2018 has been a year of centenaries across much of Europe. For Romania, December 1, 2018 marked the 100th year anniversary since the Romanian lands of Transylvania, Bessarabia and others united with Bucharest. Interestingly, some of these territories, most notably Bessarabia, are no longer part of Romania and instead makes up much of modern-day Moldova.
In the early 1990s, the period of Romanian unification was glorified in the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. The republic sought independence from the USSR and ruling elites from the Moldovan Popular Front prepared for the ‘impending’ unification with Romania. Almost 30 years later, Moldova has remained independent and the political climate is infinitely different.
While pan-Romanianism still has some support in Romania, it has disappeared from official discourse in Moldova. The ruling coalition prefers not to discuss issues of national identity, with the two people one state generally being accepted. The socialists on the other hand, support the notion that Moldovans constitute a unique ethno-linguistic group. To reinforce this notion, and the countries right to independence, the Moldovan president Igor Dodon has recently declared that next year will be the year of Stefan the Great, to celebrate the 660 anniversary of the country’s independence.
Despite the lack of support from any influential political parties, the exclusionary and revisionist pan-Romanian ideology is still present in Moldovan public space. Perhaps the best example of this is found in the Moldovan National History Museum.
The National History Museum of Moldova is a bastion of pan-Romanian ideals located right in the heart of the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. The museum presents a revisionist narrative of the Union with Romania presenting facts that suits its agenda and omitting those that do not.
The two exhibitions where the pan-Romanian bias becomes clear are the ones which deal with Tsarist rule and Romanian unification. The basic narrative of these sections is that the era of Russian and Soviet occupation was detrimental to the social, cultural and economic development of the people of Moldova, whilst the period of Romanian unification was one which saw a high level of development in all these areas.
Unsurprisingly, the interwar Romanian government were not promoting the idea of a Moldovan people and so the people of Moldova are automatically identified as Romanians. Throughout each of these exhibitions certain pieces of information are omitted, which leads to the visitor gaining a favourable view of Romania at the expense of Russia.
The exhibition on the Tsarist reign does acknowledge that Bessarabia was given certain economic freedoms during the formative years of its integration into the Russian Empire. However, the exhibition openly admits that it pays special attention to the de-nationalizing policy conducted and Russification policy carried out by the Tsarist forces.
While there were efforts to Russify the Bessarabians, especially after the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, the exhibition provides no mention of the fact that there was no attempt to Russify Moldovans in the early years of the Russian occupation. In fact, under a special statue passed in 1818, Moldovan functioned as an equal language to Russian, with official announcements made in both languages. Furthermore, the exhibition fails to provide any historical perspective, most notably that Russification efforts were connected to rising Romanian nationalism across the border.
The perception that is presented in this exhibition is that the Russian Empire purposely oppressed the people of Bessarabia, inhibiting social, cultural and economic growth. While this is certainly true for the latter part of Tsarist rule, it ignores more positive relationship at the beginning of the empire. By presenting the Tsarist occupation in such a way, the museum then presents Romania as the saviours of Bessarabia in the next exhibition.
The exhibition which deals with the unification with Romania introduces the event in a celebratory tone, claiming that the integration into Greater Romania lead to important socio-economic developments in the region, particularly in regard to culture. Indeed, the latter statement is presented as a ‘fact’.
Whilst the previous exhibition presented an overtly critical view of the Tsarist period, the exhibition on unification with Romania is rather uncritical. The statement that it led to the high development of culture is rather misleading, considering we know that many Moldovans were reluctant to change from the Cyrillic to the Latin script. The exclusionary nature of the pan-Romanianism, similar to that articulated by the Popular Front, is evident in this exhibition, as the experience of the regions minorities under Romanian rule is absent.
None of Bessarabia’s minorities benefited culturally under the Romanian government, with Russian and Ukrainian language schools being mostly closed and Russian orthodox services being expected to be conducted in Romanian. Such uncritical representations exclude minorities from the historic memory of the state.
To claim that the Moldovans themselves benefited economically from the Union with Romania would also be misleading. The main regions which benefited from Romanian investment were the large cities and towns, which were overwhelmingly populated by Russians and Jews. In fact, Bessarabia was one of the most backward regions of the Romania, with less Bessarabians having access to electricity than anywhere else in Romania.
In its presentation of Moldovan history, the National History Museum of Moldova places particular emphasis on the issue of cultural development. The main narrative that it presents is that the Romanian speakers of the region suffered, both culturally and economically, at the hands of the Tsar and prospered under the Romanians. Such a narrative implies that those who live in Moldova are in fact Romanian. Similarly, such an uncritical view promotes future re-unification with Moldova and ultimately undermines the legitimacy of the Moldovan state.
Such a view excludes the experiences of the regions minorities, whilst simultaneously presents an incomplete picture of the regions history. Instead of a critical examination of the interwar period, visitors are treated to a nostalgic view of Romanian Unification, reminiscent of the views of the Popular Front. As Moldovan history has proven, such biased views are dangerous. While Moldova has made great strides since the early 1990s in incorporating its ethnic minorities into the state, the removal of such exclusionary and bias historical narratives is a must if progress on the matter is to be continued.
**Keith Harrington, NUI Travelling Scholar in Humanities and Social Sciences, PhD Candidate, History Department, Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, Maynooth University.
Note: References concerning Moldova’s experience under Tsarist and Romanian rule come from Charles Kings book The Moldovans Romania, Russia and the Politics of Culture and Thomas J. Hegarty’s chapter, The Politics of Language in Moldova’, in Language Ethnicity and the State, Volume Two Minority Languages in Eastern Europe Post-1989.