Bessarabia (Basarabia in Romanian, Бесарабія in Ukrainian, Бессарабия in Russian, Бесарабия in Bulgarian, Besarabya in Turkish) is a historical term for the geographic entity in Eastern Europe bounded by the Dniester River on the east and the Prut River on the west. This was the name by which Imperial Russia designated the eastern part of the principality of Moldavia, ceded by the Ottoman Empire (to which Moldavia was a vassal) to Russia in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-1812. The western part of Moldavia united with Wallachia in 1859 in what would become the Kingdom of Romania. In 1918, slightly before the end of World War I, Bessarabia declared its independence from Russia and after three months united with the Kingdom of Romania. Bessarabia was occupied by the USSR in 1940 (considered a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), but changed hands several times during World War II. The Soviet annexation was internationally recognized in 1947. Its core part was reorganised as the Moldavian SSR, to which parts of the previous Moldavian ASSR were added. At the same time, some smaller parts of Bessarabia, in the south (Budjak) and north, were transferred to the Ukrainian SSR. In 1991, the Moldavian SSR was renamed the Republic of Moldova, and on 27 August the latter declared independence from the USSR.
The region is bounded by the Dniester river to the north and east, the Prut to the west and the lower Danube river and the Black Sea to the south. It has approximately 17,600 sq mi (45,600 km²). The area is mostly hilly plains with flat steppes. It is very fertile for agriculture, and it also has some lignite deposits and stone quarries. People living in the area grow sugar beets, sunflowers, wheat, maize, tobacco, wine grapes and fruit. They also raise sheep and cattle. Currently, the main industry in the region is agricultural processing.
The region's main cities are Chişinău, the capital of Moldova, Izmail, Bilhorod-Dnistrovs'kyi (historically called Cetatea Albă and Akkerman). Other towns of administrative or historical importance include: Khotyn, Lipcani, Briceni, Soroca, Bălţi, Orhei, Ungheni, Bender/Tighina, Cahul, Reni, and Kilia.
Since late 14th century, what later became Bessarabia has been partly or wholly controlled by: the Principality of Moldavia, the Ottoman Empire (as suzerain of Moldavia, direct rule only in Budjak and Khotin), Russian Empire, Romania, the USSR, Ukraine, and Moldova.
The first polity that included the whole of Bessarabia was the Dacian polity of Burebista in the 1st century BC. After his death, the polity was divided into smaller pieces and was only unified in the Dacian kingdom of Decebalus in the 1st century AD. This kingdom was defeated by the Roman Empire in 106 and southern Bessarabia was included in the empire. The Romans built defensive earthen walls in Southern Bessarabia (Lower Trajan Wall) to defend the Scythia Minor province against invasions.
In 270, the Roman authorities began to withdraw their forces south of the Danube, due to the invading Goths and Carps. The Goths, a Germanic tribe, poured into the Roman Empire through the southern part of Bessarabia (Budjak), which due to its geographic position and characteristics (mainly steppe), was swept by various nomadic tribes. From the 5th century it was overrun in turn by the Huns, the Avars, and the Bulgars.
In 561, the Avars captured Bessarabia and executed the local ruler Mesamer. Following Avars, Slavs started to arrive in the region and establish settlements. Then, in 582, Onogur Bulgars settled in south-eastern Bessarabia and northern Dobruja, from which they moved to Moesia under pressure from the Khazars and formed the nascent region of Bulgaria. With the rise of the Khazars' state in the east, the invasions began to diminish and it was possible to create larger states. According to some opinions, the Southern part of Bessarabia remained under the influence of the First Bulgarian Empire until to the end of 9th century.
Between the 8th and 10th centuries, the southern part of Bessarabia was inhabitated by people from Balkan-Dunabian culture (the culture of the First Bulgarian Empire). Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Bessarabia is mentioned in Slav chronicles as part of Bolohoveni (north) and Brodnici (south) voivodeships, believed by some authors to be Vlach principalities of the early Middle Ages.
