If you ever get a chance to visit Edinburgh in Scotland, there is a curious building there called Holyrood by most of the people who work there.
Built just under twenty years ago, it is home to the quasi-independent Parliament of Scotland.
What, I think, is most interesting about this building is that there is a significant difference between the outside of the building and the inside of the building.
Inside, what you’ll see is a smattering of literature in the Scottish Gaelic language, but everything else is in (Standard British) English, including the ordinances and laws passed by the Parliament.
Outside, however, you will see engraved quotes from some of the most famous writers in Scotland’s history, and all of them are in the Scots language, variously known as “the Scottish Dialect”, “Scots” or “Lowland Scots”.
That physical juxtaposition between the “English spoken with a Scottish dialect” on the inside and a separate language known as “Scots” on the outside just about perfectly sums up the dichotomy over the issue.
Some folks, of course, say that Scots is nothing more than just a dialect with a few local words thrown in while others say that it is an entirely separate language that was heavily influenced by English in recent years.
Certainly, you can read the Wikipedia article on the subject and make up your own mind, but it has always seemed to me that Scots has taken a virtually identical path to the Moldovan language.
Today, Scots is officially recognized by both the United Nations (UNESCO) and the British government as a regional language, but that wasn’t always so. And I have a strong feeling that Moldovan speakers can be inspired by how Scots speakers have struggled to preserve their language and cultural identity.
Leonte and Mihail
Before we can begin to discuss the identity and characteristics of the Moldovan language and determine whether it should or should not be classified as a “separate but equal” language or “just a dialect,” we need to talk about two of the oddest Romanians who ever lived.
Unfortunately, it is always extremely difficult to talk about Romanian history because so few Romanians ever learn it.
In the past fifteen years or so, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ever even mention the names Lev Olgenstein (later Leonte Rautu) and Mihail Roller. And yet their influence over the modern Romanian understanding of its history is immense.
Rautu was born in what is now the Republic of Moldova, and Roller spent much of his formative career in Soviet Moldova. Both of them were of Jewish origin but more-or-less lived as atheists throughout their adult lives. And while both of them were avowed Communists, they help craft some of the deeply fascist narratives that run through modern Romanian history (with a little help from Iosif Chishinevski of similar origins and background).
Rautu, in particular, has to be the most amazingly acrobatic Communist who ever lived as he successfully switched sides (between different Communist philosophies) no fewer than five times. Furthermore, he was there at the very beginning in the 1940s (when the Soviets were heroes) and lasted all the way past Ceausescu’s murder-by-trial in 1989, enjoying years of retirement in “democratic” Romania with a big fat state pension.
I don’t want to get too bogged down into the (sometimes excruciatingly tedious) details of what these two propagandists managed to accomplish in their lifetimes. Instead, I just want to have it stipulated that these two men helped solidify a theory that goes something like this:
Moldovans do not exist. Everyone who speaks Romanian is a Romanian. And everywhere that they live is and should be part of Greater Romania
As such, it has been nearly 75 years since anyone in Romania gave serious thought about whether Moldovans (and Aromanians, et al) were actually separate people, with a separate culture, and a separate language. Instead, a blanket assumption is always that Moldovans are just Romanians who live east of Bucharest.
Two Children With the Same Parents
Over in the British Isles, it is indisputable that Scots and English derived from the same tongue. They are, therefore, sister languages. And right up until about four hundred years ago (when the English language was being standardized by folks like Samuel Johnson), there wasn’t much disputing this fact.
However, once Scotland and England were joined together to become one country (Great Britain) in 1707, things began to slowly change. As printed English texts became more standardized and more commonplace, the Scottish language was slowly losing its prominence.
Historically, however, Scotland and England had never been united. Whether it was under Roman Rule, during the time of the Danegeld, or even as recently as Edward Longshanks, the two countries had been quite separated.
But, thanks to an incredibly complex tangle of political and religious intrigue (yep, I’m referring to Henry VIII), there came a time when England begged Scotland’s king to rule over both lands. That king was named James, as in the guy who authorized the first legal English translation of the Bible.
However, later on, for complex political reasons, the Scottish (and now English) king’s son was deeply despised. And, after a quasi fair trial, he was executed.
