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Engineering Moldovan Identity: Moldovan Writers from Stalinism to the Independence

petru negurade Petru Negură

Identity and Cultural Conflicts

One of the main tasks attributed to Soviet Moldovan writers and “creative intellectuals”, from the creation of the first literary organization of the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR) up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was to create a system of cultural values (around an allegedly distinct literary language and the invention of a local cultural heritage) which would legitimate the existence of a Moldovan “socialist nation”. In contrast with the 19th-century European nation-building process1, the Soviet Moldovan national project is designed and implemented in a very short time so as to “catch up” with more advanced nations (Soviet ones included). Moldovan writers, scholars, and artists are thus appointed leaders of a large-scale will-driven enterprise made possible with the direct intervention and under the strict gaze of republican authorities, starting with 1924 (the creation of MASSR).

Both in MASSR (1924-1940) and, later on, in MSSR (Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, 1940-1991), just like with other Soviet republics, the local administration and intellectuals were divided in two antagonistic groups according to the geographic origin and “political capital” of their members. Throughout the 30s, the MASSR administrative and intellectual elite becomes the battleground of an increasingly fierce fight, both symbolically and administratively, between two camps – the so-called Moldovenists and the Romanianists –, who got their names from their respective positions on the issue of the national language of the Republic. Moldovenists were advocates of a stand-alone “Moldovan” language, in clear-cut rupture with literary Romanian language norms. On the other hand, Romanianists were in favor of a literary “Moldovan” language every bit identical with the language written and spoken in Romania. As with other Soviet republics, the central power instrumentalized the social and political divide at the level of the local administration and intellectual elite and regularly interfered to determine the power relations and the spheres of influence between the two groups. Sometimes, however, the two factions took advantage of the changes at the top, in Kiev or Moscow, taking over local power and imposing a certain conception of linguistic and/or cultural policies. Neither of the groups was able to stay in power more than a few years in a row. Thus, the authority transfer from one group to the other automatically brought about a reversal in terms of linguistic policies, on the ruins of the previous version of “Moldovan” grammar and spelling.

The Moldovenist – Romanianist divide survives the creation of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic and the restructuring of the Moldovan Soviet Writers’ Union by including a new group of Bessarabian writers. After a first time of conflict escalation between the two groups – theBessarabians and the Transnistrians –, between 1946 – 1949 (a period later known asZhdanovism3), the Bessarabian group wins the dispute with the Transnistrians. As a result they impose, riding the wave of the post-Stalinist thaw, a Romanian-like version of the “Moldovan” literary language and cultural heritage. The only concession made to the Moldovenist camp was the maintaining of the Cyrillic alphabet which remained a symbolic marker of the specificity of the “Moldovan” language.

Between 1924 and 1956, Soviet Moldova (MASSR and MSSR) was subject to seven linguistic “reforms” (accompanied by revisions of cultural policies), going back and forth betweenMoldovenism and Romanianism. For over thirty years, both the Moldovan administration and intellectuals oscillated between two opposed cultural and linguistic conceptions which lead to a split in the ethnic and national identity of the Moldovan population. The inconsistency of the national, linguistic and cultural policies promoted in Soviet Moldova, which lasted for three decades, can be accounted also on the lack of decision making on the part of Soviet central and local authorities. The lack of decision making is partly explained by the fact that Moldova was integrated in the “big family of Soviet republics” according to a peculiar sovietization formula. Most of the times, the Moldovan “case” was perceived as falling under the Western Soviet republics category, those annexed after 1940 (the Ukraine, Western Belarus, the Baltics, Karelia).4 Some other times, however, Moldova was grouped together with the Middle Eastern Soviet republics5, given the disputed nature of its territory and its predominantly rural population.

