Book Review: The Moldovans
University of Maryland.
King, Charles. The Moldovans: Romania, Russia and the Politics of Culture. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1999.
Although written as a broad historical summary of Moldovan history from the nineteenth century to the civil war in the 1990s - the best such summary available in English - King also sets forth to examine To what extent can nations be forged without their appearing a forgery? Why do some attempts at nation-building succeed where others fail? (xvi). Appropriately, a considerable portion of the book is dedicated both to failed nation-building attempts in Moldova, and the curious failure of Moldovans to unite with Romania in the 1990s while still placing themselves with a broad Romanian identity.
Moldova - specifically, that portion of Moldova historically known as Bessarabia - was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812. This was the first in a series of handovers; returned after the Crimean War in 1856, re-annexed by Russia in 1878, unified as part of Greater Romania in 1918, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, then independent in 1991. The result was successive (and competing) Tsarist, Romanian and Soviet attempts to define the Moldovan people.
Tsarist policies of Russification and Romanian attempts at Romanianization are addressed in two chapters, with Soviet nation-building policies given much more scope in three chapters of its own. To briefly summarize, King details two strains of nation-building before the 1920s: pan-Romanian movements that urged unification with Romania, and a pro-Russian movement composed, in part, of noble boiars and by local Russians. The Great Union of 1918 resulted in local movements being largely overshadowed in the interwar period by the Romanian government, which actively (and often patronizingly) sought to use education to bring local dialect and practices into line with established Romanian national norms and - crucially - replace Russian as the lingua franca of trade and intellectual life.
King pays greater attention to the Soviet response: in 1924, the creation of the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (located in Soviet Transnistria and Ukraine). The MASSR would prove a forum in which the Soviets could create a Moldovan nation through codifying a language, national literature and history and using education, publishing and local government to educate its inhabitants accordingly through a rapid Moldovization campaign. This, like similar programs in Karelia and Buria, was a tool by which to context geographic losses from the Second World War: establishing a Moldovan nation was a means by which to reacquire Bessarabia.
Ironically, however, King shows that already by the 1930s, Soviet policy had shifted from creating a nation to (as he titles the chapter) stipulating it. For example, the ambitious 1920s attempt to form a new language based on local dialectal forms had, by the 1950s, been replaced by the teaching of a Moldovan language that was increasingly similar to Romanian. King argues that by the perestroika era, the Moldovan nation-building project had largely failed and so to the attempt to build a national identity that would compete with Romanian.
The last four chapters of the book deal with ethnic politics and ethnic relations after independence in 1991. King portrays much of the internal ethnic problems of the republic - chiefly relations between the government and the Russian-speaking community of the Dnestr Moldovan Republic and the Turkish Gagauz - as a clash between new and old elites. Entrenched authorities among the national minorities resisted any attempt to centralize the new republic, and portrayed essentially political and economic disputes as ethnic conflicts (189).
Similarly, King breaks down the question of unification with Romania along practical lines. There were few compelling ideas on either side for unification, given the economic condition of both states and the political crisis in Tranistria. King suggests that on the one hand, the state elites of Moldova had little inclination to hand over power to Romania; while in Romania, the near-universal agreement that Moldovans were Romanians and that unification was preferable but not urgent prevented it from becoming a wedge issue that extremists might use to rise to power (166-167). But for Moldovans, the question of identity remains: the decision to continue an official Moldovan identity has made practical political sense in calming fears by minorities they might be subsumed into a Greater Romania. But King rightly argues that for Moldovans, it means a fundamental question about their own identity and what it means to be Moldovan, and what is the relation between Moldovan identity and Romanian identity.
The Moldovans is useful as a broad survey text in an under-studied region that warrants broader use for comparison in other disputes over nationality. For students of nationalism, it also is an illuminating examination of the ways that successive regimes used nationality for political leverage in a single region. As King notes in his preface, the apparent failure of the Soviet Moldovan national project has much to tell us about the success of nation-building efforts elsewhere.
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