movements as Bessarabia sought union with Romania.

In 1918 Bessarabia began the process to unite with Romania, however recognition of this move was indecisive by much of the world and in 1924 both Romania and the newly formed Soviet Union claimed the land, although most of it fell under Romanian control for the time.

From 1924 until the beginning of World War II (WWII) in 1939 the ethnic Romanians tried to force their language, religion, customs, and culture upon the land's minorities, including the Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans. This had a similar effect the earlier Russification effort had: it divided the people and made many people identify more strongly with their ethnic heritage.

Meanwhile, east of the Nistru River (modern day Transnistria and parts of Ukraine), the land remained under Russian control and the Soviet government founded what eventually became the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), with its capital, later moving to Tiraspol.

Before and at the beginning of World War II the Soviets requested the land of Bessarabia from Romania, a move that the Romanians denied until 1940, when the war was escalating and the Romanians had little choice. Shortly after this the Soviet Union took the lands of Bessarabia (including modern day Moldova) then the Soviet Union altered the borders of the Moldovan SSR to Moldova's modern day borders, a move done in order to give ethnic Russians and Ukrainians the Danube River delta, while also creating an ethnically divided Moldova so more Russians were present, and hence the government had more support in the region.

By 1941 the Soviets and Germans had flipped sides in the war so Romania joined forces with Nazi Germany in order to retake their lost lands, which they did in 1941. However, in 1944 the Soviets swept back in and re-took the lands from Romania; the Soviets then maintained these lands in the war's peace treaties, making modern day Moldova a part of the Soviet Union.

To quell the violence and uprisings in Moldova, in which most of the ethnic Moldovans fought Soviet rule, the Soviets further encouraged Russians and Ukrainians to immigrate to Moldova. Additionally, the most vocal Romanian nationalists were deported or killed, which was best pronounced in 1950-52 when Leonid Brezhnev ruled over the Moldovan SSR.

For much of the time under Soviet rule, Moldova became more industrialized, but remained one of the poorest regions of the Soviet Union and the most rural region in the Soviet Union. Nearly all industrialization fell under the control of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians as the ethnic Moldovans primarily remained farming the fields. During this time, the Russian language was again forced upon the people, only adding to the continuing resentment among many. However, for others the battle wasn't as bitter because healthcare, education, infrastructure, and standards of living greatly improved under Soviet rule. No matter a person's opinion, generally speaking the Soviet government suppressed the ethnic Moldovans and their culture. Rarely did anyone speak out against the government, a move that helped most neutral opinions to sway in favor of the Soviet government in order to protect one's self and family.

In the 1980s, under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, opinions were more freely allowed to be expressed and this led to a revival of Romanian nationalism and identity as suppressed beliefs were now openly expressed. There was great debate as to whether the people were "Moldovan" or "Romanian," but they put this issue aside to unite as one people against the Soviet government.

In 1989 Moldova declared Moldovan (similar if not identical to Romanian) its official language and disagreements between the ethnic Moldovans (or Romanians) and the minority groups escalated. The regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia were most vocal in this debate as each fought Moldovan independence. In 1991 Moldova declared independence and in 1992, with the fall of the Soviet Union, they gained that independence, but the country was thrust into civil war.

Violence erupted between the majority of ethnic Moldovans, and the minority of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. This battle primarily took place between Transnistria (the lands east of the Nistru River) and the rest of Moldova. With the help of defecting Soviet/Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and the large stockpiles of weapons the Soviets left in the region of Transnistria, Transnistria won the war and claimed independence. To this day, this region acts as an independent country with its own currency, government, army, and border control, although no country has recognized their claim for independence.

Since 1992 Moldova has made slow progress on nearly every front. They have introduced a free market economy and established Moldovan as the national language, however have failed to thrive. The division among the ethnic groups, Transnistria's de facto independence, and even debates among the majority whether to be "Romanian" or "Moldovan" has led to little unity and hence little progress as the country remains divided ethnically and in opinions as each person seems to have a different vision for the country's future.

Moldova's Top Historical Sights:
-The cities of Chisinau and Tiraspol

Learn More about Moldova's History:
-The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture by Charles King. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford, CA U.S.A. 2000. (Buy Now)
-Historical Atlas of Central Europe by Paul Robert Magocsi. University of Washington Press. Seattle, WA U.S.A. 2002. (Buy Now)
-Moldova: Webster's Timeline History, 1197 - 2007 by Icon Group International. ICON Group International, Inc. San Diego, CA U.S.A. 2010. (Buy Now)

This page was last updated: November, 2012