Moldova and Romania (historically known as “Wallachia”) share an eerily similar history. For at least seven hundred years, Moldova and Romania had been two principalities with two separate rulers, customs, and everything else. And one must presume that they spoke two different, if sisterly (brotherly), languages.
However, due to complex political considerations, in 1859, the nobles in Romania asked the Moldovan leader, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, to also become the ruler of Wallachia. Soon after, they began calling both territories the “United Romanian Principalities”. And while they never murdered Cuza, they did force him to flee from his house in the middle of the night (onto an Austrian boat – an extremely interesting story in its own right), and he narrowly escaped with his life.
But when James’ son was executed in England, Britain decided to remain united even after their ruler was gone. Likewise, in Romania, after Cuza was overthrown, the Principalities stayed (more or less) united. Furthermore, Britain soon replaced their native-born dynasty with one imported from Germany and got a king that only spoke German and not any of the local languages. Romania did the same with their king as well.
Unfortunately, this is where the parallel ends. Because while English (and, to a lesser extent, Scots) was being written down and published as early as the 1600s, Romanian (and Moldovan) didn’t really become a literary language until the time of the 1848 revolutions in Europe.
That makes it extremely difficult to gauge just how different or independent Moldovan was (from the Romanian language) at the time the two principalities were united under Cuza.
Fast Forward to the Twentieth Century
Things really came to a head in the twentieth century.
But before we get there, we need to talk about 1812.
Romanians often refer to this as the year Russia “annexed” Eastern Moldova (which more or less corresponds with the Republic of Moldova today) as if it were an independent country. But that is simply not true.
At the time, Eastern Moldova (known initially as Bessarabia by Russians, but the title was adopted by Romanians as well) was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, as was Romania. I always find it particularly hilarious when Romanians fume about the Treaty of Bucharest when they themselves were under the Turkish yoke at the time.
However, it did create a split between the (biggest) part of Moldova that was now under the control of the Russian Empire and the (smaller) part of Moldova that was still in the hands of the Turks, later to become quasi-independent enough to declare a kind of virtual sovereignty in 1859 under Cuza.
Fast forward to 1916, during World War 1, and the United Principalities of Romania (now styled the Kingdom of Romania) were nearly wiped off the map by Germany.
However, by 1918, thanks to an enormous amount of help from their Western allies, Romania has completely reversed the situation and were bold enough to declare the permanent unification of “all Romanians” inside a mythical boundary briefly outlined in one of Mihai Eminescu’s poems.
I suppose it is kind of cool to draw imaginary lines on the map based on a poem, but that eventually led to some serious problems.
By 1920, Romania had invaded Budapest, overthrown the government of Hungary, and had put down a two-year guerilla war against (native) German and (native) Hungarians in Transylvania who most definitely did not want to become annexed into the Greater Romanian state.
With Transylvania pacified, the next step was to pacify Bessarabia, and that was easier said than done.
For one thing, unlike in Transylvania, Moldovans in Bessarabia had their own separate parliament, their own set of ruling elites, and an extremely high degree of autonomy within the Russian Empire.
Romanian history (thanks in part to Roller and Rautu) always skips over exactly how Bessarabia was “brought into the fold” in 1920, but the truth is that it was neither simple nor uneventful.
Essentially, Romania used a combination of military force (tens of thousands of troops were near Chisinau at the time the treaty was signed) and outright lies to convince a hastily assembled new parliament called “Sfatul Tarii” (literally “The Nation’s Counsel”) to agree to annexation.
The paper that these delegates signed still exists, and it is often shown in Romanian newsreels or history books as part of the “glorious history” of Romania. But if you actually read it, it specifically states that:
- Bessarabia (Moldova) would keep its own parliament;
- Bessarabia would maintain territorial autonomy (i.e. no Romanian soldiers); and
- Land reform, which meant giving more land to peasants and less to the nobles
However, in less than a year, all of these terms were broken by Romania, and the Romanian government imposed strict censorship throughout Bessarabia.
And while Romania worked hard but failed to get their annexation of Bessarabia recognized by the international community, Romania nonetheless gained full control over Bessarabia (Moldova) by 1920.