Starting with the mid 50s, behind the official façade of a Moldovan language and literature, a tacit “Romanianization” of high culture occurs in the Republic of Moldova under the pressure of Bessarabian intellectuals and with the support of cultural figures in Moscow and, last but not least, with the complicity of a part of the Transnistrian elites (who privately acknowledged the superiority of the expressive resources of the Romanian literary language compared to the “Moldovan” language). At the same time, the policies implemented by the Moldovenist camp for several decades leave their profound mark on the language and identity of both Moldovan writers and their target audience, after 1956. At present, the majority of the Romanian-speaking population in the Republic of Moldova calls their language by the glottonim “Moldovan language.”6 To the great disappointment of pro-Romanian politicians and intellectuals in Moldova, the “Moldovan language” appellation was ratified by the Constitution, shortly after the declaration of independence of the Republic of Moldova (RM).

The wave of the Khrushchev thaw, which gave Moldovan intellectuals a first taste of the freedom of expression, withdraws soon. Hopes kindled by the official recognition of the language and cultural heritage (the strongly “Romanianized” version) are shattered in 1959 by the increasingly frequent calls of the party leadership on the “nationalist” writers to behave. While the power fiercely attacks the “Romanianization” of Moldovan culture, a generalized process of Russification takes over all the spheres of the republic. From this moment on, Romanian culture and particular manifestations deemed nationalistic are banished from the public space and they withdraw in the private space of meetings and societies organized by some writers as a means of escaping the official propaganda discourse that they are forced to use in their works.

Socialist Realism as Identity Discourse

The creation of the Soviet Moldovan identity, a project started in the 20s-30s in the MASSR and continued in Bessarabia after 1940, is taken up again with renewed strength right after the liberation/ re-occupation of the former Romanian province in August 1944. Along with the press and the education system, Moldovan writers, through their works, participate in an ample persuasion and propaganda operation to disseminate and implant an ideological and identity message reflecting the interests of the Soviet power in Bessarabia and Transnistria. Moldovan literature in the Stalinist era (but also, in a “softer” form, up until the fall of the Soviet Union) passes on a strong antagonistically-structured identity message to its target audience.7

To neutralize the feeling of belonging to the Romanian nation of a significant part of Bessarabians (dating from the inter-war period), Soviet ideology builders cultivate the notion of a stand-alone Soviet Moldovan national identity. At the same time, showing the essentially contradictory nature of this nation-building enterprise, the Soviet leadership strongly opposed (particularly during bouts of regime radicalization) the emergence of any form of local nationalism deemed harmful for the proper integration of Moldovans in their Soviet “Mother Land.”

Throughout the Stalinist era (with clear repercussions on later eras), Moldovan literature builds an antagonistic identity discourse that praises Soviet Moldova and disqualifies anything related to the Romanian administration. The positive pole of this ideological construct emphasizes the agrarian nature of Moldova as it associates the country with images familiar to the rural majority of its population (Moldova is seen as a young peasant girl, as one’s countryside home, as a village between valleys, etc.). “The glorious past” and “the luminous present” of Moldova are tightly linked to another positive aspect of this identity construct: Russia. The idyllic and prosperous image of Soviet Moldova is even stronger against the background of dire poverty allegedly associated with life in inter-war Bessarabia. Finally, Moldovans are depicted as fearless combatants against the “yoke of the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry.”

 The Audience: Subject and Object of Symbolic Violence

Despite its claiming to be “folk” literature, Socialist realist literature in Soviet Moldova did not achieve mass literature status, at least not during Stalinism. With the backing of the State, the writers kept trying to reach a wider readership organizing to this end “meetings with the readers” and “literary evenings” at the workplace, in kholkozy and factories. With little or no education at all, the so-called folk readership was not very responsive to the writers’ popularization campaign. Only starting with the first generations of elementary, secondary and vocational school graduates, – MASSR in the 1930s and, especially, MSSR throughout the 1950s –, one can speak of an active although small readership. This real readership also constitutes a pool of potential candidates for the literary institution engaged in an official campaign to “train cadres.” Hired most of the times as pedagogues, these young intellectuals, fresh out of normal and middle schools, work both as mediators between Moldovan writers and their “folk” readership. Thus, far from constituting a mass readership, the first generation of readers sets the bases of mass literature through their own work in schools.

