The question of Moldova’s status as an autonomous state dates back to 1812, when Bessarabia was first annexed by Russia
This was the beginning of a 200-year long rivalry which, alongside the issue of the Romanian treasure, has shaped the relations between Romania and Russia for a long while.
In 1812, with Europe burdened by the Napoleonic wars, Russia was advancing towards the Danube. In its battles against France and the Ottoman Empire, Russia was seeking access to the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and its line of attack was towards present-day Romania. Following the Russian-Turkish war of 1806-1812, which ended with the Treaty of Bucharest, Russia occupied half of Moldova, known at that time under the name of Bessarabia.
And looking in retrospect, the question of Moldova’s status as an autonomous state appears today to be defined by the competition between the French, Ottoman and Russian empires over this region, which was a periphery, or in fact the overlapping of several peripheries.
Historian Andrei Cusco of the University of Chisinau sees the agitation in Europe in the first 2 decades of the 19th Century as a factor in the emergence of Bessarabia on the map of Europe: “The annexation of Bessarabia by the Russian Empire in 1812 is mostly seen in a narrow and sometimes uninteresting manner. More precisely, it is seen as a sort of diplomatic-military deal, and without doubt this is part of what it was. On the other hand, however, in 1812, when Russia was advancing towards Lower Danube, there was fierce competition between Napoleonic France and the Russian Empire. So from the very beginning the Bessarabian issue, although not directly tied to the Napoleonic wars, emerges in the context of a clash between empires and in the context of the Russian Army’s retreating to Bessarabia. Given that the Romanian Principalities were not annexed, Bessarabia was the rest of what was supposed to become the Russian Empire. In other words, from the Russian point of view, they were actually not advancing, but retreating.”
Bessarabia, as a political entity, was created out of nothing, in the sense that there was no precedent to give it legitimacy. It was an artificial entity, and proof in this respect was the confused conduct of the Russian bureaucrats who came to this region and were at a loss as to what they were supposed to do here.
Andrei Cusco says the Russian administration came up with 3 projects for the new territory: “There were three successive outlooks on this region. The first one was outlined shortly after the Treaty of Bucharest was signed, and according to it Bessarabia was supposed to become a propaganda platform, a model for the Balkan nations. Bessarabia was subordinated to the Greek project, as it was shaping in the early 19th Century, and the actual goal was the region south of the Danube. This first view of Bessarabia placed this province in the Ottoman and trans-Danube context.”
The creation of Bessarabia was part of a more complex process that took into account the ideas of the time regarding the state, administrative organisation, the role undertaken by Russia and its experimenting with modern values.
Andrei Cusco says this second Russian strategy for Bessarabia was inspired by Western models: “The other 2 views are a lot more interesting. One of them consists in the Russian administration linking Bessarabia to the Western peripheries of the empire, such as Poland, Finland, the Baltic states. Those peripheries had strong elites, a well defined historic tradition and a privileged status in the period of Russian administrative experiments under Alexander I. In 1818, the Bessarabian autonomy experiment was initiated. But because the Russian administration had trouble finding in Bessarabia local nobility to act as intermediaries between the locals and the Russian authorities, as it was the case in Poland and Finland, the project was abandoned after less than a decade. This is what I call the duality of the Bessarabian region, because it is a period when we cannot talk about a coherently structured region. During these first decades, Bessarabia was a fluid region, in a process of crystallisation, at least until 1834 when the border on the River Prut becomes less permeable. The true border was still the Dniester.”
The third Russian approach to the integration of Bessarabia was eventually implemented in the 19th Century, and reinforced in the 20th Century with the annexation of the province by the former Soviet Union.
Andrei Cusco: “The third administrative approach to the integration of Bessarabia in the Russian Empire is the one that actually prevailed. This plan consisted in associating Bessarabia with its eastern neighbour, Novorossyia. It happened shortly after the abolishment of the region’s autonomy in 1828, when Bessarabia was increasingly regarded as an area for colonisation, a place to bring foreign settlers. For the Russian authorities, an autonomy experiment like the 1818 one was no longer profitable or imaginable. But the danger in analysing these plans is that of seeing consistency where there was none. The impulses and models followed by the Russians were not as rational as today’s historians would have us believe. We should not forget that until the 1830s Bessarabia was not even identified on Russian maps as separated from the rest of the Romanian territory. It was simply a region inhabited by Romanians, just like Wallachia and Moldova, and was perceived in Russia as such. The Russians had a problem identifying the specific characteristics of this region not only in relation to the Russian Empire, but also in relation to the Romanian territories.”
Turned into a Russian governorate at the periphery of the Russian state, but mostly inhabited by Romanians to this day, Bessarabia is a region whose history was primarily defined by the interests of the Russian Empire.