By King, Charles
Contemporary Review , Vol. 262, No. 1529
THE failed Moscow coup of August 1991 provided the opportunity for the fifteen 'union republics' of the USSR to declare their independence and to set about the task of creating their own independent state structures. Soviet ideologues were always fond of discovering the dialectical moments in history, and the disintegration of the USSR provided the final dialectical irony in the Soviet system itself: the demise of the world's oldest Communist regime allowed the birth of the world's newest republics -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine and others. Most of these new states were unfamiliar to persons outside the field of Soviet studies; even 'Sovietologists' themselves paid far less attention to the events in the non-Russian republics than to the machinations of the Communist party leadership in the Kremlin.
Of all the former Soviet republics, perhaps the least studied was the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (the present Republic of Moldova), situated in the western Soviet Union on the border with Romania. Often known as 'Moldavia' in the West (an anglicised rendering of the Russian name for the republic), Moldova was distinguished from its fourteen sister republics by several features. Moldova was the smallest of the fifteen union republics, roughly the same size as Belgium. Home to just over four million inhabitants, Moldova had the highest population density of any Soviet republic, some 129 persons per square kilometre. Most of Moldova's population was concentrated in the countryside, and only four Central Asian republics had smaller proportional urban populations.
The high population density and lack of urbanisation were a strain on Moldova's health care resources. According to Soviet figures from 1989, only the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan had higher infant mortality rates, and the life expectancy among Moldova's rural population (67.6 years) was the second lowest in the USSR. Hence, despite its position on the western border of the Soviet Union, Moldova bore more resemblance to the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus than to the more developed Ukraine, Belorussia and Baltic republics.
Of all its exceptional features, the most important was Moldova's relationship to Romania. The area of the Republic of Moldova situated between the Prut and Dnestr rivers was a part of the Kingdom of Romania between the two world wars. The interfluvial region, known as 'Bessarabia', had been a part of the Russian empire since 1806, when Russian troops occupied the area then under Ottoman control. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the region's ethnic Romanian majority elected to join the interfluve to Romania; in December 1918, following Romania's acquisition of ethnic Romanian lands formerly held by Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and Russia, the creation of a 'Greater Romanian' state was declared. Unfortunately for the Romanians, however, the incorporation of Bessarabia into Greater Romania was recognised by neither the Western powers nor the new Soviet regime.
In June 1940, Greater Romania came to a tragic end. Encouraged by the German hands-off policy on Bessarabia proclaimed in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop protocols, Stalin issued an ultimatum to the Romanian king demanding the immediate cession of Bessarabia and other territories. The Romanians had little choice but to accede to the demand. By the end of the month, Red Army troops had crossed the Dnestr river into Bessarabia. Shortly thereafter, the Bessarabian lands were carved up, with portions in the north and the south going to Ukraine, while the remainder was united with a strip of land east of the Dnestr (a region known as 'Transnistria') to form the 'Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic'.
After the annexation, Communist party cadres set about shoring up Soviet control over Bessarabia. In addition to the mass deportation of ethnic Romanians and the influx of ethnic Slavs into the republic, a major element of this effort was the stress on the existence of a 'Moldovan' language and ethnicity separate from Romanian. …