Over the years, I’ve documented a deep-seated fear and loathing for Russia amongst Romanians, and I really want to know why.
Setting aside, momentarily, reactions to the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin since 2000, I wanted to know if there is any factual basis for all this enmity.
Therefore, I decided to go through the last 500 years of history and see what I could find.
Technically, the origins of the Russian state began around 1,000 years ago, but for the purposes of my research, I’m limiting my analysis beginning with the ascension of Peter the Great in 1672 as he is widely considered as the founder of the modern Russian state.
The term “Romania” refers to different territories at different times. Roughly speaking, there are four Romanian regions:
Transylvania – Today, part of Romania, but under Hungarian control (separate from the Kingdom of Hungary based in Budapest) from 1000-1920.
Wallachia – Today, the southern and southwestern part of Romania. Initially, the capital was Targoviste but later was moved to Bucharest (the modern capital of Romania).
Bessarabia – Roughly analogous to the modern country of the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria/PMR.
Moldova – A separate Romanian-majority principality from Wallachia. Today, the western half is part of northeastern Romania while the eastern half is the nation of Moldova.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Great Turkish War – 1683-1669
The Turkish Ottoman Empire continued to push inland towards the gates of Vienna but eventually suffered a tremendous defeat, losing control over its territory in Hungary and elsewhere in SE Europe.
The primary victors were the Holy Roman Empire (~Germany) and Poland/Lithuania but they were backed by Russia and a coalition of other “Western” powers.
Turkey’s only allies in this war were Crimean Tatars and troops from Moldova and Wallachia under the leadership of George Ducas (Moldova) and Serban Cantacuzino (Wallachia).
Result: Russia fought against Romanian troops but the fighting was nowhere near Romanian territory.
Great Northern War – 1700-1721
Russia vied with the Swedish Empire for control of northern Europe. Russia ultimately achieved tremendous victories that resulted in Sweden retreating to its homeland in Scandinavia forever more. One of Russia’s minor allies during the war was the principality of Moldova.
At the end of the fighting, Swedish king Charles XII holed up in Bender (today’s Transnistria/PMR) for five years while under siege by Russian troops. Eventually, the Turks (which controlled Bessarabia) negotiated his safe return to Sweden.
Prior to this war, Russia was considered a minor kingdom (tsardom). Afterward, it became the Russian Empire and a major European power.
In 1711, Moldovan leader Dmitrie Cantemir defied Turkish orders and joined the Russian side, participating in fighting around Stanilesti and Braila.
Result: Moldova was allied with a victorious Russia against the Turks.
Russo-Turkish War – 1735-1739
Continuing friction between Russia and the Ottoman Empire led to a series of battles over who would control the Black Sea (especially Crimea).
Troops under Constantin Mavrocordat (Wallachia) and Grigore Ghica (Moldova) were allied with the Turks. The final stage of the war saw Russia briefly occupying a fortress in Iasi but Russian ally Austria’s heavy losses resulted in a peace treaty that gave control of the area back to the Turks.
Result: Russia and Moldova/Wallachia were on opposite sides.
Russo-Turkish War – 1787-1792
Turkey pressed back against Russia to try and regain territory lost during the previous war. Now-legendary Russian general Alexander Suvorov (who founded Tiraspol and is on the money in Transnistria) captured the fortress in Iasi. Later, there was heavy fighting around the town of Focsani.
At the conclusion of the war, the Dniester River (now the border between RM and PMR) became the outer limit of the Russian Empire and Turkey suffered tremendous defeats.
Result: Russia cemented control over Bessarabia but no Wallachian/Moldovan troops participated in the fighting.
Russo-Turkish War – 1806-1812
Perhaps the most important pre-modern war fought in what is now Romanian territory. Once again, Russia and Turkey clashed over control of southeastern Europe.
Russia initially controlled all of both Moldova and Wallachia (including Bucharest) but a simultaneous attack in Russia by Napoleon drained Russia of its ability to sustain the fighting with the Turks.