The Tatar invasions of 1241 and 1290 led to a retreat of a big part of the population to the Eastern Carpathians and to Transylvania. Apparently, only one group east of the Prut river did not retreat to mountain regions at the time of the Tatar invasions. In later middle-age chronicles it is mentioned as the Tigheci "republic", situated near the modern town of Cahul in the southwest of Bessarabia, preserving its autonomy even during the later Principality of Moldavia.
In the latter part of the 14th century, the southern part of the region was for several decades part of Wallachia. The main dynasty of Wallachia was called Basarab, from which the current name of the region originated.
In the 15th century, the entire region was a part of the principality of Moldavia. Stephen the Great ruled between 1457 and 1504, a period of nearly 50 years during which he won 32 battles defending his country against virtually all his neighbours (mainly the Ottomans and the Tatars, but also the Hungarians and the Poles), while losing only two. During this period, after each victory, he raised a monastery or a church close to the battlefield honoring Christianity. Many of these battlefields and churches, as well as old fortresses, are situated in Bessarabia (mainly along the Dniester river).
In 1484, the Turks invaded and captured Chilia and Cetatea Albă (Akkerman in Turkish), and annexed the shoreline southern part of Bessarabia, which was then divided into two sanjaks (districts) of the Ottoman Empire. In 1538, the Ottomans annexed more Bessarabian land in the south as far as Tighina, while the central and northern parts of Bessarabia were already formally a vassal of the Ottoman Empire as part of the principality of Moldavia.
Between 1711 and 1812, the Russian Empire occupied the region five times during its wars against Ottoman and Austrian Empires. Between 1812 and 1846, the Bulgarian and Gagauz population migrated to the Russian Empire via the Danube, after living many years under oppressive Ottoman rule, and settled in southern Bessarabia. Turkic-speaking tribes of the Nogai horde also inhabited the Budjak Region (in Turkish Bucak) of southern Bessarabia from the 16th to 18th centuries, but were totally driven out prior to 1812.
By the Treaty of Bucharest of May 28, 1812 — concluding the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-1812 — the Ottoman Empire ceded the eastern half of the Principality of Moldavia to the Russian Empire. That region was then called Bessarabia.
The Romanian War of Independence was fought in 1877–78, with the help of the Russian Empire as an ally. Although the treaty of alliance between Romania and the Russian Empire specified that the Russian Empire would respect the territorial integrity of Romania and not claim any part of Romania at the end of the war , by the Treaty of Berlin, the southern part of Bessarabia was again annexed by Russia.
The Kishinev pogrom took place in the capital of Bessarabia on April 6, 1903 after local newspapers published articles inciting the public to act against Jews; 47 or 49 Jews were killed, 92 severely wounded and 700 houses destroyed. The anti-Semitic newspaper Бессарабец (Bessarabetz, meaning "Bessarabian"), published by Pavel Krushevan, insinuated that a Russian boy was killed by local Jews. Another newspaper, Свет (Svet, "Light"), used the age-old blood libel against the Jews (alleging that the boy had been killed to use his blood in preparation of matzos).
After the 1905 Russian Revolution, a Romanian nationalist movement started to develop in Bessarabia. In the chaos brought by the Russian revolution of October 1917, a National Council (Sfatul Ţării) was established in Bessarabia, with 120 members elected from Bessarabia by some political and professional organizations and 10 elected from Transnistria (the left bank of the Dniester River where Moldovans and Romanians accounted for less than a third and the majority of the population was Ukrainian. See Demographics of Transdniestria).
On January 14, 1918, during the disorderly retreat of two Russian divisions from the Romanian front, Chişinău was sacked. The Rumcherod Committee (Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Romanian Front, Black Sea Fleet and Odessa Military District) proclaimed itself the supreme power in Bessarabia. The Russian commander of the region, General Dmitriy Shcherbachev, unable to control Bessarabia due to the Bolshevik revolution, allegedly requested the Romanian Army for help (Russian historians dispute the fact of this request). On 16 January a Romanian division entered Chişinău, and on the following day Tighina on the shore of the river Dniester. The three-day Soviet rule in Bessarabia ended.
