Ethnic Composition

Moldova Table of Contents

One of Moldova's characteristic traits is its ethnic diversity. As early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, Moldovan prince and scholar Dimitrie Cantemir observed that he "didn't believe that there [existed] a single country of the size of Moldova in which so many and such diverse peoples meet."

At the time of the 1989 census, Moldova's total population was 4,335,400. The largest nationality in the republic, ethnic Romanians, numbered 2,795,000 persons, accounting for 64.5 percent of the population. The other major nationalities were Ukrainians, about 600,000 (14 percent); Russians, about 562,000 (13.0 percent); Gagauz, about 153,000 (4 percent); Bulgarians, about 88,000 (2 percent); and Jews, about 66,000 (2.0 percent). There were also smaller but appreciable numbers of Belarusians, Poles, Roma (Gypsies), and Germans in the population. In contrast, in Transnistria ethnic Romanians accounted for only 40 percent, of the population in 1989, followed by Ukrainians (28 percent), Russians (25 percent), Bulgarians (2 percent), and Gagauz (1 percent).

In the early 1990s, there was significant emigration from the republic, primarily from urban areas and primarily by Romanian minorities. In 1990 persons emigrating accounted for 6.8 percent of the population. This figure rose to 10 percent in 1991 before dropping sharply to 2 percent in 1992.

Ethnic Romanians made up a sizable proportion of the urban population in 1989 (about half the population of Chisinau, for example), as well as a large proportion of the rural population (80 percent), but only 23 percent of the ethnic Romanians lived in the republic's ten largest cities. Many had emigrated to Romania at the end of World War II, and others had lost their lives during the war and in postwar Soviet purges. As a consequence of industrial growth and the Soviet government's policy of diluting and Russifying ethnic Romanians, there was significant immigration to the Moldavian SSR by other nationalities, especially ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

Unlike ethnic Romanians, ethnic Russians tend to be urban dwellers in Moldova; more than 72 percent of them lived in the ten largest cities in 1989. Many of them came to the Moldavian SSR after it was annexed by the Soviet government in 1940; more arrived after World War II. Ostensibly, they came to alleviate the Moldavian SSR's postwar labor shortage (although thousands of ethnic Romanians were being deported to Central Asia at the time) and to fill leadership positions in industry and the government. The Russians settled mainly in Chisinau and Bender and in the Transnistrian cities of Tiraspol and Dubasari (Dubossary, in Russian). Only about 25 percent of Moldova's Russians lived in Transnistria in the early 1990s.

Ethnic Ukrainians in Moldova are more evenly distributed between rural and urban areas. Forty-seven percent of them resided in large cities in 1989; others lived in long-settled villages dispersed throughout the region, but particularly in the north and in Transnistria.

The Gagauz, Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christians (unlike most Turks, who are Muslims), are concentrated in rural southern Moldova, mainly around the cities of Comrat, CiadÓr-Lunga (Chadyr-Lunga, in Russian), and Vulcanesti (Vulkaneshty, in Russian). Their ethnic origin is complex and still debated by scholars, but it is agreed that they migrated to Bessarabia from Bulgaria in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Shortly after Moldova declared its sovereignty, in June 1990 the Gagauz declared their own independent "Gagauz Republic" in the southern part of the country. The 1994 constitution accorded them a measure of autonomy, and a decree later that year officially established Gagauzia (Gagauz-Yeri, in Gagauz).

Ethnic Bulgarians in Moldova live mainly in the southern part of the country. Most of them are descendants of eighteenthcentury settlers who came to the region because of persecution by the Turks. Others came to Bessarabia when Imperial Russia encouraged their emigration in the nineteenth century. Their numbers declined from 177,000 when the Moldavian SSR was formed in 1940 to 88,000 in the 1989 census.

Although considered a religious affiliation in the West, "Jewish" was considered a nationality by Soviet authorities, even though Judaism was suppressed as a religion.

Although Jews had lived in Bessarabia and the region of Moldova for centuries before Empress Catherine II of Russia established the Pale of Settlement, Jews in Russia were restricted to living and traveling solely within the Pale as of 1792. By the nineteenth century, the Pale included Russian Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia, most of Ukraine, Crimea, and Bessarabia. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that exceptions were made.

Most of the prolonged military conflict of World War I and the Russian Civil War took place in the Pale, inflicting heavy losses of life and property on Jews. When it was created in 1940, the Moldavian SSR (mainly Chisinau) held more than 200,000 Jews. However, their numbers plummeted to only several thousand as a result of emigration. Their ranks increased again during the 1960s and 1970s, only to decline afterward, mainly the result of emigration.

In general, Jews in independent Moldova were not discriminated against. But problems in Transnistria (home to almost one-quarter of Moldova's Jews) and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the "Dnestr Republic" authorities prompted many of them to think of emigration.

More about the Population of Moldova.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress