This page was created by Elena Sokoloski. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Through Common Eyes


    In a small home in the lower, older section of Chisinau, a young Moldovan girl climbs up the sofa onto her grandmother’s lap. “Tell me the one about the soldiers!” Her grandmother sighed: Her own parents and grandparents hadn’t been able to write and could read only minimally, but this was a story known well in the family, passed down with embellishment from each generation to the next. The Russian period seemed so far away, and yet, it had barely been a decade since imperial rule had ended for the first time, not even once and for all.

    “The winter had broken, one of the coldest and longest in memory. Our family and their neighbors were fine, though, and emerged from their homes in better condition than when they had entered, revitalized by having survived another cold season. The spring on the bank of the Byk was finally thawed, where it was my mother’s job to run and collect water to bring back for the cooking and cleaning. Her community was as diverse as it was friendly--”

    “What is diverse?” the girl interrupted.

    “It means there were lots of different people.”

    “Like people who like playing football and people who like making drawings?

    Laughing, the grandmother switched the girl over to her other knee. “Sort of. The place where they lived was like a magnet, attracting runaway serfs, dissenters, and exiled politicians from Petersburg and beyond (Hamm 21). Not that any of this really mattered to the villagers: It was a simple time, and caring for the basic needs of the family took nearly all of the time they had. Any extra time was dedicated to the craft for which her brother was most well known in the village: his lambskin products (20). They were very poor, so he couldn’t afford to have as many sheep as your grandpa and I did, but the Russian soldiers knew he built the best gunpowder pouches, and they visited him often. Imagine that: A Russian soldier, dressed in the uniform and carrying with him a long gun, bayonets always attached, knocking on the door of our home! (19) His boots would leave imprints in the ground that my mother’s little brothers would play in, after the soldier left with whatever he had bought or taken.

    “Are we getting to the scary part?” the little girl asked.

    “Soon. The Russian government wanted our beautiful land, and they were willing to fight for it. The roads became very dangerous at night: Imagine walking and hearing the sounds of animals at night in the forests, cartwheels turning through muddy slicks on the road, waiting at every corner to learn what awaited you on the other side. One time, when my mother was very ill, she had to be taken to a neighbor’s house to receive a treatment of herbs and blessings: She was delirious and sick, but overheard the adults talking about how the road was empty of living men, instead lined along the sides with dead people, bearing all kinds of uniforms and stripped of their guns (Clark 53).

    “After a period of time, the fighting stopped, just like that. They say they made a truce, but the villagers say that both sides just ran out of men. They divided up the land, and that was that: Moldavia was no more, and everything was Russian.

    “But it didn’t stay that way!”

“No, it didn’t, but that skips a lot of the story! Don’t you want to know what happened before all that?”

    “I guess,” the little girl mumbled, crossing her arms. “But none of the boring stuff. Like taxes. Okay?”

    “Oh, but taxes were the most interesting part!” exclaimed the grandmother. She snagged a butterfly clip from the girl’s hair. “It’s the story-telling tax,” she explained with a mischievious look, preempting the girl’s protests. “Before the Russians came, the villagers had to pay heavy, expensive taxes to the monasteries, the religious organizations, in the region. Their obligation was to God, or at least that’s how it was explained to them: It was very hard for them to get bigger or richer if this monastery was taking all their stuff, like food and livestock and the things they made. When the Russians came, taxes went down (Clark 71) and what money was collected was used, in part, to improve the city: to dig deeper canals for trade, to pave the streets, and also to give the tsar Nicholas. This was a better system than before, when the Russian soldiers would just come and take whatever they wanted.

    “It was still too much, though. When the Russians arrived and tried to make every do everything in Russian and go to school and follow these rules and those rules, people started leaving. That’ when we got out: We had to leave at midnight, because the Russians had people standing all along the border to make sure that no one would leave. That night, we picked a place where we knew the soldiers were off fighting somewhere else, and with everything we owned in bags, crossed over to Moldavia.”

    “How do we know that our family ever lived in Russia?” asked the little girl, beaming because she already knew the answer.

“Because,” the grandmother replied after a grand pause, “our names are still on the record in Kishinev: Before we left, we filed a complaint with the lead of government, after we heard that we might have to become serfs - slaves - if we stayed (Clark 21). There was a meeting that all the men had to go to, in the center of the town. The merchants collected our names - that night, we escaped!”

The little girl grinned; she loved that answer. “And what happened next?
    “Well, you did!”



Written traditions in Bessarabia were poorly maintained due to the constant influx of different ethnic groups, each with their own language. Moldavian was widely spoken but very few understood its grammatical conventions, least of all the peasant class. Every family has its stories, and in this region, it is more likely that they would have been preserved as stories, rather than written down in any diary or recordbook.


This story reflects fears in Bessarabia during its annexation: Worries about newly instituted Russian serfdom, violence in the countryside, and heavy taxes worried peasants nearly constantly, many of whom chose to flee to the nearby Turkic Moldavia, rather than test their luck in the new Imperial Russian Bessarabia.

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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