Building on the schools and other mass culture institutions, Moldovan literature in the Soviet era participates in the spreading of an ethical and cultural value system. This allegedly legitimate value system will be durably inculcated in the Moldovan population through a process that Pierre Bourdieu called symbolic violence8. Thus, we can ask: to what extent the Moldovan writers believed in the truthfulness of the message they were called upon to convey to the wider public thus contributing heavily to the imposition of an exogenous axiological system? Some of the Bessarabian writers, who endorsed the Soviet power in 1940, did it out of personal conviction. Nonetheless, the subsequent fate and commitment of a significant number of their fellow writers were decided accidentally following the accession to power of the Soviet regime in June 1940 and its come back in 1944. Agreeing more or less to collaborate with the Soviet regime, the Bessarabian writers who gained membership in the Soviet Moldovan Writers’ Union were forced to adapt their knowledge and abilities to the new political requirements. This adaptation process did not go smoothly as some writers resisted more or less openly while cultivating a certain degree of opportunism. Only later generations, writers fully trained in Soviet schools, can be considered the product and vehicle of a Soviet value system and Weltanschauung.

Moldovan Writers, from “De-Stalinization” to the Present

In the late 50s, a new generation of Moldovan writers (later known as the “thaw generation”) gains membership in the Moldovan Writers’ Union (MWU) as part of an indigenization policy9, promoted by Khrushchev starting with 1956. Most of them are graduates of Romanian high schools subsequently trained in Soviet higher education institutions.

The writers who become MWU members in the 1960s (the “60s generation”) have, however, serious shortcomings in terms of Romanian and universal literature and culture as these subjects are removed from Moldovan secondary and higher education curricula in the mid 1950s. As Aureliu Busuioc, member of the “thaw generation”, confessed, the 1950s young writers “were at least thirsty to know, to learn”10. Aware of the gaps in their cultural knowledge, these young writers accept to be initiated by their older fellow writers. Trained in this era of relative liberalization, following the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (which condemns some of the Stalinist “crimes”), the writers of the 1960s generation assimilate the new Soviet slogans (which were still taken seriously at the time) and, simultaneously, a certain kind of critical thinking. The communication between older writers, trained under the Romanian administration, and the new generations of writers, MWU members starting with the late 50s, provides the latter with an alternative education to the “monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence” (M. Weber/ P. Bourdieu) practiced by the Soviet system of education and propaganda. Their spotless political trajectory makes some 1960s writers to feel entitled to question the fairness of some Soviet-imposed new norms.

Without questioning the legitimacy of the Soviet system or communist ideology as a whole, the public positions of Moldovan writers, qualified as nationalistic by the authorities, are the only type of disagreement with the Soviet regime. As a result, in October 1965, during the 3rd Congress of the MWU, the “thaw generation” and the “60s generation” unite to openly challenge the Russification of the Moldovan population and to claim the adoption of the Latin alphabet. The writers’ congress, attended by high members of the Republic’s government, upsets the latter and becomes the pretext for renewed calls on the Moldovan “creative intellectuals” to behave (a “cracking of the whip” as witnesses put it).

The Brezhnev era, also known as the “stagnation era”, is remembered by several Moldovan writers as a time of decline of literary probity: “some writers sold themselves in exchange for honors, positions, prizes” (Vladimir Besleaga11). The “stagnation era” was also characterized by “crippled” sociability (Alexei Marinat12) given the writers’ constant fear of the law enforcement agents. Several writers belonging to the 1950s-1960s generations, some of which had been remarkably bold at the 3rd Congress of the MWU, accepted administrative positions in the Writers’ Union and other cultural institutions at the expense of “taming” their literary talent, under the pressure of censorship and self-censorship.

While most writers simply follow the routine or fade into the anonymity of administrative hierarchies, a new generation of writers emerges in the early 1980s announcing the literary effervescence and “national rebirth” driven by the perestroika and glasnost policies. During the years of this “second thaw era”, the national-flavored claims of the 1965 writers, stifled two decades before, reemerge slightly louder. The writers become the avant-garde of the “singing revolution” while MWU becomes its epicenter. Driven by both democratic and nationalist momentum, more and more writers become fully engaged in politics. Some get elected deputies in the Supreme Soviet of MSSR and, after the August 1991 declaration of independence, in the first Parliament of the Republic of Moldova. Other writers become members of a Romanian nationalistic party13, in the early 1990s, and militate for the reestablishing of the interwar borders of Greater Romania.

