This page was created by Elena Sokoloski. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Heavenly Intervention

    The bishop stepped outside, his feet sinking down into the dirt beneath the stone step up to his door. He took a deep breath of morning air - the wind was blowing from the upper part of town into the lower, so it smelled of fragrant forest and freshly rained-upon dirt roads - and closed his eyes, waiting just moments for his call to worship.

    The bells rang forth all at once, echoing across the town and bouncing off one another in a tinny clamor (Lamour 147). They were the one feature of the Kishinev landscape that never changed, and that united the lower banks, teeming with livestock and small-time merchants, with the upper ones, where the wealthier townspeople lived in comfort and style. Over one-hundred bells, ringing at once, calling all to service, and marking another day of the Bishop’s responsibility in the Bessarabian province.

    His church serviced all sorts of people, as he was the spiritual leader of the province. Peasants flocked to his service, where they sat in awe of the chants, experiencing spirituality not through a comprehension of the Latin and Russian words he spoke, but through the atmosphere - the candles lighting the interior, the solemn bell tolls throughout the service, and the solemnity of the church constructed there. By contrast, slightly more of the merchants understood the rites, but still comprehended shockingly little of such an important ceremony: He wished to conduct it in Moldavian, the native language of most of the population (Clark 72), but was under mandates from the governor to ‘russify’ the church, whatever that meant.

He stepped out of the service to face the urban poor, clamoring at the coattails of the merchants and at the feet of the peasants to beg for money and food, shoving whatever misfortune they had encountered into the hands of those leaving the service: the handless wrist of one that the Bishop knew had been punished by Tatar raiders for noncompliance, and the pale, motionless baby of another, barely breathing, another victim of the city’s shameful infant mortality rate. Shaking them off, he walked home to his study: Usually he reserved more time to spend with the most downtrodden, but today, he had important business.

Sitting down at his desk, he pulled out his finest paper, the stack with the gubernia seal on it, the gift of a friendly government official in the administrative offices. “To the White Tsar, wise and beneficent leader of Russia and all her territory,” he began.

    “I write to beseech you for the resources that I need to encourage the spiritual and moral life of the people in Russian Bessarabia. True to your Grace’s estimation, the people here do not understand the customs or the loyalty required of them to the great empire that has received them (Hamm 29). Their entertainment is of questionable value (Lamour 147), the drivers alcoholic or mostly so (146), and worst of all, there is no comprehension of the services which I administer to these people, who need moral and spiritual leadership so greatly.”

    He paused to look out the window - a goat had escaped an enclosure, and a young girl chased after it with zeal, the tassels on her headscarf bouncing up and down and her skirt, a few sizes too small, nipping the top of her boots. He smiled momentarily, before turning back to the letter: He admired and valued the people whom he served, but understood that attitudes in Petersburg were not the same. Western Europeans were arriving in Bessarabia in great numbers, more every day, sent by the tsar to make the land more productive. The aggressive russification campaigns, which required all state and religious documents to be written in Russian, further excluded the peasantry from the newly emerging government. To argue all that would be fruitless, though, he knew.

    “As you know, I have recently opened a theological seminary here in Kishinev, towards the end of an educated and Orthodox people, we should soon see the fruits of this school, funded graciously by Your Grace, with the proliferation of spiritual leaders able to attend to the needs of the people. I write today to request, in my estimation, a necessary companion: a Roumanian and Russian printing establishment in Kishinev, for the creation of books of spiritual guidance and liturgy (Clark 101). I have taken the liberty of beginning the process of translation of the Bible into Moldavian …”

    He trailed off, thinking of the meetings he had held with Kishinev intellectuals - mostly graduates of seminaries or West European immigrants - regarding the Roumanian translation. Nobody in the eparchy of Kishinev really knows Moldavian grammar and spelling, though practically everybody here used to both speak and write it (Clark 102). The project was large, but he knew it was of immense importance to his followers, particularly those who could not read or write. One old woman who had pulled him aside after last Sunday’s service, where he made the announcement, thanked him in Roumanian over and over again for defending her mother tongue: his resolve strengthened, he turned back to the letter.

    “There are concerns among the peasants of unhappiness under the new imperial rule, not founded on any experience but simply on the anxieties of a vulnerable people. The acknowledgement of this aspect of their culture, unimportant to the great Russian state but paramount to these people, would help assuage their fears. With your permission, I would distribute a copy of the Roumanian liturgy to every priest in the consecration, so that all to whom they preach might know your benevolence and the guiding light of our Heavenly Father (Clark 103).

    “For this I beseech you, and thank you kindly for your consideration. As in all things, I defer to your will and supreme knowledge. All my best.”


The First Metropolitan of Bessarabia, who was stationed in Kishinev, did indeed establish its first seminary and printing press, and was a fierce advocate for the rights of the Roumanian people to use their native language in worship and culture. He undertook the tedious task of translating and correcting the document himself, into a language lacking any real grammatical spelling conventions. He distributed copies of the translated liturgy to every priest in the consecration, and preached to peasants that they would be happy under the new Russian imperial rule. Recognizing his power, the Tsar promised him that local laws would be left in place.


Only after the First Metropolitan’s death did the russification of the church begin in earnest, mandated from the top down but poorly enforced within the province. Roumanian-speaking clergy stepped down but were infrequently replaced with Russian-speakers, leaving most churches and communities without a spiritual head. All official government records and church services were conducted in Russian, but far from russifying the population, it simply caused a retreat into more informal venues of civil society, like markets and neighborhood groups.

Clark, Charles Upson. Bessarabia. 1927.
Hamm, Michael. The character and development of a Tsarist Frontier Town, Nationalities Papers, 26:1, 19-37.
Lamour, Philippe. The Living Age (1897-1941); October 1936; pg. 147

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