This page was created by Elena Sokoloski. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire


    The first mention of Kishinev in any documentation came in 1436, though the town may well have existed before this, too small to be of any consequence to what little administrative structures existed in this corner of Moldavia. It was founded by “a certain Vlaïcu, uncle of Stephen the Great, and governor of Hotin, Orhei, and Akkerman” (Clark 52) in the area that would come to be known as Bessarabia. The little town changed hands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, from the great-great daughter of Vlaïcu to a certain Dragosh in 1576, then from his wife to Constantine Roshca in 1617, at the price of 180 gold pieces (53). Finally, in 1641, Basil Lupu of Moldavia designated it a supply-town for the nearby monasteries of St Vineri of Jassy and of Balicai in Jassy: One year later, it became an unincorporated village, and five years later, it earned the designation of “market-town” (53).

    The town existed, free from the attention of either Moldavian or Russian interest, for the better part of the late 16th and early 17th century. In the words of one traveler, it was a but “a small market-town of slight importance” (Cantemir 23), the occasional target of Tatar raids but, for the most part, shielded enough by the thick forest around it that it existed in relative peace (Hamm 18).


    This was, of course, until Russian military aspirations reached into the Moldavian countryside: In 1787, Russia and Austria declared war on Turkey, and this region the war continued through 1792 “with the usual disastrous consequences for the Bessarabian farmer” (Clark 66). It was during this period that Kishinev, though not yet formally annexed or controlled, began to act as a supplytown for the Russian military. In 1806, Napoleon encouraged Czar Alexander I to begin another war with Turkey, in which the Romanian principalities - which encompassed Kishinev and other villages - were eventually formally annexed into two gubernie of the Russian Empire (68). A couple of years later, on May 16, 1812, the Turkish Sultan ceded the whole of Bessarabia to the Russians.

    Bessarabia was an invented space, created by the Russian imperial government to lay claim to a previously disputed piece of territory that had been left out of the initial treaty negotiations with the Turks (Hamm 21). The land technically wasn’t the Turks’ to cede, seeing as it technically belonged to the Romanian prince, but because the ruler of Romania had for years been a Russian governor-general, this technicality was overlooked in favor of Russian annexation (Clark 68).

    Immediately after the town and surrounding land was annexed, an enormous “exodus of the peasantry across the Pruth into free Moldavia” (71) occurred, causing Bessarabia to lose as much as one-third of its population. The problem was so widespread that the fledgling government had to erect garrisons to prevent the peasants from crossing the border, supplemented with rumors of plague in Moldavia proper (72).

    Over the next century, Kishinev and the rest of Bessarabia would become a subject of Russian imperial state-building and administrative organization, developing and modernizing until the revolution in 1917, when it rejoined Moldavia. Evidence of Russian imperial rule are still visible today in the old city, now named Chisinau, suggesting that even on this diverse, slow-to-develop frontier town, the mark of Russian imperialism was indelible and distinctive.

Clark, Charles Upson. Bessarabia. 1927.
Hamm, Michael. The character and development of a Tsarist Frontier Town, Nationalities Papers, 26:1, 19-37.

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