The Bessarabian Problem


BESSARABIA is a prairie state on the Danube and the Black Sea, between the Dniester and the Pruth Rivers; it is about the size of South Carolina. I have driven many hundred miles over its dirt roads, and might anywhere have been in Kansas or Nebraska, so far as the landscape was concerned. It grows excellent wheat, barley, Indian corn and sunflowers, and its vineyards are worthy of the Vale of Eshkol. Unfortunately its rainfall is as capricious as that of western Kansas (two counties of which, by the way, were colonized with Bessarabian farmers by the Union Pacific, years ago). The last three years, of consecutive drought, reduced its farmers to the same impecunious anti-administration bitterness that we find in our own and the Canadian West. This year, however, Nature has been bountiful, there are at last abundant harvests, and economic contentment will clear the political horizon. The Bessarabian farmer, for whom the Roumanian Government has already built more bridges and paved roads than the Imperial Russian Government in a century of occupancy, is, like his American counterpart, strongly pro-administration in good times. We shall hear less demand for a plebiscite now from Russian quarters.

Of what nationality are the three millions of Bessarabians? The last available Russian census (now 30 years old) shows a strange mixture of races, which still impresses every traveler. The cities are prevailingly Jewish (12% of the whole, by the census of 1897; 10% by the new Roumanian census of 1920); Kishineff, now the second largest city in Roumania, is as Yiddish as the East Side of New York, which has absorbed so many of its citizens. The countryside is overwhelmingly "Moldavian" (Roumanian), even according to the old Russian figures (48%; the combined Russian-Ukrainians amounted to only 28%; the 1920 Roumanian figures give the Roumanian element 63%; Ukrainian, 9.6%; Russian, 5.1%). This Roumanian peasantry runs over into Russia far east of the Dniester, and down to within a few miles of Odessa; the Soviets have even carved a Moldavian Soviet Republic out of the Ukraine, east of Bessarabia, with Roumanian as an official language, and Roumanian schools and newspapers. Of the other nationalities of Bessarabia, the most progressive are the Germans (about 80,000) and the Bulgarians (about 150,000); like the other nationalities, they have their own schools, churches, books and periodicals, and are strongly pro-Roumanian. In the north are many Ukrainians and some Poles, and in the south some Russian colonies. But the Roumanian element far outnumbers the rest, and with Roumanian, one can travel anywhere in the province. M. Rakovsky, the Soviet representative in Paris, is himself on record as attesting to the Roumanian character of Bessarabia. Though a Bulgarian, he long enjoyed the privileges of Roumanian citizenship; in May, 1912, when the Russians were celebrating the centennial of the annexation of Bessarabia, he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Roumanian Social-Democratic Party, and published a signed manifesto in its organ, the "România Muncitoare" (no. 36, p. VIII), beginning: "It will soon be a hundred years since the Muscovite Empire annexed a foreign state, inhabited by a Roumanian population."

It has been claimed that this state of "Roumanian population" was Turkish when absorbed by the Russian Empire in 1812, and never belonged to Roumania. We must grant that this latter statement is as technically correct as to say that Trent never belonged to Italy, or the Rhineland to Germany. Roumania dates from 1859, as Italy and Germany from 1866 and 1870. But Roumania was the legal successor of two Roumanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia. Bessarabia had been for centuries an integral part of Moldavia. Indeed, the Roumanian Principalities had a proud record as regards Turkey. At a time when all the rest of the "Turkish Empire"—Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary—had been incorporated into its structure and was governed directly from Constantinople, Wallachia and Moldavia maintained a jealous independence. They had chosen Turkish suzerainty, to be sure, in preference to Polish or Austrian; but this suzerainty affected their sovereignty only in their acceptance of a Governor-General (never a Mohammedan), and in their payment of a tribute for military protection. Hungary, for instance, was a Turkish pashalik for a century and a half, in which Mohammedan Pashas governed, and Turks had every right and privilege, including that of building mosques and worshiping according to the forms of their religion. But by the terms of the treaties with the Roumanian Principalities, the Turks bound themselves to respect the independence of their colleagues, rather than vassals. We must glance at these treaties (I use the text printed in Hamangiu's General Code of Roumania). The earliest, of 1393, between Mircea I and the Sultan Bajazed Ilderim, provides (§1) that the Principality "shall be administered according to its own laws, and that the Voyevode (Prince) of Roumania shall have full power of making war with his neighbors and of concluding bonds of alliance with them, whensoever he may desire; and finally that he shall be master, for life and death, over his subjects . . . The Princes, Christians, shall be elected by the Metropolitan and the boyars (great land-owners)." It was not even necessary that the Porte should sanction this election—a practice which grew up later, and developed into appointment by the Porte, but always of a Christian. In the treaty of 1460 between Vlad V of Roumania and the Sultan Mahomet II, conqueror of Constantinople, §1 provides that "the Turks shall never interfere in the affairs of the country, nor govern it, nor enter the country, except that one single Imperial Commissioner shall go in, but even he only with the Prince's permission." §2 repeats §1 of the Treaty of 1393. The Roumanians were to pay 10,000 gold pieces as tribute to the Sultan, in return for military protection; that however did not make them Turkish subjects, nor bring them within the Turkish Empire; for years the United States paid a larger sum to the Bey of Barbary, for security against the pirates; that did not, however, make us his subjects. §6 provides that when a Mohammedan has a lawsuit with a Roumanian, it shall be tried before the Divan (Court) of the Prince, and the judge's decision shall be enforced. §8 forbids Turks to hire Roumanian manservants or maidservants or to have any place of worship. The Treaty of 1511, between Bogdan and the Sultan Bajazed II, whose face we know through Gentile Bellini's wonderful portrait, in §1, states: "The Porte recognizes Moldavia as a free and independent country," and goes on to confirm Moldavian rights in detail. §7 reads: "The Moldavians shall be able to buy and hold a house in Constantinople as the residence of their ambassadors, and in it they may also build a church. §8. The Turks shall not be able to buy or own land in Moldavia, nor settle in the country, nor have or build any kind of mosque." Here the Roumanians have rights superior to the Turks—and this only 15 years before the Battle of Mohacs, which plunged Hungary into servitude to Turkey.

