Today, June 19, is a major holiday here in Pridnestrovie.
It’s when the country commemorates all those who died in the fighting in 1992 (see my full article on that here), most of them unarmed civilians.
It’s called the “Bender Tragedy” here, but I’m not quite sure what it’s called in the Republic of Moldova. Every time that someone labels it a “civil war,” they’re immediately treated like a leper.
Some folks call it the “Russian-Moldovan” war, which is absurd, but there’s not really a consensus in Moldova (or Romania) on how it should be referred to.
All I know is that you’re definitely not allowed to call it the Pridnestrovian War or the War Against Pridnestrovie because that would “legitimize” Pridnestrovie, and it’d remind everyone that Chisinau got its ass kicked by a country that isn’t supposed to exist 🤪
Oddly, the newspapers on the morning of June 19, 1992, were full of articles about the Moldovan government taking steps to negotiate a peaceful resolution to what was then just a “crisis.”
Yet by nightfall, the die had been cast, and Chisinau had launched an impromptu war which it clearly had done no preparation for and would lose in spectacular fashion.
Although quite literally no one could’ve foreseen it, that “civil war” or “tragedy” ended up stabilizing everything quite well, albeit at the cost of a few hundred ordinary lives.
Since the ceasefire was signed in July 1992, not a single shot has been fired in anger, and the two countries (or “sides”, if you prefer) live quite peacefully together.
A Bizarre Dream Is Born
The seeds for that 1992 “war” or “conflict” began nearly a hundred years ago in the febrile mind of one very disturbed and psychopathic individual, Ion Antonescu, who later became the fascist dictator of Romania.
In 1919, Antonescu was enjoying a pretty good life. He was a distinguished cavalry officer who had helped defend Romania during World War 1, and his bravery and military gallantry had turned him into something of a celebrity.
As a result, he decided to write a long essay that was turned into a book called Romanians, their origin, past, sacrifices, and their rights.
The essay was partly prompted by the fact that Romania was in Paris at the time (see my article here about that conference), negotiating with the Allies about the future of Romania’s borders, and whether or not they would include areas like Transylvania, Southern Dobruja, and Northern Bucovina.
Antonescu was a participant at the Paris Peace Conference, and his essay was designed to “stiffen the spines” of the Romanian negotiators.
I managed to track down a copy of Antononescu’s book, and here’s a screenshot of the opening of the chapter “Historical arguments”.
Since time immemorial, the Romanian people have been living in a high-density population mass in all the lands between the Tisa, Dniester, Danube, and the [Black] sea, and in fairly considerably large population clusters on the right-hand [southern] side of the Danube as well as beyond the Dniester all the way to the Don.
The Tisa, Dniester, Don, and Danube are all rivers. The Tisa corresponds more or less to modern Romania’s northwestern border while the Danube forms its southern border.
The Dniester River, of course, forms the eastern border of what is now the Republic of Moldova. In 1920, Moldova was formally annexed to Romania and so the Dniester became Romania’s eastern border, but in 1919, people liked Antonescu considered that unification “fait accompli” due to the Declaration in Alba Iulia the year before.
The idea that the territory of Romania is bounded by the Tisa (northwest), Danube (south), and Dniester Rivers (east) is not Antonescu’s. It comes from a poem called Doina (🇷🇴) written in 1833 by Mihai Eminescu.
The poem uses natural landmarks to delineate what was then the future concept of “Romanian lands” and, once again, states that the Dniester River is the eastern border.
In 1918, when “Greater Romania” was proclaimed (see my article here), the delegates very intentionally used Eminescu’s poem to delineate the territorial borders.
What Antonescu did in 1919 by adding “as well as beyond the Dniester all the way to the Don” (the Don River is in southern Russia) was brand-new.
And despite entitling his chapter “historical arguments,” he never elaborates any justification or outlines any proof for why lands between the Dniester and Don Rivers should be considered part of “Super Great Romania”.
Nonetheless, that passage from his book was, quite literally, when the term “Transnistria” (“beyond the Dniester”) was born.
Sit Down, Karen
Today, a considerable amount of energy in Moldova and Romania has been put into “retconning” or retroactively rewriting history to make it seem like a) the name “Transnistria” wasn’t coined by Antonescu and b) the areas east of the Dniester River were “always” part of Romania’s rightful territory.
I am here to tell you, unequivocally, that this is nonsense. The name “Transnistria” was coined by Antonescu and was never used in any official or culturally established way before.
The term “Bessarabia” was, and still is, used to refer to a somewhat peninsular area of land that includes what is now Moldova, Pridnestrovie, and three different “counties” in Ukraine. The term “Bessarabia” was used by both Imperial Russia as well as Romania, Moldova, and other powers.
But there never was a “Transnistria” before Antonescu made it up.
During World War 2, Antonescu became the military dictator of Romania and a close personal friend and admirer of Adolf Hitler.
In 1941, Hitler gifted him the Transnistria Governorate, a vast swathe of territory that ran from the Dniester River in the west to Odessa in the east, in exchange for Antonescu sending 300,000 Romanian soldiers to die miserable deaths at the Battle of Stalingrad.
