1 – Visions of Otherness in Southern Bessarabia
BSSB.BE gce.unisg.ch/ 18.05.2016
The reintegration of three Southern Bessarabian districts into the Russian Empire in 1878 represented not only a high point of the Russian-Romanian symbolic competition for Bessarabia, but also the creation of an ‘administrative aberration’ within the Russian Empire.
The former Romanian territories, merged into the new Ismail uezd, preserved their institutional and legal peculiarities for almost 40 years. Thus, the modern structures of an emerging nation-state were transferred into the Russian imperial context. This article will discuss, first, the attitude of a number of Russian observers and officials towards the 1856 – 1878 Romanian administration, with a special emphasis on mutual perceptions and the foreign policy dimension. Second, the article will examine the polemics concerning the alternative strategies for integrating this region within the empire.
The Russian bureaucracy was divided on the issue, oscillating between a centralizing approach and a more pragmatic attitude which admitted the continued existence of the Romanian institutions.
The discourse displayed by the Russian officials on this occasion is a curious amalgam of flexible pragmatism, modern rationality, bureaucratic inertia, centralizing impulses and foreign policy considerations. The lack of coherence of the Russian policies on the Southern Bessarabian periphery points to the contested and fragmented nature of the imperial discourse regarding the alternative models of institutional organization and political legitimacy.
- The occasional reports filed by the local police, purportedly identifying a certain “Romanian” party composed of a handful of young nobles, emphasized the “platonic” nature of their national sentiments and pointed to the ultimate loyalty of even these presumably “dangerous” elements that were worthy of police surveillance.
- Moreover, these apprehensions of the Russian administration were linked primarily to the political turmoil provoked within the empire by the Polish uprising of 1863. It is hardly surprising to find the “Polish intrigue” among the possible catalysts of the fledgling Bessarabian “national movement” that remained in an embryonic stage throughout the rest of the 19th century.
- The newly united Romanian Principalities were hardly viewed as a future “Piedmont” for the Romanians of the Bessarabian province even during the darkest moods of the Russian official discourse.
The contested character of the region did not crystallize in the form of two coherent and continuous narratives that spanned the whole pre-World War I period. Rather, one can speak about certain moments of heightened discursive tension that corresponded to a closer entanglement of the Russian and Romanian polities in the international politics of the era.
- Despite the fact that this small piece of land was mostly inhabited by ‘trans-Danubian colonists’ (i.e., Bulgarians and Gagauz), while the Romanian-speaking population was only significant in a narrow strip along the Prut River, the Romanian government forcefully claimed its right to include this region into the “national body.”
- Beyond succumbing to the logic of mutual competition and antagonism with regard to its Romanian rival, the Russian administration in Bessarabia proved flexible enough to accommodate several foreign institutional and administrative “models” that preserved a certain degree of diversity within the region during the first half of the 19th century.
Still, contrary to the expectations of many (including high-ranking) observers on the Russian side, this framework proved resilient enough to last for forty years and withstand all the attempts to “streamline” it according to all-imperial standards. In the following, I will discuss the case of the Ismail district, which is a rare instance of the transfer of “national” administrative practices into the fold of the Russian multi-ethnic empire. I will mostly focus on the Russian imperial policies after 1878, but will also sketch the main features of the Romanian nation-building efforts in the region in the two previous decades, when Southern Bessarabia became a part of the new Romanian state.
The Romanian government understood that this land, severed from Russia by virtue of political calculations, but acquired by Russian blood, populated and organized through the efforts of the Russian government, and also constituting, through its geographical position and the ethnographical makeup of its population, a natural part of Russian Bessarabia, will always gravitate towards Russia and will, sooner or later, return within its borders.
Therefore, the Romanians always regarded their possession of Southern Bessarabia as a temporary dominion, as a sort of lease, and acted accordingly, following the rule: take as much as you can, give as little as you can.
Their attitude towards the interests of this land was exclusively limited to fiscal matters and to [the profit] of state officials.6 The intrusive practices of the Romanian nationalizing state were understandably the main target of criticism leveled by Russian authors and officials towards the previous regime.
In fact, the Russian position displayed a curious, but hardly surprising, ambiguity: while insisting on the meager achievements of the Romanian authorities in matters relating to the local population’s welfare, it also emphasized the constant pressure and even violence of the local administration, building an image of total contrast with the benevolent attitude of the Russian authorities.
While engaging in a “virtual dialogue” with the Romanian government’s claims to have “educated” the local inhabitants civically and politically8 , the Russian writers were also attacking the implicit hierarchy that depicted the imperial model as inadequate in terms of bureaucratic rationality and the quality of governance.
Undermining this image of an orderly and democratic political system, the Russian discourse insisted that the Romanian administration failed even in its most basic tasks of guaranteeing the citizens’ security and respecting the rights of the region’s multiethnic population.
In fact, the argument amounted to a vision of “mock constitutionalism” that was meant to underscore the positive features of the Russian policy in the area. Moreover, the assimilatory potential of the Romanian state was directly questioned, even if the existence of “nationalizing tendencies” was admitted.
This image of a weak state dominated by a predatory bureaucracy and displaying only the superficial features of a modern polity derived, on the one hand, from long-held stereotypes that blamed the Romanian elite for slavishly imitating Western models and of losing its connection with the “people.”
On the other hand, it was also a self-serving tactic aimed at discrediting the assumption of a direct relationship between an accelerated pace of modernization and the existence of a (formally) pluralistic political system.
Author: Andrei Cușco holds a Ph.D. degree in the Comparative History of Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe from the Department of History of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. His research interests focus on modern East European history, comparative history of the Eurasian empires, intellectual history and historiography. Since 2011 Dr. Cușco has been the Director of the Center for Empire Studies at the Department of History and Philosophy within Moldova State University.
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