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Bessarabia (Romanian: Basarabia; Russian: Бессарабия Bessarabiya, Ukrainian: Бессарабія Bessarabiya) is a historical region in Eastern Europe, bounded by the Dniester River on the east and the Prut River on the west. Nowadays the bulk of the region is part of Moldova, while the northern and southern areas are part of Ukraine.
In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-1812, and ensuing Peace of Bucharest, the eastern parts of the Principality of Moldavia, an Ottoman vassal, along with some areas formerly under direct Ottoman rule, were ceded to Imperial Russia. The newly acquired territories were organised as the Governorate of Bessarabia, adopting a name previously used for the southern plains of the Dniester-Prut interfluve. Following the Crimean War, in 1856, the southern areas of Bessarabia were returned to Moldavian rule; nevertheless, Russian rule was restored over the whole of the region in 1878, when Romania, which had emerged from Moldavia's union with Wallachia, was pressured into exchanging those territories for Dobruja.
In 1917, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, the area constituted itself as the Moldavian Democratic Republic, an autonomous republic part of a federative Russian state. Bolshevik agitation in late 1917 and early 1918 resulted in the intervention of the Romanian Army, ostensibly to pacify the region. Soon after, the parliamentary assembly declared independence and then Union with the Kingdom of Romania. The legality of these acts was however disputed, most prominently by the Soviet Union, which regarded the area as a territory occupied by Romania.
In 1940, after securing the assent of Nazi Germany through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union pressured Romania into withdrawing from Bessarabia, allowing the Red Army to militarily occupy the region. The area was formally integrated into the Soviet Union: the core region joined parts of the Moldavian ASSR to form the Moldavian SSR, while the territories inhabited by Slavic majorities in the North and the South of Bessarabia were transferred to the Ukrainian SSR. Axis-aligned Romania briefly recaptured the region in 1941, during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, but lost it in 1944, as the tide of war changed. In 1947, the Soviet-Romanian border set along the Prut River was internationally recognised by the Paris Treaty that ended World War II.
During the process of dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Moldavian and Ukrainian SSR proclaimed their independence in 1991, becoming the modern states of Moldova and Ukraine, while preserving the existing partition of Bessarabia. Following a short war in the early 1990s, Transnistria proclaimed itself the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, separate from the government of the Republic of Moldova, extending its authority also over the municipality of Bender in Bessarabia. Part of the Gagauz-inhabited areas in the southern Bessarabia were organised in 1994 as an autonomous region within Moldova.
The region is bounded by the Dniester River to the north and east, the Prut to the west and the lower River Danube and the Black Sea to the south. It has approximately 17,600 sq mi (46,000 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 / Akkerman). Other towns of administrative or historical importance include: Khotyn, Lipcani, Briceni, Soroca, Bălţi, Orhei, Ungheni, Bender/Tighina, Cahul, Reni and Kilia.
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According to the traditional interpretation, the name Bessarabia (Basarabia in Romanian) derives from the Wallachian Basarab dynasty, who allegedly ruled over the southern part of the area in the 14th century. Recent research has however cast doubt on this view, as the name was first applied to the territory by Western cartographers, showing up in local sources only in the second half of the 17th century. Furthermore, the use of the term to refer to the Moldavian lands near the Black Sea was explicitly rejected as a cartographic confusion by the early Moldavian chronicler Miron Costin. The confusion may have been caused by Polish references to Wallachia as Bessarbia, wrongly interpreted by medieval Western cartographers as a separate land between that country and Moldavia. According to Dimitrie Cantemir, the name originally applied only to the part of the territory south of the Upper Trajan Wall, somewhat bigger than current Budjak.
In late 14th century, the newly established Principality of Moldavia encompassed what later became known as Bessarabia. Afterwards, this territory was directly or indirectly, partly or wholly controlled by: the Ottoman Empire (as suzerain of Moldavia, with direct rule only in Budjak and Khotin), Russian Empire, Romania, the USSR. Since 1991, most of the territory forms the core of Moldova, with smaller parts in Ukraine.