Still more striking is the Treaty of 1634, between Basil Lupu, Prince of Moldavia, and the Sultan Mahomet IV. In 1634, Turkish Pashas had ruled Hungary from Buda for over a century; the Pasha of Temeshvar governed the Banat; prayers rose to Allah from mosques all over the Hungarian plain; Roumania was almost entirely encircled by Turkish territory; yet this treaty also begins: "The Porte recognizes Moldavia as a free and independent country. §2: The people of Moldavia shall enjoy, as in the past, all their liberties." The treaty specifically forbids any interference by the Turks in internal affairs, safeguards the "laws, customs, rights and privileges of this country"; in §5, guarantees that "the frontiers of Moldavia shall be preserved untouched in all their extent. §6: Mohammedan religious services shall be forbidden on all Moldavian territory . . . §9: Moldavia shall keep the title of an independent country. This title shall be reproduced in all communications addressed by the Ottoman Porte to the Prince." These provisions still governed Turkish-Moldavian relations in 1812, when Russia seized Bessarabia—from Turkey, according to soviet diplomats.

But even the Treaty of Paris of March 30, 1856, recognized Bessarabia as formerly Moldavian. §21 provides: "The territory ceded by Russia (i.e., three southern counties of Bessarabia) shall be annexed to the Principality of Moldavia, under the suzerainty of the Sublime Porte. The inhabitants of this territory shall enjoy the rights and privileges assured to the Principalities. . . . §22: The Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia shall continue to enjoy, under the suzerainty of the Porte and under the guarantee of the Contracting Powers, the privileges and immunities of which they are in possession. . . . There shall be no special right of interference in their internal affairs. §23: The Sublime Porte engages to maintain for the aforesaid Principalities an independent and national administration." That is, this treaty repeats and confirms what had been commonplaces of Turkish-Moldavian relations for centuries. Furthermore, the Convention of Paris, of Aug. 7, 1858, reaffirms the privileges of the Principalities, "on the basis of the capitulations issued by the Sultans Bajazed I, Mahomet II, Selim I and Suleiman II, which establish their autonomy, regulating their relations with the Sublime Porte."

BessarabiaFishing in the Pruth

Hotin, BessarabiaThe Old Fort

It is true that the Turkish border fortresses in Bessarabia, along the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Dniester—Chilia, Cetatea Alba (Akkerman) Hotin, etc.—were directly under Turkish military command, with their respective "raias" (environs); but even here the Moldavian civil authorities held at least partial authority, and from the constitutional standpoint, the fortifications were merely details of the protection for which Moldavia paid the Porte.

No, the Russians of 1812 needed no sophisms about Turkish sovereignty to justify them in seizing Bessarabia from Moldavia, as Maria Theresa, with many tears in her eyes, had in like manner appropriated the Bukovina a few years before. Moldavia was weak, and they desired Bessarabia as a step toward Constantinople. It was left for a Soviet diplomat of today to whitewash them.

Bessarabia then, as is amply shown by the citations from these treaties, was an integral part of the "independent Principality of Moldavia", when seized and held during the Russian-Turkish wars of the Napoleonic era. We have seen that Russia was forced to return "to Moldavia" part of southern Bessarabia after the Crimean War; she reabsorbed this territory by the Treaty of Berlin, under circumstances peculiarly illuminating. Hard pressed by the Turks, the Russians begged for the aid of the new Roumanian Army; Prince Charles of Roumania took supreme command of the allied troops, and won the Battle of Plevna (Dec. 10, 1877); the Grand Duke Nicholas testified that "without the Roumanian intervention, the cause of Christendom had been lost"; the Russians had solemnly promised that Roumanian territorial integrity would be respected; nevertheless they took back southern Bessarabia.