Following the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia moved 80,000 troops southward to Bessarabia, ultimately seizing territory as far as Dobruja (Ro: Dobrogea).
At the end of the war, the Treaty of Bucharest gave Russia permanent jurisdiction over Bessarabia as well as trading rights on the Danube River.
Result: Russia expanded its territory to include Bessarabia (today’s RM/PMR). Neither Moldovan nor Wallachia troops participated in the fighting.
Russo-Turkish War – 1828-1829
Once again, Russia and the Turks clashed over control of the Black Sea. Russian troops based in Bessarabia launched attacks against Ottoman positions in Bulgaria but suffered catastrophic defeats. Ultimately, however, the Turks lost the war, and Russia gained full control over both Wallachia and Moldova.
Result: Wallachia/Moldova became Russian protectorates, but no troops from Wallachia or Moldova participated in the fighting.
Hungarian Revolution – 1848
Described in more detail in another article, 1848 was a year of continent-wide upheavals and rebellions.
The Kingdom of Hungary and allied Hungarian leaders throughout Europe (in today’s Ukraine, Croatia, and Transylvania) battled against Austria for control over central Europe.
Russia was allied with Austria and ethnic Romanians (under the leadership of Avram Iancu) in Transylvania.
Result: Transylvania remained a separate entity from Hungary.
Crimean War – 1853-1856
The Turks allied with France and Britain against Russia ostensibly to see who would control access to Jerusalem.
Practically speaking, however, it was a renewal of the lingering issue over who would control access to the Danube River and the Black Sea.
Considered by many to be the first “modern war”, it led to the foundation of the Red Cross, saw the first use of railways, telegraphs, and photographs, and the famous poem Charge of the Light Brigade memorialized a failed British attack on Russian forces in Crimea.
Result: Russia suffered a crushing defeat, losing control over Wallachia and Moldova (but not Bessarabia). Turkey regained nominal control over Wallachia and Moldova but the two principalities were considered nearly independent for the first time in history.
Russo-Turkish War – 1877-1878
Yet again, Russia and Turkey clashed for control over southeastern Europe. This time, the Turks had no European allies while Russia was allied with forces from Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and the newly-formed kingdom of Romania (Wallachia + Moldova).
Note: King Carol I of the Hohenzollern family became king of Romania in 1866.
Result: The Turks suffered crushing defeats, leading to Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania formally declaring their complete independence from the Ottoman Empire.
World War 1 – 1914-1918
Multi-axis coalitions battled for control of Europe and European colonies in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
In Romania, Russia prevented Germany from wiping Romania off the map after German troops occupied all of Romanian territory except for a small pocket near the city of Iasi.
Romania won a key victory with Russian artillery support at the Battle of Marasesti which led to the immortal line pe aici nu se trece (this line shall not be crossed) and the death of Romania’s greatest (and only?) heroine, Ecaterina Teodoroiu.
Result: Russia saved Romania from obliteration by Germany. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon saw Romanian territory double in size with the addition of Bessarabia and Transylvania.
World War 2 – 1939-1945
Another global war. Officially, Romania was neutral in 1939 but was de facto allied with Nazi Germany.
On June 23, 1940, the Soviet Union gave Romania four days to cede Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. Just two days later, Romania gave up the region without a fight.
On September 5, 1940, “Marshall” Antonescu became prime minister and de facto leader of Romania, deposing King Carol II.
On September 6, 1940, King Michael (son of Carol II) was crowned king but his first act was issuing a royal decree giving all power to Antonescu.
On November 23, 1940, Romania officially joined the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany + Italy). Nazi Germany then ordered Romania to cede Northern Transylvania to Hungary, which it did without a fight.
On June 22, 1941, Romania joined Nazi Germany in invading the Soviet Union. Romanian troops committed widespread massacres in Bessarabia (see my post here), Transnistria, Budjak, and Odessa (see my post here).