A Bad Time for Royalty
Unfortunately for the triumphant royalists in Bucharest (including a young cavalry officer named Ion Antonescu), kings, nobles, and other parasitic elites were no longer in fashion throughout Eastern Europe.
Up in Moscow, Lenin was proclaiming the birth of the Soviet Union, and the 1920s saw widespread chaos and fighting between “Red” (Communist) and “White” (royalist) forces throughout the region, including in Moldova (Bessarabia).
Furthermore, Romania fucked up spectacularly in 1924 when they viciously put down a Communist uprising in Tatar Bunary, which was then part of Moldova but is now part of Ukrainian Bessarabia. Again, though, you will never hear about this in Romanian history class.
This led the rising Communists to declare the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. This included some parts of what is now today Ukraine and some parts of what is now today Pridnestrovie.
Furthermore, there were several armed uprisings put down inside (what is now the Republic of) Moldova, including a couple of key incidents in Bender, which, in 1992, led to more fighting.
Losing Its Grip
And, as I’ve documented before, Romania did not play particularly nice with its royalist (anti-Communist) allies after World War I, and gave very little support to putting down the growing Soviet revolution in the area.
Therefore, in some sense, the very fact that Ukraine became a Communist country can be partly blamed on the pig-headed German king of Romania refusing to acknowledge that the world had moved on from people clapping for fancy horse parades and feathered caps.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, royalist Romania was beset by a rising tide of Communism, almost all of which came from the new territories annexed in 1920, including western parts of Romania and, of course, Bessarabia (and the neighboring MASSR district of the Soviet Union).
The Romanian king, meanwhile, responded by setting up a secret police organization known as the “Siguranta” (later known as “Securitate” in the Communist era, both words meaning “Safety” identical to the letter “B” in the Russian KGB) and violently repressing all Communist movement.
Ironically, the king’s foolish decision to put all of the arrested Communists in one prison (including a very young Nicolae Ceausescu) ended up solidifying the nucleus of the future Communist rulers of the country.
Throughout this period, the monarchy also began enforcing long-existing laws about mandatory universal schooling. They had been first passed in 1864 but had never been particularly reinforced, and estimates are that as many as half of all people in Romania (including Bessarabia) were illiterate right up until World War 2.
In Bessarabia, in particular, there was a strong focus on teaching Moldovans “the right way” to speak and read Romanian. And it is during the 1920s that some rather drastic changes were made to the way that both Romanian (and Moldovan) were formulated and written.
At the time, this was entirely done in the Latin script (which had been adopted wide-scale by the 1860s). I truly do wish I had some more historical documents to examine because I find it fascinating just how much the language changed between 1848 (when the future Romanian national anthem was published in Cyrillic) and the 1923 Romanian Constitution, which uses vastly different grammar constructions (and is written in the Latin alphabet).
No One Can be Trusted
Unfortunately, for Greater Romania enthusiasts, everything fell apart by the late 1930s.
The king first became fascinated by fascism, but then he outlawed it, but then he later embraced it. Romania then enthusiastically allied itself with Nazi Germany, which led to the ceding of Bessarabia back to the Soviet Union (aka “Russia”) in 1940 because that’s what Hitler wanted.
However, a year later, Nazi Germany (and its ally Romania) broke with the Soviet Union, and Romania invaded the Soviet Union (Bessarabia) in 1941.
That particular year (1940-1941) and the constant changing of who was in running Moldova (Bessarabia) changed the course of both the Moldovan and Romanian languages forever.
In 1940, the Soviet Union demanded that Romania cede Bessarabia. However, the original demand said that Romanian forces (especially troops) had a full week to vacate the premises.
Romania, however, underwent what can only be described as a full-blown panic. Every fascist, royalist, and anti-Communist in Moldova started saying that the Soviet Union had only given them two days to leave.
As such, a hell of a lot of people were caught off guard. Furthermore, rising anti-Semitism and a conflation of Jews being in support of Communism (which some were, and some weren’t) led to a number of horrific atrocities.
When the Soviets took full control on August 2, 1940, they began treating anyone who had ever worked for the Romanian government as a spy, a traitor, or an undesirable supporter of monarchy.