The territory of Bessarabia has been inhabited by people for thousands of years. Cucuteni-Trypillian culture flourished between the 6th and 3rd millennium BC. The Indo-European culture spread in the region around 2000 BC.
In Antiquity the region was inhabited by Thracians, as well as for various shorter periods Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, and Celts, specifically by tribes such as Costoboci, Carpi, Britogali, Tyragetae, and Bastarnae. In the 6th century BC, Greek settlers established the colony of Tyras, along the Black Sea coast and traded with the locals. Also, Celts settled in the southern parts of Bessarabia, their main city being Aliobrix.
The first polity that is believed to have 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 the central parts were unified in the Dacian kingdom of Decebalus in the 1st century AD. This kingdom was defeated by the Roman Empire in 106. Southern Bessarabia was included in the empire even before that, in 57 AD, as part of the Roman province Moesia Inferior, but it was secured only when the Dacian Kingdom was defeated in 106. The Romans built defensive earthen walls in Southern Bessarabia (e.g. Lower Trajan Wall) to defend the Scythia Minor province against invasions. Except for the Black Sea shore in the south, Bessarabia remained outside direct Roman control; the myriad of tribes there are called by modern historians Free Dacians. The 2nd to the 5th centuries also saw the development of the Chernyakhov culture.
In 270, the Roman authorities began to withdraw their forces south of the Danube, especially from the Roman Dacia, due to the invading Goths and Carpi. The Goths, a Germanic tribe, poured into the Roman Empire from the lower Dniepr River, through the southern part of Bessarabia (Budjak steppe), which due to its geographic position and characteristics (mainly steppe), was swept by various nomadic tribes for many centuries. In 378, the area was overrun by the Huns.
From the 3rd century until the 11th century, the region was invaded numerous times in turn by different tribes: Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Slavs (South, i.e. Bulgarian, and Eastern), Magyars, Pechenegs, Cumans and Mongols. The territory of Bessarabia was encompassed in dozens of ephemeral kingdoms which were disbanded when another wave of migrants arrived. Those centuries were characterized by a terrible state of insecurity and mass movement of these tribes. The period was later known as the "Dark Ages" of Europe, or Age of migrations. The Byzantine Empire allegedly maintained partial control of several cities and forts in southern Bessarabia until the 7th century. In particular, the fortress city of Tyras was plundered by the Huns in 375, but was rebuilt by the Byzantines in 545 as Turris. It served as a trading post with Daco-Romans to the north-west, and Antes and Jassic people to the north-east.
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 southeastern Bessarabia and northern Dobruja, from which they moved to Moesia Inferior (allegedly 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 the 9th century.
Between the 8th and 10th centuries, the southern part of Bessarabia was inhabited 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 whom?] to be Vlach principalities of the early Middle Ages.
The last large scale invasions were those of the Mongols of 1241, 1290, and 1343. Sehr al-Jedid (near Orhei), an important settlement of the Golden Horde, dates from this period. They led to a retreat of a big part of the population to the mountainous areas in Eastern Carpathians and to Transylvania. Especially low became the population east of the Prut River at the time of the Tatar invasions.
In the Late Middle Age, chronicles mention a Tigheci "republic", predating the establishment of the Principality of Moldavia, situated near the modern town of Cahul in the southwest of Bessarabia, preserving its autonomy even during the later Principality even into the 18th century. Genovese merchants rebuilt or established a number of forts along the Dniester (Moncastro, at Tighina, at the Old Orhei, at Soroca/Olhionia) and Danube (including Kyliya/Chilia-Licostomo).
After the 1360s the region was gradually included in the principality of Moldavia, which by 1392 established control over the fortresses of Cetatea Albă and Chilia, its eastern border becoming the River Dniester.
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 River 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.