But Antonescu never really wanted Transnistria, despite the grandiose bragging in his 1919 book.
What Antonescu really wanted was to take back Transylvania, Northern Bucovina, and southern Dobruja. But he couldn’t because Hitler had given Transylvania to Hungary and Southern Dobruja to Bulgaria (both fascist allies at the time). And the Soviet Union was in control of Bucovina, which Hitler had “allowed” due to the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.
Therefore, “Transnistria” was something of a consolation prize given to Antonescu after Nazi Germany began its war against the Soviet Union.
To put it crudely, Antonescu used Transnistria as a dumping ground, putting all the people that he didn’t like (Communists, Jews, Ukrainians, Gypsies, et al) there so that he could “cleanse” and “purify” what he considered to be “real” Romania.
That’s why 98% of the estimated 350,000 unarmed civilians that he murdered during his genocidal reign died in Transnistria.
Rehabilitating a Fascist Ghost
Antonescu was killed by firing squad in 1946, and Romania transformed from a fascist state to a communist one rather quickly.
But the poisonous seed planted by Antonescu continued to grow, even under communism.
Slowly, over the years, Antonescu was retroactively transformed from a fascist to a “patriot with problems,” and friction with the Soviet Union led to dreams of reconstituting his “Super Great Romania” concept that included those lands east of the Dniester River.
Ceausescu thus “rehabilitated” the name Transnistria and incorporated it into his re-imaging of Romanian identity. And starting in 1976, Ceausescu began beaming those ideas deep into Soviet Moldova.
The Soviet Union, ironically, contributed a bit to this “Super Great Romania” concept by merging the nascent Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (i.e. lands east of the Dniester) with lands west of the Dniester River and making Chisinau its capital (see my article here).
This led a lot of people to start thinking of “Moldova” being a territory that encompassed both sides of the river. And in 1989, when a lot of Moldovans began agitating to separate from the Soviet Union and reunite with Romania, they naturally thought that this dream of a reunited “Super Great Romania” should also include “Transnistria”.
The Name That Refuses to Die
Well, we all know how that turned out – not very well.
But what’s always surprised me is just how accepting Western governments have been of using the name Transnistria, even if they sometimes spell it “Trans-Dniester” or “Trans-Dniestr.”
There is no way to deny that “Transnistria” is the Holocaust name for this area and nothing else.
It is a term that was coined by a deeply anti-Semitic man who treated the region as a gigantic penal colony and an open-air death camp. He didn’t just murder some 300,000 people but forced the entire population (age 14 and up) to work as chattel slaves, building roads, transporting armaments, and growing food at gunpoint.
There wasn’t a single person who didn’t suffer under Antonescu’s military dictatorship when the Transnistria Governorate existed. Even the local “ethnic Romanians” and Moldovans were treated as Communist sympathizers and forced to do harsh manual labor for no pay.
Every single administration position in the Transnistria Governorate was held by a “real Romanian” imported from west of the Dniester River.
“Transnistria” is a historical term that should remain in the past. It’s no different than referring to the Nazi death camp as Auschwitz in contrast to the nearby Polish town of Oswiecim.
“Auschwitz” is the historical Nazi name for both the town and the camp, but nobody outside of Neo-Nazis would ever say they’re going to visit the Polish town of “Auschwitz” today. So why does the European Union, OSCE, United States, Sweden, and Britain continue to refer to Pridnestrovie as “Transnistria”?
And why does Google insist on translating “Pridnestrovie” as “Transnistria” every single time?
I understand that tourists use the term out of ignorance, but it’s a deeply injurious wrong that needs to be corrected.
The Lingering Taste of Death
Over a quarter of a million people were shot, burned alive, raped, dismembered, or left to starve to death under Ion Antonescu’s orders in the territory of the Transnistria Governorate. Antonescu was convicted and executed for these war crimes, and all right-thinking people today condemn his acts of genocide.
Nonetheless, the wider world stubbornly continues to refer to Pridnestrovie as “Transnistria” despite the fact that Pridnestrovie encompasses only a tiny fraction of the territory of Antonescu’s Transnistria Governorate.
As far as I am concerned, anyone who continues to refer to Pridnestrovie as “Transnistria” is actively supporting Antonescu’s fascist, genocidal idea that anyone who isn’t a pureblood Romanian (and member of the Orthodox faith – no other types of Christianity were permitted!) should be killed or exiled from these lands.
This is the year 2020. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, folks!
You don’t have to like or support the Tiraspol government to refer to it as Pridnestrovie (or the “Left Bank” if you prefer) instead of “Transnistria”, any more than you have to like or support the current Polish government to refer to its town on the Vistula River as “Oswiecim” and not Auschwitz.
Enough people died under Antonescu’s watch and during the 1992 war/tragedy. Let’s not perpetuate any more hate.
Peace is the only answer, and we can all start by refusing to continue to use Nazi names for places.