Then, a year later, when the tide reversed, and fascist Romania rolled into Moldova in July 1941, the Romanians did exactly the same: anyone who had cooperated with the Soviets in any way (especially if they were Jewish) and had not fled Moldova in 1940 was considered a Communist sympathizer, even though many folks simply did not have enough time in 1940 during all the chaos to flee.
Four Years of Hell
Romania then proceeded onto Odessa (Ukraine) and burned several thousand people alive as well as committing all sorts of other atrocities against humanity.
Furthermore, fascist Romania (under “Marshal” Ion Antonescu) treated Bessarabia as a dumping ground for all of the “undesirables” in the country, primarily Jews but also Gypsies. Romania declared that the region east of Bender (which had NOT been part of 1920 Romania) was now “Transnistria,” and everyone living there, even if they spoke Romanian, was a piece of shit.
I’ve partially detailed some of the atrocities that Romania committed during World War 2, wherein they killed more Jews than anywhere else on Earth that was not directly ruled by Nazi Germany.
But it’s often overlooked just how poorly the Moldovans were treated, both in the “Western” part (Chisinau) and the “Eastern” part (PMR and Ukraine).
Despite all the grand talk about Moldovans being “pure Romanians,” every single Moldovan residing on Soviet territory in 1941 was mistreated. Every single guard, administrative post, and officer was filled by people from Romania proper, and Moldovans were forced to serve as slave labor, primarily to grow food.
Furthermore, several Moldovan graves (most importantly, that of Grigory Kotovsky) were dug up, and the remains abused.
In short, life was living hell for all of those Moldovan “brothers” east of the Prut River under four years of fascist Romanian rule. And you better believe that many Moldovans never forgot it.
Now to the Good Part
As we know, the Nazis and their allies in Romania lost World War 2.
By 1945, the Soviet Union was back in control of Bessarabia, and both the western half (previously annexed to the Kingdom of Romania) and the eastern half (the MASSR) were united and promoted to the status of “union republic,” which led to particularly disastrous results from 1990-1992.
But during the Soviet era, a number of changes were implemented. Vyacheslav Molotov (not Stalin!) worked on harmonizing the dozens of languages spoken in the Soviet Union by giving all of them updated Cyrillic alphabets, including Moldovan. The Soviets also improved literacy rates to north of 90% in short order.
Furthermore, much like Romania had done during its reign, Moscow did not particularly trust the Moldovans in the western half of the Republic because of their perceived loyalties to Romania. Therefore, most of the leadership roles in the Moldovan Soviet Republic came from the eastern half, the part that had been the MASSR from 1924-1940, which partially corresponds to the current territory of Pridnestrovie.
Linguistically, it was pretty easy for the Soviets to show that Moldovan had once been written in Cyrillic and that the tongue had deep roots in Slavic language, and so the Moldovan language rapidly became a lot different than the language spoken over in Communist Romania.
It’s important to remember here just how odd Moldova was during the Soviet Era. Except for perhaps the Karelians the Moldovans were the only people inside the Soviet Union with a significant population of their ethnic kin living outside of the Soviet Union (in Romania).
For a few decades, that wasn’t too much of a problem as Moscow and Bucharest were Communist allies. But after Romania overthrew the Hungarian government in 1956 (and kidnapped Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister, taking him to the Snagov monastery/prison where he wrote an outstanding book that is very difficult to find nowadays called “Tales from Snagov”), Romania and the Soviet Union started to fall out.
By the time that Romanian “Communist” leader Nicolae Ceausescu met Soviet leader Brezhnev in 1976, the rift between the two “Socialist brothers” was quite wide. One result of that was Ceausescu beefing up the radio and TV transmitters in eastern Romania in order to broadcast his new “nationalist” (quasi-fascist) views that all Moldovans were, indeed, Romanians and that there was no such thing as a Moldovan (or a Moldovan language).
1989 to the Present
Here in Pridnestrovie, the story of the Moldovan language is a lot simpler.
Throughout the history of the Russian Empire’s control of Bessarabia, Moldovans had been seen as a distinct identity with a distinct language.