The Allied Powers (primarily the USA) began attacking Romania starting in 1943 beginning with aerial bombardments of key resources like the oil fields of Ploiesti and central Bucharest.
True fact: The last country that the United States ever officially declared war against was Romania (June 5, 1942).
On August 20, 1944, the Soviet Union launched the Iasi-Chisinau (Jassy-Kishinev in some spellings) Offensive.
On August 23, 1944, King Michael (with ample Soviet support) deposed fascist leader Ion Antonescu and then immediately ordered Romania to switch sides and ally with the Soviet Union.
By September 24, 1944, all of Romania was under Allied control. Romanian troops fought alongside Soviet forces to reconquer Transylvania from Nazi German/Hungarian control.
In October 1944, the Moscow Conference was held between the leaders of Britain (Churchill) and the Soviet Union (Stalin). Churchill agreed to cede “90% control” of Romania to the Soviet Union.
In 1947, the Treaty of Paris ordered Romania to pay $300 million in restitution to the Soviet Union while simultaneously recognizing Bessarabia as part of the Soviet Union.
Result: Romania got Transylvania back from Hungary but permanently lost Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union.
Communist Era – 1946-1989
Romania was firmly under Soviet control until 1956 when Romanian leader Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej demanded the Soviet Union remove all troops from Romanian territory.
In 1965, Nicolae Ceausescu came to power following the death of Dej. Ceausescu and Dej both followed a strongly independent policy and resisted most Soviet initiatives although the two countries were nominally allies.
In 1971, following a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu instituted a cult of personality as well as a strategic financial relationship with the IMF and the United States.
The Final Analysis
Now that we’ve got all our ducks in a row, what conclusion can we draw? Well, let’s see.
Transylvania – Pretty clear that Romania would’ve never gained control over this region without support from Russia and the Soviet Union.
Wallachia – Dominated by the Turks throughout the past 500 years but finally gained its independence thanks to Russian intervention.
Moldova/Bessarabia – Following the events of 1812, Bessarabia became heavily Russified. In the western half (today’s Moldovan region of Romania), except for the period of 1829-1853, the Turks were the prime movers in this area. Russia’s key intervention in World War 1 saved both (western) Moldova and Wallachia from complete annihilation.
Nonetheless, the Soviet Union’s demand that Romania cede Bessarabia in 1940 left some very bitter scars in the relationship between the two countries. It must be noted, however, that Romania did not even try to fight for this territory, mostly because Nazi Germany (Romania’s ally at the time) had already agreed that the Soviet Union would control the area.
In contrast, the Turkish Ottoman Empire was clearly the main oppressor of Wallachia and Moldova for most of the past 500 years. Furthermore, Germany nearly obliterated Romania during WW1 and the country was only saved thanks to Russian troops.
As for Transylvania, Hungary was the main historical oppressor, with Russia providing key support in repelling Hungarian forces during the upheaval of 1848.
And during the Communist Era, Romania was really only a “vassal state” of the Soviet Union between 1946-1956. After 1956, it was highly independent, forming key partnerships with western powers, including the United States. Nearly all of the atrocities committed against the Romanian people during the Communist Era were done by Romanians, not the Soviets.
Looking at everything objectively, it’s really only the Stalin era that included mass deportations in Bessarabia between 1940-1953 that ethnic Romanians really suffered at the hands of either Russians or the Soviet Union. Otherwise, Russia was a regular ally and defender of the Orthodox Christian faith during the long centuries of Turkish Muslim rule.
But objective reasoning has little to do with reality on the ground today. Romanians tend to think very highly of Germany and consider the country a key ally. Turkey is never disparaged in the media, and Turkey remains a valued NATO ally and extremely important trading partner. And the same is true for Britain and the USA.
Therefore, I cannot but conclude that the vast majority of anti-Russian sentiment in Romania is not due to historical events or military aggression.
I’m pretty sure I do know where all this bad blood is coming from. But that’ll have to wait for another article.