Similar to the “stagnation era”, in the 90s, writers lose their autonomy in relation to the political power except that this time they give it up willingly. After the “revolutionary” excitement wears off, the role of the “engaged” writer becomes marginalized both in the political and the literary spheres. Towards the mid 90s, a new generation of young writers emerges, not so much through their original literary work as through so-called postmodern “manifestos” and strong criticism of the “old guard” writers, i.e. those who gained notoriety in the 1960-1970s. Graduates of Moldovan universities in the late 80s and of Romanian universities starting with the 90s, these new writers declare their determination to break with the Soviet past and the “outdated” patriotism of their older fellow writers.

Two emblematic literary figures from the Soviet era, Grigore Vieru and Ion Druta, the former living in Bucharest, strong advocate for the reunification of Bessarabia and Romania, the latter living for decades in Moscow, strong advocate of Moldovan specificity, become the target of repeated attacks from young writers organized around the Basarabia and Contrafort editorial staffs, not so much for the “anachronism” of their political stances or the traditionalism of their works as for the conflation of their literary vocations and their political missions. Eager to make it up for what they perceive as the isolation of Moldovan literature from Romanian and European cultures, the young “postmodernists” indulge in a literature of the absurd, the insignificant and the gratuitous play. As a result, they only unnerve the “older” writers who had been advocating, ever since the mid 80s, a model of “edifying” literature. These intergenerational debates only emphasize the lack of actual communication between fellow writers on the very object that defines their status and role as writers. Victims of the liberalization of the literary market after 1990, both the “young” and the “old” write and publish very little. One more reason for some of them, the “Unionists” or “Moldovenists”, to be nostalgic about a time when one could make a living from writing.

Instead of a Conclusion

The elasticization of the State intervention in the cultural sphere throughout the 1950s constitutes the ground for the long- and medium-term reorganization of the Moldovan writer institution according to rules specific to the literary sphere. This is accompanied and supported by the social changes the MWU underwent starting with the 1950s. In the 1940s, the criteria structuring the Moldovan literary sphere have a strong political connotation: geographic (Transnistrians vs.Bessarabians) and political belongingness (communist vs. “party-less”). Starting with the 1950s, on the other hand, the MWU is structured more along categories that have to do with an internal logic of the institution: belongingness to a particular generation or the practice of a certain literary genre (poetry, prose, criticism, etc.). There is a background to this social dynamic within the MWU. The fleeing of a significant part of the intellectuals active under the Romanian administration and the mass education of the population as part of the “cultural revolution” to the purpose of providing the Republic with the necessary “cadres” and intellectual professions triggered transformations of the intellectual elite of this era. The effects (and side effects) of this will-driven project of democratization of the education system – fast-paced and often partial schooling, generalized “rurbanization” of intellectuals – leave their mark on the social structure of the writer’s institution and the production thereof: literary works.

Following the “re-Stalinization” tendencies of the Moldovan administration at the end of the 50s, the issue of the language and “cultural heritage” comes up time and again as subject for debates and interdictions. Meanwhile, cultural figures, particularly “official” ones, keep disseminating and reinforcing a Moldovan identity with a “Soviet” content. As a result, the gap between the façade discourse and the private discourse of Moldovan cultural figures on what constitutes Moldovan identity overlaps with a rupture that widens in time between the feeling of belonging cultivated in the private sphere by the Moldovan cultural elite, which booms during the perestroika times, and the self-perception of the masses of Soviet Moldovans, self-perception taught to them by the same cultural elite.


Negură, Petru2009. Ni héros, ni traîtres. Les écrivains moldaves face au pouvoir soviétique sous Staline (1924-1956). Paris: L’Harmattan (420 pp).

