Bessarabia or Basarabiia. [Бессарабія] (Map: Bessarabia.) Region bounded by the middle and lower Dnister River in the north and east, the Prut River in the west, and the mouth of the Danube River and the Black Sea in the south. The area of the region is 45,600 sq km. Until the beginning of the 19th century the name Bessarabia referred only to the southern part of Bessarabia; later it was used for the entire region. Today Bessarabia is a part of Moldova, except for the northern part (the Khotyn region) and the southern part (the Akkerman region), which are settled by Ukrainians and comprise 14,400 sq km of the territory of Ukraine.

Because of its location between Ukraine and Romania and between Poland and the Balkans, Bessarabia has always served as a route between the west and the east. This fact has influenced its history and the composition of its population. Southern Bessarabia is strategically important, as it controls the mouth of the Danube River and access to the Black Sea.

Geography and economy. Bessarabia is a continuation of the Pokutian-Bessarabian Upland and the Black Sea Lowland. It consists of Tertiary strata (older strata appear only at the Dnister River) and is covered mainly by chernozem and loess. Except in its southern part, Bessarabia is hilly. From north to south it can be divided into four natural regions: (1) the Khotyn region, which reaches 465 m in elevation and is covered with beech forests; (2) the Beltsi Plain, a woodless, chernozem plain with an elevation up to 180–200 m; (3) the central region, which is a higher part of Bessarabia, reaching 430 m in the forested Kodry Upland; and (4) the Budzhak (Bugeac) Lowland, which extends to the Black Sea and the Danube River. The climate of Bessarabia is of the Black Sea type: the temperature rises as one moves southward, with an average annual temperature of 7.5–10.5°C (19–23°C in July, and -5°C to -2°C in January); the rainfall diminishes from 600 mm in the north to 300 mm in the south (the Budzhak Lowland suffers from drought). Forests cover only 5 percent of the land (in the north, in the Kodry Upland, and on the Dnister River). The rest of the land is cultivated steppe and forest-steppe.

Bessarabia is an agricultural land; 80 percent of its area is under cultivation, and 72 percent of the cultivated land (2.9 million ha) is devoted to the growing of grain (corn, wheat, barley) and sunflowers. Grape and orchard cultivation are well developed, especially in the Dnister Valley. Fishing is important in the south. Industry was poorly developed until the 1950s.

Population. Bessarabia is divided into two bands: (1) the northern and central, which has long been settled by Ukrainians and Romanians, and (2) the southern (Budzhak), which has been settled permanently by various nationalities since the end of the 18th century only. After Russia annexed Bessarabia in 1812, the population of Bessarabia increased rapidly, to a large extent because of immigration. The population was 340,000 in 1812, 492,000 in 1816, 873,000 in 1850, 1,935,000 in 1897, 2,631,000 in 1919, 2,864,400 in 1930, and 2,734,000 in 1941. From 8 people per sq km in 1812 the population density rose to 64 people per sq km in 1930. Thirteen percent of the population lived in towns in 1930, mainly in Kishinev (Chişinău), the capital of Bessarabia (115,000), Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (formerly Akkerman, 34,000), Bendery (Tighina, 31,384), Beltsi (Bălti, 30,570), Soroky (Soroca, 15,001), Izmail (Ismail, 24,998), Orhiiv (Orhei, 15,279), and Khotyn (Hotin, 15,334). In 1930 most of the population consisted of Romanians or Moldavians (about 1,430,000 or 50 percent) and Ukrainians (about 645,000 or 22.5 percent; no differentiation between Russians and Ukrainians), according to Lev Berg's calculations. According to the Romanian census of 1930, there were 1,610,757 Romanians (56.2 percent), 314,211 Ukrainians (11 percent), and 351,912 Russians (12.3 percent). According to the 1941 census the figures were 1,794,000 Romanians (65.6 percent) and 448,000 Ukrainians (16.4 percent).

Romanians have inhabited Bessarabia since the 13th century and constitute an overwhelming majority in the central part, which is now Moldova. Although the descendants of ancient Ulychians and Tivertsians inhabited this land, other Ukrainians have migrated to Bessarabia since the 13th century, mainly from Galicia. At the end of the 17th century many Ukrainians from Right-Bank Ukraine, fleeing the persecutions of Peter I, found refuge in Bessarabia. With the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, Cossacks settled the virgin lands in the southern Budzhak (see Danubian Sich). Many Ukrainian peasants went there after Russia annexed Bessarabia in 1812. Other nationalities settled mainly in southern Bessarabia at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century: the Bulgarians (177,000 or 6.5 percent according to the 1941 census); the Gagauzy, who are Orthodox although they speak a Turkic dialect (115,000 or 4.2 percent in 1941); the Germans (80,000 or 2.8 percent in 1930); the Russians, some of whom had been townspeople since the times of Russian domination, and some who were peasants and Old Believers who had fled religious persecution and military service (162,000 or 6 percent in 1941); the Jews, coming mostly from Western Ukraine (206,000 or 7.2 percent in 1930; in 1941 almost none remained); and small groups of Poles (in the Khotyn area), Armenians, Greeks, French, and Gypsies (altogether 35,000 or 1.3 percent in 1941).