The county councils of Bălţi, Soroca and Orhei were the earliest to ask for unification with the Kingdom of Romania, and on April 9 [O.S. March 27] 1918, in the presence of the Romanian Army, Sfatul Ţării voted in favour of the union, with the following conditions:
86 deputies voted in support, 3 voted against and 36 abstained.
The first condition, the agrarian reform, was debated and approved in November 1918. Sfatul Ţării also decided to remove the other conditions and made unification with Romania unconditional. This vote has been judged illegitimate, since there was no quorum: only 44 of the 125 members took part in it (all voted "for").
In the autumn of 1919, elections for the Romanian Constituent Assembly were held in Bessarabia; 90 deputies and 35 senators were chosen. On December 20, 1919, these men voted, along with the representatives of Romania's other regions, to ratify the unification acts that had been approved by Sfatul Ţării and the National Congresses in Transylvania and Bukovina.
The union was recognized by France, United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan in the Treaty of Paris of 1920, which however never came into force, because Japan did not ratify it. The United States refused to sign the treaty on the grounds that Russia was not represented at the Conference. Soviet Russia (and later, the USSR) did not recognize the union, and by 1924, after its demands for a regional plebiscite were declined by Romania for the second time, declared Bessarabia to be Soviet territory under foreign occupation.
On May 11, 1919, the Bessarabian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed as an autonomous part of Russian SFSR, but was abolished by the military forces of Poland and France in September 1919 (see Polish-Soviet War). After the victory of Bolshevist Russia in the Russian Civil War, the Ukrainian SSR was created in 1922, and in 1924 the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established on a strip of Ukrainian land on the left bank of the Dniester River where Moldovans and Romanians accounted for less than a third and the majority of population was Ukrainian. (See Demographics of Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic).
In spring 1940 Western Europe was overrun by Nazi Germany, with world attention focused on those events. On June 26, 1940, the USSR issued an ultimatum to Romania, demanding immediate cession of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Romania was given four days to evacuate its troops and officials. The two provinces had an area of 51,000 km² (20,000 square miles), and were inhabited by about 3.75 million people, half of them Romanians, according to official Romanian sources. Two days later, Romania yielded and began evacuation. During the evacuation, from June 28 to July 3, groups of local Communists and Soviet sympathizers attacked the retreating forces, and civilians who chose to leave. Many members of the minorities (Jews, ethnic Ukrainians and others) joined in these attacks. The Romanian Army was also attacked by the Soviet Army, which entered Bessarabia before the Romanian administration finished retreating. The casualties reported by the Romanian Army during those seven days consisted of 356 officers and 42,876 soldiers dead or missing.
On August 2, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was established on most of the territory of Bessarabia, merged with parts of the former Moldavian ASSR. Bessarabia was divided between the Moldavian SSR (70% of the territory and 80% of the population) and the Ukrainian SSR. Bessarabia's northern and southern districts (nowadays Budjak and parts of the Chernivtsi oblast) were alloted to Ukraine, while some territories (4,000 sq.km) on the left (eastern) bank of the Dniester (present Transnistria), previously part of Ukraine, were allotted to Moldavia. Following the Soviet takeover, many Bessarabians, who were accused of supporting the deposed Romanian administration, were executed or deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Between September and November 1940, the ethnic Germans of Bessarabia were offered resettlement to Germany, following a German-Soviet agreement. Fearing Soviet oppression, almost all Germans (93,000) agreed. Most of them, among them the parents of the current German President Horst Köhler, were resettled to the newly annexed Polish territories.
On June 22, 1941 the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union commenced with Operation Barbarossa. In Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, Romanian troops attacked along the Germans. The Soviets employed scorched earth tactics during their forced retreat from Bessarabia, destroying the infrastructure, and transporting movable goods to Russia by railway. At the end of July, after a year of Soviet rule, the region was once again under Romanian control.