By the Treaty of Adrianople that concluded the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829 the entire Danube delta of was added to the Bessarabian oblast. In 1834, Romanian language was banned from schools and government facilities, despite 80% of the population speaking the language. This would eventually lead to the banning of Romanian in churches, media and books. Those who protested the banning of Romanian could be sent to Siberia.
The railway Chişinău-Iaşi was opened on June 1, 1875 in preparation for the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) and the Eiffel Bridge was opened on April 21 [O.S. April 9] 1877, just three days before the outbreak of the war. The Romanian War of Independence was fought in 1877–78, with the help of the Russian Empire as an ally. Northern Dobruja was awarded to Romania for its role in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War, and as compensation for the transfer of the Southern Bessarabia.
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 this request was made. 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"). As of mid 1919, the population of Bessarabia was estimated at around 2 million.
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.
The US also considered Bessarabia a territory under Romanian occupation, rather than Romanian territory, despite existing political and economic relations between the US and Romania.
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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 relative majority of population was Ukrainian. (See Demographics of Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic).
The Soviet Union did not recognize incorporation of Bessarabia into Romania and throughout the entire interwar period engaged in attempts to undermine Romania and diplomatic disputes with the government in Bucharest over this territory. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed on August 23, 1939. By Article 4 of the secret Annex to the Treaty, Bessarabia fell within the Soviet interest zone.
In spring of 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 sq mi), 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 the western 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 allotted to Ukraine, while some territories (4,000 km2) 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 were resettled to the newly annexed Polish territories.
On June 22, 1941 the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union commenced with Operation Barbarossa. Between June 22 and July 26, 1941, Romanian troops with the help of Wehrmacht recovered Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. 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 c. 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[disambiguation needed] the German 6th Army of c. 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 fourth 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 Romanian (Moldavian) language instead of the Russian language.
On August 31, 1989, following a 600,000-strong demonstration in Chişinău four days earlier, Romanian (Moldavian) 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 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.
The Republic of Moldova became independent on August 31, 1991. Its boundaries (those established on August 2, 1940) remained unchanged.
The population before World War II consisted of Romanians (including Moldovans), Ukrainians (including Ruthenians), Russians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, Germans, and Jews. According to the census data of the Russian Empire, during the 19th century the ethnic Romanians decreased from 86% (1817) to 47.6% (1897) (although other sources cite different data for the same period of time: 52% or 75% (Krusevan) for 1900, 53.9% (1907), 70% (1912, Laskov), or 65-67% (1918, J. Kaba)).
Russian Census, 1817 (Total: 96,526 families, 482,630 inhabitants):
Russian Census, 1856 (Total: 990,274 inhabitants)
Russian data, 1889 (Total: 1,628,867 inhabitants)
Russian Census, 1897 (Total 1,935,412 inhabitants). By language:
Some scholars, however, believed in regard to the 1897 census 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.", thus a number of Moldavians (Romanians) might have been registered as Russians.
According to N. Durnovo, the population of Bessarabia in 1900 was (Total: 1,935,000 inhabitants):
|Cahul and Ismail1||109,000||53,000||11,000||27,000||44,000||244,000|
|Cetatea Albă County||106,000||48,000||11,000||52,500||47,500||265,000|
Notes: 1 The two counties were merged.
Romanian Census, 1930 (Total: 2,864,662 inhabitants)
|Cetatea Albă County||62,949||70,095||58,922||11,390||71,227||7,876||55,598||3,119||341,176|
Notes: 1 Includes Lipovans. 2 Poles, Armenians, Albanians, Greeks, Gypsies, etc. and non-declared
When?: Total: 2,995,821
Data of the Romanian census 1939 was not completely processed before the Soviet occupation. Estimates of the total population at 3.2 million.
Soviet census, 1989: There were 88,419 Bessarabian Bulgarians according to official data from Republic of Moldova
Estimate, 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.
Moldovan census, 2004: There were 65,072 Bessarabian Bulgarians according to the census not including Bulgarians in Transnistria.
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