Amb. John Todd Stewart: The Historical Dictionary of Moldova - an exceptionally useful book
John Todd Stewart’s presentation* at the book launching at the Writers Union of the Republic of Moldova’s office in Chisinau, Moldova on Sept. 17, 2007 (delivered in Romanian)
My assignment on this panel is to comment on the second edition of the
from the standpoint of an American reader. I will fulfill this assignment but then make some additional reflections as a foreign friend of Moldova who has followed events here closely and sympathetically since serving as US Ambassador from 1995 to 1998.
First, let me simply say that the Historical Dictionary of Moldova is an exceptionally useful book for any English-speaking foreigner interested in the Republic of Moldova. The book shares a very approachable format with the other historical dictionaries of Europe published by Scarecrow Press. A novice can gain a quick orientation from the Chronology and Introduction and then delve into detail by reading the dictionary entries themselves. Reading the book from cover to cover involves a certain amount of repetition since some entries contain material covered in other entries. However, this repetition is useful for a reader who wishes to learn the basics of a particular subject by turning to the corresponding entry. Cross references are provided, however, for someone seeking more detail.
It is also a pleasure to report that the Dictionary is very well written. Neither author is a native English-speaker [Andrei Brezianu and Vlad Spanu], but they have produced a book with clear, concise and sometimes elegantly composed entries that compare well with better historical writing in the United States.
Special mention should be made of the detailed bibliography, which is helpfully organized by subject and extensively and expertly annotated. I was impressed by the wealth of material on Moldova that the authors found, most of which—I confess—had been unfamiliar to me.
Turning to the substance of the Dictionary, I applaud its lack of tendentiousness. As you ladies and gentlemen know better than I, the history of Moldova has been—and still is—fraught with controversy. While admitting my own prejudices, I believe the authors did an excellent job of controlling their own. I rather doubt that, say, Igor Smirnov would find the book’s interpretations to his liking, but they represent in my view a fair presentation of some very controversial subjects. I would have no hesitation, therefore, in recommending the Dictionary to American readers as a fair, judicious account of Moldovan history up to the present day.
In sum, the Historical Dictionary of Moldova will be exceptionally useful to any English-speaker assigned to Chisinau, both as an introduction to the country before arrival and as a source book during the person’s assignment. I only wish that the first edition, published in 2000, had appeared before my own arrival. Since so much of the material is time-sensitive, I hope that the Scarecrow Press will commission a third edition in the near future.
Now let me offer some reflections inspired by the Dictionary from the standpoint of a friend of Moldova.
The Dictionary is, of course, written in English for a foreign audience. While reading it, however, I wondered how much of the material in its entries would be familiar to the average educated Moldovan citizen—that is, someone who had completed secondary school. Professor Gordon Wright, a distinguished American historian, once said, “The history of a people isn’t really important, but what a people think their history is—that’s very important.”
What do citizens of Moldova believe, for example, about the interrelationships between what is now the Republic of Moldova on one hand and the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the other Romanian-speaking territories on the other? Older Moldovan citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, learned history in Soviet schools, but some history was undoubtedly absorbed at home as well from their parents and grandparents. Which source was more important? How do these citizens look on the past? What are the differences among ethnic groups in this respect?
After Moldova became independent, the country’s educators presented students with a history curriculum featuring a text, Istoria Romanilor. which presents a view of Moldovan history that I understand is roughly in line with the interpretations in the Dictionary. Has that curriculum been internalized by young Moldovan citizens who have studied it? For example, do younger Moldovan citizens look back with pride on the members of the Sfatul Tarii whose entries appear in the book? Is there a difference in reaction between Moldovan citizens of Romanian ethnicity and other Moldovan citizens? To be more blunt, will a student from a Slavic background identify with a history focused on the Romanian peoples?
One aspect of Moldovan history that is little discussed in the Dictionary is the interwar period, i.e., 1918-1940, when Bessarabia was part of Romania. The major exception I found was a quote from the “Jewish-American historian” Nicolas M. Nagy-Talavera, who wrote about the “elation” in 1940 of the Jewish and Ukrainian population “at the departure of the Romanian administration from this most misruled [italics added] part of the country ….” What are the actual and folk memories of Romania Mare in present-day Moldova? Do these memories differ among ethnic groups? How do they affect current politics, both national and international?
The Dictionary defines a nation as “a community of people sharing a common language, inhabiting a fixed territory, having common customs and traditions, and having become sufficiently conscious to recognize similar interests and a mutual need for single sovereign leadership.” That entry goes on to discuss the factors disqualifying Romania and Moldova as a single nation and describes “a kind of fuzzy identify crisis” that still afflicts the citizens of Moldova. This crisis may be due, as the authors suggest, to “prolonged Russification and intensive Soviet-style nation building,” but it exists and Moldova must deal with it if the country is to prosper as a nation-state.
The Dictionary’s definition of nation notwithstanding, there are examples today of bi- and multi-lingual nations--Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, for example. Although not without their problems, these countries generally satisfy the other criteria of nationhood.
Is it possible for the Republic of Moldova to develop into such a nation? This cannot happen if the minority ethnic groups do not master the language and learn the history of the majority group. In Moldova, of course, the majority group already speaks the principal language of the minority groups. But by the same token the majority ethnicity cannot attempt to dominate the culture to the exclusion of other groups, which comprise some one-third of the population.
For a sense of nationhood to develop, there must be mutual respect among Moldova’s ethnicities, including mutually sympathetic appreciation of the vicissitudes of the country’s history. The challenge for the Moldovan government and Moldovan elites is to develop such mutual respect and appreciation.
John Todd Stewart was American Ambassador to Moldova from 1995 to 1998.
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Paper cover 2010 edition: The A to Z of Moldova