Moldova is different from any place I’ve ever visited in one big way: the manner in which Moldova’s identity as a people was defined, and how that is related to its geographical boundaries. Modern states’ shape on the map is determined by their history — what remains in the wake of acts of men and women — and their geography — what remains in the wake of acts of nature. The two are, of course, not really separable. I’ve always been fascinated by maps, because comparing a state’s actual borders to its natural ones (those that would make sense because of geographical features or demographics) — or what they are versus what they should be — can tell you something about history that no one can ever really capture adequately in words. Perhaps this is why most history books have maps in them.
Modern Moldova’s boundaries are marked by the river Prut in the west and the Nistru in the east. Of the two I’ve only seen the Nistru in person, but both are unremarkable rivers; the Nistru is maybe as wide as the Cumberland as it passes through Nashville. In places the current can be strong, but there’s nothing about the river that would require feats of engineering for people or armies to cross it. The Nistru has added geographical significance in that the Eurasian steppe — that premodern superhighway for Huns, Tatars, and Mongols that begins in Manchuria — officially ends with its eastern bank. On the Transnistrian side there is low-lying forest, and the Moldovan side is a small bluff. The steppe of Transnistria and Ukraine is more flat than Moldova, which has gentle ridges like a raisin. This is one reason why Moldova has changed hands so many times: both rivers made convenient boundaries for larger powers from the north and south, but there’s nothing stopping an army from rolling through, and the Prut makes just as good of an arbitrary boundary as the Nistru.
In 1538, the Principality of Moldavia became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, ending roughly 150 years of independent existence as a quasi-state. The Principality probably fell short even of contemporary European standards of statehood, because Moldova has always been rural. Even now, Moldova is a very rural country — it’s largest city, Chisinau, has a population of around half-a-million, and it was founded only in 1436 (the first city of Moldavia was always Iasi, which is now located in România) — so the few people around were likely peasant farmers. But the year 1538 was the first year in a 450 year struggle to determine whether the boundary of the Russian Empire would be the Prut or the Nistru. Arguably, that still has not been settled, and won’t be until the frozen standoff with Transnistria is resolved.
The Turks did not give up control of Bessarabia — the half of Moldavia that corresponds closely to modern Moldova — until 1812, when it became part of the Russian Empire. Except for the twenty-two years between the Treaty of Paris in 1856 and the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 and the inter-war period in the twentieth century (when Bessarabia was part of România), the area remained part of the Russian Empire, first under the tsars and later under the Soviets. This Russian period marked the first time when an outside power was interested in Moldova as more than just a buffer zone but as an actual boundary. Imperial Russia began a program of Russification, outlawing Orthodox mass in Romanian, for example. And the door swung both ways: nascent Romanian nationalism created a backlash during the brief periods of Romanian control.
The Soviets continued the tsars’ programs of Russification, deported anyone who resisted to Siberia, and began manufacturing a separate Moldovan linguistic identity so as to alienate their kin in northern România by introducing new words into the common language so as to differentiate “Moldovan” from “Romanian.” (Whether the language here is called Moldovan or Romanian remains a political argument to this day.) When Moldova declared its independence in 1991, some were hoping that the new nation would rejoin newly-democratic România; this is why the predominantly-Russified area of Transnistria split and remains de facto independent, but due in part to the lingering effects of the manipulation of Moldovan language and culture by the Soviets, this never materialized.
So let us consider how Moldova’s history and its geography have created it’s identity. Moldova’s history as a previously subjugated state is different from that of other new states like Serbia, for example — which was a regional power in the fourteenth century before it was conquered and ruled by the Turks for five hundred years — because Serbians successfully forged a national identity from their struggle against outside rule. In other words, the struggle to establish an identity not only created Serbians’ identity as a people but became their national identity. During the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, Serbia was at the focal point of great power struggle in Europe: Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia both wanted a piece of Ottoman territory, and both the Hungarians and the Russians benefitted from pouring gas on the fire of Serbian nationalism at that time, giving a voice to the Serbians when it was convenient for them. The difference between Serbia and Moldova is that although Bessarabia changed hands three times during the nineteenth century, Moldovans rarely got a say in the matter, and Moldovan nationalism was never an issue.
The problem in the former Yugoslavia has been that national boundaries do not correspond to ethnic demographics: Serbs live in Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania; Croats and Albanians both live in Serbia. Moldova does not have this problem. But compare Moldova to France, for example, which has such well-defined boundaries (which have barely changed since the Roman era) that a distinct language, culture, and national identity could develop inside them. French culture exists in part because French geography created circumstances for its development. It’s the same for Moldova — Moldovan culture exists because of Moldova’s geography — but the difference is that while the Alps, the Pyrenees, the English Channel, and the Rhine created walls behind which the French became French, protecting them, Moldova’s geography has repeatedly betrayed it, providing an open garage door for other powers to drive through. And it’s as if the boundaries of Moldova became defined as they are not because it was clear that “here is an area where the Moldovans live,” but more because it was a convenient buffer zone. Once the Prut and Nistru became relevant as the possible hard southern boundaries of Russia, the alternating cultural manipulations of the tsars and Romanian nationalism only exacerbated this problem — Bessarabia as no-man’s-land — with the end result that Moldovans have about as much in common with Russians as they do with the people of Romanian Moldova, and neither group accepts them as brethren.
Before, I had assumed national identity was something a nation just had, and part of that identity is forged in the struggle for it. But for Moldova, it seems like their frustrated inability to establish a national identity has resulted in an identity that is defined by that failure. And perhaps this is why Moldova is different: Moldovans’ horrific journey to make a home for themselves has become their home.