The author’s task is to understand the social and political background for the genesis and evolution of Moldovan Soviet literature throughout the Stalinist period. The paper analyzes the web of individual and collective stakes and interests that contributed to the creation of this type of literature. Moldovan writers were given the mission to adapt a foreign literary model (socialist realism) to a local cultural context. This adaptation process generated certain tensions and compromises between the writers themselves (and the various groups of writers making up the Moldovan Writers’ Union throughout time), the Soviet power (both central and local), and the target audience of this literary production. The creation of the Moldovan literary language takes place in a time of ample and difficult social change for the Soviet society – and the Moldovan one in particular –, which is clearly reflected in the structure and content of said type of literature. Targeting a large audience, the Moldovan brand of socialist realism undertakes an active role in creating the ethnic and civic identity of the Soviet Moldovan population. Was this identity-building process successful?, asks the author at the end of his book.

Petru Negură, PhD in Sociology (from EHESS, Paris), Assistant Professor at the State Pedagogic University of Moldova, Chisinau.

Translated by Miruna Voiculescu


1 Cf. Thiesse, Anne-Marie. 2000. Crearea identităţilor naţionale în Europa. Secolele XVIII-XX (La création des identités nationales. Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle). Iasi: Polirom; Smith, Anthony D. 1998. Nationalism and Modernism, London and New York: Routledge.

2 Cf. Martin, Terry. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union (1923-1939). Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press; Roy, Olivier. 1997. La nouvelle Asie centrale ou la fabrique des nations. Paris: Seuil; Cf. Cadiot, Juliette. 2007. Le laboratoire imperial. Russie-URSS 1860-1940. Paris: CNRS Editions; On MASSR, cf. King, Charles. 1999.”The Ambivalence of Authenticity, or How the Moldovan Language Was Made.” Slavic Review. Vol. 58. Issue 1: 117-142; King, Charles. 2002. Moldovenii, România, Rusia şi politica culturală, Chisinau: Arc.

 3 Campaign promoted by Andrei Zhdanov, high Soviet official, designed to subordinate all Soviet intellectuals to the political aims of the Kremlin at that time and to exercise significant control over the territories annexed in 1940.

Cf. Zubkova, Elena. 2002. “”L’Affaire estonienne” dans le contexte de la soviétisation des Pays baltes, 1949-1952.” Communisme. n° 70/71: 181-198.

Cf. Roy, Olivier. op. cit.; Khalid, Adeeb. 2006. “Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective.” Slavic Review. Vol 65-3: 596.

6 According to the Ethnobarometer conducted by the Public Policy Institute (IPP) in Chisinau, in December 2004 – January 2005, 86% of Moldovans/ Romanians in the Republic of Moldova declare that their native language is the “Moldovan” language.

7 Cf. Petru Negură. 2009. Ni héros, ni traîtres. Les écrivains moldaves face au pouvoir soviétique sous Staline. Paris: L’Harmattan; forthcoming in Romanian translation.

8 Symbolic violence is a long-term process of appropriation of a value and knowledge system that benefits the interests of the dominant group and, as a result of this process, those values and knowledge are perceived as legitimate. Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1999. Langage et pouvoir symbolique. Paris: Fayard; Bourdieu, Pierre. Passeron, Jean-Claude. 1970. La ReproductionÉléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement, Paris: Minuit.

9 Affirmative action policy enforced by the Soviet power starting with 1924 to encourage local ethnic groups in Soviet republics by training and promoting local “cadres”. This policy is cancelled at the end of the 30s as a result of a shift in the political vision of the Kremlin towards strong pro-Russian nationalism. Cf. Martin, Terry. op. cit.

10 Interview with Aureliu Busuioc, 23/12/2003.

11 Interview with Vladimir Besleaga, 28/09/2005.

12 Alexei Marinat, writer deported in 1947, his name was cleared in 1955, interviewed on 12/16/2003.

13 The Greater Romania Party (PRM), an extreme right party. After 1991, several Moldovan writers accept to become members of this party and later on members of the Romanian Parliament on the PRM lists.