So Bessarabia remained till the World War, a stagnant, backward Russian guberniya (province), almost without schools, paved roads or even railroads, and a prey to the graft and incompetence so characteristic of the Imperial Russian administration; witness the graphic testimony of its governor, Prince Urusoff. The war shook Bessarabia out of her lethargy, and the Russian Revolution brought her sons back from every European front. Like Great Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, etc., Bessarabia organized her own legislative body, the Provincial Diet, with Russian and Roumanian as its official languages. The Diet proclaimed an independent Democratic Moldavian Republic, and in the midst of anarchy endeavored to maintain the forms of government. Taxes however could not be collected, even in the rapidly falling ruble; the country was overrun with deserters; connection with Moscow was interrupted by the Germanophile Ukraine; and Bessarabian land-owners and peasants were equally unresponsive to the new Soviet regime, though the division of the great estates had been a cardinal principle of the new Moldavian Republic from the start, and has now been carried out by the Roumanians. Even the Russian Bessarabians, a small minority of the population, and those educated in Russia, sympathized neither with the Communists nor the White generals supported by the Allies. President Ciugureanu of the Diet expressed this in a moving speech on Jan. 16, 1918: "I have spent years of my life up in Russia, I studied there, I have never broken off my relations with Russia. We were all of us brought up on the Russian classics, we prize them highly, and our sole orientation is toward Russia. But how can we speak today of a Russian orientation? It is painful to say it, but it is a fact—Russia exists no longer. She is breaking up, and the process is gathering momentum every day. The only orientation now possible to us is, I think, Moldavian-Bessarabian. We must think of ourselves alone, and help ourselves out."

So the Moldavian Republic made a brave effort to paddle its own canoe. It organized a tiny Bessarabian Army; but the commander had each order debated by a council of officers and soldiers, after the early Soviet manner; in my forthcoming book on Bessarabia,* I publish a particularly amusing refusal to follow instructions from the Diet to send troops to a point where drunken Russian deserters were marauding and shooting up the town; the commander gravely reminds the Diet that agrarian legislation, not rifles and soldiers, is the proper means by which to restore order.

Such were the circumstances under which the leaders of the Diet finally decided to second the call for Roumanian troops already sent in to the Russian Commander-in-Chief at Jassy, Gen. Shtcherbatcheff, by a vigilance committee of leading land-owners, business and professional men of Bessarabia, who were alarmed and disgusted at the hesitating policy of the Diet. The troops came, and order was restored immediately. The occupation was to be only temporary, but events marched rapidly. The Diet had failed in its efforts to police the province; the meager revenues proved inadequate for its administration. There was no hope of relief from Great Russia, now Bolshevist, and cut off from Bessarabia by the Ukraine, hostile to both. Public opinion, desperately in search of peace and order, and aghast at the impending withdrawal of the Roumanian Army, backed up the Moldavian Party in the Diet; and the Diet, by a large majority, voted to abandon its dream of an independent Bessarabian Republic, and to unite with Roumania. One may question the legal status of this Diet, as of the Polish Sejm, the Lithuanian Tariba, the Ukrainian Rada, the Esthonian Council, and the other more or less irregular bodies which declared the independence of their respective countries, formerly subject to the Russian Empire; but such discussion, as of the legality of the Soviet Council itself, is academic and has no point today. Bessarabia has now taken part, under universal suffrage, in four Roumanian general elections; her representatives have been very active in the Roumanian Parliament, and Bessarabian politics today are as lively as politics in Iowa—in spite of martial law and the censorship, which the military authorities have as yet found it impossible to relax. The Soviets are still inspiring and financing too many Communist outbreaks in Bessarabia, although these raids have failed of popular support.

No, as a Russian writer recently confessed in a Russian periodical (L. Sotoff, Letters from Bessarabia, in the Sovremenniya Zapiski, 1921, no. 5, pp. 263-270): "The conditions for the return of Bessarabia to Russia are becoming more unfavorable every day. . . . Between the Russian democratic intelligentsia of Bessarabia and the mass of the people, not merely Moldavian and Jewish, but even the Russian, there was a great gulf fixed. . . . The Russifiers reached the point where the peasant who came into town felt as if he were in a dark and mysterious forest. . . . The masses of the Moldavian population remained alien to Russia, alien to its inherent cultural, historical and political value. Somewhat closer to Russian culture stood the Jewish element, partly because it was concentrated in the towns. But in the villages, at the fairs and markets, you could see how the bulk of the Jewish inhabitants, small tradesmen and handicraftsmen, could hardly make themselves understood in Russian, or did not understand the language at all, while they expressed themselves admirably in Roumanian.

