The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture

The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture

by Charles King

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The first English-language book to present a complete picture of this intriguing east European borderland, The Moldovans illuminates the perennial problems of identity politics and cultural change that the country has endured. Throughout the past two centuries, Moldova was the object of a variety of culture-building efforts from Russian, Romanian, and Soviet


The first English-language book to present a complete picture of this intriguing east European borderland, The Moldovans illuminates the perennial problems of identity politics and cultural change that the country has endured. Throughout the past two centuries, Moldova was the object of a variety of culture-building efforts from Russian, Romanian, and Soviet influences before emerging as an independent state in 1991. The author highlights the political uses of culture--the ways in which language, history, and identity can be manipulated by political elites--and examines why some attempts to mold idnetity succeed where others fail. He also reveals why, in the case of Moldova, a project of identity construction succeeded in creating a state but failed to make an independent nation.

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The Moldovans

Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture

By Charles King

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-9793-9


Contested Territories, Contentious Identities

This book is about the malleability of national identity — the degree to which individuals' conceptions of self and community can be changed through education, cultural policy, and other forms of state intervention. This book asks why some attempts by political elites to mold identity succeed while others become quaint footnotes in the national history of a given people. It is about the perils of building nations from scratch, and about the incorrigibility of the nation itself. It is about what happens to nation-builders when the nations they build turn out to be rather different from what they expected.

Despite a venerable tradition of writing on nations and nationalism by historians, anthropologists, and political scientists, we know little about what might be called "nationalisms that failed." We often say that ethnic groups and nations are "constructed" by political and cultural elites, but we seem to know very little about why, in the universe of possible identities that politicians and cultural leaders might construct, only some seem to endure. In other words, to borrow from Marx, if nationalists do in fact make their own history, do they make it just as they please?

That ethnic identities are mutable, multiple, overlapping, and often inconsistent is one of the few things we say we understand about ethnicity and nationalism. The volume of publications on the invention or construction of everything from national symbols to national histories to national costumes is today truly unfathomable. A glance through any library catalog will uncover a host of titles in this genre, ranging from The Invention of George Washington to The Invention of Sodomy. Indeed, it has become a cliché to assert that ethnonational identities are "imagined" and that their particular content is as much the product of conscious nation-building by state, quasi-state, and elite institutions as of more natural processes operating at the grass roots within preexisting, bounded cultural communities. Linguists create national, standardized languages out of the messy and heterogeneous speech patterns of particular groups. Ethnographers formalize the bounds of membership in an ethnic population. Historians craft national histories and chronicle the deeds of a pantheon of national heroes. State-sponsored educational systems, the media, and elite-driven political ideologies communicate all these formal accoutrements of nationhood back to the people themselves. Thus are traditions invented and communities imagined by an array of political and cultural entrepreneurs — nation-builders whose task is to homogenize cultural practice and create a unified and standard national culture from a congeries of perennial or primordial attachments to clan, caste, or commune. In Ernest Gellner's memorable formulation, it is nationalism that creates nations and not the other way around.

If in fact nations really are invented things, then can members of any human group be made to embrace any ethnic or national identity and, if so, what precisely are those conditions that would allow political, economic, cultural, or other elites to compel them to do so? Or to put it slightly differently, what are the limits to which ethnic groups, nations, and languages can be forged — in both senses of the term — out of heterogeneous cultural practices? In the marketplace of identities, why do only a few visions of the nation attract buyers? Why do some nationalisms fail?

This book focuses on a Soviet nation-building project that failed, but one that failed in a rather peculiar and ambiguous way. Before the 1920s, few specialists thought of the Moldovans as anything more than an eastern offshoot of the Romanians, whose dialect had over the centuries been heavily influenced by the languages of neighboring Slavs. Spoken in parts of Ukraine and the provinces of eastern Romania, the dialect shared the same origins as Romanian in the vulgar Latin of the eastern Roman Empire, its structure was largely the same, and except for a larger number of words borrowed from Slavic languages, there was little to distinguish it from the numerous varieties of standard Romanian spoken in any other region within the historical Romanian lands. For this reason, the Romanians and Moldovans were generally considered part of a single, pan-Romanian nation.

