- A Contested Borderland: Competing Russian and Romanian Visions of Bessarabia in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century by Andrei Cusco
Bessarabia – the fertile region between the Dniester and the Prut that today encompasses Moldova and small parts of Ukraine – is a quintessential frontier zone that has been the meeting point of diverse peoples for centuries. At the opening of the modern era, it became the site of major battles between the Russian and Ottoman militaries. Mighty stone fortresses testify to the region's contested past. By the early eighteenth century, the territory entered the European lexicon (although the etymology of the term Bessarabia remains somewhat uncertain).1 A turning point occurred in 1812, when (according to the Bucharest Treaty ending the Russian-Ottoman War of 1806–1812) the Russian Empire annexed the entire region, thereby inventing the geographical borders that would endure.
Andrei Cusco's latest study of Bessarabia is an intense scrutiny of rival territorial claims and "symbolic appropriation" by the Russian Empire and Romania from the 1860s (when the Romanian kingdom was established) until Romania's entry into World War I. This chronological framework indicates the book's Romanian orientation. A borderland of borderlands, Bessarabia is a neglected and rich territory for intellectual exploration. And Cusco, in English, goes a long way to pin the region onto the historiographical map.2 However, [End Page 197] the book is not always an easy read, in part, due to its analytical sophistication.
The volume is divided into an introduction, five chapters of unequal length, a conclusion and an "instead of an epilogue." The introduction situates the study within recent scholarship on empires and borderlands, and on the new approaches to Eurasian spatial histories and symbolic geographies.3 Unlike the Russian Empire's better-known peripheral regions (Finland, Poland, Central Asia), few scholarly studies examine Bessarabia's rival national discourses. As a result, Cusco's work opens new vistas and offers fruitful comparison for other contested regions on the edge of larger states, such as Galicia, Macedonia, and Vojvodina.
Chapter 1 addresses the historiography of the dilemmas of Russian empire-building on the periphery, and the construction of the national narrative in modern Romania. Cusco's review of Russian Orientalism and colonization on the imperial margins recalls the tsarist government's unique approach that intertwined population politics and state building in regions where nomadic and sedentary populations interacted. Whereas mostly Orthodox people inhabited Bessarabia in 1812, the southern steppe grasslands represented an area of social engineering, where native (prirodnye) groups expanded at the expense of aliens (inorodtsy). Cusco demonstrates that the spatial and cultural boundaries of Russianness were not always neat.
By the 1860s the crystallization of Romanian national consciousness presented a challenge to Russia's imperial plans to shape Bessarabia. Two significant Romanian figures, Mihai Eminescu and Nicolae Iorga, wrote extensively on the "Bessarabian question," claiming that the "Romanian element" surpassed the Russian in terms of culture and that the Bessarabian-Romanian peasant's pristine conditions were superior to the "Russian patriarchal mores" (Pp. 44–49).
The final part of chapter 1 reviews the methods by which Russia aimed to integrate the region into the imperial system. The author eludes the pivotal role of Russian admnistrators [End Page 198] in patching together a government in Bessarabia by drawing on local patterns and accepting petitions from Romanian-speaking boyars. Other scholars, such as Victor Taki, demonstrate that Tsar Alexander I viewed the region as a buffer state and an area of progressive political experimentation.4 However, by the end of the nineteenth century, Russian-led educational programs failed to develop a robust civil society in Bessarabia, which is, perhaps, typical for the record of the tsarist imperial periphery overall.
Chapter 2 probes the emergence of the "Bessarabian question" during the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877–1878, when the southern portion (the Budjak) was reintegrated within the Romanov Empire (it had been returned to the Ottoman...