"The Roumanians on this score found the ground fully prepared for them. They came into an environment which they understood and which understood them. A new administration came in, which spoke a language available to the people. All at once in all the government institutions people began talking Roumanian.

"Far more serious in the process of Roumanizing the country was the general nationalistic policy of the Roumanians. Its fundamental principle was this—the protection of all natural cultures. Do you want a school in Yiddish, in Ancient Hebrew, in Ukrainian, in Polish, in Greek? Go ahead, as far as you like. . . . The population eagerly took advantage of these gifts, and thus the falling away from Russian culture in the intellectual life of the province goes on rapidly and painlessly. . . . As a genuine social force, the Russian intelligentsia today in Bessarabia does not exist. Subjectively, it is in opposition to the Roumanian government; but that opposition remains buried within it, setting no one on fire, and failing to rouse the dormant Russian sentiment. . . . Time passes, and together with it Russia is passing out of Bessarabia. That must be said straight out; we must not lull ourselves with any sort of illusions."

Naturally, there has been much friction in the new province. Under the Imperial Government, a great mass of the Bessarabians had no political life, except the mild measure provided by the zemstvos. Under the Roumanians, they were plunged at once into the raging currents of a European parliamentary system. The Russians had neglected this remote frontier province; when the Roumanians took it over, they found nearly 90% of illiteracy among the farming population, and a very low moral level. I remember one struggling Bessarabian town, not far from Akkerman, with 5,000 Russian and 2,000 Bulgarian inhabitants; it had one school, two churches, and 23 saloons in which vodka was sold; 37% of all the births were illegitimate. Nor could the easy-going Bessarabian mentality quickly accommodate itself to the new conditions. A Roumanian Finance Minister recently introduced a bill fixing a uniform scale of inheritance taxes throughout the kingdom, and was promptly called upon by a delegation of eight Bessarabian senators, indignant at the (to them) unheard-of imposition. The Russians laid no such tax, they said; and one of their number became so excited that he formally invoked the curses of the widows and orphans of Bessarabia upon the unhappy Minister. The Minister explained that the tax was inevitable, and was already being levied along four different lines in various parts of Roumania; that the proposed tax seemed low to the Transyl-vanians, who had had to pay a higher inheritance tax under the Hungarians; and that it fell very lightly on bequests to near relatives. The Bessarabian senators were finally convinced; their leader came penitently to the Minister, apologized for his hasty imprecation and told him they were all going to church after the session and each light a candle, to take off the curse they had so lightly called down upon him! And perhaps the deepest resentment roused by any act of the Roumanian Government has been caused by its innocent attempt to bring the Bessarabian calendar over to New Style. Up to the war, the Greek Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe still clung to Old Style—the Julian Calendar which we abandoned in the days of the French and Indian Wars. The World War changed that for Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria; Moscow has changed it for Soviet Russia; but conservative old-fashioned Bessarabia, scandalized equally by the irreligious Soviets and the newfangled Roumanians, has cherished Old Style as faithfully as did the Scots, who held out for fifty years after England officially adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Indeed, the new Averescu Ministry found it necessary this Spring to abandon the measures taken by its predecessor to ensure the celebration of Easter according to New Style, and to issue a decree allowing each church in Bessarabia to follow Old or New Style, as it desired. The chief beneficiaries were the school children, who in several towns enjoyed two sets of Easter holidays!

Add to this general discomfort three years of drought and pinching poverty, eight years of economic stagnation due to the dislocation of trade channels, and eight years of vigorous and intensive Communist propaganda from Kieff, Odessa and Moscow-—and you have the explanation of the surface unrest in Bessarabia. Under the circumstances it is indeed remarkable that Bessarabia remains unfeignedly loyal to the new regime— one has only to raise the specter of Soviet aggression to have all the Bessarabian politicians drop their squabbling and present a united front—and that the numerous Communist raids have met with no response among the Bessarabian farmers. The Roumanian Government holds out against the suggestion of a plebiscite in Bessarabia, which they consider as gratuitous as would be the suggestion of a plebiscite in Russian Poland or Esthonia or Finland or Alsace-Lorraine. But they would have nothing to fear if a vote were to be taken among the Bessarabian farmers, as to whether they would remain as they are or pass over to the conditions which they themselves can see across the Dniester. As a Russian Bessarabian stockman said to me—he had been an officer in Denikin's army, and had made his way back to his Bessarabian home through many difficulties: "Only one who has himself known what life is like in Soviet Russia can really appreciate what it means to be back here in God's country."


North Hatley, Quebec.

*Dodd Mead & Co., N. Y. C.