The Ukrainians formed the majority in the north in the Khotyn area (79 percent) and in the south in the Akkerman (Bilhorod) area, where they had intermarried with Bulgarians, Moldavians, Germans, and Russians and constituted 36.5 percent of the population. These two parts of Bessarabia were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and today they belong to Chernivtsi oblast and Odesa oblast of Ukraine. In the central part of Bessarabia there are pockets of Ukrainians, the largest being in Bendery and Beltsi counties (nearly 10 percent). Since 1940 this part of Bessarabia has belonged to the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and, later, to Moldova.

After the Second World War the composition of the population changed somewhat: most of the Jews died or were killed during the war, and the Germans left (see also Southern Ukraine and Odesa oblast).

History. (Historical map: Bessarabia.) As a result of its location and historical circumstances, Bessarabia never formed a separate state. It was always a peripheral part of neighboring states. In early times Bessarabia was inhabited by the Thracian tribes of the Dacians and Getae, which set up their own state at the beginning of the 1st century. With the Roman conquest of Dacia in the 2nd century, southern Bessarabia became part of the Roman Empire (the defensive earthworks called Trajan's Walls remain from this period). From the 4th century Bessarabia was settled by the east Slavic Antes, and from the 9th century by the Tivertsians and Ulychians. In the 10th–11th century Bessarabia belonged to the Kyivan Rus’ state. During the next two centuries it was part of the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia; extensive trade between princely Halych and lands on the Danube River and the Black Sea was at that time carried on through Bessarabia. The Mongol-Tatar invasion of 1241 weakened and then terminated Galicia's influence over Bessarabia. At the same time the ancestors of the present-day Romanians began to migrate from Wallachia and Transylvania (Siebenbürgen) into the partially deserted Bessarabian lands. In the mid-14th century Bessarabia became part of the Moldavian principality, which recognized at first the supremacy of Hungary, and then, at the end of the 14th century, the (nominal) supremacy of Poland. At the end of the 15th century the Ottoman Turks occupied southern Bessarabia, including the ports of Bilhorod (from then to 1944 called Akkerman) and Kiliia (which, with other towns such as Bendery, had been under Genoese control in the 14th century). By the beginning of the 16th century Moldavia and all of Bessarabia were under Turkish domination. Southern Bessarabia around the Budzhak Lowland did not belong to Moldavia but was granted to the Nogay Tatars (the Bilhorod Horde, Budzhak Horde, Budzak Tatars) by the Turkish sultan.

Until the end of the 16th century the official language of the state, the church, and the boyars in Bessarabia, as in all of Moldavia, was Church Slavonic-Old Ukrainian. It was replaced by Romanian only in the second half of the 17th century. After that time much of the Ukrainian population became Romanianized. The Ukrainian Cossacks played an important role in Bessarabian history. Under Dmytro Vyshnevetsky (in 1553 and 1563), I. Svyrhovsky (in 1574), and Ivan Pidkova (in 1577), they conducted campaigns in Bessarabia. In 1594 Severyn Nalyvaiko captured Kiliia. In 1621 Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny helped the Poles to defeat the Turks at the battle of Khotyn. In 1632, under Ivan Sulyma's leadership, the Cossacks again took Kiliia. Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Tymish Khmelnytsky led campaigns in Bessarabia in 1650 and 1652. When the Zaporozhian Sich was destroyed by Catherine II, many Cossacks settled in southern Bessarabia (see Danubian Sich).

At the close of the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–12, the Ottoman Turks ceded Bessarabia to Russia in the Bucharest Peace Treaty of 1812. In 1818 the Russian government turned Bessarabia into an oblast, with Kishinev as its capital. The Moldavian boyars participated in the Supreme Council, which was a provisional government of the province. In 1828 the council became merely an advisory body, while the Bessarabian oblast and its governor were subordinated to the governor-general of New Russia gubernia. In 1873 the Bessarabian oblast became a gubernia. By the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean War in 1856, the southwestern part of Bessarabia became part of the Moldavian principality, but it was returned to Russia at the Berlin Congress in 1878. Under Russian domination the population of Bessarabia increased through the influx of Russians (many of them officials), Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Germans, and Jews. The government, schools, press, and the church attempted to Russify the people. The national consciousness of the Ukrainians here was poorly developed.

The Russian February Revolution of 1917 gave life to new social and national movements in Bessarabia: the peasants demanded a redistribution of land, and the Romanians and Ukrainians raised the question of national self-determination. In July 1917 the General Secretariat of the Central Rada of the Ukrainian National Republic declared its pretensions to Bessarabia. At the request of Ukrainian organizations in Bessarabia, the Central Rada sent its commissioner, I. Liskun, to Khotyn. The Romanians too became politically active and established parties. A military congress of Bessarabians, which convened in Kishinev on 21 October 1917, declared Bessarabia to be autonomous and set up the 150 (15 Ukrainians) member National Council (Sfatul Ţărei) as the country's national assembly.