Then, under the Soviet Union, this was further reinforced. And by “reforming” the alphabet, Moldovan literature, stories, and poems followed an independent path from that in Romania.
In 1989, as I’ve only briefly described, a large portion of the Moldovans in the western (formerly Romanian) half of Soviet Moldova began agitating for both independence as well as the restoration of their language.
Today, this is largely glossed over in both Chisinau and Bucharest as being a movement that was 100% united behind the idea that Romanian is the only language, and that Moldovan was and is not a language. But that simply is not true.
Most of the original documents from 1989 and 1990 (including the declaration of independence!) spoke of the “Moldovan language,” not Romanian, although everyone did agree that it/they should be written in the Latin script.
Some particularly enthusiastic fans of Romanian (and/or Moldovan, to a lesser extent) then passed some draconian language laws mandating that everyone in Soviet Moldova read and write in (Latin script) Moldovan/Romanian, even though only a tiny fraction of the population could do so.
This led to some (more) widespread panic, and a lot of really nasty fascist incidents occurred, including the murder of a teenager in downtown Chisinau simply for the “crime” of speaking Russian.
Some of these fascists picked up guns and started wholesale slaughtering people, including the notorious terrorist Ilie Ilascu (who needs his own article). Others, like Ion Iovcev became agitating for a military annexation of Moldova by Romania although he never quite had the courage to fight for those beliefs.
Within a two-year span, the issue of the existence of the Moldovan language broke up the region into several camps:
- Those, like Ion Iovcev, who believed everyone should be forced to speak and read (Latin script) Romanian
- Those that supported a modernized but separate Moldovan language (in the Latin script)
- Those that supported the Soviet-era Moldovan language (and Cyrillic script)
After the 1992 war, the issue was settled as far as everyone was concerned east of the Dniester River, i.e. that the old Moldovan (in Cyrillic) had equal status to Russian, but that nobody should ever be forced to learn Moldovan against their will.
But in Chisinau, the issue continued to divide the country for a long time. After the fascist Popular Front collapsed in 1992, there was a move in Moldova back towards a “neo-Communist” solution in which Latin-script Moldovan was a separate language (from Romanian), and Russian should be a secondary official language.
Others, however, were in favor of eliminating Moldovan entirely and making Romanian the sole language in use in the Republic of Moldova.
Romania, meanwhile, was too busy brutally crushing democracy at home to worry about what those silly Moldovans were doing.
From about 1994 to 2009, various different policies were implemented, sometimes doing away with Moldovan entirely, other times distinctly enumerating Moldovan as a separate language.
Later, however, Traian Basescu was elected president of Romania, and together with the fascist mayor of Chisinau (his personal best friend, Dorin Chirtoaca, who is such a thug that he viciously sucker punched Igor Dodon during a campaign rally this summer), the Romanian government began actively suppressing Moldovan identity and the Moldovan language.
But after Basescu left office, and Moldova managed to finally get rid of the corrupt and criminal Dorin Chirtoaca (no thanks to blatant interference from the European Union), the situation seemed to cool down somewhat.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu and her newly-crowned PAS party, however, are likely to crank up the rhetoric on this issue.
The Situation Today
Now, believe it or not, I told you this entire story in order to tell you an anecdote about my recent travels to the Republic of Moldova after spending the better part of 18 months speaking (mostly) Russian here in Tiraspol.
To begin with, as someone who learned Romanian in Romania, I can tell you without a shred of doubt that Moldovan is a different language. My own mother-in-law is a fairly typical Moldovan, and even when she isn’t using Russian words or phrases, I have a hard time understanding her sometimes.
Furthermore, I spent a good five years living in Chisinau where I did not speak Russian, and I solely relied on my Romanian to get by, and I almost never once had a smooth experience talking to local people.
However, the issue gets very muddied because a lot of Moldovans do speak Romanian, including my wife (who earned her Master’s degree in Romanian philology). But when my wife speaks to her mother, she clearly engages in code switching. In other words, my wife speaks two languages fluently (Moldovan and Romanian) while her mother only speaks one (Moldovan).
And let me tell you – the difference between Moldovan and Romanian is a lot more than just a dialect. There are entire classes of words that are formulated differently and a whole host of different verbs.