In the 1920s, though, a new people and language suddenly seemed to spring onto the world stage. In the small Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR), established on the western border of Soviet Ukraine in 1924, Moldovan histories, textbooks, grammars, newspapers, and other publications were hailed by the Soviet authorities as the first fruits of a Moldovan nation in the making. Persons whose language and ethnicity had previously been termed "Romanian" seemed overnight to become "Moldovans," and Soviet propagandists began to agitate for the unification of all Moldovans, who lived mainly in portions of Ukraine and the Romanian province of Bessarabia, into a single Soviet Moldovan state. Especially after 1940, when parts of the Romanian provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia were annexed by the Soviet Union and mostly absorbed into an enlarged Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR), two independent "eastern Romance" peoples seemed to arise where before there had been only one.

Just as suddenly, however, it all came to an end. In the style of a mass confession, in August 1989 the Moldovans rejected the key feature that had long distinguished them from Romanians: the use of the Russian alphabet. Many publicly affirmed that the peoples of Romania and Soviet Moldova shared a single, pan-Romanian national identity. Moldovan, now written like Romanian in the Latin alphabet, was declared the sole official language of the republic. Its identity with Romanian was recognized by law. While gatherings in Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, and other Soviet capitals celebrated the revival of indigenous cultures and identities in the late 1980s, crowds in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (Kishinev) seemed to do exactly the opposite, rejecting the existence of a separate Moldovan nation and adopting the tricolor, national anthem, and official language of another country, Romania. Moldovan nationalism ultimately proved to be a rather strange beast: a nationalism that succeeded in gaining an independent state but seemed to fail in making an independent nation.

In the Republic of Moldova, which exited the Soviet Union in August 1991, exposing the falsehoods of Soviet cultural policy quickly became a cottage industry. Innumerable books, pamphlets, essays, and academic articles were published denouncing the cultivation of an independent Moldovan identity in the Soviet period as a vast exercise in Stalinist denationalization. For Moldova's younger generation of writers, artists, and academics — the intellectuals who led the national movement of the late perestroika period and hastened the republic's flight from the union — the Soviet era produced an unprecedented case of cultural fraud. Works in Moldovan linguistics, ethnography, and historiography published in the Soviet Union, they argued, were designed simply to justify the illegal annexation of Romanian territory in 1940 and to force Moldovans into a state of collective amnesia about their authentic culture and true national identity. For these pan-Romanian intellectuals, the adoption of the Latin alphabet and the recognition of Moldovan-Romanian cultural unity in 1989 were acts of historical justice, the first steps toward reappropriating a Romanian identity obscured by some seven decades of Soviet propaganda.

However, since the declaration of independence in 1991, Moldova's government and population at large have been far less sanguine about their Romanian identity than either the pan-Romanians or most Western analysts (who predicted a quick political unification of Moldova with Romania) had imagined. In the 1990s relations between Chisinau and Bucharest cooled considerably, with mutual recriminations sometimes replacing the warm avowals of pan-Romanian brotherhood that followed Romania's anticommunist revolution in December 1989 and the Moldovan declaration of independence a year and a half later. A full-scale war in 1992 between the central Moldovan government and groups intent on separation and reintegration with Russia polarized the population and intensified debates over cultural identity and relations with both Bucharest and Moscow. In reaction to the pan-Romanians, a small Moldovan nationalist movement reemerged, arguing that the Moldovans were in fact a distinct nation with a timeless past, related to but separate from Romanians. By early 1994 the Moldovan president, Mircea Snegur, had begun to direct historians and linguists to concentrate on the scientific origins of Moldova's independent identity, rather than on the cultural commonalities between Moldova and Romania. The parliament adopted a new constitution that made no mention of the putative Romanian identity of the Moldovan people and language. Most citizens in the republic, chastened by an enduring economic crisis, seemed content to split the difference between the two camps, holding that Moldovans and Romanians, like Britons and Americans, were two peoples divided by a common language.

Thus, in post-Soviet Moldova as in the Soviet period, the question Who are the Moldovans? continues to concern politicians as much as scholars. It does not have an easy answer. The politics of identity in this European borderland has in fact been far more complicated than any of the sides in these debates has admitted. The curious history of the Moldovans is not about Stalinist denationalization followed by national rebirth, nor is it about the struggle of an ancient Moldovan nation for self-determination. Rather, it is a history of fretful and sometimes violent projects to define the boundaries of the Romanian nation, the desiderata of authentic national culture, and the meaning of nationhood itself. Throughout this century, nationality among the Moldovans has been a decidedly negotiable proposition, a protean yet powerful conception of community in a region where the mutability of cultural boundaries has been matched by the fluidity of political ones. The territory of present-day Moldova has been a classic borderland, fought over and divided by outside powers eager to remake the Moldovans in their own image. Where the Moldovans have come from, why many have dismissed them as Romanians in denial and, most importantly, how far ethnic identities can be forged without their appearing a forgery form the focus of this study.