As the military operation was still in progress, there were cases of Romanian troops "taking revenge" on Jews in Bessarabia, in the form of pogroms on civilians and murder of Jewish POWs, resulting in several thousand dead. The supposed cause for murdering Jews was that in 1940 some Jews welcomed the Soviet takeover as liberation. At the same time the notorious SS Einsatzgruppe D, operating in the area of the German 11th Army, committed summary executions of Jews under the pretext that they were spies, saboteurs, Communists, or under no pretext whatsoever.
The political solution of the "Jewish Question" was apparently seen by the Romanian dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu more in expulsion rather than extermination. That portion of the Jewish population of Bessarabia and Bukovina which did not flee before the retreat of the Soviet troops (147,000) was initially gathered into ghettos or concentration camps, and then deported during 1941-1942 in death marches into Romanian-occupied Transnistria, where the "Final Solution" was applied.
After three years of relative peace, the German-Soviet front returned in 1944 to the land border on the Dniester. On August 20, 1944, a ca. 3,400,000-strong Red Army began a major summer offensive codenamed Jassy-Kishinev Operation. The Soviet armies overran Bessarabia in a two-pronged offensive within five days. In pocket battles at Chişinău and Sărata the German 6th Army of ca. 650,000 men, newly reformed after the Battle of Stalingrad, was obliterated. Simultaneously with the success of the Russian attack, Romania broke the military alliance with the Axis and changed sides. On August 23, 1944, Marshal Ion Antonescu was arrested by King Michael, and later handed over to the Soviets.
The Soviet Union regained the region in 1944, and the Red Army occupied Romania. By 1947, the Soviets had imposed a communist government in Bucharest, which was friendly and obedient towards Moscow. The Soviet occupation of Romania lasted until 1958. The Romanian communist regime did not openly raise the matter of Bessarabia or Northern Bukovina in its diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
Between 1969 and 1971 , a clandestine National Patriotic Front was established by several young intellectuals in Chişinău, totaling over 100 members, vowing to fight for the establishment of a Moldavian Democratic Republic, its secession from the Soviet Union and union with Romania.
In December 1971, following an informative note from Ion Stănescu, the President of the Council of State Security of the Romanian Socialist Republic, to Yuri Andropov, the chief of KGB, three of the leaders of the National Patriotic Front, Alexandru Usatiuc-Bulgar, Gheorghe Ghimpu and Valeriu Graur, as well as a forth person, Alexandru Soltoianu, the leader of a similar clandestine movement in northern Bukovina (Bucovina), were arrested and later sentenced to long prison terms.
With the weakening of the Soviet Union, in February 1988, the first non-sanctioned demonstrations were held in Chişinău. At first pro-Perestroika, they soon turned anti-government and demanded official status for the Moldavian (Romanian) language instead of the Russian language.
On August 31, 1989, following a 600,000-strong demonstration in Chişinău four days earlier, Moldavian (Romanian) became the official language of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. However, this was not implemented for many years.
In 1990, the first free elections were held for Parliament, with the opposition Popular Front all but winning them. A government led by Mircea Druc, one of the leaders of the Popular Front, was formed. The Moldavian SSR became SSR Moldova, and later the Republic of Moldova.
Russian Census 1817, (total 482,000 inhabitants)
Russian Census 1856, (total 990,000 inhabitants)
Russian Census 1897, (total 1,935,412 inhabitants). Some scholars believed that "[...] the census enumerator generally has instructions to count everyone who understands the state language as being of that nationality, no matter what his everyday speech may be." By language:
Romanians Census 1930, (total 3,105,530 inhabitants)
|Iaşi and Fălciu (parts)||124,500||*||*||*||*||5,000||*||132,023|
Data of the 1939 was not completely processed before the Soviet occupation. Estimates of the total population at 3.5 million.
1989: There were 88,419 Bessarabian Bulgarians according to official data from Republic of Moldova
1992: 4,305 immigrants to Israel from the Republic of Moldova constituted 7.1 percent of all the immigrants to Israel from the former U.S.S.R. in this year.
2004: There were 65,072 Bessarabian Bulgarians according to the census not including Bulgarians in Transnistria.