In fact, on the day my wife and I moved to Tiraspol, the Moldovan driver (from Chisinau) put on a mixed tape of some Moldovan music, and the lyrics were talking about “zemleasca mea” (my land/garden). It took me a minute to realize that it was referring to the Russian word “земля” (zemlya) which means soil or land and modifying it so that it fit Moldovan grammar.
Here in Tiraspol, I’ve never once had a problem speaking in Romanian to Moldovan speakers, but I’ve noticed over the years what happens when I speak Romanian to people in the Republic of Moldova.
It generally breaks down into five categories:
- Moldovans with a higher education who truly did learn Romanian respond enthusiastically and happily. They also usually assume that I’m a fascist and so say all kinds of racist crap, thinking that I’ll agree.
- People with less education shy away from me out of “embarrassment” that they can’t “speak correctly.” Furthermore, some people pretend they cannot understand me, even though they can. Again, this is out of “embarrassment”.
- Some people get defensive and start intentionally loading up their speech with Russian words and phrases (my mother-in-law’s usual response).
- Some folks don’t really speak Moldovan (Romanian) well, so they respond in Russian, and think that I’m an idiot because I can’t understand Russian very well.
- And some folks truly have a hard time understanding my “accent” since they are so unused to hearing anyone speaking anything but Moldovan.
Meanwhile, in complete contrast, my wife and I have a good friend who was born in Russia but moved to Chisinau a few years ago and so speaks Russian perfectly. She’s told us many times that she is always treated kindly and amiably when she speaks Russian, up and until she runs into one of those Romanian fascists who think it should be a crime to speak Russian in Chisinau.
However, anytime I speak my poor Russian around here in Tiraspol, absolutely nobody gets angry. In fact, they are very tolerant and kind about my inability to speak properly.
Therefore, it’s easy to see jus thow insecure Romanian speakers are about their language versus the confidence built up by centuries of rule for people who speak Russian.
Scots/English vs. Moldovan/Romanian
Scots and English never had to deal with competing alphabets (or scripts), but even today, there is a lot of ambiguity over exactly how Scots should be spelled.
Moldovan and Romanian, on the other hand, went through at least two different Cyrillic scripts (one based on Old Bulgarian and one based on modern Russian) and several different Latin-script orthographies.
During World War 2 and the decades following, England heavily repressed the teaching and use of the Scots language. However, prior to that, Scots had established a foothold as an independent language thanks primarily to the work of poets like Robert (“Rabbie”) Burns.
Likewise, Romania has spent much of the past three decades heavily censuring the Moldovan language, even going so far as to pressure Ukraine to outlaw it this year, which is a particularly fascist thing to do, in my opinion.
And, much as how Scots was treated for centuries as “just a dialect” of English, so, too, was Moldovan treated (and still is treated in Romania) as “just a dialect.”
However, unlike the Moldovan language, which is badly languishing (and apparently nobody but me noted the death last month of the Moldovan linguist Nicolae Babilunga), Scots is having a resurgence.
Many books (including Harry Potter) have been translated into Scots, and there is now a push for comedians, writers, and other artists to proudly embrace the Scots language without apologizing about it.
Frankly, to my mind, the key difference between Scots and Moldovan is the poetry.
Without Robert Burns (and a few other people, all of whom are inscribed on the outer walls of Holyrood), the Scots language might not even be here at all.
Therefore, my prediction is that one of two things is going to happen:
- Moldova is going to find a poet (or another kind of artist) who creates works in the Moldovan language, leading to a resurgence of pride in it; or
- Romania will eventually get its way and utterly wipe out Moldovan except for a few holdouts in Tiraspol and Ukraine.
Honestly? My money is on the first one.
A lot of people in Moldova are growing tired of being Romania’s “little brown brother,” and they’re going to start taking note of the fact that Moldovan singers have come to dominate the Romanian charts in recent years, starting with O-Zone in the 1990s and continuing up to bands like Carla’s Dreams and the singer Irina Rimes.
But, just like with Scots, the key to the hearts of people in this region is poetry.
And I can feel it in my bones that Moldova’s greatest poet has yet to begin writing what will become a classic masterpiece inscribed on the walls of government in the decades to come.