The twists and turns of cultural politics recounted in this volume, as well as the traumas of reconstructing a post-Soviet identity after the demise of communist rule, will be familiar to students of Soviet, post-Soviet, and east European affairs. What stands out about the Moldovan case, though, is the unsettled nature of the essentials of nationality. Belarusians, Kazakhs, and Latvians may still debate the interpretations of their national histories, the more and less authentic folk traditions from which these histories flow, and the appropriate cultural and political relationships with neighboring peoples and states; but in no post-Soviet republic except Moldova have inhabitants continued to argue about the existence of the nation itself. Why there has never been general agreement on who the Moldovans are and where the manifestly multiethnic Republic of Moldova is likely to go in the future are central questions in the chapters that follow.

This book devotes the most attention to the twentieth century, for it is only in this period that the questionable proposition of a distinct Moldovan nation — much less the possibility of a modern Moldovan state — became an issue in the international politics of southeast Europe. From the fourteenth century, there have been states, quasi states, and administrative regions that have laid claim, with varying justification, to the name Moldova. But it was not until the twentieth century, with the cataclysmic changes of the two world wars, the nation-building projects of the Bolsheviks, and the emergence of new peoples and states from the rubble of Soviet communism, that difficult questions about the Moldovans' ethnic identity and their right to self-determination came to the fore.

The idea of the Moldovans as a distinct nation, in the normal sense of the term, is today problematic. The language they speak is Romanian, even though it has long been called Moldovan by men and women in the countryside and is still referred to by that name in the constitution of the post-Soviet republic. The history of modern Moldova is an inextricable part of the broader history of the lands of eastern Latinity, the region stretching from the forests of Transylvania and the hills of Bukovina in the north, south to the Danube plain and the Black Sea, and east to the gentle hills and steppeland along the Dnestr River. All of these areas, including most of the present-day Republic of Moldova, were included in the Greater Romania produced by the First World War and destroyed by the Second. Today's Moldovans spent only a few decades in the same state as the Romanians, but their culture, language, and folk traditions spring from incontestably common roots. The national heroes and cultural luminaries of one are also those of the other. There are today, in this sense, two culturally "Romanian" states in eastern Europe, even though both are also home to a wide variety of ethnic minorities — Hungarians, Ukrainians, Russians, Roma, Turks.

There is, nevertheless, a separate sense of identity among the Moldovans. Apart from the three decades of Greater Romania, from 1918 to 1940, the inhabitants of postcommunist Romania and post-Soviet Moldova have spent most of the last two centuries apart. The Romanians and their cousins east of the Prut River have lived under separate legal, administrative, political, and religious systems, all of which in various ways were intent on creating as wide a gulf as possible between them. Both history and history-makers have produced an uncertain sense of distinctiveness among today's Moldovans. Most freely admit that they speak something akin to Romanian (indeed, there is now nothing to distinguish the two languages in their literary forms), but most also refuse to describe their nationality as "just" Romanian.

The Moldovan story is thus an unconventional tale. Unlike the other constituents of the Soviet Union, Moldova was the only union republic whose majority population was culturally bound to a nation-state across the border and therefore the potential object of irredentism, a situation that simply replayed within the socialist camp an older confrontation between the Romanian kingdom and the Russian empire. For this reason, the Moldovans have long been the object of intense nation-building projects, designed either to convince them of their separateness from the Romanians or, when under Romanian rule, to convince them that their purported separateness was a fiction of Russian propaganda. As in much of eastern Europe, shifting borders meant shifting cultural policies, and the peculiar sense of identity among modern Moldovans is the legacy of both. It is thus impossible to give a linear account of Moldovan nationhood, for whether they even constitute a nation in a cultural sense is highly dubious. There is no distinct literature, no separate language, no history apart from that of the states and empires of which they have been a part. Yet most Moldovans feel themselves to be something other than simply Romanians, and since 1991, they have had their own state to show for it. This book tells how, in a frontier zone full of situational and often puzzling identities, this particularly fascinating case came about.


Excerpted from The Moldovans by Charles King. Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles King is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of five books on European history and politics. He lectures widely on eastern Europe, social violence, and ethnic politics, and has worked with broadcast media including CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC, the History Channel, and MTV. A native of the Ozark hill country, King studied history and politics at the University of Arkansas and Oxford University, where he was a Marshall Scholar.

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