Petru Negura (2021) Nation-building and mass schooling of ethnic minorities on the Romanian and Soviet peripheries (1918–1940): a comparative study of Bessarabia and Transnistria, National Identities, 23:4, 433-454

In this paper, I examine the public primary education of ethnic minorities and local responses to schooling in rural areas in two neighbouring regions, Bessarabia and Transnistria, during the interwar period (1918-1940), under the Romanian and Soviet administrations, following the separation of these regions from the Tsarist Russian Empire. Both countries were considered ideologically antagonistic in that period with Bessarabia, a former Russian guberniia, having become a Romanian province in 1918. In 1924, the Soviet authorities created the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Autonomous Republic (MASSR) on the territory of Transnistria region, an area they had inherited from the former Empire. Yet the schooling and national policies implemented by these two states were similar in many aspects. In both border areas, the establishment and expansion of mass public education were central components of a wider project of nation and state-building, as in other parts of the modern world then undergoing modernization. The population of Bessarabia was subject, with other provinces annexed in 1918, to ambitious schooling policies designed to facilitate the rapid integration of the province into the Romanian state and the assimilation of ethnic minorities into the titular nation. In interwar Soviet Transnistria, meanwhile, schooling was part of a more complex nationality policy aimed at creating national republics and non-territorial ethnic minorities, within the unitary Soviet state. Both in Bessarabia and Transnistria, the implementation of mass schooling faced many difficulties and encountered different forms and degrees of resistance from the local population.

Across interwar Bessarabia and Transnistria, mass public education was implemented relatively late owing to both regions’ populations being more than 80% rural. Despite populist speeches exalting peasant virtues, this dominant rurality was perceived by the Romanian and Soviet administrations as a challenge to the implementation of the modernization project after 1918. In both territories, the majority remained illiterate throughout the 1920s (62% in Bessarabia in 1930 and 63% in Transnistria in 1924). Moreover, the ethnic diversity of the local population on both sides of the border was perceived by authorities as a challenge for universal schooling and state formation. This paper focuses on ethnic minorities in these largely rural areas. However, the far lower literacy and schooling rates, especially when compared to the cities, represent limitations in considering the specific dynamics of the process of establishing general public education. Under the modernization and “mobilizing” ambitions of the Romanian and Soviet states, the levels of official coercion and the intensity of popular local response to these projects were met with far greater violence in the villages, which were always considered more culturally “backward”, than in more urban districts where the school had been an established institution for nearly half a century.

This nationalization of schools, which started in 1917, was a very energetic process. Indeed, by 1922, the nationalization and Romanization of educational institutions had already been declared accomplished in Bessarabia. This official statement has to be treated with caution. Nationalization implies transforming Russian language into Romanian language schools or, to a lesser extent, in “minority” language schools, under a statistical proportion inaccurately estimated at 70% of the Romanian population. This process would continue in this direction for many years. The final result was supposed to be, as some school reviewers suggested, an entirely Romanian school system, even in the private sector and confessional education. However, the available data shows a much slower and troublesome evolution of this process.

In Soviet Transnistria, schooling in local languages generated some disagreement from parents and students. For example, some Ukrainian and Jewish communities still preferred to receive education in Russian, to the detriment of their own communities’ languages. Thus, a group of Jewish parents from the town of Dubăsari presented the following request to the Narkompros (Ministry of Education) in September 1928:

Our children speak Russian and we requested to be transferred to a Russian primary school, but we were denied because they are Jewish children and they know the Jewish language [i.e., Yiddish] and therefore they are obliged to learn in Jewish schools, despite the wishes of the children. (TsDAVO, 1928).

Some local Ukrainian communities also expressed reluctance toward the opening of Moldovan and Polish schools (TsDAGO, 1925). Resistance to  the “nationalization” and “indigenization” of administrative and educational institutions was also noted during the same period (especially during the 1920s) in Ukraine and in Belarus, and among the other republics, both on the part of Russian speakers, but also from representatives of “native” population that preferred to use the Russian language in daily communication and formal settings. In response. the authorities tried to show a degree of obsequiousness in order to remedy these local disagreements towards the nationalization policy. In connection with the requests of Jewish parents, and the other nationalities mentioned above, the Narkompros discussed certain strategies for addressing multilingualism in schools among ethnic minorities, including Jews. In one of the meetings of the ministry in October 1929 dedicated to this issue, it was stipulated that “cultural work [kultrabota] with the Jewish population does not occur separately in Moldova, but within the general activity,” meaning that some exceptions were allowed for parents who preferred to send their children to schools where teaching was conducted in a language other than that of their community. At other times, the reluctance of teachers and the school administration to implement nationalization or indigenization policies were disapproved and penalized. As in the main part of Ukraine, resistance to such policies appeared as a manifestation of agency by the local population, including teachers and parents, towards the national and cultural projects of the state that many, even among the ethnic groups promoted by these politicians, considered them arbitrary.

The social and cultural similarity of the populations of these two regions makes such comparisons especially interesting in terms of the policies applied and their impact during the interwar decades and beyond. As discussed in the article, Romania and the Soviet Union were locked in an ongoing state of geopolitical rivalry, especially over territorial claims (specifically Bessarabia until its annexation by the USSR in June 1940). In both cases, the state authorities applied a nationalizing policy towards the “titular” ethnic group, the Romanian-speaking Moldovans: one of the least educated and literate ethnic groups of the Russian Empire before 1918. In the Soviet case, the authorities also applied “affirmative action” policies against other ethnic groups by opening schools teaching in these communities’ mother tongues. In both instances, there were expressions of passive resistance to the state’s educational and nationalizing policies from the part of the population subject to schooling, but also, at another level, from teachers themselves. In the Romanian case, such resistance manifested in opposition to perceived cultural assimilation. On the Soviet side, the resistance to schooling and nation-building took diverse number of forms against the nationalizing policies in schools that were inconsistent, being applied during the 1920s and early 1930s through the indigenization and Moldovanization policies and, from mid-1930s on, through the Ukrainianization and Russification of schools and school curriculum.

The consistency of the ideological content of school education during the period under study represents another significant difference between the two cases. Although public schooling policies were weaker in Bessarabia, the national ideology promoted through education followed a coherent trajectory throughout the interwar period, despite the periodic succession of governing parties. By contrast, the Transnistrian Soviet authorities pursued a strong educational policy aimed at imposing universal schooling but applied a rather inconsistent national and linguistic policy, under the influence of competing factions within the local party leadership and in the capital of the Ukrainian republic. 

In both contexts, resistance to these schooling and nationalization policies by the local population opposed this process of social and national homogenization in order to defend networks of local interests and loyalties. When this resistance was perceived by the state apparatus as a threat to the general policy of political cohesion, the ‘soft’ policies of integration through schooling and nationalizing policies were replaced by more repressive strategies.

See the full version of the article in National identities,

Published by sgmhbasees

The BASEES Study Group for Minority History (SGMH) is a forum devoted to the study of minority groups in the national and regional histories of Central, Eastern and Southeastern European from the Napoleonic Wars to the contemporary past.

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