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On the [Early] History of Bessarabia

Isert, Ingo Rüdiger. "On the [Early] History of Bessarabia." Mitteilungsblatt, September 2012, 12.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.


What is Bessarabia?

Today the term “Bessarabia” is understood to be the area between the Pruth and Dniester Rivers and the Black Sea. Historically it is comprised of an area east of the Pruth, within the borders of the Princedom of Moldova until 1812, a princedom that was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and the coastal area to the south, that is, between ”East-Moldova” and the Black Sea. Until 1538 or perhaps 1584 it had belonged to Moldova and later, due to its important fortifications, was placed under Ottoman military administration. Because of its geometric form this area was given the name Budzhak (a Turkish-Tatar word for corner or angle). Even older than that is the designation “Bessarabia” for this area. It stems from the time of the Wallachian Basarab princes (from about 1300). Common designations for the coastal strip from the Black Sea to the Dniester until 1812 were Budzhak and Bessarabia. The “water borders” of the Pruth, the Black Sea and the Dniester remained understandably firm, whereas the “land border” to the North varied.

In 1812, both territories were incorporated into the Russian Empire. The name Bessarabia took on a more significant meaning and from then on was used – pars pro toto – for the entire land area between the Pruth and the Dniester. The southern part of the new Russian Gouvernement continued to be called Budzhak and for many more years was even known as “the actual Bessarabia.” 

Raids by the Tatars

From about the middle of the 16th Century, the eastern border districts of Moldova suffered to an increasing extent and more strongly than the rest of the princedom from raids carried out by the Tatars. Permanent threats came from the South, the Budzhak, where Ottoman authorities had settled several Tatar tribes, among them the warlike Nogai tribes. They were officially responsible for military protection of the borders in this corner of the Ottoman Empire.

Not only did the Moldovan population have to provide tributes to the Ottoman Empire, but additional burdens were placed on the Eastern Moldovan population in terms of payments, delivery of materials and “gifts” to the Ottoman commandants in the Budzhak, to the Beg of Bender, and to his subordinate commanders in Akkerman, Ismail and Kilia, as well as to chieftains of Tatar tribes. Even worse in their impact were plundering Tatar raids, which naturally affected eastern Moldova the strongest. “These Tatars were for Moldova like wolves for a sheep herd,” can be read in a chronicle from the 18th Century. Animals and supplies were dragged off, and people were even forced into slavery. The wars between the Ottoman “Porte” and Poland-Russia also brought devastation and pillaging. [According to Wikipedia: “The Ottoman Porte or High Porte … is a metonym for the central government of the Ottoman Empire, by reference to the High Gate of the Divan (court) of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul,” – Tr.]

Foreign travelers unanimously confirmed the desolate scene of the open land, dilapidated villages, and the miserable image of the cities, if they could still be called that. The second half of the 17th Century and the entire 18th Century were not times that can be considered glittering epochs of the Bessarabian past.

During the 18th century the danger from the Tatars disappeared. At the beginning of the 18th Century some 700 to 800 families of the rebellious Nogais were forcefully resettled from the Budzhak to the Crimean region. Then in 1759 the Porte, as punishment, transplanted the Edisan tribes living in the Budzhak. During the 1769-1775 Russo-Turkish War an even larger resettlement was carried out. Finally, during the occupation by Russian troops between 1806 and 1812, the non-Christian population, that is, the Turks and Tatars, left the Budzhak and moved to the Dobrudzha.

Population Growth During the Final Years of the 18th Century

With the arrival of calmer conditions, refugee settlements were abandoned as the population returned to former locales. People moving from the central part of Moldova, at times even from Ukraine, filled the gaps. Population density in eastern Moldova climbed from 4.0 to 8.3 residents per square kilometer, equaling that of western Moldova.

Churches and cloisters were again being rebuilt and new ones founded. Via immigration by Ukrainian monks and especially due to the Russification policies carried out in the 19th century, Bessarabian cloisters eventually morphed into those with Romanian and those with Slavic liturgy.

The South of “Bessarabia.” t he new Russian acquisition of 1812, namely, the Budzhak, was largely devoid of humans because of the removal of Turks and Tatars. In the center of this “void” Germans were settled, to the west it was Bulgarians and Gagaus, and to the east it was Ukrainians and Russians. A new period in history had begun.

Taken largely from Völkl, Ekkehard, [translated title:] “‘Bessarabia’ at the Outset of the 18th Century. Its Population Development as Mirrored in the Founding of Cloisters” in: Der Donauraum, Zeitschrift der Donauraum-Forschung [The Danube Region, Magazine for Danube Region Research], vol. 22 (1977), pp. 40-49.

A listing of tribute payments via the Hospodor (title of the Prince) of Moldova can be found, e.g., in Compendieuse Staats-Beschreibung des Durchlauchtigen Welt-Kreises, part 3, ch. IV: Von den Hospodarein der Walachey und Moldau, pp. 340-341. Braunschweig. 1721.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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