On 2 December 1917 the National Council declared Bessarabia to be the Moldavian Democratic Republic, federated with Russia, but when Romanian troops occupied Bessarabia in January 1918, Bessarabia was declared an independent Moldavian republic. On 15 March Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the president of the Central Rada, declared Ukraine's claim only to northern and southern Bessarabia, since these areas were inhabited mostly by Ukrainians. When Bessarabia was annexed by Romania on 27 March 1918, the Ukrainians of northern Bessarabia protested and sent a delegation to the Central Rada in Kyiv to request that Ukrainian troops and state officials be dispatched to Bessarabia and that Bessarabia be annexed by Ukraine. On 12 April 1918 the Central Rada protested Romania's annexation of Bessarabia and demanded self- determination for the Ukrainian population. The same demand was repeated by the government of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky in a memorandum to the Romanian government of 25 June 1918. Subsequent events in Ukraine made it impossible to change the status of Bessarabia.

On 25 November 1918 the National Council renounced the autonomy of Bessarabia (by a vote of 38 to 8 when only 46 of the 162 deputies were present) and then dissolved itself. The pro-Romanian policies of this council were opposed by the leader of the peasant faction, representative V. Tsyhanko. Members of the National Council who took an anti-Romanian position were arrested (among them were Ukrainians—P. Chumachenko, Pantsir, Prichnitsky) and tried. Among anti-Romanian actions in Bessarabia the Khotyn uprising is particularly important. On 5–20 January 1919 Ukrainian insurgents under Ivan Maievsky took control of the Khotyn region and set up the Bessarabian Directory, which began negotiations with the Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic. While suppressing this rebellion, the Romanian troops carried out a pacification campaign among the Ukrainian population. In September 1924 the people of Tatarbunary and neighboring villages in the Akkerman region rebelled against the Romanian administration; in order to suppress the rebellion, the militia needed the support of the army and the Dnister fleet. In 1925, 283 of the rebels were tried in Kishinev (see Tatarbunary uprising of 1924).

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, both Hryhorii Sydorenko, the head of the Ukrainian National Republic delegation, and Khristian Rakovsky, the head of the Soviet Ukrainian government, opposed the annexation of Bessarabia by Romania. Yet on 28 October 1920, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, according to the Treaty of Trianon, recognized the right of Romania to Bessarabia. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic never accepted this decision, which led to further tensions in their relations with Romania and to a policy of non-recognition.

The Romanian government kept Bessarabia at a low cultural and economic level for 22 years. At the same time an intense effort was made to denationalize the Ukrainian population: Romanian became compulsory in the government, courts, and schools. Ukrainians carried on some cultural activities in the Khotyn region (O. Yalovy and H. Bolbochan were the most active leaders) and in the Akkerman region (Martyrii Halyn, I. Havryliuk, V. Hetmanchenko, and the Chernukha family were most active). Prosvita societies, reading rooms, theater groups, and co-operatives were organized. In 1920 there were nine Ukrainian representatives from Bessarabia in the Romanian parliament, while in 1929 there was only one (from the county of Khotyn). In 1935 the Ukrainians of the Akkerman region suffered famine, which was caused by a drought. The Bessarabian Relief Committee, organized in Bukovyna, manifested the solidarity of all Ukrainians who lived under Romania.

On 28 June 1940 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics forced Romania, under threat of war, to cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovyna. By its decision of 2 August 1940, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR annexed the counties of Akkerman, Izmail, and Khotyn to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The rest of Bessarabia became a part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was created out of the Moldavian ASSR (hitherto a part of the Ukrainian SSR). During the Soviet retreat from Bessarabia in July 1941, many nationally conscious Ukrainians were liquidated, among them V. Hetmanchenko. When Romanian and German troops occupied Bessarabia, it was restored to Romania and incorporated into a Generalgouvernement with Kishinev as capital. Its administration was responsible to a special agency of the Romanian government—the Military-Civilian Cabinet for the Administration of Bessarabia, Bukovyna, and Transnistria. Romanian officials and militia established a police regime in Bessarabia. Former social and economic conditions were restored, and Romanianization was enforced. Any resistance was severely punished by incarceration in jails and concentration camps. Jews and Gypsies were particularly persecuted. Soviet partisan activity resulted in further repression and executions of civilians.

In August 1944 Soviet army reoccupied Bessarabia and restored the 1940–1 order. The Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 recognized the USSR's right to Bessarabia on 10 February 1947. (For current conditions in Bessarabia see Moldova, Chernivtsi oblast, and Odesa oblast.)

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Volodymyr Kubijovyč, Arkadii Zhukovsky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]


Encyclopedia of Ukraine